Shawn Setaro on Tekashi 6ix9ine (Part One)

The veteran music journalist discusses his new book about one of the most notorious figures in contemporary hip-hop.

Shawn Setaro on Tekashi 6ix9ine (Part One)

Veteran music journalist Shawn Setaro spent years writing about hip-hop for outlets including Forbes, GQ, and Vibe. While working as Editor-In-Chief at Rap Genius, he launched Outside The Lines, an interview-focused podcast that, after departing that company, became his own independent and well-respected program The Cipher. Now a reporter for Complex, he continues to cover the comings and goings of rap's notable names through articles and original podcast programming there. His forthcoming book is entitled Complex Presents Dummy Boy: Tekashi 6ix9ine And The Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, due out next month via Kingston Imperial. This conversation, edited for clarity, is the first of a two-part interview discussing the subject of his book.

I have questions for you, of course, but I'm happy to keep this as conversational as you'd like.

Absolutely. I mean, I would love to start with the kind of subliminal part that you play in the book. The key interview that we did for the Infamous podcast and, by extension, used a lot of the information in the book when dealing with Tekashi's early case–his 2015 case for use of a child in a sexual performance–the main interview I did for that was with Rich Juzwiak. And Rich directly cited you as the inspiration for the reason he did actual reporting on that case and found out what it was, found the documents, went to city court or whatever it was, and dug all that up, and actually wrote about it right as Tekashi was first hitting the Billboard charts. So that's sort of your role in this whole thing.

To be perfectly honest, if it weren't you, or perhaps Rich, that wrote this book, I would not have done an interview. Rich and I have a rapport that is entirely online, but he has expressed to me similarly that he dug deeper because of what he saw me shouting about on Twitter, as I often do online, just shouting about this like, hey, this is actually really awful and maybe we should be paying attention to this. Not to make this a mutual admiration society, but I really enjoyed seeing your coverage and the seriousness of your writing over at Complex about the trial and then in the podcast.

Well, thank you. I think in some ways, my inexperience in the field of court reporting helped me. No one told me that every hearing wasn't vitally important. I missed the arraignment, because I was sort of still figuring out what was going on. But I went to the very first court hearing, that was at Southern District. I actually showed up a day early, like in the correct room but on the wrong day. I sat there for probably 20 minutes while people were arguing about stealing stuff from Whole Foods before I figured out I had the wrong case.

With that, I think about–and I know you credit him in Thank Yous–Matthew Russell Lee, of Inner City Press who also covered Tekashi's federal case.

That's his beat. Literally, he goes to that building every day and says, what's happening in this particular courthouse that's interesting? Let me go to that courtroom and write about it. Then there are court reporters, as I found out during this process, for the daily papers, the tabloids, Daily News, New York Post. Sometimes a paper will have one federal reporter to handle cases in both Manhattan and Brooklyn and then one person to handle city cases. But those people are running around from one high profile thing to the next, right? This is where I sort of lucked out. I didn't know that the tiny hearing that no reporter had time to go to 'cause they had to cover the flashy thing for the other case, they couldn't go to that. I did, and I became kind of completist in heading to this stuff. Complex, my bosses there, were kind enough to just let me say, hey I got to go to court and they let me do it.

Most times, enough happened that I could get a story out of it, something to help move the case along, this is what happened today and this is why it's important. And it helped just in terms of people in the courthouse, seeing my face, the lawyers seeing my face, the people who handle scheduling seeing my face, the assistant who helped me get in during the times when it was really packed because they already recognize me. This helped in the book. The second half of the book is largely legal wrangling, right? And if I hadn't physically been there and was just reading afterwards, I would have missed all of the subtext. Like, oh, this really pissed off the judge, or a moment where [Tekashi's ex-manager] Shotti slipped up and actually told the truth for a second and the air went out of the room. I might have missed those intricacies looking at the stuff later. Having been there every step of the way, I think, really helped the book turn out the way it did...

Once the podcast started, it just became all the more important to show my face. It was cumulative. During the trial, I ended up accidentally playing a little inadvertent role when I got a quote from one of the defendants–Tekashi's kidnapper [Anthony "Harv" Ellison]–during the trial and ran it. Harv recognized me, which was both flattering and a little scary. We happened to be in the bathroom at the same time during some pretty small hearing. He was there with a couple of guards and I was there and he said, you know, sort of half jokingly, you got to stop killing me out there. It took him recognizing me, talking to his friends and family and showing them that I am there every day, and them seeing the work. They might not always be happy with it, but they can't say it's not accurate, right That cumulatively led up to this drastic thing of getting a quote from Harv in the middle of the trial that even the judge ended up noticing.

I'd think also it helps that your byline was with Complex, a publication that a lot of the players in this were very much familiar with.

Some of the lawyers were thrilled to be quoted in Complex. If I spelled their name wrong, I would hear about it. And it was great also in terms of the podcast, talking to secondary, tertiary players, or even main players. Saying I'm calling from Complex really helped to get them in the door. Hey, do you want to come down in the office and do an interview and talk about how Tekashi's success was because of you? Sure, that sounds great.

There are some sources in the book who appear in very brief bits and some who are anonymous or otherwise deliberately not named. You secured people who no other journalist really ever spoke to, on the record, in some capacity about how they knew or were affiliated with Tekashi. How much of that happened naturally through your presence and how much was more like pulling teeth?

It was a mix. The hardest thing, in some ways, was even finding the people, finding out even who to reach out to. Who's Schlosser? Who's Ms. Treyway? Who's Seqo Billy? And what relevance do they have to the story? Discovering that was a whole rabbit hole, even the people that informed stuff in the book but ended up not being quoted. Like, there's an Instagram post of them and Tekashi, it looks like their friends, let me dig up who they are. Oh, they mentioned more in this one interview on this obscure YouTube channel. Oh, they're in Brooklyn? Okay, let me find them. So I think the process of finding subjects was the real difficult, deep dive part.

