“Did you hear about XXXTentacion?” he said, to all of us. The older dude who worked on our floor, that I didn’t know at all, was the one who broke the news to us that the young rapper, had been murdered in broad daylight. Seconds later, the video of him laying in his driver’s seat was on the large Mac displays we had in our office, back when I worked out of one of those. I hurriedly said “don’t show me,” because well, I can’t deal with seeing people breathing their last breaths, no matter how much the internet has desensitized us. I felt hollow for the rest of the day, and out of sorts: I was no fan of X due to the crimes tied to his name, but I knew he had talent, and I was two months removed from seeing him turn Rolling Loud Miami, into a total frenzy. He was gone now. Permanently. And I knew right there, in that moment, as I ate dinner, alone in a restaurant, that these rapper deaths would hit closer and closer to home. One day it would be someone I really had love for. I hoped I would be prepared. I was not.
I could say the rise of Pop Smoke in NYC was something you had to be there for; he got hot so fast that he was already stretching outside of the boundaries of tri-state area by spring 2019. I knew who he was, of course, I heard his songs, I thought they were cool, but I didn’t “get” what he was doing until I met him. I had no idea what to expect, after watching and reading his other interviews; rappers who haven’t been in music very long, can be standoffish, or guarded. He comes to the office, with just a few of his friends and his publicist, and he’s disarmingly cool, like someone I would’ve grown up with, even though I was at least 11 years older than him. What was most striking about Pop, was his happiness. He was happy to do press, to talk his shit, to be successful, to make music and be loved for it. But most importantly, he was happy to be himself, completely comfortable in his own skin in an industry that makes husks of promising young talent, because it only loves their output, with little care for the human being behind it. After I met Pop, Meet The Woo, his debut tape, made sense to me, the songs landed, he had a fan and supporter in me.
Y’all know where I work, and you know what we on when the new year starts….the Freshman List. Every year, it’s a who’s who of the rappers who are up next (and with the speed of how rap moves, those who are up now). January 2020, Pop Smoke came to the office to do his Freshman pitch, where he is interviewed by staffers about what his next steps are for the year, he discusses why he should be a Freshman and how he feels about the idea, things of that nature. I was working on something else, so I was going to check on Pop when he got out of the meeting. It was kind of late, like 7 or 8 pm, and he strolled out of the back, the same stocky, star power-exuding dude I remembered. He, of course, got picked to be a Freshman, because understand: he HAD to be. He loomed LARGE in the city (and beyond), he WAS Brooklyn Drill to most people, by far the most recognizable act within it. I dapped him up and told him congrats, and he def poked fun at how muscular I was after I shook his hand (likely too strongly)…which is crazy, cause he was also strong as shit. It was great to see him, and he was ecstatic to be a part of this.
February 19th, 2020. Pop is dead, murdered in a home invasion in Los Angeles that still doesn’t make sense to me, the reality of it just being too much. He was 20 years old, man. Seeing his light be snatched away, knowing where he was headed and how committed he was to getting there, was really disturbing as fuck to me. I don’t think I really ever recovered, because I basically couldn’t feel anything, when I realized the rumors were true, Pop, that guy we all loved in the office, was gone. Forever. Look past the music for a second; the person, the human being, was gone. And we had to sit with that. And I say “sit” as a figure of speech, because working within rap means you are endlessly moving through death, hoping it gets easier, or in my own personal case, hoping the constant loss of life doesn’t strip me of my humanity, of my ability to feel pain for these artists, and that hole that never really fills in their absence. I remember standing outside, talking to my coworker’s about Duke Deuce’s tape which dropped the same day, Memphis Massacre 2, and how Pop’s death made it hard to focus on such a strong project. I was in a daze for the rest of that day, the rest of that week, the rest of that month, my only respite being denial, refusing to accept what happened.
