Tekashi 69’s Genius Is Rooted In Making Sure You Can’t Turn Away

Don’t feed the trolls. It’s the most basic of all the internet rules. This tenet has held true long as chat rooms, discussion forums, message boards, and social networks have existed. There have always been people so hungry for attention, engagement, and, hell, human contact that they will do or say almost anything to get it — including some truly disgusting, heinous, offensive stuff. Yet as long as this has been the case, it’s been almost impossible to convince people to observe that one, simple principle: If you ignore them, they’ll go away.

Tekashi 69 knows this — he probably knows it better than anyone else. It’s the human nature he banked on when he first set out to secure his position in the pantheon of rap superstars before him. NWA, Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, and more all leveraged that same tendency. Controversy sells; 69 just took it to the absolute extreme, blurring the lines between fiction and fact and buying into his own gimmick enough to end up on the wrong side of the law. That’s his genius and the reason why he just won’t go away, no matter what the above-mentioned rap stars, their peers, or their fans say, weathering every career-ending storm to emerge bigger than ever.

To condense the timeline a bit: 20-year-old Danny Hernandez made himself a viral star by choosing an over-the-top look, dubbing himself with a provocative stage name, and picking fight after fight with his rap peers and the enemies of his Nine Trey Bloods backers. In doing so, he built a brand that would prove to be bulletproof. His scream-rap style and rainbow hair drew attention, both negative and positive, as his antics also drew attention — from the federal authorities, who grabbed him and his Nine Trey cohorts in a racketeering case that pitted Tekashi against a potential 47-year prison sentence.

The possibility of serving out the rest of his adult life behind bars was enough to convince the young rapper to turn canary, testifying in a controversial trial that saw his former colleagues in Nine Trey receive long sentences. His own sentence was truncated to accommodate both his cooperation and the eventual COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic (Tekashi is asthmatic, making him more vulnerable to the virus’ effects). Upon his release, he went right back to his trolling ways, joking about being a snitch on Instagram and prepping the release of his first post-incarceration single “Gooba.”

Therein lies the genius of Tekashi 69: He knows that the one thing none of us can ever do is look away from a train wreck — especially now that there’s little else to do but watch those boxcars pile up. Tiger King, The Last Dance, Donald Trump’s daily briefings — we can’t get enough of watching bullies and trolls do what they do. Nor can we keep ourselves from reacting, which only turns the dial on their buzz further and further clockwise (insert Spinal Tap “this one goes up to eleven” quote here). We know we shouldn’t feed the trolls, but we do anyway. They want attention and they know that their provocations can and will garner plenty of it, so long as they are loud enough, boisterous enough, obnoxious enough, and/or wrong enough.

Tekashi 69 is all of those things. He’s “wrong” in the eyes of rap purists for his loud, aggressive, borderline arhythmic rhymes. He’s “wrong” in the eyes of street disciples (and their naive, melanin-deficient suburban acolytes) for breaking “street code.” His colorful presentation is eye-catching and irritating enough to the muted stylistic sensibilities of Westerners to inspire railing rants against it and what they think it represents. He’s also willing to lean all the way into the snitch jokes, inoculating himself against the accusations in much the same way Eminem’s 8 Mile character did against the white jokes that’d be leveraged against him in rap battles.

“69” or its unusual stylization, “6ix9ine,” nearly always find themselves near the top of Twitter’s trending topics, while Tekashi 69’s first Instagram livestream after his release broke Instagram’s previous reported record with 2 million viewers. It’s a constant feedback loop of commenters giving Tekashi their attention and Tekashi giving them an endless supply of fat to chew on, debate, discuss, or rant about — which only gives him even more attention. As much as fans and Tekashi’s contemporaries say they disapprove, they can’t resist doing exactly what he wants: Keeping his name on the tips of their tongues (or thumbs).

A funny thing I noticed recently is how few comments my posts get these days. Not for nothing, I also noticed that the dropoff seems to correlate with the day I decided to stop entertaining them and let my biggest fans/trolls talk among themselves. It seems they got bored pretty quickly with talking to each other. I guess they don’t like themselves any more than they hate me. When I stopped feeding the trolls, they basically went away, save for a few diehards who seem to hold out hope (hey Deputy Dawg! I see you, boy! Hope your quarantine is going well). However, it’s easy for one person to resist taking the bait; it’s nearly impossible to convince the 2 million people who’d tune into an Instagram Live just to get the tea on a widely publicized legal case to do the same (seriously, nothing Tekashi said during his Live was new information). That’s why Tekashi will be here for a long time and why he’ll always get the last laugh.