Zack Stoner dedicated his life to documenting parts of Chicago that few outsiders with video cameras ever bother to visit. He uploaded his interviews to YouTube as ZackTV, so you could call him a vlogger—his channel, ZackTV1, has more than 175,000 subscribers. You could call him a journalist too, because he did tremendous work capturing local artists in their elements, sometimes before anyone outside Chicago knew who they were—Chief Keef, 600 Breezy, Rico Recklezz, Queen Key, FBG Duck. But neither “journalist” nor “vlogger” adequately describes him. He pursued his work with an activist zeal that bordered on the missionary.
Stoner was about support and healing, not just reportage—he gave voice to Chicagoans who had none, quashed beefs between artists and cliques, and strove to create positive change in resource-deprived communities burdened by a history of systemic racism. It’s impossible to count how many people he touched with his work, but after he was shot dead at age 30 on Wednesday morning in the South Loop, it seemed like all of Chicago began grieving. “It’s a dark cloud over the city,” says rapper and G Herbo manager Mikkey Halsted.
Halsted met Stoner in the early 2000s, when Halsted was untethering himself from a deal with infamous New Orleans label Cash Money and had taken a job teaching at William Augustus Hinton School in Englewood. “Zack was one of my students,” Halsted says. “Even before he was ZackTV, he was a little brother to me.” Bright and gregarious, Stoner made a big impression on his teacher. “You knew he was destined to be somebody,” Halsted says. “Everybody’s special in their own right, but this kid is something unforgettable.”
Halsted says his school sat on a border between territories claimed by the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. Stoner never joined a gang, and he had a rare ability to cross the lines they drew. “He was a person who had friends on both sides,” Halsted says. Stoner was already interested in the music industry when he arrived in Halsted’s class, and having a teacher who was then one of the city’s most famous rap exports fanned those flames. Even before YouTube launched in 2005, Stoner knew he wanted to build an infrastructure for aspiring local rappers—at the time, the city didn’t have much of a hip-hop industry.
Stoner began uploading clips to the ZackTV1 channel in July 2009. The next year, drill originator Larry “Pac Man” Johnson was shot to death, and with his passing the genre grew into a Chicago phenomenon. When it broke out nationally in 2012, Stoner was at the center of the action. In February 2012 he uploaded one of the first interviews with Chief Keef, who was under house arrest at his grandmother’s Washington Park apartment and still a month shy of releasing his breakthrough mixtape, Back From the Dead. Around the time of that interview, Stoner met Merk Murphy, who was working with Keef’s management (he now manages Ty Money). “Zack always had a reputation of knowing who the artists were and having a leg up on getting content on them,” Murphy says.
In Stoner, Murphy saw a workaholic who was as comfortable in front of the camera as he was behind it. “He was a one-man show—that part gets kind of overlooked,” Murphy says. “He was a very vital translator for Chicago to the rest of the world, even as he grew bigger than Chicago.” Stoner documented every corner of Chicago rap, giving a platform to artists and scenes the rest of the city’s media never bothered to cover—if we even knew they existed. His career blossomed in part because he did the work to seek out the subjects he wanted, crossing through the territories of rival gangs with a DSLR in hand. He also had a talent for engrossing interviews. “Everybody could put music up and put a video up, but he’s the first one to ask intelligent questions and challenge them,” Halsted says. “He’s really special in that way.”
Stoner interviewed Keef, yes, but he also talked to friends of Keef’s rival Joseph Coleman, aka Lil JoJo, after the south-side rapper was shot and killed in September 2012. Coleman, a Gangster Disciple affiliate, taunted the rival Black Disciples on his best-known song, “BDK” (that’s “Black Disciple Killers”). Keef has links to the BDs, and “BDK” uses the same instrumental as his song “Everyday.” It’s widely rumored that Coleman was killed in response to public provocations like these.
Stoner was able to get close to Coleman’s friends and other GD-affiliated artists because he knew Smylez, a rapper-producer who’s collaborated with Coleman, Young Chop, and King Louie, among others. He interviewed Smylez in the studio as well as on the street in Coleman’s neighborhood (which has since been christened “JoJo World”). When Smylez died in October 2016, Stoner went to the funeral with camera in hand. His style of documenting artists included demonstrating the sometimes complicated relationships they had with other musicians in the city—even when those relationships were ugly.
“A lot of things that were going on as far as rap beefs or Internet beefs, we found out what really happened because of Zack,” says DJ Amaris, who helped several big drill artists (including Keef) early in their careers. “He gave you that chance to give your perspective of the situation, and then that is what molded him to be more caring towards all situations. He was dealing with people that are BDs or GDs, he’s dealing with someone that may have just lost their brother to gun violence, he’s dealing with somebody that lost their daughter to gun violence.”
Amaris and Stoner became friends four years ago, after running into each other at a DTLR shoe store—they ended up sitting outside and talking for several hours. “He listened more than probably anybody in the city,” Amaris says. “If you was telling a story, he’d want to know A through Z and what happened, and he gonna ask you every time you say something, ‘How did this happen?’ ‘Why did this happen?’ ‘How did you feel about that?’ And if you say something dramatic he’s gonna say, ‘Whoa, are you serious?!'”
