The DGainz Saga

Behind the scenes with the South Side’s foremost music video director

Walking down the block / Sippin’ on that pop,” Enyce freestyled the first lines of his song “Life Good (Soda Pop)” last summer at his producer and director DGainz’s house. DGainz helped Enyce turn those two lines into a full song and video that garnered national attention and a Pitchfork “Best New Music” award. Enyce and DGainz form an unlikely duo—a twelve-year-old kid from the West Side paired with the 26-year-old producer who produced a string of videos that helped to catapult then sixteen-year-old Chief Keef to worldwide fame. 

Enyce is undoubtedly destined for success—he is bright, outgoing, and talented—but the main creative force behind “Life Good” is DGainz, who worked with Enyce to write and produce the song and whose vision drives the irresistible video. It rivals and mirrors many videos produced for adult musicians.

DGainz filmed the video for “Life Good” in North Lawndale, Enyce’s neighborhood, in saturated yellows against the backdrop of Chicago’s streets. Children dance in empty lots with cracked concrete and against run-down houses with boarded up windows. He contrasts the youthful optimism of Enyce and his friends with a less-than-glamorous backdrop.

“Life Good” was conceived of during a hangout session between several of the stars of the movie Three at DGainz’s house. The group was freestyling and eventually Enyce spit out the first few lines of the song that now has more than 160,000 views on YouTube.  When DGainz filmed Enyce performing and put it on Instagram, the response was immediately negative. People messaged DGainz proclaiming the death of hip-hop at the hands of a twelve-year-old rapping about soda. DGainz decided to take that negativity and turn the song into something positive. It worked: the same people who had originally hated the song quickly changed their tune and sent him praise for it. “It’s funny how the world works,” he said about the turnaround with a sigh.

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Duan Gaines, known by his stage name DGainz, has been producing and making videos for rappers on the South Side for six years. He’s worked with rappers from Lil Durk, who now has a record deal at Def Jam Records, to Chief Keef, to Enyce himself. He serves up small pieces of life on the South Side through his honest and simple videos featuring musicians who never hesitate to acknowledge their roots.

Gaines lived in Chicago’s housing projects until he was twelve. He dropped out before starting high school and spent much of his time taking care of his single mother and four sisters. He distracted himself by watching music videos and recording them over VHS movies they had in the house.

“We got cable and I didn’t know how to act,” Gaines said with a laugh. “I think that was what made me record every music video originally, because living conditions weren’t good—I didn’t know when this cable was going to get cut off.” In this way, he inadvertently began to teach himself how to make music videos.

He made his first beat when he was fifteen on his cousin’s PlayStation, and by the time he was sixteen, he became friends with a boy on his block who told Gaines that he was a rapper. “He started playing me his music and I was like, ‘Man, I need to be a part of this,’” Gaines said.

Gaines and his family eventually moved thirty blocks south, from 63rd and Drexel to 95th and Parnell, and he lost touch with the friend who had introduced him to rapping. It was farther south, though, that Gaines came into his own. There he met and began to work with Lil Durk, who would eventually introduce him to Chief Keef.

“I was still broke. I didn’t have anything,” he said. But he began to gain respect: people wanted to work with him, and they were willing to pay for the opportunity. When he was twenty, Gaines reconnected with his father and half-brothers. He helped his brother form the Buck 20 Brick Boyz, for whom he would film his first music video, “I Really Lived Dat.” In video-making, Gaines found his real passion: he could use the visuals to add another dimension to his work, contrasting the subject matters of the songs with simple, intimate imagery.

As Lil Durk started getting noticed, so did Gaines. Thanks to Lil Durk, people were paying Gaines for studio time and asking him to make their videos. One of those people, an up-and-coming fifteen-year-old Chief Keef (Keith Cozart), began to reach out to Gaines through Facebook to work with him. Gaines was initially skeptical—Chief Keef’s music was very different from the songs he’d shot and produced in the past. It was more explicitly violent than previous work Gaines had done: the word “bang” and gun clicks ran consistently through Keef’s early work. Still, Lil Durk introduced the two, and Gaines was impressed by Keef’s attitude; he agreed to make a music video with Keef.

