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 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.
“Social media creates this illusion that there are no consequences for your actions,” said the rap radio personality Charlamagne tha God, the host of the syndicated radio show “The Breakfast Club.” “In the last year, you’ve gotten three clear-cut examples of what this can lead to: Tekashi69 is currently incarcerated, XXXTentacion got murdered and Lil Peep died of a drug overdose.”
He added: “All of these things that you all are glorifying, they’ve been killing our community for years. Now it just looks different on social media.”
In the courtroom, where Mr. Hernandez has repeatedly appeared since 2015, he has argued that the gangland character of 6ix9ine was just that — an exaggerated artistic act. In reality, Mr. Hernandez said, he was “Danny,” a nice kid from Brooklyn, who had struck gold by stoking beef and acting tough.
“The scumbag persona is just for shock value,” he said.
His lawyer, Lance Lazzaro, has contended that the associates who once lent 6ix9ine muscle and credibility were the real criminals in the picture. On Monday, Mr. Hernandez pleaded not guilty.
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“An entertainer who portrays a ‘gangster image’ to promote his music does not make him a member of an enterprise,” Mr. Lazzaro said in a statement. “Mr. Hernandez became a victim of this enterprise and later took steps by firing employees.”
It may have been too late.
‘I didn’t really want to be a rapper or whatever’
Danny Hernandez was a first-generation New Yorker, born in 1996 to a Mexican immigrant mother and a Puerto Rican father. A difficult childhood was upended at 13, when his father was murdered a block from the family’s home.
“My pops died in eighth grade, and I just started bugging in school,” he told the No Jumper podcast, a popular hip-hop show, last year. “I was 13. I was waiting for my pops to come back home, and he never came.” Mr. Hernandez soon dropped out of school.
He and his brother worked odd jobs to support their mother and eventually turned to selling drugs on the street, he said. Across his teenage years, as he fell in and out of trouble with the law, Mr. Hernandez began inventing an alter ego inspired by Japanese anime: Tekashi69.
With brash stunts and offensive overtures, Mr. Hernandez amassed a curious legion of followers. His first viral “moment,” he recalled, was an Instagram photo of himself on a city street, wearing a robelike sweatshirt emblazoned with racial and sexual slurs. He eventually had the number 69, with its sexual connotation, tattooed on his body more than 200 times.
Though long a fan of hip-hop and heavy metal, which he would later combine in a compelling package, it was only after 6ix9ine achieved a fan base on Instagram, where he eventually collected more than 15 million followers, that he pivoted to music.
“I didn’t really want to be a rapper or whatever,” he told the No Jumper podcast. “I just thought of making music because everybody was like: ‘You look mad cool.’”
But his relentless search for shocking material soon landed him in trouble.
Just before his 19th birthday, Mr. Hernandez was arrested on charges of using a child in a sexual performance. He eventually pleaded guilty. According to a statement he made to the police in March 2015, Mr. Hernandez met a man at a recording studio who seemed to have “a lot of money” and followed him to a gathering in Harlem.
There, the group filmed a video with a 13-year-old girl that was posted to Mr. Hernandez’s Instagram, in which other men had sex with her while Mr. Hernandez touched her and mugged for the camera. He later told the police he believed the girl was 19.
“I was doing it for my image,” he said.
As part of his plea deal, Mr. Hernandez agreed to stay out of trouble for two years, get his high school equivalency diploma, attend therapy, and avoid posting any sexual or violent images to social media.
It was after this brush with the law that Mr. Hernandez turned increasingly to rap.
By spring 2017, 6ix9ine’s cartoonishly extreme music videos and punk persona had caught the eye of the young rapper Trippie Redd, who collaborated with 6ix9ine and introduced his music to Elliot Grainge, the founder of a small Los Angeles-based label, 10k Projects. (A representative for the label declined to comment.)
By that summer, Mr. Hernandez was on a relatively conventional career path. He had retained an experienced manager and the same entertainment lawyer as XXXTentacion. He had signed with Mr. Grainge’s company to distribute his music and booked a tour of Eastern Europe, where his YouTube videos had already made him a cult figure.
Had Mr. Hernandez stayed on that track, he may have avoided the precipice on which his career — and life — now balances. Instead, Mr. Hernandez returned to Brooklyn after his tour with a pile of cash and struck up a partnership with a local member of the Bloods.
A mutually beneficial business venture
Asked how he met Mr. Hernandez and became his unofficial manager, Kifano Jordan, better known as Shotti (or Shottie), could only chuckle.
“He from the neighborhood — Bed-Stuy. We had a mutual friend, one of my little homies brought him around. I was always keen to him,” Mr. Jordan, 36, said of Mr. Hernandez in an August podcast. “I wasn’t actually doing music at the time. I was just, um … I was around.”
As Mr. Hernandez was building his online persona in 2016, Mr. Jordan was skirting an outstanding warrant in New Jersey for narcotics trafficking. When approached by 6ix9ine, Mr. Jordan said he found the young rapper intriguing because he was so comfortable being himself.
For whatever genuine camaraderie existed between the two, the arrangement was a mutually beneficial business venture at heart. 6ix9ine needed the street cred and security that Mr. Jordan and his friends could offer; for Mr. Jordan, 6ix9ine represented a rainbow-headed cash cow. In less than a year, they began charging $100,000 per show, up from $1,000.
