Tekashi 6ix9ine and the Continuing Saga of Street Cred as Music Marketing
Thoughts on the Brooklyn MC’s social media obsession after watching the Showtime Doc series
Just watched the Showtime documentary, ‘Tekashi 6ix9ine: The Rise and Fall of a Supervillain,’ which brought me back to the summer of 2019 when his trial captured the intersection of contemporary musical stardom and 21st century gangsta life. I became fascinated with the testimony of Daniel Hernandez, better known as Tekashi 6ixX9ine, partly because it felt like Scorsese’s ‘Goodfellows’ come to life and largely because it spoke to how powerfully the gangsta ethos resonates in our popular culture. After generations of Hollywood movies, tabloid headlines, gangsta rap hits and documentary crime series, associating yourself with violent crime, whether organized or chaotic, is still one of this nation’s fast tracks to celebrity.
The trial featured the foul-mouthed MC from Bushwick as the criminal minded narrator who, while testifying under oath in a Manhattan courtroom, tossed former comrades in malfeasance under the bus. Anthony ‘Harv’ Ellison and Ajermiah ‘Nuke’ Mack were members of Brooklyn’s Nine Trey Bloods, a gang that sold drugs, extorted money, staged kidnappings, committed assaults and robberies in my home borough’s non gentrified neighborhoods. The Nine Trey Bloods served as a validator and promoter of the then twenty-three year MC’s gangsta credentials. When assistant United States attorney Michael Longyear asked Hernandez, “What did you get from Nine Trey?,” he answered, “I would say my career: credibility, my videos, music, their protection.”
At age eighteen Hernandez began releasing tracks and videos on line, attracting as much attention for his rainbow hued hair, multi-colored grills, and extensive facial tattoos as his rhymes. His cartoon character appearance made him immediately recognizable on Instagram, Twitter, and Reddit. He broke through in 2017 with “Gummo,” which was certified platinum. Like many of his hip hop generation, it was on Soundcloud, where artists easily uploaded music to reach a taste maker audience, that Hernandez built his audience. In 2018 he enjoyed a top ten pop hit with the Nicki Minaj collaboration, “Fefe,” moving from cult status to mainstream notoriety.
The Hernandez’ commercial success was fueled by a series of reckless decisions captured on video. In October 2015 he plead guilty to use of a child in a sexual performance with a thirteen year old girl. Three videos of a naked adolescent girl interacting with Hernandez and a posse member named Taquan Anderson went viral. While Anderson is seen receiving oral sex from the underage girl the rapper is in every video in physical, if not sexual, contact with the victim. Hernandez made a plea deal to avoid jail time, but the video suggested he had, at minimum, terrible judgement and, quite clearly, no moral compass.
During his rise Hernandez aligned himself with central Brooklyn’s Nine Trey Bloods, a connection that started when Hernandez was at Riker’s Island a few years before on a drug case. He took on Ellison as his manager and using the Nine Trey Bloods as back up, Hernandez engaged in a stream of on-line beefs with rappers from Houston, Chicago, and New York. There’s a long list of dis videos and nasty posts, but the most impactful was a beef with Chicago’s Chief Keef, which resulted in a shot being taken at Keef outside a midtown Manhattan hotel. Word on the street was that Hernandez paid $200,000 to a fellow Blood for the hit attempt.
In another incident OG Nine Trey member Kifano ‘Shotti’ Jordan robbed the backpack of an associate of Houston’s Rap-A-Lot records at gun point in a Times Square hotel. Jordan gave Hernandez the gun, who admitted to taking it back to Brooklyn on the subway. That Hernandez carried a weapon just used in a felony suggest the MC’s role in Nine Trey was more gofer than gangsta. It’s reported that Ellison and Jordan made $85,000 as Hernandez’s manager, money that became a bone of contention within the gang as other members wanted a piece of the pie. “The gang. It was divided,” Hernandez testified about his earnings. “We’re all part of the same gang but we’re attacking each other.”
Hernandez, not surprisingly more entertainer than a gangsta, began chafing under Nine Trey’s control. A text message from Ellison to Hernandez read at the trial said it all: “Stop picking and choosing when you wanna be gangster.”
On July 22, 2018 gangsta life got too real for Hernandez. Around 4a.m. the MC and his driver Jorge Rivera were at the light in a light at the intersection of Atlantic and Bedford Avenues when a stolen Chevy Tahoe rammed into them. “Damn,” Hernandez thought, “they caught me slipping. It’s over.” A gang member known only as Sha opened the back door, pointed a gun at Hernandez, and dragged him out of the car into the Chevy where Ellison was behind the wheel.
