Chances are, whether you know it or not, you've come across it in some form. Everyone from underground heads to mainstream dubstep DJs are throwing those skittery snares underneath, well, everything. And, like any genre that has emerged in the past few years, it has its bona fide stars like Baauer and Flosstradamus, a slew of hungry, scene-jumping adopters and a whole host of questionable social issues to go with it.
"Trap" is hip-hop slang for a crack house, and is often traced back to Atlanta. It certainly got more popular off the back off American rapper T.I.'s Trap Muzik album in 2003, but some ascribe its origins even further back to artists like Three 6 Mafia and Houston's DJ Screw. The latter artist pioneered the psychedelic, ultra-slow "chopped and screwed" effect, in which he slowed down tracks to accentuate trippy time-stretched snares and hats. Meanwhile, the southern rap that emerged in the wake of the Outkast boom in the early 2000s was colourful, synth-heavy and bombastic, a tradition that lives on in trap. But arguably the most direct progenitor to what's at hand in 2012 is young Virginia producer Lex Luger.
Responsible for Waka Flocka Fame's 2010 rap anthem "Hard in da Paint" and a number of other hits for prominent rappers in the past two years, particularly Three 6 Mafia's Juicy J, Luger's productions are almost a caricature in their maximalism. The danceable groundwork for these tracks is laid by enormous bass thuds and cheap, snarling synth horns, like a satanic Mannie Fresh. Luger's productions fast became a staple in DJ sets around the world, from innumerable American acts to UK DJs like Rustie, Hudson Mohawke and Oneman. They were also widely imitated. Clearly Luger had tapped into something. "This is something like the culmination of years and years of hip-hop... and dance music came together. It didn't happen because someone had a master plan, it just happened naturally," claimed Mad Decent associate Dirty South Joe in a recent documentary called Certified Trap.
"The first real indicator that this was more than just the casual incorporation of a few drums was when Flosstradamus released their remix of Major Lazer's 'Original Don' early this year," says Matt Owchar, a DJ and promoter in Vancouver. He runs a night called #FVDED, a weekly dubstep-cum-trap night that incorporates trap's imagery and sloganeering in its promotions and has booked a number of bigger trap DJs. "It didn't really hit home... until SXSW . My whole perception of the SXSW experience was guided by the idea of finding the 'next hot shit,' as a DJ and talent buyer. Within a day of being there I think I heard that remix about five times in one day. Guys like Salva, Lunice and LOL Boys dropping it, then Porter Robinson, Skrillex, Kill The Noise..." In Owchar's list of artists one can already see the overlap between bass music, hip-hop and dubstep beginning to emerge.
Other key figures include popular mixtape host Trap-A-Holics, whose memorable DJ drops (like "real trap shit") have become slogans sampled by acts like Flosstradamus and used frequently in tracks as a sort of trap signature, and RL Grime, whose squelchy "Trap on Acid" places familiar trap clichés in an acid house context and was recently co-opted by megastar Pitbull. Then there's the mysterious Uz, allegedly a dance music veteran in disguise. His online communications are spoken almost entirely in Unicode symbols (example: "ĐЯØPPIИ₲ ϺΫ ИЄШ ZЄǄ ƉЄ∆Ɖ ЯЄϺIX ∆₮ H∆ЯƉ ƧƱϺϺЄЯ")—another aesthetic preference of trap—and his endless stream of tracks on SoundCloud are simply numbered parts of a series entitled "Trap Shit." Uz's tracks are essentially sketches composed of the same bucking basslines, cascading snares and all manner of silly vocal samples, merely arranged in different combinations. His work illustrates the potential for rhythmic complexity in trap—the timestretching and other effects on the drums are close relatives to jungle—but the music utilizes much of the same devices as the worst of lowest common denominator club music.
Barcelona's Sinjin Hawke is another interesting case study. Already a headlining artist off the back of one strong EP on Belgian label Pelican Fly, Hawke's impressive live set is near-virtuosic, welding R&B melodies and triumphant builds to trap structures. Bolstered with flamboyant and decisive melodies inspired by film scores and '80s synth music, his reinterpretation of hip-hop feels personal and idiosyncratic. When I met him earlier this year, he expressed enthusiasm but unfamiliarity with the world of dance music after spending years immersed in hip-hop, a fascinating angle for a rising star playing at festivals alongside acts like Scuba and Claude VonStroke.
"I don't think you can credibly have a discussion about this whole 'trap' thing without talking about 'Harlem Shake,'" says Owchar. He's right. It became one of the year's most ubiquitous tracks shortly after appearing on Rustie's Essential Mix in April. Its appeal is simple: a cartoonish horn riff honks over pooling quakes of low-end, seizing on the hypnotically repetitive basslines that make Lex Luger's tracks so floor-friendly. In its wake, mainstream-baiting DJs like Dillon Francis, Mimosa and others have all started incorporating trap originals, as well as countless bootleg remixes (highlights this writer has heard so far: Darude's "Sandstorm" and Pink Floyd's "Money") which underline the formulaic and gimmick-driven underbelly of the sound. The glut of trap edits mirrors the wave of unofficial "dubstep remixes" that were ubiquitous two years ago.
