It’s likely that the Chicago rap scene wouldn’t be what it is today without the presence of Lil Durk, and it’s similarly likely Lil Durk wouldn’t have made it to where he is without a fortunate chain of events. His focus on melody and a less conventional approach to flow contributed to the unique sound of the 2010s Chicago hip-hop. But he also struggled through a rough family life to become the rapper and businessman he is today. What’s especially remarkable is how capably he’s carved his own corner of the scene out for himself and his extended musical family.
Growing Up Durk
Lil Durk has come to help shape the sound of the Chicago rap scene, perhaps in part because his background is emblematic of so many kids growing up in the city’s rougher streets. Born as Durk Derrick Banks in the Southside neighborhood of Englewood, he had to grow up quickly. His father went to jail when he was only seven months old and continues to live out a life sentence for distributing crack cocaine. Durk still maintains a close connection with his father and claims that he went to jail for refusing to snitch on Gangster Disciples leader Larry Hoover. He would also go on to claim that Larry Hoover gave him his name.
Ultimately, Durk would follow in his footsteps, at least for a while. With little food on the table and few prospects for success, he had to start hustling at a young age. Lil Durk would eventually join the Black Disciples, former rivals to his father’s gang. Family as an anchor would come to be a theme throughout Durk’s life – from his close relationship with a father he never knew to growing up in a household with three sisters to the brotherly bond of a gang (and eventually to the start of his own surrogate family).
At age 17 with his girlfriend expecting their first baby, Durk dropped out of high school. He’d also become more deeply involved with the Black Disciples during this period, frequently getting in and out of trouble with the law and enmeshed in the gang wars going on at the time. But while he may have earned his stripes on the street, it wouldn’t be that street cred that earned him his fame, but a rather more modern resource: social media.
Hitting Big in the Business
2011 would see Lil Durk facing some of his most serious charges when police found him with a gun that had the serial number shaved off. This would be around the same time that he started to consider the possibilities of a rap career seriously. A friend from the neighborhood Chief Keef was already a major player in the industry, and plans came together quickly for Lil Durk to sign for his label.
There was already heat behind Lil Durk’s music, and that came mostly from self-promotion. Durk would post videos and music on his YouTube and MySpace. It was a guerilla approach to take, but it’s an approach that became increasingly effective. Utilizing rap and production skills he simply learned from listening to music and watching videos, he made it clear he could flow. And as his music started to get play, he made use of music sharing app DatPiff to monetize and popularize his mixtapes, which played well in the then-established dark and grimy drill scene of Chicago.
For the early part of his fledgling rap career, Lil Durk was essentially both artist and manager. Singles “I’ma Hitta” and “Sneak Dissin” got a good response, and Durk got in the habit of diligently turning out mixtapes. While the dalliance with Keef’s label would fall through, Durk would briefly be signed to French Montana’s Coke Boys label. In retrospect, Durk would admit regret for letting the relationship fall through, claiming that he listened to too many other voices telling him what to do rather than what his own head was saying. In 2013, after the breakout success of “Dis Ain’t What You Want”, Durk inked a partnership deal with Def Jam Records.
Only the Family
The contract between Lil Durk and Def Jam would turn out to be a little more complicated than one would expect for a freshman rapper. But that’s because Durk already had things up and running for his turn as a businessman. But it’s hard to separate Durk’s interests from the streets he grew up on.
The Only the Family rap collective was founded in 2010, and it’s more than just a launching pad for Lil Durk’s rap career. A large portion of Only the Family members belong to the Black Disciples, and the name itself is a reference to the Black Disciples branch Only Trey Folks. OTF would originally run with Coke Boys as OTF Coke Boys. As a result, members featured on the Coke Boys tracks.
Without breaking the affiliation, Lil Durk signed a joint venture between OTF and Def Jam. And chances are that Durk might have never made it without Coke Boys and French Montana’s influence. It was the remix of Durk’s song “L’s Anthem” that drew the attention of Def Jam and helped build Durk’s momentum in the first place. In interviews, Durk speaks of Montana as a mentor figure.
Early Work Under Def Jam
The Def Jam record contract wouldn’t change the productivity of Durk’s work. His fourth mixtape, Signed to the Streets, was released October 14, 2013, and he’d use a familiar distribution method. Signed to the Streets was exclusive to DatPiff, but that wouldn’t stop it from getting widespread coverage and wore its relationship on its sleeve.
Rolling Stone ranked it the eighth-best mixtape of 2013, and XXL placed Lil Durk in its freshman class the next year. Def Jam would put some serious production value behind the release of Signed to the Streets too. Eight different music videos were created to highlight the singles – providing Durk with exposure few artists that age could hope for.
