As short as it was, Pop Smoke’s career moved quickly. When the late Brooklyn rapper signed on for his first and only acting role in early 2019, he hadn’t yet released his debut mixtape. Summer came, and his breakout single “Welcome to the Party” filled it. By the fall, when Pop Smoke began shooting for Eddie Huang’s newly released debut movie Boogie, the 20-year old had propelled himself to New York ubiquity and growing international stardom.
In February 2020, Pop Smoke was killed during a home robbery in Los Angeles. A posthumous album was released in July and went to No. 1, and the work he left behind continues to come. The Boogie soundtrack includes some original Pop Smoke music, and the movie—now in theaters—is another glimpse of an artist who was just getting started.
In the early stages, before “Welcome to the Party,” the music executive Steven Victor met Pop Smoke and signed the rapper to his label Victor Victor Worldwide. The two worked together through Pop Smoke’s feverish career, and the Boogie role was an early attempt at making use of the rapper’s range of talents. In the movie, a high school basketball drama set in New York City, the titular character’s path to a college scholarship runs through a villain played by Pop Smoke. Reached by phone, Victor discussed what he saw from the first-time actor.
Vanity Fair: What were your first discussions of the movie?
Steven Victor: I’m really good friends with Eddie’s manager Raf. And Raf was telling me about this movie’s Eddie’s doing, and the characters, and what the movie’s about, and I was like, Yo, I just signed this kid Pop Smoke from Brooklyn. He’s really, really good at basketball, you should put him in the movie. He’s a star.
But Raf was like, Nah, we’re looking for a name. So we can’t put him in there, he’s a newly signed artist, no one really knows who he is. They had tapped someone for the movie already, and then something happened the day he was supposed to start shooting. This was maybe a month and a half later. So Raf hit me and he was like, Yo, who was that artist you were telling me about? Can he come and try out? I need him to come today.
So I called Pop, he was in Brooklyn. I said, Do you know how to act? And he said, What do you mean? So I told him about the opportunity. And he was like, Oh yeah, I can do that. So he went to Eddie’s apartment and read for the part. He shot basketballs, and they loved him.
What was it about him that struck you early on?
It wasn’t just one thing. When I first met him, I was like, This kid’s a superstar, he’s hella talented. Every so often you meet an artist where you’re like, Oh, this kid’s gonna make something of himself. Or he has the potential to make something. When I met him, I knew he had the potential to be a superstar. But it wasn’t until we started working together that I saw how well he listened and how hard he worked. And he has the talent, and he has the confidence. I knew it was a matter of time. I have supreme confidence in myself and in him, so I was just like, Yo, there’s no way this does not work. I didn’t think it was gonna happen as fast as it did, but I knew it was gonna happen.
Did you see him shooting the movie? I read that there were kids gathered around the court to watch him.
Yeah, I used to go on set. I’m not gonna sit here and say I was with him the whole time, ‘cause he was there for maybe 12 to 14 hour days. So I’d come for maybe two to three hours after work and just kick it.
Did he enjoy acting?
I remember going on set and he’d just be really happy. I remember thinking to myself, I would not be happy sitting here for fucking 10 hours. I’d only be there for the end of the day, and he’d have been there since 6a.m., and a kid would come up to him and say, Can I take a picture, can I get an autograph? And he’d happily do it.
What was your experience of watching the movie?
It was really sad. It was so much of his personality in the character. I don’t want to say he’s a bully to Boogie, because at the end he goes and praises him. And that’s who he was. That’s Pop in a nutshell right there. He was very confident about himself but he was also very humble.
How do you approach all these decisions about how to manage Pop Smoke’s afterlife, whether in his music or other projects?
The good thing about it is, he and I were really close. As far as music is concerned, I knew exactly what he wanted. So for that part, it’s not that difficult to put music together, because we were just so in sync when it came to what he wanted to put out, when he wanted to put it out, so on and so forth. I just take guidance from that. I just think about what he would want. When you’re working, you’re not really thinking about it. Your mind is focused on one singular thing. The part where it becomes sad and bittersweet is when his music comes on the radio, and you’re just listening as a person, not as someone who’s working. During that time you start remembering that he’s not here to see all this shit that’s going on. All the fan love, the things that he wanted to accomplish that he actually accomplished.
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