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Pop Smoke Lives On

by Oseremen Irete March 10, 2020
Pop Smoke Lives On

From Brooklyn to Brixton, drill music keeps growing and Pop Smoke was proof

When TMZ tweeted that 20-year-old drill rapper Bashar Barakah Jackson aka Pop Smoke passed away after being shot during a home invasion, messages of shock and condolences flooded social media. Death is the great equalizer; it does not respect status or person. But it seemed especially cruel that Pop Smoke’s life would be taken away just as he was climbing the ladder to superstardom and less than a year after the release of his breakout single.

While he had already garnered some buzz before its release, “Welcome to the Party was the song that introduced most people to the distinct vocal stylings of Pop Smoke. His voice was deep with the type of gravelly, coarse texture usually reserved for 63-year-old, pack-a-day smokers. He was able to manipulate his pitch or tone to stretch and pull it in different directions.  This combined with his brash, confident delivery—comparable to fellow New Yorker 50 Cent—managed to turn what would otherwise be throwaway lines into quotable, or more aptly, captionable bars.

It is a testament to his talent that he was able to transform “Welcome to the Party,” a statement usually followed by “bathroom is over here, snacks are over there” into a menacing warning cry, one that said, “enter this party at your own risk.”

Beyond his own abilities, one of the things that stood out in his music was the beat, a collection of syncopated hi-hats and 808 slides that in theory shouldn’t have worked, but somehow did. If Pop Smoke was the party’s host, the instrumental was its ambience.

It was like nothing we had ever heard before, that is unless you had been paying attention to the other side of the Atlantic.  

Drill music began in Chicago in the early 2010s. In a genre like hip hop that can be reticent to sub-categorization, drill carved out a niche with its hard-hitting ominous take on trap instrumentals, dark and aggressive lyrics, and DIY aesthetic.

The fact that drill’s earliest stars like Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and producer Young Chop were teenagers added to its notoriety as it juxtaposed the innocence of youth with the violence, both in the music and outside of it.

There was a raw authenticity about the whole thing. When Chief Keef told us what he didn’t like, we f*cking believed it.

The internet was the primary method of sharing and consuming the music, there weren’t middlemen. When you watched a video you got the sense that it was produced, recorded and shot all in the same house—possibly because the person was on house arrest.

Drill quickly made its way to the UK and not content with just being consumers, young people began making their own tracks. While the subject of who did it first is hotly debated, crews from Brixton—150, and 67 (pronounced six seven) began making their own songs around the same time.

Just like drill stateside, these songs told stories that were specific to the lives and neighbourhoods of the people who made them, but most of the initial instrumentals were the same as those their American counterparts were rapping on, often sourced from “type beats” channels on YouTube.

As the genre grew, producers and rappers in the UK crafted a sound that was their own, distinct from its original windy city origins.

It was that sound that provided the backdrop for Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party,” as well as his mixtapes Meet The Woo 1 & 2 which were mostly produced by Londoner 808Melo.

Drill has come full circle. American rappers influenced their contemporaries in the UK who in turn created and developed their own sound. That sound came back to influence drill in New York where Pop Smoke would find it.

Pop Smoke wasn’t the first one to use these beats, but Michael Jackson wasn’t the first to moonwalk either. He started his career by remixing songs from other popular Brooklyn drill rappers like Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow who had already been spitting on UK drill beats.

What he did was catapult that sound from a niche audience to anthem status. “Welcome to the Party” currently has 34 million views on Youtube and “Gatti,” his collaboration with hip hop superstar Travis Scott, was telling of the rapper’s rapid ascent to hip-hop’s upper rungs.

The UK’s urban music scene is probably the healthiest it’s ever been, drill songs like Russ’ “Gun Lean” and Unknown T’s “Homerton B ” have achieved chart success. The next stage of commercial success is breaking into the US which has almost five times the population of the UK.

Pop Smoke was a bridge between the scenes in the UK and the US. The level of success he achieved in his short career is a positive for drill worldwide and could be an important step in opening up US hip-hop consumers to sounds from the UK.

And one last thing, you cannot say Pop and forget the Smoke.

 It is important.

Graphic by Sasha Axenova.

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