Picking Up Lil Peep’s Torch
Posted November 1, 2018 8:14 p.m. EDT
Starting in his teenage years, Lil Peep made music in his bedroom. His mother helped him pay for equipment, and he began to build an identity on his laptop, a boy singing and rapping his heart out into a machine. As he got older, the bedrooms changed but his habits didn’t: Almost all of his recording started and finished there.
Lil Peep died of an accidental drug overdose last November at 21. Afterward, attention turned to his computer. First, it went to London, where the files were backed up by First Access Entertainment, the company that helped guide his career.
Then it went to his mother, Liza Womack. In an interview in her cozy Long Island home, sitting on a nondescript couch that belonged to Peep and was shipped cross-country after his death, she calmly recalled walking into an Apple store, handing the laptop to a clerk, and saying: “My son died. This is him. Take this and put it on a new one.”
Sometime after that, in London, producer George Astasio and Peep’s longtime musical collaborator Smokeasac finally set out to catalog its contents. What they found were Lil Peep’s complete recordings — some finished, some in fragments; some heard and familiar, many not.
At the time of Lil Peep’s death, he was on the cusp of something significant. Three months earlier, he’d released “Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1,” the album that took the skeleton sound he’d developed in his bedroom — emo sentimentality, thunderous hip-hop underbelly, rock-star insouciance — and thickened it up. His albums “Hellboy” and “Crybaby,” released on SoundCloud, were on the front lines of hip-hop’s open-eared engagement with other genres, as well as documents of the ways emo and pop-punk had begun to make room for hip-hop. He was at the musical vanguard and, covered in a symphony of tattoos, an emerging fashion icon as well.
But the hybrid idea that he was helping to innovate was still in the early stages of its march toward the mainstream. He was a full-fledged pop star of tomorrow, hiding in plain sight.
After his death, there were some indicators of the effect he was on the verge of having: Post Malone tattooed Peep’s face on his arm. Good Charlotte covered one of his songs, and it was played at his memorial service. Musicians from Lil Uzi Vert to Pete Wentz publicly mourned him.
As a musical concern, however, Lil Peep (born Gustav Ahr) was still much closer to the beginning of his career than its peak, a catalytic presence but still a nebulous one. That left an unusual challenge for his family and collaborators: What to do with a collection of unheard work by an innovator who didn’t survive to see his innovations truly take hold. Who would decide the future of his unreleased music? Was Peep meant to be a hero of the underground or a change agent in the pop mainstream?
Apart from a handful of singles, the first product of these efforts is the album “Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 2,” which will be released Nov. 9. Its songs are largely drawn from the same batch of recordings as “Pt. 1,” which was the first Lil Peep project that didn’t start on SoundCloud, and the first where his raw approach to recording was augmented by professional production, mixing and mastering. “Pt. 2” continues that story: It is a work of elegiac beauty, filled with vitriol, resignation and, in a few moments, hope for change on the horizon. It is also a robust, grand-scaled pop album — a fluid amalgam of hip-hop density and rock anxiety — full of intuitive melodies and sticky emotions. It shows the star Peep was primed to become, if only the world would catch up.
Peep’s musical anchor was, and very much still is, Smokeasac, a 24-year-old producer who was born Dylan Mullen and drew his name from an old Three 6 Mafia song. The two first met on SoundCloud years ago, when Smokeasac was living in Virginia and making Memphis-influenced beats. Peep was the first artist to buy one. A couple of years later, after falling out of touch, both ended up in California, evolving in parallel: Peep morphing his rapping into singing, and Smokeasac reframing hip-hop by experimenting with sampling the intros of old emo songs.
Once they reconnected, Smokeasac became one of Peep’s go-to producers. Not long after Peep signed his deal with First Access Entertainment, Smokeasac had one too: His first task was to spearhead the “Come Over When You’re Sober” sessions.
Peep’s agreement with First Access wasn’t a traditional management arrangement, though First Access co-founder Sarah Stennett became a key guiding force in his career, a quasi-parental figure. “It’s a really, really crazy thing to say this but he restored my faith in a higher power,” Stennett said, adding that their relationship “made me understand there is a purpose to what I’m doing. It’s not just music, it’s a much bigger responsibility.” She introduced the pair to Astasio, her husband, who became a mentor to Smokeasac. Before the “Come Over When You’re Sober” sessions, Smokeasac had never recorded in a real studio, or collaborated outside his immediate circle. Now he was working with well-established figures: first, Rob Cavallo (My Chemical Romance, Linkin Park) and eventually, Astasio, a member of the Invisible Men songwriting and production trio (Iggy Azalea, Sugababes).
“Still to this day I feel like it was a test,” Smokeasac said in a dim room at TempleBase Studios in Los Angeles, his hair long enough to cover his face and his voice rarely above a reverent whisper. “I was determined to prove to everyone that I was worth the time.”
Peep wasn’t in the studio. After Smokeasac and Astasio would spend a day and night making beats, Smokeasac would bring them to Peep’s home, where the young musician would record into the wee hours, delivering back completed songs.
For “Pt. 2,” Smokeasac and Astasio had access to Peep’s vocal files, meaning more raw material. (Peep used a particular group of settings in GarageBand for almost all of his recordings, resulting in a signature desiccated texture on his vocals.)
