Inside Rap's New Underground Scene
SEATTLE — One night this spring, the rapper Lil Pump, 16, with braces on his teeth, was asleep — or something like it — on the couch in the upstairs green room at the Columbia City Theater here, his blond and pink dreads dangling in front of his face and a pair of Gucci high-tops slung around his neck.
In walked his longtime friend and fellow rapper Smokepurpp, 20, in a loosefitting plaid shirt over a Nirvana T-shirt, wondering, “Who got Xanax and Percocet?”
In the high-ceilinged, brick-walled main room, around 300 fans were bouncing off one another, waiting for the show to begin. They were young — the bar was effectively closed, and a woman was selling cans of Sunkist and Minute Maid Lemonade from an ice-filled tub.
Eventually Lil Pump roused himself and sneaked out the back door. When he finally made it to the stage — joining Smokepurpp, who had been scheduled to go on after him — he was received full-throatedly, rowdily, sweatily. Perhaps a little too much so: Someone in the crowd said something Lil Pump didn’t take kindly to, and he replied with a kick to a young man’s head. Soon, the front of the room was a royal rumble, sending combatants from the stage to the floor, and some on the floor running for the doors.
Afterward, back in the green room, Lil Pump, with bloody scratches on his face, excitedly checked out footage of the scrap on a friend’s phone, telling him to send it to a popular hip-hop gossip blogger, then let out his signature shout, “ESKEDDDDDDDITTT” — “Let’s get it,” stretched out to the point of absurdist comedy.
It was just another unpredictable, bruising night in the world of SoundCloud rap — a swelling subgenre that takes its name from its creators’ preferred streaming service — which in the last year has become the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip-hop thanks to rebellious music, volcanic energy and occasional acts of malevolence.
Its stars are internet celebrities, fashioning themselves into outlandish characters in the anime that is modern hip-hop: the theatrical Florida tag team Smokepurpp and Lil Pump (who perform solo, and also together as Gucci Gang); the anguished heartthrob Lil Peep; the problematic outlaw XXXTentacion. The aesthetic is high-end streetwear meets high fashion, with face tattoos, hair dyed in wild colors and a prescription-drug ooze. The music is low-fidelity and insistent, throbbing with distorted bass, like trap music reduced over a hot fire to its rawest component parts.
At its best, it has an almost punklike purity, emphasizing abandon over structure, rawness over dexterity. “It sounds so unpolished, so youthful,” said Roger Gengo, whose website Masked Gorilla has cataloged this scene since its infancy. He likened the aesthetic to “all the punk and grunge bands I grew up on. I get why people call it SoundCloud rap, but I call it grunge rap.”
It is, in some ways, a logical retort to the smoothness of Drake-era major-label rap, which has long ceded most of its sharp elbows and street bluster. (Indeed, XXXTentacion has made Drake a target of his social-media diatribes.) It is also something of a natural sound for the streaming era, which rewards gut-level accessibility and sonic consistency.
These artists — and hundreds more like them — have gathered primarily on SoundCloud, the streaming service most oriented toward music discovery, and the one with the lowest barrier to entry. That has meant a new ecosystem of rising stars, who ascend quicker than ever — releasing songs that get millions of listens, booking nationwide tours, selling merchandise — without traditional gatekeepers.
Not all hip-hop counter-movements seep into the genre’s mainstream, but SoundCloud rap is growing fast, and major labels are hovering. A few rappers — Lil Pump, Smokepurpp and Wifisfuneral among them — have recently signed deals. And the scene has a breakout hit, “Look at Me,” by XXXTentacion, which recently climbed from SoundCloud ubiquity to No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is in rotation on hip-hop radio.
The open question is how much of this renegade energy — from the songs, which have more in common with hardcore than hip-hop, to the fistfights, to the drugs — will survive during the bumpy transition into the mainstream.
The song Smokepurpp was set to perform just before the show-ending rumble is called “Ski Mask,” and its video encapsulates everything that is so titillating about this scene. It’s a surrealist soft-focus street adventure taking cues from low-budget science-fiction films and first-person-shooter video games. At one point, Lil Pump stomps across the screen, machine gun aimed into his own mouth — an extreme image to go along with extreme music.
“When people laugh at us, we laugh with them; we know it’s funny,” Smokepurpp said before the Seattle show. “We did this so you guys can react like that.”
Smokepurpp’s tour with Lil Pump was organized by No Jumper, which in the last couple of years has become The Paris Review of the face-tattoo set, its long-form video interviews considered a first step toward credibility for oodles of SoundCloud-rap would-bes. Adam22, a lanky, heavily tattooed BMX biker who is No Jumper’s owner and chief interviewer, played den father on the tour.
“It’s so far beyond what any thinking person could consider to be 100 percent real,” he said of the theatrical imagery deployed by Smokepurpp and Lil Pump, who are, he said, “so aware of what makes a song popular or what makes a tweet go viral that they have completely redefined the idea of what it is to be a rapper.”
This penchant for meme-first exaggeration — inflating characters until they become larger than life — is a hallmark of the scene. “When I first met all these kids, these kids looked 10 percent punk,” said Jimmy Duval, one of the scene’s key producers. “As the sound got bigger, their image got bigger with the sound.”
That reckless energy is often transferred into the crowds, which skew young, male and white, and frequently feature mosh pits. “You go to a show, and it’s a punk rock show,” said Tariq Cherif, one of the founders of Miami’s Rolling Loud Festival, which booked several of these artists to play in May. “They wanna rage, they wanna sweat, they wanna scream.”
But sometimes, as at the Seattle show, the extreme behavior spills into the real world. Ski Mask the Slump God was attacked onstage while performing in Los Angeles. On social media, Lil Pump bragged about crashing a new Porsche and, after reaching one million followers on Instagram, celebrated with a Xanax-shaped cake. The current XXXTentacion tour has been riddled with problems: One night, he was attacked onstage by a rival; another, he punched a fan; at another, Wifisfuneral stage dove only to find himself on the receiving end of a beat down, landing him in the hospital.
XXXTentacion was arrested twice in 2016, including on a charge of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. While he was in jail — he was released in March — “Look at Me” became the scene’s breakout hit, making him the movement’s troubled and troubling poster child.
His public behavior since his release has toggled between earnest interactions with gobsmacked fans captured on social media — something many SoundCloud artists excel at, communicating directly to their audience in their language — and less savory choices, like tweeting the apparent home address of a rival, or saying impolite things about Drake’s mother in retribution for Drake seeming to have borrowed his “Look at Me” rhyme patterns on a recent song..
(Read the full story by Jon Caramanica here)