the rise and fall of Tekashi


For the last two years, the Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine has used social media to build a larger-than-life reputation as a proud public menace, a self-described “super villain” whose mere presence seemed to attract drama and gun violence.

That persona was an act, he said, but it put him on a path to hip-hop stardom. To gain even more credibility with his online audience, he partnered a year ago with Brooklyn men the police say are affiliated with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods street gang.

Now 6ix9ine, whose real name is Daniel Hernandez, has been arrested on federal racketeering charges, along with several of his former business associates. And though Mr. Hernandez, 22, often seemed invincible during his turbulent first year in music, the charges that he participated in narcotics trafficking, shootings and violent robberies — some of which he live-streamed to his massive Instagram following — could spell the end of his once-meteoric career.

The arrest also may have saved his life: Days before the men were indicted together, Mr. Hernandez, who had recently tried to split from the gang, was warned by the F.B.I. that his one-time associates may try to kill him, his lawyer said.

It was a fittingly dramatic twist for a young artist who at times seemed determined to sabotage his own rise. How Mr. Hernandez went from a lost Brooklyn teen, to a viral social media star, to an accused violent member of the Nine Trey Bloods is a cautionary tale for hip-hop, particularly as the genre scouts its next stars from the internet.

Mr. Hernandez’s rapid ascent — cataloged daily online — was tailor made for a new generation of web-savvy fans hooked on nonmusical content. The rowdy, scream-along tracks that 6ix9ine (pronounced six-nine) did make were more a symptom of his online success than the impetus for his fame: Mr. Hernandez only began rapping after he had achieved a taste of internet notoriety, and he appeared to pursue gang life to bolster his musical endeavors.

It was an inflammatory approach in a rap business stuck between an old school of hip-hop in which street cred still matters and a new wave of artists for whom clout on internet platforms has become a pathway to success. For some rap stars, gang life was an unavoidable means of survival, and music offered a way out. For Mr. Hernandez, who also goes by the name Tekashi69, it was reversed: Gang affiliations lent authenticity to a rap career rooted more in sensationalism than in biography or in raw talent.

For his critics, 6ix9ine represented the worst-case scenario of millennial hip-hop: a digital brand built around bravado and violence, with little notion that the act could have real-life repercussions.

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