Emotions were high, and the sessions were stop-and-go. “We both had to take breaks,” Astasio said.
A division of labor developed. Smokeasac dictated the feel and essence of the songs: “I really feel like Gus was guiding me the entire way through,” he said. “I talked to him all the time.”
Astasio helped sandpaper them into shape. “I was just really following Dylan’s pulse, because if it didn’t sit well with him, then it makes it uneasy for me,” Astasio said.
A constant in Lil Peep’s music was a sense of life’s fragility. It was there in the way his vocals decayed, the light slow-motion push and pull of his singing against the beat. In moments on “Pt. 2,” that sentiment is literalized. On the indignant “Runaway,” he raps, in an exhausted voice, “I was dying and nobody was there.”
“It’s almost like he knew subconsciously that people are going to hear this after he passed,” Smokeasac said.
“Pt. 2” has the advantage of being rooted in an already-established musical grammar — it will soothe those who crave more of the Peep they knew. But Peep was growing in different directions, and much of that music is still unheard.
Last year, a few months before his death, Peep became fed up with Los Angeles, where his Echo Park apartment had become a de facto crash pad for friends and collaborators. So he relocated to London. “He was like, ‘I need to get away from everyone,'” Smokeasac said. He was joined overseas by iLoveMakonnen, one of his biggest musical influences, and a new, close friend.
iLoveMakonnen, a star of the mid-2010s internet known for his eclectic approach to hip-hop, and a onetime Drake collaborator, sensed anguish in Peep: “He would give his all to everyone and nobody’s giving their all to him.” Peep was then in the process of disentangling himself from the GothBoiClique, the extended collective with which he’d made his ascent. “He was moving into a new crew of people that had his back and he was just, like, becoming so happy,” iLoveMakonnen said.
Together, they recorded music that’s brighter and more optimistic than the gothic agony he specialized in. “We were so happy that it was impossible to make a sad record,” Smokeasac said.
It was one of those songs, “Sunlight on Your Skin,” that would become the trigger for the first posthumous Peep controversy. Rapper XXXTentacion heard a snippet of the song and, in the weeks before he was killed in June, recorded a fragmentary remake, “Falling Down.”
Though they were exploring similar musical pathways at the same time, Lil Peep and XXXTentacion — a rapper who touched the masses with his emotional lyrics but was accused of heinous crimes, including assault of a pregnant woman — had never met. Their worlds overlapped, but only somewhat.
When “Falling Down” was announced, in August, it quickly became a flashpoint and a distraction, and a source of dissent within the group of people responsible for shepherding Peep’s estate. For some, the discovery of the recording was kismet, a way to connect the music and power of two rising stars who died way before their time. For others it was a craven collision of agendas. Several of Peep’s old GothBoiClique collaborators spoke out on social media about Peep’s wariness of XXXTentacion because of the severe allegations against him. Putting them on a song together after their death washed away the very real differences between them in life.
Ron Perry, chairman and chief executive of Columbia Records, and the former president of Songs Publishing, which worked with XXXTentacion, said he saw the track as an opportunity for healing. “We thought the song was so good and the message was so powerful,” he said. “Honestly not putting it out would have felt like the wrong thing to do. What do you do — just sit on it?”
But under an Instagram post previewing the track, Womack wrote that it wasn’t her choice.
Eventually, she relented, after speaking with XXXTentacion’s mother, Cleopatra Bernard. (Peep’s mom also sent Bernard a copy of a book, “When Your Child Dies: Tools for Mending Parents’ Broken Hearts.”)
Reframed as the shared wish of two grieving mothers, “Falling Down” has more than 136 million plays on Spotify and over 71 million YouTube views. The original iLoveMakonnen version was released shortly after, ensuring the song can be heard as it was first intended. The potency of streaming has created a path to success that has little if anything to do with the radio. “Amazing, raw records can work commercially,” Perry said. “That’s the bet that we took.” (The contract with Columbia is for three albums.)
But Peep always felt like a pop star waiting to be discovered, a stadium waiting to be filled. “We all wanted to hear Peep on the radio,” Smokeasac said. “He had no anxiety about alienating people by making the sound bigger.”
“Pt. 2” is the next logical step in that direction. “He was going to get the same [expletive] hate Bob Dylan got,” Astasio said. “Like, ‘You’re supposed to be folk, bro!'”
Future releases are likely to be drawn from Peep’s brighter-sounding collaborations with iLoveMakonnen, and he also recorded with more established producers including Diplo and Harry Fraud. There may be a soundtrack to accompany a coming documentary about Peep’s life. (Terrence Malick, a friend of the Womack family, is an executive producer.)
As for Peep’s musical legacy, it is in the hands of his collaborators, many of whom — Smokeasac, iLoveMakonnen, and also Fat Nick, Teddy and Bexey (whose new EP was produced by Astasio) — have signed deals with First Access.
But the moral weight of carrying out Peep’s vision still rests heavily on Smokeasac, who said that in the months after Peep’s death he struggled with suicidal thoughts. The main thing pulling him in the other direction, he said, was doing justice to Peep’s legacy.
Soon after Peep’s death, Smokeasac got PEEP tattooed over his left eye. By March, he was making music again. Talking about his work on “Pt. 2,” one word came up time and again: “dedicated.”
“It was almost something to live for when we lost him,” Smokeasac said. “I can’t just leave the music behind.”