YSL Faces The Music
Young Thug, Gunna, Yak Gotti, Lil Duke, Slimelife Shawty and more get rolled up in a 56-count indictment of gang crimes, including murder.
It’s not like we didn’t see it coming.
The media today will likely focus on the height of Jeffrey Lamar Williams’ fall, and will spend most of their time talking about how Young Thug co-wrote the hit song “This is America” for Donald Glover and won a Grammy for it, or his growing mainstream appeal — he was on Saturday Night Live last year! — or his multiple number one records.
For the purposes of looking at why Atlanta’s homicide rate has exploded over the last two years, however, I’m looking at where the Fulton County gang and racketeering case places him: in the middle of the murder that set everything else off.
The 88-page indictment of Williams and 27 other co-defendants alleged to be members of the YSL street gang alleges that Young Thug himself rented the car used in a drive-by that killed Donovan “Peanut” Thomas in front of a Castleberry Hill barbershop in 2015. That murder split the city into two camps — YFN vs. YSL — which have been waging war against one another ever since.
It’s never been clear why Thug would have been involved. This indictment is the first public attempt at explaining it.
The indictment (subscribers can send me a note and I’ll send it along to you) alleges that two weeks after Thomas’ death, Williams had a conversation with Kyle Oree, alleged to be the leader of the criminal street gang Sex Money Murda. Young Thug has name-checked SMM in songs. Oree, meanwhile, was serving a life sentence at the time, for a trailer park murder in 2003. “[T]he conversation stated that ‘sacrifices must be made, soldiers must fall in order for battle to be won.’”
The next day, according to the indictment, Young Thug posted a video on social media where he said “so nigga lie to they momma, lie to they kids, lie to they brothers and sisters then get right into the courtroom and tell the God’s honest truth, don’t get it, y’all niggas need to get fucking killed bro, from me and YSL.”
It remains incredible to me that people involved in very serious crimes put the notes online.
The indictment suggests that Thomas was killed on orders from Sex Money Murda gang leaders acting through Thug and his co-conspirators, for offering testimony in court. Implied: Thug and Oree were talking on a phone they either didn’t know was being monitored or didn’t care.
As I read through the indictment, that seems to be a theme.
Damekion Garlington and Quantavious Grier — Jeffery Williams’ brother, the rapper Unfoonk — talked with an inmate at Fulton County jail who had a contraband cell phone last month. According to the indictment, Unfoonk talked about arranging the murder of someone threatening YSL gang members in the jail, and of flying a drone to a jail window to deliver more contraband cell phones.
In another allegation, Christian “Bad Bhris” Eppinger and Antonio Sumlin apparently asked Young Thug for permission to try to kill rival rapper Rayshawn “YFN Lucci” Bennett in prison. This may be the source of Bennett’s legal complaint after being stabbed in prison, in which he suggested there was a bounty on his head. The attempt on Lucci’s life is a count in the indictment.
The idea that the cops had planted cell phones with inmates to monitor calls like this apparently hadn’t occurred to them. The police suggested they had done something like that when they showed images from Christian Eppinger’s locked-down Instagram page in a press conference.
Unfoonk is a free man only because his brother paid exorbitant amounts of money to lawyers to find a loophole in his 2007 murder conviction. Grier had been sentenced to life for murdering a man over $1,200. Lawyers successfully argued that prosecutors required a second witness to corroborate the evidence.
Many of the people indicted have been in jail or prison for a while on other charges — murders, armed robberies, drug crimes and more.
The indictment ties some of Atlanta’s recent murders together into a narrative showing how the gang war has been driving some of the city’s violence. Shannon Stillwell — referred to in other court records as Shannon Jackson — posted a note on Instagram in December, just before the city’s most recent murder spike, to say “Suit up and lace your Boots It’s War Time.”
Shymel Drinks’ body was found in a car beneath I-20 in March, a few days after two of Unfoonk’s friends were murdered in a drive-by shooting on the connector. The indictment describes Drinks’ death as YSL murdering a rival gang member, with Stillwell once again among the alleged triggermen.
Sergio Kitchens — the best-selling rapper Gunna — is accused of selling weed, meth, hydrocodone, along with receiving stolen guns and making videos as gang propaganda. In the context of all of the murder charges floating through the indictment, Gunna gets off relatively easy.
Police have let on before that they believed Stillwell was a triggerman on the Thomas killing. The indictment lists four others: Javaris “Tuda” Bradford, Justin “Duwop” Cobb, Demise “Nard” McMullen … and Deamonte Kendrick, who is better known as the rapper Yak Gotti.
Yak Gotti is relatively high profile in the music world right now. His alleged involvement in one of the most significant violent crimes in Atlanta history is a surprising revelation.
Also, I am not making up any of these names.
The indictment regularly shows YSL members in social media wearing clothing or making gestures or statements that signify gang membership. Some of this is comic, like Yak Gotti’s famous picture standing on YFN Lucci’s Maybach at Lenox Mall as an act of disrespect. But it also dips liberally into the music videos and other social media of Young Thug, Gunna, Yak Gotti and others, arguing that the lyrics of songs are more than just works of art but gang propaganda meant to drive recruitment or issue explicit warnings of violence.
For example, the indictment cites the lyrics from Young Thug’s social media video "Eww" as evidence.
Red just like Elmo but never fuckin giggle
YSL won’t fold, pick his ass off from the balcony
YSL, wipe nigga nose
I’ma fuck for the cash then she getting robbed by Tick
In Bentley on West Lee getting trailed by sniper
All ever wanted was the money, put your hands in the air if you dare, any motherfucker to step over here, F&N put em in wheel chair.
"Tick" in this case is Trontavious Stephens, who is listed as a founder of the YSL gang. Wiping your nose is YSL code for killing someone.
We are inevitably going to have a difficult public conversation about the line between rap music as art and lyrics with double meanings. I’ve felt more and more like a 21st-century Tipper Gore looking at this stuff, which is profoundly uncomfortable. I think there’s a distinction to be made between music that speaks abstractly about violence and music meant to direct acts of violence. The question is whether artists like Young Thug deliberately obfuscate the line in order to provide cover for plainly criminal acts.
What is clear to me, today, is that listening to this stuff is no longer a morally-neutral act. We cancel people who say terrible things about women or the LGBTQ community. We shun movies for the sins of providing too little representation, or demeaning people racially. We end careers for less than the average trap artist says walking from his car to the studio.
It is entirely possible to make trap music about something other than death without losing its authenticity.
Thug raps about killing people, in a place where people are actually getting killed. At what point do we begin to apply the same moral standards we ask of oil companies and pillow salesmen and chicken restaurants, or Dave Chappelle or Bill Cosby or Amber Heard or Ellen DeGeneres to people amassing a body count?