Understanding SoundCloud Rap

First published in October 2017

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EVER since its birth in the 1980s, hip-hop has remained one of the genres most tied to its geography.

Think New York’s early conscious rap. The East Coast-West Coast gangsta rap feud of the 1990s. California’s G-Funk. New Orleans bounce music. Houston’s Chopped & Screwed. Memphis’ 2000’s crunk period, which inspired both Atlanta’s snap and later trap movements. And Chicago’s early 2010s drill scene and its current nameless creative collaborative community spearheaded by the positivity of acts like SaveMoney, Zero Fatigue and Pivot Gang.

In all of these instances, you have rappers initially rising locally, fuelled by local radio and press, and then gradually reaching out to the national – and sometimes even international – mainstream. And the key word really is “mainstream”. While 2010’s short-lived cloud rap scene stemmed from the height of the blog era, with rappers like Main Attraktionz and Cities Aviv, it never crossed over to the masses.

But for the first time ever, we have a new hugely popular hip-hop movement that both stems and gains prominence from the internet. The movement’s geographical origin isn’t a city, a borough or a physical place – but a streaming platform.

Let’s Get Lit

SoundCloud rappers usually fit into two categories: aggressive and emotional. They’re united by:

  1. An emphasis on melody over rhythm;
  2. A proclivity towards somewhat nonsensical repetition over substantial lyrical content;
  3. Lo-fi, low budget and distorted production;
  4. Genuineness and social media prowess;
  5. An affinity for pop-punk; and
  6. Meme-worthy looks that tends to include coloured dreads and/or face tattoos.

Press play on any of these tracks, and one of the first things you’ll notice is their unique delivery. While most rappers rely on their rhythm for their technical flow, these rappers’ flows are more melodic, emphasising vocal hooks.

Take Trippie Redd’s breakout hit ‘Love Scars’, or newcomer 6 Dogs’ surprise SoundCloud smash ‘Faygo Dreams’ (six million streams and counting). While executed very differently, both rappers switch between off-tune singing, rapping, and a sweet spot in between the two.

For the first time ever, we have a new hugely popular hip-hop movement that both stems and gains prominence from the internet.

Not only are SoundCloud rap hooks crucial for delivery, but they’re also a vehicle for lyrical content. Instead of relying on meaningful, eloquent words, these rappers rely on earworms to get their points across.

This is best exemplified by one of the genre’s heavy hitters, Lil Pump, and his extensive catalogue of barely-two-minute songs. Tracks like ‘Flex Like Ouu’ and ‘D Rose’ – which clock at 1.48 and 2.15 respectively – are filled with nonsensical repetition. Words like “ouu”, “d rose”, and his signature “esketit”, which is Lil Pump’s abbreviated version of “let’s get it”, which has turned into “let’s get lit” as somewhat of a mantra for SoundCloud rap fans.

The words may be made-up, but they still manage to relay his hyped-up, party-starting, not-giving-a-fuck emotions. And while traditional music heads may find this hard to believe, just take a look at his SoundCloud: each of his 10 uploads has somewhere between 3.5 and 36 million streams each.

Hip-Hop Meets Pop-Punk

ONE of the movement’s most notable characteristics is its distorted, DIY production. These tracks sound like they were probably recorded straight off of an iPhone or laptop mic, thanks to go-to producers like Smokepurpp (most famously a rapper himself) and Jimmy Duval (largely responsible for the scene’s breakout hit ‘Look At Me’).

SoundCloud rap’s lo-fi sound is not only a key musical characteristic of this new hip-hop wave, but also a crucial factor in why this movement started on SoundCloud as opposed to any other streaming service in the first place.

Not only is SoundCloud one of the more community based platforms, but it’s arguably the easiest place to upload music to for an unsigned artist, with the ability to put out music worldwide at the click of a button.

The most notable example is Tay-K’s ‘The Race’, which was notoriously recorded and uploaded while he was on the run from authorities after cutting off his ankle monitor while awaiting trial for murder.

This ease with which music can be uploaded to SoundCloud extends to the ethos of the entire SoundCloud rap aesthetic: hasty songwriting, hasty recording, hasty uploads, and a hastily moving, no-fucks-left-to-give attitude.

This impulsivity also extends beyond the platform – from the notorious stage antics of XXXTentacion and his recent 4.5-metre high stage dive to recent tourmate Wifisfuneral’s infamous crowdsurfing incident, which ended up in the emergency room after he was beaten up in the crowd.

Hasty songwriting, hasty recording, hasty uploads, and a hastily moving, no-fucks-left-to-give attitude.

A stream-of-conscious approach to social media has helped bring SoundCloud rappers to the fore, giving fans a window into their actual lives. This openness extends to their lyrics and image, which aims to portray them as close to their real-life persona as possible.

(In contrast, traditional hip-hop culture was primarily built upon the gangsta rap idea of portraying oneself as strong and powerful, exaggerating greatness, and even going so far as fabricating a character like Rick Ross, whose tales of gangs and drugs were offset by a corrections officer past.)

