The Tumultuous Rise & Fall of Thugger's YSL Records
| LAST UPDATE 12/08/2022
He's one of the most influential rappers in the game: after founding YSL records back in 2016, Young Thug's career reached new heights. But today, that very same label has left him awaiting trial among several other big players…
Jeffery Williams, otherwise known as Young Thug, is one of hip-hop's biggest names today. The Atlanta native rose to fame around a decade ago and, since then, has become the heartbeat of the Atlanta rap scene.
Born in Atlanta, Williams grew up as one of eleven children in one of the roughest neighborhoods in town, Cleveland Avenue. His rise to the top has been far from simple, but through his hard work and dedication to the game, Thug transformed into the Grammy award legend we know today. So where did it all go wrong?
His Humble Roots
Before becoming a millionaire rapper, Young Thug was running the streets in one of Atlanta's toughest neighborhoods. Williams grew up in the heart of the southside community, Cleaveland Avenue, where he was raised at the Jonesboro South Apartments - an area he would later refer to as the "concrete jungle" in one of his raps.
In interviews, the rapper often credits his sense of community and growing up in Jonesboro South and how he's applied it to his work. "Jeffery, I used to hate that name so much," he told XXL Magazine. "But now, I am starting to understand the name." Growing up in Jonesboro South is what ultimately led to his success.
Thug grew up with virtually nothing and started running the streets at only eight or nine years old. Eventually, it led to him getting kicked out of school and placed in juvie for a bit. He began rapping around 12 or 13, with big dreams of becoming the next Lil Wayne - but he knew it would be anything but easy to get there.
Record producer Dun Deal recalls meeting the 17-year-old for the first time when he showed up to his studio as a high school quarterback known as Jeffery Williams, explaining to him that he was "going to be the next Lil Wayne." Luckily, the producer took a chance and helped Thug produce his debut mixtape series, I Came from Nothing.
Friends in High Places
Although Jeffrey didn't have much growing up, he did have some connections from the Joseboro South Community that would eventually lead him to meet people who would completely change his life. The young rapper grew up with Atlanta musician Peewee Longway, who introduced him to Gucci Mane one day, and that was it.
After catching the attention of fellow Atlanta-based rapper Gucci Mane, Young Thug was signed to the artists' label 1017 Brick Squad Records in 2013. Later on, Gucci told XXL, "he signed Thug on the spot and was just taking a chance" on him, but after a week, he saw his work ethic and talent and just knew he was destined for success.
By 2014, he made it on the US charts with his breakout hit song, Stoner, produced by Dun Deal. After inking his deal with Gucci, the rapper recalls Thug's work ethic, "he spent the night there." He added, "he'd have 30 people in the studio, but he'd never leave."
That same year, Thug dropped the hit song, Danny Glover, and soon after was featured on Rich Gang's successful track, Lifestyle. In 2014, the up-and-coming rapper was officially signed to 300 Entertainment, a place that was soon to become home to his personal imprint, YSL. And from there, his life would never be the same…
Upon joining 300 Entertainment, CEO Kevin Liles recalls the young rapper's enthusiasm he brought to the label. "Thug's energy was always that he comes from a creative place, from a place where you can't pigeonhole him or put parameters up," he said. "Just imagine the freedom there is when there's no glass ceiling."
Liles felt with Thug on board, they could not only "change the perception of hip-hop coming from Atlanta, but we also could push the envelope on what it is to be creative." The entire team at 300 Entertainment felt his energy and saw his potential. So when he started floating around the idea of his imprint, executives were listening.
The Start of YSL
According to Liles, Thug sat down with the label executives to present his idea of acquiring his own music imprint. And although it was a "gamble," they decided to go for it. "It was a risk on energy that we felt we could build something special around," Liles recalled.
Sure enough, on November 15, 2016, Thug took to his Snapchat to reveal he was launching his very own music imprint under 300 Entertainment, Young Stoner Life Records. Rayna Bass, head of marketing at 300, remembers the beginning phases as a "very fun but unpredictable time" - but hey, risks pay off, right?
