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Dispatches from the Rap Wars

My 18 months inside one of Chicago’s most notorious gangs.

Published Sept. 19, 2016

When I first started interviewing Chicago youth about their interactions with the police, I never expected that I would spend a year and a half embedded with one of the most notorious gangs in the city. I had devoted the first five years of my career as a sociologist to talking to homeless people on Los Angeles’s Skid Row about how they navigated their lives around police presence. I planned to continue similar work after joining the faculty of the University of Chicago in 2012. But when I began talking to groups of kids in the city about the police, I quickly realized that what they really wanted to discuss was gangs.

During one such meeting, I pulled up a map of Chicago on my tablet and pointed to random intersections. No matter what corner, even miles from their homes, these kids had an intimate knowledge of gang activity there. One boy told me, “If I walk down Cottage Grove, I know that in some places I need to keep my head on a swivel. In others, I can relax my guard.” And I’m thinking, There is no real reason this kid should know this much about gang presence on the South Side, because he’s from another side of town. It wasn’t just territory they had down cold. They were up on the latest of basically every gang war in the city.

I asked these kids how the hell they knew all this. They looked at me like I was an idiot. “Music,” they said.

There are hundreds of gangs in Chicago these days, a splintering that occurred in the wake of the collapse of the traditional “supergangs” like the Black Disciples and Vice Lords in the ’90s. As dangerous as their predecessors, they operate as block-level factions, making the city a complicated patchwork of warring territories. In a relatively recent phenomenon, many of these gangs produce drill music—a Chicago-born low-fi version of gangsta rap, full of hyperviolent boasts and taunts. (Think NWA, but grittier and without the hooks.)

By keeping their ears open, these kids I was interviewing can quickly figure out whose territory they are in. If they are walking through a neighborhood and hear a certain kind of drill coming from a passing car or a phone speaker, they know that corner belongs to the gang Diddy Grove. If they’re in Diddy Grove territory and notice songs by O-Block, that tells them Diddy Grove and O-Block are likely cliqued up.

After I’d been talking with these kids for months, one of them told me his older brother, Zebo, is a member of the drill gang Corner Boys Entertainment. (Zebo, CBE, and subsequent names in this story have been changed, as have a few identifying facts. As a sociologist, I granted anonymity to my subjects so that they would open up to me without fear of being prosecuted. The National Institutes of Health has certified this approach to my study, and that prevents law-enforcement authorities from compelling me to provide information on illegal activity.) I knew CBE’s music—the gang is one of the best-known drill-rap outfits in the city—so I was interested in talking to Zebo. His brother offered to make an introduction.

I met Zebo the next day, and we talked for hours. He told me how drill perpetuates gang wars, how it’s an engine of both truces and feuds. He told me how CBE members will retaliate violently if a song by another gang insults their friends or relatives. He kept returning to a refrain, one I would hear many times during my field research: ‘This is not just music. It’s not just a game. This shit is for real.”

 

It was a couple of months before I saw Zebo again. His cell number was always changing, and he was incredibly hard to pin down. In the meantime, I became close with a young man named Darian from the Lincoln Homes, the public housing complex where Zebo lives. I would see Darian around the neighborhood, and one day he said, “Man, I want to get muscles like you.” I suggested we start working out together, and for about two or three months, we would meet at his apartment, then head to the YMCA. I’d bring protein powder and milk—things he couldn’t afford—and in exchange he’d walk me around the neighborhood and introduce me to people. Sometimes we would see guys from CBE across the housing complex and Darian would yell to them, but they acted aloof.

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One afternoon as we were pulling into a Lincoln Homes parking lot, I spotted Zebo. He had been drinking a lot of lean—a mix of codeine cough syrup and soda—and smoking Scotty, as folks in Chicago refer to PCP, and he was really messed up. He called me over and introduced me to the guys with him, Ruger and Blaze, both CBE rappers. He told them that I knew all about the Chicago gangs and suggested we take pictures together. So we passed around our phones, and they threw their arms around me. After that, we settled under a tree in the shade and I just posed it to them: I wanted to learn about their gang and write a book, and I would compensate them for their time. At the end of the conversation, Zebo took me aside and said that I had the green light.

