Rap panic! Hip-hop may be No. 1 but it’s not the enemy

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Chief Keef backstage in July at the Pitchfork Music Festival in Chicago’s Union Park. (Andrea Bauer/Sun-Times Media Group)It wasn’t the kind of rap video people usually complain about.

The rapper in this video, Chicago’s suddenly notorious Chief Keef, wasn’t doing anything we haven’t seen in rap videos before. He freestyled, he boasted, he riffed a few lines from his current hit. He then fired a semiautomatic rifle — and pointed it into the camera.

The difference: Unlike the controversial play-acting video of, say, 13-year-old South Side rapper Lil Mouse earlier this summer, this video was real.

The unusual piece appeared early in July on the Chicago-based taste-making music website Pitchfork. An episode in its “Selector” series — in which rappers are interviewed, often in unexpected locations — the video interview chronicled an afternoon with Chief Keef at a New York City gun range.

Even before the events of this week, it was unsettling to watch.

On Thursday, Pitchfork pulled the video from its site and posted a repentant retraction calling the video “insensitive and irresponsible” and cites Tuesday’s South Side slaying of another Chicago rapper, Lil Jojo (aka Joseph Coleman, 18), and the resulting investigation that has included police looking into the Twitter account of Keef (Keith Cozart, 17) and an escalating war of words reminiscent of past violent hip-hop feuds.

Is this how Chicago hip-hop will finally meet the world?

This city’s varied rap music scenes have never been easily lumped together, classified or described. Most hip-hop histories completely ignore Chicago. We were flyover territory even in the East Coast-West Coast battles of the ’80s and ’90s, and the breakthroughs of boho spirit-men like Common or neurotic romantics like Kanye were isolated successes more than they were the mining of particular scenes.

This year, though, the music industry has Chicago hip-hop in its crosshairs. Major labels have been combing the South Side, signing up a lot of young rappers. The scorecard thus far: Def Jam has picked up Lil Durk, 19, and Lil Reese. Sony/Epic signed King Louie, 24. Chief Keef has enjoyed the most meteoric rise, releasing a successful single (“I Don’t Like”) through Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. label (nearly 14 million views on YouTube), which led to being snatched up by Interscope, home to Eminem and 50 Cent.

At first blush, this crop of MCs seems as if it can be categorized. Like Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future, these are youngsters whose rhymes are sometimes startlingly violent.

Or so you might have heard. A cursory content analysis makes it easy to cherry-pick rhymes from many of these rappers and hold them up for gasps and various validations. L.E.P. Bogus Boys, a South Side group also fielding a lot of high-dollar recording offers, sings of “shootouts every night” (“Chicago Niggas”). Lil Reese and Lil Durk together sing of a particular strategy: “You shoot one, I’m shootin’ 10 … Head shot, he won’t think again” (“Beef”).

Keef’s lyrics are the easiest to plunder for particular purposes. Throughout rhymes dense with crimes and codes, Keef’s tracks are full of warnings: “We be packing tools nigga, don’t get screwed nigga / Red beams on the gun and they aimed at you nigga” (“Aimed at You”); “My niggas tote pistols, it’s a issue, please don’t start ’em / Them pistols get to popping, bodies get to dropping” (“Murda”); “You see you us you better run nigga / Bullets hot like the sun nigga” (“3Hunna”).

But let’s not grease the well-traveled slippery slope into alarmist, anti-hip-hop (read: anti-black youth) hysteria. Remember this region’s fear-driven and unsuccessful policy reactions to similar rashes of gang violence in the ’90s, such as the city’s anti-loitering law (struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court) and some suburbs’ anti-cursing ordinances (one of which, in Park Ridge, was just eliminated last year).

Someone like Keef may walk it a bit like he talks it — he was recently under house arrest for allegedly pointing a gun at a police officer — and Keef and his ilk might frighten the likes of Lupe Fiasco, who found himself embroiled in this online war of words after telling a Baltimore radio station, “Chief Keef scares me. Not him specifically, but just the culture that he represents.”

But Lupe’s flight response buys into the perpetually skewed claim that hip-hop itself is a cause of violence. Music — be it rap, death metal or any rock and roll — reflects culture and provides within it an informal psychological space in which to consider certain ideas and information. Like any forum — television, film, visual art, etc. — it constitutes no threat in and of itself, no matter scary its costumes seem to some. Age-old arguments here.

As I said last year when Odd Future’s rhetoric panicked some at the Pitchfork Music Festival, we shouldn’t ascribe too much intention or certainly malice to teenagers just because they’re (a) doing exactly what hip-hop does well, which is reflect and report the culture of its particular circumstances with a unique starkness, and (b) communicating it via new tools — especially YouTube and Twitter — that allow an artist’s initial creative impulse to be broadcast immediately to the entire world, without the former filtering mechanisms of a large, long-gone music industry.

Hip-hop doesn’t kill people. Guns kill people.

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