Around this time, Lil Durk would announce he was working on his first official album for Def Jam. And while it would take a while longer to get a full release from Durk, he went on to drop the fifth mixtape in the meantime. Signed to the Streets II drew on Durk’s talent and star power to draw in a few notable collaborators. Young Thug and Migos both contributed to songs on the album, as did old mentor French Montana. As with Durk’s earlier work, it would be released on DatPiff.
The First Album Drop
Lil Durk announced the name of his first album, Remember My Name, on March 25, 2015 – and despite some delays, the album would drop just a couple of months after that. At its peak, Remember My Name hit 14 on the Billboard 200 list. It might have not been the most satisfactory level of success given the hype and prolific output of Lil Durk up until this point, but it was still a hit.
Just because he had an official studio album doesn’t mean that Lil Durk fumbled with his hustle. He’d release his sixth mixtape later the same year. 300 Days, 300 Nights would hit the market on December 15 of that year. Despite having only one single, “My Beyonce”, it would find some pretty impressive success. A video for the song was released in January of 2016, and it would be certified as gold for selling half a million copies in less than two years of its release.
The Second Album Drop and Tensions with Def Jam
The mixtape would be followed almost immediately by the announcement of a new project under the Def Jam label. Lil Durk would release Lil Durk 2X on July 22, 2016, just a couple of months after dropping the single “She Just Wanna” with Ty Dollar $ign. Despite the appearance of all-stars like Yo Gotti and Young Thug, Lil Durk 2X was mildly disappointing. Compared to Remember My Name, his sophomore effort represented a sophomore slump – sliding down to 29 on the Billboard 200.
If it wasn’t apparent already, Lil Durk seemed interested in eschewing traditional recording economics in favor of a more grassroots approach. By the time his second album dropped, he already had six mixtapes under his belt. And with a major social media presence and organization in the form of OTF, distribution was hardly an issue.
If anything, the lackluster success of Lil Durk 2X just convinced Lil Durk to keep doing what he’d been doing. Over the course of 2017, he released four mixtapes. These included both a quasi-sequel to Signed to the Streets 2 (entitled Signed to the Streets 2.5) and collaborative mixtapes with Tee Grizzley and Lil Reese.
Branching Off on His Own
By early 2018, it was apparent to many in the industry that Lil Durk’s relationship with Def Jam might be on the ropes. But despite Durk’s propensity for beefing with fellow rappers, the break was surprisingly cordial. Durk would thank Def Jam for their five years helping him breakout big when announcing his departure, but in later interviews he’d talk in more explicit terms about what happened – complaining that Def Jam was expecting him to just churn out radio hit singles that could transition into album sales.
But the break was probably a wise move for both. Durk had found success, but it was outside the formality of the typical record label dynamics. And 2018 would demonstrate that this new breed of artist didn’t necessarily need a big-time contract with a label. Durk’s twelfth mixtape Just Cause Y’All Waited was released on the eve of his breakup with Def Jam but managed to sell more copies than any of his formal albums.
Lil Durk Today
Durk’s success with Def Jam may not have lived up to expectations, but the following years would show him really coming into his own. A relationship with Interscope and Alamo Records seemed to click better, and he moved more aggressively into full releases. In the course of three years, he’s dropped three full albums: Signed to the Streets 3, Love Songs 4 the Streets, and Just Cause Y’all Waited 2. By and large, all three albums outperformed Durk’s earlier studio releases.
Today, Lil Durk is doing what he’s always done – made music. His hustle is strong, and he finally seems to have found a label relationship that actually works for him. But his sensibilities seem to be changing as he grows older too. Durk is now working with established stars like Drake, and he’s managed to keep his family close. OTF remains a platform for Durk to operate as a diversified businessman while retaining its roots as a Black Disciples business stronghold – and he’s now the father to six children.
Lil Durk seems to be shifting in his sensibilities too. Raising a family, as well as seeing a close friend and manager Uchenna Agina shot in a gang feud. He’s patched up a brief beef with Chief Keef and has turned to more introspective thought. The Durk of today talks about anti-violence initiatives and reinvesting in the community, but that hasn’t dulled the sharp edge he has behind the mic. He especially credits Cobe Williams – a community leader with a focus on anti-violence who has become a mentor to Lil Durk and a gateway to investing his funds into community initiatives.
Lil Durk’s Sound
Lil Durk didn’t invent drill music, but he did bring a whole lot of legitimacy to the genre. His life experiences are as real as can be, and they speak from a genuine understanding of poverty, suffering, and violence. But there’s an elegance to Durk’s sound that’s often absent in drill music. His more melodic beats have come to be a major influence on the genre as a whole, as has his light and almost airy voice that works well in conjunction with his relatively light application of autotune.