The troubling rise of Tekashi 6ix9ine

The social media personality, who has confessed to a child sex offence, made YouTube history with ‘GOOBA’ and claims its follow-up will “break the internet”. What does this say about modern music fandom? By Jordan Bassett

At just 24 years old, Daniel Hernandez might be one of the most hate-watched people in the world. Last month saw the rapper, whose criminal record makes for truly depressing reading and who is better known as Tekashi 6ix9ine, release the gaudy comeback single ‘GOOBA’. The typically nonsensical track is one-part generic trap song and three-parts Fatman Scoop, and its video – 6ix9ine leering at paint-splattered women in a bland studio somewhere – duly became the most-watched hip-hop video on YouTube in a 24-hour period.

On May 8, 43 million people tuned in to see the face-tatted social media celebrity, on house arrest and fresh from prison after an astonishing and highly publicized legal case that saw him offer authorities information on a New York gang, flash his ankle bracelet and give an obnoxious grin. In a brief but telling jump cut, acknowledging that he outraged members of the hip-hop community by ‘ratting’, he transforms into a cartoon rodent. At the time of writing, the YouTube views of ‘GOOBA’ stand at more than 279 million.

“6ix9ine had been building momentum for what that moment would be,” says Kathy Iandoli, a New Jersey-based hip-hop writer whose book God Save The Queens: The Essential History of Women in Hip-hop was published by Harper Collins last year. “So much of that is the story element around him. Because social media plays into that so much, the entire scenario reads like a continuous Twitter thread – you’re always tuned in even when the music isn’t there.”

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Two weeks after ‘GOOBA’ was released, 6ix9ine shared an Instagram post in which he promised, a kitten in each hand, that his next single and video would “break the internet”. The rapper later told his 21 million followers, in extreme close-up, that it was delayed until this Friday (June 5). 10 million people watched the clip.

“Everything he does is attention-grabbing,” says KSI, a YouTube star with more than 30 million subscribers across two accounts on the platform, who recently reached Number Two in the UK charts with his hip-hop album ‘Dissimulation’. “He has so much hype around him that it makes sense he would be getting 200 million-plus views on YouTube. You’ve gotta respect it – obviously I don’t respect him… actually, I don’t want to get into that, but I respect when it comes to what he’s done with the music.” 

Tekashi 6ix9ine
Tekashi 6ix9ine’s ‘GOOBA’ became the most-watched hip-hop video on YouTube in a 24hour period. CREDIT: YouTube

Tekashi 6ix9ine is an artist so steeped in controversy and transgression – without the positive connotations that those words usually carry in music – that, strictly in terms of the news cycle, his more recent activity has eclipsed the child sex charge he faced in 2015. The rapper admitted to appearing in – and posting to Instagram – a video of a sexual nature with a 13-year-old girl, claiming he believed her to be older.

Last November, he was arrested in his native New York on firearms and racketeering charges and accused of involvement with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods gang, an affiliation that reportedly encompassed armed robbery, drug trafficking and conspiracy to commit murder. Hernandez claimed that his role had been to “keep making hits and be the financial support for the gang … so they could buy guns and stuff like that.” In return, he explained, “I got the street credibility – the videos, the music, the protection.”

He traded the information to avoid 47 years behind bars, instead receiving a two-year sentence. He spent six months in jail (he’d already served 13 months while on trial) and announced his comeback with lyrics barked to the camera with bug-eyed defiance in the ‘GOOBA’ video: “You’re mad – I’m back.” Anyone expecting 6ix9ine to lay low, fearing potential repercussions of turning on a violent gang (“I come from old-school hip-hop culture,” says Iandoli, “so I’m nervous to see the outcome”), was clearly wide of the mark.

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Since hip-hop is founded on anti-authoritarian values, though, shouldn’t turning informant have spelled the end of 6ix9ine’s music career? “You would think so,” agrees Iandoli, “but you’re talking about a different type of hip-hop. You can’t hold these new artists [who came up on social media] to the hip-hop standard code on the streets in the ‘90s. They don’t even match in sound and style, in content, in lifestyle – so why start there?” 

This hasn’t stopped one high-profile spokesperson of hip-hop’s old guard from denouncing 6ix9ine. After ‘GOOBA’ smashed YouTube records, Snoop Dogg demanded via Instagram: “They gotta stop pushing this rat!” Young artists don’t seem much fonder of him: back in September, when outraged media coverage of 6ix9ine’s trial was at fever pitch, Ohio SoundCloud rapper Trippie Redd released the track ‘Under Enemy Arms’, the video for which featured a rat with his trademark multi-coloured hair.

