How Pop Smoke Went From Hoop Dreams to Becoming One of New York’s Hottest Rappers
Show & Prove
Words: Eric Ducker
Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the Winter 2019 issue of XXL Magazine, on stands now.
Pop Smoke doesn’t have a catalog of songs; he has an arsenal. It’s a cache stocked with lethal weapons, each one calibrated to inflict as much damage as possible. The potential impact of his firepower became clear last summer with the release of “Welcome to the Party,” a song that first wreaked havoc throughout the streets of Brooklyn before spreading across the country.
With “Welcome to the Party,” the 20-year-old rapper from Canarsie, Brooklyn pulls off the miraculous feat of simultaneously offering an old New York style mixed with a new one. Pop (born Bashar Jackson) is blessed with a rough, no-nonsense growl—the type of voice that’s built for intimidation. But like the best villains, he’s not motivated by pure malice. Behind each threat, there’s a cocky, mischievous grin. It’s no surprise that he’s a lifelong fan of 50 Cent. But while lyrically Pop’s a traditionalist, delivering tales of stickups, intimidation and rampant gunplay, the song’s beat is a minimalist, futuristic wonder. Befitting New York’s musical open borders policy this past decade, the production comes direct from the U.K.’s drill scene. It’s all eerie atmosphere and aural claustrophobia. The Brooklyn rhymer continues to mine this dynamic on follow-up songs like “Dior” and “PTSD,” ingesting rumbles of future bass and spitting out lines like, “Niggas always talkin’ hot and runnin’ they mouth/Until I kick down they door and run in they house/Have they mother on the floor with the gun in her mouth/Like, ‘What’s that shit up on the ’net your son was talkin’ ’bout?’”
When explaining how he started rhyming, Pop repeats the platitude that when you’re a kid from the hood, you’ve only got three options: play ball, sell drugs or rap. “I did all three—I was good at all of them,” he says. “This rapping is just another step in my life. There’s no telling what I might do after this. I’ll probably open up a store or some shit.”
Pop Smoke started with basketball, running the court as a point and shooting guard. He even relocated to the suburbs of Philadelphia to enroll in Rocktop Academy, one of several prep schools around the country whose sole purpose is to get their students attention for college basketball scholarships. He says the discovery of a heart murmur when he was 15 meant he couldn’t play competitively anymore. After that, he came back to Canarsie and turned to street life. By 16, Pop was driving a BMW 5 Series. He got locked up twice and later was put on house arrest for two years for a weapons charge, according to The New York Times. When asked what he did during all that time at home, he explains, “Read. I like to read and fuck a lot of bitches, so I’m good.”
In 2018, Pop visited a Brooklyn recording studio with fellow NYC rap upstart Jay Gwuapo. After Gwuapo got so high he fell asleep, Pop stepped into the booth to try rapping for the first time, just to see if he could do it. He used a beat he snagged from YouTube and that became his track “MPR,” a rugged battle cry that’s racked up a million plays on Spotify and over 37,000 streams on SoundCloud. Soon he signed to Victor Victor Worldwide, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group. He’s now at work on his debut album. It wasn’t a hard choice to put an end to his criminal activities. “The reward was good, but it was risky,” Pop admits of his previous exploits. “I’d be a fool to keep doing that when I could go legal.”
Another fortuitous aspect of the young spitta’s hip-hop origin story is that the YouTube beat he jacked for “MPR” came from an East London producer named 808 Melo. Pop liked it so much, he took a few more of Melo’s beats as he kept recording new material. After Pop’s manager DMed Melo about paying him for the beat they used on “Flexin’,” the producer dug into the rapper’s YouTube account and heard his handiwork all over it. Instead of being pissed off about the unauthorized usage, he realized this was an opportunity and the two have since built a fruitful creative partnership, with Melo producing every song on last summer’s Meet the Woo, Vol. 1 EP. Pop has brought Melo out to New York twice to record new tracks in the studio. “Man, we got a whole clip, like 100 rounds,” Pop Smoke says of the results from these sessions.
Like Pop, Melo is in his early 20s and only recently started pursuing music as a career. Before that, he was trying to get his degree in graphic design from the University of Greenwich. “My style is jumpy, it’s dark,” Melo breaks down of their collaborative styles. “[Pop’s] got that deep voice that complements the beats. This is a new feel for drill music.” Pop reiterates this idea when discussing what’s come from their unexpected pairing. “New York didn’t have that. It hit them a different way,” he shares. “Who don’t like new stuff? Everybody likes new stuff. New clothes, new shoes. Everybody loves that shit.”
During his accelerated rise, Pop has ignored the conventions of what a hot rapper is supposed to do. Though stars Nicki Minaj, French Montana and Skepta all jumped on “Welcome to the Party” remixes, Pop hasn’t flooded the market with his own guest verses. As of now, the only place you’ll find Pop Smoke is on a Pop Smoke track. “If I get on your song, I really fuck with you,” he says. “I don’t really fuck with niggas. You know why? Because people are fake.” He’s also been stingy about sharing space on his own cuts. Meet the Woo is noticeably a solo mission, but Pop reveals that its upcoming sequel will include other artists, like the Bronx’s Lil Tjay, who appears on the ominous single “War.”
Pop’s online presence is also relatively minimal. Unlike other rappers, he’s not constantly in promo mode on social media or up in his IG Stories showing shit that probably shouldn’t be made public. “I fuck with the internet, it just don’t control my life,” he maintains. “There’s certain shit that the internet don’t gotta see.”
Still, the artist’s history has had consequences in his current career. In October, the New York Police Department requested that Rolling Loud remove him and four other local New York rappers from the lineup when the festival came to Citi Field in Queens. In the NYPD’s letter to the show’s organizers, Assistant Chief Martin Morales wrote, “The above listed performers have been affiliated with recent acts of violence citywide. The New York City Police Department believes if these individuals are allowed to perform, there will be a higher risk of violence.” Rolling Loud complied, claiming that the event wouldn’t be able to return to New York in the future if they didn’t heed the request. Speaking about the incident a month later, Pop tries to brush the whole thing off. “I’m not a gang leader, I’m not a gang banger,” he says. “I’m none of that. I’m a dog, the woo. That’s it. An artist.”
Truth be told.
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