If you’ve been closely following the (under-under) underground rap scene in Chicago over the past six months, you know there’s a bit of a renaissance brewing. Not to say the scene has suffered or gone anywhere, but there’s a new troop of artists creating content in the city. Content which has largely gone unnoticed by the outside world. Radio spins? Blog posts? Media coverage? Nah, they don’t care about that. They’re fine with letting Facebook and YouTube do the talking for them.
These DIY artists, producers and directors aren’t waiting to be discovered, they’re creating their own careers. You won’t help us, so we’ll help ourselves. With the advent of affordable high-quality cameras and editing equipment; kids who’ve had no professional training, are now self-taught directors, garnering millions of hits on YouTube, and making a living off their dreams.
While some of these artists will never make it past YouTube, they can (somewhat) become local celebrities in their neighborhoods and high schools, using their video view counts as bragging rights and bargaining chips.
Enter DGainz, the young entrepreneur who is at the epicenter of this new movement. You need beats? He has those. A video to accompany? He can handle that as well. A one-stop shop for your media needs. Over the course of the year, DGainz has risen from an unknown kid with a camera, to the go-to guy for little-to-no-budget videos for Chicago rappers. DGainz has over four million views on his YouTube page, and has multiple videos for unknown-outside-of-our-neighborhood artists that gain hundreds of thousands of views.
How is this possible, you ask? Are these views legit? Well, we caught up with D on an unusually warm January day to discuss, and get to the bottom of this Chicago phenomenon.
FSD: For those reading about you for the first time, who exactly is DGainz?
DGainz: I like to call myself a producer first because that’s my first passion, but I’m also a videographer and graphic designer.
FSD: Do you rap as well?
DGainz: Yeah, but I ain’t really trying to push that–I’d rather be behind the scenes.
FSD: How old are you?
DGainz: I’m 23.
DGainz: I also did “Go In” by Shady. Those are the ones everyone knows about, but I’ve done a ton more. A lot of the artists you probably don’t know about.
FSD: It seems like these new, unknown artists are popping up every week, and you’re either filming their videos or doing their beats or sometimes both. You’re almost like the Dr. Dre of this little movement. How did this all come about?
DGainz: I started off producing for my little cousin in ‘05. It was nice and he had a little bit of fans or whatever, but music wasn’t really for him. I was writing all of his music and producing, but wasn’t really for him, you know?
Then I ended up meeting my brothers the Buck 20 Brick Boyz–they’re my actual blood brothers–and I didn’t meet them until I was 20. We all have the same Father. Chopper and FDot are my brothers, and Black is just our friend. We all came together through music. That’s when I met my Father as well–I didn’t meet him until I was 20, and I found out he was into music as well.
FSD: Was your Dad a known rapper in the City?
DGainz: On the Low End, yes. But he wasn’t really known outside of that. So then I just started doing music with the Brick Boyz and we did like three mixtapes together. Then we shot a video and it was like a no budget video. We did it on a little Handycam and everyone loved it.
FSD: So you taught yourself how to shoot and edit all by yourself from a Handycam?
DGainz: Yep, exactly. But the first video I ever shot was on a cell phone when I was 19. So when I got in contact with my Dad when I was 20, he had a Handycam that he let me use. But if I couldn’t use his camera, I’d find someone with a little digital camera so if I needed to shoot something I could.
From doing the music, I had a program called Sony Acid, and I found that they had a video editing program so it was a real easy transition into editing videos.
FSD: So how did the word get out that you could do videos and beats?
DGainz: I had a little studio set up in my house, where a lot of artists would come through and record–probably none that you’ve heard of–but there was a lot of traffic coming through. It wasn’t anything big, but people would come around everyday to do music, and we’d just shoot videos for fun. So then I started posting the videos to YouTube, and I’d watch other peoples and I’d see what kind of cameras they were using. And luckily, through a blessing, I was able to get a DSLR camera.
I shot my first video with that camera for the Buck 20 Brick Boyz, which was “Never Talk To Feds,” and that’s when everybody started picking up on it. It came slow, but then I started shooting for people like Lil Durk, and then something for Louie and then everyone started coming.
FSD: In your opinion, what video really pushed you over the edge?
DGainz: I think King Louie’s “Gumbo Mobsters.” After that one hit, everybody was trying to get in contact with me.
FSD: It appears you even have copy cat directors now…emulating the way you shoot and edit.
DGainz: I been had that [Laughs].
FSD: Does it effect your business?
DGainz: I thought it would. It was pissing me off at first, and I was thinking ‘Get y’all own styles,’ but then I guess they just wanted the original.
FSD: You do have your own style of videos. Whether it be a certain eye for shots, or a certain tint of the camera. Where does this come from?
DGainz: When I hear a song, I see a color. So I start playing around with the colors, and it all has to match. From the fonts to everything else–I match how I shoot everything to the song. I don’t hear a lot of the songs I’m shooting for until the day I shoot the video, so it all kind of comes to me at once. Like the Chief Keef “Bang” video–I didn’t hear that until right before we started shooting.
