It happens to be a frigid Valentine’s Day evening when Sheff G is posing for a photoshoot in his native Flatbush, but the love in the air for the Brooklyn drill pioneer feels permanent. In the half-hour we’ve been here, five locals have hollered at him affectionately from across the street. That includes two young kids asking for a photo (a request he politely obliged), and a woman erratically pulling her SUV to the side of the street so she could film Sheff with her phone.
Today, the 21-year-old rapper is clad in blue Balmain jeans and a black Moncler jacket, an outfit that looks far more understated than it sounds. Sheff G and his friends exchange daps and speak to one another in Pig Latin, at ease even with—or perhaps because of the—cameras around. Sheff isn’t a natural attention-seeker, and it took some time for him to grow accustomed to this level of recognition in the neighborhood where he’s spent his entire life, but now he welcomes it.
“I want people to see that we’re not trying to stay in the hood and do fuckery. We’re trying to make it out,” he says. “We’re trying to better our lives.”
Sheff’s first big single, “No Suburban,” is an archetypal drill record, bringing together the U.K. production sensibility with the brutal reality raps of Chicago. A response to 22Gz’s “Suburban,” Sheff’s song was instrumental in helping the subgenre both spark national interest and become inescapable in the parts of Brooklyn where it was being made. In the years that followed, he’s asserted himself as one of the Brooklyn drill scene’s most important and consistent rappers. By blending his old school rhyming talent with distinctly modern topics and soundscapes, Sheff G is perhaps the purest link we have between New York rap’s past, present, and future.
“No Suburban” was a local hit before Sheff even dropped it in full. Around the time he first recorded “No Suburban” in a friend’s living room, Sheff was staying in a homeless shelter and battling a gun possession charge. His adversaries leaked an unfinished version of the song in an attempt to embarrass Sheff, but it quickly backfired. Not only did people love the snippet, it created frenzied anticipation for the official release of “No Suburban.” When Sheff put it out in late May 2017, it became Flatbush’s song of the summer.
“When I dropped the track, I remember hearing cars passing by the window [of my apartment] blasting that shit,” he recalls. “I tried to get on the train to school and people were trying to take pictures. I had to change my whole routine. I had to change everything.”
Though Sheff remains a fixture in Flatbush, his musical circumstances have changed dramatically. He formed the Winners Circle label with his close friend Sleepy Hallow, a fellow rapper, and in September 2019 released The Unluccy Luccy Kid through a partnership between the imprint and indie distribution powerhouse EMPIRE. The project earned critical attention and showed Sheff’s desire to place his nimble, baritone bars in contexts beyond drill, like the trap single “We Getting Money” or the dreamy “Designer.”
“I feel like the game is real hot and it’s time for the real competition,” he says now. “It’s time for everybody to play the game, because this is where everybody’s talent is about to be tested. I’m ready, Sleepy’s ready. We’re ready.”
“I want people to see that we’re not trying to stay in the hood and do f*ckery. We’re trying to make it out. We’re trying to better our lives.”
Tonight, Sheff and his team are debating his setlist for BK Drip, the largest showcase of their bubbling music scene to date. It’s being held at Kings Theatre, a lavish, 3,000-capacity venue in Flatbush within walking distance of the photoshoot for this story—off the B/Q Church Ave subway stop and near Yafa Deli & Grill, a bodega Sheff’s friends insisted they pose near. Sheff and his team go back and forth over “No Suburban,” which the others see as the no-brainer opening song for the set, but Sheff himself is unenthused about.
Unlike many artists who would seek out the easy boost that comes from playing their biggest hit to a rabid crowd, Sheff is more concerned with his new material, carving out room for Sleepy to perform, and showing his versatility. Ultimately, he does play “No Suburban,” which, in a review of BK Drip for Pitchfork, Alphonse Pierre writes “turned [Kings Theatre] into a Brooklyn high school lunchroom.” It may not have the mainstream recognition of Pop Smoke’s “Welcome to the Party” or Fivio Foreign’s “Big Drip,” but there’s a bruising inevitability to “No Suburban” that forces you into action when it rumbles through your speakers.
Despite his forays into different pockets of rap, Sheff is still at his most natural when making drill. His flows tumble downhill over the tricky snare patterns of producers like Great John and AXL Beats as he delivers cautionary tales and street vignettes with little hubris. Sheff’s favorite track from his debut is the gothic “Feel Ah Way,” a warning to those intoxicated by his lifestyle but unaware of the costs and risks associated with it. To drive the point home, the song opens with a voice message from his incarcerated cousin Caesar, who shouts out the neighborhood and his impending release from prison.
