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NEW YORK – Before the New York Knicks played at Madison Square Garden, Taj Gibson would turn up the music in the changing rooms to promote his teammates.
Pop Smoke’s hit song “Welcome to the Party” is routinely launched from the speakers.
Gibson, a native of Fort Greene, met the Brooklyn-born rapper last season while playing with the Minnesota Timberwolves during a road game at MSG. Pop Smoke participated in the game with a mutual friend who knew Gibson.
Just two weeks ago, Gibson met the rapper, who was walking alone, in central Manhattan. Gibson told the 20-year-old rapper that he was proud of his steps and was a huge fan of his music.
It was the last time Gibson would see his young friend.
Pop Smoke, real name Bashar Barakah Jackson, was shot Wednesday during a domestic invasion of Hollywood Hills, Los Angeles, and died of a gunshot wound to the bust.
“It’s a sad part of our culture, especially hip-hop and African American culture,” Gibson told the Bleacher Report. “The more successful you get, the more target type you become. Smaller things can turn into a bad atmosphere for you. This is something we can’t accomplish. I’m just lost for words right now.”
Official Pop Smoke videos on YouTube for “Welcome to the Party”, “Dior” and “War” combined for 57 million views. In Billboard’s Top 100, the song “Cats” by JACKBOYS, Travis Scott and Pop Smoke peaked at 69. He also collaborated with other music stars, including Nicki Minaj and Quavo.
Knicks guard Dennis Smith Jr. explained why the loss of Pop Smoke and other rappers like Nipsey Hussle is more of a blow to the music industry.
“It’s tragic, sad and it’s only a blow to the hip-hop world, but I also feel it to the black community because I’m a leader,” Smith told the Bleacher Report. “They represent our struggle and are voices for us. They give a lot of people who have never had to deal with some of the things we face with a vision of that world. Seeing them go and leaving this land is super unfortunate.”
For Smith, Pop Smoke’s music became a taste acquired after hearing it for the first time at LaGuardia airport as he returned home to train last summer. Since then, Smith and his brother Desmond have shared an appreciation for the rapper’s music. Smith could not ignore the “buzz” around Pop Smoke and he noticed that “all mood changed” every time he played his music.
“He made good music,” said Smith. “I feel it meant a lot to New York. It was definitely coming. It was an important part of rap right now. He invented a different sound. I brought it home. I was playing it during All – Weekend, south, even people were rocking us. There were a couple of people in the south who hadn’t heard of him, and I played a song for them, and they were immediately on top of him. He was a super talented young black man and you hate to see someone like leaving the ground so early. “
Raised in Canarsie, Pop Smoke faced struggles before finding success through music. The rapper took drugs and spent two years under house arrest on an arms charge, as Danny Schwartz of The Ringer noted, before starting his music career seriously in 2018.
“His voice was unique,” said Gibson. “It sounded different. So talented. For a talented guy, for me to really have words with him and really talk to him, he was super intellectual. He had a lot to offer and it would have been a good source of inspiration for young boys from look and understand if you remain in difficulty and persevere, you can be as successful as he is.
“It’s tough because when you go to Canarsie, it’s tough out there towards the back of Brooklyn. There aren’t many outlets, but there is still a lot of talent out there. All young boys, we have to protect we have to keep these young rappers safe but it’s been a bad week. Do you know what I’m saying? You saw so much potential and the young man really didn’t have a chance to live his life. “
Guard Knicks Damyean Dotson echoed Gibson’s point about the need for protection as a public figure such as a rapper or NBA player.
“Such stuff is tragic,” said Dotson. “You must be safe. You must know who you are. You must be protected. If you live that way (generously), you must be protected. You must be safe. It is a dangerous world.”
Pacers Myles Turner center remembered Kemba Walker playing Pop Smoke in the locker room before every game during Team USA’s FIBA World Cup 2019 in China in China and how his death put things in perspective.
“The biggest thing that goes through my mind is how precious life is, and no matter how successful, wealthy, famous and influential you can be taken away at any time, so it makes you step back and appreciate what you have, “said Turner.
Despite the loss of Pop Smoke, his memory will live on through his music for several NBA players, including Gibson, who has promised to play Pop Smoke for the rest of the year “nonstop”.
Michael Scotto is an NBA writer for Bleacher Report and Associated Press. Seen on NBA TV and YES Network. Heard on ESPN Radio, SiriusXM NBA Radio and WFAN. This is his ninth season covering the NBA. Follow him on Twitter, @MikeAScotto.