Then Zebo disappeared again. Turned out he had overdosed on PCP and was in the hospital for a couple of days. I was still going down to the Lincoln Homes to meet Darian, and one day Blaze and Zebo approached—Zebo still had a hospital bracelet on—and said they would be shooting a music video later. They invited me to come along.

As I’d soon find out, CBE makes three kinds of videos. In one, they talk about nameless, faceless rivals, or haters. In another, they specifically target a rival gang with lyrics like “So-and-so’s a bitch” or “So-and-so’s a snitch.” And then there’s an in-between kind, which to an outsider sounds like generic disses but is actually very targeted, with the rapper flashing a rival gang’s hand signs upside down. This was that kind of video.

The shoot took place all over the Lincoln Homes—in the stairwell, in the courtyard. And in nearly every shot, the guys were rolling blunts, smoking, and drinking. A crowd of onlookers soon grew. Most of them were kids who knew every lyric to Blaze’s song. CBE has this real nationalistic quality for people living in the Lincoln Homes. They look at the members as heroes.

It’s surprising how much strategy goes into the making and posting of these videos on YouTube and SoundCloud. CBE members are constantly considering how to get the most views. (At least one of their videos has exceeded five million.) The thinking is that if a video pulls enough, record labels will start calling. Sometimes the guys will record a video but wait to release it until a rival gang member—preferably one they’ve called out—is shot, so that it seems like CBE is taking credit. It’s all about convincing viewers that CBE really does the violent stuff that they rap about—and often they do.

Their model is inspired by the local patron saint of drill rap, Chief Keef, who successfully leveraged the persona of a black superpredator. The more he portrayed himself as a reckless, gun-toting, ruthless murderer, the more attention he got. Eventually, Interscope Records signed him to a $6 million deal and off he went to Los Angeles. Hardly a day goes by without someone from CBE mentioning Keef.

 

The day of the shoot, Blaze introduced me to another CBE rapper, A.J. I recognized the attractive, dreadlocked 20-year-old from social media. He posts tons of pictures of himself holding guns and flashing signs. He’s constantly threatening rival gang members and writing lyrics about shooting at these “opps.”

When we started talking regularly, I began to see a very different person: a sweet, caring father figure to his girlfriend’s 3- and 4-year-old sons. He would use baby talk with them and interrupt our conversations to get them fruit punch. Sometimes, A.J. and I would walk around the Lincoln Homes all afternoon, just talking. Other times, we spent hours playing this really complicated version of craps in the stairwell. He ended up taking a lot of my money.

I once asked him why he projects such a violent persona in the videos. He flipped the question back on me: “If I wasn’t doing this, would you even be down here in the low incomes? Would you even care that I exist?”

He was right. As one of the other CBE rappers would always say, “You know, white people, Mexicans, bitches, those people don’t live the life, but they love hearing about it. People want the Chiraq stuff. They want a superthug ghetto man, and I’m giving that to them. I’m just playing my role.”

 

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That role means being at the nucleus of CBE. For the gang—and other gangs like it—the rappers are designated as the ticket out of poverty. It becomes the responsibility of the rest of the members to support and protect them. Each rapper has one or two “shooters.” These are the members who make good on the threats the rappers dish out in their lyrics and on social media. And, yes, that means shooting—and sometimes killing—people. CBE has about a dozen shooters. A.J. may be the one holding an automatic weapon in his Instagram photos, but he has never shot at the opps.

The rest of CBE—there are about 30 members total—are known as “the guys.” Some are just loosely affiliated with the gang, but others play more active roles, acting as producers or cameramen. Geo and Marcus, for example, basically serve as the tech department. They do stuff like steal the local school’s Wi-Fi password.

