Pop Smoke, Drake, and the Rise of UK Hip Hop

If you come here talking tough, imma smack you.”

In February of 2019, a video of a group of Brooklyn teenagers standing outside a Canarsie deli surfaced. One member of the bunch, a broad-shouldered, glasses wearing nineteen year old, stood at the center of the group's attention. The harsh lights that shone in the front of the store reflected magically from his glossy Moncler jacket, which would have hinted at the young man’s financial status if those watching needed to make any assumptions; they didn’t. As he displayed a thick stack of hundred dollar bills in front of the camera, he continued. “I don’t really gotta say too much, you know, about my situation,” the young man chided as his friends riled him up. He was of course, talking about the money in his hands, the price of his jacket and expensive eyeglasses. That was his situation. It wasn’t just the money, the clothes, or even the swagger that confirmed the young man was a special individual. You knew it when he spoke. His voice, cocky yet convincing, was deep and abrasive, and watching the video, you almost forget that the condensation exiting his mouth was caused by the frosty winter air, and not by the confidence he so naturally exuded.

The video’s seemingly invincible protagonist was dead just one year later.

During his 12 month rollercoaster journey of worldwide superstardom, Pop Smoke introduced fans of hip hop around the world to a sound that was truly unique. Born Bashar Jackson in 1999, Pop Smoke got his name from “Papi”, a nickname given to him by his Panamanian grandmother, and “Smoke 0h Guwap”, which his childhood friends knew him by. Jackson was born for stardom. His menacing yet bewitching voice was truly unlike anything fans of hip hop had experienced before. Even when he was just speaking, his voice had a special tantalizing nature; it was so low and robust that his aunt once told him he had the ability “to control people”.

When he first started making music in 2018, Pop Smoke fell in love with the dark, melodic beats of London producer 808Melo. Jackson was not the first Brooklynite to dabble in production styles from the UK. Fellow Brooklyn rappers Sheff G and 22Gz both had tracks by British producers before Pop Smoke’s arrival on the mainstream stage in 2019. On “Panic”, Sheff G used the same 808Melo beat that Pop Smoke later employed on “MPR”. 22Gz’s “No Suburban, Pt. 2” was one of the most viral successes of late 2019, and was produced by East London’s Ghosty. Another son of Brooklyn, Fivio Foreign’s “Big Drip” was played at functions of all sizes across the world in late 2019 and into early 2020; the producer behind “Big Drip”? AXL Beats, another Londoner.

Pop Smoke quickly became the face of a new wave of New York gangster rap that excited fans who had grown bored of the southern-dominated hip hop scene of recent years. This new wave was different from a style that had already been growing out of the Bronx; more melodic, RnB style tracks by artists like A Boogie, Lil Tjay, and J.I The Prince of New York had risen to popularity much prior. The sound that was coming out of Brooklyn, headed by the overwhelming popularity of Pop Smoke, came to be known as BK Drill, or Brooklyn Drill.

Drill music itself began in Chicago in the early to mid 2000s, but exploded when cultural icon Chief Keef rolled out hits like “Faneto'' and “Don’t Like”. Drill became known as a gritty, violent form of self expression which fit well alongside narratives of socioeconomic issues that plagued Chicago’s south side. This resonated in the UK, where there are already copious amounts of people, particularly young people, living in poverty. By the time Pop Smoke stumbled across the fascinating sounds of 808Melo, Drill had already become commonplace in the UK.

The United Kingdom has had a long and intimate relationship with Hip Hop music. In the early 2000s, Grime music grew from the ashes of genres like Jungle and Dancehall, and gained popularity by way of underground, pirated radio stations. It was the very nature of listening to Grime music, the disregard for the rules, that would lay the foundation for the popularity of Drill music in the UK today. Grime was where it began, and you’ve definitely heard some of it, too.

Artists like Skepta and Stormzy have breached the popular music scene in the US, and if you’ve heard someone rapping in an unfamiliar accent on the radio, either of the pair are most likely responsible.

Drill hasn’t grown to huge popularity in the UK by coincidence. The themes of gang violence, drug dealing, and getting money aren’t unique to UK Drill; rappers everywhere dabble in these philosophies. What makes the genre so inherently different is that censorship laws have made Drill music a crime in the UK, providing additional consequences for rappers who often come from difficult situations. In January 2019, Drill artists Skengdo x AM were given nine-month sentences for performing one of their songs at an event. Police claimed that the song “incited and encouraged violence from rival gangs.”

