Hip Hop Homicides executive producer Mona Scott-Young and host Van Lathan spoke with us about the series, and what they hope to accomplish with it.
In the past several years, there’s been an alarming amount of rappers killed as a result of gun violence, whether through robbery or disagreement. Takeoff, PnB Rock, Young Dolph, King Von, Pop Smoke, Nipsey Hussle, XXXTentacion — a number of recognizable and well-known contemporary rappers have been killed, joining an unfortunately long list of other rappers both well-known and not of the past and present who’ve also been victims of gun violence. Some of these deaths speak to the complicated dynamics at play when you’re both a rapper and someone who was (and still might be) part of a street culture where they come from. Others speak to the dangers of celebrity and fame, where it’s less about your associations to someone or something, and what you own that can be taken. The commonality between both is how unfortunate they are, leaving family, fans, and friends to process what has happened, while questioning why it happened in the first place. Hip Hop Homicides, which premieres tonight (November 3) on WE tv, aims to explore those unfortunate circumstances and what comes with them, and, as a synopsis for the series declares, “uncover the truth behind these crimes.”
Executive-produced by 50 Cent and Mona Scott-Young and hosted by Van Lathan, Hip Hop Homicides is making its debut with an episode focused on the late Pop Smoke. From there, the series will then explore the deaths of King Von and Magnolia Shorty in episodes two and three, respectively, before going on to XXXTentacion, Soulja Slim, and others. In an interview with Scott-Young and Lathan, the former revealed that the idea for the show came about a year-and-a-half ago when 50 first pitched it to her.
“He said, ‘We should really do a show about dead rappers. We need to figure out how to tell their stories,'” Mona-Scott said. “‘We need to go out there. If nobody else wants to investigate, if nobody else wants answers, then we’ve got to do it. We’ve got to not only keep their names alive, but we have to try to figure out whatever we can to help put these cases to bed.’ And that was the beginning of an evolution of the concept.”
In conceptualizing the show, 50 and Mona-Scott also decided that the rappers highlighted wouldn’t just be the bigger names or those in current headlines, but past ones who had gained a notable local and regional following, too. The pair wanted to relay to viewers that all the lives of these rappers — whether they were mainstream stars or local heroes — matter, using their stories to also speak to the hip-hop scenes they were a part of, as well as the factors that lead to the violence they experience in their respective parts of the United States.
The end result are episodes like its series premiere, which uses Pop Smoke’s death to speak to multiple relevant topics (the rise of NY drill, gang affiliations, and social media and how it factors not only into how crimes may be committed but the conspiracy theories that get shared in the process, too), while trying to answer the question of if the incident was a robbery gone wrong or targeted hit.
If you’ve watched any true crime media (particularly documentaries or docuseries), you know how integral certain figures are. You usually have a police officer or detective who’s been investigating the incident; a crime expert who can provide some additional background context; and a few people directly impacted by the person murdered — parents, friends, and witnesses. It’s that last one where most true crime documentaries and docuseries tend to get murky, with these figures having to revisit one of the most traumatic events to ever happen to them. This is apparent in a handful of the interviews conducted in the Pop Smoke episode, specifically with the late rapper’s mother, Audrey Jackson, his close friend Mike Dee, and a woman who was with Smoke the night of his murder, Amelia Rose. Both Dee and Rose’s appearances are notable in that they both have been accused of being involved in Smoke’s death, which only adds to the significance of their participation in the episode.
“Getting a lot of the interviews for the shows were about making people feel safe and telling their stories,” Lathan said. “Stories that they really wanted to tell, but they just don’t feel safe talking about it. They don’t feel protected talking about it. And that’s something that everybody that was on the road really did their part in making sure that it happened.”
For Lathan, that didn’t only mean building a rapport with some of these figures beforehand (for instance, he recalled having to be around Dee for an entire day so he’d be comfortable filming) but also navigating unexpected changes when one of them no longer wanted to talk. The episode almost didn’t have Smoke’s mother, who takes some time in the episode to share how she’d like for her son to be remembered, as well as speak on some of the theories surrounding his death.
