With a little help from Lady Gaga, “Trap music” has migrated from Dirty South strip clubs to hip cosmopolitan dance floors. How real is that?

Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)

A few weeks ago, Lady Gaga’s DJ White Shadow uploaded an instrumental track to his Soundcloud account and initiated a contest.

The contest winner—whose groggy vocals relied on a series of absurd hip-hop cliches (“posted in the trap strapped with the AK, aimin’ at your fitted cap,” “chopper in the chopper on the way to a sold out show,” etc.)—was announced, and an ambitious pitch-shifter discovered that the winning track’s vocals sounded remarkably similar to Lady Gaga herself.

The likely-Gaga song is just the latest evidence of the rising media profile of a pseudo-genre known as Trap. As more artists signal their general awareness of What People Talk About Online, “Trap” has been undergoing a series of these mainstreaming moments, further legitimizing it as a phenomenon.

 

Trap is good, and can bring artists and fans from different worlds together. Trap is bad because it trivializes serious issues stemming from the American "War on Drugs" and an accelerating prison population.

 

What Trap is, exactly, isn’t a settled question, although for proponents of Trap, it has a distinct lineage. (For the purposes of this piece, we’ll use the capital-letter Trap to refer to the nebulous musical genre, and the lower-case trap in all other instances, which you will see is a necessary delineation.) Trap’s arrival raises questions about the way we think about “genre” in 2012, and provokes important questions about how we tell narratives about music, particularly in an era where listeners are increasingly discussing music as if they were historians.

Ultimately, though, Trap is a fiction—a false umbrella-genre that attempts to unite two disparate styles of music with distinct audiences, to crowbar a particular evolution of club music into hip-hop’s lineage, and to grant it credibility under the guise of respecting the pioneers.

Browse the Internet for an understanding of Trap and you’ll find a pretty straightforward story: The genre was created by rappers like T.I., Young Jeezy, and Gucci Mane, who were referencing a life of drug-dealing, and producers like DJ Toomp, Shawty Redd and Lex Luger, whose aggressive production framed the intensely dark subject matter.

DJs and producers working primarily in the dance world, interested in pushing the boundaries of music and introducing their audiences to new sounds (or other similarly high-minded motives), started building upon the developments of these innovators, adapting their sound for a whiter, less-rap-oriented rave crowd.

 

There’s a bizarre tastelessness in Gaga’s ridiculous boasts about guns; she gets to feel “dangerous” without the accountability.

 

Then comes the controversy, and we’re all forced to choose sides: Trap is good, and can bring artists and fans from different worlds together. Trap is bad because it trivializes serious issues stemming from the American "War on Drugs" and an accelerating prison population.

The solution, argues the typical Trap history: trap music is fun, but listeners should be educated on the history of where the music comes from, and give respect to the innovators of the form, learning (via Google) about the pioneers (T.I.!), the sobering social contexts (drug dealers!), and the branded cultural trends (sizzurp!).

Recognizing that there is a very real context to rap’s casual glorification of street violence, that it isn’t simply an action movie set in the hood, is a Good Thing.

There’s a bizarre tastelessness in Gaga’s ridiculous boasts about guns; she gets to feel “dangerous” without the accountability. As listeners, we’d rather see Gaga show more sensitivity to the plight of the people living in America’s poor and violent communities. But even if she did, it still doesn’t really do much for those people. Ultimately, this vague empathy is selfish, a way of using historical understanding to assuage a partier’s guilt.

 

It is, in a literal sense, the place where drugs are sold, but could also imply something about the mentality of the people working there, or the nature of the work itself, or the hopelessness that propels people into those situations.

 

“Relax,” the thinking goes. “You know about the plight of the poor. Just vote Left and give props to the innovators. Now you can enjoy your whiskey and Red Bull without feeling bad about it. You can dance, or at the very least, wave your rapper-hands to the latest in progressive Trap music. How about some molly? I hear it’s better than coke.”

Though it may seem anathema in the Rap Genius era, the original meanings of “trap” in a hip-hop context are difficult to nail down because the term has always hinted at multiple meanings. It is, in a literal sense, the place where drugs are sold, but could also imply something about the mentality of the people working there, or the nature of the work itself, or the hopelessness that propels people into those situations.

An early high-profile mention of “the trap” occurs on Outkast’s “Spottieottiedopalicious,” where Big Boi describes this complexity: "United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss/So now you back in the trap, just that, trapped/Go on and marinate on that for a minute."

