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Sheff G Is the Blueprint

By Ivie Ani on

What’s up next in culture is #UpNow on Audiomack. Our emerging artist program is dedicated to spotlighting and promoting the next generation of global music superstars. Read more about our selection of Sheff for #UpNow and listen to our official #UpNow playlist featuring Sheff G.

In the fall of 1998, JAY-Z’s Vol. 2… Hard Knock Life, A Tribe Called Quest’s The Love Movement, OutKast’s Aquemini, Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star, and Brand Nubian’s Foundation dropped on the same day—September 29. Just one week before what is considered the greatest rap album release day ever, Sheff G was born. The rapper, née Michael Williams, would grow up in Flatbush, a few neighborhoods south of The Notorious B.I.G.’s hometown, Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Ironically, having been ushered in during a month of what would be hip-hop history and the surroundings to match, this had minimal bearing on Sheff’s career choice.

The 22-year-old was inspired to start rapping by listening to Chicago drill online by rappers Chief Keef, Lil Bibby, and G Herbowhom he’s named as G.O.A.T.s of his generation. Their influence intertwined with remnants of 50 Cent, anchored by UK drill beats, mark his musical style. The start of his career saw his 2017 single, “No Suburban,” produced by AXL Beats, go viral, and this song—along with 22Gz’s “Suburban”— are credited with solidifying the Brooklyn drill sound as a new subgenre.

Though the popularity of this particular British rap wave finding its way to New York is attributed to the late beloved Brooklyn drill rapper Pop Smoke, his first single, “MPR,” was a remix of Sheff G, Sleepy Hallow, and Fresh G’s 2018 track produced by British beatmaker 808 Melo (Pop’s future go-to collaborator), “Panic Part 3.” Herein lies Sheff’s positioning as a sort of nouveau godfather. Though, admittedly, it’s hard for him to have pictured himself as a teenage forefather. Sheff understands the foundational elements of what he does.

Sheff G’s baby face contrasts a baritone voice tinctured with a Brooklyn drawl. It’s a rap voice that early online listeners mistook for a British accent, all the more adding to his appeal. Fivio Foreign compares him to Biggie. But the similarities start and stop between their Caribbean-Brooklyn background. Amongst new-New York, Sheff is one of the artists who are not “bringing NY rap back,” as the misguided adage goes, but instead, reshaping the sound of the city while retaining its spirit. And his influence, according to fans and early followers, is underrecognized.

But recognition is the least of his worries. Sheff says NYPD has harassed him since he was 15 years old. While in high school, he was arrested and placed on probation after firing gunshots at Brooklyn’s Kings Plaza. Now, he’s trying to escape the grips of the law and the streets and focus on music—the only hustle of his that’s truly paid off.

Drill music translates tension and calls for upheaval of the old in place of the new in a way that speaks to more than music—a calling that found Sheff just a few years ago. Though the earliest wave started with Bobby Shmurda’s and Rowdy Rebel’s GS9 ascension to local fame and national buzz in 2014, a new iteration of what bubbled on the surface of Brooklyn’s rap scene has blown up. What Sheff contributes to this coven of rap artists is an unabashed commitment to authenticity. His mission is professed on “No Suburban, Pt. 2,” where he raps, “This for the streets; don’t care if this gets no radio play.”

Sheff G’s latest effort, Proud of Me Now, adds to a steady release of projects; it’s his second album this year, following his sophomore LP, One and Only, and 2019 debut, THE UNLUCCY LUCCY KID.

While his peers boast major features, Sheff G carries his bodies of work through Winners Circle Entertainment either by himself or alongside frequent collaborator and childhood friend Sleepy Hallow.

There is an elusiveness coupled with rowdiness Sheff G now negotiates with fame. When catching up with Sheff a few days ahead of Proud of Me Now’s release, he seems calm. His responses to questions are as terse as his lyrics—succinct, distant, and loaded, sometimes light with an adolescent candor. Whether he’s riffing and reflecting on street life, communicating quiet growing pains, or celebrating loud wins, he remains decidedly grounded in the present. A feat proven difficult to do at any age.

There are a few New York drill artists that are big right now, and you’re considered a pioneer of Brooklyn drill by some. What would you say your role has been in New York’s new rap scene?

I just be doing me, for me, and I’ll let the people decide what they decide. If they labeled me as that, then that’s what it is, you feel me.

Do you think of yourself as a pioneer of the genre?

No. For me, I just let the people talk, let the fans and all of them decide that. I don’t like labeling myself as anything but Sheff G.

What was the moment where you decided to start taking rap seriously?

At first, it was only a dream to become rich and famous. When I seen that dream was capable, I started taking it serious. “We Getting Money” and “Flows”—that’s when I started taking music serious, when I seen it could change my life.

And you’re Caribbean, right?

Yeah, I’m Trini and Haitian.

Did Caribbean music have an effect on your choice to pursue music, or was it predominantly Chicago drill?

Chicago drill. Caribbean music maybe because of the melodies and stuff. The way I make my songs now, I start off from the melody. But that’s probably why.

That’s what I was thinking because if you listen to Soca, it’s all about the energy, and I feel like drill has a similar type of energy; it’s outside music.

That’s right.

There’s obviously that connection because half of Brooklyn is Caribbean. But when you first came out, I remember people thought you were from the UK just because of your voice.

That’s a fact. My voice and the type of beats we was using. I didn’t even know “No Suburban” was off a UK drill beatmaker. We wasn’t typing in “UK drill,” we was typing in “drill type beat,” and that’s what popped up.

