‘The People’s Champ’: What Bobby Shmurda Means to New York Rap

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Jessica McKinney
·13 min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Image via Complex Original

On Feb. 23, Bobby Shmurda was released from prison after serving a prison sentence for conspiracy and weapons possession. To commemorate his newfound freedom, the Brooklyn rapper, who rose to fame with the success of “Hot Nigga” back in 2014, received a welcome home party fit for a king. Photos and videos flooded social media showing Bobby disembarking a private jet, with Quavo and other members of his GS9 crew trailing closely behind. For the next 24 hours, Bobby reunited with family and greeted celebrity friends like Meek Mill and Fabolous, as everyone celebrated his return while he made stops in Midtown, Dumbo, and East Rockaway. One of New York’s favorite sons was finally home, and he was embraced with open arms.

To understand Bobby Shmurda’s significance to New York rap, you need to reflect on the history of the city’s hip-hop scene prior to his arrival. In the ’80s and ’90s, New York City was the epicenter of rap. The birthplace of the genre spawned legendary artists like Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, Rakim, and Kool G Rap, followed in the ‘90s by rappers like the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, the Wu-Tang Clan, and Nas, who dominated for the better part of the decade. When the new millennium, the torch was passed to 50 Cent and rap collectives like Dipset. But by the mid-to-late 2000s, the genre was broadening to Southern regions in search of its next star. “After [the early 2000s], New York as a city, as a sound, struggled to find our place in the game,” says Brooklyn rap veteran Maino, who met Bobby Shmurda when Bobby was a teen and has stayed in close contact over the years. “Remember, the South started to take over. So by 2011, 2012, 2013, we hadn’t found our sound yet. We hadn’t found what the new sound was, because there was a disconnect between the older artists and the newer artists that came out.”

Then Bobby Shmurda arrived. Bobby and a few kids from his neighborhood had been making music as a group, but Shmurda caught national attention with the release of “Hot Nigga.” It was the summer of 2014 when the song and accompanying video were uploaded to YouTube and Vevo. Shortly after, the record went viral. Fans and critics praised Bobby’s joyful energy and raw authenticity. The song was so catchy and danceable that many didn’t even realize the teenage rapper was boasting about drug transactions and gang violence. And the music video only heightened the excitement, specifically one shot in which Bobby throws his New York Knicks hat up in the air and starts doing the “Shmoney Dance.” Countless memes caught fire on the now-defunct social media platform Vine, once fans noticed that the hat never came back down.

“It was fun,” Maino recalls. “We didn’t have many gangsta rappers or people that had the gangster image in rap and were dancing at the same time. It was something new, and it was organic and fresh.”

“Hot Nigga” was a commercial success. The track peaked at No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 and has since been certified five-times platinum by the RIAA. It helped Bobby land a deal with Epic Records, but more importantly, it got the city buzzing again. Jamel Robinson, a documentarian of Brooklyn’s rap scene as host of the Melz TV YouTube channel, says it was the first time he’d seen the older generation of rappers embrace a newcomer.

“I noticed that the older rappers started tapping in,” Robinson remembers. “The older rappers that were already situated in the city didn’t pay up-and-comers no mind if they didn’t sound like the old sound. Bobby Shmurda was the first one with a newer sound, a different sound, that was accepted by New York City hip-hop culture.”

Bobby Shmurda’s story made him easy to root for. A teen coming from East Flatbush, Brooklyn, he achieved mainstream success by having fun with the same kids he grew up with. He had the backing of rappers from different generations and was on the verge of taking over the industry with the impending release of his debut studio album. But that dream soon came to a crashing halt. On Dec. 14, 2014, Bobby and 14 other members of his GS9 crew, including fellow Epic Records signee Rowdy Rebel, were arrested in a NYPD raid and charged with a laundry list of crimes including conspiracy to murder, weapons possession, and reckless endangerment. For the next two years, the rapper was in and out of Manhattan courtrooms until he pleaded guilty to one count of third-degree conspiracy and one count of weapons possession as part of a plea deal on Sept. 2, 2016. The rapper was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was given credit for two years served.

