Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The rising teenage “drill rap” star comes from a tiny, economically depressed, mostly white city with lots of guns and one high school.
On January 8, 2002, President George W. Bush visited Hamilton High School, where he signed the No Child Left Behind Act, an education-reform bill controversial for its legacy of closing down schools that are considered “failing.” The school was (and still is) the only high school in the city, also named Hamilton, which sits in the southwest corner of Ohio, right by Cincinnati. Bush said that day that he normally signed laws at the White House, but that he found it fitting to sign this one in a public school.
Bush also found it a fitting place and occasion to cheer up the students about the war the U.S. had initiated in Afghanistan*. He told the teenagers that there was “no greater challenge” in America than making sure every child had a “first-class education.” America had another challenge, though, said Bush:
[A]nd that's to protect America from evil ones. And I want to assure the seniors and juniors and sophomores here at Hamilton High School that the effort that this great country is engaged in, the effort to defend freedom and to defend our people, the effort to rout out terror wherever it exists, is noble and just and right, and your great country will prevail in this effort. I long for peace. But I also understand that if we do not lead the world against terror, that your children and your grandchildren will not grow up in a society that is as free as the society we have today.
Slim Jesus would have been about 5 years old when Bush came to his city. He is the rapper in the video above. He is white. He appears to have many black friends. And judging by his presentation, they have access to a lot of guns (his video disclaimer notwithstanding). His song “Drill Time” has launched him into overnight celebrity status, in no small part to his gunshow spectacle, but also because of the power of social media. His video has more than 1.5 million views and close to 16,500 thumbs-ups on YouTube, as of September 10. (There are also more than 7,000 thumbs-downs.)
There are plenty of blogs, listicles, and Reddit threads attempting to explain who Slim Jesus is. However, his hometown of Hamilton—the city where Bush dropped bombs on education and Iraq in the same speech—perhaps most deserves examination to understand how Slim Jesus came to be.
The bullet-riddled rap style Slim Jesus indulges is called “drill rap,” which is culturally rooted in Chicago and practiced most feverishly by rappers cut from the Chief Keef mold. The death-toll details of Chicago “drill rap” seem to confirm every scary headline you’ve ever read about gun violence in Chicago, and allude to more killings that police and journalists have not yet picked up on. These rappers have claimed for their neighborhoods the name “Chiraq,” which blends their city’s official name with the name of the country where Bush waged his war on terror.
Slim Jesus’ humble hometown of Hamilton, with a population of fewer than 63,000, is nothing like Chiraq/Chicago. But it was once called “Little Chicago.” Back during the Prohibition era, gangsters came down from the real Chicago and set up shop in Hamilton. As Jim Blount notes in his 1997 book Little Chicago: A History of the Prohibition Era in Hamilton! and Butler County, Ohio, the gangsters turned the city into such a haven for gambling and prostitution that the military had to declare the city off limits for its soldiers during World War II. Hamilton’s primary industry for jobs throughout the first half of the 20th century was metal manufacturing, producing large supplies of tank equipment and engines for cars and submarines. It also produced a huge volume of guns—not all of them for war efforts.
Flash forward to March 30, 1975: Hamilton was put on the map when James Ruppert walked though his mother’s house with four guns and shot 11 of his family members dead. His mother was one of the victims, as were eight nieces and nephews, ranging in age from 4 to 17 years old. It happened on an Easter Sunday, the holiday on which Christians celebrate Jesus rising from the dead. Hamilton, Ohio’s Wikipedia page says it “was the deadliest shooting inside a private residence in American history.”
Ruppert was struggling with alcoholism and unemployment, unable to hold down a job for any long period of time. This was a time when manufacturing industries in the Rust Belt were either moving jobs overseas or shutting down due to the dying economy. Hamilton still hasn’t recovered. As the Hampton Institution, “a working class think tank,” wrote in 2013:
Suburbanization in the post-war era and deindustrialization hit Ohio's cities as hard as any in the nation. From the early 1970s to the mid 1980s, Ohio's manufacturing employment dropped by nearly 20 percent. Simultaneously, Ohio's metropolitan areas decentralized. … Ohio's manufacturing employment wasn't just hard hit during the seventies and eighties. At the beginning of the century Ohio had nearly a million manufacturing jobs. A little over a decade later just under 350,000 of those jobs remained. Manufacturing is the crucial piece of the economic puzzle in Ohio.
So are guns. Ohio ranks in the top 10 of every state-weighed table of the 2015 “Firearms Commerce in the United States” report issued by the U.S. Justice Department. The 306 registered gun manufacturers and dealers in Ohio are the highest number of any state except for Arizona, Texas, Florida, Virginia, and Pennsylvania. The 5,087 registered firearms licenses issued there in 2014 top all states except for California, Florida, Texas, and Pennsylvania. Here’s what Guns and Ammo had to say about Ohio’s gun-friendliness:
Things have gotten remarkably better for Ohio’s gun owners since 2014. Residents have seen the passage of pro-gun legislation, and those laws have now taken effect. Suppressors are now legal for hunting, and [Chief Law Enforcement Officers] must sign [National Firearms Act] transfer forms, which makes the already good Class 3 category even stronger. Additionally, training for [carrying concealed weapon] permits was reduced from 12 hours down to eight. Ohio’s [carrying concealed weapon] law has been changed to what is effectively a “full recognition” system, but the state does have a somewhat restrictive list of prohibited locations. The state enacted a Castle Doctrine law in 2008, but requires a particularly high burden of proof in the case of self-defense. An awkward definition of “automatic weapon” that created problems for certain firearms and magazines has been fixed, allowing for max points in the tactical rifle category.
These are the conditions that created Slim Jesus. While gun violence is often associated with black teens, its not surprising to find such a huge arsenal of guns in the hands of the white, teenaged rapper. He’s a reflection of his city—which is 84 percent white and 22.9 percent poor—and a reflection of the values of the predominantly white National Rifle Association. Along with Slim Jesus, Ohio also produced Machine Gun Kelly, from Cleveland, a Rust Belt city that has recovered a bit better than Hamilton, but is still in an economic rut. His music video “Till I Die” unpacks some of that civic misery:
As we remember 9/11, it’s worth acknowledging the costs of the war on terror on cities—in the form of less federal funding for schools, housing, and economic development. Neither of these Rust Belt cities received the manufacturing jobs for recent wars that boosted their economies during previous wars. But these cities have the guns, and they’re in the hands of the children who were left behind.
*CORRECTION: This post has been updated to clarify the timing of President Bush’s visit as being during the U.S. war with Afghanistan, not Iraq.