A little while ago I came upon an article in Motherboard
(a subset of Vice) called “Quit Screwing With Trap Music.” Its topic was a Houston-born producer named Lotic, who decided to express his cool distaste for the DJs currently labeling themselves under the “trap” umbrella by making a SoundCloud mix that highlighted the originators of the subgenre – Fat Pat, Lil Keke, the Geto Boys, UGK and chiefly DJ Screw, the progenitor of chopped and screwed.
It’s easy to understand the frustration of a musician who thinks he’s had something stolen from him, even in this case when that thing is a musical movement he followed closely, probably since its inception. I imagine that the assorted architects of dubstep – Burial, The Bug, James Blake, any musician belonging to the harsh British hip-hop subgenre of grime, arguably Trent Reznor (seriously, listen to NIN’s “Me, I’m Not” and “The Great Destroyer” and get back to me if you’re confused) – might feel the same way.
The thing here is that there’s a sociocultural element to what we’ll call “the trap problem.” Lotic and the musicians he lionizes happen to be exclusively black, while several of the most currently recognizable artists categorized as trap are white – Baauer, Flosstradamus (a biracial duo), Diplo, Hudson Mohawke, a bahzillion others on SoundCloud. While it’d be irresponsible and probably untrue to suggest that Lotic’s dislike – or that of anyone with a similar mindset and skin color – of modern trap is racially motivated, you have to at least concede that race is likely involved in the thought process in some way. The palefaces are notorious for their theft of black culture. I shouldn’t have to, and won’t, give examples. Two questions, though – 1. are racial culture umbrellas necessary in 2013, and 2. as their existence appears to be unavoidable, how do we approach such discussions rationally?
I didn’t say I had the answers.
So what is this trap shit anyway? It began, as previously stated, in Houston among a now-canonized group of rappers and DJs. Traditional trap mixes funk/soul instrumentation over harsh snares and hi-hats, with robust-but-not-overpowering bass. It spread like slow fire throughout the Dirty South from the early 90s to the 2000s, gaining footholds in New Orleans and Atlanta. The term itself is sometimes thought of as an overall reference to the hood – more specifically, a “trap house” is one used by dealers as a stash house, a cut/cook spot, et. al. (I sort of facepalmed myself writing that. Now I know how people working for Wikipedia feel.)
In the first decade of the current millennium, its primary standard-bearers were T.I., Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane. You can reasonably argue that other Southern rap greats are partially trap as well, like certain OutKast, Ludacris, Slim Thug, Chamillionaire and Mike Jones tracks, but those first three are the ones who most strongly self-identified with the movement.
Sometime in 2010, a producer named Lex Luger created (apparently in his garage) beats for a protege of Gucci Mane and OJ Da Juiceman called Waka Flocka Flame. These included “Hard in Da Paint,” “Karma,” “Bustin At ‘Em” and most of Flocka’s debut album, Flockaveli. This would end up being a game-changer. His abrasive, almost industrial-indebted take on the Dirty South trap sound continues (up to 2013) to dominate rap radio, as dozens of producers have co-opted his style.
Not long after, artists like Flosstradamus, Baauer, Clams Casino and Diplo, among others, began releasing a tidal wave of remixes, productions, extended long-form SoundCloud pieces and singles that they or their fans classify as trap. This music bears some of the Luger/H-town/Dirty South blueprint but adds elements like dubstep drops, EDM synths, ambient noise and touches of genres including house or dancehall, depending on who you’re listening to. In other words, it’s arguably more palatable to white folks. Whether this was a conscious choice on those artists’ part or just something that happened is unknown, but, as Atmosphere once said, “these white kids eat it up like mayonnaise.” Literally hundreds of successors (or imitators, if you’re cranky), have cropped up in their wake. Some show real promise, like Ryan Hemsworth, while others are merely skilled mimics.
It’s unclear where all this is going, in a macro sense. Yet the trap subgenre has persisted in various forms since several years after the birth of rap itself, and it probably isn’t disappearing anytime soon. Diplo, in particular, has shown remarkable versatility since he first made waves with the Hollertronix mixtapes and production credits for M.I.A. in the early/mid 2000s, and his trap shit seems like a natural evolution. (Not only that, but he’s most likely to be around and working in another style years down the line.)
Another example is the recent Just Blaze/Baauer collaboration “Higher” – this is one of rap’s best and most acclaimed producers co-signing and working with an early 20s EDM-influenced white kid. (That’s not a pejorative – I like Baauer.) On a larger scale, hip-hop is and continues to be arguably the most adaptable genre in popular music, and always incorporates new things. Sociocultural politics aside, as long as it sounds good and people are listening, any particular sound or style will have a chance at taking rap in new and intriguing directions.
Liam Green can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.