Taken from the new print issue of THE FACE. Get your copy here.
Dun Deal can still remember how Young Thug introduced himself. “I’m going to be the next Lil Wayne,” Thug told the producer. “Let me in.” It was 2009, and the high school quarterback, then known as Jeffery Williams, was around 17 when he knocked on the door at Dun Deal’s studio near downtown Atlanta. He was wearing a purple peacoat over a cropped jersey and bell bottom jeans. Dun, who’d already football produced buzzing local groups Rich Kidz and Travis Porter, hadn’t heard a single song by the teenager. But he was inclined to take him at his word.
“I looked at my boys and they were like: ‘Man, he says he’s gonna be the next Lil Wayne.’ We were like: ‘Yeah, come on in.’” The rising hip-hop rookies clicked, personally and professionally. Dun would be behind the boards when Thug made his debut mixtape series, 2011/12’s three-part I Came from Nothing, and by Thug’s side when Atlanta trap legend Gucci Mane signed Thug to his own 1017 Records in a joint deal with Atlantic. Dun also went on to produce Thug’s 2014 breakout hit Stoner, his first song to enter the US Charts.
“I charged everyone else [for production work],” Dun says. “But when Thug came, I was like, this is my pet project.” He knew the investment would pay off. Thirteen years on, Young Thug has arguably achieved the wild dream that motivated him to knock on Dun Deal’s door. Two US Number One solo albums, blockbuster collaborations with Drake, J Cole, Camilla Cabello and Elton John. Not only did Young Thug become the most famous example of Lil Wayne’s influence – those off-key melodies, yelped ad-libs, wiry flows and indecipherable lyrics – he also helped to sustain Atlanta’s relevance in the years after the peaks established by OutKast, Ludacris and early trap gods Gucci Mane, Jeezy and TI. He is, too, one of the artists to have most reshaped contemporary hip-hop in his image: listen to or look at many of today’s hottest rap superstars and Thug’s influence is clear – on Lil Baby and Gunna, but also beyond, on the likes of Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Nas X, Roddy Ricch and Baby Keem.
But when Young Thug first broke out, his eccentric rap style was divisive. As was his gender-defying fashion sense, which provoked (and even enraged) hip-hop artists and fans with more conservative ideas of masculinity.
Now, at 31, the artist is at the centre of one of the biggest rap court cases in music history; a legal saga that has halted his career at its commercial peak and, with his lyrics being employed against him by prosecutors, reignited the debate around using art as evidence in court.
On 9th and 10th May 2022, Young Thug and 27 other men associated with his YSL (Young Stoner Life) record label – which has its music distributed by 300 Entertainment, the label boasting Mary J Blige, Megan Thee Stallion and many more – were arrested and charged with 56 counts of criminal activity.
The 88-page indictment alleges that those 28 YSL associates have committed crimes spanning murder, attempted murder, carjacking, robbery, possession of drugs and firearms, and witness intimidation. Prosecutors, who allege that Young Thug is the leader, arrested him on charges of participation in street gang activity and conspiring to violate the RICO Act.
The Racketeering Influenced and Corruptions Act, or RICO, was created 52 years ago by the Department of Justice to specifically target Mafia organisations operating across state borders. Today, Atlanta’s Fulton County District Attorney’s office is using RICO to allege that YSL is a criminal street gang. (The indictment also alleges that YSL stands for “Young Slime Life” and not “Young Stoner Life”, as the label is known today.) A portion of the indictment cites lyrics and social media posts by Young Thug that, prosecutors allege, demonstrate criminal intent.
On 11th May, following a search of his home, Young Thug was charged with seven additional felonies related to the possession of illegal substances and firearms. His lawyer, Brian Steel, says he is innocent of the charges against him. “I’ll tell you the response to any allegation is: Mr Williams committed no crime whatsoever and we will fight to my last drop of blood to clear him,” he stated to a reporter. At the time of writing, in the two-and-a-half months since he was arrested, Thug has been held in solitary confinement, despite the “dungeon-like” conditions in a “windowless cement compartment with only a bed and a toilet and an overhead light which remains on 24 hours per day… with no opportunity to exercise, shower or have human contact,” as noted by Steel in an emergency motion filed in May.
