In retrospect, it’s obvious why Lil Peep gravitated to a comic book character who has the appearance of a villain and the soul of a hero. He’d loved Hellboy since he was a kid, and felt a kinship with him. As a heavily tattooed, polarizing underground rapper, the sweet-tempered introvert felt a growing chasm between how he was portrayed and who he was, similar to the way the Mike Mignola superhero’s looks inspire fear even though he just wants to help.
“He told me that he saw parts of himself in the character Hellboy. He said that people would judge him off the way he looked, when he really just wanted to help people out,” says producer Smokeasac, who lived with Peep and a handful of other producers at the Skid Row loft where they made much of the seminal 2016 mixtape Hellboy.
Today, Hellboy is being released on streaming services, a somewhat herculean feat given the breadth of samples that needed to be cleared. It remains Peep’s most cohesive project, and serves as a poignant time capsule of the stretch just before the then-19 year old became an ascendant mainstream hip-hop star, only to die from a drug overdose in 2017.
Freshly settled in Los Angeles and coming off the unexpected success of his earlier 2016 mixtape Crybaby, in the fall of 2016 Peep was in the difficult transitional phase into adulthood, combined with the added stress of being one of the buzziest artists on SoundCloud. He was being courted by record labels and managers while still processing traumatic childhood events, his decision to drop out of high school, and a cross country move to pursue his music career.
“It was scary to be alone without his family. It felt like he was going through hell. And what do you do in order to deal with that fear?” says his mother, Liza Womack. “Here’s this 19-year-old kid learning all that stuff with all this pressure being thrown at him randomly and constantly.”
The weight of all that comes through in many places on Hellboy, on booming, anguished anthems like “The Song They Played [When I Crashed Into the Wall],” a record about the fear of being stuck once again in his hometown of Long Island. Peep had come into his own as a songwriter, penning lyrics that were blunt and also darkly funny, while the producers around him found creative ways to manipulate samples of unexpected artists like Bright Eyes, Modest Mouse, and Aphex Twin.
“From Crybaby to Hellboy, Hellboy honestly seemed more decisive and cohesive,” says producer Horse Head. “I guess you’d consider both of them mixtapes, but to me [Hellboy] seemed more like an album than a mixtape.”
To commemorate one of the most influential mixtapes of the 2010s, GQ spoke to Peep’s family, friends, and collaborators about the making of each song on Hellboy.
One morning, Smokeasac was awoken by Peep banging pots and pans above his head, and 20 minutes later, the exhausted producer had made the beat for what would become Hellboy’s title track. The brooding Underoath sample was inspired by another Smokeasac and Yung Cortex co-production, “Sex [Last Nite].”
“We were all sampling old emo bands we liked. It was us always going through YouTube and listening to old emo bands and chopping them up to see what they’d sound like as a beat,” says Cortex, who also lived with Peep and Smokeasac at the time.
The final addition to the song was a sample Peep pulled from Hellboy Animated: Blood and Iron, a short snippet that positions Peep as a true protagonist: “Can this be him? The one I have waited centuries to see? How strange, so far from his path that I barely see the promise of glory. Can this be him, this Hellboy?” a voice asks.
Today sampling Stranger Things would be cliched, but that wasn’t the case when producer Nedarb did it for “Drive By” just three days after the show was released. The result was a deviation from the Hellboy formula, with angelic synths that sound more like Clams Casino cloud rap than emo trap.
On “Drive By,” we can feel the stress of Peep being far from his family, grappling with a new environment without his usual support system. “Motorola phone, I ain't goin' home / I won't go to work, mama hate me and I know it though,” he sings on the hook. In the midst of working on Hellboy, Peep’s new management wanted him to leave the loft, and got him his own apartment in Echo Park, where he struggled with feelings of isolation.
“On the one hand, being in California [and making music] was something he very much wanted to succeed at. He was not going to stop, because he felt himself doing better and meeting people and being able to create things that people liked, that he was proud of,” says Womack. “But at the same time, he didn’t have his family.”
When Peep’s music began attracting mainstream attention, it was a line from “OMFG” that people seemed to gravitate to: “I used to wanna kill myself / Came up still wanna kill myself.” The bars resonated with Nedarb because he felt like Peep was speaking for all of them in the Skid Row loft, who were learning that professional success can’t do much to cure anxiety and depression.
“I would say a lot of us probably felt that way,” he says. “He’s basically saying, ‘No matter how big I get, that’s not gonna help anything with my mental health.’”