“I’m pleading my heart ‘Yo, don’t shoot,” Hernandez testified. Rivera followed the Chevy for a few blocks until Ellison got out of the ride and ran towards the SUV, scaring him off. After losing Rivera, Ellison pulled the car over. Hernandez said, “Sha pinned me down on the floor by my hair and he just kept hitting me.”
“Say you’re not Billy!” Ellison demanded, using slang for a Nine Trey Bloods member. Hernandez said it three times. “Yo, we should do (kill) this nigga right here,” Sha allegedly said.
“You right. Ain’t nobody gonna know. It’s a stolie (stolen car) anyway. We could burn this shit,” Ellison said, according to Hernandez. Then Ellison said if Hernandez gave up his jewelry collection he’d let the MC live. The rapper’s bling included a red presidential Rolex, Cuban Links bracelet, four diamond rings, a spinning 69 diamond chain, a chain of the Jigsaw character from the movie “Saw” and a $95,000 My Little Pony necklace featuring the animal with Hernandez’s rainbow-colored hair style.
The trio drove to Hernandez’s Bedford-Stuyvesant home and Sha retrieved the jewelry stashed in a pink Minnie Mouse bag from Sara, the MC’s baby the mother. But the two thugs didn’t let release him. Instead, they drove for a few more blocks. Fearing the worst Hernandez jumped out of the car and made a break for a nearby housing project. There Hernandez jumped into the backseat of a parked car at a nearby stop sign. The driver told him to get out. “Bro, I’m about to die. Just drive!” Hernandez said. The driver complied but then ended up directly behind Ellison’s stolen car. Thankfully for the rapper Ellison apparently didn’t notice Hernandez hiding in the car’s backseat and drove away. Hernandez was dropped off at a Brooklyn police precinct, thus ending the gangsta phase of his career.
At the trial Ellison’s attorney claimed the entire episode was a publicity stunt staged to promote the “Fefe” single. Not a totally crazy defense but the jury didn’t buy it, convicting Ellison of kidnapping Hernandez and Mack of dealing MDMA as well as a kilo pf heroin and fentanyl. Both men plan to appeal. In total Hernandez’s testimony and cooperation with federal prosecutors got eleven Nine Trey Bloods members convicted, one getting sentenced for twenty-five years. In exchange Hernandez only got eight months and that was for time served.
What was unexpected, but reflective of his desire for visibility, is that after the verdict Hernandez made noises about not going into the Witness Protection program, which would be typical for someone who publicly testified in such a high profile trial. Anonymity, to a product of the social media era, is a fate worse than death. (When word got out that a $10 million recording deal was on the table from the label 10K Projects Hernandez’s reluctance made financial sense.)
In the wake of Hernandez’s testimony a slew of hip hop figures, from OG Snoop Dogg to young Blueface, ridiculed Hernandez for “snitching.” Caught up in the ghettocentric philosophy of hip hop many have forgotten or disregarded the fact that there is still a world where Satan is renounced, co-signing violence has consequences, and criminal acts shouldn’t be left to street justice. That’s not say that Hernandez was guiltless — many of the acts of violence described in his testimony — were results of his instigation via social media posts. Still, no one should be surprised that an social media entertainer was not ready to uphold the code of the streets.
Though originally set for release August 2, 2020, COVID-19 proved a boon for Hernandez. His attorneys told the court he was at a higher risk for infection because of a pre-existing asthma condition. The Feds had no problem with it, so the MC was released to home confinement, where he’s made a couple of hit records, shot videos with half-naked women and, perhaps, more importantly pursued more social media beefs. The details of who Hernandez took shots at on-line (and who shot back) are, like a soap opera scenario — only of interest to those who watch daily.
But the bigger truth is that Hernandez’s social media presence meant way more to him, and his fans, than the actual recordings. Being notorious on social trumps music in the current pop culture moment. Black lives matter has electrified a troubled nation, touching its sometimes faint conscience. But gangtas (or gangsters) still walk among us, promoting a comic book-meets-wrestling aesthetic that’s fun until the real world intrudes. The bigger challenge is for Americans to end our collective romance with gangstas, on screens, in streams and in the streets. Until then this love affair will continue to reflect a deep dysfunction in our national DNA, one that will lead to the creation many more digital gangstas.