In a June hearing, Fulton County superior court judge Ural Glanville said granting Young Thug bail would be a danger to the community, citing a “group chat” exchange from 2015 where he claims Thug told YSL members: “Anybody goes into a courtroom and tells the god honest truth they’ll be fucking killed.”
At the time of writing, Young Thug’s trial is scheduled for 9th January 2023.
In response to all this, 300 Entertainment co-founder Kevin Liles and Atlantic Records chief operating officer Julie Greenwald have launched a petition titled Protect Black Art. Its goal is to limit the use of lyrics as evidence in US federal and state courts and follow the example of S7527, a proposed New York law supported by Killer Mike, Jay Z, Meek Mill and even the New York state Senate.
“This practice isn’t just a violation of First Amendment protections for speech and creative expression,” the petition says. “It punishes already marginalised communities and silences their stories of family, struggle, survival and triumph.”
The indictment traces YSL’s origins back to southeast Atlanta’s Cleveland Avenue, where Young Thug, his parents and 10 siblings relocated after the Atlanta Housing Authority’s 2008 order that their first home, the Jonesboro South housing projects, be razed to the ground. At the time, local police were surveilling Cleveland Avenue after a series of high-profile crimes attributed to a burgeoning gang problem across the city.
Growing up, Thug’s father, Jeffery Williams, Sr, insisted that his son play football at another school across town. But Young Thug had a different idea for how he’d escape Cleveland Avenue, a place he described as a “concrete jungle” in one early song. During the mid-’00s, in his mid-teens, he’d sneak into TI’s nightclub Club Crucial to catch the group D4L, purveyors of snap, the then-buzzing rap subgenre. He also embraced the even more melodic teen rap craze known as futuristic swag. Thug would score his first notable feature with the scene’s leaders Rich Kidz on their 2011 track 100 Dollar Autograph, released just before he turned 20.
Yet no one in Atlanta, or outside it, was prepared for the 1017 Thug mixtape, his gloriously animated 2013 debut on Gucci Mane’s 1017 Records.
When OutKast first called themselves “ATLiens”, it was to channel the alienation they felt after being booed at the 1995 Source Awards by New Yorkers who didn’t respect rappers from the South. But on his fourth mixtape, Young Thug really sounded like he was from outer space.
Looking back on Rich Gang (Young Thug’s 2013/14 rap duo with fellow Atlanta native Rich Homie Quan), the project’s engineer Alex Tumay couldn’t stress enough how innovative their flows were. “I’ve heard so many pop records that are so perfect – like, yeah, this is enjoyable, but also it might as well be elevator music,” he told me in 2017. “[But] Atlanta’s cadence will shake you out of that boredom because they’re too late or too early on purpose. It’s like jazz, the way they’re using timing.”
But while his closest collaborators delighted in explaining the genius in how Young Thug rapped, the indictment, accusing YSL of operating as a criminal street gang, urges us to reconsider what we understand about the musician and his label. It does so by tracing through the majority of Thug’s decade-plus career, listing social media posts and more than 60 lyrics by YSL as evidence.
For example the indictment refers to Young Thug’s 2014 track Ew Ew Ew. It highlights lyrics such as “Red just like Elmo but I never fucking giggle,” stating that “the most predominant YSL colors are red for Bloods” and suggesting that YSL bears ties to the national Bloods gang.
This prosecutorial angle is nothing new. C‑Murder, YoungBoy Never Broke Again, the late Drakeo the Ruler and Tay‑K are just some of the rappers who have been locked up following trials in which their music was referenced. New Orleans artist Mac Phipps served 21 years in prison for a fatal shooting – which someone else had confessed to – after a trial that quoted his 1998 album Shell Shocked to the all-white jury. Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci – who is named in the YSL indictment as an alleged rival – has his own RICO case that cites a music video appearance as evidence.
