New York City is, famously, the birthplace of hip-hop. It’s given the genre so many indelible figures that it’s easy to take the city for granted, to view its importance in the past tense. In its place was a perceived vacuum, filled by one rapper after another left to grapple with what it means to be a “New York rapper, rather than just letting themselves be a rapper from New York.
Pop Smoke, the 20-year-old Brooklyn rapper who was shot dead in the Hollywood Hills early Wednesday morning, represented a hard cut away from that idea. He rapped like he was trying to amp up an army to get ready to cross the River Styx, bellowing and braying in a basso profundo that frequently threatened to obscure what he was saying. His beats, many of which were provided by the British producer 808 Melo, were influenced not by the New York sounds that had come before them (most often associated with the jazzy boom-bap beats of producers like DJ Premier and Pete Rock), but instead by London’s grime and early dubstep and scenes, the spaced-out soundscapes of Benga and Wiley fed into a perpetual motion machine. It was music that sounded like it should have been blasted at an underground rave, yet it had cracked the playlists of New York’s legendarily finicky rap radio stations to become one of the defining songs of summer 2019.
What I loved most about Pop Smoke, though, was not that his was music that sounded like nothing I’d ever heard before. Instead, it was that he introduced me to an entire wave of artists in Brooklyn making music in this vein: Sheff G and Sleepy Hallow, Fivio Foreign, 22gz, Envy Caine, the list goes on.
The scene had taken for itself the name Brooklyn Drill, freely admitting the influence of the Chicago movement that had sprung up nearly a decade ago, as well as taking cues from U.K. Drill over in Great Britain, a similar scene birthed around the same time as Brooklyn’s. Pop Smoke was by no means the one to pioneer the style, but through his success he functioned as the tip of the iceberg, with a ton of amazing music hiding just beneath the water’s surface.
Brooklyn Drill may have functioned a sonic pivot away from the New York sound, but it shares a novelty, cross-pollination, and egalitarian spirit with the New York hip-hop movements that came before it. Hip-hop has always been fueled by a desire to aesthetically transcend by making do with the technology around you. All you needed was a sampler and a dusty record collection, and maybe a keyboard, and you had the tools to make a beat as good as anything Tupac was rapping on.
The internet has streamlined this process: Rappers and producers connect over the internet, seeking out collaborators whose work fits hand in glove with their own. It’s possible to be a rapper in Brooklyn and buy a mixtape’s worth of beats from some random kid in London, record over them in your closet with a mic you got from Guitar Center, have a friend shoot a video on your street, and get a million views in a week.
Pop Smoke could definitely rap in a way that impressed the city’s old guard — watch this video of him freestyling over an old 50 Cent beat if you need proof — but as a fan, he mattered most to me because of how his music communicated the power and potential of this modern, sprawling approach as applied to local hip-hop scenes, how artists can pull from everywhere, filtering it all in a way that reflects who they are and where they come from. This morning, while processing his death, I returned to the video of his biggest hit, “Welcome to the Party.” It was filmed at a gas station, in front of a strip mall, and at a dingy basement party. Pop Smoke is constantly in and out of the frame, ceding the spotlight to local dancers, his buddies, and kids. Save for some shots of him rapping while hanging out the window of a moving Ferrari, he’s rarely the sole focus of the clip, instead presenting an entire world to the viewer, inviting them in to check out the party for themselves.