In 2020, tragedy has loomed over Chicago hip-hop. Within the span of just four months, we’ve seen the lives of three prominent figures in the city’s drill scene meet a violent and untimely end. Chief Keef affiliate Tray Savage was gunned down on July 19. Then FBG Duck was shot in broad daylight on Chicago’s downtown Gold Coast area on Aug. 4. King Von became the latest addition to that list on Nov. 6 when he tragically died just one week after dropping his latest and most ambitious album, Welcome to O-Block.
On Friday morning, outside of a lounge in Atlanta, an altercation reportedly broke out that led to shots being fired and nearby police officers responding. According to the nightclub’s surveillance footage that went viral on social media and local news reports, Von and several other people were shot, then taken to the hospital. After rumors circulated that off-duty cops allegedly shot Von, news outlets in Georgia reported that 22-year-old Timothy “Lil Tim” Leeks, the accused gunman who was spotted on the hookah lounge’s surveillance camera, was arrested while being treated for a gunshot wound.
King Von was only 26 years old, and a father of three children, when he was killed. Born Dayvon Bennett, he was among a special class of Chicago artists who brought a breath of fresh air to the community’s hip-hop scene, soundtracking the city’s most war-torn and neglected neighborhoods. At a time when many of his peers and predecessors—namely his Only the Family big brother Lil Durk—were making an impact on the streets (and the Billboard charts) through cathartic songs laced with AutoTune, Von made a name for himself by forgoing the melodic route and opting for vividly detailed, immersive, and honest storytelling that was reminiscent of a young Ice-T or the late Speaker Knockerz.
While he wouldn’t be the first drill artist from Chicago to demonstrate thoughtful, skillful lyricism, the Parkway Gardens native delivered it in a ferocious and resonating package that was, and still is, unrivaled. Songs like “Took Her To The O” and the “Crazy Story” series brought back catchy narrative sing-alongs, reminiscent of what Slick Rick did with “Children’s Story.” Meanwhile, deep cuts like the gloomy, bloody “Wayne’s Story,” a song about a 14-year-old killer with a grim future, showed Von’s ability to pull from the most violent realities in Chicago and bring to light the bleakest forms of nihilism in the streets. Whether his tales caused you to dance or shudder, his precise wordplay and passionate delivery always made him effective.
In April 2019, I interviewed King Von over the phone for a project regarding the trajectory of Chicago drill music. I remember being immediately captivated by his engaging personality, which could be disarming. He was very animated and personable in a way that hinted at his potential starpower. By his account at the time, Meek Mill felt the same way. We talked about how he started writing his rhymes in jail, his penchant for staying hypervigilant at all times, and what made OTF and GBE such influential entities.
“We’re the leaders,” he told me. “Look around. Everything we do, we’re gonna see everyone else try to do it. They pay attention. If one of us dye our hair, you’re gonna see niggas dyeing their hair. I just got a grill, so [you’ll see people] get grills too. All the females love us, and we’re real street niggas, too.”
On an episode of the No Jumper podcast in March 2020, King Von explained that he first developed his craft during jail stints, especially when he couldn’t sleep, as a way of being constructive with his time. “I don’t go in and just get to rapping off the dome. I think about it. I really think about it, especially when I make the story,” he said. “Jail shit was coming a lot, so I wrote a lot of shit. In jail, you just zone out, so that’s the thing. That’s like a cheat code. Even though you’re missing everything, the only thing you can do is work out, write shit, and think and plot. So I’m in that bitch using all my time writing. Now, I’ve got 50, 80 sheets of paper with songs in it.”
Von’s Gold-certified breakout hit “Crazy Story,” released in late 2018, encapsulated everything hip-hop fans beyond the Chicago city limits would grow to love about him. All three iterations of the track felt like being part of an intimate conversation happening in real-time. Von executed with frantic urgency and the kind of suspense you would expect to hear in the murkiest and most intricate hood stories from the east coast and Chicago rap of the late ’90s. All of Von’s music videos, including the one for “Crazy Story,” captured his uniquely animated intensity and inviting charisma, revealing early on that he was primed for the same big stage that Durk stands upon.
Von maximized his storytelling strengths across a trio of critically-acclaimed efforts, Grandson Vol. 1, Levon James, and Welcome to O-Block. Each project showcased the full complexities of his personality, as Von fleshed out narratives that are rarely seen in mainstream rap. On songs like “Why He Told,” where he aired out his anguish about a person he was close to who ended up being a snitch, Von revealed layers of nuance that humanized him. And it’s this level of humanity that made King Von such a relatable and impressionable figure. He was never afraid to be the most honest version of himself at all times.
Mentally, King Von was never far away from the darkest corners he rose from. In his final interview, recorded a few days before his murder, DJ Akademiks asked Von if he “keeps his head on a swivel all the time” after pointing out the rapper’s habit of looking around during his interviews. “Why not, gang?” Von replied. “My head been on a swivel before I was rapping. So, do my head not supposed to be on the swivel? If you’ve been like this your whole life, do it stop because you got money now? Do it stop because everybody and their momma looking at you now? My shit spinning even harder.”
Still, Von stayed focused on his career. In 2020, not even a global pandemic could stop his emerging success. Levon James peaked at No. 63 on the Billboard charts, and Welcome to O-Block debuted at No. 13. Out of a diverse class of artists from Chicago, including the late Juice WRLD, Polo G, Lil Zay Osama, Calboy, Ann Marie, and his OTF brethren Memo600, it seemed Von was well on his way to becoming the next big star. While “Crazy Story” would be his only RIAA-certified hit, it was his intense, yet jovial personality that made him a beloved figure among his growing audience. He even caught the attention of LeBron James. “Damn Rest Easy Von,” James tweeted upon hearing the news of his death. “Bronny, Bryce, and I rocked with his music and storytelling! The kid had a damn good future ahead of him. My prayers and blessings to his family.”
Newfound fame and critical acclaim was rapidly coming his way. Controversy followed, too. Von attracted tabloid attention for an on-and-off relationship with Asian Doll. His name was also in headlines following an arrest in Atlanta with Lil Durk. The two rappers were charged with attempted murder due to their alleged role in a robbery, according to prosecutors. They were released on bond, but the case remained open.
As Von’s profile grew, he stayed focused on making money and providing for his O-Block neighborhood. In an interview with Passion of the Weiss in June 2020, he explained, “I just want to get my money right and take care of my people. I don’t care. I don’t give a fuck about nothing.” And as 2020 wore on, it seemed he was on the verge of seeing more money and opportunities than he ever could have imagined. The fact that he can no longer fulfill this mission in life makes his death all the more tragic for his family and community.
King Von deserves to be remembered for who he was in his totality as an artist and as a man. As a rapper, he was one of the best pure lyricists in his era of Chicago drill, helping to re-popularize personal storytelling with a burning and infectious bravado that made him stand out among giants. And, like a lot of young men from the most neglected parts of Chicago, he was someone who chose to make the best out of nothing, for himself and for the people around him. He was a young king of an era of Chicago rap that is losing its stars at a frightening pace. No posthumous verses or albums will heal the painful void that’s becoming deeper every day.