If you haven’t watched ’69: The Saga Of Danny Hernandez,’ HULU’s 2020 documentary devoted to Tekashi 6ix 9ine’s transformation from Bushwick bodega boy to one of the most followed and hated rappers on the planet, we highly suggest you correct that. ASAP.
One of our favorite documentaries of 2020 (besides ‘The Last Dance,’ ‘The Way I See It‘ and ‘Good Trouble’)
director Vikram Gandhi allows his audience to meet neighborhood locals who knew 69 when he was still just Danny — before he adopted his hard-core persona and experienced success as a rapper. BOSSIP’s Senior Director Janeé Bolden spoke with Vikram Gandhi about what compelled him to tell Tekashi’s story, putting together so many different pieces of his past, and the reaction he’s gotten since the film premiered on HULU last fall.
“Like many people I had heard about him and knew a little bit about what his story was and who he was but as I started reading about his story I realized it was just down the street from me in Brooklyn,” Gandhi told BOSSIP about his decision to take on the task of telling Tekashi’s strange tale. “It just felt like it had so many elements of a great story; the underground criminal world of New York, questions about race and cultural appropriation and this crazy new phenomenon of soundcloud rap, plus his ability to leverage the internet to create fame and fortune around him. All of these things created such a strange, compelling only-in-New York kind of story and my proximity to the story made me think, ‘this is something I can really dig into.’
Like any good documentary, part of what makes Gandhi’s ’69’ successful is how willing his interview subjects were to speak openly about their experiences with Hernandez. Tekashi’s ex-girlfriend Sara Molina, who has a daughter with the rapper, took part, as did his longtime DJ, DJ PVNCH, as well as the “GUMMO” rapper’s driver, Jorge, who proves integral to his story. The filmmaker and his crew even journeyed to Bratislava, Slovakia, where Tekashi performed for the first time, to speak to Yaksha, the “Puff Daddy of Bratislava,” an Eastern European music mogul who helped Hernandez after an early career stall when he fell out with early collaborators Zillakami and Righteous P.
“Everybody had so many mixed emotions around their time with Tekashi,” Gandhi told BOSSIP after being asked about the process of rounding up his subjects. “Everybody had been friends with him and he was a big part of their life, but the majority of them were left with bitter stories. There were some people who we were hitting up for six months before we got a response so it was just a matter of time. Really it was when Tekashi was coming out of prison that a lot of people decided that they would be happy to speak.”
Gandhi told BOSSIP he began shooting the film in September 2019, conducting interviews in the months leading up to Tekashi’s sentencing for racketeering, firearms and drug trafficking charges related to several shootings and assaults around New York City. Work on the documentary paused in March 2020 when Gandhi contracted COVID, but after recovering and learning he carried antibodies from the virus, his presumed immunity made him feel more comfortable conducting interviews with his small crew.
“I met Chanelle and the Tr3yway gang early on,” Gandhi told BOSSIP of his interviews with members of the Nine Tr3y Bloods. “Chanelle was somebody whose name had come up in trial and she really wanted to make it clear her home wasn’t the center of the Bloods or criminal headquarters, it was really her mother’s home. So we met them early on and got into their story. We interviewed Sara Molina, Danny’s baby momma and some of the members of Tr3yway and Jorge later on and that’s really what helped us put the whole film together.”
Speaking of putting the film together, there has been some backlash against the HULU documentary from critics of Tekashi, who mistakenly believe he has something to do with the making of the project and is somehow profiting from those who choose to stream it.
“I think the general confusion about how documentaries are made, is that for a lot of people the reaction is, ‘I can’t believe HULU gave him a documentary.'” Vikram Gandhi told BOSSIP of the misconceptions about his film’s intent. “As if a documentary on him was there to promote him. I think people are quick to react to figure out if this is positive or negative towards him. I’m in fact, an outsider, who isn’t even part of a scene, and isn’t therefore being guided about whether I should be approving of his behavior or not…. I also think his story is so universal, it’s something that has existed in the music industry and the history of rock stars in general, which is where people become successful and fame and fortune are like a drug that they become addicted to and that’s definitely true in Tekashi’s world.”
For the many people who we’ve spoken to who have shied away from watching the film with the thought that it’s some kind of marketing tool, rest assured, Vikram Gandhi holds zero punches when it comes to presenting a FULL portrait of Danny, who he calls “a walking contradiction.”
“He’s also a master marketer,” Gandhi told BOSSIP. “He’s created his own character and he says in interviews that he wanted to create a world where he was a villain. It’s really that villain that he was creating that made him really popular. An unending troll who had no limit on what he would do to shock people. That’s going to draw people in. I think there was an unending drive to get under people’s skin, that’s what put him on everybody’s radar.”
Gandhi also noted how Tekashi’s Bushwick roots factor in to his development.
“Him being from Bushwick, a place that is getting gentrified, but is also a hub for artistic and creativity creative activities,” Gandhi remarked to BOSSIP. “He’s a creator from that old neighborhood in Bushwick that is at the cusp of a new one. He was at a specific space and time that he was able to absorb all these other influences. He’s hip hop, but you also see a lot of other elements of Bushwick in his rainbow hair and the clothing he made. It just seemed that he was a cultural sponge that was taking everything and putting it out there.”
Editor’s note: If you haven’t watched the film yet and don’t know the details of his case, we suggest you stop here and watch the film on HULU where it is currently streaming and come back and read Vikram Gandhi’s final remarks afterward.
After noting that our favorite part of the ’69’ documentary was one of the takes of Brooklyn grandmother, Brenda Givens, where she notes with disgust how betrayed she felt for Danny Hernandez to turn on her family after she hosted him for a holiday meal where he experienced his first taste of pie; Vikram agreed that the moment is one that has resonated with a large number of people.
“I think that’s everyone’s favorite part in the film, is him not eating pie,” Gandhi told BOSSIP. “That’s Brenda Givens, mother of Chanelle and the grandmother of the Tr3yway family. That is one of my favorite parts of the whole film.”
The real star of the film, particularly for those people less familiar with Tekashi’s story – is his driver Jorge, who was there for so many of the rapper’s biggest moments, both in music as well as some of the criminal activities that ultimately cost Tekashi his freedom, at least temporarily. It’s Jorge’s details, accompanied by media footage, that help complete a full picture of Tekashi’s downfall.
“Jorge the driver was overlooked by people in all of the stories that had come out in the articles online,” Gandhi told BOSSIP. “There are so many articles about this Tr3yway story and everything about Tekashi and the FBI and all that, but very few people were really writing about Jorge, and we kind overlooked him as well, but at one point just sifting around it sort of clicked to me that he was around. I started communicating with him on Facebook and I realized he wasn’t hiding, he had already testified, and he had made it public to the gang as well that he was an informant.”
Gandhi was eventually able to get Jorge to talk to him, and from there all the pieces fell into place.
“It’s kind of funny how you forget about the driver, he’s an easy person to forget, he’s sitting silent in the front seat and he’s not committing crimes, but he really has the most insightful perspective on the whole thing because he was present for all of the criminal events. Just like Danny got himself into the gang, it was inadvertent, he was just showing up to work every day. I think he’s a really key person to the story and also someone we overlooked for months and then at some point it dawned on us, oh that guy has the story!”
Jorge’s reveal is saved for the end and without it, we’re not sure this documentary would be the incredible piece of storytelling that it is.
Currently streaming on HULU, ’69: The Danny Hernandez Saga’ is one of the platforms most watched documentaries, and Vikram admits he’s been “obsessively looking at Twitter and seeing what people’s reaction is,” so if you do watch, make sure to tweet about it!