21 under 21

21 Under 21: Lil Pump on Recording 'I Love It' With Kanye West and Breaking Through the SoundCloud Noise

Lil Pump
Brad Ogbonna

Lil Pump photographed on Sept. 28, 2018 at Goldbar in New York.

Lil Pump is fried. It’s the day before his Saturday Night Live debut alongside Kanye West, for which he will dress as a bottle of still Fiji water to West’s sparkling Perrier -- a reference to a line from their hit song “I Love It” in which Ye mocks a “ho” for posturing. It’s West’s biggest hit in years and rivals the success of Pump’s “Gucci Gang,” which peaked at No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 last December.

Today, Pump arrives with his entourage at Goldbar, a luxe cocktail lounge in New York’s Nolita neighborhood, engulfed in an aroma of weed. He’s two hours late for this photo shoot but sauntering across the room without a care. In person, he’s unassuming. At 5-foot-7, he comes up to the shoulders of his six-member crew, which includes two security guards.

Anyone who has followed the 18-year-old Florida native’s rapid ascent from SoundCloud rapper to mainstream chart threat knows he’s a self-styled rebel. Over the course of three hours with Pump (one of them consumed by a hunt for the right lemon pepper wings, his favorite, to keep him from getting “hangry”) he regularly requests cups of “that drank” -- the contents of a 2-liter bottle of Sprite -- from his team. He’s encouraged to flash his youthful smile for the camera. Twenty frames into modeling his second outfit, a furry vest and one of his many six-figure chains, he cuts the shoot short. He’s over it.

Brad Ogbonna
Lil Pump photographed on Sept. 28, 2018 at Goldbar in New York.

His behavior isn’t all that shocking from a teenager who broke into the music industry by forging his own way, on his own terms. In exactly one year, Pump -- born Gazzy Garcia in Miami in 2000 -- has translated lackadaisical drug raps and high fashion into a bankable brand. His 2017 eponymous debut album hit No. 3 on the Billboard 200. He has since claimed two top 10 Hot 100 hits while amassing 2.4 billion on-demand streams in the United States alone, according to Nielsen Music. He’s also a social media star, with over 16 million Instagram followers and another 11 million subscribers to his YouTube channel. Last spring, he achieved viral notoriety for chanting during his shows “Fuck J. Cole” seemingly unprovoked, leading Cole to chastise him on his KOD track “1985 (Intro to ‘The Fall Off’).”

Behind the Scenes at Lil Pump's Magazine Shoot | Billboard

But the daredevil Pump seen on YouTube -- the one smashing the back window of a Rolls Royce Wraith with a golf club in the “Esskeetit” video (319 million views and counting) and walking the halls of a school with a tiger in 2017’s “Gucci Gang” -- disappears when the work stops being fun. Sat down to answer questions about himself, he responds mostly in incomplete thoughts, if they’re thought out at all, and hyperbole: “I’m the best SoundCloud rapper”; “Yeah, I got a song with Taylor Swift on the way”; “I’ma for sure do more than 100K first week.” The lattermost refers to his forthcoming second album, Harverd Dropout. He can’t say for sure where he calls home these days (the road, mostly, but Miami is still home base) or where he filmed the surreal “I Love It” video with West, in which he wore an oversize square quasi-fat suit. (That was in Los Angeles, he thinks.)

His memory of how he ended up on a song with West is a blur. He explains that West cold-called him in August, on Pump’s 18th birthday, with the song as a gift, and “that was it.” Pump recorded his part in 15 minutes. (The explicit hook -- “You’re such a fucking ho, I love it” -- was West’s idea, says Pump.) He then went back to his party.

Will Heath/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty Images
Kanye West and Lil Pump perform 'I Love It' in Studio 8H on Sept. 29, 2018.

Dooney Battle, Pump’s manager and A&R person, fills in the story’s gaps. Pump and West actually talked for nearly three months about collaborating on Harverd Dropout, a title that proposes a mythic origin story the same way West’s The College Dropout did (except West actually did attend college, Chicago State University, before dropping out at age 20). Battle set up a studio in a private room at Pump’s party in a Miami mansion so Pump could meet West’s same-day deadline. (The two rappers didn't meet until they were on the video set.) Speaking of “I Love It” now, Pump simply describes the song’s rise to No. 6 on the Hot 100, breaking a YouTube record, his follow-up conversations with West and even the prospect of SNL as “regular shit.”

Two years ago, “regular” for Pump meant struggling to complete high school. He ultimately dropped out and, soon after, fell into rapping with his friend, the SoundCloud favorite Smokepurpp. “I just started doing it ’cause I was having fun,” he recalls, “and we started getting big as fuck out of nowhere.” Says Battle: “Even when Kanye first met Pump, he was staring at him like, ‘Is this kid real?’ ’Cause Pump’s not out in public. Kids look at him like he’s a real cartoon that just changed clothes. Who is he? What does he do? How is he doing it?”

For the last month, Pump’s fans have been speculating about his whereabouts after he announced on Instagram in early September that he would be going to jail. (Convicted of firing a gun inside his home in Los Angeles, he had violated probation driving without a license in Miami.) Battle says that Pump has already served his jail time -- he won’t say exactly when or for how long, but Pump did drop off social media for about one week in September. (The Los Angeles County Probation Department did not respond to requests for information.)

Brad Ogbonna
Lil Pump photographed on Sept. 28, 2018 at Goldbar in New York.

Pump will release Harverd Dropout, which he recently decided to take in a more melodic direction, in October. His U.S. tour has been canceled, though the U.K. leg will kick off in November. “No announcement. That shit gon’ drop,” says Pump of the album. Battle adds this teaser: “You see who he has the biggest song in the world with” -- Kanye West. “There’s a play coming.”

Pump’s spirit may have been dampened by the prison stint -- he’s closed off, even from his own team. He won’t talk about his legal troubles, but he’s not up for talking about much else, either. As the interview continues, he begins trailing off. “I don’t give a fuck what anybody thinks,” he says. “I just do what I do.”

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 13 issue of Billboard.