As Pop Smoke’s Star Continues to Rise, Label Executive Steven Victor Reflects on the Late Rapper’s Legacy

Steven Victor’s Victor Victor Worldwide label had a very strong summer, dropping Pop Smoke’s “For the Night” on July 3 and seeing it climb its way to sales of 2 million song adjusted units, according to Alpha Data. The album on which the song appears, “Shoot for the Stars, Aim for the Moon,” has moved 1.4 million units since its release. These accolades in addition to previous hits “Dior,” with more than 143 million views on YouTube, “Mood Swings” and “What You Know Bout Love,” among others.

It’s a “bittersweet” success, though, as the Brooklyn, New York rapper was gunned down inside a home he was renting in Los Angeles — part of a masked robbery in February. He was only 20. The album became the rare posthumous No. 1, and now Pop could be looking at a best new artist Grammy nomination, too.

Often compared to fellow East Coaster 50 Cent, Pop, whose real name is Bashar Jackson, had drafted millions of devotees to “The Woo,” as he referred to himself in the track of the same name.

Victor, who previously served as head of A&R at Def Jam and has since pivoted to a cross-label role at Universal Music Group, which distributes VVW, spoke to Variety about honoring the rapper’s legacy while also maintaining the music’s momentum.

In your previous roles at G.O.O.D. Music and Def Jam, you’ve worked with Pusha T, The-Dream, Kanye West— what did you see in Pop that you also saw in those artists?

All these guys have a certain thing about them. A couple things that manifested itself in a bunch of different ways but they all have very very similar traits when it comes to their passion, that look in their eyes, how they carry themselves, how they approach things. Very similar attributes to those guys.

What were Pop’s other great attributes?

His determination; his passion; his ability to listen, internalize and digest things. His ability to make decisions — that’s very important. Having an objective outlook on the things, being able to listen. He was 18 or 19 when I met him. Mostly 18 or 19-year-olds think they know more than they do, but he was like a sponge — super-wise beyond his years and a very caring and thoughtful person.

“DIOR” has over 143 million views on YouTube alone, how does it feel to see those numbers?

I mean, it’s cool. At the same time, he’s not here to enjoy the success of that song. When he recorded it, he told me he knew it was a hit. We both thought the same way about it, but he’s not here to see his fans react to it, see the success it’s having. It’s very bittersweet. I remember when he made the song, how he felt about it. When planning the rollout, we were all super happy and had high hopes for it. For me, I don’t enjoy it the same as other people because I’m so close to it. It’s a friend who passed away and created this work.

What about “DIOR” resonates with people who hear it?

From my perception in watching how fans react, it makes them feel really good. It’s very joyous.

How close to finished was the album when he died and what did you need to do to get it over the line?

I put the final touches on it. It’s his vision that I helped piece together. … A lot of times, I’d think about what he wanted: the way the album sounded. He always wanted to be a global artist and be able to make different colored music of all the different things that had an impact on him. He really loved R&B, Afrobeat, the drill sound, New York hip-hop. Putting all those things together and packaging it out, I’d think about the times we had together. Making sure that I put together something he’d be proud of.

What were the most challenging parts of putting out “Shoot For The Stars, Aim For The Moon?”

Working on it, working on the process of marketing it without him not being here honestly was super depressing. You’re constantly reminded he’s not here. To be going through this process without him was the most challenging part, working on everything without him being here.

At which point were you satisfied enough to put it out?

We turned the album in a day before it came out. We worked till the very last minute, making sure it was perfect. Because sometimes we hear something in the mix on the fifth listen, that we might not have in the first listen. We tried to perfect it.

How did you choose the features?

That was him, also. We’d already spoken about who’d sound good on what song. The people he wanted on the songs were the people he was a fan of.

Did you expect “Mood Swings” to be the single to pop?

You know, that was one of Pop’s favorite songs. It’s one of many songs that’s doing well. I knew it’d do well, it’d be a fan favorite. Pop really liked it, Tjay really liked it. I’m not surprised it’s doing well.

What role did TikTok play Pop’s music?

I’m not sure, maybe you could tell me. TikTok wasn’t something he was overly familiar with or used a lot, it took a life of its own. There’s couple songs fans and people like and decide to make TikToks to it, but he never deliberately made music for TikTok. That wasn’t even a part of the conversation.

When do you find yourself thinking about Pop?

I think about him everyday, all the time. I miss him. I think about all the times we had, the time we spent together. I think about him everyday multiple times a day.

How has quarantine affected your line of work?

It affected me as much as it affected everyone else in the world. It changed the way we do work in terms of being able to interact with one another face-to-face, being in the office or taking meetings. We’ve been figuring out ways to work around it. Hopefully one day, things would go back to normal. It definitely has an effect, music is an emotional thing. I feel that you have to be able to be around the person or people you’re working with to get the best results. We’re not robots, we’re humans who feed off interaction.

What would it mean to have Pop nominated for best new artist at the Grammys?

Another one of those things that are bittersweet. I know that he definitely wanted to be nominated, possibly win a Grammy. Those were some of his goals so for him to be nominated and he’s not here, super bittersweet.

Are there other categories you could see him competing in or winning?

He makes incredible music, music that’s global. I can see him being nominated pretty much for all the categories, with the exception of dance, rock, or country. In terms of song, hip-hop, all those categories, I wouldn’t be surprised he’s nominated given the depth of his catalog and the kind of music he makes.

What do you think about Kanye’s calls to re-do the music business?

Kanye has a unique perspective on things. Everyone’s situation is different, there’s not one way. The music business and music itself is a very nuanced thing. Everyone in the music business is different so everyone’s situation should be different. I don’t have an opinion on it really.

As someone who’s worked in the major label system, is it possible for these companies to change their business model away from ownership of masters?

There are many different business models that are used within the major labels. It’s whatever works for the artist, there’s not a “single model” for the entire company.

Victor Victor Worldwide pledged $1m to launch a new foundation, what work has been done so far or any money distributed?

Yes, we’ve donated to the Fund for Public Schools, specifically to schools in Brooklyn. We also co-hosted the third Feed Your City Challenge in Brooklyn and supported the Feed Your City Challenge L.A. More to come and will keep you posted.

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