What Happens To Underground Rap Scenes When Their Biggest Stars Pass Away?

Earlier this week, the deluxe edition of Pop Smoke’s posthumous debut album was released in honor of the late Brooklyn rapper’s birthday. While the original version was a star-studded affair, fans of drill worried that without the genre’s biggest star, its chances of a wider takeover were lost with Pop Smoke. He should have turned 21 years old, yet instead of celebrating that milestone with him, his fans were granted the consolation prize of finally getting the album they should have gotten in the first place — the one where the drill music vanguard rapped alongside other members of the burgeoning underground scene.

Even then, the additional tracks only provided glimpses of the scene’s emerging talents, pairing Pop with frequent collaborator Fivio Foreign and members of his Woo collective: Dafi Woo and Dread Woo. There are no signs of fellow drill flag wavers like 22Gz, Blixky Boyz, Sheff G, or Sleepy Hallow. Their absence represents a missed opportunity to hand the torch from Pop Smoke, clearly the loose collective’s greatest star, to a worthy successor, keeping the spotlight firmly affixed to the purveyors of the gritty, aggressive sound. While there’s still time for one to emerge, we’ve seen this movie play out before. What exactly happens to a bubbling underground scene when its biggest star passes away?

In 2017, it seemed as though South Florida menace XXXTentacion was poised to take over the world as his breakout hit “Look At Me” flooded playlists and young hip-hop fans clamored for new music from the antisocial punk-rap rebel. This was despite the domestic assault charges hovering over him for allegedly beating his then-girlfriend senseless and threatening to sexually assault her with a barbecue fork. Such was his popularity that his associates Matt Zingler and Tariq Cherif were able to launch the Rolling Loud Festival series behind his name — a series that has since massively grown in scale and traveled from Miami to Oakland, Los Angeles, and New York. To this day, the festival remembers its fallen hero, as XXX’s collaborators and friends blast “Look At Me” throughout the weekend, imploring fans to fist pump, mosh, and observe moments of silence in his honor.

But the sense of community between those collaborators’ has fractured since X was shot to death while buying a motorcycle midway through 2018. Not only were XXX’s last few albums received only marginally by critics, but members of the South Florida SoundCloud punk-rap scene have received less and less publicity as the years have passed. Check Google Trends, and you can see that searches for X collaborators like Ski Mask The Slump God and Smokepurpp — arguably the two most recognizable artists of the scene — have dropped tremendously, despite Smokepurpp steadily releasing projects since 2018. Ski Mask’s searches peak in 2018 around the release of his album Stokely, but there are only a handful of reviews, while sales maxed out in the first week with 51,000 units — mostly from streaming.

That’s nothing to shake a stick at, but considering the juggernaut XXXTentacion had been in life, it’s hard not to wonder whether the halo effect of his stardom would have illuminated the careers of his nearest and dearest. Something similar happened with the emo-rap stars that proliferated around the late Lil Peep. While adherents like Brennan Savage, Horse Head, and Lil Aaron have continued trucking along, they certainly receive much less attention than they did when Peep was capturing the public’s imagination. Having a star to focus on generally helps other members of a scene or a movement in music, even if those satellite stars never shine quite as brightly.

After all, throughout the early 2000s, aligning with a well-known rap crew such as Disturbing Tha Peace, Murder Inc., Roc-A-Fella Records, or Ruff Ryders helped launch a number of otherwise unremarked-upon rappers into the national spotlight. Being famous by association helped make minor stars of rappers like Beanie Siegel, Charli Baltimore, Drag-On, Freeway, I-20, Jin, Memphis Bleek, and Shawnna, even if their latter-day careers petered out or their albums undersold major label expectations. However, that isn’t to say that just because the scene itself appears to have died out, that it’s automatically a wrap for those waiting in the wings.

Just look at the precursor to the Brooklyn drill scene in Chicago. In 2012, it seemed Chicago drill was everywhere judging from the breathless coverage of the scene in the wake of Chief Keef’s breakout hit “I Don’t Like.” That coverage brought more attention to fellow drill rappers like G Herbo (then Lil Herb), Katie Got Bandz, Lil Bibby, and Lil Durk, among others. However, as Chief Keef, the most popular of the Chicago subgenre’s champions, began to suffer the negative consequences of the increased scrutiny — namely, a handful of stints in and out of jail as a result of parole violations stemming from one of his interviews — excitement for the scene as a whole dwindled. However, rather than disappearing altogether, many of its members evolved their sounds and became stars in their own right.

Just this year, Herbo released the critically hailed, fan-favorite album PTSD, embracing a wholly different sound from drill — much more melodic and lyrically-focused, with bars that concentrate on the traumatic emotional effects left behind by the violence once bluntly described by drill. Likewise, Lil Durk has begun to flourish after some legal troubles of his own, releasing Just Cause Y’all Waited 2 in May, with a similar bent toward emotive, half-sung lyrics. Both have enough credibility from their eight-year duration in the rap game to have swung some impressive guest stars; Lil Baby and Gunna adorn the tracklist of Durk’s effort, while Herbo’s includes looks from fellow Chicagoan Chance The Rapper, 21 Savage, and Lil Uzi Vert. Meanwhile, their musical evolution is reflected in the new generation of talent from the Windy City, including Polo G, the heir apparent to Chicago’s gritty street sound.

Lil Bibby may be the ultimate example of pivoting after the spotlight fades. In 2017, he signed Juice WRLD to his Grade A Productions and negotiated a lucrative contract at Interscope for the then-teenaged emo rapper. That deal blossomed in the wake of hits like “Lucid Dreams” and “Robbery,” with three hugely successful albums — the most recent of which, the posthumously released Legends Never Die, taking the world by storm and producing the biggest streaming week of 2020 so far. Intriguingly, Juice himself was at the forefront of a more diffuse movement of emo, SoundCloud “mumble rappers” that included participants like Lil Uzi Vert, Lil Skies, and Trippie Redd — all massive stars in their own rights, despite early criticisms from rap purists.

It remains to be seen what will become of the remaining Brooklyn drill kids — or even their precursors in the South Florida SoundCloud wave. Public interest is fickle; maybe something new will come along to pull attention into a new direction. If that happens, it shouldn’t spell doom for Pop Smoke’s associates. The Chicago originators of their rowdy, rebellious style have shown that if they can adapt, they can find their way in whatever comes next.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.