Why Hip-Hop’s Chase For Viral Infamy Works For A Moment, But Backfires For A Lifetime

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Tekashi 6ix9ine once told Adam22 of the No Jumper podcast that there would be nights where he was so hungry growing up in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn that the loudness of his stomach rumbling made his mother cry.

He recalls never having the means for name brand clothes, but becoming popular at school by virtue of being a class clown and having a unique fashion sense, which we still see today with his bright, rainbow hair. When he was in the 8th grade, his father was shot and killed a block away from his home.

After this traumatic event, he was profoundly changed and began to act out in school — until he was kicked out and began working to support his family. His father’s death “made [him] wanna be a villain, ‘cause villains never die,” he told Mass Appeal.

That focus on villainy has made him hip-hop’s latest ringleader in a royal rumble of attention-seeking viral stars. He’s seamlessly used the WorldStarHipHop corner of the internet to ascend to his current position. After dropping four singles, three of which were on the Billboard Hot 100 at once, he’s on pace to sell over 60,000 copies of his energetic Day 69 album — which could top the sales numbers for independent icon Nipsey Hussle’s Victory Lap.

The circumstance is another affirmation that spectacle sells. Tekashi’s own label only projected the album to sell 25K in its first week, according to hip-hop media figure and friend of Tekashi, DJ Akademiks. But the album exceeded expectations with the help of a risky promotion strategy.

For the past five months, Tekashi’s M.O. has been drama, from a fallout with one-time friend Trippie Redd to a gang (pun intended) of detractors from coast to coast. In Minnesota, he had ice and bottles thrown at him and fought outside of a club during Super Bowl weekend. In LA, he was involved in a social media cat-and-mouse race with rappers who were mad at him for his unabashed red flagging and a guilty plea in a child sex case.

Rapper OG Spanky Loco tried to find him in a mall. Snoop Dogg affiliate Jooba Loc and other alleged Crips came to his hotel. The circumstance culminated with him getting into a dust-up at LAX with Houston-based rapper Acie High of AQUALEO. What did Tekashi do after the brief scuffle? Made a video bragging about how no one can touch him while spinning his chain.

Hip-hop has an entire subdivision of acts throwing caution to the wind in the chase for viral notoriety. Whether a video is hilarious, disgusting, vicariously exhilarating, or embarrassing, engaging content is bankable on the internet — and there are people willing to provide it no matter the consequences. San Antonio rapper Adam Rodriguez of the Versace Boys let the world know that he was planning to “f*ck up” Tekashi in a since-deleted video. He even had his Versace Boys partner film their arrival to a San Antonio airport, where he was spotted and arrested for terroristic threats.

Such outrageous exploits engender clicks, which means I end up reporting about a lot of it. But in the midst of writing, I just can’t help but think that all this social media clout-chasing is going to get someone killed, and I may have to cover that too.

In Chicago, for instance, many local rappers aggravate their decades-long gang conflict with diss songs denouncing the dead homies of their enemies, which is seen as a cardinal sin. Rapper — and alleged Gangster Disciple — Lil Jojo infamously put a target on his back with his “300K” song, in which he proclaims he was “BDK,” aka a Black Disciple Killa. He may have been merely trying to gain the attention that his enemies Chief Keef and Lil Reese were garnering, but the song fanned the flames of Chicago’s gang epidemic. He was fatally shot, and while no suspect was ever apprehended, it’s not far-fetched to think he was a victim of the very gang violence he rapped about. When you combine social media and the streets — two avenues where people will do anything to get a rep — the results can be disastrous.

The attention-seeking avenue is a two-way street. Artists can parlay controversy into acclaim and an established career like 50 Cent and Game, or, their quest to be known can blow up in their face a la Florida rapper Stitches, who tried to goad Game on social media all of 2015. He even tried to hint that he had something to do with Game’s jeep getting shot up in Miami — then got a (filmed) punch in the face for his efforts. His career hasn’t been the same since.

Outside of hip-hop, we’ve seen people willing to hurt themselves — or worse — to get views, clicks, likes, and other social metrics. Logan Paul filmed a dead body in a Japanese suicide forest and has had his YouTube page demonetized. People are playing with their lives by eating tide pods. Others are burning themselves with ice cubes melting in salt.

At least Young Thug’s attention-seeking is relatively harmless. He’s another master of saying and doing things that feel like he solely wants to get people talking. From wearing a dress on his album cover to calling other men “bae” and sexy” — in an apparently platonic manner — to changing his name to the SEO-nightmare that is “SEX,” he knows exactly what will trigger the internet zeitgeist.

The attention he’s gained from his antics initially helped him gain visibility as an artist, but the dubious acclaim may have hurt him in the long run. He’s just as talented as Future and Migos but has never achieved close to their sales figures because he’s alienated so much of his potential fanbase. Yes, it’s a shame that so many hip-hop fans are homophobic. But he also knowingly tries to exploit that disgust with his actions. He still has a career that most aspirants would love to have, but it feels like he’s up against a glass ceiling preventing true superstardom.