As the official brains behind Young Stoner Life Records, Thug's main goal was to create a label on which he could put his family and friends. YSL A&R Geoff Ogunlesi recounted Thugger saying, "How do I put my people on so they can put people on?" For him, it was all "about changing lives."
In an interview with i-D magazine, the musician shared its "new beats, family, friends," and other luxuries that motivate him to keep on creating. So when founding YSL, it was one of his core beliefs to keep it tight. Ogunlesi explained, "Thug signs off and believes in the artists," they sign, knowing most of them for five years.
YSL's First Artists
It was important for Thug to keep YSL close. So when it came to signing artists, he vetted each and every one of them closely for both talent and a family feel. Lil Duke was one of the earliest signees of YSL, appearing in Young Thug tracks since 2008. But the two actually go all the way back, growing up on the same street.
In fact, the musician keeps it so tight he even signed his two sisters, Dora and Dolly, to YSL. The duo appeared on Young Thug's track Family back in 2016, but it was all an accident. According to Dora, it was all freestyle, but they "picked up a lot of his [Thugger's] style when it comes down to rapping."
But perhaps the most successful artist to come out of YSL was Gunna. The two met through a mutual friend, Keith Troup, who passed - but his death just brought them closer, and the two became like brothers. In an interview with Elliot Wilson, Thug revealed, "my first two years around [Gunna], I didn't know he rapped. He never played a song."
Maybe that was the beauty behind the magic - they were cool before Thug knew Gunna or Sergio Kitchens could even rap. However, Wunna's debut mixtape, Drip Season, became the first project released through YSL. And although it didn't come all too easy, he was on the brink of turning an unknown artist into an international star.
Drip Too Hard
Fast forward to 2018, and Gunna's collaborative mixtape Drip Harder with Lil Baby popped off. The lead single, Drip Too Hard, became Diamond certified by the RIAA and peaked at number 4 on the Billboard charts - and was even nominated for a Grammy. Gunna was living proof of Thug's hard work and the success of YSL.
By this point, Gunna's sound exploded into major audiences, which led him to work with major international artists such as 21 Savage, Chris Brown, and Lil Durk. However, his biggest collaborator was Thug himself. Their relationship was deeper than paperwork, though, as Thug apparently "never received one dollar from [Gunna]."
Behind Closed Doors
While Gunna was reaching peak success, Young Thug's personal career was also growing and growing. The Lifestyle rapper was at the height of his career, defining new sounds, releasing hit songs, and breaking fashion norms, all while being a father. That's right. The Grammy award winner is father to six children with four women.
YSL was also at the peak of its success, signing artist after artist. And all their artists were finding success, thanks to Young Thug's vision. By this point, the Atlanta native had collaborated with every top rapper in the business, from J. Cole to Drake, Travis Scott, Future, and more. There was nothing he couldn't do. Or so it seemed.
Since the birth of YSL, Thug has been dedicated to running "his business as a family," according to his sister, Dora. YSL Records artists all refer to each other as "family" rather than just a record company, calling themselves the "slime family." According to Gunna, "there's no crew tighter than this."
"We're tight for real. We're locked in for real," Gunna explained. "We're ourselves, but we really kick it like we're family, too. We don't try to do the extracurricular stuff because it's already locked in with us. We've already got what we need. We feed off of that."
The Snake Pit
With his success, Thug even set up a lot of his artists in homes all over LA with studios so they could record all day and link up to collaborate. However, the YSL Compound, often referred to as the Snake Pit, is the main spot where the artists get together to create and hang out.
"It's an environment that Thug has done a great job in fostering because it doesn't feel like a business [setting]," Ogunlesi said. "This is really a family, and we build each other up." T-Shyne, a YSL signee, shared any artist from their tribe is always welcome to join studio sessions, whether it's to listen or hop in the booth.
"More Than a Label"
The Snake Pit was designed to be comfortable for artists to spend full days and nights together producing music - but also stacked with video games and other luxuries for their downtime. "There's no crew that works as hard as they work, and we have the studio bills to show it," according to Kevin Liles.
