“Sorry, I forgot,” Yaksha tells me, in the Bratislava headquarters of his indie rap label FCK THEM. Behind us hangs a portrait of a samurai, rendered in neon, with a passing resemblance to Mikhail Gorbachev. “In Slovakia, when some guests come, we invite them on a shot. You want a shot?”
I say yes and stemmed bubble glasses appear, as does a clear bottle of Slivovica. Traditional plum liquor. This particular batch was fermented at home, by the Slovak rap star Dalyb’s father. It’s bracing stuff. Okay, it’s disgusting. But they seem to know that. They just want me to feel at home. “Welcome!” they shout as I drink. “Ciao!”
Yaksha, 33, is, effectively, Bratislava’s Sean “Puffy” Combs. He’s also the person who discovered the now-imprisoned Brooklyn rapper 6ix9ine, when 6ix9ine was still a mostly anonymous teenager posting on YouTube. Born and raised as Daniel Hernandez in Bushwick, Brooklyn, 6ix9ine became a streaming superstar in late 2017 on the back of a public persona carefully cultivated to, above all, engender reaction. Armed with shouty street rap and rainbow-colored hair and a Jigsaw Jesus piece, he was a trollish cartoon villain.
It feels like 6ix9ine was dreamt up by an overheated viral hive mind. And it’s true he’d never exist without the internet. But it didn’t happen the way we think. In reality, on its way to making him huge, the internet first had to bring 6ix9ine to Bratislava.
One of 6ix9ine’s earliest tracks was a guest appearance on Dalyb’s group Haha Crew’s “Rolling Stones.” “Slovakia!” he shouts on the track. “What’s good! We out here!” The first time he left New York was to come here. His first-ever live show was at the Bratislava club Babylon.
William Asher, who co-directed a string of lo-fi provocatory music videos that shot 6ix9ine to viral infamy, says of FCK THEM, “We would put all our YouTube videos on their page and build a core fan base over there; then we toured over there. They really introduced [6ix9ine] to what it is to be, like, a rapper and shit. Before that, we weren’t doing shit.”
That a small outfit in Bratislava had a hand in launching 6ix9ine’s career is a strange story about how the internet functions. It’s also a muted kind of tragedy. Yaksha and the FCK THEM crew describe a polite, humble “genius” they knew as Danny, who charged their plucky little scene with international relevance. Now, they watch as 6ix9ine negotiates not only federal charges but also serious accusations of extreme violence toward Sara Molina, the mother of his young daughter. And they are unable to square that reality with their own.
“He fell in love with it here,” Adam, Yaksha’s right-hand man and semi-translator, tells me. The first time they picked him up from the airport, 6ix9ine insisted they stop on the side of the road so he could take photos of a sprawling field of yellow spring flowers. “He said, ‘Here’s fresh air! This is not Bushwick!’”
“When he started to make really big money, our plan was to invest it in an apartment in Bratislava,” Yaksha adds. “It would be his European base. We must wait. But I believe this plan still will be.”
Yaksha — real name, Michal Novotný — was born to a Vietnamese father and a Slovak mother in Martin, a small town on the north of the country then known as Czechoslovakia. He grew up skating with kids who loved NOFX. “‘Hey, bro, you must listen to punk-rock music,” they told him. “I said, ‘Fuck off! Wu-Tang is way better!’”
His first foray into the industry was as a DJ in a rap crew, Dramatikz, who put out two albums via Sony Music’s Slovakia department. Eventually, he realized he didn’t actually want to be a performer. He went on to manage regionally famous names, but soon grew bored of their fealty to East Coast ’90s rap. “Every big artist here, it’s some classic shit,” he says. “You must be from the street and everything is hard.” Yaksha had a personal revelation: “I like more New Wave rap, yeah?”
“New Wave” is his term for what Americans might call SoundCloud rap. “In U.S., it’s [accepted] when artists have the gold grills and face tattoos and make all songs with two words.” He laughs. “For everyone in Slovak and Czech Republic, to [hear] New Wave here?” It was unimaginable.
Then Yaksha discovered Haha Crew, a goofy trio from Košice. In 2013, while they were still in high school, they dropped their first single, “Rap & Móda,” a nice chunk of luxury-brand nonsense. “It was really controversial in Slovakia. A lot of people hated them. One group coming in with a song about Givenchy?” Yaksha considers it the origin point for modern Slovak rap music. He feels that everyone now owes a debt to Haha Crew — that nothing has been the same since.
“I heard it and I said, ‘Oh fuck.’” Pause. “‘Finally.’”
