Unearthing an underground empire: From the cradle to the grave


Carolina Sanchez

Chicago rapper Fly Fresh poses in Garfield Park near where he grew up. He began identifying with the One-Way Four Corner Hustlers, a 4CH faction aligned with other gangs in the One-Way alliance, at 8 years old. Fly Fresh, now 24, said he no longer gangbangs but still claims the gang because it’s simply a way of life on Chicago’s West Side.

By Managing Editor

“They say if you wanna be somethin’ in life or you wanna do somethin’, hang around people that’s doin’ it.”

Chicago rapper Fly Fresh takes a sip from his bottle of Don Julio and leans into the stretched black leather of an overstuffed couch. It looks oddly out of place in the center of the otherwise empty living room of his shabby Garfield Park apartment.

“I looked up to somebody who was gettin’ money—I wanted to get money too,” he says as he takes another swig, grimacing as the tequila warms his throat. “All the big guys and the dudes we used to look up to when we was kids, they had all the fly cars, all the girls and s–t. I saw they was makin’ a lot of money and we thought they was so cool, so we started claimin’ what they was claimin’, doin’ what they was doin’.”

Growing up on the West Side, Fly Fresh, now 24, said he was surrounded by gangs his entire life. At 8 years old, Fly Fresh began identifying with the One-Way Four Corner Hustlers, a 4CH faction whose views are in line with those of other gangs belonging to the “One-Way” alliance. In his mind, he had one option: “One-Way or gun play.”  

Fly Fresh said there was never a question of whether he would join a gang; rather, it was a matter of when. Enchanted by the illusion that older gang members were happily rich, he followed their example, selling drugs and gangbanging in hopes of achieving their perceived success. Like many young men living in impoverished parts of Chicago’s South and West Sides, it took him several years—and convictions—to realize that a role model does not a rich man make.

“You see the fast money, you see the bitches, you see the cars, you see all that bulls–t,” Fly Fresh said. “What you don’t see is the time you get for shooting somebody and not killing them. You don’t see the fact that you kill somebody, you gonna be in jail the rest of your life. You don’t see that if you get caught with a gun, they gonna try to f–kin’ throw the book at you. You don’t see the fact that there’s only two ways out: dead or jail.”

In 2012, the murder rate in Chicago surpassed the death toll of the Iraq war, spawning the term “Chiraq.” Residents of crime-infested areas had already been using the slang to describe their living conditions, but the word quickly caught media attention and made its way into everyday speech in Chicago and around the nation.   

While Chiraq has become a common moniker, Fly Fresh said it sensationalizes the violent conditions.  

“The Chiraq term, it’s more a reality than something we should be glorifying because it’s like a war zone, a real war zone,” Fly Fresh said nonchalantly. “They shootin’ at each other [in Iraq]. They trying to kill each other on purpose. In Chicago they is too but they ain’t technically at war. There ain’t tanks goin’ around here. You can’t step on a mine bomb out here.”

Despite the risks, the prospect of easy money lures young men to gangs, especially when they also lack father figures, said Arthur Lurigio, a professor of psychology and criminal justice at Loyola University. He said young people who grow up in broken homes are more inclined to turn to the streets to fill their paternal void and support their family.

While young gang members initially view older members as father figures, they soon begin to view their mentors as an obstacle in their way on the path to wealth, Fly Fresh said.

Older gang members recruit young boys to do their dirty work, such as selling drugs on street corners, Fly Fresh said, explaining that young gang members are quick to move on once they realize they are incurring all the risk for someone else’s gain.

“When we got to be 11, 12, we was like, ‘F–k what they doin’,’” Fly Fresh said. “When the younger guys’ light bulbs click on, they like, ‘I can sell my own drugs, meet my own connect and stand on this corner for myself instead of standin’ on this corner for his old ass. If he don’t like it, f–k him, we can kill him.’ That’s how it go—that’s how it really go.”

Despite their young age, teenage gang members believe they can easily rise to power because of their egos, Lurigio said, noting that people who gravitate toward criminal activity tend to think they are invincible.

“People who are prone to criminal activity, especially adopting a criminal career, tend to have a lot of the characteristics that we call psychopathy, and included in that category [are] narcissism, a lack of empathy for others, a lack of impulse control and an inability to contemplate future consequences of behaviors,” Lurigio said.

This self-centered way of thinking has not always existed among gang members, said Larry Burns, 33, a former leader of the Black P Stones who still has gang ties. Burns, whose name has been changed for this article, said gangs used to be focused on making money to better the organizations and the community. While gang members today are still committing crimes to make money, they are concerned only about individual profits, he said.

“One thing I will say, the young shorties know respect and they respect money,” Burns said. “Don’t nobody care if you got a title or a position. That don’t mean nothin’. The only way it means somethin’ to them is if you got money.”

Burns, who was in charge of the Black P Stones in the 1990s, said during that decade the FBI and Chicago Police Department began aggressively targeting gang leaders, which caused gang structure to implode. As hierarchy fell, young gang members became less inclined to care about their fellow gang members—a prevalent mindset among gang members today.  