"YSL is not just a label to us. For lack of a better term, it's blood," Liles added. And they have Thug assuming the role of an "amazing leader" to thank for it. However, at the end of the day, they're a family. But sometimes, with family, things can get a bit messy...
First YSL Warnings
Throughout it all, Jeffery Williams has always been loyal to his roots. In fact, once he hit it big, he moved to Buckhead, North Atlanta, a majority white and affluent neighborhood, where quite a few famous rappers reside. But that doesn't mean things were easy.
However, in March of this year, local authorities made a statement warning Buckhead residents about their potential "criminal street gang" neighbors. Ken Howard, head of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, stated these neighbors are "Kind of like the Mafia don from the movies, gang members are in Buckhead driving the nicest cars,"
Fast forward a few months to May 2022, and Young Thug was arrested in his home and detained at Fulton Country Jail in Atlanta. The formal charge stated that the millionaire rapper was involved in "criminal street gang activity" and, therefore, was handcuffed and indicted.
However, it wasn't just Thugger that was arrested. The initial indictment contained 56 counts against 28 YSL members for alleged involvement in crimes that were committed on behalf of the "criminal street gang." A few weeks following the arrest, a new indictment was added, raking it up to 65 counts, 6 belonging to Thug.
Gunna Gets Tapped
Of the 28 people facing charges, Gunna was too charged with conspiracy to violate the state of Georgia's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. In addition, the pushin P artist was charged with receiving stolen property and possession of illegal substances with intent to distribute.
Besides Young Thug, who prosecutors identified as the leader of the alleged street gang, and Gunna, 26 other associates were arrested. YSL members Yak Gotti, Unfoonk, YSL Duke, and more have also been detained due to a wide range of supposed criminal activity.
What Are the Charges?
The 88-page grand jury indictment stated 182 instances of the group's alleged street gang activity. The prosecution claimed that the collective had "affiliation with the national Bloods gang, and some associates also claim the Blood subset gangs Sex Money Murder or 30 Deep."
The indictment claimed Young Thug, Gunna, and the other 26 people involved were involved in armed robbery, murder, attempted murder, theft, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, dealing, carjacking, and witness intimidation. However, all 28 individuals were charged with conspiracy to violate the state's RICO Act.
So what exactly is the RICO Act? The Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act is a federal law designed to push against organized crime in the US. The Georgia law sits similarly to the federal law, with its original aim to catch large criminal schemes.
The YSL members charged with violating the state's RICO act have been accused of participating in illegal actions to further gain money and properties. However, Young Thug is facing a few more penalties other than the RICO act, including possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony and more.
From Friend to Foe
Of the many allegations the collective is facing, the most serious involve certain members of YSL in a murder that went down back in 2015. The indictment claims Thug rented a car that was used upon commissioning the fatal ambush of Donovan Thoman Jr, a rival gang leader. Five YSL members were connected to his death.
In addition to the five members being charged with Thomas' death, three YSL members were charged with the attempted murder of rapper YFN Lucci, who was ambushed in jail a few months later. Thugger and Birdman were also listed as co-conspirators for aggravated assault in connection with an attack on Lil Wayne's tour bus but never charged.
Since his arrest, Thugger has been denied bond. According to his lawyer, Brian Steel, his client "committed no crime whatsoever" and is determined to "fight to my last drop of blood to clear him." His lawyer also noted Thug had been held in solitary confinement with "no human contact" when he filed for an emergency motion in May.
Gunna, too, has been denied bond following his arrest in May. "The prosecution again produced no evidence at all; instead, it chose to rely on vague and non-specific allegations and speculation through the statements of the prosecutor alone," according to one of his lawyers. "Gunna deserves better from our justice system."
Not the First Time We've Seen This
Both musicians are facing serious charges against them - and now the prosecutors are using the rapper's song lyrics against them as evidence. Even though experts have fought to claim that this is a violation of their first amendment rights, using rap lyrics to implicate artists is not a new tactic seen in the courtroom.