But until now, such targeting has never focused on a rapper of Young Thug’s stature: a hugely popular artist with multiple Grammy nominations and massive demand across genres (Calvin Harris tapped him, alongside Dua Lipa, for Potion, the lead single from this summer’s Funk Wav Bounces Vol. 2 album). His 2019 album So Much Fun, last year’s Punk and the 2021 YSL compilation Slime Language 2 have all topped the US Album Charts. One of the case’s cited songs is Ski, a Slime Language 2 hit which spawned a viral TikTok dance challenge in which Diddy and Drake participated. The indictment also lists lyrics such as “I fuck with slatts and we come to eat rats/and I came with some fuckin’ piranhas”. The indictment claims that “slatt”, one of Thug’s go-to ad-libs, stands for “slime love all the time” and is therefore a gang “identifier”.
YSL artist Gunna had back- to-back Number One albums before he was also arrested in May. He is facing a separate racketeering charge. (Gunna denies the charges. “I am being falsely accused and will never stop fighting to clear my name,’’ he said in a statement posted in June. “The picture that is being painted of me is ugly and untrue.”)
Following the Atlanta arrests, producer Metro Boomin, who’s collaborated with both Gunna and Young Thug, spoke out. “YSL is not a gang and never been a gang fool,” he tweeted on 12th May, arguing that the label has “provided countless jobs and opportunities for underprivileged Black people and really just all people ’cause that’s how big Thug heart is”.
Dun Deal also believes that Atlanta’s Fulton County District Attorney’s office has Young Thug all wrong, highlighting his relentless work ethic and referencing journalist and author Malcolm Gladwell, who popularised the idea that it takes 10,000 hours to achieve mastery of one’s craft.
“He’s put in more than 10,000 hours – 20,000 hours. He spends his life at the studio,” Dun tells me. “For people to take what he did and distort it, that probably hurts the most.”
The first time I heard Stoner in public, I was in the car with a woman who couldn’t stop laughing at what she heard, as if to say: “Is this how rap is sounding these days?” But Young Thug went on to thrive as an unpredictable hitmaker.
No one who had heard 1017 Thug (where he literally yelps “Lean, lean, lean, lean/lean lean lean!” on the hyperactive track 2 Cups Stuffed) could have anticipated Rich Gang’s platinum-selling, bottle-popping anthem Lifestyle, the platinum- selling 2014 hit on which he appears. Or his collab on an even bigger pop hit, Jamie xx’s radio-friendly 2015 track I Know There’s Gonna (Be Good Times) with Popcaan. Or 2017’s Beautiful Thugger Girls, the mixtape Lil Nas X would credit for establishing the country trap sound of his own pop juggernaut, Old Town Road.
As his artistry evolved during the mid-2010s, the only opinion Young Thug genuinely seemed to care about was Lil Wayne’s. “I always wanted to be in the studio with Wayne. I would tell Birdman to bring him over, but he never fucking came,” he told GQ in 2015. This was despite Rich Gang being executive produced by Birdman, Lil Wayne’s former label boss at Cash Money and surrogate father figure. Thug even originally wanted to name what he described as his “debut commercial mixtape” Carter 6, a playful reference to Lil Wayne’s long-awaited and supposed final album Tha Carter 5. In April 2015, Thug released the tape – entitled Barter 6.
Lil Wayne didn’t take too kindly to this homage. “Ain’t no motherfuckin’ such thing as Carter 6,” he said at a gig. This only seemed to further upset the family dynamic between Birdman and Wayne, as the latter called himself a “prisoner” of his Cash Money contract. (In 2015 Wayne announced a $51 million lawsuit against Birdman’s label claiming that the withholding of Tha Carter 5 violated his contract.) A few weeks after the release of Barter 6, Wayne’s tour bus fleet was shot up after a club performance outside Atlanta. Young Thug was out of town, but his former tour manager Jimmy Carlton Winfrey, aka Peewee Roscoe, was identified as the shooter. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison and was released, early, in 2020. The YSL indictment cites this incident as “an act of racketeering activity”.
But while the authorities saw “racketeering activity”, his fans saw an artist pushing the envelope of how rap could sound – and how its stars could look. Young Thug had long cut a distinctive figure on the Atlanta scene, thanks to his septum and lip piercings, and dreadlocks that had been bleached blond and pink. “Everytime I dress myself, it go motherfucking viral,” he boasted on Barter 6 track Halftime.
