Tagging the Criminal: YouTube Gangsters

Nicola Bozzi
May 6, 2018 · 9 min read

This post is a partial adaptation of my presentation at last year’s NWCDTP conference, which I attended in Liverpool. It was a great chance to really reflect on the type of tagging I intend to zero in on in my case studies, as well as listen to a lot of cool presentations from talented researchers. More than a chapter draft, the text below represents a loose collection of notes on addressability, labelling, tagging, social media and the figure of the Gangsta.


Tagging the Criminal

Image from here

As I mentioned in my brief attempt at a sparse history of tagging, Frank Tannenbaum was the first to use the term in terms of social labeling. In the first chapter of Crime and the Community (1938), the criminologist outlines the way society creates the criminal by putting a permanent mark on a young individual:

“the process of making the criminal, therefore, is a process of tagging, defining, identifying, segregating, describing, emphasizing, making conscious and self-conscious; it becomes a way of stimulating, suggesting, emphasizing, and evoking the very traits that are complained of” — Tannenbaum, 1938, pp. 19–20

Tannenbaum’s is a critique of what he calls the “dramatization of evil”, a misdirected institutional pressure on the single individual that ultimately fails to reform its target and, in fact, activates a vicious circle of self-fulfilling prophecies. Rejecting the idea of the criminal as anti-social, Tannenbaum insists the way out is a refusal to dramatize the evil, instead tackling the group and the criminal’s social world.

The use of electronic tagging to monitor offenders as a cheaper alternative to prison is a current material instance of Tannenbaum’s original use of the term, but I would rather focus on the social — or rather cultural — aspect of it. Enter Slim Jesus.

The Criminal as a Tag

The white rapper from Ohio rose to YouTube fame after his video “Drill Time” became viral, prompting the popular Dj Vlad to have him on his YouTube channel. In a much-clicked interview, Slim Jesus candidly admitted his violent gangster lyrics were inspired by the music he listened to rather than his actual life. Drill being a particularly violent derivation of rap music, strongly associated to the South Side of Chicago, and Slim being a very skinny and non-threatening kid from Ohio, the revelation had people talking.

Some warned Slim Jesus that he was playing with fire, others seemed nonplussed and argued poetic licenses and/or fakery have been around forever in gangsta rap. As for the actual drill scene, it seemed divided between those who uncomfortably tolerated the young rapper and those who linked up with him in order to ride the hype.

All the while, YouTube was watching. While Slim was turning down record deal offers from Birdman and getting “tested” by more street-credible rivals during his public appearances, his memetic potential was exploding into a constellation of parodies, fake death reports, reaction videos and diss tracks — each generating traffic and clicks for their uploaders. As it happens in YouTube culture, “Slim Jesus” itself had become a tag: courtesy of the related column, it appeared in titles even when the rapper was barely mentioned in the video, in some cases even attached to mere look-alikes.

The novelty eventually faded, but Slim Jesus has not disappeared from YouTube. In a recent interview the Ohio rapper adopts a more traditional gangsta rap narrative: while not admitting to being involved in crimes directly, a now slightly more mature-looking Slim hints to the fact that, you know, maybe he’s not so fake after all. Whether we believe him or not, one point is clear: the young rapper seems to have figured out how the game works.

Keepin’ It Real(istic)

The ambiguity of gangsta rappers in relation to their criminal ties or past is indeed one of the fixtures of the genre. On one hand the life described by pioneering gangsta rappers reflected an existing social reality, on the other many of them were often observers rather than actual gang bangers.
In a compelling article on microscenes, Geoff Harkness describes the symbiotic relationship between gangs and artists: music helps gangs spread their symbols and make claims, while rappers enjoy the street credibility and protection.
Harkness references Garot’s work on the selective, performative use of gang identity, also confirmed by his own research on gang-affiliated rappers in Chicago. Rather than fixed, in fact, gang identity is invoked and concealed by gang members in differing situations, one of the key risk-management strategies being to “separate gang membership and rapping to the greatest possible extent” (170).

However, this is not always possible.

A good recap in comment form

While Slim Jesus was way more believable as a fake gangster than an actual one, the cases of Chief Keef and Bobby Shmurda — whom have been arrested or had shows cancelled due to their involvement in illegal activities — suggest those that are closely embedded in the social and cultural environments that originate gangster music have a harder time separating their career from the criminal networks that legitimate their reputation. Some have argued their YouTube exposure might have been a reason for authorities to be extra hard on them, which is consistent with the lasting enmity between the police and the genre — dating back to the legendary crashing of an NWA concert in Detroit as the group was singing their infamous song Fuck Tha Police. To this day, the association of rap’s most controversial sub-genres with crime remains a problem for the careers of many artists, even outside of the US.

While the top-down tagging of rappers as dangerous is closer to Tannenbaum’s use of the word, however, there are other forms of bottom-up tagging that are related to both the culture and the platforms that shape a rapper’s fame today.

Real-time Beefs

Apart from the one between gangs and rappers, Harkness notices another symbiotic relationship, between local microscenes (e.g. the South Side scene) and global platforms like YouTube. Several scholars have pointed out how the Internet has globalized the symbols and language of American gangs through rap music, but the significance of these mainstream websites on a local level is important.
YouTube was of course the place where drill-Godfather Chief Keef initially uploaded the videos that made him famous, as many others did after and before him. However, those networks can bring infamy as well. There is an entire constellation of YouTube and Twitter accounts chronicling beefs and dissings: some are comments, others chronological compilations usually consisting of screenshots from Twitter, Snapchat or Instagram stories. As it is quite evident from the bio of this Twitter account (“Exposing snitches and pussies. Might see your favourite rapper.”), the looming menace of being tagged as a “snitch” — or generally assaulted or humiliated by a rival — is now powered by the technical muscles of a global tech company. These dynamics seem to happen on a microscene level as well, but of course videos regarding famous rappers are able to escape the micro-virality of small-scale gang rivalry and find a home in the related column of fan searches.

