NME Radar: Breakout

Powfu is the Beabadoobee-sampling lo-fi hip-hop star turning TikTok attention into chart success

After years of studying the lo-fi hip-hop scene on YouTube, Vancouver's Powfu is the emotive rapper whose viral TikTok smasher 'death bed' is taking the unique genre into the mainstream

Each week in Breakout, we talk to the emerging stars blowing up right now – whether it be a huge viral moment, killer new track or an eye-popping video – these are the rising artists certain to dominate the near future

Whether you know it or not, you’ve almost certainly heard a Powfu song before. Search for his latest single ‘death bed’, a lo-fi hip-hop jam that samples Beabadoobee on TikTok and you’ll find 3.4 million videos that have been made to the song. From soundtracking somebody making a tiny pancake for their pet hamster, to the viral “Quarantine Cutie” series where a photographer in New York pulled out all the stops to win over a girl he fancied. On YouTube, there are over 100 million plays on various videos, while the song became a chart hit in the UK, Australia and beyond – the catchy tune is everywhere.

“It’s still kind of mind blowing to me,” Isaiah Faber tells NME from his lockdown base in Vancouver. “Scrolling through TikTok and hearing my song in the background of a video, it’s pretty cool!” The rising star Isaiah discusses what it’s like to hear your song everywhere, his newfound friendship with Beabadoobee, and his role in the lo-fi hip-hop scene.

You’ve gone mad viral! When did you realise you were blowing up?

“It probably started with my friends sending me random memes that have my song in the background. I was like ‘Oh dang’. YouTube is where ‘death bed’ started blowing up first. It got like 20 million views or something, and when that happened, I was like, ‘geez, like this has been crazy good and it’s not even on Spotify yet’. So that’s kind of like when I started thinking that it was going to blow up.”

Did you use TikTok before this happened?

“A little bit; but as of the isolation I’ve definitely been using it more, because there’s not much to do. So I just scroll on it, but the thing with TikTok that sucks is you once you start scrolling, quickly a whole hour goes by…”

Where’s the maddest place you’ve seen your song?

“I was going through YouTube yesterday and I saw this guy and he was playing songs on [randomised chat room] Omegle and he started playing ‘death bed’ for a group of teenagers and they all started singing along. I thought that was pretty cool. I’ve never seen anything like that.”

You’ve sampled our friend Beabadoobee and her song ‘Coffee’ for this track – how did you discover her music?

”I was actually introduced to her music through finding the beat on SoundCloud, and then I heard the girl’s voice that was sampled in it, and I didn’t know who it was at first. I looked her up after and she makes amazing music. Releasing the song gave us a relationship with each other, which is awesome. We sent each other DMs back and forth. I think she likes it. She sent me a paragraph and she said she loves it. That’s awesome.”

What influenced you to write the song?

“I don’t really get influences from artists; but I did watch a lot of romantic movies that were inspiring me to write about deep, romantic stuff. When I write songs, I usually come up with a story first in my head of what I want to write about. so I was listening to Beabadoobee’s lyrics and I was just thinking of films that were romantic – The Notebook was probably the main inspiration for it, to be honest. It just got me in the feels, and I was just writing down everything I’m feeling.”

You’re super prolific, though, and you’ve put out tons of songs before this. Why do you think ‘death bed’ was the one which blew up?

“Beabadoobee’s chorus, definitely helped it out. It’s super catchy and it goes through the whole song so that people can sing along the whole time. I also think it sounds different than your average radio hit, because it is lo-fi, which is a lot different and not many people have heard it. And then on top of that, the story; like I’ve never heard a song with a story like that – I feel like it hit a lot of people emotionally.”

Did you ever try and make a song specifically for TikTok?

“Not for most of my songs. Around the time ‘death bed’ started blowing up is when I made like my first song for TikTok is called ‘Mindurmanners’ and we were just trying to go for a catchy hook that doesn’t get out of people’s heads with weird lyrics that we thought would do really good on TikTok. The main line in the song is “Mind your manners/We be sipping Kool-Aid Jammers”. We talked about Kool Aid in a song hoping that some weird trend would happen with it!”

Is there anything you wish you knew before it went viral?

“No, it’s kind of nice for me because growing up my dad was in punk rock band called Faber Drive, that’s kind of what inspired me to start making music as well. He’d been in the music scene and had like a taste of fame, so I kind of knew I was going into when I started making music. So there wasn’t really anything that caught me off guard. I feel like I was pretty prepared the entire time.”

Are you nervous now knowing that millions of people have heard your song?

“I don’t think so. It’s pretty cool because the type of music I make is lo fi, which stands for low fidelity, which means it’s not the greatest production and it’ll have static in the background and stuff. I never thought any of my songs would blow up just because the production wasn’t 100%; but it’s kind of the style of it, it just adds to the aesthetic of my music). Seeing it blow up, it’s kind of like introducing a community, as there’s a bunch of underground artists that make lo-fi. It kind of helps out the whole scene, which is awesome. At the start I just listened to lo fi beats on YouTube and SoundCloud. And I was like, I want to add lyrics to them, because I wasn’t hearing many people do that. So then I just started rapping on them.”

What was the reaction like to your music initially?

“It definitely was slow start. I’d just be the annoying kid that comments on random YouTube videos and SoundCloud songs being like, ‘check out my music’ because I was too nervous to tell my friends and family to listen to it, and I kept that a secret from everybody. I just wanted like random people in the world to listen to and get feedback from them. I definitely got like a lot of hate at the start, as well as some positive feedback. And then slowly, it grew.”

Is there anything that started to help you get more recognition?

“The main thing that helped me out was emailing YouTube channels that promote music. So the first YouTube channel I got on that I was really excited about is called Static And he’s uploaded my music ever since.”

How important do you think these YouTube playlists are to this lo-fi hip-hop scene? It’s quite a unique thing to the genre?

“The YouTube channels are probably like the biggest help for lo fi music. Just because there’s so many – if you look at my songs on YouTube, there’s so many videos of my songs uploaded from different lo-fi channels, if you add up the views like it’s definitely helped a lot. People have little communities for the channel as well, so people can like talk about it in the comments.”

You’re on a major label now. Were you ever nervous about signing to a major label? The music you create is very personal and introspective, and you create it in your bedroom…

“I wasn’t nervous. I was kind of blown away that they wanted to sign me because I make my music and my bedroom and it’s like…just a kid making music I was definitely sceptical though. I was kind of scared that I wouldn’t have freedom when I signed; but so far it’s been awesome. I’ve been able to do what I want to do, so it’s going good.”

‘death bed’ is out now


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