The rapper and internet troll 6ix9ine, one of the most polarizing figures in popular culture today, is by turns grating, defiant, relentless, hostile and savvy, a self-proclaimed car crash, a rat and an admitted domestic abuser. At 24, he is also inarguably compelling to many, having landed two Top5 hits — including “Trollz” with Nicki Minaj, his first No. 1 — and racked up more than 1 billion new YouTube views in less than four months, since his early release from federal prison this spring.
6ix9ine, born Daniel Hernandez and also known as Tekashi69, was not supposed to come back like this. In February of last year, he pleaded guilty to firearms and racketeering charges stemming from his role in the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, a violent, drug-trafficking Brooklyn gang, and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors, delivering what the judge in the case called “game-changing” testimony against his former associates.
The legal maneuvering probably saved him decades behind bars — he was sentenced to two years, including the 13 months he’d already served — but it also put his life and rap career in jeopardy, undermining the exaggerated gangster persona he had so carefully cultivated and leaving him labeled a poser and a snitch. (Days before his arrest, 6ix9ine had split publicly from the gang, claiming that its members had orchestrated his kidnapping, stolen money from him and more.)
6ix9ine, a rainbow-haired, suggestively tattooed attention addict, was already controversial — an endless source of Instagram beefs that often devolved into real-world violence, and a convicted sex criminal, having pleaded guilty as a teenager to the use of a child in a sexual performance. Then he repeatedly doubled down on his villain status. His new album is “TattleTales,” out Friday via the independent distributor Create Music Group, though 6ix9ine remains connected to his first label, 10K Projects.
But the rapper has also re-entered the world at a moment of life-or-death upheaval for many — from the coronavirus to the Black Lives Matter protests — leading some to wonder how long it will be before his antics fully curdle, if they haven’t already.
On a recent Sunday, animated by a large light-and-sweet McDonald’s coffee, 6ix9ine sat down for his first post-prison interview at a Manhattan hotel to answer for everything. Alternating between remorse and what-about-isms, he could be forthcoming and straightforward, but also slippery, refusing any suggestion that he might tone down the chaos.
“How would you feel if I go out there on the ledge and jump off that building and kill myself?” 6ix9ine asked. “That’s what society wants me to do.” Instead, he planned to “just keep dominating,” he said.
These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
QUESTION: Take me back to your decision to testify. Your lawyer gets a call, says your life is in danger after speaking out against Nine Trey members. What happens next?
ANSWER: We go to meet with the feds. They say, listen, do you know anybody that’s looking to harm you? Because at this point I’m not cooperating. There’s been a split, and they know it because they hear all the wiretaps. So Friday morning, I do the interview at the Breakfast Club. I know the feds are monitoring me, making sure no one comes to hurt me, but I don’t know why at this point — I’m pretty scared. I’m tired. On Sunday, I went downstairs and I said, “I need to speak to your boss.” I’m ready to snitch now. The very next morning, they said, “You know what, if something happens to this kid, somebody kills him, it’s on us.” They took everybody down, knowing in the back of their head, this kid is about to let the whistle blow. The very next morning, I was in their office.
Q: When you made that decision, what were your main concerns — your safety, your reputation, your career?
A: Everything. I really want this to hit home: When I was kidnapped, was I a victim? Did I cooperate? No. When they were stealing money from shows, did I cooperate? No. Did I have many chances to tell the police what I saw? Yes. I was following a street code that was upheld by me and that I thought was real. Before I broke the street code, how many times was it broken to me? “It’s all about honor, loyalty.” Well, let’s talk about if sleeping with somebody’s girl is honor, kidnapping somebody is honor, stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from them is honor, trying to kill them is honor. “Snitching’s not street!” But street is taking advantage of one of your homies?
Q: Do you regret getting involved with Nine Trey?
A: No. I knew what I was doing with Nine Trey. I knew what I was getting into.
Q: You were going to provide them money, they were going to provide you …
A: Credibility. I just didn’t know the betrayal. These are guys that I woke up next to every day.
Q: Do you think you could have gotten to where you are today without the gang image?
A: No. I was killing the European market. But when you’re a kid from New York, you don’t want to be the kid that is only being played in Slovakia. I want to go outside in New York and hear my music. I want to go to the club and hear my music blasting through those speakers. What’s the point of doing something and you’re not the best at doing it in your hometown? You ever seen “Ricky Bobby”? “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” That’s how I treat life.
Q: In 2015, before fame, you pleaded guilty to use of a child in a sexual performance. You were seen in videos miming graphic acts and touching a 13-year-old while she performed sex acts on other men.
A: Yes, I was making Instagram videos, a whole bunch of content.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve atoned for that? [In 2018, before his gang arrest, 6ix9ine was sentenced to four years of probation and 1,000 hours of community service as part of a plea agreement in that case.]