FSD: Speaking of Chief Keef’s “Bang” video, how did it become so popular? It has over 400,000 views on YouTube. How is that even possible for a relatively unknown teenage artist?
DGainz: A lot of the videos become popular in their own neighborhoods, among certain cliques–that’s where it starts. It begins there, and then it spreads around their schools. It really hits in the schools.
FSD: So what is the average age of the person who watches a DGainz video?
DGainz: Man, I shot a video for one of my younger brothers (Buck 20 Brick Boyz), and a 5-year old girl walked past and screamed: “That’s Choppa!” I had a little kid stop me the other day, about 9-years old and say “I know you, you’re DGainz.” So it’s all ages watching my videos.
FSD: And that’s crazy because you’re always behind the scenes. But lately, I’ve had a ton of people reach out to me in regards to you, and the movement you have going on. No one seems to understand how these videos are getting hundreds of thousands of views.
DGainz: I watch the videos everyday to see what they do. With Chief Keef’s “Bang,” the views just keep shooting up. Before the video of the Keef fan hit Worldstar, it already had 400,000 views, and after Worldstar it got an additional 60,000 views.
FSD: So how do you respond when people accuse you, or the artist, of buying views, or creating fraudulent views?
DGainz: It’s kinda stupid to me [Laughs]. I mean, if I could pay for views, I’d have a million views on every one of my videos. I got some videos on my page that only have 100 views. Some videos stuck at 3,000, that people don’t watch. Every video don’t got 400,000 views.
FSD: So you’re not just sitting there refreshing your page over and over again?
DGainz: That would take a long time to get to 400,000 views. You can look at the insight on the computer and see where most of the views come from–and most of the views come from cell phones. All the stats are right there.
FSD: And a lot of these songs don’t exist anywhere online in Mp3 form, so I’m guessing the only place people can hear them is YouTube? I imagine that plays into it as well…
DGainz: Yeah, a lot of this stuff is just for fun, and some of these guys aren’t even trying to put out CDs. For a lot of these guys, it just gives them something to do.
FSD: So a lot of these guys don’t even care about making albums or having a career, they just want a DGainz video?
DGainz: I done had people, that only have one song, and only plan on making one song, have me do videos on them. ‘I just want a video.’ They just want to be seen, and a lot of times I take offense to that, because a lot of people would die for that. A lot of people get mad when I don’t respond (to video inquiries), but you’ve got so many people asking now. I’ve dealt with so many people, that it’s hard to tell who’s real and who’s fake. Who really want to do business and who doesn’t.
FSD: Yeah, do things ever get dangerous for you? Some of these videos depict Chicago gang culture, with signs being flashed at the camera. Like, would one gang or crew get mad that you’re working with a rival, and could that spark a beef?
DGainz: Yeah for some people it could. But I think I’ve played it out enough where people know now. Anyone that I ever meet in person, I end up working with. I like to meet people in person beforehand, so they can see that I’m not on that. Because when you just meet someone over the internet, you don’t know who you’re dealing with. I’ll also work with people based on recommendations, so I know everything is straight and what not. But you gotta be careful.
FSD: How many videos did you do in 2011?
DGainz: Last year I shot 90 videos, but I only put out 74, just because some of them weren’t right. Whether it be the business, or I just didn’t like the video, not all 90 dropped.
FSD: Do people come to you with concepts, or do they look to you to write the treatment?
DGainz: Honestly, out of those 74, probably 65 of them were just improv. Sometimes people would just come pick me up and we’d go shoot–we didn’t do a lot of concepts. We’d just go out and shoot.
FSD: What about the content of some of these videos, where these young kids are brandishing weapons and advocating drug use? Do you receive any backlash from that?
DGainz: Nobody has ever brought it to me and I’m surprised. Like with Keef, and the Shady “Go In” video. I expected people’s mothers to call me and complain, but no one has yet. Never any backlash, and I’m surprised, because I feel like these could end up on a CNN news segment or something.
Sometimes I feel bad about it like, ‘Man, I shouldn’t have put that in the video,’ but I’m just recording what I see. Like in Shady’s “Go In” video, everything that you see actually happened. The little girls shooting dice–they were like 10 years old on the corner shooting dice. Then some girl pulled out a gun. That was all just spur of the moment and what was happening while we were shooting.
A lot of the videos do have guns in them, but I edit them out. Sometimes it’s iffy. Like Keef’s “Aimed At You,” they had a couple of pistols in that, but I took them out because there were little-bitty kids in the video. I be trying to ease off the hood stuff a little bit, and reach a different audience.
FSD: For a lot of these videos, you produce the track as well shoot it. Do you package these together when selling a video?
DGainz: Yeah, and I’m trying to do more of that. Producing is my first passion, and I’d like to do more new music. I’m starting fresh for 2012, getting a business mindset. Last year I was just doing as much as I could to build my name, but this year it’s about being a business.
FSD: The mainstream, and the so-called “gatekeepers” of Chicago have no idea this whole movement and pocket of music exists–it’s so self-contained right now. I’m surprised people aren’t beating your door down to bottle and sell what you’re doing.