Young Thug has said that when he was 12, his father hit him for wearing his sister’s glitter shoes. As he got older, he started buying women’s jeans with his own money for their “rock star” fit, later saying that “90 per cent of my clothes are women’s”. By the mid-2010s, the fashion world was paying attention. “His personal style comes across one part rock star, two parts Cockette, with hints of hip-hop mallrat and Venice Beach stoner dude rolled into one ceaselessly entertaining package,” wrote Patrik Sandberg in a 2015 Dazed cover story, for which photographer Harley Weir shot Thug wearing a leopard-print robe and a Gucci silk blouse.
Hip-hop traditionalists then had to contend with Young Thug as a Calvin Klein spokesperson, modelling a sleek black shift because, in his words: “You can be a gangsta with a dress.” As an Adidas Originals model, he was styled in a kimono made of trash bags and praised for his “gender-breaking style”. For the cover of his 2016 mixtape Jeffery, Thug donned a dress by Alessandro Trincone, with its cascading lavender ruffles and parasol-shaped hat designed for “men who want to express themselves”. Erykah Badu compared the striking image to the groundbreaking style of Andre 3000, who wore a dress for OutKast’s Ms Jackson single art in 2000. Even Elton John delighted in how Thug wore Gucci leather dresses and leopard-print two-pieces. “You should be able to do things like that, but we don’t live in that kind of world anymore,” the pop legend lamented to Noisey in 2015.
When Young Thug tweeted that he was the next Tupac Shakur, fellow Atlanta rapper YFN Lucci immediately fired back, saying Pac would have never worn a dress. Their beef escalated on social media over the years. In 2019, Thug said on Instagram: “if ain like what u do for your mother and kids I WOULDVE BEEN KILLED U.” The YSL indictment alleges this back-and-forth is a gang rivalry. Last spring, three of YFN Lucci’s fellow inmates at Fulton County Jail allegedly stabbed him with a shank. Prosecutors allege that those inmates are part of YSL and that, just weeks later, two more members sought permission from Thug to again try to kill Lucci.
Meanwhile, Young Thug was fast becoming a crossover star in mainstream pop culture. Yes, he stoked controversy with the Jeffery cover art, but the project debuted in the US Top 10. In 2017, he appeared on Camila Cabello’s 10-times platinum hit Havana, a Latin pop song about finding love in East Atlanta, which became his first Number One hit in the US. (Keep in mind that Cabello chose Thug because she didn’t want “a go-to, mainstream rapper that has done a bunch of pop features”.) In 2019, Thug won his first Grammy for his writing credits on Childish Gambino’s This Is America.
And he wasn’t the only artist breaking spectacularly out of the scene. Gunna had met Young Thug in 2015 through Keith Troup, an uncle-like community figure referenced on Thug’s song King Troup. Thug offered Gunna his first major feature on the Jeffery track Floyd Mayweather. That same year, 2016, Gunna would start to step out of his label boss’s shadow. Six years on, at the beginning of this year, in a surprise upset, Gunna’s album DS4Ever beat The Weeknd’s Dawn FM to the Number One spot.
Despite rubbing shoulders with pop stars in the charts, Young Thug never let his listeners forget where he’s from. On last year’s Punk, his second US Number One album, Thug took listeners back to south Atlanta, the days of Jonesboro South and Cleveland Avenue. In Die Slow’s spoken word, Thug explains how his father once staked out the house of a deputy sheriff who was having an affair with his mother.
But just when Young Thug’s lyrics finally seemed legible by mainstream standards, the YSL indictment suggested that listeners – and crime-fearing Atlantans – should listen more closely.
In the weeks and months immediately following Young Thug and Gunna’s arrests in May, their absence wasn’t felt on the radio or the charts. Calvin Harris’ Potion swiftly made its way to US pop radio. Post Malone’s album Twelve Carat Toothache, featuring Gunna, fell just short of a Number One debut.
