Originally published for Fader Magazine in December 16th, 2019 and in print in the Winter 2019 issue. Photos taken by Ibrahem Hasan.
On October 12, Rolling Loud — the self-identified “largest hip-hop festival in the world” — was scheduled to make a triumphant debut in rap mecca New York City. That Saturday morning, however, there was a change of plans: five acts had been removed from the lineup at the behest of the NYPD, who cited “public safety concerns” and local rappers’ alleged affiliations with “recent acts of violence citywide.”
The artists in question — 22Gz, Casanova, Sheff G, Don Q, and Pop Smoke — are at the forefront of New York’s bustling drill scene. With roots in Chicago, New York drill is an aggressive, youth-driven rap sound that frequently juxtaposes somber, refracted trap instrumentation with intense, live-wire lyricism, buoyed by the heaviness of the patented New York accent. Drill has been on the rise in the five boroughs for years, and dominated the city this summer.
No song better exemplifies the raw grit, energy, and reckless potential of a New York summer than Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party,” a street track that quickly shot to several million views on YouTube. Veering between taut, pithy phraseology and panoramic storytelling, the ominous opening melody made any occasion five times more lively regardless of the venue; to date, I’ve heard it played at a house party, brunch, the club, an Afrobeats concert, and on my block in East Flatbush. Once the track was supplemented by official remixes from people like Nicki Minaj, French Montana, and Skepta, it was indisputable: The summer belonged to an upstart who came onto the scene only about a year ago.
Despite his rapid ubiquity, Pop Smoke only found out the day before the festival that he wasn’t going to be able to perform at Rolling Loud. (Rolling Loud declined to comment, although they have publicly stated that they paid the banned artists their full booking fees and offered them spots at other iterations of Rolling Loud across the country.) “That was a bummer,” Pop Smoke tells me when we first meet. It’s ten days after Rolling Loud debacle; he was supposed to perform this evening at Powerhouse Live, the pre-party for local hip-hop station Power 105.1’s annual Powerhouse concert — but his set was again cancelled the day before, seemingly because of the NYPD’s intervention into Rolling Loud. “The radio knows not to say my name no more,” he says.
This kind of censorship due to police interference isn’t a newfound phenomenon, even as it pertains to drill. In Chicago and London, the music has become another source of tension between law enforcement and the communities they are expected to serve, creating moral panics that are frequently debated in the public sphere. Chicago artists have consistently fought being linked to spikes in violence in the city’s South Side; in London, Metropolitan police commissioner Cressida Dick said in a radio interview that “We have gangs who make drill videos and in those videos, they taunt each other. They say what they’re going to do to each other and specifically what they are going to do to who.”
British authorities went so far as to charge two artists for performing their own songs; years before drill’s current mainstream moment in New York, Flatbush’s own Bobby Shmurda was arrested in 2014 and eventually accepted a plea deal. At one press conference, NYPD Assistant Chief James Essig described the music of Shmurda and his friends as “almost like a real-life document of what they were doing on the street.” Casanova went on Instagram the morning the Rolling Loud cancellations were announced to express his frustration, typing, “I JUST WANNA LIVE. My last felony conviction was 2007. I lost everything I ever loved and I’m STILL losing.”
Pop Smoke’s life story is one of resilience, and not even the NYPD will deter him from claiming his title as King of the Summer. When we meet at St. Bartholomew’s Church after a photoshoot, I’m warned that he’s dealing with some “rough personal news” he isn’t willing to disclose, and that he may not be in the best of spirits. But by the time he approaches me, he possesses a cocksure demeanor and charm that matches nicely with his signature diamond-encrusted nameplate chain. With his Power 105.1 performance nixed, we go to dinner at Philippe Chow’s, his longtime friends Trav and Ace tagging along. “What’s your name? You like Starburst gummies?” he asks, smiling and hugging me before putting me into a cab.
Born Bashar Jackson, the 20-year-old Pop Smoke was raised in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood, a southern corner of the borough with a predominantly West Indian presence. He grew up in a Panamanian household with a strong female presence and had an early love of sports, playing baseball, football and basketball. This natural aptitude for sports enabled Pop Smoke to go to prep school in Philadelphia at the age of 15 on a full scholarship — but trouble found him after about a year, and he returned back to his home turf.
“You can take the kid out the hood, but you can’t take the hood out the kid,” he says. “I went to go get some food [in Philly]… these guys were in front of the corner store, I walk in to the spot, they said some crazy shit to me, and we just end up rumbling.” Returning to New York, his hoop dreams ended. “I thought I was gonna go to Howard, go over there and join a fraternity,” he says. “It wasn’t always rapping. Who would have thought I would be a rapper?”
In just under a year, Smoke has had a career boom that many artists have never come close to accomplishing. He picked up a microphone for the first time while arranging the track “MPR” over a beat he discovered online by East London-based producer 808Melo, beginning a close collaborative relationship between the two. “I knew it hit because it got leaked, and when it leaked, everybody was jacking the song,” he says. “And when it hit I was like, Yo, we got something here, and I kept going.”