With Haha Crew as his marquee act, he started building what would become FCK THEM. For a few years he made no money, funding the operation through marketing and streetwear side hustles. In 2016, he started flying to New York and connecting with “young rappers who make New Wave”; he became known as the man to find if you want to play Eastern Europe. He’s since put on shows for a number of fledgling rappers, including A$AP Nast, Black Dave, and Ken Rebel. Touching down in Bratislava, artists would be hesitant at first. Invariably, he’d hear references to a certain torture-porn classic set in the Slovak capital. “When I brought Nast from the airport, we cruising in the city, he told me, ‘This is not so scary like the movie Hostel!’” Yaksha cracks up. “I said, ‘Bro, it’s a fucking movie! This is not from reality!’”
And to the delight of the artists, the gigs themselves would often have the raw energy of your old-school hard-core matinee shows. “In the U.S., it’s people chilling with phones. In Slovakia, people make really big mosh pits. Whole show, everybody fighting!”
6ix9ine found his way to Bratislava via YouTube analytics. In 2014, checking the numbers on one of his early videos, he noticed a big portion of the views (then just in the few thousands) had come from Slovakia. The reason: Dalyb had posted it on his Facebook page. As Yaksha remembers it, 6ix9ine then got on Instagram and wrote something to the effect of, “‘Do you know some Slovakian rappers I can make music with?’ And a lot of people wrote him, ‘You must make music only with Haha Crew.’” The resulting track, “Rolling Stones,” was cooked up with FCK THEM via email and dropped on Haha Crew’s debut, Vlna, which became a touchstone for the local scene.
For a couple of years after “Rolling Stones,” FCK THEM and 6ix9ine retreated back into their own worlds. Then in 2016, on a long trip to New York, Yaksha met 6ix9ine for the first time. “He [DM’d] me every day about meeting,” Yaksha says. He took the L train to Bushwick, where 6ix9ine met him at the subway steps and took him out for fried chicken.
Right away, 6ix9ine told him, “Hey, bro — I will be the biggest artist from New York.” Yaksha had been skeptical of 6ix9ine and his clamoring. And at the time, he also had way more Instagram followers than 6ix9ine. But in person, Yaksha was impressed by the sheer audacity. “I said, ‘Okay! I trust you!’” They concocted an off-kilter marketing plan and named it From Europe Back to America: They would make 6ix9ine famous in Eastern Europe, help him pull in money doing shows there, and then use that to get big in the U.S. Because of a drug charge, 6ix9ine needed permission from a parole officer to travel. Yaksha wrote a letter requesting special exemption, and it did the trick. 6ix9ine did an appearance with the Russian rapper Pharaoh in Prague, followed by his debut gig in Bratislava. He bounced around Slovakia from there.
In Bratislava, the FCK THEM crew opened up 6ix9ine’s palate with pho (he’d never had it before) and fresh produce. “There’s a legendary video on the internet,” Yaksha tells me, pulling out his phone to show me a clip of 6ix9ine eating sliced fruit and saying, ‘Every time I come back home, Yaksha makes me eat healthy.’” Yaksha does this a lot as we talk, nostalgically showing me old photos of the two of them hanging in Slovakian countryside cottages, or telling me anecdotes, like that one time he talked 6ix9ine out of getting a face tattoo of his own face.
About a year after he started breaking big in Eastern Europe with FCK THEM, 6ix9ine found his Stateside success. In late 2017, the pop-leaning “Poles1469” blew up, as did the screamy “Gummo”; both debuted on FCK THEM’s YouTube page. (The videos are now, respectively, at over 100 million and over 300 million views.) From Barcelona to Paris to Kiev, FCK THEM continued to put on shows for 6ix9ine. On one of his trips to Bratislava after “Gummo” had broken out, Yaksha and Adam remember, 6ix9ine packed nothing but what he said was a million dollars of jewelry in his daughter’s princess-adorned backpack.
Adam: “He didn’t have socks! He didn’t have underwear!”
Yaksha: “He come to my apartment and ask me, do you have some boxers I can wear?”
Adam: “That night we went to the mall, just shopping for underwear.”
The crew remembers 6ix9ine FaceTiming his daughter three or four times a day. They insist he was “a really good father,” but maybe “not a good partner.” Of his 2015 charge for “use of a child in a sexual performance,” for an explicit video shot with a 13-year-old girl, Yaksha says, “I ask him about it, and he told me, ‘I don’t have sex with this girl; we just shoot a video with her in a bra.’ And I understood it was normal.” Repeatedly, they offer similarly unconvincing defenses, describing him as altogether different in private: respectful, low-key, polite. “We know him as the guy sitting quietly, eating fruit,” Adam says.
In January of this year, 6ix9ine pleaded guilty to a variety of charges stemming from his affiliation with the Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods, including conspiracy to commit murder, drug trafficking, and racketeering. He’s currently in an undisclosed federal prison awaiting sentencing. His former manager, Kifano “Shotti” Jordan, was allegedly the link between 6ix9ine and the gang, and has also since pleaded guilty to gun charges stemming from the group’s larger racketeering arrest. “I didn’t like this guy from day one, yeah?” Yaksha says now. “I told all crew around 6ix9ine, I don’t believe this guy Shotti.”
