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Pop Smoke: US rapper who introduced the UK drill sound to New York

His career was on a remarkable trajectory when he was gunned down aged 20

Lily Fletcher
Sunday 15 March 2020 14:01 GMT
Pop Smoke performing at a festival in Texas in November 2019
Pop Smoke performing at a festival in Texas in November 2019 (AFP/Getty)

Pop Smoke’s whirlwind 12-month career built a musical bridge between the New York and London drill scenes and forged an important bond within a genre that has been demonised by the media and authorities on both sides of the Atlantic. The rapper, who has died aged 20 after being shot, said he wanted to make music for the kids who grew up in poverty like him.

Bashar Barakah Jackson, known professionally as Pop Smoke, was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1999 to a Jamaican mother and Panamanian father. His artist name was a combination of Papa, an affectionate name given to him by his Panamanian grandmother, and Smoke Oh Guap, a nickname from childhood friends.

Jackson attended at least nine different schools while growing up in the Canarsie neighbourhood of Brooklyn. Prior to his rap career, Jackson was dealing drugs and was connected to a weapons charge (since dismissed) which ordered that he wear an ankle tag and live under house arrest.

He began making music in 2018, initially remixing popular New York drill tracks, until 2019 when he became the first American rapper to adopt the UK drill sound, rather than simulating its Chicago progenitor.

Jackson was enticed by the beats of Ilford producer 808Melo. Jackson had played African drums in his local church as a youth and appreciated 808Melo’s percussive sounds. Having had no prior experience of London drill, Jackson linked 808Melo on YouTube and they began collaborating with him, bringing his own unique Brooklyn take to 808Melo’s distinctive UK beats that fit into a decades-old illustrious lineage of gritty British dubstep and grime instrumentals.

Whereas Chicago drill is characterised by its deep bass lines with rhythmically divided hi-hats, New York drill had hitherto tended to be much smoother in its production and more closely aligned with the east coast hip-hop that originated there.

Soon Jackson flew 808Melo out to New York where they made his fourth song, “Welcome to the Party”. Released in April 2019, the lead single off his debut mixtape Meet the Woo exploded on both sides of the Atlantic and became his first breakout hit. The track was later remixed featuring hip-hop heavyweights Nicki Minaj and Skepta. After that track’s success, UK drill production and frequent collaborations with 808Melo went on to become a common feature throughout Jackson’s discography.

Drill music was born in the early 2010s in the impoverished neighbourhoods on the south side of Chicago, which historically lacked educational resources and witnessed high murder rates and gang activity. It is noted for its dark, monotonous beats, steely synths and nihilistic, often violent lyrics. It spawned a movement in London (from about 2013) which in turn influenced a later New York iteration (from about 2018).

Jackson’s lyrics commented on his environment and aspirations of his contemporaries – they glamorised drugs, exalted wealth and sexualised women, but were not characterised by excessive violent references. He said in interview: “I make music for that kid in the hood that’s gotta share a bedroom with, like, four kids – the young kids growing up in poverty.”

Jackson had a captivating formula, one that set him apart and propelled him into the forefront of the hip-hop scene. He stuck to his formula to the extent that it can be hard to distinguish one track from another. But there was no stopping the power of his distinctive music, and Jackson was on the verge of greatness.

In December 2019 Jackson achieved recognition from rap royalty when featured on Travis Scott’s Jackboys compilation on the song “Gatti”, which was also co-produced by 808Melo.

The same month he told The Face magazine that his “life’s a movie now” and promised that his follow-up mixtape Meet the Woo 2, released on Spotify just 12 days before his murder, would be “happier” to reflect that.

Jackson died in hospital in Los Angeles after being shot at the house in which he was staying. Several suspects left the scene and no arrests have been made.

Pop Smoke (Bashar Barakah Jackson), born 20 July 1999, died 19 February 2020

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