Since then, he has continued to set in motion a cadence of new music releases that have rippled throughout the New York street scene. Songs such as “Meet the Woo” and “Flexin’” all buzzed online, but it was “Welcome to the Party” that crested over and into the mainstream, bringing New York drill into the limelight.
Pop Smoke now finds himself at the cutting edge of a local rap movement largely composed of young men from outer-borough neighborhoods overwhelmingly populated by various parts of the Black diaspora: East Flatbush, Canarsie, Jamaica, Brownsville. This environment has deeply informed their soundscape and aesthetic, building from a base that goes back to 2milly and GS9 with the “Milly Rock” and the “Shmoney Dance.”; lyrics by New York’s drill rappers reference not just the sets and neighborhoods they proudly represent, but the parlance affixed to the households they grew up in.
On “Meet the Woo,” Pop Smoke raps, “I turn that boy to a duppy” — a patois word for a malevolent spirit or ghost, whipping the phrase around with his distinct gravelly timbre. Even the moniker Pop Smoke is partially borne of his familial heritage; his grandfather gave him the nickname Poppa, and it stuck. The assumed surname Smoke came from the streets, where he was called “Smoke Oh Guap.” In his eyes, he says, there isn’t a distinction between one family and another.
When I ask him how his immediate family feels about his sudden fame, he looks around the table at our corner booth in the modern, bustling Beijing-style restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, pointing at his two boys. As we pick from platters of satay, lobster, prawns, and bok choy, they’ve been comfortably interjecting into our conversation and bantering about everything from music to parties to debates about eating ass. “This is my immediate family,” Pop Smoke says.
Having reciprocal experiences rooted in being part of an emerging class of predominantly first-generation, third culture children, it’s understandable — if not expected — that the through line to New York’s drill runs strongest not from Chicago, despite having deep respect for their musical forebears, but the UK. Like their peers in London, New York drill rappers are generating a musical output that owes to their cultural lineage, while also holding a magnifying glass up to the streets where they grew up. But for Pop Smoke, associations with drill, while itself a diverse soundbase, overly simplify what he considers his art to be. “I make gangsta music,” he clarifies. “Bitch I’m a thot, get me lit. That’s not drill. Y’all know what it is, but that’s not drill. When you think of drill it’s like, Pull up we airing it out.”
The “air it out” aesthetic, as he refers to it, can nonetheless be heard in songs of his like “Flexin’,” where he pushes air out of his chest in a rapid, aggressive cadence that can feel like the lyrical analog of a rapid-fire weapon. But he easily weaves from that approach to talking about fashion, women, and money in a manner that comfortably creates a linkage between him and New York’s most infamous antagonist of the early aughts, 50 Cent – his song “PTSD” sounds, at points, almost eerily akin to the cadence of the South Jamaica, Queens, bred rapper.
The life cycle for each new Pop Smoke song starts with him stepping in the booth and defining the vibe; he laid the foundation for “Welcome to the Party” in around 30 minutes. It’s a skill that has emerged from his natural banter; at dinner, before discussing a recent sexual encounter with a woman at a local party, he leans back into his seat and, with a tenderness in his voice, simply says, “Yo, different, bro. Different.”
“Everything I make just be like, vibes,” he explains. “Yesterday I made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I just made it cuz I seen a girl go like that” – mimicking the motion made popular by Houston-based rapper Megan the Stallion – “talking about ‘Drive the boat.’ About to drive the boat with the liquor. So I’m like, hey, I just made a song called ‘Drive the Boat.’ I gotta have some inspiration. That’s when the best music comes up for me.” Regarding the track “Dior,” he simply states, “When I made that I had just got on Dior.” I teasingly reply that he was decked out in Gucci earlier today, to which he quickly replies, “Double G, niggas know there’s only one of me,” lyrics from his brief album cut “Hawk Em.”
As Pop Smoke gets bigger, and with the NYPD already deeming him a danger, he may find himself juxtaposed against the rise and spectacular fall of Tekashi69, the most recent superstar come out of Brooklyn. But there’s a world of difference between them: Tekashi offered a curated narrative, accelerating quickly into cultural relevance by performing the allure of a lifestyle that he only ever participated in by proxy, while Pop Smoke is parsing apart a lived experience highly relevant to a homegrown fan base that’s invested in protecting him from the authorities’ obstructive power.
Pop Smoke’s life — from his songs down to his every interaction — is an exercise in discerning what can be safely shared under constantly surveilling eyes, even as he engages in the many indulgences of a young cis adult male with minimal impulse control (despite it being 2019, him and his friends haven’t received the memo on the abundant use of “no homo” and “pause” in casual speech). Take the title of his album, Meet the Woo: Over the past year, he has replied slyly when asked what “The Woo” stands for. One day it’s about being flossy, the other it’s purely a dance move, akin to 22Gz’ Blixky Twirl (a quick glance at the Youtube comments section from lifelong New Yorkers will make it plain that there’s more to the dance than just a sequence of steps). Over the course of our conversation, when I begin to mention how most born-and-bred New Yorkers (especially from the outer boroughs) know that such references are to real things, he looks on with a slight twinkle in his eye and simply replies, “That’s a real thing?”
