Chief Keef, Soundcloud Rap’s Unsung Godfather

(Artist: Philipo Dyauli)

For more pop culture-influenced paintings like the one above, visit Philipo’s Habari Art Collection on Etsy!

Huge shoutout to YouTuber yadiiiigg for his investigative video report tracing Chief Keef’s influence on today’s hottest hip-hop artists. Many of yadiiiigg’s findings inspired nostalgia in me, bringing me back to my days as a raving Sosa fan. After immersing myself in the most relevant hip-hop music of 2017, a quick glance back in time revealed surprisingly strong connections between Chief Keef and today’s scene. It’s time to shine a stronger light of recognition on him.

Only recently has Lil B received the overdue respect he deserved for loosening up hip-hop’s deadly-serious competitive nature. Hypermasculinity and braggadocio are now just a couple of fun tools in the arsenals of many young hip-hop artists instead of required weapons. Hip-hop now is like a hood rec center that added soccer, dance classes, and a swimming pool to include kids that weren’t tryna hoop or get tossed in football. Lil Yachty, Ugly God, Famous Dex, and more owe the acceptance of their outrageous styles to the BasedGod.

Since Lil B’s path to recognition has such a happy ending, perhaps it isn’t long until Chief Keef gets his deserved glory. As of now, hip-hop seems to have closed Chief Keef’s window of relevance completely. Drill rap’s most prominent pioneer had a huge 2012 before getting signed to Interscope, dropping his debut studio album Finally Rich, then doing everything in his power to get dropped by Interscope in 2014.

Keef’s relationship with Interscope deteriorated after Jimmy Iovine left. Becoming a crossover hip-hop/pop star without a trusted guide quickly became less attractive than the pursuit of his increasingly experimental approach to music, including a fair amount of self-production. He never put out anything as big as “I Don’t Like,” “Hate Being Sober,” or “Love Sosa,” but it was in the year and-a-half after getting dropped that Chief Keef gave us his most creative and significant work to date.

Sosa’s most impactful songs came from the immediate post-Interscope time period. As the hip-hop community loudly considered him to be falling off, we still bumped “Earned It” and “Faneto” with the same enthusiasm that surrounded his first hits. His knack for quotables was clearly still there (“The beat go off?!”), but even more important to the spawning of today’s Soundcloud rap stars were Keef’s innovative flows, ad-lib structures, and untraditional melodies.

The “Ay” Flow 

Chief Keef is the most prominent pioneer of the “ay” flow, a pattern that emphasizes one-syllable exclamations at the end of consecutive bars. Notable deep cuts like “Pull Up” and “Shifu” (2014), and bigger singles like the aforementioned “Earned It” and “Faneto” are the clear yet oft-forgotten beginnings of a rhyme style that is now everywhere.

What makes this innovation special is how many forms the “ay” flow can take. The template of this flow allows for artists to bless it with their unique touch. Kendrick Lamar’s “Humble” sounds nothing like, XXXTentacion’s “Look At Me.” Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi use the flow indulgently, and half the time they use the exclamation “yah” instead of “ay.” Also peep the “ooh” flow in 2 Chainz’ “4 AM.” The syllables might be different, but the template is everywhere. Hit shuffle on a Spotify-curated hip-hop playlist and you’re bound to stumble across this rhyming pattern within three songs or less.

On a related note, Sosa is also the single greatest influencer of today’s trendy use of “gang” times infinity in hip-hop music and slang.

The Expansion of Ad-Lib Use

Chief Keef isn’t the first hip-hop artist to prominently feature ad-libs. He probably isn’t the first to use ad-libs as a melodic tool either. But when you listened to 2014-2015 Chief Keef songs, even in their often roughly mixed, don’t-give-a-fuck state, the ad-libs weren’t just ad-libs. They were backing vocals, a second melody complementing the lead melody of songs in a way that made Keef tracks feel full. There was always a unique phrase or note to pay attention to every second of a Chief Keef song post-Interscope.

Take for instance “Earned It.” The last half of his second verse contains two alternating rhyme schemes and pitch patterns between the lead vocal track and the ad-libs.

I heard he do that sneaky talk (Huhh?! Ungh?!)

I heard he was a sneaky dog (You auhh?!)

I up this fuckin’ 4-0 then I speak it dawg (Di-DUHH)

Me I take naps and you a sleepy dog (Huhh?!)