Gaines had no idea that Keef was so young. “I remember the day of [the shoot], I hit him up, I asked him could he pick me up,” Gaines remembered. “He was like, ‘Man, I can’t pick you up because I’m not old enough to drive.’” Gaines ended up taking the bus to his first video shoot with Keef.

The video, “Bang,” was a departure from Gaines’ previous videos. It was faster and more violent, shot in saturated greens and oranges, though it still retained the simplicity Gaines consistently focuses on—capturing Keef rapping surrounded by a crew of people.

The video got 400,000 views in the first two months, the most views Gaines had ever gotten. But at the time, Gaines still didn’t quite grasp the popularity Keef was gaining. “I thought it was really the hood watching the video on repeat,” he admitted. They released the video for “Aimed at You” in November 2011. The month after Gaines released the video, he got a call from his friend: “He was like, ‘man they killed shawty, they killed Keef.’”

Rumors flooded the Internet. Overnight, Keef’s songs became wildly popular. Eventually, Gaines learned that Keef hadn’t actually been killed, though the police had shot at him and he’d been arrested. Keef spent 30 days in jail and was then put under house arrest at his grandmother’s house. By the time he left jail, he was famous.

While on house arrest, Keef and Gaines shot “I Don’t Like,” the song that was to make Keef known nationwide, a glaring metaphorical middle finger to the police who had kept him on house arrest. Due to spatial constraints, the video isn’t as visually impressive as Gaines’s previous work. Gaines admits that he initially didn’t want to upload the video; it didn’t reflect his vision as a director the way he wanted it to.

His friends convinced him to release the video, and, just before he went to bed at midnight, he released it. By 6am, it had made it onto World Star Hip Hop, a popular hip-hop entertainment website. An hour later, Gaines woke up. “I got on Twitter, I was like ‘what the fuck is going on?’” he said.

After that, Gaines shot the video for “Love Sosa.” At one point in the video, Chief Keef raps alone in front of a mirror; at another he raps in just his underwear, slightly out of frame. Gaines catches more intimate moments like this, such as Keef pulling his sweater over his mouth and laughing at a text on his phone. He pairs Keef’s violent, often angry songs with vulnerable, intimate shots of the young rapper whose age almost never shows in his lyrics but is often highlighted in Gaines’ early videos.  Like many of Gaines’ videos, “Love Sosa” is a video of subtle, unexpected contrasts. It now has over forty million views on YouTube.

Gaines’s craftsmanship came on display on the video for his newest song, “Dope Like,” a collaboration between himself and his long-time friend Wheatie. It’s his first video of 2015 and a good example of his style—sleek, simple production that focuses exclusively on the rapper and what he’s rapping.  The atmosphere on the set of the shoot is somewhere between a party and a concentrated work environment: Gaines runs around in his usual uniform—jeans and a t-shirt emblazoned with his own logo—preparing for the shoot while his friends and family, who will appear in or help him with the shoot, filter in and chat with one another.

The shoot takes place in a house on the corner of 54th and Michigan Avenue. From the outside it looks like a regular town house, but inside, it is a bare-bones studio, an otherwise empty house crowded with recording and video-making equipment. The air is thick with smoke that can be seen in tendrils through the floodlights. Brimming with video and recording equipment, this space has clearly been used by Gaines many times before.

The concept for this video is simple. Gaines and Wheatie rap against a white background with their crew surrounding them. When it comes time to film, Gaines switches out of his typical uniform for a livelier, hipper outfit complete with bright yellow, rubber Converse sneakers. With his change in outfit comes a change in personality. In real life, he is unassuming, goofy, and a little shy, but on camera, he transforms. He delivers his verses with a confident swagger and dances gleefully around Wheatie.

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Through these videos and his music, Gaines uses his life on the South Side to channel his creative energy through thoughtful, careful artistry. Life in this part of the city, he says, is often difficult. He doesn’t hide from that fact, but instead uses it to lend a unique character to his music and videos.

In recent years, Gaines has traveled across the country filming videos and producing music. But his roots remain in Chicago. For his movie, Three, he traveled the country looking for young actors but only found them when he returned home. The majority of the cast are Chicago natives.

“I want to be an all-around music mogul,” he said. Wherever he goes, though, he says he’ll still be the 15-year-old kid who made beats on his cousin’s PlayStation, and that he’ll bring the whole South Side with him.

“I want to show it’s colorful where we from, too,” Gaines says.

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