Stoner was a curious, easygoing, and empathetic interviewer, asking thoughtful, well-researched questions about his subject’s backstories and beefs. Off camera, he’d often step into tense conflicts to defuse them. “Zack always asked, ‘What can we do to fix this? Can we bring some peace into this? Who do we need to sit down with to get this done?'” says Amaris. In an April Chicago Defender feature on Stoner, Charles Preston wrote about the Good Brothers, a for-profit collective he’d cofounded, and about the way he used his YouTube platform to help that group broker a peace treaty between two Altgeld Gardens gangs, Achieving My Goals and the Bar-Nones. The Good Brothers also helped mentor kids and partnered with the Lilydale Baptist Church on a gun buy-back event.
This past winter, Stoner launched a blanket drive for the homeless with his close friend Chicago King Dave (founder of the clothing line Fuck Fame). They asked for donations of blankets on Instagram, then delivered them directly to people in need. “We used to get out and every night give away ten, 15 blankets, jump in our car, go on back home—the next night we was back out,” Dave says. “Every day shipments of blankets was coming in—Minnesota, Miami, South Carolina, Saint Louis, from all over the world. We even had blankets come from the UK.”
Stoner didn’t shy away from much in his work, and he’d keep filming when his subjects brandished firearms on camera. “He said sometimes it was scary—standing with a camera with these kids, and they’ve got these big guns that are bigger than them,” Dave says. “It was times that he was nervous, there was times he called me, and there was times that he didn’t. After a while he just got used to it.” Some people complained that Stoner was glamorizing violence with that footage, but his work shouldn’t be conflated with the shallow “drill equals violence” takes of news outlets parachuting into Chicago to film rappers holding guns. Stoner was immersed in the scene, and when he showed people with weapons it wasn’t just to document what was happening in front of him—he wanted to raise questions about power and responsibility, and he knew he couldn’t do that by censoring himself. By spending time with musicians and learning their stories, Stoner granted them a respect no one else did.
For the past few years, an interview with Stoner has been one way for Chicago artists to boost their profiles. In 2015 he interviewed Azeez Alaka, aka star videographer Laka Films, when he’d only shot for a few artists (the biggest of whom is now Famous Dex). “For me it was a big deal, because he was somebody that I was watching for years, and a lot of people in Chicago didn’t give me attention,” Alaka says. After the interview, Alaka’s list of clients quickly grew to include Lil Reese, Ocho, and Boss Top. And Stoner helped Alaka more recently too, putting him in touch with a client in New York. Alaka returned the favor, giving Stoner camera advice that improved the gritty, lo-fi picture quality and audio issues of his early footage.
Stoner’s brief career was full of such mutually beneficial collaborations. “Me and Dave were doing mixtapes, and any artists that came through us, we had Zack do an interview with them,” Amaris says. “Any artist that came through Zack for an interview, he pushed them our way to get their music heard or mixtapes hosted, or just simply dealing with us to get their music out here.”
Instead of interviews with rappers, Stoner sometimes posted footage of his friends on the ZackTV channel, which piqued his audience’s curiosity. “People used to be like, ‘Man, who is Chicago King Dave?'” Dave says. “They’d get up on my clothes. I had a lot of guys from the streets—like Lil Jay, FBG Duck—I had all these kids that people was afraid of wearing my clothes.” Dave went on to work with some of those artists, organizing small tours for Lil Jay and FBG Duck (who recently signed a deal with Sony on the strength of January’s breakout single “Slide”).
In recent years Stoner traveled outside Chicago frequently, interviewing artists in Pittsburgh, Brooklyn, and beyond. He also expanded beyond music, talking to Fred Hampton Jr. about politics and taking an interest in the case of west-side teenager Kenneka Jenkins, who died in a Rosemont hotel freezer in September. But he remained invested in local rap. A couple weeks ago, Halsted says he encouraged Stoner to try managing artists, but his friend wanted to stay neutral. “He had real ethics, bro,” Halsted says. “He was doing what he was doing and making alliances.” Amaris says he and Stoner kicked around an idea for cooling down rap feuds with a song. “He said to me, ‘Amaris, let’s just put everybody that’s opps on a record together and put it out—what they gonna do? They gonna have no choice but to respect it—they gonna make money off of it, and we might bring peace like that,'” Amaris says. They were still talking about it when Stoner was killed.
The night Stoner was shot, he went to the South Loop club Refuge for a Fuck Fame showcase. “That was my event, and in five years, I’ve never had an altercation,” Dave says. “The first altercation at my event, one of the closest people to me was killed. I ain’t been feeling too good.” Dave was out in front of the club when he heard the shots that killed Stoner a few blocks away. “I heard ten to 15 shots, and I never knew 30 minutes later somebody would tell me that they pulling Zack out of a Jeep, putting him on a stretcher, putting him in an ambulance, and putting the sheet over him,” he says. “I never thought that would be Zack.”
Huge swaths of the local hip-hop scene lost their voice when Stoner died. And if someone so widely loved and respected and so good at mediating conflict wasn’t safe from being shot, who will want to step forward to carry on his work? But Stoner’s friends want to keep his legacy alive, and they’re taking concrete steps already: Amaris and Dave are organizing a charity basketball game to benefit Stoner’s family. Dave has already considered abandoning the scene because of his friend’s death, but he’s thought better of it. “I’m like, ‘Zack’ll be pissed if I quit, and I might as well die if I’mma give up like this,'” Dave says. “I feel like my life is worth the same thing Zack’s life was—to help save someone else in my community.”
Zack Stoner’s funeral will be held at Gatling’s Chapel (10133 S. Halsted) at noon on Saturday, June 9, preceded by a wake at 11:30 AM.