NEW YORK >> Setting out to film the video for “Gummo” in the summer of 2017, rapper 6ix9ine, then largely unknown, had a vision in mind. He spoke with a member of the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods who he’d just met and asked for some set decoration.
“I would like for them to all be in red,” 6ix9ine said last week, recalling the conversation about securing extras for the video. “Because red is, is what a Blood member would wear, so I want the video to be full of red.”
That it was. Filmed on a block in the Bedford Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, the explicit clip for “Gummo” shows a rainbow-haired 6ix9ine rapping while surrounded by a couple of dozen young men sporting red bandannas. The video took off — it’s been viewed more than 350 million times, and the song went to No. 12 on the Billboard Hot 100 — catapulting 6ix9ine from novelty sidekick to bona fide rising rap star.
6ix9ine — born Daniel Hernandez and also known as Tekashi 69 — was describing the video shoot as part of three days of testimony in the trial of two former associates in which he is serving as a cooperating witness for the government. His testimony — some of it riveting, much of it mundane — was full of sidelong revelations about his brief supernova of a rap career, which for about a year after “Gummo” was the one of the most chaotic and controversial in hip-hop.
“Gummo” set in motion a parallel path for 6ix9ine. Within months, he was living two simultaneous lives — in public, one of the most vivid and promising new talents in hip-hop; in private, part of a gang that committed robberies, distributed drugs, shot at rivals and more.
His testimony laid bare how both of those lives remained distinct, until they couldn’t anymore. And it also shed light on a facet of hip-hop that’s little acknowledged outside of the genre’s inner circles: the symbiotic relationship between the rap industry and the streets.
Those two worlds have moved in overlapping orbits for decades. Gangs were central to the outward-facing identity of West Coast hip-hop in the late 1980s through the 1990s and had perhaps their most prominent expositor in Suge Knight, founder of Death Row Records in the early 1990s, who publicly flaunted his Blood affiliation.
At around the same time, some Los Angeles Bloods and Crips members united to form a group, Bloods & Crips, that released two albums in the mid-1990s. There was anti-gang-violence rap as well, notably the posse cut “We’re All in the Same Gang.”
These intersections weren’t limited to Los Angeles. Atlanta’s Black Mafia Family was deeply interwoven with that city’s rap scene in the early 2000s. In 2016, Brooklyn rapper Bobby Shmurda pleaded guilty to conspiracy and weapons charges in connection with his association with the G Stone Crips.
Gang references abound in hip-hop, though as the genre moved closer to pop’s center in the late 1990s into the 2000s, those stories became more opaque. Ultimately, as Drake and his acolytes reshaped the genre around melody, the sort of tough talk that ordinarily came from those scenes got marginalized.
Over the last few years, however, mainstream rappers have appeared more willing to acknowledge gang affiliations, in part because the internet has increased transparency and in part because the genre is inching away from the soft edges of the mid-2010s. Consider the work of YG, who raps frequently about life as a Blood. Or young rapper Blueface, who’s dubbed himself “Famous Cryp.” Even Cardi B has acknowledged her association with one Bloods set. (In his testimony, 6ix9ine identified several other rappers — Jim Jones, Cardi B, Casanova — as being gang members, suggesting that the public/private split that he juggled extends far beyond him.)
But 6ix9ine’s arc curves in a different direction. He wasn’t a gang member who began rapping and found acclaim; he was an unaffiliated musician who sought out gang camouflage for credibility and protection, then blurred the lines between actor and participant.
After “Gummo,” he courted the Bloods, and they courted him back. His second song, “Kooda,” had a similarly themed video to “Gummo”: “A formula, a blueprint that I found that worked,” 6ix9ine said. “Kooda” put him firmly in the Nine Treys’ good graces, and not long after he was made a member of the gang, he testified.
His membership was a privileged one: 6ix9ine said he was never formally initiated. Instead, his earning power was his entry card. He was their ATM.
While he was providing material support to the Nine Treys, 6ix9ine was essentially cosplaying at gang life. At one point during his testimony, he was asked if a certain image depicted him making the Nine Trey hand sign. “I think I was just getting the hang of it,” he replied. Pressed on why he referred to the hosts of a radio show as “Blood” during his interview with them, 6ix9ine pleaded osmosis: “At the time, it was just being around Shotti so much. That’s the way he talks, so it rubbed off on me a little bit.” (Shotti, born Kifano Jordan, was his main handler. Jordan has pleaded guilty to the charges against him.)
Perhaps the most striking turn in 6ix9ine’s testimony, however, is the way his two lives began to fuse into one, how the part he was performing for public consumption became something more all encompassing. He adopted some of the gang’s tactics, giving orders to a friend to shoot at Chief Keef, a rival. As the gang splintered around him — often because of him — he felt confident pushing back at members he deemed disloyal.
There is also the music, which, in his telling, is in many places a kind of autofiction, a quick response system to the things he’s experiencing. “Gummo” is a reply to rapper Trippie Redd; “Kooda” is a reaction to the “Gummo” aftershocks; “Billy” is an answer to Casanova. What was happening behind the scenes was also, in a way, what was animating his songs, but only fully evident to those in the know.
Social media has brought visibility to gang life in unprecedented ways. In this trial, Instagram posts were entered as evidence, and one pivotal tension arose because of a podcast. But at the same time, in the internet era, it is easier than ever to play a role, an ideal platform for 6ix9ine’s dubious slide into gang performance.
In this context, one of the defendants 6ix9ine was testifying against, Anthony (Harv) Ellison, emerges as a kind of tragic upholder of the old-fashioned, and perhaps now outmoded, gang ethics.
Initially Harv is tasked with being 6ix9ine’s bodyguard, but eventually tensions between him and Shotti splinter the gang from within; Harv had had enough of the loose-tongued interloper who was making a mockery of his world. “Stop pushing Billy,” Harv told 6ix9ine, using another term for the Nine Treys. “Pawn your chains and get security and live your internet life.”
Eventually, according to 6ix9ine’s testimony, Harv and an associate kidnapped 6ix9ine, agreeing to let him go in exchange for $365,000 worth of jewelry. But before that handoff, 6ix9ine described a scene in which Harv ordered him to renounce the gang he’d been so assiduously cultivating: “Say you not Billy.” Robbing 6ix9ine of his jewelry wasn’t meaningful without robbing him of his costume, too.