Shawn Setaro on Tekashi 6ix9ine (Part Two)

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 Two)

Veteran music journalist Shawn Setaro is currently a writer/reporter for Complex, where he covers 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 second of a two-part interview discussing the subject of his book. (Read Part One here.)

For decades, you've had these artists who have some connection to the streets and to the gangs that are part of that. But it's not necessarily been, in previous generations, as prevalent in the lyrics or in the imagery. You'd often have to be looking for something in order to really notice it. And there are tons of rap videos where it's the information is there, if you know what to look for.

Jim Jones is an expert on this and provides sort of an excellent foil to Tekashi in this. Jim is someone who is a master at saying things without saying them, saying things and leaving that little bit of plausible deniability, where if you were to ask him, did you mean that? he'd say, what are you talking about? I didn't say that. He's a master at the inference, the nod, both in lyrics and, honestly, in how he talks in interviews and to the media about a lot of this stuff. Seeing that–ten years before Tekashi met them–a lot of these same people were hanging out with Jim Jones in the studio and on records, it was an interesting sort of diptych, two different ways of dealing with gang life, this more standard hip-hop way where it's a wink and a nod.

In the book, I asked Jim about Mel Murda, who is Jamelle Jones. They share a last name. He says, trying to explain how close they are, he says, we're related. And then he kind of pauses and smiles and he says, we're blood related, punning on the fact that they have the same last name and also saying something else. That's sort of how Jim Jones talks–whereas you have Tekashi. People doubt that he's a gang member, or people doubt that he's like affiliated with Nine Trey. He does a video where he's hanging out with Nine Trey. People questioned him about it. And so then, literally, his second single is about how people don't believe I'm a gang member, but I really am. There's just no artifice. It's literally like, people are saying this, so I'm gonna just say it outright. ‌‌‌‌

There's such a stark difference, I think, with somebody like Jim Jones. They already know about the hip-hop cops, that there are units looking for this stuff to catch you. The way that Tekashi behaved, it can't be in any way surprising that he eventually got caught up in RICO shit. How could he not have? He made it easy for the authorities to do what they're trying to do, which is to shut guys like him down.

‌‌‌‌That was one of the most incredible things about this. One of the driving forces for me was that the crimes were so public and so not hidden. I couldn't believe it. You'd hear like, oh, he filmed a robbery. Okay. And he did it to rub it in the face of not even any of the people he robbed, but someone who maybe was affiliated with someone he robbed, right? That still a little nebulous, but okay, fine. Doing stuff to show you did it on social media is just sort of how gang life is, even on a smaller scale these days. You have to show you did something to your enemies.

But there's a difference between that and doing that in the middle of Times Square, at rush hour on a weekday. No one's wearing masks. No one's trying to disguise themselves. People are holding guns; they're in an office building where there must have been, and in fact were, surveillance cameras. I can't read anyone's minds, but I assume they were banking on like, oh, people are going to be too embarrassed to report this to the police. But the Feds don't care about that. Also they robbed a couple of people who did care and tried to report it. At least one of them attempted to report it to the police, sorta got there too late because the investigation was already in full swing. The crimes were so public and so outrageous, and that definitely was one of the stranger things about all of this. If you're going to shoot at a guy, it's not in some dark corner, it's at the W Hotel in Times Square.

‌‌‌‌It's like, none of us should know that he was going after Chief Keef. The fact that that was information that was widely reported was insane to me, as a hip-hop fan. And you wonder, where are the elders in these situations? Where are the people who help the youngbloods out?‌‌‌‌

Tekashi had that, in a sense, with Scumlord Dizzy, who was a slightly older rapper who was kind of mentoring Tekashi. And Tekashi wanted to do a pre-"Gummo" "Gummo," a video with a bunch of Crips–I talk about it in the book–or people in blue bandanas, right? He wanted to make it appear that he was around a bunch of Crips, and Dizzy said, I can't let you do that. That's not you. This isn't cool. You don't know what you're playing around with. And Tekashi does not take the lesson; he just goes and finds another group of people who will let him do it. That's where the guidance is; he constantly runs away from it until he finds Shotti.

Shotti, admittedly, doesn't understand this social media world. He says it over and over again, including in interviews. But he realizes, hey, this is successful. My job is to protect the guy who's getting the bag. And if that means shooting at some people in downtown Brooklyn in the middle of the day, then that's what he'll do. That's the bargain he made. And he also grew to love the attention and the celebrity. ‌‌‌‌

As I tried to think why there wasn't anybody to educate Tekashi the way that generations have done for each other before, I thought about all the very high profile artists of my generation who worked with him, Nicki Minaj, Kanye West. These people are of a certain age and of communities where they understood the dynamics of these things. And it struck me like, how could somebody like them or even Anuel AA, who'd just got out of Feds on gun charges, decide this is who they want to associate with? Would you think it's just a product of celebrity, of jumping onto the hot thing in that way, or is he a powerful draw as a personality? ‌‌‌‌

It's a little case by case. We know what Kanye said when asked about Tekashi, the radio interview that ultimately led to their collaboration. It was, I like that guy, he's a troll. And this was full Red Cap era Kanye. And Kanye didn't care that Tekashi was endlessly trolling people from Chicago. That didn't seem to matter to him. With Nicki, you know, I can only speculate, but I would assume it's like this: what do they both get out of the deal? Tekashi gains a certain amount of respectability by working with a legendary artist and Nicki gets to work with the cool young person who's hot right now. That's a well trod thing. She did it again with Pop Smoke and "Welcome To The Party," being on his remix. In a lot of cases that's just fine and everyone benefits and walks away, but here it obviously got a lot trickier. ‌‌‌‌

And in her case too, there are some controversies around her, both in terms of her family member and in terms of her partner that just exacerbates things.‌‌‌‌

She has her own lawsuit now as a result directly as a result of that.