And it wasn’t only fans standing by the incarcerated men. On 4th July, Run The Jewels member and Atlanta legend Killer Mike released his first solo music in 10 years. Run features an intro by comedian Dave Chappelle and a verse from Young Thug, and is about persevering as Black men. In the accompanying music video, a soldier waves a flag that reads “FREE THUG – FREE GUNNA – PROTECT BLACK ART”.
Killer Mike took this stand because, in his view, the YSL indictment represents a larger, more insidious trend. He contributed the foreword to 2019 book Rap on Trial: Race Lyrics and Guilt in America – written by Erik Nielson, a scholar of African American literature and hip-hop culture at the University of Richmond, and Andrea L Dennis, a law professor at the University of Georgia – in which the authors were concerned that “artists and industry executives have been surprisingly quiet” about the titular phenomenon. Across a decade’s worth of research, Nielson and Dennis found some 500 cases of hip-hop being used as evidence in criminal trials, 30 of which resulted in death sentences.
“Aspiring rap artists need to know they are being targeted by authorities,” Mike wrote in the Rap on Trial intro, “and they need to balance their right to free speech – and their desire to push the envelope of free speech – with the reality that police are watching.”
To highlight just one case: in 2012, Jamal Knox and Rashee Beasley recorded a version of NWA’s 1988 track Fuck tha Police after a detective shot their friend Leon Ford five times, paralysing him. He’d mistaken him for a gang member named Lamont Ford. In 2018’s Jamal Knox v Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, prosecutors used Knox and Beasley’s Fuck tha Police – which Knox had called a “statement” against police brutality during court proceedings – as evidence when Knox was arrested on gun and drug charges.
When Knox took his case to the US Supreme Court, Killer Mike, Chance the Rapper, Yo Gotti and Luther Campbell of 2 Live Crew, among others, filed a brief that urged the higher court to hear Knox’s case. After the Supreme Court declined to hear Knox’s First Amendment challenge and he was sentenced to six years, the music industry was now on high alert.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, who is leading the case against YSL, is aware of the overall thrust of this argument: that hip-hop, like other forms of music, let alone all forms of entertainment, should be protected under US First Amendment – that is, freedom of speech – provision. During a press conference, when asked about the YSL indictment’s inclusion of lyrics, Willis said: “I knew that this question was coming.
“I believe in the First Amendment; it’s one of our most precious rights. However, the First Amendment does not protect people from prosecutors using [lyrics] as evidence, if it is such.”
Young Thug’s lawyer Brian Steel objected, saying: “To weaponise these words by charging overt acts to support a supposed conspiracy is unconscionable and unconstitutional.” Technically Willis is right: the First Amendment doesn’t protect against literal, or what are called “true”, threats against people. Still, Rap on Trial found that hip-hop is the only form of entertainment that is seen as offering grounds for such “threats”.
Manny Arora is a criminal defence attorney who worked at the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office from 1998 to 2000. (He’s also previously represented Walter Murphy, a man the indictment lists as a YSL co-founder, alongside Young Thug.) “If we had a just system, the idea would be to get a fair trial based on evidence: ‘John Smith saw you shoot somebody. Here is your DNA, based on hair samples out there. There’s your fingerprints,’” Arora says to me over a Zoom call. “All of this is lacking in this case. It’s all based on: ‘Hey, you sang about this two to three years after the fact – therefore you’re responsible for this.’ And that just plays on the prejudices of a big portion of the jury pool.”
Young Thug was arrested at his mansion in Buckhead, a majority-white neighbourhood in North Atlanta which is famous among rappers for being home to Lenox Mall’s luxury fashion stores. The affluent area has recently sought city status in hope of gaining its own police force to tackle crime, which has risen across Atlanta. (In a recent study of the highest spikes in homicides among large US cities during the pandemic, Atlanta ranked third.)
In March this year, authorities warned Buckhead residents about their potential neighbours. “Kind of like the Mafia don from the movies, gang members are in Buckhead driving the nicest cars,” said Ken Howard, head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations.
Fulton County DA Willis, a Democrat elected in 2020, is responding to those concerns when she says that YSL is being indicted in larger efforts to crack down on gang violence. Since 2009, when they were surveilling areas like Cleveland Avenue, police have vowed to bring local gangs under control. But the evidence back then was mostly anecdotal, because the force didn’t have the manpower to fully quantify Atlanta’s gang presence.
