EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Pop Smoke's brother, Obasi J., on being "free" in his music, aiming for Kanye and Pharrell-level of success, his upcoming new music, and more.
Everybody knows Pop Smoke. There was no avoiding the late 20-year-old rapper as he took over the country and shaped an entire sound. Credited for the popularity of Brooklyn's booming drill scene, Pop was one of the most talented rappers to break onto the scene in the past few years. Since his death last year, the world has been mourning the loss of the deep-voiced superstar who won the hearts of millions. Much like Pop did with his music, his brother Obasi J. is looking to achieve similar heights in his career. However, you shouldn't be expecting another Pop Smoke when you turn on his music.
"Unfollow me if you think I'm going to be another Pop Smoke," said Obasi to his fans in an Instagram post just three weeks ago. If you've ever listened to one of Obasi's songs, like the popular "Work," which has racked up over 140,000 streams on Spotify, you know that the two shared very different philosophies when it comes to music.
Describing himself as "free" and a "real musician," Obasi J. has put in the work to get to where he is today. He studied at an arts institution from a young age and he always knew that he was destined for a life in the music business. One thing you'll notice from his sound is Obasi's versatility. The artist is inspired by jazz musicians, alternative hip-hop, and more, which has helped him create a style that's pretty unique.
Obasi has been getting looks all year long and he continues to put the work in, knowing that his time is coming.
Read our recent interview with the artist, which has been slightly edited below for length and clarity.
Image provided by Obasi J.'s Publicist
HNHH: How are you?
Obasi J.: I’m good. A lot happened in the past few hours outside my house. I’m coolin'. My mom is here we’re just chilling, enjoying the weekend so can’t ask for more.
What’s happening outside the crib right now?
Just people acting crazy. People be doing donuts in my neighborhood sometimes so I’m like ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?’ There’s just so much loud noise.
Are you still in Brooklyn?
Yeah, I’m still in Brooklyn. I’m not gonna lie, it's been years. They’ve been doing that since I was young. It used to be motorcycles, you would hear a bunch of motorcycles and see people popping wheelies. Now it’s the bare minimum and people have just stuck with the donuts. I don’t know why people like donuts so much.
It’s a popular area to go be reckless. Man, you've got a lot going on music-wise. Obviously, a lot of people have gotten to know about you through your brother Pop Smoke. It’s been a year since his passing and I was wondering where you were at personally with your grieving process?
I think I’m at the point of acceptance. It’s been a hard experience for me just trying to grasp that thought and that reality. I take everything with a grain of salt and use it as teaching lessons to move forward in my life. You know, now that I’ve accepted this, I have to understand how I have to move forward here on out concerning my artistry, and how I’m gonna honor my brother.
How is the rest of the family doing? How is your mom?
She’s good. She’s working every day. She’s a high school teacher so she’s just with the kids every day. She’s a hard worker. That lady wakes up at like 6 AM, 5 AM just to wake up and lay there, by 7 AM she’s up and at it, ready to go. 8 AM she’s out there with those kids. It’s just amazing to see her go every day.
How close were you with your brother?
We were pretty close up until when he went to school in Pennsylvania and then that’s when the separation kinda happened. I went to go live with my girlfriend at the time, my ex now. I’m five years older than him. I graduated high school, I was trying to figure out my life. He was living a different life. We always had a mutual respect within the house, but in terms of going out, we would meet between church friends and mutual friends from the past but when it came to moving forward, we just had our own steez. We had our own things that we had about ourselves that we liked and our own hobbies and that was just cool to us. So we knew our boundaries and we kept it like that, but it was always love, you know, always love.
"[Pop Smoke and I] were pretty close up until when he went to school in Pennsylvania and then that’s when the separation kinda happened. I went to go live with my girlfriend at the time, my ex now. I’m five years older than him. I graduated high school, I was trying to figure out my life. He was living a different life."
What was your favorite thing to do with him while you guys were growing up?
Oh, man. I think fake wrestling in the house, like when having wrestling belts was cool. He would go over the head with a belt. Between those old days and playing Madden back on Gamecube, we would have to be-- I always say it in interviews but it'd be like, after church, we would run through the pews, went through the aisles. We’d go outside, race to the car, race to the park because our church had a park in the backyard. We'd play ball sometimes in the back of the church, you know. I think those are the times that stuck with me the most because we spent a lot of time in church with my mom, so when we were younger, that was our foundation right there.
Did you bring religion with you into adulthood too?
I wouldn't say I'm religious, but I'm very spiritual. I do hold on to the teachings of the religions, I'm Christian. I grew up in the Christian tradition. But I have respect for all religions. But because I understand that we are all connected, you know, under one. So saying we're all just interconnected is bigger than just this guy, that guy. No, they all have the same teachings and I respect that just the way it is. So I consider myself spiritual because I don't just pinpoint one thing and call it that. I look at all things and say, you know, well, life is grand. And that's just how I look at it.