DGainz: Last year, my account made almost four million views. Pretty soon, everyone is going to take notice. Some of these videos are already starting to take off, and it’s all kind of linked together. You find one video, and it will lead you to others.
I’m really starting to believe the hype, because at first I didn’t. But once people started coming up to me and asking me about my videos and asking ‘Are you DGainz,’ then I knew it was real. I like being in the background, I don’t even care for the fame. I’m not starstruck. I’m don’t want my work to go unnoticed, but I really just want my respect.
I rap, too. I’ve got two videos on my account that I shot for myself. I produce my own music, rap and shoot my own videos, but I don’t want to rap. I’d rather do it for everybody else.
FSD: Have you noticed a change in recent weeks, with the recent success of King Louie and Chief Keef–most notably the video that hit Worldstar?
DGainz: Everyday things are changing. Everyday. Even on Facebook, when I post a video up it will get almost 300 likes instantly. I think that Worldstar picking up on Keef made it even bigger. He was already big in Chicago, but that had people from out of town contacting me about it. Worldstar took it viral and brought a lot of outside attention to the account. I’ve since had people in New York reach out and want me to come out to Harlem and shoot vids for them.
FSD: And everything’s been very organic. It’s not like you’ve had any money behind you, or even a budget for your videos…
DGainz: [Laughs] No budget. Everything we did, we was broke. Still broke. Trying to bum rides to get to video shoots…that type of stuff.
FSD: And these videos are now popping up on notable music journalists sites and Tumblr pages. Did you know this was happening?
DGainz: I ain’t even know about that. I be mostly on my phone. I’m not always on my computer, or always on Twitter. I just kinda check up on my phone. Mainly just facebook–that’s where most of my traffic comes from.
When we first started doing this, the reaction we were getting from family and friends was like ‘Y’all got something here.’ I never expected it, it was all just a dream to me.
And my videos are a lot different than what’s coming out of Chicago. A lot of these directors like to show the glitz and glamor of it, but we can’t show that. We ain’t even got no money to show that. We show a different side.
FSD: So how is your family reacting to everything?
DGainz: Man they love it. I’m like a celebrity at my sisters school. I’ve got four younger sisters, and three of them are in high school. These videos are really big on the high school level.
FSD: So the majority of these views come from high school students? Are these artists huge at Chicago’s high schools?
DGainz: Keef is. I was at his house yesterday, and people were calling his phone the whole time. He’s like the new Soulja Boy. I ain’t expect it to be like this. When I first started working with him, a lot of people hit me like ‘Chief Keef weak’ and a lot of people were saying that on Worldstar, too. But they don’t know him.
Like when Lil B first came out, my brother kept playing it, and I’d be like ‘Man cut that shit off.’ Then I’d show it someone like ‘Check out what my little brother is listening to,’ then they’d show someone. And then I’d find myself looking at it.
King Louie, too. Like one day Louie pulled up and my sister started screaming and was like ‘King Louie here! King Louie here!’ And I’d be like ‘Shit your ass down [Laughs].’ I had a girl scream once when she met me. Some of this shit that’s happening don’t even seem real. It’s almost like a movie to me.
With Shady (“Go In”), that came about by a video those girls made and posted on Facebook asking to work with me: ‘We wanna work with you, we love your beats’ and a lot of people don’t do that. So I made the beat, which I didn’t even like, and I sent it to them. It was supposed to be a bunch of girls on it, but Shady was the only girl who showed up. That’s why I had it on rewind (for her verses), she only had eight bars on it–it was supposed to be like five other girls on it.
FSD: So how did King Louie end up on the remix?
We were on our way to shoot the “Money Dance” video, and I had my laptop with me, and I had Louie check out all of my videos that he hadn’t seen, and I showed him the one I did for the girls, and he was like ‘Let me get on it.’
FSD: Speaking of King Louie’s “Money Dance,” I still think that record has a legs. It should be a bigger hit.
DGainz: Yeah people love that one. I’d sent him like five beats and that’s the only one he used. He called me like ‘Damn this beat sounds like some Army shit!’ And then he spit me the hook and it was crazy. That was another beat that I had did that I didn’t like originally.
I’m passionate about my music, so I don’t give me beats to a lot of people like that. I’m serious about it. Everything that goes on one of my tracks I want to listen to first. I hate getting something back and being like ‘Y’all fucked my beat up.’
FSD: So many of these songs don’t have Mp3’s for download. You need to do something about that!
DGainz: Yeah, I been thinking about putting out a mixtape.
FSD: Any certain artists that you plan to work heavily with in 2012? Do you have anyone who you’d love to produce their whole project?
DGainz: Chris Mille. I did seven videos for him last year. I started working with him off a Facebook contest, where I said I’d make a free video for whoever sent me the best song. And Mille sent me the song and I thought it was catchy, and we built a relationship from there. I’m trying to work with Mille a lot this year. He’s probably my favorite guy coming up.