On October 4, 2014, a classic was born. “Rabba,” by Toronto’s Halal Gang—an artist collective coming out of the city’s core—was the first piece in what would bloom into an entirely new wave coming out of the city, tinged with the religious and cultural connections that united them all. Made up of Mustafa the Poet, Puffy L’z, Mo-G, Safe, and Smoke Dawg, the friends made songs about life in the city and all that it contains, both good and bad. Soon, they’d built a buzz; not long after that, a movement. Their tag, “ahwoolay!” was shouted everywhere, dances like Mo-G’s “Ginobli” became Torontonian go-tos, from the streets to the Boy. Taking them from Regent Park—the city’s oldest housing project—to international fame, Halal Gang’s promise seemed to know no bounds, from rap to crooning to poetry to photographical documentation of the era.
But on June 30, 2018, everything changed once more. Its grill-gleaming, anthem-producing frontman, Smoke Dawg, was killed, sending the city into a weekend-long state of shocked mourning. The chat below—featuring Puffy, Mustafa, and Safe—works as a memorial of sorts: of their friend, of their ends, and of the possibilities that remain for them in their once-home of Toronto.
NOISEY: How did Halal Gang, and really all of your stories, start?
Puffy: It all started on a rainy day in Regent Park on October 4, 2014, two days before [friend] Ano passed away on the 6th of October. “Rabba” was recorded. And “Hang” and “Hot Nigga Freestyle.” C’monnn maneeee.
Puffy: The rest was history. Fame came, jealousy and envy came too.
But you guys knew each other before, right? That’s just when you started making music together?
Safe: Yeah. 10 plus years.
And where did you all grow up?
Safe: I’m from the Esplanade, which is right next door to Regent Park, where Puffy, Mustafa, and Smoke are from.
Mustafa: We all met in the ends. We had to come together to protect each other, long before making music together.
Tell me about Regent Park/Esplanade... what’s the musical reputation of those neighbourhoods now?
Mustafa: Regent Park was the most revered. When you thought of Regent, you thought of success. We were the downtown hood dream. And of course, as we grew, people started to pull us down, to Loso’s point.
When did Regent get that reputation? The one of the “downtown hood dream”?
Safe: “Rabba” and “Hang.” But when Drake posted “Rabba,” obviously, that turned it to a whole thing.
Mustafa: For sure. “Rabba” but like, basketball, poetry, photography, too. We were dominating in a lot of fields—[alongside our photographer friends,] Yescene, Re.Mark. The post began a whole movement [for us].
Mustafa, when you say “we” who do you mean? Regent kids? What about Smoke, specifically?
Mustafa: Both Halal Gang and Regent. I have to say that Smokey had no criminal record, no previous offences. He wanted to grow from the shit. He was born into it, whereas a lot of people embraced the lifestyle for clout, for real.
Safe: Thank you for bringing that up, Mustafa. There was this one time me and Smoke were about to go to L.A., and they didn't let him through for no apparent reason. It broke our hearts.
Mustafa: Mannnnn, that happened multiple times to him! Profiled at the border when they had no reason to deny him.
Puffy: Trust me. Facts. More money, more problems. More clout, more problems. Quote me on that.
How did you start this wave together?
Puffy: Smokey was the first one rapping. Safe, the songsmith, made all the connections to start. Poet was the brain and heart, spiritual and motivational. Mo-G was the energy and sauce.
Safe: Yeah, Smoke was the first one, but I always used to write and keep to myself. Eventually, I recorded some songs and started sharing with people. So one day, Ano booked a studio for us and that's when it started. People in the city started finding out and it caught fire.
Puffy: Ano is the Top Mali, the heart of everything.
Safe: Yeah, Ano seen the vision before all of us. He knew it could be a real thing.
Puffy: Always happy, smiling, making sure everybody straight.
What do you want people to know about Smokey?
Puffy: Smokey was always happy, no matter what. You can’t think of him without seeing him smile.
Mustafa: Was just talking to Capo on the phone. He said he’s shocked, and [told me] how Smokey would always send him money. He spoke to [Smokey] on the phone everyday. Main Halal Gang member, can’t forget him.
Mustafa: [Smokey’s] smile was larger than any pressure we were undergoing. It shifted the energy. Every. Single. Time.
Safe: He was the voice of the streets.
Mustafa: Can we please talk about how Smokey commanded a respect without having to muscle anyone? He had that aura without speaking too much.
