In the viral video for Chief Keef’s street anthem “I Don’t Like,” you get a clear sense of family. The Glory Boyz are brotherly but rough, as gangs tend to be. In Chicago, where twice as many American lives as the war in Afghanistan were lost over the past decade, some are concerned that gangsta rap ain’t exactly the city’s best face. Is Chicago’s resurrected street cred a shot in the dark or a shot heard round the world?
Glory Boyz Entertainment (GBE) rapper Lil Reese stands unwavered and unconcerned with much except for putting on for his side of the map. Best known for his feature verse on “I Don’t Like,” Reese — or Reesey, as his affiliates call him — isn’t much of a talker, letting his music speak for itself. On “Us,” from his debut mixtape, he raps: “My niggas, they’ll deal with ya. / I ain’t even gotta deal with ya.”
Much of his music is fueled by the booming bass and snare assaults that made Lex Luger and Wacka Flocka pop. That ‘trap’ sound, as it’s commonly called, is infectious. For mainstream America, it’s just fun music to dance or ride around to, but for Chicago, the trap isn’t so much an aesthetic as a very real place. For Reese, “It feels real good because a lot of people don’t get that. It’s all love like it’s always been. It’s even more love now.”
Although the moves seem plotted, Reese describes GBE’s recording process as a gathering of friends. “We all be in the studio and I’ll be like, ‘Chop, make a beat for me, man.’ I’ll be right there and he’ll make a beat,” he explains. “I just go on and make the words and we put it together. Chop is my homie. That’s my guy.”
The release of “I Don’t Like” couldn’t have been more spur of the moment. “I leaked it off Young Chop’s YouTube page and it got like 50 views as soon as I leaked it,” says Reese. “I was like, ‘We need to shoot a video for this right now.’ They shot the video the next day and it was history.”
That history includes lucrative major label deals for Young Chop, Chief Keef and Lil Reese. But even though legendary Chicago producer and label exec No I.D. signed Reese to Def Jam, the 19-year-old rapper obviously doesn’t sprout from his branch of hip-hop. Ask Lil Reese what they play in the hood, and he won’t say Kanye West, even though the superstar rapper boosted Reese to stardom by jumping on the “I Don’t Like” remix. “I don’t listen to him,” says Reese nonchalantly. “We’ll listen to him if he comes on, but I don’t think nobody got a Kanye CD.” Instead, “I was listening to a lot of Jeezy and Gucci,” he says.
Recently, the Chicago rapper and political activist Rhymefest offered his two cents about Chief Keef’s recent exponential rise. “Chief Keef is a ‘bomb,’” he wrote, “he represents the senseless savagery that White people see when the news speaks of Chicago violence.” But he wasn’t simply pointing fingers at the signees: “Major record labels always put million dollar life insurance policies on artist of this nature so that they get paid one way or the other.” [sic]
When prodded about this critique, the popular sentiment that Chicago’s youngest rappers perpetuate violent stereotypes that could translate into real damage, Reese waves it away. “I never really even thought about it,” he says. “I don’t even really care about that if you ask me. I’m not focused on it.”
In hip-hop, perceived authenticity is the be-all and end-all that attracts fans for better or worse. Lil Reese’s raw lyrics paired with Young Chop’s undeniable production personify the alarming death rates and turf wars we’ve been hearing about Chicago for ages. That reality, paired with hypnotizing music and visuals, makes it hard to look away.
While trap rap forgoes some of the socially-minded angst that marked gangsta rap in the ‘90s, to chop down and zero in on one facet of the culture would be shortsighted. What about the bombastic boasts of Kanye West and Rick Ross, whose price tag rap dominates the charts today? That ideal of luxury trickles down. It’s refreshing to hear raw, young voices like Lil Reese give us a glimpse into what the reality still is at home.