Taking the Southern rap style “trap” overseas and into orbit, electronic dance music mints its highly curated version of hip-hop.
On a skateboard- and hoodie-dense corner of Brooklyn, at 12:45 a.m., the Williamsburg Music Hall is getting double-teamed by simultaneous high-watt music events: the Saturday primetime slot of the annual citywide CMJ Music Marathon and the five-year anniversary party for Fool’s Gold, a label forging the hip-hop-electronic dance hybrid overtaking youth culture under the hashtag “trap.”
How big is trap? Consider the fact that the multiplatinum artist who just left the stage, Wu Tang’s Ghostface Killah, may not be this bill’s headliner. That it just might be two clean-cut guys named Josh and Curt, who are standing off-stage as the house lights dim, and who’d go recognized in or outside this venue.
With the club in nearly total darkness, the two take their posts at the sound podium, side by side, in black Adidas ballcaps and tracksuits, like a hip-hop detachment of the Men in Black. Josh “J2K” Young and Curt “Autobot” Cameruci stand against a sizzling strobe light, as a half-drunk emcee shouts the duo’s name. It flashes on a giant screen, and the crowd goes as apeshit as any crowd has ever gone at hearing a word like “Flosstradamus”—the jokey handle of a Chicago team whose effect on the crowd is far from comedic.
In the pregnant darkness, they fade in creeping drama with Kanye West’s new g-track “Clique.” All-star MCs like Jay-Z and Big Sean chant the title word so they sound like a handgun loading and cocking as the track rolls into a sound-designed scherzo of violence, using samples of various-caliber firearms. After the juggernaut of rolling bass and cracking snares builds to a plateau, the beat abruptly drops out to let the glottal voice of Biggie Smalls shout: “Niggas all up in my rack, tryin’ to take my track”—the sound and space effectively rewriting the final word of his soundbite as “trap.”
The hashtag became genre at the lightning speed of most online life. “When I was first putting stuff up on SoundCloud, I put the tag “trap” because it was referencing those kind of trap-music Lex Luger drums,” 27-year-old Young says later.
“But the music blew up insanely fast. EDM and raver kids are like, ‘OK, cool—trap!’ Hip hop and black kids are into it because they’re into real trap music. I think this is gonna get bigger and more powerful than people are ready for.”
And sure enough, as horror-film horns punctuate an audio hiss, a double-time electro clap kicks in, turning this 70-bpm gangsta head-nod into a 140-bpm hype dance track, creating a pulse-spiking gangsta cut turned dance track turned gangsta cut turned dance track—an internal dialectic that pushes the crowd toward critical mass, as snares crack and electro-percussion ticks down until a megaton 808 bass drops along with a blinding strobes, sending bodies soaring into the air. This summer, Chicago police banned Flosstradamus from a gig in their hometown, claiming their previous show nearly caused a riot.
As genre, trap stands squarely in the great American tradition of music named for its sleazy origins. The 1970s’ “disco” comes from the discotheque—that is, the cokebuzzed, poppers-mad, sex-in-restrooms discotheques of pre-AIDS New York City. The quaint “rock ’n’ roll” comes from Deep South juke joints, and bluesman slang for copulation. Even the vaunted “jazz” betrays its brothel-music origins in a name that was once slang for ejaculation (swap the “a” with an “i”). Given the range of artists and fans clustered around “trap,” it’s no surprise people cite a half-dozen sources for the word. Nor is it that the actual one is the most depraved.
The Hip-Hop 101 version traces trap music from 1990s southern hustler car jams (UGK, Lex Luger) to T.I.’s term-branding Trap Muzik album in 2003, to the hip-hop aesthetes (Baauer, Diplo) who distilled the style into a global dance music phenomenon. But the term’s literal usage deserves mention. This is music from the “trap”—that is, a house or area dedicated to the crack trade. Not from block parties. Not from MC battles. Not from South Beach bootythons. From micro-communities whose sole focus is on the distribution, sale, and use of low-cost, high-yield street pharmaceuticals. In real life, this music would be anything from tinny merengue to a police scanner. But in the popular imagination expressed on Tumblr and SoundCloud, it’s the sickest, illest, cheapest, most purely functional music ever made. As such, it really works.
It’s impossible to discuss trap music’s power without an ode to the Roland 808, whose bass drum sound is one of the great works of the 20th-century and the sine qua non of all trap music. Like the oceanic crescendo that begins Wagner’s Vorspiel to Das Rheingold, the 808’s bass kick is felt just before it’s heard, the downbeat swooning to fill a space with an immense presence that seems to have its own intelligence, its tuned note suggesting some audio military drone. The memories of the half million people who trembled at that sound when it came booming down boulevards in Oakland, the Bronx, and Detroit are part of young America’s cultural DNA. Its sound is the ghost of ghettos past. New trap uses sounds like this—along with cracking snare, triplet subdivisions, and snatches of verbal threats—as fossil fuel to stoke clubs filled with thrill-seeking younger fans.