Covered in face tattoos with multi-coloured hair and/or dreadlocks and wardrobes straight out of US clothing store Hot Topic circa 2004, these generally teenaged rappers manage to seamlessly bridge the worlds of hip-hop and pop-punk, rapping about drinking lean and popping Xanax.

SoundCloud rap becomes even more groundbreaking when consider that it defies race, seemingly being one of the first hip-hop sub-genres to include equally diverse audiences and artists. Matched with the movement’s sense of impulsivity, are we perhaps looking at hip-hop’s biggest punk moment?

From Agro To Emo

THE artists under the SoundCloud rap umbrella waver between aggressive and emotional, somewhat equating to hip-hop’s versions of hardcore punk and emo.

At the aggressive end of the spectrum you’ll find speaker-blowing production, shockingly savage lyrics and explosively abrupt screams. The genre’s poster boy XXXTentacion’s collaboration with a rapper called Max P, ‘Take A Step Back’, is the epitome of aggressive SoundCloud rap. While another controversial figure, Ski Mask The Slump God, first met XXXTentacion in a juvenile detention centre back in 2015.

Unfortunately aggressive SoundCloud rap has also been marred by real-life violence. XXXTentacion is currently awaiting trial for aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, domestic battery by strangulation, false imprisonment, and witness tampering.

Are we perhaps looking at hip-hop’s biggest punk moment?

Then you’ve got the emotional SoundCloud rappers: the Hot Topic-clad, septum-pierced artists whose melodic, sing-raps sit atop guitar-laden production and early-2000s emo samples.

The poster boy for this side of the genre is Pitchfork darling Lil Peep, who straddles a rather unexpected line between hip-hop and emo. He raps about drugs, suicide, and ex-girlfriends atop 808s and trap production sprinkled with Underoath and Brand New samples with song titles like ‘Better Off (Dying)’ and ‘Cobain’.

Lil Peep may’ve taken this movement to the next level, but it was really New Orleans duo $uicideboy$ who brought it to the forefront with an enormous output of trap guitar-laden emo-rap and a massive cult-but-niche following.

Other acts include Trippie Redd, who wants you to know that he shares a hometown with Marilyn Manson; hip-hop rockstar Lil Uzi Vert with his warbly, melodic flow and song titles like ‘Love Scars’ and ‘Blade Of Woe’; and Saves The Day labelmates nothing, nowhere, whose most recent number ‘Hopes Up’ features none other than Dashboard Confessional.

The combination of melodic flows, lo-fi production, emo samples, and law-breaking troubled teens may sound absurd on paper, but it makes sense within the greater context of hip-hop history. Ever since the shift from conscious to gangsta rap in the 1980s – when vying for social change and political activism transformed into a call for violence – hip-hop culture, especially rap music, has been positioned towards reaching the thug paradigm.

Here, rappers embodied a thug persona, creating and living a character revolving around the glorification of gang violence and drug trafficking. This encompasses everyone from Ice-T to N.W.A., Notorious B.I.G. to Tupac, Eminem to 50 Cent.

While these ’80s to ’00s rappers touched upon shootings and drug dealing, this new class of SoundCloud artists rap about reckless and impulsive violence and drug consumption.

So Where Do We Go From Here?

SOUNDCLOUD rap has pretty much broken into the mainstream at this point. In recent weeks Kendrick Lamar gave rare praise to XXXTentacion’s 17. The usually hard-to-please Pitchfork gave Lil Peep’s recent project Come Over When You’re Sober, Pt. 1 a rave review. Smokepurpp’s recent debut project Deadstar enlists features from Chief Keef, Yo Gotti, Juicy J, and new labelhead Travis Scott. While Lil Pump just announced a nationwide tour playing 2000-cap rooms.

It still hasn’t gone quite global just yet, but Lil Pump just landed his debut on Billboard’s Hot 100 Chart; $uicideboy$ have sold out shows in Auckland; and even Spotify has gotten on board with their massive Most Necessary playlist (over one million subscribers) featuring the majority of the aforementioned artists.

But greater popularity leads to more needs – marketing, tour support, studio costs, radio – which is why these SoundCloud rappers are signing with major labels. Interscope imprint Alamo Records has snatched up heavyweights Lil Pump, Smokepurpp and Wifisfuneral; Ski Mask The Slump God is with Republic Records; and Trippie Redd joined the roster at the Universal-distributed Strainge Entertainment. And while this is the natural progression for all rappers not named Chance, it presents a slight wrinkle in the genre’s ecosystem.

When SoundCloud made its move towards a monetised subscription-based platform in 2016, the process of uploading music to the platform changed for labels. Now if you’re a signed artist, your label has to upload to SoundCloud through the same upload process as other streaming platforms. The only way to manually upload your own track is to have the label whitelist the track weeks in advance. Otherwise, as backwards at it seems, SoundCloud will remove the track for copyright on behalf of the label.

What this is means is that once these rappers sign with major labels, they lose a large portion of the impulsivity that’s so central to the genre. So while the ethos of SoundCloud rap may continue, many of these bigger rappers may no longer be “SoundCloud rappers” per se, paving the way for a new class that will surely emerge to take over the platform.

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