“OMFG” was the third time that Nedarb sampled Washington folk band The Microphones for a Peep track, the other two being “White Wine” and “Beamer Boy.” Like several of the established artists whose music was getting flipped in this unexpected way, frontman Phil Elverum was taken aback at first.
“I just really didn’t get it, and I think it’s just because I’m old, honestly. It’s a thing for people who are 20 years younger than me, or more. It’s one of the first times I felt truly alienated from, you know, kids these days,” Elverum said in 2018.
“The Song They Played [When I Crashed Into the Wall]”
On “The Song They Played,” Peep eschews the notion of a traditional suburban life, expressing trepidation at the prospect of returning home a failure. On the opening verse, he fears that he cannot go “Back to fall, back to everyone I ever knew at all / Back to small town blues, and not a clue of what's goin' on / Back to old routines, and wedding rings and livin' at the mall.”
“He said, ‘I’m not going to do what is expected of me in my life,’” says Womack. “I think there are a lot of different ways that Gus went through some hell and wondered about himself and explored that theme.”
While many of Peep’s lyrics were about more abstract representations of events in his life, one of the signature bars of “The Song They Played” was an ad-lib inspired by an exhausted Smokeasac barely keeping his eyes open in one of many late-night sessions. “The line, ‘Do one more line, don’t fall asleep,’ that was something he actually said to me midway through recording because he saw me dozing off,” he says. “Next thing I know, he hits record and sings it.”
“The Song They Played,” which features one of three stand out Lil Tracy verses that work well as a counterbalance to Peep’s melodies, was originally the mixtape’s title track.
One of the more far-flung Hellboy samples appears on “Fucked Up,” where Horse Head flipped a song by Japanese math rock band Toe. The resulting guitar riff sounds straight out of Warped Tour. Much like it did for Peep, meeting Nedarb helped change Horse Head’s production style, leading him into the world of rock sampling and culminating in one of Hellboy’s highest energy tracks. “Peep would always play whatever he was working on over and over again as he was making it. I remember hearing all those songs over and over again, blasting throughout the loft,” Horse Head said.
Nirvana’s Nevermind was a regular staple of Womack’s album rotation; she and Peep would headbang to it in the car. But she says her son’s deeper fascination with Kurt Cobain came when he was struggling with school life and beginning to seriously consider the prospect of dropping out. In the years since his death, Peep has been likened by fans and music journalists alike to Cobain, so it’s fitting he nodded to the grunge pioneer here.
The track is noteworthy for the subtle tweaks in its structure, which Smokeasac says were inspired by Nedarb. Here, the 808s drop out on the chorus, where one would typically expect hard-hitting bass, and instead come booming in on Lil Tracy’s verse. It remains one of the most-played songs on Hellboy, and Smokeasac remembers exactly where he was when he came up with the instrumental–sprawled out on the floor next to Peep’s bed, which was also on the floor.
“That song was really special, because I had made the beat when we were on Skid Row. It was titled ‘Laying Next to Peep’s Mattress, Depressed,’” says Smokeasac.
The song features some clever internal rhymes and a particularly hypnotic, monotone vocal delivery from Peep. It’s also one of several songs of his to feature some form of the phrase “Look me in the eyes” (including Hellboy’s “Worlds Away”). “He always did if he thought you were lying. He would say, ‘Look me in the eyes,’ because he knew he could tell if you were,” says Womack.
Cascading guitar and battering ram 808 bass create a sense of tremendous drama on “Gucci Mane,” titled after the Atlanta rap icon who Peep mentions on multiple records. There’s an elegance to the topline melody, but underneath is something darker and more sinister. Charlie Shuffler’s beat is a relatively straightforward loop, but it drops out at all the right times, emphasizing critical lyrics like “I’ve been high since last Friday” and “I can’t cry, but I’m a Crybaby.”
Shuffler said that the very first beats he ever made ended up on Crybaby, and while he has since improved as a sample chopper and drum programmer, the edges here are still endearingly jagged. “Those beats are iconic and really good, but they’re really good because they’re raw,” Shuffler reflects. “The 808s hit so hard in those songs, and to this day I can’t recreate that because I know too much now. It’s funny how it works.”
“Gucci Mane” finds Peep feeling the fatigue of his lifestyle. Not only is he singing about being in the midst of a multi-day bender, but he’s frank about the kind of emotional exhaustion that can accompany a prolonged battle with depression. “Gus was so sad, but he couldn’t bring himself to cry,” Womack says. “It’s almost like you’re too sad to cry. Just kinda heartbroken and scared and not knowing what to do.”