The Lincoln Homes are surrounded by rival gangs, so the more A.J. fronts on Instagram, the more isolated CBE becomes—and the more dangerous it is for the members. Early on in our conversations, the guys in CBE told me about the genesis of their rivalry with the neighboring gang Murderville. When CBE started rapping in 2012, Murderville made a song insulting a young man named Benzie, one of the first CBE members to get killed. (CBE would go on to rename their neighborhood Benzie Block, using the hashtag #BenzieBlock on social media.) CBE decided they needed to retaliate. It was a defining moment. The guys drove into Murderville territory and started shooting up the neighborhood. They didn’t hit anyone, but a few days later, someone from CBE spotted the rapper who had recorded the song taking a selfie on the street and shot him in the back. (He lived.)

 
 

One afternoon A.J. and I were in his apartment talking when he stood up and said, “I’m going to show you why I do this.” So he went on Facebook, Snapchat, and Twitter and wrote, “I’m on FT for the next 20 minutes” and gave his phone number. FaceTime calls immediately started coming in from across the United States and Canada—male and female, ages 12 to 40, white, black, Hispanic—all like, “Oh my God, I love you. Your music is so great.”

He got so many calls that his phone ended up crashing. These are not things your average kid growing up in the hood experiences. A.J. turned to me and said, “I do this when I’m feeling shitty, or when I’m broke, or when I’m bored.” It reminds me of a great lyric in Kanye West’s “Saint Pablo”: “Checkin’ Instagram comments to crowdsource my self-esteem.”

Every few calls, a woman A.J. thought was attractive would pop up on FaceTime, and he had a kind of pattern: He would compliment the young lady, ask to see more of her, then goad her to take off a piece of clothing. Women would wind up getting undressed for him.

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The guys have a term for these kinds of fans: cloutheads. The more popular you are as a drill rapper, the more clout you accumulate. The more clout you have, the more cloutheads—easily exploitable groupies—you have. A.J. has a lot of cloutheads. And he won’t just ask them to take off their clothes; he’ll ask them for money, meals, new iPhones—almost always in exchange for the promise of sex. Since most of the guys in CBE are really bad at dealing drugs—they usually smoke up their own supply—the gang relies on the rappers to bring in cash this way. The whole exchange between rappers and cloutheads is a bizarre modern twist on sex work.

One of A.J.’s longtime cloutheads is a white law student in Hyde Park. She comes from a conservative family in Pennsylvania and fashioned her interracial, interclass relationship with A.J. as a symbol of her new leftward leaning. She and A.J. see each other regularly—with her sending an Uber to deliver him to her apartment each time.

I remember a moment when A.J. started to feel her drift away because he had refused her demand that their relationship become monogamous. So he played his trump card. It was clear she had long had a slumming, voyeuristic desire to come down to the Lincoln Homes, so he invited her to visit during a repass—a celebratory wake—for a resident who had been shot. It was a total bash, everybody outside wearing T-shirts with “CBE” silk-screened across the front. A.J. gave her a tour, walking her around and pointing out things like “Here’s my niggas playing dice” and “You know, the opps might ride through here anytime and shoot up the block.”

He was giving this exaggerated sense of his neighborhood because he knew that was what she wanted. He became an ambassador of black poverty in a way that made me uncomfortable.

 

About two months into my fieldwork, the CBE guys pooled their money to do a 12-hour studio session on the West Side. I was looking forward to it—12 hours to witness the creative process and see how drill rap is made. Instead, I ended up sitting for half a day in a sweltering warehouse closet, watching the guys get high and occasionally put down some tracks.

In the haze of smoke, I found myself sitting next to Junior, an 18-year-old who had been a shooter in the gang for more than three years. He had been arrested for armed robbery—one way shooters make money is by “staining,” or stealing from people or stores in nearby neighborhoods—and had just come off house arrest. He was broke, his mom had disowned him, and he was on the verge of becoming homeless. His life had basically bottomed out. But sitting there in that closet-turned-studio, he had an epiphany: He decided to become a rapper. He’d seen how those guys were excused from the actual violence, and wanted a legal hustle for himself. So he started jotting down lyrics on a notepad he found in a corner of the room. When hour 11 hit and the rappers had grown tired and there was an opening in the recording booth, Junior jumped in.