“It’s about me and money,” Fly Fresh said. “I don’t give a f–k about the brotherhood, for real. The brotherhood is so crooked. It’s so f–ked up. This man will be in your gang, he’ll be your gang brother and he’s the same brother who will kill you over a female, over a couple dollars.”

This senseless violence has escalated in recent years, Burns said, explaining that when structure disappeared at the turn of the millennium, gang members began acting recklessly without fear of consequences.  

Fly Fresh said there is a shooting at the gas station on his block almost every day. Even though the violence in Garfield Park is extreme, he said it does not faze him because he has lived in these conditions his entire life. He said it is just a matter of being prepared.  

“If you into the gangbangin’, if you out here gangbangin’ and robbin n—-rs or you sellin’ on somebody else’s joint, you in this s–t and you never safe without havin’ your gun,” Fly Fresh said. “You ain’t even safe with your gun because you can get caught with that s–t in your waistband and ain’t have enough time to pull it out.”

Fly Fresh said guns are a necessary self-defense mechanism in dangerous parts of Chicago.   

“People with guns fear other people that they tryin’ to kill,” Fly Fresh said. “That’s why they try to kill ‘em because they already know if you playin’ the game it’s either you or it’s him and somebody’s gotta go. And if I’m playin the game with you, then it’s gonna be you. I’m gonna have to catch you.”

Regardless of whether one is involved in a gang or other criminal activity, high crime in areas such as Garfield Park poses a threat to everyone, according to Mikey Lee, 22, a Chicago rapper and member of the One-Way Traveling Vice Lords.

“Whether you into it or not, it’s a battlefield,” Mikey Lee said. “If you know you into it with somebody, you just gotta be ready at all times. Everybody is against you. That’s how you gotta look at it if you gonna survive.”

Aaron Wright, 42, a former chief enforcer of the Mickey Cobras, said the chaos stems from the 1980s and 1990s when his generation became heavily involved in criminal enterprises such as selling drugs, which set a poor example for the young men who looked up to them.

“I tell people when I see what my people [are doing today] that I apologize,” Wright said. “At the time [I was in the gang], I thought what I was doing was right. But if I had known what I know today, I’d know I was doing it all wrong.”

Wright said he is making efforts to rectify the damage he did by speaking at high schools and participating in anti-violence programs. He said the first step to understanding the struggles that fuel gang behavior is making a conscious attempt to understand the mindset of those living the life.

“These kids are geniuses but don’t nobody know because everyone’s afraid to say somethin’ to ‘em,” Wright said. “You gotta be able to get on their level and look them in the eye. Don’t talk at ‘em—talk to ‘em. At the end of the day, if you want them to talk to you, you gotta listen to ‘em.”

Lurigio said gang involvement starts at home, as children who grow up in fatherless households are more likely to turn to criminal activity. He said if young men had more positive male influences, their likelihood of joining a gang would be reduced.

“Role models with the greatest influence on the kids are those that are in the home—family members, men that they can observe on a day-to-day basis—[who] exhibit pro-social attitudes and behaviors, including going to work every day,” Lurigio said. “That would provide young men with evidence that the choice of non-criminal activities leads to a successful and productive life.”

In addition to encouraging fathers to play an active role in their children’s lives, Wright said implementing more social programs would help mitigate the gang population. He said low-income neighborhoods lack extracurricular activities like boys’ and girls’ clubs and after-school programs, hindering young people from learning productive skills that would allow them to pursue a professional career rather than perpetuate the cycle of crime.  

“They know how to count from 1–100 when it comes down to counting them crack rocks and heroin, they know how to count 5-10-15-20, so show ‘em how to do angles, percentages, linear feet … teach them the skills to do something,” Wright said.

Because blighted communities offer so few options for young people to hone skills that would allow them to prosper, Fly Fresh said many think striking it big is their only way out of the hood—one of the reasons he gravitated toward music as a teenager.

“With music, I don’t need a background check,” Fly Fresh said. “I don’t have to fill out an application. I can go in the booth, say how I feel and somebody gonna feel it and like my music, and I can make money off it, profit off what I’m actually good at.”

Fly Fresh said he has never had the means to move out of his neighborhood, but that he hopes his musical endeavors will eventually provide him the means to do so. Although some gang members take pride in their criminality, he said the days of promoting gang life are long behind him.

“I’m tired of this s–t, I’ve been in this s–t my whole life,” Fly Fresh said. “It’s not a game to me. I don’t find it cute. Some n—-rs out here find it pretty, they think the girls like it. They got some growin’ to do.”

Wright said Chicago’s gang population is spiraling out of control and will continue to do so until society makes a greater effort to guide at-risk youth.

“There’s too many kids out there that can be somebody but there’s no one directing them,” Wright said. “You got more 17- and 18-year-olds at [the jail at] 26th and California than you had when I was growin’ up. It’s an epidemic. It’s a disease, and we need to find a solution to that disease.”