When you typed in “drill beat,” you were primarily looking for the Chicago type of drill, and then you realized there was a UK wave also?

Yeah, we were just looking for a drill beat. And then it ended up that the drill producers in the UK was doing their own type of drill beats, too. We ended up using it, and that’s how that happened for me. That’s how I started tuning into the UK people. And they’re doing the same thing we’re doing over here.

Do you feel like you get the same amount of love from UK fans as you do from New York? How do you think you’re received overseas?

I think overseas, they love us the same. I put up one of my songs on a UK page just to see if they would fuck with me out there, and they did. That was lit.

With the fact that you’re accepted internationally, does it matter to you when people start talking about, “Who’s the King of New York?” Does that matter to you, the regional aspect of it?

Listen, I don’t care. I don’t care about none of that King title stuff. I don’t need it.

Drill music is meant to be played outside, whether at a party or a club, or in cars, but you have been dropping music consistently. With this album coming out while we’re basically still on lockdown, what do you hope the music will do for listeners during this time?

Certain songs are going to motivate everybody to keep doing their thing even though we’re in a pandemic. Certain songs are going to give people that energy, you know what I’m saying?

Now that everybody’s indoors, there’s obviously no events really, but one of the standout events from last year was Rolling Loud. Everyone saw how the NYPD tried to shut that down and shut you and other artists out. Seeing what’s happening right now with Casanova and others, do you feel rappers are unfairly targeted by the NYPD?

Definitely. We all are. They don’t want to see us winning, and that’s crazy. I don’t understand that.

Some rappers had issues with the NYPD even before they were famous. And then, as soon as they got famous, it just made things worse. Do you feel like your newfound success just makes you more of a target, and how do you combat that?

I would say it’s like if they see you doing better in life and they see you not doing what you was doing before, you’re not around the environment that you was before, why would you want to fuck that up for somebody who feeding their family and living different? Why would you want to fuck that up as a human, you know what I’m saying? Where does that come from? I don’t get that. And that’s what the police are doing. That’s sad.

Do you think that targeting is ever going to stop anytime soon? Or do you think it’ll just get worse?

I mean, I don’t really know.

Well, there’s always this argument that in New York, there needs to be one person to “bring New York back.”

That’s not a fact.

That’s not a fact?

That’s not a fact. That’s why Winners Circle is here to show you what’s really going on. There’s no one person who can bring New York back. New York is New York. It’s not a one-person thing; it’s a us-never-them thing. We’re going to show the world.

Why do you think no one understands how New York operates?

It’s not that they don’t understand. Just a lot of people be envious and jealous.

There’s so many different types of New York rappers out right now and different types of drill rappers refining the sound. It’s interesting that you’re one of the most popular, but the type of industry hype around you doesn’t match other people’s, but you still have the ground-level support. How do you feel about that?

I be talking about real shit. I’ve never faked nothing from the jump. I’ve never been that type of person to fake it to get anywhere, and I kept everything real from day one. There’s people that relate to that, and that’s their way of life. That’s why the streets really feel me.

Do you feel like keeping it real is rewarded? Do you feel like there’s pressure to change?

I wouldn’t say change. I’d say “elevate.” I’m not living in the same predicament I was years ago. I’m living different now. So I can’t talk about the same type of shit from before. So, it’s not like you’re changing; it’s just showing your growth and elevation. That’s what it’s about.

That reminds me of something Dapper Dan says: “You can’t have one foot in and one foot out.” He says the only people who get caught up are the people who try to.

I feel that.

When do you feel like it is the time to completely separate yourself from the environment you grew up in or the predicaments you were dealing with before?

Sometimes it’s not even when—it’s how. You can’t choose, sometimes, how you’re going to do it. That’s the problem. Some people can’t just get up and leave where they’re at. It’s how you going to get to that point in life; you know what I mean? It’s a process.

Do you feel like you have already reached that point?

Oh yeah, definitely. It was [hard]. But with the right help, the right team, it was the right way.

What’s the most difficult part about your life or your career right now? And what’s the easiest part?

Thank God, I don’t see nothing that’s difficult right now. Nothing is easy, but nothing is difficult.

Back to the narrative of filling a void in rap. It resurfaced when Pop Smoke passed. People felt like there needed to be someone else to take the torch. Obviously, I’m sure the loss hit you hard. How has his death affected how you view your own life and career?

It’s just crazy. Imagine you getting this far in life, and there’s still people out there that want to do you dirty? It just makes you think... RIP to Pop, though.

Do you move differently now, with everything in mind?

I moved the same from when I first came up, and that’s what kept me like this today, and I don’t think I’ll ever change. You got to be on point in your life. Just be on point. That’s it.

Is it true you kind of inspired Pop to take music seriously? I heard he was coming to your studio sessions early on.

I can’t say that because he’s not here today to say it himself. And in New York, we call everything dickriding here, so you got to be careful how you say shit. When Pop started rapping, the first song he did was a remix to my song. And that’s what made me hit him up. He was coming to my video shoots and shit before he even started rapping. You could say we inspired him, but he did his thing regardless.

And everyone gets their inspiration from a bunch of different places. It’s not like pinpointing it to one person.

To be honest, me and Sleepy inspired a lot of artists in New York, for real. We are very, very inspirational. Our flows we used, our bars we used, became people’s songs. It’s crazy. But if they’re not going to say it, it’s all good. That’s not my body; I’m a humble dude.

Your new album is called Proud of Me Now. What would you say you’re most proud of yourself for at this point in your life?

Being able to take care of my whole family at the age of 21.

Photography and Creative Direction by Flo Ngala. Interview by Ivie Ani.

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