Puffy: Yeah. They knew the potential he had, and that puts fear in people.
How did he feel when he started gaining a lot of success? The tour, the back-to-back songs?
Mustafa: He managed well. We went through much more trying trials. It was the envy that came in the way, as it does with artists like us who are speaking on actual truths. He would laugh it away all the time, but how many threats and words can one take as empty before they crack, you know?
Puffy: I could tell you: after the tour, the hate and jealousy came from everywhere.
Mustafa: We were trying to move out of the city.
Puffy: He managed it like a real one. There’s only so much you can take, but I salute him for everything he been through and being strong. He showed real growth and maturity. Not acting out-of-character or folding under pressure.
Mustafa: Facts, man. We were all preparing to leave because we know the poison of this city.
And he was always in the city, right?
Puffy: Yes. Never left once. And he would go everywhere with no protection or security.
Mustafa: He spent good time in L.A., but then they started denying him. He was about to go to London.
Mustafa: We felt the hate. I was going too, man. I don’t know how to go now.
Puffy: The more hate, the bigger the success. And everyone sees it.
Safe: Yeah, we were all going to meet up there.
Puffy: Our movement is the only one in the city that doesn’t do social media attention, diss anyone for clout, or be in our feelings. We grind hard and let success do the talking.
Do you wanna talk about Saturday? (Note: On Saturday, June 30, 2018, Smoke Dawg was killed in downtown Toronto.)
Mustafa: On Saturday, Safe called me and I fell apart. That’s all I remember. Screams and cries like I’ve never heard. The light of the community dimmed. You could feel the strength of the community shake. Withering away. He gathered us before—many times before. This was the gathering we never prepared for. In the last few weeks of his life, he was so warm, so present. He told us he loved us. He was looking up, in every way.
How do you want Smokey to be remembered?
Puffy: I want people to remember him in a positive light. Remember him through his smile and character. Yeah, most will always go back to the music and what it stood for, but to be honest, we ain’t from the suburbs. We rap and speak about what’s around us. What we see and the stories from past generations and so on. We don’t have much to speak about but what’s around us.
Mustafa: He was so concerned about my charges in his last few days. He called Safe and told him we were going to connect and plan around my freedom.
Puffy: Trust me. He didn’t even want it in the media, but if Poet wants it now I’ll personally put it there.
Safe: Honestly, this is heartbreaking. That we’re even discussing this.
Mustafa: Yeah, man. I don’t want to look broken for the rest of my life. I want to heal, but there’s no full healing from this.
Safe: That amount of shit we’ve been through is so wild. Like, I can’t even focus on what’s going on. I can’t think about the future. Where we come from, our lives are cut short. I’d be a fool if I thought about five years from now.
Mustafa: Holy shit. This is killing me.
Safe: I take it day-by-day. That’s all. Only these suburb ass niggas can do that shit. I’m not trying to seem like a hater but it’s just facts, ‘cause those be the people that glorify this lifestyle. I moved out the city because I can't move around freely without being noticed. There’s so much love for us in the city, but that small percentage of hate has us lost. We can’t trust nobody.
Mustafa: Noticed by people that want to try us for that 6ixbuzz clout.
Safe: Only each other.
Mustafa: Exactly. They want us to tell our little homies to put the guns down so they can lose their lives too? They want to talk about programming that’s led by people who don’t look like us, who don’t feel like us, who abandon us in the midst of all this.
Mustafa, you got your start writing about the hood and being who you are, coming from the people you come from. Do you think anyone’s listening? And do any of you see yourself living in the city again?
Mustafa: My plight and art is glorified as the next rapper. They love when I pour myself but not enough to be there when it pours down on me or us. This city is a graveyard for me. I don’t want to be here. Thankfully, Smokey is of status; he’s big and a mountain of hope and freedom. But our other friends, not offered a tear or word. None of it has healed, none of it has ended. Our mothers don’t know how to carry it. Where’s the support for them that comes in their languages? We don’t understand their homeland breakage and they don’t understand ours. So everything falls apart. There’s nowhere to put it all down.
Puffy: At night, I don’t expect to see morning. In the morning, I don’t expect to see the night. That’s life. 'Alhamdulilah' for every second.
Mustafa: We’re going to pray for him. Make 'duaa' for him. Make charity for him.
Puffy: That’s what he needs.
Safe: All we can do.
Mustafa: His impact was great. The whole world responded.
Amani is a writer from Toronto and is on Twitter.