At what point in your life did you realize that you had a gift for music? Was that something that you realized with Pop?
I was always kinda shy when I was growing up. I was chubby, so I could sing, my mom could sing. Growing up in the church, I was hearing people singing and I loved it. I wasn't as charismatic or confident as I am today. So it wasn't until I seen Pop, he had written his first song at like 10. But he didn't-- he was just doing it for fun. He just liked it. Meanwhile, this is how it's been our whole life. I was the actual lover. You know, he was just doing it because he just had a talent. He was just hobbying, you know, that's his hobby. I'ma write, you know what I'm saying? I got it. It was a gospel song, and it was actually really good for a 10-year-old. Everybody was amazed. He sang it himself. And once I seen him do that, I was like, 'Yo, I want to strive for that.' This man is-- that's my younger brother looking at him like, wow, this is where I want to be like, this is how I want it to look, I want people to support me. From that day on, I took it upon myself to try and become a musical being.
"Growing up in the church, I was hearing people singing and I loved it. I wasn't as charismatic or confident as I am today. So it wasn't until I seen Pop, he had written his first song at like 10. But he didn't-- he was just doing it for fun. He just liked it. Meanwhile, this is how it's been our whole life. I was the actual lover. You know, he was just doing it because he just had a talent. He was just hobbying, you know, that's his hobby. I'ma write, you know what I'm saying? I got it. It was a gospel song, and it was actually really good for a 10-year-old. Everybody was amazed. He sang it himself. And once I seen him do that, I was like, 'Yo, I want to strive for that.'"
You actually went to a specialized high school for film and music, right?
Was your mom supportive of that decision? It was risky but it ultimately paid off.
Oh, well, yeah, pretty much. It was a new school and Lafayette is in Bensonhurst and they broke up the schools. It was one of those kinds of schools, it was one big school, but then they broke it up into a few schools. So my school happened to be one-year-old at the time before I got there, I was like, you know what, let's see what's in for it? I knew I wanted to do something with entertainment. I knew I wanted to know things about the visuals, etc. You know, I wanted to be in that realm of like TV, etc. So I wanted to prepare myself, and the school was new, so it didn't have all the utensils that one would probably need, but we made it work. We had after-school programs, and that's just how me and my friends did it. We brought the culture there because we would come with our guitars, we would sing, we would be in the hallways doing things, saying that was crazy. So I love that.
You were playing basketball there too, right?
No, I played football. They're actually-- okay, I played basketball briefly. But this is when I really kind of, I didn't know if I liked basketball. And my coach had already kind of screwed me on football. Not everyone talked about that. But, I was a football player, man. I love football and it devastated me. I can't even watch football now.
My coach just, you know, favoritism... When you are confident, people try and break you, and me being young, I didn't know how to take that. I just came off one of the Big Apple teams out here in Brooklyn. I was on their team when I was young. I was trying to go to high school. I went to a school that I felt was good because I thought I could do something to them, and guess what? Life said no. You have a plan in mind. If you have a plan in mind, bro, you know, sometimes God or just life comes and says, you know what, that ain't it bro. We had something else intended for you. So that's kind of what happened there. I went there and to my surprise, I was good. And I got my respect. But there were other people that just had their favorites? You know? I didn't even have a chance to develop from junior varsity on.
What position did you play?
I played tight end and I played defensive end. I played tight end on offense. Wide receiver sometimes. Back then I played defensive end and outside linebacker on defense.
At what point did you seriously start making music?
I might have just graduated high school and I went into this program-- I think it's called UAP in the city, Urban Arts something. I was with my friends and we would just go down and learn basic things on GarageBand. And Tyler, The Creator had just come out going crazy with Odd Future and I was like, this is it right here! This guy was onto something, you know, like, he's-- it was weird. It was different. It was cool. He was influential to people who want to be themselves. That's when I started. I had to. I started doing poetry, I started doing whatever I could. I started playing guitar a little bit more. I did whatever I could to try and get myself prepared for the time that we're here right now.
If you weren't doing music right now, what do you think you would be doing career-wise?
I'd be a sports commentator.
I see that. You have the voice.
Thank you, thank you. Playing basketball in college, I admired my boys who would be reporting live and just hearing it back and watching them say Jackson or whoever... my boy Kyrie, or whoever it was on the team, just hearing them and their passion. I like that, you know, and calling the game is just so cool because people are really in tune with you when you're talking. You're calling the game.
Most definitely. What sort of jobs did you have growing up?