The rest of CBE didn’t initially support the transition, but that all changed after Junior got shot. About eight months after recording those first tracks, Junior was walking home from school with a friend when a group of guys from a rival gang came up to them, addressed Junior by name, and started firing. Junior was hit in the shoulder, and his friend was killed.

When I visited Junior the next day, he was in an incredibly jovial mood. He was like, “Man, Forrest, I’m on! I’ve got clout!” He was tracking his latest rap video on YouTube, and the daily views had tripled. Junior was so excited about having gotten shot and kept talking about how he was finally going to make it as a rapper. And he was right. That was essentially the moment when CBE accepted him in that role. Another member of the gang stepped up to be his shooter, and a bevy of women started following him around. Today, he’s a central figure in CBE.

Maybe because I had seen Junior at rock bottom and witnessed a shift, I became invested in seeing him get his life back on track. I drove him to court hearings and got him reenrolled in high school. I spent hundreds of hours with him, listening to his regrets. He’d done some terrible things: He’d shot several people, leaving some seriously disabled. And he felt extreme guilt.

One night Junior received a Facebook message from a 20-something white guy in Beverly Hills named Chad. Chad had decided to become a drill rapper and wanted to pay Junior to record a verse for his album. To prove he was serious, he wired Junior $800 and uploaded a song that was complete except for Junior’s verse. (Junior gets asked to record guest spots all the time, but usually it’s for only a couple of hundred bucks.) So Junior was like, “Sure, book me a ticket.”

I flew out with him the next day. Junior had never been in an airport before, let alone on an airplane. He had never even been out of Chicago, and now he was on his way to L.A., the promised land.

 

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Chad met us at the airport. As he told us his story, it became clear he was, more or less, living off his wealthy dad. He had flunked out of college, tried his hand at starting his own T-shirt company and other businesses. But nothing had worked out, so now he was going to be a rapper.

In L.A., Junior taught Chad to roll a blunt properly and the benefits of mixing promethazine and codeine with pineapple juice or orange soda. In turn, Chad taught Junior about bongs, OxyContin, and the marvels of medical marijuana.

Chad outfitted himself and Junior in matching Timberland boots, flashy jackets, and biker-style jeans, then posted dozens of selfies of them together on Instagram.

At various times during the week, Chad would invite his friends over to his house for informal Q&A sessions with Junior. “How does the drug economy work?” they’d ask. “What do you do on the corner?” “How do you deal with cops?” “Where do you get your guns?” They talked about black women, and they talked about sex with black women. Junior was treated like a pet Chad could parade in front of his friends.

After a few days, we ran into other drill rappers from Chicago who were in Los Angeles doing the same thing: recording songs for wannabe rappers. They ended up staying with Chad and persuaded him to buy them clothes and drugs, too. Chad was a big fish for them.

Eventually, all the guys started to take offense at the way that Chad spoke to them. I was in the car with them once when Chad wasn’t around, and they were like, “Man, this guy doesn’t really know who we are.” Junior said, “He thinks that this stuff is for play. He doesn’t realize that if he was in Chicago, we would have smoked his ass by now. You can’t talk to us like this.”

Five days in, Chad and Junior had some sort of blowup, and Junior had to get out of town fast. He bought his own ticket home. In the end, he walked away with about $2,000 worth of new clothing, shoes, sunglasses, jewelry, and weed. He never did get around to recording that track.

 

Something that Chad didn’t seem to grasp is how exactly drill rap intersects with violence in Chicago. When I started my research, I had this simplified notion that members of one gang would tweet something or make a video taunting their rival, and immediately members of that other gang would see it, get mad, grab a gun, jump in a car, and go in search of retribution.

That’s not the way it works most of the time. There are real, practical obstacles to that happening, one of them being that often there’s no gun available. Or car. And if there is a car, the only member who has a license might not be around. So they wait. The CBE guys often spend that time compiling intelligence about their rivals from YouTube and Snapchat and Instagram—what they look like, what houses they tend to hang out in front of, what cars they drive. They put together a mental log before they strike.