Trap’s designation as “the new dub-step” is accurate in that it displaced that doomier style born in British clubs, which had been retooled on American laptops, and rebranded to let a kittenish, home-schooled Californian become a dance-music messiah named Skrillex. “Dubstep was homegrown in the U.K.,” says BBC 1 DJ Toddla T (né Thomas Bell). “It started here and then went to all these other places. But trap is very much American. It clearly comes from hip-hop.” Yet the term has been radically redefined since 2010—what BBC 1’s Pete Tong calls in this ssue (page 92) “year zero for EDM and dubstep”—as a flood of electronic-music newbies embrace an entirely different version of trap. “It used to mean ‘ghetto,’” says Toddla T. “Now it means kids diving off stages to Baauer.”
If the leaders of the movement are far from trap’s physical origins, they’re strikingly faithful to its sound. “Artists like Flosstradamus, Uzi, and Baauer are rooted in that lo-fi style, but their music is really, really well-produced,” says Toddla T. It’s hard to find a more sublime expression of this than the Lunice and Hudson Mohawke duo called TNGHT.
On their self-titled EP, TNGHT released a confounding work of minimalist genius called “Bugg’n’,” a vocal-less, melody-less track with a first verse built around a Teletubby-ish infant squeal, and a second verse that centers on a pristinely recorded water drop—and which somehow became a hit single on BBC radio. This is trap in its bebop-Cubist stage, abstracted and refined to reawaken fascination with the mechanics of the form itself.
Cool music always looks ridiculous at a thousand feet, and has ever since ’50s TV host Steve Allen drily read childishly simple lyrics to “Be-Bopa Lula,” as if finally closing the case against rock ’n’ roll. But in the last 15 years, sometime after the phase “intelligent dance music” was first said with a straight face, electronic music charted its own continent and its own language, a pidgin English derived from online tags and digital code. In claiming the cutting-edge of the hardest, rawest, realest shit, trap is hardly new. But what is new—truly new—is the way it has aligned so many people so quickly around its musical revisionism.
This is a genre whose artists actually embrace the pigeonhole, declaring their work “trap shit,” to build a brand. Trap-dedicated websites, magazines, and YouTube channels appeared almost simultaneously with the genre’s newer incarnation. A producer who goes by Uzi, who disguises himself in Crips-like bandanas, throws up gang signs,and has a weakness for No Limit-style machine gun iconography, and has been self-releasing a series called “Trap Shit” that’s at nine volumes now, and delivers its titular commodity so precisely and in such large volume the effect is like a Wisconsinite hip-hop and gang enthusiast’s Tumblr page.
Rather than a region or artistic movement, this music seems a product of digital sound technology and global social media. The hyphenated subgenres signify distinct combinations of sound, mood, tempo, pacing, lyric content—all cut, pasted, curated, and essentially produced by the soundcloud itself.
“Things move really quick with sound and there’s no room for a record to build in clubs,” says Toddla T. “Now, it’s just SoundCloud, boom-bam bing-bing-bong. I’ve not seen anything really build on its own since dubstep in the U.K. Then it was people playing it in clubs, pre-SoundCloud.” As the first major music force to emerge since dubstep, which grew organically from nightly experiments in the clubs, trap may signify a creative terminus, a dead-end worthy of both the genre’s name and its ghetto namesake.
But this completely overlooks the inspiring power this music has already had on the culture it most affects, whose fans crowd into concerts for the kind of interactive experience multiuser 3-D media can’t pretend to promise. The fans are the stars, and come to dance, bug out, and stage-dive—not join the groupie queue or notate the band’s setlist. And they’ll keep coming as long as this magic works.
“You can’t put your finger on what makes a trap track work,” says Flosstradamus’s Young. “But it’s a creative sample and some atonal sound.” He cites Bangladesh’s track for Lil Wayne’s breakthrough hit, “A Milli.” “He loops a word in a really creative way and drops really disgustingly good drums on top of it. Something about that makes the whole thing pop.”
There’s a deeper force behind new trap, behind its celebration of the iller, sicker, cheaper sound of street music from the past, its celebration of the sonic flaws a previous generation has cast off. The same impulse has run through music for at least 70 years, as one “mad decent” electronic musician noted a ways back.
“Whatever you now find weird, ugly, uncomfortable, and nasty about a new medium will surely become its signature,” Brian Eno wrote in 1996’s A Year With Swollen Appendices. He predicted that CD distortion, digital video jitter, and crappy 8-bit sound will all be “cherished and emulated as soon as they can be avoided.”
His list of other such cherished failures includes guitar distortion, a blues singer’s vocal crack, and shaky video that conveys “the excitement of witnessing events too momentous for the medium assigned to record them.” Today, trap’s creators, users, and haters see such events every other day. The only question is whether they’ll run toward them or away.