Trap? It’s likely that you’ve heard it, even if you didn’t know that’s what you were listening to. Maybe you don’t listen to Hip Hop, or to any of the diverse and diffuse localized elaborations of dancehall musics around the globe. Still, if you live in an urban space you’ve probably heard it, or at least heard echoes of it. The deep sub-bass notes that rattle the architecture, the double timed syncopated hi-hats that gallop along with quick snare rolls, vocal snippets pitched down to an almost unintelligibly low tone, all laced with call and response chants of “hey! hey!”, and of course…autotune. Trap.
A rhythm structure first cultivated in black musical spaces of the Southern United States at the turn of the millenium, today, the trap beat has risen to almost world wide sonic ubiquity. Its influences can be heard in music styles all over the globe. From K-Pop in Korea, Electro Chaabi in Egypt, to global chart toppers and music industry darlings; everywhere producers and listeners of rhythm and bass fueled musics have all “fallen into the trap”.
In this article I will offer some thoughts on the social and sonic meaning embedded in the trap beat by delving deep into questions surrounding the dynamics of globalized culture(sonic and otherwise), and its transfer and appropriation. I will also look to(or rather listen to) the sounds themselves with the hope of hearing how the various sonic strategies that we recognize as “trap” both affect us physically and socially and serve as a reflection of our global society.
First a disclaimer. I can only speak from my own perspective and experience, and from my observations of other folks’ perspectives and experiences of this sonic phenomenon as best I understand them. Also, I want to give a bit of disclosure. I am not an impartial party. I am a huge proponent of trap, but have not always been so.
As a Dj and producer from a southern U.S. state, I was coming up and cutting my teeth as a Dj during the heyday of Southern trap influenced tracks in mainstream pop music. I was originally ambivalent to the sound. I remember Djing a highschool dance in 2003 and my set being an awkward assemblage of top 40 crunk-tinged Southern rap tunes mixed with the house and rave music that I was desperately trying to expose my peer group to.
At the time, I found electronic dance music to be ‘deeper’ than the sounds of the pop/hip hop landscape at the time. It wasn’t until years later, after I came to better understanding of sound and music as language, as social code, that I really began to fully appreciate and respect the sonic narrative that trap music tells.
In the 1990’s, a cadre of Hip Hop artists from Southern U.S. cities, began producing music which narrated their experiences within urban drug trafficking culture. A trap or traphouse referred to a spot where one cooks up/stores/deals drugs. ‘The trap’ also described the seemingly inescapable social conditions of young, mostly black, poor Southerners who had to turn to trafficking culture for any kind of real economic mobility. Eventually the term came to refer to a growing body of tracks and a particular sonic style that expressed this culture.
In the early 2000s Southern hip hop reached an national apex and “trap” began entering into the mainstream musical lexicon, with T.I.’s titular Trap Muzik LP being released in 2003.
Throughout this period Southern hip hop was coalescing into a distinct set of sonic markers.From the influences of styles such as , chopped and screwed hip hop from Houston, from Memphis and Atlanta, and New Orleans bounce came a set of sounds and techniques which would find such widespread use among a new generation of Southern artists who were enjoying success with national audiences and within the music industry. At that time, Southern artists comprised almost of the American urban radio airplay.
Track by track, frequently reproduced sonics, came to form a recognisable code: an emphasis on deep 808 style sub-bass, a polyrhythmic pattern comprised of a spacious, slow(70-80 bpm), and sometimes dislocated main beat pattern, fast paced auxiliary percussion with sharp high hats which often oscillate between 16th, 32nd, and 64th note sequences, fast snare rolls, slightly detuned and ‘darker’ sounding synth lines, percussion and FX crescendos, call and response chants, pitched-down(screwed) and auto-tuned vocals.
The trap beat is versatile. It complicates and disorients the ears with its double time halftime overlay allowing the listener to slip between tempos. Marching, syncopated snare buildups and synth rises seem to endlessly recycle energy providing one peak musical moment after the next.
In a big way, trap injected ‘space’ back into hip hop and then into electronic music, similar to the way that dub did for reggae in 1970’s Jamaica. With the main beat (kick and snare/clap) stretched to fit the slow half timed tempos, a certain amount of sonic tension is built up within the space between the slow off-kilter two-step. However, this tension transforms into a positive and exciting attribute as the beat’s tension is grounded by the affect of bass frequencies. And in trap, as in dub, the bass matters.
Trap’s use of the sub-bass is key. With the extra sonic space between the beats, the deep tactile bass notes are able to burst through, providing a tangible energy that carries the listener from one pulsating drone to the next. When all of these sonic strategies are deployed in concert, the result is pure rhythm science.