“The older rappers that were already situated in the city didn’t pay up-and-comers no mind if they didn’t sound like the old sound. Bobby Shmurda was the first one with a newer sound, a different sound, that was accepted by New York City hip-hop culture.” – Jamel Robinson


Maino, who first met a 12-year-old Bobby Shmurda in Brooklyn, took the news personally. “It was disappointing,” he says. “I remember so vividly seeing them being young kids on the block. They couldn’t have been no more than 12 or 13 at the time. So seeing them have the opportunity to get out of the neighborhood, realize their dreams, to become a force in the music business, only to then be pulled back into a prison situation, was disappointing to see.” He wasn’t alone. Everyone took interest in Bobby’s predicament. “Free Bobby Shmurda” became one of the most popular campaigns on social media, with the movement launching larger conversations about the NYPD and justice system’s attack on young Black rap stars. “I wish they could have enjoyed the fruits of their labor, but being from where they from, it’s not easy,” Robinson points out. “Outside is not easy for the youth. I’m not making excuses, but it’s not easy. And when they finally get access to do something legit and right, it all got taken away at the snap of a finger. It’s crazy.”

There are many stories like Bobby’s, where a young artist gets wrapped up in legal issues shortly after making it big, but his case struck a chord and became somewhat of a legendary tale in New York. Robinson notes that “people gravitate towards stuff they can relate to,” but this was more than just a simple connection to Bobby’s experience. He had earned respect.

In September 2016, Bobby revealed to Complex why he chose to take the plea deal. “I did it for Rowdy [Rebel]. They offered me five [years] and offered Rowdy 12,” he explained. “They said the only way they’ll give him seven is if I took seven, too. So, you know, I had to take one for the dawgs.”

Bobby’s decision to take a plea deal in solidarity with Rowdy Rebel was a monumental move many people couldn’t overlook, and it has played a role in why he is so beloved in his city. “He was like the people’s champ,” says Maino, noting that the decision made him “even more certified.”

“That touched people, because we live in a society now where they have normalized this thing about snitching and ratting. It’s become a joke. There’s people affected by this for years.” Maino doesn’t mention him by name, but his comments seem to allude to Tekashi 6ix9ine, who has been widely criticized for cooperating with the feds to take down his fellow Nine Trey Gangsta Bloods in a racketeering case. Rappers including Lil Durk, G Herbo, 21 Savage, and Meek Mill have condemned 6ix9ine’s actions. And Bobby, who collaborated with the rapper on 2018’s “STOOPID,” has already said that he will never work with 6ix9ine again. “I don’t even want to be next to that man.”

“The fact that a man could portray a certain image and then go to prison and then go tell on a whole small village—that’s not cool,” Maino adds. “And then we normalize it and make you feel like that’s nothing. When you subscribe to a certain type of life, when you portray a certain type of image, you are held accountable for your actions. Period, point blank. So it certified Bobby and them, and it made people respect them a lot more because he’s played the game the right way.”

There was a void left when Bobby Shmurda went away, and Robinson compares this period to another great loss in rap. “Not to compare them to Biggie [as an artist], but Biggie had it on smash to where other artists in New York couldn’t even come out. After Biggie died, it was a void,” he explains. “When someone gets taken away after they’re hot, and a void is made, the label, media, we’re all looking for the next thing… By them getting arrested, it had everybody looking for what’s the next hot youth out. It opened up a lane for this new movement.”

The Brooklyn drill movement started soon after. Several local artists were documented experimenting with the signature gliding bass sounds of Brooklyn drill production before Bobby’s arrest, but Robinson notes that “the mainstream didn’t start paying attention to it until Bobby Shmurda and them made the void.” In 2016, 22Gz dropped “Suburban,” which is largely credited as one of the first songs to popularize the sound. Then others showed up, like Sheff G, Fivio Foreign, and Pop Smoke. While Pop soon became the face of the movement following the success of 2019’s “Welcome to the Party,” both Maino and Robinson state that Bobby Shmurda, Rowdy Rebel, and the rest of GS9 laid the foundation for Brooklyn drill to grow and prosper.