Catch yo ass in the back shoot up yo fe-fe dawg (Di-di-DUHHH)

.223 it’s at yo neck…breathin’ dawg? (Bang BAAING)

Nigga don’t even sneeze I get to squeezin’ dawg (Bang BAAING)

My lil bitch a vet she say she need a dog (Gang GAAING)

She know I get them checks and I don’t speak at all (HAAING)

There are a lot of examples of ad-libs as secondary flows/melodies. Rappers today usually use it in fragments throughout a song, as shown in this Playboi Carti joint “Kelly K”:

She want the whole thing I gave her sample (I gave her lil bit!)

The way I stole that bih like where ya man go? (I took his lil bih!)

Other artists have taken the practice of ad-libs as backing melodies/rhyme schemes to new heights since Chief Keef. Since breaking onto the scene with YRN, the Migos’ ad-lib game has grown to become as essential as rapping to their music. You can pick any of their projects from 2014 onward and see the increased importance of filling in space with complementary ad-lib flows and melodies.

The examples are too numerous to count, so I randomly chose “Pop Shit” off of Control The Streets Vol. 1, the new compilation project from Quality Control. I had the video start in the middle of Quavo’s verse as his use of ad-libs tends to be the most creative and lively in the group.

FN make a nigga move (moove, moove)

Put a fuck nigga on the news (neews, neews)

Mama drunk, like she drank booze (mama)

‘Cause her son done turned into food (damn)

And later in the verse:

You turned to a woman, Cait (Jenner)

Crisp back the lawn, mow the snakes (renter)

Stick to the money, pace (stuck)

Hit the gas to the top, it’s a race (top)

My wrist can’t stop, Ma$e (woo)

Give a bitch, my cock, to taste (here)

Got a M in the locked suitcase (cash)

Mama found out when she broke, the vase (Damn, ma!)

An even more amazing observation is the use of purely harmonic ad-libs as backing vocals in hip-hop since Chief Keef. As pointed out in the extremely comprehensive video by yadiiiig, songs like “Kelly Price” by the Migos and Travis Scott don’t exist without building off songs like Chief Keef’s “Cashin.”

The Acceptance of Raw Voices

You don’t care that Lil Uzi Vert isn’t really much of a singer. You wail your heart out when you hear, “I don’t really care if you cryyyyyyy.” And I wouldn’t call Post Malone’s voice particularly beautiful either, but that first verse on “Rockstar” is hard. It’s also difficult to get “Ooooh I FALL APART” out of your head once you hear it. A lot of Lil Peep’s (RIP) appeal can also be found in the imperfect, unbridled nature of his vocals.

It’s not like limited singers haven’t gone on to sell millions of records before. But even after 808s and Heartbreak and Drake’s emergence, melodizing and real-deal belting was reserved for several brave souls in hip-hop, even with the heavy use of vocal editing. Then the King of Drill Music dropped a couple of baffling sing-along joints that eventually became some of his more popular deep cuts.

“Macaroni Time” was one of the first times I saw Sosa with that lean belly. He was 18 and still in the midst of his chart success and Finally Rich buzz, but doing whatever he felt like doing musically. Not that he was timid earlier, but once that first heavily-autotuned “Buck buuuuck,” hit, I knew Keef was out there.

He followed that up with other memorable sing-songy tunes like “Love No Thotties,” and two of my top-5 Chief Keef tracks, “Round Da Rosey” and “Fool Ya.”

someone please pah me the damn molly

It wasn’t just the sight of this dreadheaded Chi-town zombie singing that made those songs special. There was really no attempt at making the transition more understandable to his fans. The production on “Macaroni Time” and “Love No Thotties” was best described as goofy, the use of vocal effects was gratuitous, and the mixdowns often gave the songs a harsh, forceful sound that completed the feeling of utter chaos.

It’s the existence of Chief Keef’s wildest singing endeavors that has helped allow more pop-focused, heavily-edited hip-hop vocal performances like those of Fetty Wap and Lil Uzi Vert to commercially thrive. Sosa’s experimentation also prepped us for the rise of hot Soundcloud artists like Lil Skies and the late Lil Peep.

Even if you didn’t listen to Chief Keef like that, there’s bound to be something about his work you appreciate if you’re a hip-hop fan, knowingly or not. “It ain’t about who did it first, it’s ’bout who did it right,” Drake accurately stated. But whenever we decide to take a look back and see how we got to where we are as a culture, Chief Keef’s impact should have a few notes on the timeline of American music.

UPDATE 1/19/2024: Edited for formatting and grammar



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