And this rhythm science is not alone. The scenarios that gave rise to trap music in the Southern U.S. are intrinsically connected with those that have produced our wider constellation of global bass musics. Out of necessity, and showing the indomitable creative soul of the oppressed, music arises out of conditions of marginalisation that is both moving and innovative. From dancehall in Jamaica, jungle, dubstep and grime in the UK, kwaito in South Africa, baile funk in Brazil, to other US contributions such as Chicago house, Detroit techno, and other forms of hip hop, there is a global pattern of music cultures based on Afro-diasporic sonic strategies.
These sonic cultures, organised around bass and rhythm, have an important function for communities experiencing violent and insecure social conditions. They serve as aggregators, drawing people together into community through social dance. They are a vital means of creative expression and communication, often serving as a key vehicle for people(especially youth) to articulates their vision of the future. And that future is complicated, muddled with lamentations of the present and equal parts hope and anger.
Afro-diasporic futurist musics have long been in effect in our cities. As Steve Goodman(Kode9) argues:
Since at least the blues, much of the most urgent, modern music on the planet has emerged from the bruised and bleeding edges of depressed urbanism.(Sonic Warfare p.147)
‘Urgent’, because these musics speak with a sobering clarity about the present social conditions, and indeed what comes through in many urban bass narratives is bleak, gritty, and violent. But there is also a resounding vulnerability in many of these narratives, and the lyrical and sonic creativity shows that they are an intimate sharing of soul through technology.
Even the predilection of trap artists towards modulating the human voice with auto-tune software speaks to this in its own way. Human voices filtering through the digital gloss of ‘modern’ existence, bit by digital bit. As Jace Clayton(DJ Rupture) writes ‘it becomes quite humanising.’
Through the creation and experience of bass and rhythm, people dance, they resonate, they channel the violence and fear that surrounds them into movement and sound, they create a sonic culture which not only mobilises them, but is then shared and transmitted. It’s not difficult to see why disenfranchised, black youth living in the Southern US, especially those ‘caught up in the trap’ wanted and needed to produce this music.
The trap beat left an indelible mark on the pop music soundscape, not only in terms of lyrical, but sonic aesthetics as well. It became a staple of U.S. Hip Hop and was increasingly employed by artists living outside the South. With each wave of hits spreading across the United States and broadcast out into the global media echo chamber, the trap beat steadily came to be the sound of hip hop/rap for a young generation of hyper-mediated globalised millennials.
I taught music production/beat making workshops at a community centre for several years. When youth would come to participate, we would talk about different beat structures and which ones they wanted to produce, or rap over. Many of them would pull out two pencils and begin to knock out a cookie-cutter trap beat on any and every available surface, the heel of their palm providing the bass kicks and the pencils switching up between tapping the high-hats with the tips and whip-like snare slaps.They could all replicate this sonic code, It was a part of their youth culture. They had learned from one another in school, sharing and building sonic culture among one another(and breaking many pencils in the process). It was not just something they listened to, they had incorporated this rhythm. When they talked about ‘a beat’, it was this beat.
The trap beat became a sonic cultural marker of black urban youth culture in the US, it quite literally embodied street culture. The vision of the street, the hustle, and the negation, confrontation, and/or irrelevance of authority that was conveyed in the narrative laced beats resonated deeply with others both in America and around the world. Narratives of marginalisation from within the hegemony of global modernity. Narratives of a community in exile in the belly of the beast.
Trap’s position as a signifier of American black youth culture gave it prominence in the global cultural imagination, and that primed it for mass commercial appropriation. As it became commercialised and rose in popularity in the US, it was simultaneously being broadcast out into the global media network. During Southern Rap’s commercial heyday it was estimated that the American music industry accounted to over $40 Billion globally with only $12 billion within the U.S. itself. The U.S. as both a cultural and economic empire carries great weight in influencing music tastes and local music development around the globe.
As the trap beat took over more and more sonic real estate within the mainstream music industry, wave after wave emanated out to the world’s listeners, planting seeds. With rising access to the internet, music production software, and mp3 technology, the trap beat took root in youth music cultures around the globe, replicating and hybridising itself through local music styles. Pieces of trap’s sonic code worked their way into Electro Chaabi in Egypt, K Pop in Korea, Jamaican dancehall, funk in Brazil, and all manner and manifestations of global Hip Hop and dance music. One could hear traces of trap everywhere.
By 2012 the trap beat had begun making major inroads in the Electronic Dance Music(EDM) community with scores of producers and djs copying, experimenting with, and innovating on top of this template. Trap’s foundational sonic template was further amplified by the dancefloor-focused strategies of EDM-trap producers. Dancers responded with overwhelming positivity to the longer buildups, bigger drops, and an ever multiplying corpus of remixes and variety of hybrid sub-styles that the trap template facilitated.