My connection to Von was very similar to Pop’s, but a bit more involved, just because of how different Von’s route was to fame. Mired in legal troubles and unable to get his feet out of the street, Von pretty much came out of nowhere and dropped “Crazy Story” and “Took Her To The O” within 12 months. “Took Her To The O” was when I realized “Von is going to take off, and everyone has to accept and realize this.” I actually interviewed him nearly a week after Pop got murdered, and remembered feeling that “I hope he gets to hang around and enjoy this shit” feeling. Losing artists you actually knew, were around, and helped promote puts you into that kind of mindset; you become fearful, you worry about these people, you wonder will they get to bask in their success, or will all of this get cut short. Von was cool as hell too, just like Pop, and unflappable and very open, speaking very clearly and honestly to me about his jail time and cases, without me asking or really pushing (I think it’s extremely police when interviewers press on topics like this, but thats another conversation). I was a fan of Von, but worried his the criminal investigation (accusation of a shooting in Atlanta, alongside his friend and OTF leader/labelmate, Lil Durk) he was wrapped in would hold him back at XXL. He really did want to be a Freshman, his team pushed hard for this, and he was easy to work with. I was in his corner, but understood the reality of the situation.
In winter 2020, we were trying to launch Who Am I? Live, an IG Live interview series split between me and my colleague, where we Scheduling, destiny and perfect timing led to us opening the show with Von, and us both having to trust each other on something new. I had to believe that Von would be engaging and open to talking, and that I’d ask the right shit, and he had to trust that I would do my best to give him room to let his charisma and music shine though, and give his fans what they wanted.
Von was incredible in the interview, giving me a tour around his hotel room, introducing his friends, playing a ton of unreleased music, and even playing one of his videos before they dropped. He rose up to the moment and so did I, and I hope he realizes how much he held me down and legitimized me, as I did something I hadn’t done before. The aftermath of this interview had my parents, who are both in their 60s, singing Von’s praises, this young dude from Chicago who had been through it all. That specific interview was a source of happiness for me; I was dealing with my own depression/anxiety issues, worrying about the love of my life’s fibroids and the pain she was feeling, and just trying to survive the pandemic, when it felt like letting your guard down for a second would put you in a coffin.
Just over a week later, Von was gone, killed in a fist fight with Quando Rondo that turned into a shooting. I was in Houston when I found out, where I had been for about a month with my girlfriend, so I was alone while she was at work. I felt that familiar sinking feeling, but I chose to not believe social media, and held out hope that there had been some sort of misunderstanding, that Von just got shot but wasn’t dead. I came into a work meeting on Zoom as they all realized it was true, Von died on the way to the hospital, 700 miles from his hometown, the victim of social media beef that boiled over. I muted myself on Zoom, because I was crying in an empty room, and could not compose myself to say anything to my coworkers. I was in a lot of emotional pain at the time, which would soon lead to my anxiety disorder getting so bad that I had a gnawing in my stomach that would go on to last for months. I was worried about my girlfriend, I was worried about myself, I was worried about everyone I loved in the middle of a pandemic that was cutting lives short left and right, and I was under a lot of duress at work. Then I wake up to Von being killed over some bullshit, and I was expected to continue on like everything was ok.
I texted my sister and my parents and told them Von was dead, and even reading the text messages makes me remember how distraught I felt in the moment; it’s something I can’t forget, even now. Those thoughts were in my head again, where I didn’t feel I could be this close to hip-hop anymore, and just push through the psychological effects of “This person I’m cool with is dead now, and they can all be snatched away from us, in an instant.” It was fucking me up, it still is. The very thing I knew would happen to me, did. And it came quickly. Obviously, I hung in there, but the deaths really didn’t stop, and there is no simple answer to slow it down, no path to peace without nuance.
Before Von died, Juice WRLD died via overdose, which was terrifying and something I still haven’t come to terms with. Young Dolph being killed just weeks ago was too much; I loved the man and his music, and who he was, what he represented, and was beside myself to meet him the one time I did. Every time these deaths happen, like Drakeo The Ruler this past weekend, or Slim 400, or Mac Miller or Nipsey Hussle, I lose a bit of myself to this shit, to this hip-hop world I exist in that I contribute to. This is not about me being a fan, which I will always be. This is about me working in rap, getting to know these people, then refreshing TMZ to find out they got their lives taken or died in the most heinous ways.
Every time a rapper is lost, it chips away at my will to maintain my proximity to covering the genre. But the reality is, going back to being purely a fan is no easier, and may be more difficult in certain ways. Plus, walking is somewhat cheating my gift and my dream, and I owe something back to hip-hop, for all it’s given me; I love being a part of this shit. With each additional rapper death, it becomes more and more difficult to bounce back; it makes this all seem little futile and very finite, knowing that any rapper you’re a fan of, could be gone in the blink of an eye.