“I don’t really consider them drill rappers, but they are definitely the template for the Brooklyn drill movement,” Robinson explains. “Yeah, it was Bobby Shmurda, but it was also GS9. People think it’s a gang, but it’s a rap group. So GS9 being a rap group set the template for now. You got 22Gz and the Blixkys. Then you have the Woos. That was set off by Bobby.”

Maino points to the flows, dancing, and beat selections that were influenced by Bobby and GS9. “You have [Staten Island rapper] CJ. And no disrespect to him, but that whole sound, the dancing, the posturing, the flow, the beat, all that’s Brooklyn,” says Maino. “That’s from the ghettos of Brooklyn. The influence of that sound, Bobby Shmurda and GS9 helped create that new wave.”

Even Steven Victor, the veteran music executive who signed Pop Smoke to Victor Victor Worldwide in 2019, contends that Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel were the first to set the Brooklyn drill movement in motion. “I don’t know if you would call Bobby Shmurda and Rowdy Rebel drill. But if we go back to that, I would say that’s the first time I heard about it,” Victor told Complex during a 2020 interview, asked when he first heard of Brooklyn drill. “I came across Bobby’s video when it had maybe 10,000 views on it and I thought, ‘This is the new sound. This thing’s going to be huge. The energy’s incredible.’”

“He has the machine, the celebrity, and the access. He has the relationships. Now, it’s time to get in the studio and go to work. He has to really ‘Tupac’ it out right now. Come straight out of jail, get right in the studio, and go to work.” – Maino


Bobby Shmurda’s imprint on New York City rap was made the day he threw up his Knicks cap and solidified when he took the plea deal in order to help Rowdy Rebel’s case. But with his return, there is now a question of where the 26-year-old artist’s place is in the city’s evolving music scene. Robinson predicts “he’s going to come back where he left off, right on top,” collaborating with drill artists like Fivio Foreign and others. Maino notes this is the time for him to come back stronger than ever. “At this point right now, his profile is raised. He has the machine, the celebrity, and the access. He has the relationships,” he says. “Now, it’s time to get in the studio and go to work. He has to really ‘Tupac’ it out right now. Come straight out of jail, get right in the studio and go to work.”

According to many, Bobby is on his way to becoming one of the most dominant rappers in New York again. “I never really get into the King of New York [conversation] because the title has been so watered down,” Maino says. “But if I had to give it to anybody again, you’ve got a few contenders. We can’t count artists like A Boogie out. And Bobby right now, the way he feels, he can be that. He can own that. But at this point, it comes down to the new music and the response that it’s going to bring.”

If you ask Bobby, though, he has conflicted feelings about life in the city after admitting to feeling targeted by New York police because of his music. “I want to be in and out,” he told GQ, speaking about his plan to spend downtime outside New York. “I love the city, but there’s the system, right? There’s cops on every fucking corner. These motherfuckers are dirty like no tomorrow, and they’ll shoot us and kill us in the streets. I’m a city boy—it’s in me, but it’s sad that our past sometimes follows us.”

“I just want to see him live free and excel,” Maino adds. “That’s it. I’m tired of hearing these stories of these young artists that come into the streets—whether it be death or prison life. I don’t think it’s funny that Casanova is in prison. That’s counterproductive to what the mission was. I personally went to Pop Smoke’s funeral. I didn’t think it was funny. I went to see Bobby when he was in jail. I didn’t think it was funny. I don’t want to continue to hear and watch these young artists get these opportunities only to fall victim to the streets, or the government, or the law.”

Bobby Shmurda’s story is, of course, a cautionary tale to the young kids and aspiring musicians who look up to him. But it’s also an inspiring story that captures the essence of New York rap. “I feel like the narrative and hip-hop things have changed so much, that it’s so cool to see a guy who played the game the right way, stood up, and is back home,” Maino says. “They deserve everything, man. We should salute that.”