But with the music playing such an important role within Southern black youth culture, when trap proliferated within EDM and Pop music, it generated controversy. The sonics, and often the aesthetics of the drug culture and street violence from which they were inspired, were increasingly being articulated and enjoyed well outside of their original setting. Some criticised this new wave of producers and fans of being voyeuristic sonic tourists and culture vultures. Some saw it as a way to appropriate the cultural capital of ‘realness’ and authenticity that came with rapping about a life of guns and drugs, while remaining a safe distance away from these experiences.
Trap exploded throughout online EDM communities, ie. mixtape sites, music blogs, Soundcloud, Youtube, etc, and found particularly fertile ground with large music festival crowds. The experiments in EDM-trap were seen by many as a divergent genre, not so much based on its sonic difference from its Southern predecessor, but mostly based on the racial divide between their audiences.
While these issues of appropriation across racial and class borders are very real, they are not new. The appropriation of trap music by white listeners and producers is the newest phase of a long standing process which stretches back as far as ragtime music in the late 1800’s. We saw this process occur with blues, jazz, soul, disco, hip hop, etc, which came to be appropriated (and often pacified)for the enjoyment of white consumers.
But black Atlantic musics have always had an intimate and complicated relationship with appropriation. They are simultaneously constructed from it, and robbed by it. Afforded little or no creative, expressive space in a racist social system, black Americans have had to appropriate in order to create. It is precisely because black musics speak with such truth, honesty, and joy that they are so moving. And then the cycle of commercial appropriation kicks in. Capital appropriates, and the marginalised creators usually remain marginalised while their creations are stripped of their inherent radical challenge to power.
And herein lies the problem. As Cornel West puts it:
‘American mainstream is obsessed with the black creative genius - be it music, walk, or style - but at the same time, puts a low priority on the black social misery which is the very context out of which this creativity flows.’
West’s words are instructive. What often seems to be missing from these instances of appropriation is that no real human connection is made in the process of experiencing another’s culture. Music can be a powerful connector which serves as a foundation for real and meaningful cultural exchange across social borders. However, without the skills or will to empathise with others beyond the music, then appropriation can become a tool of domination, either intentionally or not.
What’s missing is that this music is meant to be listened to, and learned from, felt, not simply exoticised and consumed. It might be a losing battle asking people not to enjoy something, but maybe we can urge them to let that experience educate and transform them.
But this is only one side of appropriation, another possibility is the people that are listening, are learning, are connecting the dots. It’s possible that when people hear trap, something resonates with them, and they want to re-articulate it in some way. By listening, producing, remixing, etc.
I think its important to remember that we’re talking about music, and when it comes to music I am forever an optimist. The very function of this music is to mobilise, communicate, and ultimately to draw folks together. I think that this process is happening, and one of the sonic signals that is happening is trap. Maybe the music is doing exactly what it does best. But the music can only take us so far. After that it’s up to us to intentionally push those conversations, and tell those truths which the music makes evident.
As for the sonic innovations that have emerged in the wake of trap’s expansion? For me they are not a division, but a dovetailing of electronic music, and hip hop. A kind-of homecoming that leads listeners towards realising and reconciling the shared roots and functions of these intimately related sonic systems. Not only has this trend tuned listeners of pop music to more dancefloor oriented sounds, but scores of tunes are being turned out which serve as a bridge between popular music and the terrains of global dance musics which may sound more ‘foreign’ to listeners outside of dance subcultures.
As a Dj, asking audiences’ ears and feet to take sonic risks with me and with each other is becoming easier, and more successful. The trap code is effectively creating more spaces of shared musical intelligibility. And to me, that’s a good start. I’m a firm believer in the transformative power of the dancefloor. If people can dance together, then many other things are possible.
Trap’s influence on both popular and underground dance music only seems to be picking up steam. The versatility and accessibility of trap has influenced and aligned itself with all sorts of moving, innovative, and forward thinking musics. Recent developments in Footwork/Juke, Future Bass, or whatever hyphenated sub-genre(Trap-a-ton, Native-Trap, Trapstep, etc) you might stumble on today or tomorrow on Soundcloud, all draw on elements from the trap template, and are all truly exciting sounds. To me it all tells a story of people linking-up with each other in an era of increasing connectivity. More people sounding their vision of the present and the future, and more people listening. And hopefully more people entering into real conversations about our social conditions, about how we create and share culture, and about how we articulate our communities and identities. To me there’s no better space for this conversation to occur than music.