“Two racks on some Gucci shoes / Why the fuck do I do that? / Tell 'em why the fuck I do that?” Peep asks on Hellboy’s lone interlude. “I have texts from him that said, ‘I spent $1300 on these Gucci shoes with snakes on them, and I have a Ferragamo belt.’ And then the next day, ‘Now I know that clothes don’t make you happy, friends make you happy. I don’t need all that stuff,’” Womack recalls.
Photographer Miller Rodriguez, who shot the mixtape’s sanguine cover photo, recalls meeting Peep in his clothing-littered bedroom, much of it likely from from the brands he would go on to model for.
“I enter his room and it was completely in disarray , filled with brand new clothes and snacks everywhere,” he says. “Everyone was sending peep high end stuff from all over the world. He looked like a kid in a candy store.”
Producer Brobak’s beat blends a pair of Modest Mouse samples into something that sounds like a trap remix of early American Football. The absence of pounding 808s makes the interlude one of the cleaner-sounding songs on Hellboy, and in retrospect it was a harbinger of the more polished studio sound on Come Over When You’re Sober.
When Womack wanted updates on how her son was doing without being intrusive, she googled “Lil Peep,” and when she wanted to hear the music he was working on, she had her other son teach her how to use the video streaming app Periscope. “I downloaded that app and when Gus did a little live Periscope thing I got on and I could hear him. That was when I heard some of the Hellboy tracks. I heard ‘Worlds Away’ and I was like, ‘Wow, what’s that? I love that one, Gussie.’
“Worlds Away” is one of the cleanest-sounding songs on Hellboy, built around a circular chop of Bright Eyes’ “Something Vague.” Unbeknownst to Horse Head, Bright Eyes founder Conor Oberst had actually praised the song for its imaginative interpretation of where that riff could go. “I think it’s really cool that [rappers] are open-minded and can re-contextualize things in ways that I could never have guessed to do,” Oberst told NME earlier this year.
“Red Drop Shawty”
Hellboy caught fire so suddenly that there wasn’t time to fix any small mistakes with it. When Charlie Shuffler noticed his name was misspelled on his credit for “Red Drop Shawty,” all he and Peep could do was shrug and shake their heads. “On the original Hellboy album cover where it shows the producers, I was like, ‘Bro, my name is spelled wrong on “Red Drop Shawty.”’ And Gus said, ‘I know, but this already got so many plays,’” says Shuffler.
“Red Drop Shawty” is one of the cruder songs on Hellboy (“Coke in her nose and my dick all in her butt,” Peep raps on the hook), but it’s another one where the underlying feelings–apathy, exhaustion–are universal. “I feel like that, where I’m so overwhelmed that it’s just I don’t give a f*ck. We all feel like that. It’s so honest, that it is kind of funny, in a ‘nobody’s gonna say that,’ but he did,” says Womack.
Peep cited Future as one of his favorite rappers, but lamented that people often ignored the pain that lay just below the surface of his music. With songs like “Red Drop Shawty,” Peep made his own feelings unignorable.
Thanks in part to it being one of the few songs that didn’t feature a prominent sample, “Girls” was released on streaming services and helped Peep reach a more commercial audience. It’s fitting then that shooting the song’s music video was the moment Horse Head realized Peep was on the precipice of genuine stardom.
“Gus was like, ‘We’re gonna shoot this big budget video. We’re getting flamingos and shit.’ I think we woke up hungover at 6:00 a.m. and his manager at the time picked us up from the loft. I remember not really knowing what to expect,” he says. “Looking back on that, it’s a moment where I realized shit was getting serious.”
“Girls” is also an example of Peep’s subversive song structure, the way he would write hooks that were nearly a minute long, or repeat verses multiple times, something that Smokeasac says helped whip the crowds at their warehouse shows into a frenzy.
Canadian producer Cian P had previously worked with Peep on “Lil Jeep,” and was hyped that Peep had recorded another track over one of his instrumentals. The problem? He wouldn’t let Cian hear it. “Peep texted me and said, ‘I just murdered this beat. It’s going on my next project.’ I asked him to send it to me and he said, ‘No’ with a winky face,” he says.
When the woozy track came out, it made Cian a hot commodity, but like many of Peep’s collaborators he found himself inundated with requests to simply mimic the songs they made together. As mainstream pop music has increasingly come to sound like the music being made in that Skid Row loft, it’s clear that the alchemy of Hellboy can’t be easily recreated.
