Last month, the three members of the rap group Migos were arrested after a performance at Georgia Southern University. Combined, they were charged with multiple felonies related to alleged gun and drug possession and booked into a Bulloch County prison. Two members, Quavo and Takeoff, were released on bail a few days later, but the other, Offset, remains in jail, from where he recently gave an interview in which he, at least in part, places the blame for his arrest at the feet of Vice and its music channel Noisey.
Noisey, perhaps the only valuable standalone site in Vice’s stable of verticals, recently produced a documentary series titled “Noisey: Atlanta.” The ten-episode package, distributed through YouTube, features Thomas Morton, the geeky face of Vice’s HBO show, interviewing and profiling Atlanta rappers.
That is the charitable reading of the videos; the uncharitable view is that Noisey cares less about explaining Atlanta’s rap scene than it does glorifying its subjects as lawless gangsters so that it can, by extension, sell itself as dangerous. This sort of branding has been a huge success for Vice proper, which parlayed early documentaries like “The Cannibal Warlords of Liberia” into its eponymous premium cable show. That same formula is now being applied to Noisey, which primarily produces writing, but has started to put together video series that chronicle American cities through the prism of rap: “Chiraq,” which preceded “Noisey: Atlanta,” purported to examine the intersection of violence and rap in Chicago.
In “Noisey: Atlanta,” Morton does intermittently talk with rappers about their art. But he spends as much, if not more, of the time gazing awkwardly at his subjects as they roll up weed, tool around with guns and throw money at strippers. Morton, in a break from how he usually handles himself on HBO, sheds his role as journalist so that he can fully represent the “viewer,” if the viewer is a suburban teen, pulled through his computer and dumped into a kitchen where a guy is cooking crack. At their worst, the videos feel zoological.
It’s instructive that the first episode, titled “Welcome to the Trap,” puts drugs ahead of music, opening with glossy, slo-mo shots of a drug dealer stirring a combination of cocaine and baking soda on his stove as a large shotgun leans against the wall next to him. Morton’s first words describe Atlanta as “the drug trafficking hub of the East coast, and the home of trap music,” an ordering of phrases that does not feel accidental. Later, the video transitions to Patchwerk Studios, where much of the city’s most well-known music has been recorded, and if they wanted to make a meaningful connection between the city’s drug trade and it’s rap scene, they should have tried harder.
It’s episode two, titled “Meet the Migos,” that concerns Migos themselves. (Offset does not appear in the episode and his absence from it is not explained.) The episode opens with Morton on the set of a Migos video shoot at the famous strip club Magic City, narrating the proceedings as your rap-hating father might: “So far the basic theme,” he says of the video, “is girls dancing with their asses behind them and money being showered upon said girls.”
Later, he visits Migos’ McMansion in a gated neighborhood in Stockbridge, a suburb south of Atlanta. Before even entering the house, Morton encounters two hangers-on with guns tucked into their waistbands, one of whom points his pistol at the camera. Inside, there are guns upon guns. Here is Quavo, Migos’ most recognizable face, with an automatic weapon strapped to his chest:
You can understand how this might perk the attention of police. Later, a guy tells Morton that the AR-15 he’s holding is “brand new out the box.” If Migos suspected that this video precipitated their arrest, they’re probably right.
Of course, Migos seem proud to show their guns and heavy bags of weed off to Vice’s cameras. The potential consequences of being a major rap group eager to display your arsenal of weapons to strange cameras should be fairly obvious. Migos are no strangers to police—Offset was locked up when Drake’s remix of their song “Versace” turned them into overnight sensations. They must be aware that police across the country have historically looked to make examples of popular rappers.
Still, it’s fair to wonder if Migos knew exactly what they were getting into. Their manager, a man named Coach K, who is interviewed by Vice on camera, is one of the most respected and savvy figures in Atlanta rap, but artists, especially when their careers are suddenly accelerating, are often set up for interviews in which they may be unaware of the exact details.
In his jailhouse interview, Offset said Migos were “tricked” by Noisey, but he didn’t elaborate on how. A request to talk to someone in Migos’ camp for this story was not returned, and Vice would not speak on the record about the mechanical details of producing “Noisey: Atlanta.” But it’s not hard to see how artists such as Migos would feel used by a transaction that only turns to them when the camera flashes on.
Noisey, ultimately, has final say over how and which images comprise the product viewed by the public. They should not self-censor, of course, but they’re orchestrating a dance with vulnerable subjects that requires delicacy. Here is how Noisey promoted “Noisey: Atlanta” in banner ads (the furthest left image comes from Migos’ kitchen):
What exactly did they want to get out of these videos? In “Meet the Migos,” Morton talks to the group and their friends about their artillery. “You just have to be over protective, you know,” says Jose Guapo, a Migos collaborator. “You never know what might follow you home sometimes,” says another.
Here, finally, Migos and their friends are presented as human. They can, through rap, acquire the means to physically remove themselves from danger, but danger will follow them nonetheless. They are cautious at best, scared at worst. This is a dynamic woven into rap that still too often goes unexplored. Morton quickly describes Migos history of being targeted by rivals and notes, in their defense, that “having a little firepower at their disposal might be a prudent move.”
And that’s that. Morton moves on, asking Migos things like “Gucci [Mane]: how did you guys meet?” and “How did you come up with ‘Versace’?” These are questions you might expect to hear from a college freshman doing his first interview. The camera lingers on guns throughout the episode, but the central, and most important, question—why do Migos have so many guns?—is never returned to or examined further. Morton’s nod toward Migos being weaponized like an army is not a prelude to anything more substantive. It feels as much as a preemptive defense of Noisey’s cameras leering at Migos’ guns as it does a defense of Migos having those guns in the first place.
Migos almost certainly were not “tricked” by Noisey. Noisey would point out that it does not benefit from screwing over major rap stars. But journalism becoming exploitation requires no sleight of hand.
[image of Offset via Instagram]