I recently made the pilgrimage to #FVDED for one of their biggest nights yet, a double-header of Baauer and Uz that had a nightclub near-capacity on a Wednesday night. That's not always an easy thing to do in Vancouver. Waiting in the extremely long line put me privy to a number of conversations in the vicinity, college-age kids discussing their favourite dubstep tracks; who belonged in the trap sphere; who was dubstep and so forth. The opening DJs, Expendable Youth (a duo that includes Owchar) played a blistering set of trap beats mixed seamlessly with the harshest, squelchiest of dubstep, and Uz mixed his jackhammer throb in with deafening electro house. The aggressive audience moshed and jumped to the music in much the same fashion as I've witnessed at mainstream dubstep shows, signaling that the mentality behind trap is much the same: mindless, physically punishing dance music.
Trap exists in the UK as well, though it's often taken on a different form. UK artists seem more content to fold in elements of hip-hop into their productions while retaining their own distinct personalities. This creates a parallel wave of music that's not quite trap but shares its stylistic and rhythmic signifiers. Rustie's Glass Swords was labeled UK bass by many, but listen closely to a track like "City Star" and it's essentially southern hip-hop, snares jiggling like gelatinous blobs with loud, obnoxious horns. Meanwhile, former Vex'd member Kuedo released his first full-length Severant, an elegiac and contemplative synth album heavily informed by John Carpenter and Vangelis, but draped with hyperactive trap-rap snares throughout. While neither of these records are trap, both are sonically sympathetic with the movement.
Meanwhile, Warp signee Hudson Mohawke has teamed up with Montreal's Lunice (a fellow member of Glasgow's colourful LuckyMe crew) to begin the TNGHT project, which this year released an EP of larger-than-life anthems with a self-proclaimed goal to make beats for actual rappers. The release was easily one of 2012's most hotly anticipated, and its tracks have been in heavy rotation for all manner of DJs. Its genre-crossing reception has pushed trap even further into the spotlight. And so did their "Mission Statement" mix earlier this year. Labelled "trap-rave," it featured plenty of their own productions mixed with like-minded tracks from Chief Keef, Waka Flocka Flame and several other artists whose styles of hip-hop have contributed to the rise of trap.
Any emergent genre is full of inevitable bandwagoners, yet trap seems defined by it rather than merely affected by it. This is even more of an "internet genre" than dubstep or moombahton, music popularized through Twitter and SoundCloud. As a result, most of the people making and enjoying it have no real connection with the original trap-rap scene—even though they gladly utilize its violent tropes. "A lot of these kids genuinely love straight-up trap music, they're just expressing that enthusiasm for it in a way that relates to them—a joyful, partying, affectionately ironic way... the appropriation issues can be viewed more like unfortunate byproducts of meta-modern kids being inspired by something outside of their direct world, the same impulse which drives this generation's identity-defining tools such as Tumblr," explains Jamie Teasdale, who produces as Kuedo.
Part of what makes trap so objectionable in the eyes of some is its appropriation for populist ends. What made the original trap so gripping was its gritty drama, its "realness." "[Trap now is] largely a middle class movement that has borrowed not only the musical devices of that form, but also taken the cultural symbols, including the name itself... [which is] intensely problematic," explains Teasdale. "They're appropriating social references totally alien to them, sampling lyrics about crack houses, machine gun fire, and most of all, the name of the music itself. Crack house music. That's the thing that's bugging people."
The proliferation of artists and entities operating under the trap banner means that some are already quick to distance themselves. "I'm not communicating with this EDM-trap scene at all," says Teasdale, "yet people are beginning to assume I'm a part of it. That's jeopardizing my ability to play the rap music I love, as to do so would be seen as participating in this self-organizing EDM-trap scene. I'm never going to be a consensual member of it. It now refers to a college party soundtrack, one that's very close to being a successor to brostep."
The sudden ubiquity of trap mirrors the appearance of wobble-heavy, tear-out dubstep a few years ago. And, with it, the building up of barriers between the "good" and the "bad," the "original" and the "new" has been equally as quick. It's impossible to say whether the rapidly-swelling bubble will burst or maintain, but the growing backlash by both fans and artists alike is telling. "A great deal of this music is very good, and the best tracks totally deserve all the plays and celebration they've received," Teasdale begins, "and people like TNGHT have good and fully informed artistic intentions. They're not trying to create this scene. It's just unfortunate that those who are wishing to create a genre [around trap] haven't been more sensitive to the social issues nested around it."