A: Of course. No other celebrity gives back as much as Daniel Hernandez.
Q: So you think money is the way to pay your debt to society for something like that?
A: No. I’m a true inspiration to the kids, not only with money, but showing — I used to clean tables, dishwash, deliver food 12 hours a day for like three years. I’m you, but I made myself into something. Going back to the 13-year-old girl — I was 18 at the time. Am I this 40-year-old Jeffrey Epstein-type?
Q: But if somebody said to you, “I can never forgive you for what you did to that child,” would you understand?
A: Yeah, I would say, “God bless.” I don’t wake up every day and think, “Does this person like me?” Instead I say, “How can this person hate me even more?” Because someone who doesn’t like me is not comfortable in their own skin.
I admit to all my wrongs, right? I pleaded guilty to [using] a child in a sexual performance, and then I took responsibility for that. I pleaded guilty to racketeering for 47 years, I took responsibility for that. I will have to pay that for the rest of my life, looking over my shoulder, right? Guaranteed. What society is trying to do is have me crawl into a corner and say, “You know what? I hate myself.” I will never hate myself. I love everything I’ve been through and I will never take it back. I will never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever regret the lessons I learned in life, because they made me into an animal, made me into a beast. I can go through anything.
The thing with a 13-year-old girl, I was at the wrong place at the wrong time. The justice system makes you feel so guilty for something and they beat it into your head. “You’re not taking responsibility for it!” And the whole time, you’re telling the honest truth. Listen, I went to this place, and these guys brought this underage girl. I’m filming it, uploading it for the masses to see. If you committed a murder, would you upload that Instagram? I uploaded it to social media for the world to see! You’re thinking there’s no crime being committed. When the cops came to get me, I said, “What happened?” I turned myself in.
Q: How did you feel when you found out she was 13?
A: That tore me apart. My whole life felt like it was coming crashing down. I’m in the interrogation room like, “What did I do? Damn, my life is over.”
Q: Do you understand the view that you don’t need to be a public figure, that you don’t deserve to be famous, based on your real-world actions with real human victims?
A: No, I don’t. Tupac Shakur was convicted of rape. [In 1994, Shakur was convicted of felony sex abuse.] Is Tupac Shakur loved or hated? Loved! What’s the difference between me and Tupac Shakur? I never caught a rape charge — ever.
Q: He put art into the world in which he grappled with his demons, and said, “I’ve done good, I’ve done bad, I want to be better.” He tried to give back through his work.
A: And what am I doing?
Q: You feel like the art you’re making is adding to the world?
A: Of course.
Q: Maybe it’s fun, it’s turn-up music, but it’s not introspective.
A: This is one of his biggest songs. [Plays “Troublesome ‘96” by Tupac from his iPhone] What’s the difference between that and “Billy”? “A born leader, never leave the crib without my heater!” You’re telling me he gave back through his art? You’re lying to me.
Q: He’s a multifaceted artist. You only have one kind of record.
A: I got to feed what, in 2020, is relevant. I got to feed the masses. There’s no difference between me and Tupac Shakur.
Q: Now that you’re free, there’s the ever-present threat of retaliation. Why not just go live quietly on the beach somewhere?
A: I fell in love with the life. I fell in love with the fact that I inspire people. When kids see me, they go crazy.
Q: Are you addicted to that attention?
A: Oh, of course. I love it. I grew up being a nobody. Genuinely, as a kid, I felt like I was just walking invisibly. I never want to feel that way. My goal is to feed me and mine.
Q: Do you love making music or is it just a vehicle to fame and money?
A: I love music.
Q: Why not try to be more thoughtful in your music, given what you’ve gone through? Do you think the masses just want ignorance?
A: When somebody’s in the gym and they want to listen to 6ix9ine, why do they listen to 6ix9ine? To turn up! When you’re with your girl and you wanna listen to R&B, do you put on Chief Keef? People hate me because I’m the most straightforward: I’ll knock you down. I’m a genius at what I do. When you want to listen to R&B, you go to Usher. When you want to listen to hip-hop, you go to Nas. When you want to listen to rock, you go to AC/DC. When you listen to 6ix9ine, you don’t want to hear, “My mama was crying …” I can go there, but my fans don’t want that. You don’t go to McDonald’s and get filet mignon.
Q: How worried are you on a day-to-day basis about your safety now?
A: Without security? A lot. With security? Nah.
Q: What’s your security team like? How big?
A: Amazing. It varies, like, eight, 12, 22.
Q: How much are you spending?
A: A lot. Like, a lot.
Q: Was there ever a time when you considered going into witness protection?