Of course, 6ix9ine soon played Redd at his own game with the ‘GOOBA’ video, reclaiming the image of the rodent. Iandoli likens this to “Eminem’s final battle in 8 Mile” and explains:If you say everything everyone is thinking first, people can’t use it against you. It’s become his super power. He’s saying everything the public wants to say, and he’s owning it. That makes him more powerful than if he were hiding in the shadows while everyone’s hurling insults at him.”

Zane Comer, a 26-year-old creative director at WITHIN, a New York agency that bills itself as “the world’s first Performance Branding company”, has the dubious distinction of being the man who turned Tekashi 6ix9ine into a rat – he added the special effects to the ‘GOOBA’ video. “It was so secretive,” he says. “We couldn’t even reference the project or 6ix9ine in texts. They were super-strict and dead-ass serious about something getting out, and also about the security measures around him getting out of jail.”

“You can’t hold 6ix9ine to the hip-hop standard code on the streets in the ‘90s” – hip-hop author Kathy Iandoli

These measures included the use of a code name, which Comer says he can’t reveal: I wish I could tell you, but they would blacklist me. I will say that I didn’t know what it was at first and when I Googled it I was like, ‘Holy shit – this is what he wants people to call him?’ It was something Greek and mythical.”

Given the nature of 6ix9ine’s transgressions, did Comer have any reservations about working with him? After a pause, he replies, “There are very few times where you have the ability to touch something that has the possibility of this kind of impact. There definitely was concern about everything surrounding [him] because there are [so many] different people in our company. But everyone directly involved understood the fundamental concept we were going for, which was to take all the cons around him and turn them into something iconic. That was the vision that kept everyone aligned.”

Asked if he felt professional unease specifically about 6ix9ine’s child sex crime charge, Comer eventually says: “Um. That’s a great question. I don’t think I wanna go on the record with that one now.”

Later, asked if anyone at WITHIN made any protest about the agency’s involvement with 6ix9ine, Comer – who is polite and thoughtful throughout our 30-minute conversation – replies: “Yeah… that’s another one I’d rather not be on the record for. It is sensitive, I will say that, and it’s valid. Anyone who brings that up to me – it’s a totally valid concern and it’s a point. But at the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie.”

Despite his success, it’s unusually hard to find a 6ix9ine fan willing to talk on the record. In a bid to learn what people actually like about him, you may be reduced to trawling Reddit: NME poses the question on the rapper’s official subreddit – home to 11,000 ‘Scum Gang’ members – and receives just nine responses in almost 24 hours. The fact that he’s a “troll” comes up a couple of times, as does “the plot” and “the storyline”, suggesting he’s an entertaining sideshow.

One person, who requests that their username isn’t quoted in this article, says that 6ix9ine “came from a really tough background” and was later “belittled” for his outlandish appearance. They add: “If you’d have told [those who mocked him], ‘this extreme looking rainbow hair guy will become a record breaking artist, one of the biggest in the world’, they’d have NOT believed it… But he did it, against all the odds. Which helps give me hope and motivation. Anything is possible folks!” They sign off: “Also he is a funny troll.”

It’s true that Tekashi 6ix9ine has spent the two months since his release feeding the internet algorithm, flooding Google and social media platforms with a never-ending stream of controversy. In a typical story, he alleged that Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber’s track ‘Stuck With U’ only beat ‘GOOBA’ to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 (his song came in at Number Three) because they used “six credit cards” to rig the chart – Grande and Bieber have both since refuted the claim.

The rapper also attempted to donate $200,000 to the American child poverty charity No Kid Hungry, who declined the donation on the grounds that, according to the organisation’s director of strategic communications, Laura Washburn, his “activities do not align with our mission and values”.

Kathy Iandoli, who has written about hip-hop for two decades, says that this represents an attempt to exploit the “goldfish memory” of social media and the news cycle: “If he does something heinous and the next week he’s handing out money to kids, suddenly you’ve erased that first thing. And then something else happens that’s horrible and he donates some more money and you forget the other thing. So it starts to happen where one thing will negate the other and you only remember the last thing he did.”