“It’s really hard to believe those charges,” he continues. “It’s kind of a whole different guy. I don’t know if something changed in the U.S.” Partially, it feels like they’re willfully ignoring the facts, or pining for some alternate-reality version of events. If only they’d managed to keep him in Bratislava, away from negative influence …
“When he started making money and posting pictures with big money I told him, ‘Hey, bro, maybe keep calm,’” Yaksha says. “‘People like you like humble artist and genius. You changed into classic rapper.’ I was thinking that the people around him came with the fame. They will be for a few weeks, a few months, and they’ll go away. Here in Europe, it was visible it had a good influence on him. He was acting differently. In a good way.”
The last time Yaksha and 6ix9ine saw each other was at a show in Vienna in the fall of 2018, just before 6ix9ine was arrested. Afterward, Yaksha says, “a lot of people were writing me [on Instagram] saying I should have taken more care of him, I should have taken him back to Europe. His big mistake — he liked the attention of the gang. He liked the attention of the people selling heroin, shooting people. He trolled his way into the jail.”
There is reason to believe that 6ix9ine did stumble into a pose as an affiliated gang member in order to boost his persona. That’s the position his lawyers have taken, arguing in court that 6ix9ine is “an entertainer who portrays a ‘gangster image’ to promote his music.” Legally, though, it doesn’t matter much if 6ix9ine was playacting. Meanwhile, the allegations of abuse are much harder to explain away. Sara Molina, the mother of 6ix9ine’s daughter, recently told the Daily Beast that 6ix9ine was violent throughout their seven-year relationship, regularly leaving her bloodied and bruised.
“You know, it’s really difficult to talk about the private relationship of two people,” Yaksha says of the abuse allegations, but “my experience with Danny and Sara has never suggested that this could be true.”
What if you knew an artist had committed domestic abuse? I ask. Would you continue working with them?
Yaksha doesn’t directly answer the question. “I am convinced that the accusations that are being carried on him are not exactly as they are referred to,” he says. “I also understand that he … must reckon with the consequences. Of course I agree with this, and it’s the right thing. But then again, so far, Danny hasn’t been found guilty for any crime for which I would have to end our friendship.”
After a while, we leave the FCK THEM HQ for the FCK THEM studio. We take Yaksha’s Audi up to a ritzy neighborhood overlooking the city below. We pass a decadent mid-construction mansion allegedly owned by Robert Fico, the disgraced former Slovak prime minister, and pull up in front of a home a Bond villain would love. It’s the former Korean embassy. Seeing me take it all in — the floor-to-ceiling glass walls; the monstrous tripartite spiral staircase — FCK THEM artist Gleb, a tall, endearingly goofy dude in a pink beanie and a skull-adorned tracksuit top, deadpans, “This was all very modern in the ’80s.”
Gleb is full of good lines. As the crew smokes thin cigarettes on a balcony overlooking a statue of a Red Army soldier smashing a swastika, Gleb shares his tips for spotting the ticket checkers on the Bratislava bus lines. “They don’t wear a uniform but they’re always the same: fat, with a stupid face.”
We pop into the studio, an unadorned side room with a bathtub full of unused soundproofing foam. Gleb, fueled on nothing but energy drinks and Horalky wafers, shouts, “BPM up!”
Gleb is one of FCK THEM’s biggest local stars. But while they cultivate their local talent, they also have eyes elsewhere. Fueled in part by their affiliation with 6ix9ine, the FCK THEM YouTube page now has over 1.3 million subscribers. Yaksha’s current high-priority focus is the New York rapper Snubbs. But Yaksha has even bigger international aspirations for FCK THEM. He wants to use it to build FCK THEM U.K. and FCK THEM ASIA. All day long, he says, he gets emails from artists hoping to get promoted on the YouTube page. Flipping through his in-box, he shows me a sampling: “This is the first albino female to rap.”
FCK THEM’s current big project is a documentary feature on 6ix9ine. They have tons of footage from years bouncing around Europe together, and interest from a few new streaming platforms. “I want to show people 6ix9ine like artist,” Yaksha says, “and how we know him — the humble guy. And we want to show the genius part about him. But it should not be romantic, like, he’s the good hero. We don’t want to make a story that nobody believes. Everything should be true, in the good way we experienced it.”
The last time Yaksha spoke to 6ix9ine was in New York, a few months ago. He was in a studio with Dalyb and a big group of friends, and someone rang up 6ix9ine’s cell. Yaksha laughs. “Okay, he’s really rich, so he’s in jail but he has a phone.” It was a bunch of people all screaming at once, Yaksha says, so he couldn’t really have an actual conversation with his old friend. 6ix9ine seemed okay, though, he recalls.
“He’s doing good,” Yaksha says. “Nobody know what actually is happening. We are waiting. Everybody waiting.”