A: [Expletive] no. They were like, “Yeah, it wouldn’t work anyway because your face tattoos. You’re too noticeable.”
Q: What was your biggest worry about testifying?
A: This probably sounds sick, but I didn’t have a worry, because I wanted to testify. That’s sick, right? But I wanted to tell my truth.
Q: Are you scared of dying?
A: [Expletive] yeah. Are you scared of dying?
Q: You’re probably closer to it than I am.
A: Yeah, duh! At this point, it’s a lifestyle. I worry about it, but I’m not scared of it. The streets is a myth. Right now, if I left this interview and took the train by myself to Bed-Stuy, I wouldn’t come back. If you took a trip to an island full of cannibals, are you coming back? But you don’t put yourself in stupid situations.
Q: Sara Molina, the mother of your child, says you abused her physically for years.
A: We did have physical fights. I admitted to all that.
Q: Right, in your cooperation agreement you confessed to domestic violence from 2011 to 2018. Do you think it’s OK to put your hands on a woman?
A: No, no, [expletive] no.
Q: Does it hurt to know that your daughter is going to grow up to know that?
A: It will suck. My daughter’s not dumb. She’ll see everything on the internet. There’s a lot of things that we’ll have to explain to her. Me and Sara spoke. I’ve been visiting my daughter, I’ve been giving my daughter money. I admitted my truth. It’s the worst thing ever. But I’m not going to sit there and lie to you. I’m telling you, I did it. I admit to it, and I apologize. I don’t owe the world an apology, the person I owe an apology to is Sara Molina. She got that apology. That’s where it matters. [Molina declined to comment.]
Q: Do you think you’ve been boycotted by the industry?
A: I feel like it’s a fear, because remember, everybody has to abide by a street code, right? But the industry is not street.
Q: So why do you think nobody is promoting your stuff?
A: I feel like the executives think they’re Nine Trey gangsters. These executives feel like they owe something to the streets. It’s the most stupidest thing in the world.
Q: Where do you stand on the recent wave of protests against racial discrimination and police brutality?
A: I feel like I got no say. It’s like, “Shut up, just make us laugh.” I’m not an activist. People do that for the cameras.
Q: Has any of it made you rethink your use of the N-word as a non-Black person?
A: No. Nobody’s going to make me stop saying [expletive]. I grew up in Bushwick, Brooklyn. All my friends are Black. Who’s going to stop me? If I felt it was wrong, I would stop, but it’s not wrong, my [expletive].
Q: A lot of people compare you to President Donald Trump in your ability to troll your way to the top. Do you see similarities there?
A: I don’t think Trump trolls. I think Trump is genuinely Trump. I get compared to Trump every day. But I love Mexican people. I don’t think we’re the same.
Q: Have you ever voted?
A: Can felons vote?
Q: In New York some can.
A: [Mouths quietly] I would vote for Trump. [Laughs]
Q: You’ve seen some success since you were released, but those songs peaked big and quickly disappeared, making it seem like you’re more of a spectacle than anything. Why isn’t your music sticking around?
A: Because everything is paid into radio. How does a song get on radio? Cash. Is that song really hot or is it the money being put into that record to promote it? When you call a Carl Chery [of Spotify] or a Larry Jackson [of Apple Music] and say, do me a favor, can we get on the playlist Rap Caviar, New Music Friday, is that really your record that’s hot or your label pulling strings?
Q: “Trollz” is also just not that good compared to “Gummo,” “Kooda.”
A: “Trollz” is a No. 1 record. Why is “Gummo” and “Kooda” not? ‘Cause money!
Q: So how do you get around that?
A: We have to fix those relationships. And money has to be spent.
Q: What do you say to people who say you’re inflating your streams, whether it’s through bots or pre-roll ads or dirty marketing tactics?
A: I’ll say the same thing I said to Billboard: Who doesn’t? Everybody inflates their numbers. Ev-er-y-bod-y.
Q: What does your mother think about the life you chose?
A: Loves it. My mom would rather not scrub people’s floors and bathrooms until she’s dead, so I think she’s accepted my decisions.
Q: If this all went away tomorrow — poof, social media doesn’t exist — what would you do?
A: I would jump off that ledge. [Laughs]
Q: So what’s the strategy now?
A: I’m already at the top, now just keep making music and keep dominating.
Q: But you’ve got to evolve. What’s next?
A: Just keep dominating.
Q: Do you think you can win people back, or has everybody already made up their mind about you?
A: They already made up their mind. The people who didn’t like me before are the same people who don’t like me now, they just have an excuse.
Q: Can you change anyone’s mind?
A: Why would I want to? It’s made me millions of dollars. I’m stupid, but I’m not dumb. What if I change, and I don’t make no more money? Keep hating me, because you’re going to keep tuning in.