JEFFERY: The full Young Thug story, from Cleveland Avenue and beyond | Part 1
As Young Thug's case nears a trial date, 11Alive’s ‘Jeffery’ series gives an exclusive lens into what this case means – legally, artistically and culturally.
The 11Alive exclusive ‘Jeffery’ series unravels the high-profile grand jury indictment of Atlanta rapper Jeffery Williams, better known as Young Thug. We explore the impact of the controversial indictment, which alleges that his prominent record label, YSL, is allegedly connected to street gang activity, according to Fulton County prosecutors.
The recent events reignited a decades-long conversation about the use of rap lyrics in courtrooms across the country, the movement to protect Black art, and the precedent this case could set.
As this notorious case nears a trial date, 11Alive’s ‘Jeffery’ series gives an exclusive lens into what this case means – legally, artistically and culturally. And where do the lines blur between art and reality?
The rest of this series will premiere soon exclusively on 11Alive+, available on Roku and Amazon Fire TV. Text "plus" to 404-885-7600 to download 11Alive+. For more info, visit: https://www.11alive.com/watch.
Part 1: Jeffery Williams from Cleveland Ave
In the heart of Atlanta's southside community is a distinct area that is not only rich with history, but has contributed significantly to the landscape of Atlanta’s hip-hop identity.
Cleveland Avenue stretches through the southside horizontally with roughly a 4-mile distance that cuts through I-75 and I-85, bridging a cluster of vibrant neighborhoods through one linear pathway.
Near the Cleveland Avenue and Jonesboro Road intersection is where Young Thug’s journey began. The young artist, whose real name is Jeffery Williams, was raised at the Jonesboro South Apartments, part of the Atlanta Housing Authority.
Young Thug attributes his sense of community from how he was raised in Jonesboro South. Over the years, he chronicled his life story through interviews which captured his upbringing, rise to success and carving out his own lane as a hip-hop artist.
“Jeffery, I used to hate that name so much,” the Grammy-winning artist said in a 2016 interview with XXL Magazine. “But now, I am starting to understand the name.”
As he learned to embrace his rap name and real name, Young Thug said Jonesboro South gave him the ability to lay the foundation for his American Dream, considering he started from poverty and was handed nothing but hard times.
The come up
Jeffery Williams, a.k.a. Young Thug, was able to hit the music scene at a young age. After releasing a series of mixtapes, music videos and booking at local venues, his brand gained momentum and success.
“Next thing you know, you gon’ here ‘bout a 10 to 15-million dollar deal,” Jeffery said in a 2013 interview with Hood Affairs TV, foreshadowing of a success that was bubbling.
His road to success was similar to many in the industry. They’re handed nothing but hard times, yet found a path to success out of conditions many don’t survive.
An artist who understands Jeffery’s journey all too well is Atlanta hip-hop veteran T.I.
“What is it like to chase your dream in Atlanta? To start off with nothing. Start off in Jonesboro South. Start off in Zone Three. Start off in Sylvan Hills with nothing?” 11Alive journalist Neima Abdulahi asked the rapper in an exclusive sit-down interview.
“Well, it would be likened to the idea, similar to the thought of walking in a store and buying a lottery ticket,” he replied. “The mega millions. You know what I'm saying?”
T.I. grew up in Bankhead, Atlanta. He witnessed Young Thug’s music journey from the beginning and sees how it parallels his own road to success.
“I didn't know where a studio was. I had no idea,” T.I. recalled. “Outside of the cafeteria table or freestyling with my partners on the corner. I didn't know how to find my way to success. Over a course of a period of time, I found myself in the light.”
He said Jeffery’s journey was even more difficult.
“He didn’t come from a family that knew how to get him in front of people,” he said. “These kids were running the streets lost.”
Former Atlanta police officer Tyrone Dennis is familiar with the landscape of Atlanta’s Black communities, the city’s vibrant history and the obstacles many face in the generationally poverty-stricken neighborhoods. He has been with the department for nearly 17 years.
“When you say you’re from these different housing projects, it's almost like a stamp, a badge of honor,” Dennis said. “[That you] got it out the mud.”
Atlanta was home to the country’s first public housing complex, Techwood Homes, which helped usher in a wave of federally subsidized housing authorities intended to provide assistance to families in need.
Over time, the housing projects became predominantly Black communities, according to Amir Shaw, Trap Music historian and author.
One by one, the original housing projects became demolished over the years. Before the city demolished the Jonesboro South housing project in 2009, the community raised several generations of Atlanta. It was constructed in 1970, according to the Atlanta Housing Authority.
Even though it’s physically gone now, there’s still a deep connection to what it represents to this day.
“At the same time, there's high crime, a lot of drug dealing, just a lot of poverty,” Shaw said. “Even today, there are still some pockets of Cleveland Avenue that's still [troubled] to this day.”
'Ahead of his time'
From T.I. to Gucci Mane, veterans in the hip-hop world watched Jeffery build his career over the years. Industry legends, who were topping billboard charts themselves, stood in awe of Jeffery’s talent.
“I’ve been rocking with Thug since before the music,” Atlanta rapper Yung Ralph told the Atlanta-based interview series Dirty Glove Bastard’s Off The Porch platform. “I already knew that [he] was gonna be big. I ain’t know he was gon’ be that big. But I knew that [he] was gon’ be big.”
Jeffery’s success didn’t happen overnight.
“He didn't have a talent at the time that was easily recognizable by the people who were in position,” T.I. explained. “So he kind of had to work a Rubik's Cube to find himself in a position to not only where he could present his art to people, but to where the people he were presenting to could actually understand the art he was presenting.”
“Because he was ahead of his time?” 11Alive asked.
“Completely ahead of it,” T.I. replied. “Still ahead of his time today.”
Jeffery’s style of rap stood out and caught the attention of major players in the industry.
“His voice was so distinctive,” music historian Shaw said. “It was like a very interesting style of rap that we had never really heard before.”
His journey to fame is rooted in connections he made right in his Jonesboro South community. Jeffery grew up with Atlanta musician Peewee Longway, who introduced him to hip-hop veteran Gucci Mane. This led to Jeffery’s first major record deal. And in 2013, Gucci Mane signed Young Thug.
“Young Thug was able to kind of just put out songs and, especially in Atlanta, they became club hits,” Shaw said.
Building the 'YSL Records' empire
In 2016, Young Thug launched Young Stoner Life (YSL) Records and signed with 300 Entertainment. Music executive Kevin Liles is the co-founder of 300 Ent.
“We're creative people. We're hardworking people,” Liles told 11Alive’s Neima Abdulahi. “More importantly, we're people that have dealt with so many of the things that went against us that we've built for this, too.”
Young Thug utilized YSL Records to sign other Atlanta artists, like rapper Gunna, whose real name is Sergio Kitchens.
“Once he found himself in a position to offer to reach back and help people like Gunna,” T.I. said. “And through the vision, through the art and execution for Young Thug all of that was made possible.”
“I know what he's done for his community,” Liles said. “I know what the symbol of Young Stoner Life and the record company meant, not only him but Gunna and Keed coming out. These were the beacons of light.”
A beacon of light that’s recently dimmed.
“I don't really know anything about the other stuff that they talking about, because I haven't seen it,” T.I. explained.
“I always use my music as a form of artistic expression,” Jeffery said behind bars in a viral video from a Fulton County jail cell. “Now I see that Black artists and rappers don’t have that freedom.”