Then, of course, there’s T.I.’s Trap Muzik LP, which looks at the trap from many different angles before concluding with standout track “Long Live Da Game,” bringing the album and its protagonist's life to an end in a hail of gunfire. For Tip, the trap isn’t a genre, but a real place as portrayed through art.

A place with real consequences.

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This isn’t too different from the way street-oriented rap has always operated; the trap in the early 2000s wasn’t a genre, it was a real place. It soon transformed into a handy adjective to describe the kind of rap music made about that place. Trap-rap was simply a new evolution in a long lineage of abrasive rap music stretching back through N.W.A.

Of course, hip-hop has its own problematic history with ‘the trap.’

There's a long history of rappers marketing the hood, creating economic value from the stories of neighborhoods that have little else. When all T.I. had to rap about was his experiences in the street, he made it into the grand operatic drama that was Trap Muzik. Others would more cheaply exploit their surroundings.

 

Street rap’s derided authenticity obsession actually serves a function: to justify the crass commercialization of black poverty by demanding that artists “actually” experience or represent for the neighborhoods they speak about.

 

Street rap’s derided authenticity obsession actually serves a function: to justify this branding—the crass commercialization of black poverty—by demanding that artists “actually” experience or represent for the neighborhoods they speak about, making them as much politicians as musicians.

Thus street rap’s core underlying dynamic, the structure that defines the genre, is a knotty, contradictory tangle of tensions between realism and performance, documentation against artifice,  aspiration to escape the hood scraping against loyalty to your people, the pull of money and the ethical considerations in a world where the social contract has been shredded.

Needless to say, when hip cosmopolitan dance floors interact with this world, many of the obligations and ethical entanglements are overlooked and simply ignored. Trap is reduced to particular drum patterns and surface-level references: mixtape DJ drops repurposed, irreverent gun talk, empty cultural touchpoints.

Aside from the reckless gun talk, which is insensitive at best, there’s nothing wrong with music that takes influences from street-oriented hip-hop. Obviously, rap has long been a crucible of musical innovation.

Some of the current, dance floor-oriented music often described as Trap, even with overt references to contemporary hip-hop, is truly exciting music. The work of Lunice and Hudson Mohawke, known collectively as TNGHT, has made for some really interesting and unique art. Similarly, Rustie’s Essential Mix for the BBC this year did a great job incorporating hip-hop into a new context; Rustie has a musical understanding of how songs function, and uses them as more than simple cred-burnishing signifiers.

 

The creation of Trap as an umbrella-genre seems like a self-conscious attempt by writers, fans and artists outside of hip-hop to grant legitimacy to their movement.

 

But it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of how this music works to suggest that it is in the same lineage as the work of T.I. and Young Jeezy. Not only does it do a major disservice to contemporary rap artists whose work is much closer to trap-rap—see Chicago’s rising drill-rap sound, or the music of Fat Trel in D.C.—but it sells trap-EDM short as well.

The creation of Trap as an umbrella-genre seems like a self-conscious attempt by writers, fans and artists outside of hip-hop to grant legitimacy to their movement—an unnecessary, insecure and ahistorical crossing of wires. The real tradition of trap-EDM is the same one that has evolved from the rise of contemporary dance club culture in the early 2000s, which incorporated Lil Jon songs for hip dance floors. It’s no coincidence that Diplo and Flosstradamus are among the names driving attention to Trap-EDM now.

In this case, each genre would be more accurately defined by its audience, rather than what drum kits are used.

The audience most enjoying Trap-EDM now is linked to particular websites and clubs, rather than any particular feeder-genre; they’ve listened at various times to music “incorporating” crunk, Baltimore Club, and footwork, working in dubstep and Moombahton. Alongside its fair share of tasteless, exploitative and just plain uninteresting mish-mash, this tradition has seen genuine moments of musical inspiration, great singles and interesting experiments.

 

It might be more accurate to suggest that instead of a single genre called Trap, there are two separate genres of rap and dance music, both of which have gone through “trap-” phases.

 

This vein of dance music might incorporate different influences, but ultimately, its purpose—and the makeup of its audience—has remained consistent through the past decade, growing in influence at varying moments, cannibalizing other genres to rebrand every few years.

In other words, it might be more accurate to suggest that instead of a single genre called Trap, there are two separate genres of rap and dance music, both of which have gone through “trap-” phases.

To insist that we root Trap in hip-hop, even as it “evolves” into one more domain of trendy dance producers, is to do a disservice to both the rap and dance audiences. The bottom-feeders of irony and exploitation will forever treat social ills like costumes for playing dress-up, but don’t worry—you can always sell them baby powder in a baggie labeled “molly.”

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