Photo by Tracy Awino
How Pop Smoke Shaped New York's Drill Rap Scene Well Into The Afterlife
The New York City street rap infrastructure was arguably locked in place for decades, but when the rapper known as Pop Smoke arrived, he shook the pavement. The artist born Bashar Barakah Jackson was raised in the Canarsie section of Brooklyn, New York, and cultivated the next iteration of city-wide street rap until his untimely death on February 19, 2020 at the age of 20. The scene he developed in New York City is known as Drill by many regions, though Pop’s take was arguably far different.
Drill started in Chicago, popularized in the early 2010's once the city earned the unfortunate title of the nation’s crime capital. Artists like Chief Keef hand-delivered that sound to the masses, and by its gritty design it was a clear reflection of what was happening within the Chicago streets. It was barely palpable, hard-hitting to the point where the sound was “drilled” into your brain. Full of pauses and stops, the style sounded more like secret messaging for a select few than something that would live on the radio for universal consumption. It migrated over to the U.K. around 2016, where it became a country cousin to the British Grime scene. Acts like 814 and Zone 2 had their own spin on what Chicago started. There was a similar pause effect, but what the Brits did was lean on their cadence and warbled grime production to really take the sound into another dimension. By the time Pop Smoke brought the sound back Stateside—and more specifically to New York City—he added his own necessary ingredients.
"Pop was born in 1999, so he grew up in an era of hip-hop that had a big impact on him. And he loved R&B—artists like Anita Baker helped shape him as an artist," says founder of Victor Victor Worldwide, Steven Victor, who signed Pop Smoke and added him to his roster through his joint venture with Republic Records/Universal Music Group. "For him, it was more about putting his community on the map: to lift up Canarsie, Brooklyn and give them a voice on a global stage. His vision was to make music that resonated with people all over the world."
In 2019, Pop Smoke’s name started buzzing. He collaborated with English producer 808Melo, known as a pioneer of the U.K. Drill scene. Together, they were a force. "We elevated and changed the game with my unique sounds and Pop Smoke’s deep voice,” 808Melo expresses, “alongside his flow on top of my beats.” Pop Smoke had a roar to his voice that hadn’t rumbled within hip-hop since the days of 50 Cent, Busta Rhymes and DMX. His voice was clearly distinctive, plus he fluidly adapted to the U.K.’s style of Drill, delivering ricocheting bars over slow-stuttering beats. The world’s first real introduction to Pop Smoke was on the song "Welcome To The Party" in April of 2019, where it quickly became the anthem for that New York Summer.
He followed with his debut mixtape Meet The Woo, armed with the buzz single “Dior.” The song “Dior” encapsulated the fierce movement that Pop Smoke was building. “'Dior' really put Drill on the map for New York, making it mainstream,” 808Melo recalls, “so we knew instantly this would become the new wave of music.” The sound was arguably reinventing the wheel for New York’s take on Drill Music. It had the gangster appeal of Chicago’s Drill—as New York City’s gang culture was thriving and returning further into hip-hop’s purview—mixed with the U.K. flair. The final ingredient was that Brooklyn swagger, the same swagger that made the Notorious B.I.G. and Jay-Z household names. The same swagger that shouted hunger and opulence with every line spit. The same swagger that commanded being decked in a designer wardrobe on project street corners. It was Pop Smoke’s birthright to embody all of that and more, and he was determined to make that combination the new voice of the streets. And while Brooklyn rap was slowly being seeped in gang culture, Pop was trying to be the antithesis of that, while still crafting hymns that hugged the streets. “He was never looking for a specific sound,” 808Melo explains, “but if it was fire, he would rock with it and go crazy bringing the vibes to the studio.” The world began to take notice.
“Dior” hit the Billboard Hot 100 at Number 22. In February of 2020, just two weeks before his death, he released Meet The Woo 2, which debuted at No. 7 on the Billboard 200. “Dior” was subsequently released as an official single a week after release, with a remix featuring Gunna added as a bonus track on the project. And then just as he was getting started, he was murdered in Los Angeles.
His debut studio album, Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon was posthumously released on July 3, 2020, skyrocketing to the top of the Billboard 200, while simultaneously reaching the No. 1 spot on charts across the entire world. The song “Mood Swings” with Lil Tjay fanned the flames, as it became a TikTok darling and only elevated Pop Smoke’s reach. While some may attribute that to the law of attraction following a musician’s death, given Pop Smoke’s already established momentum, this success was a part of his destiny—whether on this planet or otherwise.
In Pop Smoke’s absence, his presence is felt. The new crop of New York City rappers taking over have at one point or another read Pop Smoke’s playbook. Artists like Fivio Foreign and Bizzy Banks are carrying that torch, slowly moving up the ranks within hip-hop. What Pop Smoke did was carve a new lane, and the moves he made within a year’s time will continue to breed new talent for years to come. “He left a blueprint in the rap game, a whole new style, making new rappers or well-known stars jump on the wave," Melo says. Adds Victor: "He said, many times, that he made music for the kids—to inspire them to dream big and that their dreams could become reality no matter what their circumstance. He showed them what was possible; his legacy is his humanity."