I worked at a cafe. It closed down in the city though. I was called Brasilia Cafe. I worked at KFC and Taco Bell over here by my house. I did telemarketing when I was in high school. That was when you had a little green card. You know what I'm talking about? You just got it. I was like 16, that was pretty cool. I was doing telemarketing then. I did audio engineering for a church. That was dope. That was out of college though. I sold tickets at the box office movie theater. Yeah!
Back to the music, did you record a lot of music with Pop? We've only heard a few previews of unreleased songs.
We kinda kept separate, but there was this one time, there was just one song, you know, it's out now called "Need Your Love" and there's one time I was working on it, he came in my room and he was like, 'Yo, I'll give you $15k for that.' And I said what? He's like, 'I'll give $15K now.' I was like, 'Keep your money and give me the feature.' And he's like, 'alright,' and I'm like, let's get it. So I'm recording later down. And I just, you know, I never let it out because he told me he had to go a certain route before he started, you know, started doing what y'all heard on Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon. Okay, so he had to come up with the Meet The Woo, Meet The Woo II, and all that kind of stuff first, give them that drill. And then he started going the other route to give him the extra flavor that he knew he could do. But I had to hold it down. So it's just unfortunate that you know, he passed but it was coming. You know, it was coming.
People are getting to know more about you now. How would you describe yourself as an artist?
Word. Care to elaborate?
Just some people, you know they be stuck, bro. People be stuck sometimes when you are given a certain format for so long, you know, what else are you? What else is expected of you? So we in a routine, and me, I'm a real musician. I might not be the best, but I know how to play instruments. I studied, I play, I've been with the best, and I understand what it takes. I understand what music is. Not only is it therapeutic, it's life, sound waves, waves frequency, it's the way that this universe runs on energy. That's all waves and frequency. So, once you understand that music and sound are different, that there's more to it, you have a certain respect for it. And it could be from free within music to say, I don't have to just do this because I studied music, as I said, I prepared myself. I've done the Spanish, I've done the reggae, I've done the jazz. I've done the classical. So for me, it's different. It's almost like, I'm a boiling pot of just music, and why would I hold that out for anybody? Because, oh, they said this, you got to do this, let the people decide. I think that's where we're at in 2021. We let people decide anyway on how we want to live. Let's let them decide. Let me decide. I just give it to y'all. It is a vibe.
"I'm a real musician. I might not be the best, but I know how to play instruments. I studied, I play, I've been with the best, and I understand what it takes."
What sort of themes do you explore in your music?
Like I said before, it's the vibe. So like, whatever I'm feeling, that's where I go with it. I'm kind of big on heartbreak. I'm kind of big on the self-awareness. I'm kind of big on a turn-up, but in a fun way. Rest in peace to the fallen and, you know, if you do drugs, in moderation, for real for real, but I'm not gonna go there right now. I just want to keep it real. I want you to feel me. When I go in there, that's what I want. I want you to feel what I said. Okay, fine. It might not have been a hit, it might have not been the best to you. But you felt it. You can't deny it's a vibe. And that's the mindset I go with every time I go into it. You're gonna feel it, I'm gonna make you feel it.
For anybody that hasn't heard your music yet, what makes your sound unique from other artists?
Oh, versatility. You know, my voice is an instrument. I'm not just saying words, and that's really the big difference. A lot of people really nice with the bars and the words now but some people are just really just saying words, but it's the way I'm saying the words, just the cadence, just the flow. It's the vibe. It's just how things are aligned. So I think it's just a versatility, the diversity that I bring.
You recently transitioned from Obasi Jackson to simply Obasi J. What was your reasoning for the switch?
Well, I think Obasi is just a dope name by itself. It stands out. I've been working with some people. I've been working with my boy Ron from Def Jam, we've been talking. He's just been giving me some pointers. And we've just been cultivating a sound and we just been trying to figure out what the next move is. But everything has been copacetic, it's been all love. I'm growing. I'm learning and we're moving forward. So Obasi was just like, yo, stand on your two feet. Find your last name, Jackson. They don't need to worry about that. They can read that in the bio, you know, read it on Wikipedia. But I'm Obasi and I stand on that.
What does your name mean? Does it have a deeper meaning to it?
Yeah, it actually means in honor of the Supreme God.
Okay! That's dope.
My mom was looking out. She's looking out, you know what I'm saying.
You recently previewed a song called "In My Bag" last year. Pop Smoke is featured on it. Will we ever see that song get released officially?
Oh man, actually, maybe? I don't know to be honest. I think that's that one. I really don't know. I would hope so. I hope it does come out to be honest. Yeah.
That was Pop's original "Dior" verse on that, right? What's the story behind that?