6ix9ine’s attempt at brand rehabilitation may have backfired, but this “goldfish memory” does help to explain how his child sex crime charge could have been overshadowed by his endless headline-making.

“People have completely washed that from their memory,” says Iandoli. “Look at what’s happened with R Kelly. We have heard these stories about R Kelly that have resurfaced on average probably every 10 years. Everyone gets horrified; [the stories] go. They come back; everyone gets horrified; they go.” She points out that “in a post-#MeToo, post-Time’s Up world”, Kelly’s alleged crimes are finally being reckoned with because “it’s reached breaking point”. Yet 6ix9ine seems, in the popular consciousness, to be outrunning the memory of his most appalling crime by creating more outrage, more sickly publicity – always more, more, more until the algorithm shuffles it to the back.

Asked on Reddit how they can be a 6ix9ine fan when he’s pleaded guilty to a child sex charge, that anonymous fan makes excuses for the rapper, noting that he claimed ignorance about the girl’s age, and says: “He’s made mistakes but who hasnt, and hes not a pedo imo.”

Tekashi 6ix9ine. Credit: Getty

Prior to working with 6ix9ine at WITHIN, Zane Comer was an Associative Creative Director at Facebook, placing him in a unique position to understand how the rapper uses social media to his advantage. He says that 6ix9ine has achieved his undeniable streaming success through “a fundamentally great understanding of how to manufacture controversy”, and adds: “It doesn’t matter whether you like it or not – you paid him with your time. You paid him with your attention, which he earned.”

Comer says that during their video calls he was “impressed” by 6ix9ine’s “lazer focus” in using his ‘brand’ for maximum exposure: “Most of the artists we work with make their decisions from a perspective of, ‘This is what I like because I think it’s cool’. Whereas everything he brought to the table was: ‘This is going to work because my audience will resonate with it’.”

He cites the image of the cartoon rat: the original plan was for a rodent with “tattoos and coloured hair” like 6ix9ine himself, but the rapper chose to simplify this. Comer explains: “He said, ‘If we make it close to the [mouse] emoji, it will travel more. It’s more of a known symbol so people can take it from the iPhone emoji kit and put it on anything they want. If we manipulate it too much, it’s not gonna travel as well.’” This, he says, is part of the reason that ‘GOOBA’ was such a massive hit on TikTok.

Like Iandoli and KSI, Comer says that 6ix9ine trades on the chaotic narrative around his own life, though the creative director calls this “cultural sculpture” and claims that the rapper understands “the social landscape”. He says: “That’s what 6ix9ine really gets. That’s what he’s best at. That’s more of his artistry than any other part of it: understanding relevance; how to generate and manufacture it. He’s super-smart in his own way. That should never be mistaken. Understanding the importance and combination of visuals – some people have it and people some don’t. Most don’t.”

Part of this brilliance, Comer claims, has been 6ix9ine’s owning of our specific period in history: “In 10 or 20 years people will be like, ‘Remember when we were in COVID?’ This is one of the pinnacle moments in pop culture from that moment.” Kathy Iandoli is more sceptical: she concedes that “everyone is love-watching and hate-watching” ‘GOOBA’, but ascribes this to pandemic-induced boredom.

“At the end of the day, the numbers don’t lie” – Zane Comer, who worked on the ‘GOOBA’ video

Morbid curiosity is perhaps also a factor: as Comer points out, informing on a gang “could get him killed”. 6ix9ine emerged on SoundCloud, which gave rise to disadvantaged and painfully young rappers preoccupied with death and depression, such as Lil Peep and Juice WRLD, who were then dead by 21. What Comer calls “bravery” – flaunting being a ‘rat’– may actually be SoundCloud rap’s no-tomorrow fatalism taken to its logical conclusion. If the fastest way to achieve wealth and success is to generate outrage and flirt with death – well, why not? Nothing matters anyway.

As for 6ix9ine’s fandom: lonely people perhaps see themselves in a celebrity who is vilified by the press, on social media and in their own community – in this case hip-hop – and it seems that stans will always find a way to make excuses for their heroes. Daniel Hernandez may well be the brilliant creative mind that Zane Comer makes him out to be (which isn’t the same as saying he’s a good person who makes a worthwhile contribution), but attention spans are short in 2020, and this doesn’t necessarily mean the 24-year-old’s career can outlast his period of notoriety.

“He’s having a moment,” says Kathy Iandoli. “If we’re still having this conversation next year, that might be a problem.”

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