Seemingly, that’s since changed: Willis says that gangs are “committing, conservatively, 75 to 80 per cent of all the violent crime that we are seeing within our community”. On 1st July, Georgia launched a statewide gang investigation unit, with the state Attorney General Chris Carr estimating that 60 to 90 per cent of crime in Young Thug’s home state is gang-related.
Manny Arora, however, is dubious about these figures. “I’m not really sure how you connect those dots or [how] they’re coming up with that, except to have more indictments,” he says. “With [the use of] the word ‘gangs’, they can get more convictions.”
While promoting Run, Killer Mike urged listeners to think critically about who’s being blamed for the upsurge in crime.
“No matter how frustrated you get with whatever is going on in your community, don’t allow rappers to be the lightning bolt of everything,” he told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “We’re not your policy-makers, we’re not your decision-makers. We’re imaginators and creators. The buck don’t stop with us. The buck stops with the idiots you keep electing in office.”
Both Killer Mike and Metro Boomin stress that Young Thug, in the words of Mike, “Managed to escape the streets using rap lyrics.” But as the YSL Records roster shows, many of the artists are either his longtime friends or his own siblings – including his brother Unfoonk, another suspect in the indictment, who in 2019 had been released, with help from his brother, after serving 11 years of a life sentence for felony murder, armed robbery and other charges. So even though police arrested Thug in Buckhead, he had never abandoned his associations with people from Cleveland Avenue.
Rap fans saw this as Young Thug bringing his people with him, and paving a route out of his old stomping grounds for future stars. But authorities saw it differently. In gang investigations, such loyalty bears consequences. In California, authorities used the controversial CalGang database for nearly 50 years until it was suspended in 2020. The piece of software proved that an individual risked being flagged by the police as a gang member simply for “frequenting gang areas”. This broad criteria doesn’t always lead to accurate results. In 2019, 42 people listed as gang members on the CalGang database were under one year old. Meanwhile, only 28 out of 20,500 people who police entered into CalGang confessed to being gang members.
In Atlanta, Willis continues to stress that gang members “have to be rooted out of our community”. But Dun Deal argues the city of Atlanta is being careless with this pursuit. The hip-hop community – a central part of the city’s identity, with Killer Mike and TI serving on a mayoral transition team – feels targeted. “People are cliqued up, that’s how cliques work. 808 Mafia [for example],” he says, referencing the production and songwriting team. “Are you guys going to go after beatmakers now?”
While New York and Los Angeles may be where successful Atlanta artists cut deals and make out-of-state connections, their city is still homebase, where they most want to record. But that dynamic, according to Dun, is shifting, because of how authorities are now pursuing the community’s hip-hop stars.
“I’m having conversations with artists and producers who [are telling me]: ‘This person isn’t going to be in Atlanta because of this. The vibe is gone. They don’t wanna come to a studio knowing that their brothers got locked up out here,” Dun says.
“So I feel like they took away Atlanta’s safety. They stopped people from feeling safe because you have to worry about them looking at you as a gang member.”
With Young Thug and Gunna’s trials still months away, it’s tough to predict what the results will be in court. Historical outcomes, according to Rap on Trial, don’t encourage optimism. However, Manny Arora wonders if this tactic could backfire on prosecutors.
“[Atlanta is] the centre of hip- hop music,” the criminal defence attorney says. “If they’re going to blame the crime on music and these kinds of things, versus necessarily addressing the real issues, crime is going to continue.”
One of the last songs featured in the indictment is Take It to Trial, the lead single from YSL’s chart-topping compilation Slime Language 2, which featured Drake, Future and Travis Scott – a triumphant celebration of what Young Thug had helped build from the ground up in southeast Atlanta. But prosecutors have cited lyrics by all the rappers featured on the track – Young Thug, Gunna and YSL signee Yak Gotti, who also faces RICO charges – as an “overt act in furtherance of the [gang] conspiracy”.
The irony of the song’s title is deafening. Take It To Trial has helped take Young Thug to jail. Where the case takes hip-hop, more generally, remains to be seen.