[Read The Times’s review of 6ix9ine’s new album, “Dummy Boy.”]
The partnership marked a new artistic and personal chapter for 6ix9ine. Once lauded for his edgy, almost gothic videos and musicality, he inched toward more traditional street rap and frequently insulted rival rappers online. The video for 6ix9ine’s single “Gummo,” which would go on to be viewed more than 300 million times on YouTube, was a visual testament to Mr. Jordan’s influence — the entire cast sports red bandannas, a homage to the Bloods.
The pair became almost inseparable. In shrieking vocals, Mr. Hernandez developed a new calling card, wailing Mr. Jordan’s “Treyway!” catchphrase as a battle cry in songs and live-streamed videos.
At the same time, 6ix9ine was becoming the most controversial — and in-demand — character in rap, with blogs breathlessly following his every move and more established artists jumping on board. Fans debated the legitimacy of his gang affiliations, the morality of supporting a sex offender, and 6ix9ine’s penchant for baiting other artists, like Chief Keef and YG, through social media.
But in a streaming-based music economy, controversies meant listeners. 6ix9ine never hired a publicist, yet he landed 10 singles on the Billboard Hot 100.
Tension between rapper and street mentor
Mr. Hernandez’s accelerated route to fame was anything but smooth. As his earning potential grew, tension simmered between Mr. Jordan’s street crew, which wanted to guide 6ix9ine’s career, and his legitimate industry team, which imagined him as a mainstream star.
The problem for Mr. Hernandez was that his Brooklyn associates were not simply business partners to be placated. Mr. Jordan and his clique, according to prosecutors, had long rap sheets and were prone to violence.
On the night in July that 6ix9ine released his most successful song to date — the three-times-platinum “Fefe,” with Nicki Minaj — he was kidnapped on his way home from a video shoot and robbed of his jewelry. He later referred to his escape as divine intervention. This month, a former Treyway associate who was believed to be disgruntled was charged with the crime.
Still, 6ix9ine had flaunted his street bona fides and Teflon nature in public, often daring rivals to “test my gangster,” and continued the tough talk that was part of his brand. “I’m ready to die and I’m ready to kill,” he told Charlamagne early this year.
Prosecutors say those words were not an act. In April, they alleged, Mr. Hernandez was with Mr. Jordan when the crew committed an armed robbery near Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan. Prosecutors also said Mr. Hernandez was involved in two shootings in Brooklyn later in the summer.
Someone then shot up two of 6ix9ine’s music video sets — one in Brooklyn, where he was filming with the rapper 50 Cent in August, and another this month in Los Angeles, interrupting a planned shoot with Kanye West and Ms. Minaj.
The tension reached a crescendo this fall, after Mr. Hernandez’s much-delayed sentencing hearing in the sex crimes case. While ruling that Mr. Hernandez’s multiple small-time arrests and various antics over the last year did not violate his plea agreement, the judge instructed the rapper to stay away from known gang members — or risk prison.
He planned to meet Mr. Grainge, the head of his label, for lunch at Philippe in Manhattan to celebrate.
When Shotti and others arrived at the restaurant, too, they were rebuffed by Mr. Grainge’s security — the judge, after all, had just told Mr. Hernandez to keep his distance. But a scuffle ensued, ending with a security guard shooting one of Shotti’s associates, who was wounded but survived (and was indicted with the group). Shotti later turned himself in to the police and was charged with assault in the incident.
After that, the relationship between 6ix9ine and his street mentor deteriorated quickly. In an interview with “The Breakfast Club” days before his arrest, 6ix9ine said he had fired everyone except Mr. Grainge and attributed the split mostly to money: He had booked a national tour, but did not feel he was getting his rightful share. He also invoked the July robbery.
“I knew how strong my team was — nobody could touch me,” he said. “The only way you could touch me is if you were already next to me.”
The next day, 6ix9ine appeared via live video on Instagram and declared, “[Expletive] Treyway.” Later that afternoon, Shotti posted a video to his own account, smirking in two Treyway chains and listening to 6ix9ine’s music. He mouthed along as the rapper shouted out the crew he had just disowned: “Treyway!”
Offline, 6ix9ine was meeting with F.B.I. agents, who had picked up on wiretaps that his former crew wanted to “super violate” him for his disrespect, an expression authorities took as a threat to the rapper’s life, his lawyer said. They offered him round-the-clock protection against Shotti and his associates, but 6ix9ine declined.
By Monday, they were all in federal custody. This week, prosecutors said they had obtained a warrant for the same Instagram account that brought Mr. Hernandez to prominence, calling it “quite voluminous.”
For now, his future remains uncertain. Even if Mr. Hernandez finds leniency in the racketeering case, a conviction would likely be a violation of his probationary terms, which could lead to jail time. His supporters worry about his safety behind bars.
6ix9ine’s second album, “Dummy Boy,” initially postponed in the wake of his arrest, was released Tuesday after it leaked online. But the rapper will not be around to celebrate its likely success.
“You can’t come into the rap game and then turn around and decide you want to be a gangster,” said Charlamagne, one of the many fans, potential mentors, media personalities and industry hands who tried to guide 6ix9ine toward safer ground. “You get to a certain point, and you’ve either got to evolve or die.”
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