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.”