Pre-order the book:

Obviously, a lot of research, a lot of work goes into creating a book like this, creating the podcast, doing all of the reporting that you did and making sure that you were reporting accurately abiut what was happening. At the end of the day, what do you feel like you've taken away from the story of Tekashi 6ix9ine?

Personally, I gained the confidence to realize I could do something longform, first in the podcast and then in the book. I certainly didn't have that before. I learned that I could really uncover something with this approach of being diligent, talking to people, asking stuff, that I could get the information together into something useful. So, in a professional sense, hurdles gotten over, let's say. It was a further reminder that, if I'm curious about something and driven to explore something, there's a reason. Following what I'm curious in has benefits that you couldn't possibly anticipate. When I sat down to figure out who this Treyway guy was in the middle of 2018, I couldn't have forseen that I would do all this coverage, I would be in documentaries, I would write a book, I would do a podcast. There was none of that. It was just like, maybe this will lead to an article about a secondary character in the Tekashi story. Maybe I can land an interview with him. But I got more and more curious and more and more drawn in, so the whole thing is also a reminder to follow my curiosity.

Attention is necessary. I want to have people read the book and have them know about it. I feel like I do work that I am proud of and want people to experience. But attention for its own sake, you know, can lead to some pretty bad places. Tekashi was someone–is someone–who wants attention above all else. He needs people to pay attention to him, and he found pretty early on the easiest way to do that was to poke people. Hey, hey, you, you, you, you, you look at me, look at me, look at me, Hey, isn't this annoying, isn't this annoying, isn't this annoying? It worked and worked and worked and worked and worked until he was an international star. And then it collapsed. So I think being wary that attention for its own sake is not a worthwhile goal, it was a reminder of that.

You know, the criminal justice system, this case that I looked so deeply into is anomalous in some ways, in that all of the defendants either plead out or were found guilty at trial–and all very clearly did what they plead out to. This was not a case of people being railroaded. Everyone played their part that they ultimately admitted to, appeals pending for some of them. The Federal District [court] i sgenerally considered the most prestigious in the nation that handles all of the biggest cases. The judge was very thoughtful and tried really hard to determine each person's level of culpability and sentenced them based on that. And the rapper at the heart of it, when his lyrics showed up in court, it was because he in collaboration with the federal government wanted to bring them up to demonstrate some point or other about his involvement with the gang. That's not how this stuff usually goes. It is 180 degrees from how this stuff usually goes. When lyrics are used in court, a lot of times they are used to railroad people or to steamroll the difference between art and reality, to imply things about the behavior of artists that are not true or are not likely to be true. Conspiracy laws are often used to round up young black and brown men–not only men, but largely–in holding them responsible for crimes where they may not have even known the people who did them. There are state conspiracy laws, like the one we saw on the Bobby Shmurda case, that are used in ways similar to RICO that are racist and bad. So this was actually one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, because I looked at this one instance so close that was so anomalous. It actually took a lot of thought and work and looking at other stuff to realize, you know, the ways in which it was atypical. Hopefully, in future projects, I will get into more of that, and the ways in which hip-hop and policing intersect, the ways in which that that's really bad for everyone involved. But, by and large, it was handled about as well as you can handle it within the context of a system that is, of course, racist and all of the things we all know the criminal justice system is. but within that, it was handled sort of about as well as it could be. That was an interesting first glance and one that I've had to unlearn in some ways.

I'm glad this book is coming. It'll be really nice for people who are curious to get what actually happened rather than their impressions because they read some tabloidy hip-hop blog not equipped to tell these stories. That was one of my biggest complaints during the trial. They're covering it because it's of salacious interest and it's driving traffic and generating ad clicks. It just drove me crazy.

It was so interesting to me. In the courtroom, the Cardi B stuff [*snaps fingers*] over like that, not a big deal. Same with the Jim Jones stuff, in and out, not a big deal at all. When I left for lunch that day, that was all anyone was talking about Jim Jones, Jim Jones, Jim Jones. The Cardi B thing, I think blew up maybe at the end of the day. I don't remember exactly. That was in part due to a reporting error at a different outlet. But regardless, the fact that he said a couple of big names got far more attention than basically anything else that happened at the trial. It became this narrative of like, he's just throwing everyone under the bus. When in fact, yes, he hated Jim Jones and he took every opportunity to badmouth him at trial. But that was so tangential. The Cardi thing, actually a defense lawyer brought it up. Nuke's lawyer brought it up. Tekashi was only responding, in his defensive way, to the idea that he was copying Cardi B by having Bloods in his video. He said, no, I don't care about what she does. Yeah, I guess I've heard of her, but no, I wasn't copying her. That was that, but it became this giant thing that, amazingly enough, she ended up having to respond to. But it was so it was so disproportionate from what felt important in the room. I think that, that goes to some of the stuff you're talking about...

I will say that him insulting Jim Jones was a blip. When it was revealed that Jim Jones was the voice on the tape, that was surprising. That was a big deal. It's funny to see people being like, why didn't they arrest Jim Jones for that? Why wasn't he caught up in it? Did he cooperate? No, he was on one phone call related to this thing. The federal government goes after people who they know they've got dead to rights. That's why they have such a high conviction rate. They go after people they know are going to plead out. That's not what happened with Jim Jones. They had one phone call where he was basically giving advice to a friend. Was it shocking advice? Sure, shoot the bodyguards so that they're scared to protect Tekashi is pretty shocking advice. But in the end, it's one phone call and none of that happened. There was no actionable thing done as a result of that phone call. Everyone was rounded up like immediately afterwards. But if you listen to the Twitter mobs or whatever, it's like, he must have sold out in order to not be dragged into it.

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