Certainly some people didn't want to talk. Shotti, I tried to reach out to in a variety of ways and by a variety of means. Sara Molina, likewise. Her management said that she wasn't interested in speaking. There were several people on the shadier side of things who wanted to be remunerated in order to talk–which I couldn't do. But in general, people want to tell their story, and particularly in a situation like this, where this guy has burned a lot of bridges, people are (A) anxious to claim credit and (B) maybe anxious to get some digs in. All of that I think worked in my favor.

And it's a complicated web of people–the gang factor alone. You write about Tekashi first trying to connect with Crips and then ending up with Nine Trey. And especially as drill has risen here in New York, there's these Reddit boards of people asking, so which set is this? Who are they with?

I know it very well. I just finished this whole podcast series on Pop Smoke where one of the episodes delves into that a bit. But we could only include the simplified 20% of what we actually knew. The rest of it was super arcane and sort of off point to the story we were telling. But in preparing just the 20% we did tell, we found out a whole lot more, specifically in drill, the very complicated collections of sets and shifting allegiances.

One of the things that I always found fascinating was that it seemed, prior to the chart success but really prior to his arrest by the feds, a lot of publications initially shied away from coverage of Tekashi.

We didn't know how. I can only speak to Complex, right? I can't speak to any of our associates, competitors, whatever you want to want to call them. I know that at Complex, I was a staff writer at the time. We were trying to figure out how to deal with SoundCloud rap, and Tekashi being emblematic of that, even though SoundCloud wasn't his main distribution means. We were trying to figure that out in real time. And there were two main things we were working against. One is that a lot of these artists did not care about traditional press. And why should they? They could go directly on social media and speak to millions of people at a go. Then there was also this behavior thing; many of the artists were either accused of or convicted of very objectionable things in their personal lives.

And so how do you write about that? You don't want to say, here's a cool new song from XXXtentacion, as an example. You don't want to start every article with a four paragraph caveat of, he was accused of this, he admitted to this, he said this in an interview, we're not really sure if this much is true. By the time you're done with that caveat, no one's reading anymore. So we were trying to square that circle. With Tekashi in particular, and I get into this at the beginning of the book, one of my editors was like, well, who's this Treyway guy who's always around him? Maybe that's your way in. I tried that for a few months and got some information and tried to reach out to him. It was going very slowly. And then the arrest happened, and just sort of off to the races from there.

Neither of us can really speak to what the motivations or reasoning were at other publications. But it did seem like there was there was a lack of coverage for lot of this stuff, save for a handful of publications that seemed to make that sort of style their beat. You were more likely to see those artists on No Jumper, on some of those YouTube things, rather than in a publication like Complex.

Yes. Look: No Jumper, Say Cheese, and Elevator had this scene on lock. And props to them for really sussing out who was going to blow up, you know, weeks or months before they did.

Before I knew anything about Tekashi 6ix9ine, I first noticed his music at Terminal 5 for A Boogie show back in 2017. I was up on one of the balconies and the DJ beforehand played "Gummo." And the room, which was largely full of young New Yorkers, New Jersey–they were screaming the lyrics, screaming along to him screaming. And that's where I was like, wait, what is happening here? This is something big. And then, of course, I looked into what I looked into and was horrified. But when did you first notice him?

I think I was aware of him–I wish I could say in the early Scumgang days or whatever. But I think it was probably "Gummo" like everyone else. It's funny because I remember Akademiks actually brought him to the Complex office well before I even dreamed of covering this stuff. And I remember the editorial staff was, myself certainly included, not rude but just confused and a little bit standoffish, in the sense of like, well, we don't know if we want to cover this person and what are these rumors, you know, about the stuff that Rich covered so well. It was a very strange experience that I didn't talk to him. Now, of course, I wish I had plied him with a zillion questions. But what can you do? So I knew he was someone that Akademiks was trying to convince people was next up.

One of the things I find so interesting here is to have someone like you writing this book, someone who has this deep history in hip-hop journalism. You can't have imagined that this would have been the first book you ever put out, right?

So this is the thing. Definitely there are people who know me from The Cipher or from Genius or even some of the longer-form stuff I wrote for Complex about like art rap or the intricacies of production, or features on sex work, who are like, I would never have seen you writing about this. And yeah, it definitely is strange, but it was a story that I was kind of uncovering. I was so captivated by the layers I was uncovering. I remember as we were doing the podcast, my partner on it, Shiva Bayat, I had this metaphor I used with her. It was like, well, think of it as two tracks or two roads. The one above is his songs, his videos, social media, the stuff we see, his rap stardom. And the one underneath is the gangs and the shootings. They're moving simultaneously, but you only sort of see one. In interviewing people for Infamous and stuff that later turned into the book, I got more and more of a glimpse of this track underneath.

So by the time Tekashi testifies and just totally unveils everything because he has to, and his freedom depends on it, 96% of what he said on the stand, I, by that point, already knew. There were small details, there were maybe individual meetings or dollar amounts. In one case, there was one crime he talked about where I knew the first half of it, but not the second half of it, this incident where Shotti ends up shooting in a car outside of Quad Studios. I knew this afternoon that led up to it, but not that the incident itself. Most of what he revealed, we had already uncovered by that point. I'd gotten most of the lower track, to continue the metaphor. But it was a fascinating process, digging it up. And then to have everything confirmed over the course of three days was kind of incredible.

Read Part 2 of this interview here.

Pre-order a print or ebook copy of Complex Presents Dummy Boy: Tekashi 6ix9ine And The Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods here.