Emcees in Chicago's underground drill-rap community are divided over which of two outsiders to dislike more.
In one corner we have Spike Lee, whose $15 million film Chi-Raq opened in limited markets earlier this month. Set in Chicago, Lee's often-satirical portrayal of gangland violence wasn't greeted with open arms by hip-hop artists in a city already torn apart over the police shooting of Laquan McDonald. On Dec. 4, the same day that Lee's film came out, Louis "King Louie" Johnson responded with his video "Fuck Spike Lee." The Chicago rapper had a special reason to be bitter: It's been a good six years since he coined the term on his mixtape track "Chi-Raq, Drillinois."
In the other corner is Slim Jesus. Following the late August release of his runaway hit "Drill Time" — which has since racked up more than 17.5 million YouTube views — the pale-faced Cincinnati teen has been widely condemned for whitewashing a Chicago hip-hop style that's known for its slowed-down trap beats, darkly gritty lyrics and gun-waving videos.
As with Lee's Chi-Raq, the Slim Jesus single is being treated by many as an act of cultural appropriation. Flanked by a mostly black crew, the Ohio rapper opens his video with a written warning, possibly tongue-in-cheek, that insists the guns and pot it portrays are "merely props and should not be taken seriously."
It hasn't helped matters that, not long after putting "Drill Time" up online, Slim Jesus stepped further away from its imagery during an interview with disc jockey DJ Vlad, who once hosted Russell Simmons' Comcast show Hip-Hop on Demand.
"I like rapping about guns, but I don't live like that," the rapper told Vlad. "I'm not out here catching bodies and shit, obviously. I'm fucking smart."
In the 18-year-old's mind, "I'm fucking smart" was likely meant as a comment on the stupidity of violence. But it also conveyed the idea that rap is a theatrical playground in which Slim Jesus, and presumably others, are pretending to be something they're not. Either way, the remark didn't go down all that well.
It did, however, give the online Vlad TV host an opportunity to turn the controversy into something of a cottage industry, netting hundreds of thousands of views for videos like "Paul Wall on Slim Jesus," "Black Jesus on Slim Jesus," "King Yella: Slim Jesus Made Himself a Target," "Slim Jesus: Cutting Communications with King Yella," and "Rapper GMEBE Bandz: Stop Comparing Me to Slim Jesus."
While "Fuck Spike Lee" takes the New York City filmmaker to task, Slim Jesus' "Drill Time" gets its comeuppance in the diss video "Kill Time," an overtly ad hominem attack on the teen rapper that concludes with the threatening verse:
This shit ain't no game
And this shit ain't no joke
Don't rap about it if you don't be around it
You gon' fuck around and get smoked
Penned and performed by Lil Wayne's 16-year-old protégé Lil Mouse, "Kill Time" makes explicit the wave of animosity being directed toward the Cincinnati emcee.
Meanwhile, Compton rapper The Game has expressed his concern about younger artists who are "rapping about things that they're not really about."
"You got people really doing that who are offended," he warned. "Sometimes I think it's sad, man, because lives can be lost when playing those games. Be careful, Slim Jesus."
Two weeks ago, during a Canadian show, an altercation occurred in which Slim Jesus had the mic wrestled out of his hands mid-song by Black Jesus, an Ottawa rapper whose primary claim to fame is wrestling a mic out of Slim Jesus' hands mid-song.
"Support real hip-hop, bitch," demanded Black Jesus from the stage, prompting roars of approval from the audience.
All of which raises the question of what exactly "real hip-hop" is — or, in this case, what it's not.
The sins of Slim Jesus seem to be rooted less in geography than cultural authenticity. Commercially successful pop musicians have long been appropriating black music, an issue that dates to Elvis Presley fulfilling Sam Phillips' desire for "a white boy who could sing like a black man."
Decades later, in the realm of hip-hop, Eminem relied on his mentor Dr. Dre to vouch for his credibility. But at this point, it's unclear whether Slim Jesus will garner a share of Slim Shady's respect and success, or end up going the way of one-hit-wonder Vanilla Ice. In any case, he's clearly having trouble making friends.
During a recent L.A. festival headlined by drill-rap's best-known export, Chief Keef, the upstart rapper excitedly tweeted that he was about to join Keef onstage as a special guest.
That didn't happen, since police shut the show down early due to permit problems.
But it's not entirely clear that Slim Jesus would have been given the opportunity to join Chief Keef onstage anyway, despite a backstage photo of the two posing together.
As Keef would later say, "Li'l homie just wanted a pic."