However, one thing is to mention someone’s name in a video title (a culturally readable piece of content) or as a tag (machine-readable metadata), another is to tag someone as if playing the homonymous game — that is, as in “you’re it”. While a rap diss would take some time and decoding to pan out — production, sharing, word of mouth, reception, crafting of response — a menacing tweet or Instagram comment (both of which often appear in the beef chronicles mentioned above) provides instant and often public access to an individual, which sometimes prompts an immediate answer in the form of the classic video response, popular in rap beefs, that goes something like: “We’re here, where you at?”. Interfaces enable a level of addressability that can work as a “beef” accelerator.

“Don’t @ Me”

When it comes to tagging and the social, the connection to social media is obvious. We all use tagging, one way or another: we tag our photos on Instagram, participate on Twitter debates including hashtags in our tweets, tag our friends on Facebook.
Tagging has become more than just a bottom-up alternative to the top-down imposition of categories: it is increasingly associated to addressing someone. As attested by the increasing popularity of tagging memes, tagging stitches together the social web not just in terms of collectively created tag clouds of cultural references, but people as well.

When JME and Skepta sing “don’t @ me” in the song above, they are annoyed about a practice that is common on Twitter: addressing someone directly by mentioning their handle. This simple technical affordance — the stickiness of someone’s name, instantly turning into a magic door to their notifications tab — is what allows users to communicate so efficiently with each other, but it also enables trolls to harass their victims. While distinct from Twitter’s most influential function, the hashtag, “@-ing” someone can be seen as the equivalent of tagging someone on Facebook: it’s a technically-enforced call out.

Hip-hop culture, however, never needed Twitter to enforce such practice. Diss tracks can be explicit or subliminal probes to elicit someone’s response, or at the very least elevate a lesser known rapper’s fame at the expense of a more established one — in fact, the response itself can be seen as a sanctioning of the offender. Similarly, the Twitter @ is more often used by someone linking up rather than down.

Techno-cultural Addressability

The cultural forms of tagging mentioned above, technically enforced by social media interfaces, carry a certain level of weight. Just like direct addressability makes beefs and dissings more direct, it makes them more traceable. Someone like Slim Jesus, using a disclaimer in his first video, addressed drill from a more cautious, outsider perspective, compared to the kids uploading Instagram stories in which they humiliate their rivals for the world to see. The detachment that comes from living outside the culture, but with an equal or higher level of technical expertise, gives — in a sense — a head start in terms of understanding the “game” of YouTube fame.

Furthermore, the addressability coming from within the culture is paired with that coming from outside, meaning the stereotypical bias associated not only to gangsta rappers, but to their communities.

Claudia Rankine tells an anecdote about a conversation she had with Judith Butler, in which the famous scholar told her addressability is what makes language hurtful. Rankine, from her own Jamaican-American perspective, adds:

“For so long I thought the ambition of racist language was to denigrate and erase me as a person, but after considering Butler’s remarks I begin to understand myself as rendered hyper-visible in the face of such language acts.”

Like the practice of “@-ing” someone in a diss is techno-cultural, the technical addressability provided by social media interfaces intersects with the cultural layer of bias.

White and Nerdy

Weird Al Yankovic was a white and nerdy pioneer

There is another aspect I want to point out about Slim Jesus. Although unintentionally, his appearance made his character lend itself to an ironic interpretation. The aesthetics of aggressive rap have been popular on YouTube for a long time, but especially so when ironically paired with white characters: after the obvious name of Weird Al Yankovic, notable examples are Epic Rap Battles of History, The Lonely Island or Little Dicky — but there are countless more.

While Laur Jackson has discussed the appropriation of black vernacular on social media — especially reaction GIFs — referring to it as “digital blackface”, Bryan J. McCann writes about it specifically in association with comedy. The scholar talks of “proletarian blackface” as the “appropriation of black vernacular practices to articulate a predominantly white male, working-class rage against modern capitalism.” To do so he dissects one of the classics of the genre: the cult comedy Office Space.

The best scene of the movie

McCann references both Norman Mailer’s famous essay on the hipster or “white negro”, who explores alternative identities by experiencing black culture, and James Baldwin’s critique of it. According to Baldwin, cultural resources that are poached by the white visitor emerge “in the not-at-all metaphorical teeth of the world’s determination to destroy you,” while white suffering is expressed through the language of someone whose suffering is far worse. After discussing the use of gangsta rap in the movie’s soundtrack to mark its most successful moments, McCann concludes that Office Space’s irony is ultimately symptomatic of the logic that only allows certain bodies to traverse identities.

The YouTube-friendly ambivalence of Slim Jesus’s Drill Time, then, can be seen as subject to a different type of cultural tagging — comedy rap, cringe rap — sanctioned by its parodistic ripples and shielding him from the tagging and the addressability described above. Ultimately, and ironically, being a “fake” gangsta rapper might be less risky on YouTube.
While Slim Jesus is unlikely to recycle himself as a comedy rapper, I think his case illustrates a series of overlaps and interactions between technical and cultural tagging, as well as some of the potentially controversial ambiguities that entails.

schizocities

Schizocities is a research project about globalized identities and the way they circulate. The focus is on the delicate balance between creativity and conformity, imagination and optimization. It is a cultural critique of tagging.

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