“Youth violence is a complex issue, and there is no single solution,” said British Musician’s Union official John Shortell, “but criminalizing young people making music about the reality of their lives is not one of them.”

Because of censorship, Drill artists never go by their real names, and in music videos, they often wear ski masks or other face coverings in order to conceal their identities.

Poverty, gang violence, and generally high levels of poverty and crime had been a problem in the UK long before Drill music existed. Drill was born as a byproduct of those exact issues. The music is simply a reflection of the reality.

Maybe that’s what drew Pop Smoke to the foreboding sounds of 808Melo’s piercing, ominous beats. The rapper brought Drill to its global peak before his death in February 2020, and while we may never know the heights to which Pop Smoke would’ve taken his career, as well as the style itself, the impression that he’s left on the mainstream stage may prove to be extremely relevant even as we approach the one year anniversary of his death.

As a matter of fact, Drill has actually taken its rightful place on the mainest-stream stage there is, and that can only happen to a genre when an uber-famous Canadian multi-platinum artist absorbs it into his wide repertoire of styles. Anyone know someone like that?

On Christmas Eve of 2019, Drake released “War”, which was produced by AXL Beats, the mastermind behind Travis Scott’s “GATTI” featuring Pop Smoke. War was Drake’s rendition of Drill, not only because of the utilization of sliding 808s and fast paced hi-hats, but also the presence of British slang throughout. The song lacks a chorus or any real formatting, another technique commonly employed by Drill artists.

Drake gave two features to Grime artist Giggs and an entire track to Skepta on his 2017 album “More Life”. He also appeared on LinkUpTV, a British promotional platform, in 2018 and gave a freestyle on their popular “Behind Barz” program. The freestyle was later a part of a collection of songs from Netflix’s “Top Boy”, a series set in London.

Since “War” came out, Drake has tapped the Drill world two more times, teaming up with Headie One on “Only You Freestyle”, which was released in Summer 2020 and produced by M1onthebeat, and “Demons”, featuring Fivio Foreign and Sosa Geek, two of Brooklyn drill’s most influential ambassadors.

This brings us to today. As previously mentioned, the one year anniversary of Pop Smoke’s death is just a month away, and while he isn’t alive to see it, the mark he’s left on mainstream hip hop is growing more and more apparent with each day. For casual fans of rap music, Drill might not seem that relevant. Yet. For millions of listeners in the UK, Brooklyn, or anywhere else, for that matter, Drill is already ordinary, but it’s been growing, ready to become the sensation to succeed the southern trap subgenre that has dominated hip hop music in the last half decade.

With a January release date set for Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy”, should we expect a sob story about Rihanna and A$AP Rocky? A couple bars dedicated to Drake’s son? Probably, but more importantly, should we expect a track produced by a UK producer? Should we expect features from Drill artists? We shall see...

Like this article? Go listen:

UK Drill/Grime Songs:

“Molly” - Central Cee

“Parlez-Vous Anglais” - Headie One (feat. Aitch)

“On Deck (Remix)” - Abra Cadabra (feat. Rv, Kush, Double Lz, Bandokay, Lowkey OFB, Dezzie)

“Under Surveillance” - Frosty (feat. Unknown T)

“Safe to Say” - Aitch

“Welcome to Brixton” - SR

“Wave” - Gully

“Sweepin Up” - Meekz

“Straight Murder” - Giggs (feat. David)

“Rose Gold” - Headie One

“I Spy” - Krept & Konan (feat. Headie One and K-Trap)

“That’s Not Me” - Skepta (feat. JME)


“Both” - Headie One

“Loading” - Central Cee

“Hear No Evil” - Headie One (feat. Future)

“Roddy Ricch” - Rv and Headie One (feat. K-Trap)

Brooklyn Drill Songs:

“Armed and Dangerous” - Pop Smoke

“Suburban, Pt. 2” - 22Gz

“Forrest Gump (Remix)” - Krimelife Ca$$ (feat. ABG Neal, Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow)

“Ambition” - Fivio Foreign & Lil Tjay

“MPR” - Pop Smoke

“Hawk Em” - Pop Smoke

“I Get Luv” - Sleepy Hallow

“Breakin Bad (Okay)” - Sleepy Hallow (feat. Sheff G)

“Ready or Not” - Bizzy Banks

“Wooo Walk” - Rah Swish, Fetty Luchiano, Sosa Geek, Young Costamado

“Showin Off, Pt. 2” - Pop Smoke (feat. Fivio Foreign)

“Extra Sturdy” - Bizzy Banks

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