Pop Smoke says that he’s relatively unconcerned about his threshold for exposure, but still talks cryptically about the lifestyle that he and his friends grew into. “We ain’t have nothing else to do,” he says. “What’s already understood don’t gotta be explained. We been there done that already.” He points out that he’s getting money now: “Beef — talking to people that don’t really have anything going for themselves — doesn’t really help you get any money. It’s just potential bail that you have to pay. Know what I’m saying? We’ve been there already, we not trying to go back to that.”
Still, that hasn’t eliminated their interactions with the authorities. He points out the vast swath of luxury cars that he and his crew have acquired, recalling some extreme measures that he and his crew took to make it to a performance with French Montana in the Bronx: “That nigga did some shit, bro,” Smoke says. “We got there on time though,” Trav responds. “We got there before French!” Pop readily confirms, putting on his best French Montana impersonation. “He said, Pop! What y’all up to, bruh?’ I said, Nigga, if you wanna know what we just did just to get here? He said, Hey man, y’all niggas crazy, man. Y’all niggas just crazy. Park that shit up, get in the car.” Pop chuckles, adding, “I love French.”
The respect seems mutual. French, who says he’s always watching for new talent coming out of his hometown, has been one of the major cosigns as Pop Smoke has risen. “He was buzzing out of Brooklyn and it sparked my radar, same way it did with the whole GS9 movement,” French tells me. “I just remember how I felt when Jadakiss heard my song and jumped on it. I always want to be able to do that for other up and coming rappers like he did for me.” He adds: “When you make it out of New York, you can make it out of anywhere. When you make it out before anyone really knows you, that says a lot about you.”
Earlier, over our crustacean-filled dinner, French graced the table with his virtual presence, FaceTiming with Pop to briefly discuss a potential track with “Welcome to the Party” producer and frequent Pop collaborator 808MeloBeats. After promising to send him a pack of beats, Pop asks French about a far more pressing concern. “You told Drake about me? What he said? He said he jacking it?” he asks. “Hell yeah!” French replies from Los Angeles, where he was attending Drakes 33rd birthday party. (French gifted Drake a $175,000 diamond-encrusted bracelet). “That’s love,” Smoke says back. “You already kicked it off. If you and Drake get on some shit…”
A feature from someone like Drake would put Pop Smoke on a different path moving forward. He exploded on the scene without much more than the range of his vocal inflections and the army of friends behind him in every video. “That was my goal — do it by yourself, beat the odds,” he says. “Cuz when you do it by yourself, it hit different. I always knew, Imma be a millionaire. I always knew I was gonna have bread. I always was good with knowing how to talk, knowing how to hustle.”
Pop Smoke takes out his phone and shows me a video clip of his performance in Albany on Instagram. “The love that I’m getting…where we come from, I never really felt love like that.” The remainder of his Instagram, though, is surprisingly sparse for a Gen Z artist, primarily serving as a promotional vehicle for his work. Having previously said that the internet is “federale shit,” he clarifies, “I’m not into what comes with it. The internet is fire.”
Part of this reticence may be influenced by his first brush with online notoriety, which came in the form of an infamous video that went viral on WorldStarHipHop in 2012. Titled “Young Crip Gets Slapped by NY Bloods After Taking Out Beads,” the video shows a baby-faced, 13-year-old Pop Smoke being taken advantage of by people in East Flatbush who used the power of public humiliation against him. Almost seven years later, the first upload on his official YouTube channel remains eight seconds long, and is simply titled “POP SMOKE SMACKS OPP SHAPOW!!!!” In part of the description, it states, “Now tables turned and Pop Smoke shows the Blood member how you really shapow somebody.”
As the evening comes to a close, we’re approached by our server with a modest request; the man’s son, who also works at the restaurant, wants to take a photo with Pop Smoke. Rattling off “PTSD,” “Scenario,” and “Dior,” as his favorite songs, he earnestly proclaims that his day doesn’t start until he has a chance to ride his bicycle while listening to Meet the Woo.
That Saturday night, Meek Mill stepped out onto the Powerhouse stage at New Jersey’s Prudential Center; during his set, he brings out Young M.A, one recent New York rapper to enjoy freedom from the NYPD. But the energy completely changes when Meek manages to sneak Pop Smoke to perform both “Dior” and “Welcome to the Party.” With the entire stadium in lockstep, Pop Smoke and his crew perform his summer smash for the greater New York area’s last major festival for the rest of the year. The message is clear: the NYPD can do what they want, but New York City isn’t leaving Pop Smoke’s side.