Yeah, but basically, he didn't want it. He didn't want that verse. That's why it wasn't on "Dior." And I told him, I'm gonna keep it. We're going to do whatever and he was like, 'okay.' And lo and behold, here we are. 'Okay, let me show you that I did this. But I can't get this because yours is already out. So don't worry about what I'm gonna do next with this.' When the time is right, it's just gonna be there.
Speaking of "In My Bag," for the people who will be reading, it's on TikTok. You can make a TikTok to it. It's on Instagram. You can do a reel to it. So go crazy.
Let's go! You mentioned Def Jam before. Have you signed a deal with them? Is that in the works?
No, we just chilling. My big brother Ron, right now he's really been in tune with me just giving me insight. Me and my team, we've been trying to do what's best for me and trying to, like I said, cultivate the sound. A lot of people ask me 'what are you gonna do? Are we gonna do this?' But no, not right now. We just dotting I's and crossing our T's, you know. Are we on our P's and Q's right now? Just making sure that the product is correct. So nothing is set in stone. But you know, everything does look good. And we just moving good. We moving forward in good faith. Yeah, most definitely.
Your brother recently broke a new record. He officially has the longest reigning album at number one on Billboard's Rap Album Chart. He just beat Eminem. How does it make you feel that, even posthumously, he continues to make history?
He deserves it. He deserves it. And it's long overdue, and I'm not even talking about that. Y'all know him for the music. So it's like a year. When I say it's overdue, I'm talking about years of someone's hard work, pain, blood, tears, sweat. It's long overdue for that man and he didn't deserve what happened to him. And, you know, I'm just hopeful. I hope that his spirit can rest easy knowing that he's doing these things on the other side.
Recently, you've been releasing a lot of "lost files" on SoundCloud. Tell me about those records.
I feel for my-- I don't want to call them fans. My family, my musical family, you know. I'm saying I feel for them because you know, it's good music. So y'all want more? I got y'all. Some of it was for the fans. And most of it was just for me, I wanted to take a chance on myself. I was done holding on. I learned from when I had first recorded the songs, I got way better at engineering, way better with my vocals. I might not have done too much recording but my mixing is what got way better so I do not touch them up. I edit them the way I need to. And then I've been putting them out and I didn't want to hold on because it's almost like, how do I say it's a reflection of how I feel, you know? Me holding on to them is like me just holding on to my security. My comfortability. Just set it out, bro. Let it out. Like I said, you just got to let the people decide, man.
The pandemic is finally beginning to clear up. What are your plans for upcoming performances, touring, traveling, stuff like that?
Nothing's set in stone right now but I'm trying to go all over right now. I'm about to take a trip to Cali just to make some connections, but I'm trying to hit any stage anywhere. I'm really trying to get out. I love performing. I have a band I love performing with no matter what. I don't need to be the headliner, I can just open it. I don't care. I'm ready to go. I'm ready to go and ready to throw my water bottle. I'm ready to crowd surf, I'm ready to talk with people. I'm just tired of this Corona stuff, man. It's so depressing.
What sort of artists do you wanna work with? If you had an opportunity to go on tour with two or three artists right now, who would it be?
Smino. Damn, that’s hard. Smino does go crazy. Shit, this is hard. Maybe if Chris Brown was available. These are just hypothetically speaking because there's a lot of people that I love. This is probably gonna throw people so far off but they’re called the Robert Glasper Experiment.
Whoa! You’re on your jazzy neo-soul vibe.
Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I can tour with anybody and be fine. I’ll be fine.
As an artist, how did the pandemic end up affecting you?
I think it affected me in a good way, to be honest. I got a chance to be with myself. I got a chance to prioritize and really see what I want in life. Granted, things are closed and people would be like, ‘oh that’s a bad thing,’ but there's a lot of distractions and I think this was a time to cleanse and really refresh yourself. I took this time to really work and better myself and I think it’s affected me very positively, and I’m still growing.
What can people expect from you in the future?
Bangers! Honestly, you’re gonna see the hard work come to light. Y’all are gonna see that I wasn’t just playing games and I wasn’t on live just bullshitting. Last night, I was in the studio and I think I realized that I got it and not just on a recording and writing kinda thing. I’m talking about overall I can engineer, I can produce, and I’m comfortable. Y’all are gonna see a Kanye-esque, Pharell-esque, kind of vibe. You know those guys are really up here with it when it comes to the music. As I link with people and I grow, it’s gonna get better.
We're excited to keep up with you. Obasi, is there anything I didn’t ask you that you want to go over before we close out?
Just know that I love y’all and I appreciate y’all support. It’s been a long time coming. Not really but it feels long because of the things that we’ve been through. But, we coming out on top and God is good, man. I appreciate you for having me.
Of course, man. I appreciate you for taking the time out of your day.
Appreciate you. Shout out to my team!