Broken glass

As a young teen, Duan Gaines and his sisters would throw rocks at spare windows that were stored in their basement, breaking the glass. In once instance, he found a bullet in his house and used that instead of a rock.

Months later, some of Gaines’ neighborhood buddies were fighting with another group of guys and said, “We’ve got to get a gun.”

Seeing this as his opportunity to be cool, Gaines grabbed an unloaded gun a relative had left at his house and went to his basement to retrieve the single bullet he had launched through a window some months before. But when he reached for it, he cut his hand on broken glass.

“Who knows what would have happened if we were able to get that bullet?” Gaines wondered.

It’s moments like these, he insisted – when he was engaging in potentially dangerous or deviant behavior but was prevented from going all the way – that kept him out of trouble and allowed him to establish himself as a leading figure in Chicago’s rap scene.

As a producer, music video director, and rapper (under the name “DGainz”), Gaines has accumulated millions of YouTube views on his channel and has over 20,000 followers on Instagram. But his life could have easily gone differently.

“[If I wasn’t making music], I think I would have gone down the same path as my peers,” he said.

Growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the Robert Taylor Homes public housing project, Gaines, 28, was exposed to violence at a young age.

“I remember being scared a lot – never knowing what I was scared of, but just being scared,” he said.

Maddie Scott

Duan Gaines has made videos for some of Chicago’s most well known rappers.

After bouncing around to various schools in Chicago and even spending some time nearby in Hammond, Indiana, Gaines ended up ditching more than 25 days of school in sixth grade – fueled by feeling both disinterested and unsafe.

“I’d never seen anything like it,” he said. “The students were violent; [the school] was dirty . . . I had always been used to a good school environment, so that’s why I started ditching school – I just didn’t like being around those people.”

The next two years only amplified his distaste for school and diminished his sense of safety. By eighth grade, he had skipped 60 or 70 school days. His freshman year of high school, at age 14, he went just two days before dropping out completely.

Gaines started making music within a year of dropping out, and music videos naturally followed suit. Still surrounded by violence, he was able to stay out of trouble in part because of his fear of going to jail.

“I always had a fear of going to jail,” he said. “Obviously I also had a fear of [the streets] – I mean, of course it’s dangerous – but I was more afraid of being locked away. And honestly, the biggest reason I never got caught up in the streets is because I never found it that interesting. I found making music more interesting.”

By 2012, at age 23, Gaines was shooting music videos for artists at the top of Chicago’s rap scene — Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Tink, Sasha Go Hard, and King Louie. These artists helped fuel the explosion of Chicago’s niche style of rap, which came to fruition with Chief Keef’s “I Don’t Like” music video – shot and directed by Gaines. It got almost 30 million views on Gaines’ YouTube channel before being taken down and re-uploaded on Keef’s channel. Kanye West even remixed the song.

While many of the artists Gaines shoots videos for use violent lyrics or tote guns in their videos, Gaines does not feel he is perpetuating Chicago’s image as a dangerous city or contributing to the violence.

“I’m not promoting violence. I’m just capturing what I see,” he explained. “At first I was against it, but then there came a point where I would try to show people my other stuff with a different aspect to it, and it’s not what the people want. And that’s unfortunate; they’re drawn to violence. The biggest-selling things in the world are sex and violence. So when I try to give more positive imagery, I lose money. People stop paying attention.”

The responsibility, Gaines believes, lies with both the producers of music and the consumers.

“I give them all kinds of content,” he said. “There’s a lot of stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with violence, and that doesn’t have the 100,000 views, the 50,000 views. . . . So that’s on society, not me.”

Michael Lansu, the former Homicide Watch Editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, doesn’t think producers are completely innocent.

“I think there’s a market for this because it is a representation of a certain area,” he explained. “I think there’s also a consumerism level where there’s a fascination with Chicago South Side gangs,” since, he noted, these artists often perform at shows that are filled with “young, middle-class, white guys.”

Lansu also blames “the culture. Everyone. The education system. The financial system. The transportation system in the city that prevents people from moving around…”

Matt Muse, a 24-year-old Chicago rapper, shares a perspective similar to Gaines’s.

“Do I think that it’s possible for that music to incite violence? Yes, I think it’s possible,” he said. “Do I think it’s the reason people are killing each other? Absolutely not.”

While Muse chooses to make positive music and thinks about how his music might affect people, he does not believe all artists need to be socially conscious.

“That’s not what you sign up for as an artist,” he said.

For Lansu, it’s not the portrayal of a broad kind of violence that leads to issues – it’s the direct taunting of other gangs in songs.

“The imagery is understandably an artistic representation of the world around them,” he said. “But if the lyrics are going out of their way to specifically call out other gangs and other gang members, then it’s hard to say that that’s not inciting something.”

One silver lining, perhaps, is that many of these artists are able to escape that cycle of violence thanks to newfound success from their music.

“A lot of these dudes are talented,” Gaines said. “Just because they get caught up in a certain lifestyle, they don’t get a chance? Some of these dudes who I’m making videos for that are holding guns have probably never shot or killed anyone . . . they just grew up around it.”

Lil Durk – a Chicago-bred artist Gaines used to make videos for, who now is signed to Def Jam Recordings – is an example of that route to safety.

“[Lil Durk] comes from that type of situation where it’s super violent. And now look at him – traveling the world. He got another shot at life,” Gaines explained. “He got his kids out of that, he got his family – you know what I’m saying? He’s not out there killing people and stuff right now.”

Gaines insists he notices a change in ambition with every single person he works with.

Maddie Scott

Gaines’ hands still bear a scar from when he reached through broken glass.

“Fortunately, I was good at knowing how to move a camera and edit someone to make them look good,” he said. “So when a person sees himself for the first time like that, it shows them their potential.”

However violent, obscene, or inciting Gaines’s videos may be, he maintains that they’re portraying someone’s reality – and in turn, they provide a way for both himself and the artists he films to create a successful and safe reality.

To this day, there is still a faint scar from a broken window on his hand – a daily reminder of a life that could have taken a different course.