“I had a lot of people hitting me up and trying to buy beats saying, ‘I want ‘Lil Jeep’ and I want ‘Nose Ring.’ I had to tell them that I’m not trying to water down the sound,” he says.
“We Think Too Much”
The final track recorded for Hellboy was another departure from the emo trap sound, with Nedarb building the instrumental around a serene Aphex Twin sample. “We Think Too Much” could almost be considered vaporwave if it wasn’t for the mammoth 808s. “That was the last song made for Hellboy, and it was actually the last song I ever made with him, which is crazy because it’s probably one of my favorites that we did,” says Nedarb.
Womack says the lines “And I always been that kid, maybe I won't be if I live / Long enough” were based on how he felt about always being the youngest person in the room. “He was always the kid, and also in that group of guys that he was collaborating with he was always the baby, too. At home, he was the littlest one in our family,” says Womack.
“The Last Thing I Wanna Do”
In terms of streaming stats, “The Last Thing I Wanna Do” was overshadowed by many of Hellboy’s other tracks, but it holds a special place in the mind of its producer. That’s actually one of my favorite songs I ever did with Gus,” says Smokeasac.
It’s a departure from much of the rumbling, low end-centric tracks surrounding it. Quick twitch hi-hats and a heavily filtered guitar make it one of the lightest sounding songs on the mixtape. “At that time I wanted to hear him over something different. Everyone at the time who was producing for him was like, Bass, bass, bass. We need subs,” says Smokeasac. “I wanted it to be different, so I turned the bass down.”
Following “We Think Too Much,” which relied on buoyant synths and the same kind of skittering hi-hats, “The Last Thing I Wanna Do” is part of a brief reprieve from the weightier moments. Peep is on a dark journey, but he’s gracious enough to let us get quick glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel.
“Walk Away as the Door Slams”
Charlie Shuffler was still a frustrated college kid when he first heard “Walk Away as the Door Slams” and it resonated with him the way it did so many others in his age range. That track, along with “The Song They Played [When I Crashed Into a Wall],” became the two that he kept in constant rotation. “Those songs sound like part one and part two to me. Even how the song titles look: ‘The Song They Played (When I Crashed into the Wall)’ and ‘Walk Away as the Door Slams,’” says Shuffler.
The origin of the sample on “Walk Away as the Door Slams”--sludgy chords from a live performance by a Blink-182 side project--was forgotten even by its producer. When the time came to get the song ready for streaming, Cortex had to backtrack and mentally scroll through the hundreds (if not thousands) of songs he and Smokeasac considered as potential samples.
“Walk Away as the Door Slams,” with its thundering low-end and lack of instrumental melody, is one of Hellboy’s strongest showcases of not only Peep’s voice, but how he produced his vocals. Once an instrumental was finished, the producer would bounce it to Peep, who would place it into GarageBand and create a kind of wall of sound effect by layering multiple takes on one another.
“He recorded his vocals crazy. He’d record three notes, one to the left, one to the center, one to the right, of him singing it softly, and then one higher, and one higher,” says Cortex. “They would be stacked, a lot of different layers of his vocals, so it sounded huge.”
“I just wanted to help, now I'm goin' to hell,” Peep sighs on the track. An acoustic version was used as the outro song in the posthumous documentary Everybody’s Everything, which shows a smiling Peep walking around his hometown, looking decidedly more carefree than he ever really did in the public eye.
“Move On, Be Strong”
Most songs on Hellboy came together in a day or two, some even less. But Yung Cortex remembers that the closing track was something of a struggle. “We recorded that at 10:00 a.m. Gus hadn’t slept and he was super sick. He had no voice, just the whisper. There was nothing there.” he says. “He just wanted to record that song so badly and even the screams on the song are all him.”
The song is a marked departure from the rest of Hellboy, with Peep’s vocals a scratchy monotone with just a flicker of melody. It’s most notable for its repetitive screamo hook, which features a howling Peep and an ominous Avenged Sevenfold sample, which was pulled by Smokeasac, a longtime fan of the influential metal band.
“Move On, Be Strong” is also notable as one of only two Peep songs in which he is credited as an actual producer, despite producing most of his vocals solo. Cortex says people always ask him how that came to be, and the answer is pretty straightforward: because Peep felt like it.
“He just wanted his name on it, pretty much. He’d always give us direction on a beat and what he wanted us to do, and for that one, he just said, ‘Yo, I produced it, too.’
Originally Appeared on GQ