When Kanye West announced last month that he would be releasing a remix of a song called "I Don't Like" by a relatively unknown Chicago artist named Chief Keef, it prompted confusion in some corners of the Internet.
"What is Kanye thinking?" posted one YouTube commentor who arrived at the song's original music video, which features the rapper, 16-year-old Keith Cozart, rapping, smoking and goofing around with a roomful of friends. "This is the [bleep] Kanye doing a remix to?" posted another. Other commentors weren't as reserved in their criticism.
But for those who had been watching Chicago's hip-hop scene, including Keef himself, the announcement seemed like a logical step in the South Side resident's career, which in the span of a few months has seen him propelled from the local to the national stage thanks to a handful of popular music videos. The video for "I Don't Like," for example, has been viewed more than 2.3 million times since it went online in March. Last week, when Chicago hip-hop blog fakeshoredrive.com posted West's remix of the song, its servers were overloaded—the first time in the site's history that it had been shut down.
In spite of the hype, Keef maintains an air of nonchalance.
"I'm not really that excited because I knew this was coming," he said. "I know what I'm doing. I mastered it."
That attitude is the hallmark of the so-called New Chicago rap scene of which Keef has become an instantaneous symbol. Chicago artists such as recent Def Jam signees Lil Durk, 19, of Englewood and Lil Reese, 19, of Englewood; as well as King Louie, 24, of the South Side, have built fan bases largely by releasing straightforward songs about their lives and distributing them as YouTube videos – easily viewable on smartphones and easily shareable over Facebook and Twitter.
Their sound has attracted a wave of attention from music industry tastemakers—the kind of attention previously reserved for other regional scenes like the Bay Area's craze over the hyphy style of music in the mid 2000s. Chief Keef's music in particular – largely unknown until a fan video mentioning his name went viral in early January – has prompted endorsements and collaborations from prominent rappers such as Soulja Boy, Waka Flocka Flame, and Young Jeezy.
There's also some controversy. Keef, a Chicago Public Schools student, is on house arrest at his grandmother's house following an incident last year when he allegedly pointed a gun at Chicago police officers. Media chatter was stirred up in April when police were called to a concert at the Congress Theater at which Keef happened to be an opening act. His lyrics about drugs and violence in Chicago have only fueled the narrative.
So, how did a 16-year-old on house arrest rocket to national prominence in a matter of months?
A lot of it has to do with the man behind the lens for Keef's videos. He's 23-year-old Duan Gaines of the South Side, a self-taught producer and videographer who started making videos for fun in 2009 on a borrowed camera. He posts them to YouTube under the name DGainz.
Fittingly described by his manager as "an old soul," DGainz's easy-going demeanor and focus on talent rather than the politics of neighborhood rivalries have made him the de facto ambassador for New Chicago hip-hop.
"I don't base what I do off what 'hood you're from," he said. "I am picky though. I like something unique, something that's going to stand out." His work is a revealing cross-section of the city's thriving hip-hop scene: The artists on his channel range from relatively obscure high school rappers with a few thousand video views to some of the city's most buzzed-about artists, including Lil Durk, King Louie, and Chief Keef. His videos in total have amassed more than 11 million views, more than 8 million of them since January.
"People didn't jump on the Keef bandwagon, didn't know who Keef was, until Jan. 1, 2012," said Andrew Barber, who runs FakeShoreDrive, noting the music's grassroots rise. "But these videos had hundreds of thousands of views. DGainz was the guy there to capture it."
"He's real about the music and the artists," said local rapper Sasha Go Hard, 20, of Hyde Park.
"I come to Gainz with an idea and then he'll just make it look like that," said King Louie. "He's got the raw look [in his videos], that talent that can't be denied." And that raw look has helped the distinctiveness of artists like Louie and Chief Keef gain attention.
What makes these New Chicago artists stand out, is a commitment to honesty and reality, a sense that the music is showing – with perhaps a requisite dose of hip-hop bravado – how things really are.
"Everybody can relate to it," DGainz said. "I've never seen something on YouTube or TV that shows Chicago – like really where I'm from," he said, downplaying concerns about the influence of violent lyrics. "I'm showing another side...It's not always good but this is where I'm from."
One influence of the current musical climate, however, is clear: Propelled by the low production cost and ease of distribution, the interest in making rap music in Chicago seems to be at an all-time high.
"Anybody can rap now, anybody can produce," said Barber. "The equipment is there, the technology is there, but not everybody is meant to be a rapper," And while it may look like the only secret to signing the next record deal is having a cool video, DGainz is clear on the point that there is more involved to success.
"A lot of people don't realize there's work involved," he said. "Ain't nobody made it yet. I live with my father, Keef lives with his grandma. I feel like I ain't made it until I'm sitting on a thousand dollar couch in a million dollar mansion ... It's only the beginning."