“With Pop’s mother, she came to the site where we were going to be shooting, and then she didn’t want to do the interview,” he said. “I went and sat with her in a car for… I’m not sure how long, it might have been an hour, two hours, maybe even longer than that. And we just talked and the tears flowed. I had just lost my father. And we just had a conversation about what it meant to have such a void in your life after so long. And it was no cameras, no mics, no nothing. We just talked.
“And I let her know when I sat down that if she decided that she didn’t want to do this interview, it was OK with me. They were going to pay me anyway,” he continued. “But if there’s anything that she wanted to say about her son or if there was anything she wanted people to know about her son and know about how she’s been feeling since she lost her son, that she wouldn’t have a better opportunity to tell that than the opportunity that she was going to be getting right at this very moment.”
But just as integral as the sources are for Hip Hop Homicides, so is the narrative it’s trying to tell. One of the most interesting parts of Smoke’s episode is how social media played a part in it, whether that be posts potentially used as evidence or to find a potential source, or unsubstantiated theories that began to gain traction. Both are dangerous in their own regard (moreso the latter). Although the former can help in piecing things together, we’ve also seen how police departments and prosecutors use social media posts as a means of criminalizing rappers (as has been the case with Young Thug and his Young Slime Life group). For the latter, it distorts the truth and puts those closest to the incident in harms way, which is what happened when social media sleuths began to theorize that Dee and Rose played a part in Smoke’s death (and what we’ve witnessed recently with PnB Rock’s girlfriend being blamed for his death).
On there former, Scott-Young referred to it as a “double edged sword” that can be “used to bear witness,” but has also “been used to hurt us, to desensitize us, to get us to this place where we no longer value things like human life and to put up some of the images that we see people putting up.”
“I just think that there is a sense of responsibility that comes with having a tool like social media at our disposal that we have just not been properly equipped to utilize,” she added. “We are in this place where we have dehumanized ourselves and other people through the use of social media.”
Lathan agreed with Scott-Young’s sentiment, before offering his own take on social media’s part in the violence that we’re seeing in hip-hop.
“I got to be honest with you, doing this show was the first time I ever seriously asked myself whether or not the internet was a bad idea,” he said, noting everything from how social media seems to give anyone some sort of immortality that stops people from actually processing they’re gone, to the often inflammatory conversations and images that are being shared on these platforms when it comes to hip-hop.
“I don’t want to re-litigate hip-hop and do all of that stuff. This is going to make people say, ‘You old. Get off my yard, Van.’ But man, it’s nuts out here. And everybody is throwing up their hands. They don’t see a way out of it,” he said. “…This is a deep and layered question, and one that we didn’t even know we were going to have to answer during making this show.
“I would ask people every single time, ‘What do you think is going on?’ And people would be like, ‘Man, I’m going to be honest with you, a lot of is social media,'” he added. “And by the fourth or fifth time I heard that, I was like, ‘Yo, do you know that was told to me in Atlanta, Chicago, Jersey, Queens, South Florida. Everybody. I don’t know. It’s just a lot of it is social media.”
This why it was important to have people like Dee and Rose featured in the episode. Sure, there’s the exclusive allure of getting these figures to talk on camera about the incident. But it’s also about trying to get to the truth and, at the very least, helping to remove them from the theories surrounding Smoke’s death, something Lathan does do by the end episode when he says he believes that neither were involved.
“We were intentional about that,” Scott-Young said. “About going in and debunking some of those rumors, because again, we talk about the amplification of information on social media. That information is often taken as fact. There’s nobody saying, ‘Is there a doubt here? Do we know this for a fact?’ People hear things on social media and all of a sudden it becomes law… we went in there and intentionally tried to unravel and get to the truth simply for the sake of clearing someone’s name, because it’s almost like social media’s a one way street. Nobody bothers to undo the damage after it’s been done.”
With Hip Hop Homicides being such a highly-promoted and visible TV docuseries that intersects hip-hop and true crime, the conversation ended on if the pair thinks that this intersection will continue, and if we’ll see more media like this. Although Scott-Young does see the series as a true crime show, she also thinks it’s much more than that.
“I think it’s part investigative show, it’s part tribute, it’s part biography. So, I think the way we’ve approached this show is much different than what we’re seeing,” she said. “But as long as these deaths continue to happen, they’re going to be stories around how they happened, why they happened, and trying to get to the bottom of who did it.”