Influential rapers such as Bobby Shmurda, Boosie, Drakeo the Ruler, and Tekashi 6ix9ine have all been in the same situation where their lyrics were used to incriminate them. Deploying this method, Shmurda and 6ix9ine were found guilty and sentenced to time in prison during their own trials.
The lyrics being used against Young Thug come straight from some of the raper's most famous tracks. Off of the 2018 song, Anybody, Thug raps, "I never killed anybody, but I got something to do with that body," and, "I told them to shoot hundred rounds."
Another famous lyric now being used against him sparks from one of his older songs, Eww, from 2014. "Red just like Elmo but never f***** giggle," he rapped, which prosecutors are further connecting him to being affiliated with the Bloods street gang. Additionally, the indictment shows YSL members regularly signaling gang membership.
Fellow Artists Speak Out
Since the arrest, fellow musicians have fully supported freeing the YSL artists and are outraged by the use of lyrics to incriminate them. However, in January of last year, Maryland ruled that rap lyrics could, in fact, be used as evidence in the court of law. But Jay-Z and other artists found it completely unacceptable.
Before Gunna and Thug's arrest, Hova and other artists publicly involved themselves in attempting to pass New York Senates Bill S7527, or the Rap Music on Trial bill, which would limit the use of artists' lyrics in criminal trials. Artists such as Fat Joe, Killer Mike, Meek Mill, and more have signed off on the proposal.
Following the arrest, Metro Boomin spoke out on behalf of Thug. "YSL is not a gang and never been a gang fool," he tweeted, stating that the label has "provided countless jobs and opportunities for underprivileged Black people and really just all people 'cause that's how big Thug's heart is."
Metro Boomin wasn't the only artist to speak out. Fellow rapper Drake referenced the case in his song Sticky, rapping "Free Big Slime out the cage." The Grammy award-winning rapper didn't stop there. He used the phrase "Free YSL" as a title card in the music video for his song, Falling Back.
Out for Justice
And, of course, there was Kim Kardashian - who wasted no time sharing her opinion. Now that she's officially passed the bar, Kardashian is ready to work. The reality star took to Twitter to support Gunna. Tweeting the hashtag #FreeGunna, she shared she has been in contact with his counsel about multiple "false" claims.
"Imagine sitting in a jail cell for 155 days with no bond when the only evidence against you is a ticket for an unrelated window tint and someone saying you weren't in a gang," Kim tweeted. She added that Gunna's bond in being "denied for a third time despite there being zero evidence that he committed a crime."
Gunna Breaks His Silence
A month following his arrest, Gunna took to his Instagram to share the status of his imprisonment and his commitment to fighting in order to clear his name. He shared to his 4.4+ million followers that all he has is a "bed & a shower, no windows just walls. Can't see or talk to anyone," but he's "writing now & still praying every day."
Gunna explained, "2022 has been one of the best years of my life, despite this difficult situation," followed by writing, "this year I had the whole world pushing P." Despite the hardships, he assured, "Nothing will stop me from chasing my dreams… I won't stop being a good person."
Young Thug's Plea
Young Thug also had an opportunity to speak to his fans a few weeks following his arrest during a prerecorded address shared from behind bars at Fulton County Jail. "You know, this isn't about just me or YSL," he said, "I always use my music as a form of artistic expression," he told his fans.
"And I see now that Black artists and rappers don't have that freedom. Everybody, please sign the Protect Black Art petition and keep praying for us. I love you all," he said. Started by Liles, the petition's goal is to limit how prosecutors can use creative and artistic expression as evidence in the court of law.
Now that both Gunna and Young Thug have been denied bond, they will remain in jail until their trials begin in January of 2023. Prosecutors have attempted to delay the high-profile trial start date from January 9 to March 27 due to other defendants still missing court-appointed attorneys, but their request was denied.
In response to the request, Young Thug's lawyer responded, "it is unjust that Mr. Williams rots in the country jail." He added, "it has been too long to leave a human being custody without trial, without discovery, without the statutory right to a speedy trial and without bond." Stay tuned...