Tekashi is just as adept at stirring the pot online. “I’m the king of getting my Instagram deleted,” he gloated in a late-2017 interview with DJ Akademiks. “I was doing Fatboy SSE [and] Boonk Gang sh*t way before that was even popular.” Fatboy and Boonk achieved notoriety with videos in which they are egregiously disruptive in public, from Boonk going behind a Popeyes register to make his own meal to Fatboy taking hats off store shelves and putting his own up. Tekashi made waves before rap with videos of him performing wrestling moves on twerking women — which isn’t the most alarming thing he’s done in front of a camera.

In 2015, he uploaded the very video that has made him a pariah. In the clip, he’s seen fondling and smacking the butt of a half-clothed girl, who was only 13 at the time. He claims the girl told him she was 19, but the video was used in court, and he ended up pleading to one felony count of the use of a child in a sexual performance. After having his reputation tarnished and his freedom threatened, it would seem he’d think twice about the kind of things he puts online, but instead, he’s gone harder.

It’s little surprise that Tekashi is relishing becoming one of the most disliked figures in recent rap history. In a twisted sense, he may feel like at least he became something. A 2000 study by numerous doctors stated that the constant need for attention gets hardwired in the human brain from neglect at early developmental ages.

What’s more telling is that “drama eases the anxiety of wanting more attention than you are getting,” as Ph.D. Billi Gordon wrote in Psychology Today. Being in the midst of drama actually triggers the same compounds in your brain as opiates. It’s easy to see how someone can become addicted to causing drama, and act on that craving via the young generation’s other addiction: Social media.

In lieu of traditional marketing, Tekashi’s become known as an unabashed social media troll. He makes lighthearted posts, such as claiming he “signed his life way to the Illuminati for $7.5 million,” or satirically diamond testing his own “fake” chain. But it’s the tough-talking clips in which he abrasively claps back at perceived haters and dares someone to “test his gangsta” that have won him infamy. Tekashi has said that the pedophile stigma has hurt him when it comes to getting positive press and festival spots — but pissing off gangs in every city won’t do him any better.

In an environment where street rappers are often targeted just because, he’s continuously courted controversy. If the previous process to “go viral” in hip-hop was the homophobe-trolling of Lil B and Young Thug or dance crazes like the Shmoney dance, Tekashi has shown that you can “blow up” by being as loud and divisive as possible on social media — provided enough people also like your music. Hip-hop history has shown, however, that such schismatic energy is unsustainable.

The negative consequences of Tekashi’s actions are already affecting his career. His “Billy” video was shut down by the NYPD because so many people threatened to do something to him at the shoot. He recently had three songs in the Billboard Hot 100, but couldn’t perform in LA over NBA All-Star weekend because of the drama with local gangs. He’s also had a show canceled in Easton, PA.

If your marketing tactics have gained you visibility but cost you money, is it really helping you? Years ago, that question would have an easy answer, but in the clout-chasing era we’re in now, it must feel like a viable strategy. Tekashi’s videos have accrued millions of YouTube views, but he doesn’t even have his own YouTube channel to reap the financial benefits, hinting at the possibility that money isn’t his primary motivation.

Tekashi calls himself the hottest rapper in the game and is actually set to have a top five Billboard debut largely off the strength of his own social media-driven promotion. He may feel affirmed, and aspiring artists looking from a distance will try to parallel his drama-fueled road to hip-hop notoriety, but that bubble will eventually burst in tragic fashion.

Those artists probably won’t have the “powerful street movement” that plugged-in Brooklyn media figure Doggie Diamonds said Tekashi carries with him. In some of Tekashi’s videos and social media posts over the past years, he’s standing with certain people who this New York-based writer knows are not studio gangsters, and are likely able to quell things behind the scenes for him. But Tekashi would be wise to heed draconian conspiracy laws, which allows “scores of people with circumstantial connections to crimes to be sentenced for them, sometimes over something as trivial as giving a ride to someone, or lending a cellphone to a friend,” according to Darius Charney of the Center For Constitutional Rights. Conspiracy charges are what quelled Bobby Shmurda’s G$9 movement.

What happens if the people around Tekashi are forced to act, and someone gets seriously hurt? New York hip-hop can’t stand to lose another venue with more fights like what happened at Yams Day 2018, or shootings such as the Irving Plaza incident. Why does anyone need to be risking jail-time for hip-hop? Additionally, what kind of responsibility will his record label take? Meager marketing budgets and expectations that artists will get themselves hot on social media — by any means — is part of what causes aspiring rappers to act recklessly. Record executives will reap the benefits of sales and streams but will look the other way when the drama backfires. This is yet another reason why hip-hop needs more of-the-culture gatekeepers.

Perhaps the dozens of red-clad people in Tekashi’s videos see a way out of the streets through him. If that’s the case, it would behoove them to tell Tekashi to take his foot off the proverbial pedal and not ruin the platform he’s gained against considerable odds. The chase for constant viral attention is futile, and will usually backfire. It’s easy to gain attention while looking big for social media, but just as easy to lose it all once the act gets old.