Of course, that works both ways. Whenever the CBE guys had to cut across town for errands or to see friends, they would avoid buses and L trains as much as possible because they felt public transportation left them vulnerable. I owned a car, so I became a real asset to them. I would end up driving them to court dates or to visit with their grandmothers. I’d get early-morning calls after one of them—A.J., most often—had spent the night with a clouthead in enemy territory and needed a lift home.

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Car rides with the guys could be nerve-racking. We would be stopped at a light in a neighborhood by Lincoln Homes, and rival gang members would pull up on either side of us. This happened all the time. You literally cannot get to the Lincoln Homes without crossing into enemy territory, so every time they were in the car with me, they would give me different directions based on who they were beefing with that week. Sometimes they would be looking at their phones and forget to direct me and suddenly we’d find ourselves near a corner full of the opps. The guys in my car would pull their hoods up and try to hide their faces with their hands. A few times they would say, “Forrest, you have to run this red light.” And I would.

I remember taking one of the guys to Walgreens, and he told me to keep the engine running while he ran into the store. When he came back out, he jumped in the car and told me to drive. Every ride with them felt like a crazy stealth operation. It was harrowing.

 

But the car also became a confessional. In the hypermasculine gang culture, there’s a fear of being “too in your feelings.” Showing any softness might signal to the others that you aren’t cut out for gang life. And they won’t stand for that—they need to feel like you have their backs, that you would pull the trigger when it mattered most. In the car, though, one on one with me, the guys felt free to unload their fears. They would tell me about their nightmares. Or their regrets. So many of them had doubts about being in CBE.

The guy having the hardest time was Blaze. He seemed to be battling depression. At one point, after a shooting on a corner, he said to me, “Man, I’m so sick of this. I feel like a prisoner in my own neighborhood. I can’t go anywhere. I can’t go to my job because I don’t know if the opps will be there to come after me.” He was wallowing in how badly he wanted to be done with the gang life. He told me he wanted to move to California, but his reality felt inescapable to him. He started using PCP at an alarming rate. It was his way of coping. He became difficult to be around. He would stutter and trip over his words. His complexion got bad. His hygiene, too.

Another CBE member, a shooter named Stevie, had gotten his girlfriend pregnant and wanted to leave the gang life behind. He landed a job working in a frozen-pizza warehouse 30 miles outside the city. The company would pick up its employees at various shuttle stops around Chicago. Things went well for a while. But as Stevie was about to get on the shuttle one day, off walked a guy from a nearby neighborhood who addressed him by name. After that, he knew he couldn’t wait at the stop anymore. He quit the job. One of the last times I saw him, he told me he had just been shot at by a rival gang.

Call it the price of social media success. Once these CBE members reach a certain status as savage gangsters, they can’t live a life any other way. The city has in effect been rendered unsafe for them anywhere other than in the Lincoln Homes.

 

I began to wrap up my research this summer. CBE is now locked in an incredibly bloody war with a neighboring gang called the Pharaohs. The whole thing started because of a personal rift between two members. Who knows what they butted heads over, but it could have been as trivial as one of them failing to pass a blunt. That feud led CBE to shoot and kill a Pharaoh. The Pharaohs then declared a full-blown war on CBE and put bounties on the heads of every CBE rapper. I’ve also heard they’ve put bounties on anyone who affiliates with CBE. That’s when I decided it was probably time to conclude my research.

A.J. and Junior and the rest of the CBE rappers are now scattered around the city. The war has gotten so heated that not even the Lincoln Homes are a safe haven anymore. The guys have essentially gone into hiding. They’re holed up with friends or cloutheads and making themselves scarce.

But that doesn’t mean they’ve gone dark on social media. Quite the opposite, actually. A.J. posts almost every day. Junior does, too. I just got a text from Junior. He recorded a new track and plans to shoot a video for it. I’ll definitely show up for that.

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