“I told him to say something for the mic, and when he said that and John played the melody, that shit just put me in a mode,” Sheff says. “I was like fake-sad, but I was like, ‘Don’t worry, shit’s gonna get better.’ That song really has a lot of meaning for me. When I hear that shit, it brings up a lot of emotions.”
It feels a little dissonant that Sheff G is making bare-knuckle, call-it-how-you-see-it songs like “Feel Ah Way” in the quiet suburban New Jersey studio where we sit down to talk, but he and his crew have clearly grown comfortable in environments like this one.
“When I get into a space like this, it makes me feel like more of a rapper,” he explains. “I feel like I’m a real artist.”
Though Sheff has been at the forefront of the Brooklyn drill movement, his more traditional hip-hop roots run deep. He’s praised The Notorious B.I.G.’s versatility and shouted out artists like 50 Cent and Eminem as early influences. He paid particular attention to the drill music coming out of Chicago, both for the content of the songs and the artists’ aesthetic. Before Brooklyn had its own burgeoning drill scene with a sonic kinship to Chicago, Sheff and his friends saw their reality reflected in the austere work of the city’s South Side MCs.
“We all used to pay attention to G Herbo and Lil Bibby because of how their videos looked. We said, ‘They look like they’re from the same place as us, so if they can do it, we can do it,’” he recalls. “What they would say in songs was the same type of shit [we say].”
Sheff has even said that the duo’s hard-edged “Kill Shit” was “one of the first songs to ever make life feel normal.” His music clearly resonates at a similar frequency for people in central Brooklyn, since the rapper’s ascent to local superstar status was dizzying even by today’s hyperspeed standards.
Through his rapid rise, Sheff has had the anchoring presence of Sleepy Hallow, whose buzz is also building. The pair are not only ideal collaborators—Sheff is the lyrical stalwart, while Sleepy plays the charmingly cocky wild card—but confidantes as well. They crack jokes and have hushed conversations with the same effortlessness with which they trade bars on standout songs like “Flows” and “Breaking Bad (Okay).”
Thanks to Sheff’s continued growth and the supernova success of artists like Pop Smoke and Fivio Foreign, the Brooklyn drill sound now has a widening international audience. But Sheff is aware of the voyeuristic appeal of music that is so steeped in real-world violence and the way that fans follow not just new releases, but feuds that spill over into social media activity, blustering in the media—or worse. Sheff’s 2018 interview with DJ Vlad is a profoundly uncomfortable watch, as the interviewer focuses almost solely on the danger and criminal activities of Sheff’s past, showing little interest in discussing the music itself.
“In the beginning, with Brooklyn, it was so entertaining to everybody because it was like, ‘Damn, that’s not going on where I’m from.’ It’s like watching a movie [to them],” he says. “But where we’re at, it’s really going on. Same thing with Chicago, same thing with the U.K.”
While some of his peers are eager to boast about the spoils of their newfound success, Sheff is committed to staying in the studio and knows he can’t floss with impunity. He references the well-trod reluctant-hero trope used in movies like Braveheart and The Sword in the Stone, stopping short of comparing those films to his own career, but intimating that he’s not seeking the spotlight or to be the voice of his generation.
“Taking care of my family, man—that’s what it’s about,” says Sheff, who was late to the studio today because he wanted to drop off a cake (and some cash) for his aunt’s birthday.
Still, stardom seems inevitable, whether Sheff wants it or not. This evening, a giddy major-label A&R who has been scoping Sheff and Sleepy arrives at the studio to woo them with a big bottle of Hennessy and a plastered-on smile.
Despite the moment Brooklyn drill is enjoying, though, it’s still unclear whether the sound will have long-term national legs. Many of the scene’s stars are looking to dabble in other subgenres, but as one of the most technical rappers of the bunch, Sheff is perhaps most strongly positioned to branch out while retaining his core appeal as a sharp lyricist and a running back of a rapper.
Sheff will decline to speak on Pop Smoke’s death in a followup interview, but a comment he makes about the risks of planning ahead feels eerily prophetic. The rapper admits that he does spend time mulling over his future, but—with a grim smile—he says he’s hesitant to share any concrete details.
“Where I’m from, we always say it’s not good to talk on the future until you get it done,” he says. “The devil will hear, and he’ll fuck it up.”
While that kind of mentality can seem morbidly pragmatic, Sheff is happy to reflect on how far music has already taken him. After growing up with little and nearly having his life derailed by the justice system, he’s performing for thousands, sharing the spotlight with a close friend, and changing people’s perception of him along the way.
“When I go to court, the judge looks at me differently now,” he says. “They used to look at me differently, but now they look at me in a good way. They see the good in me, and all that shit matters to me.”
See below for the rest of the stories in our Brooklyn drill series:
We also put together a playlist of essential Brooklyn drill songs, which you can follow on Spotify.