Image via Dana Paresa
Earlier this September at House of Vans, ’90s hip-hop revivalist Joey Bada$$ teleported his audience back to the Golden Era, as usual, with gritty rhymes and bluesy boom-bap instrumentals. Near the end of the set, however, the Brooklyn rapper caught his audience off-guard: “Hey Brooklyn, you all can mosh, right?” he bellowed to the approving crowd. “Well, start a mosh pit!” Immediately, what had previously been a sea of rhythmic head-bobbing erupted into a hardcore typhoon of sweat-covered fists and body slams.
In the last two years, rap’s embrace of an anti-establishment mindset has returned in a big way. We’re seeing the kind of rebellious attitude that’s been dormant in recent years, and sonically, this new era is redefining the term punk-rap. And it’s about time—perhaps now we can all start to forget the atrocities of Good Charlotte and Sum 41.
The recent wave has been spurred by rappers who have stepped into the studio with a two-pronged approach: not only are they making music that sounds punk, they’re pairing it with a vitriolic socio-political agenda. The trend signifies a return to each genre’s origin story— from Beastie Boys’ self-deprecating License to Ill to Travi$ Scott’s Rodeo, punk has reverberated alongside rap for decades. But in 2015, rap has emerged as the dominant force, slandering society’s ills on a global scale.
To understand punk’s alliance with rap, let’s first get a handle on what “punk” means to musicians. In its beginnings, punk meant a reaction, be it through music or fashion, to socio-political issues. Poverty ran rampant throughout Britain and America during the late ’60s and ’70s thanks to the gas crisis and high inflation rates in both countries.
This provided a unifying force to the disillusioned citizenry—essentially the first wave of punks—whose nihilist outlooks championed an ideology eventually distilled by the Sex Pistols: “no future.” As such, a section of the working middle class revolted against the Western capitalist promise of prosperity.
Beyond politics, punk music proved to be the antithesis to record labels’ cash cow of cookie-cutter stadium rock and disco: something loud, fast, and ugly that broke music’s conventional rules. The Ramones’ burst through with insultingly simple music—hairy power chord riffs and brattish yawps—while across the pond, the Sex Pistols drilled pessimistic diatribes against society and the crown into the skulls of their audiences. Hardcore punk, and its fellow distortion-loaded subgenres, would follow suit at much quicker speeds.
While this renaissance was setting downtown Manhattan and London aflame, rap began to boom throughout loudspeakers in the South Bronx. During the mid-’80s, the two genres began to collide and dominate music, finding common ground in their frustrations toward the industry’s flatlining.
During the mid-’80s, the two genres began to collide and dominate music, finding common ground in their frustrations toward the industry’s flatlining.
As a trio of white punks, the Beastie Boys adopted rap’s spoken-word craft to riff about a “right to party” along with other smart-ass lyricism. On paper, this was a genre skid mark doomed from the get-go—Mike Yauch even pointed out in a Creem article that “Cookie Puss,” the single that brought them into the rap foray, was supposed to be a joke. But by mixing rap with hardcore punk on their 1986 album License to Ill, the Beastie Boys established a brash new sound for hip-hop and helped to usher rap into the mainstream. Suddenly people from both genre camps were coming to see rappers such as Run-DMC and Public Enemy drop wisdom over the chunky roar of electric guitars.
This hybridization encapsulated the core of punk’s ethos, an idea that stretches beyond politics and has carried to the present day: at the fundamental level, punk is artistic liberty. To quote Kurt Cobain: “Punk is musical freedom. It’s saying, doing and playing what you want.”
But the good times couldn’t last forever. While rap continued to warp and experiment with new content in ’90s and early ’00s that could reach different audiences—hardcore, experimental, and G-Funk—punk gravitated towards pop, producing the painfully radio-friendly pop-punk and emo genres. Championing lyrics of teenage angst and tween rage (with notable exceptions like Rage Against the Machine hanging it up around the turn of the millennium), bands like Blink 182 brought teenage girls and skater bois alike to the front of concerts; other fans, swayed by Fall Out Boy and Paramore’s heartthrob puppy love verses, fell into the Hot Topic pool of eyeliner-dyed tears.
Granted, rap had its own shortcomings after the golden age of Biggie and Tupac: Ludacris and Pharrell shared a pitcher of pop music’s Kool Aid with Snoop Dogg, and the music industry’s era of bling-bling and video girls left the rap in a dark place. Attempted collaborations between the two genres, however, were the worst part: look no further than the travesty of Linkin Park and Jay Z’s Collision Course, or ringtone rap, which led to every middle schooler’s RAZR sputtering some static-y rendition of T-Pain’s “Buy U A Drank.”
Thankfully, those days are gone. With Nas’ stunning left hook at his own genre’s debility on 2006’s Hip-Hop Is Dead—essentially the precursor to Kendrick’s own “Control” verse—rappers began to veer away from the one-hit-wonder formula and return to art proper. Lil Wayne responded in 2008 with Tha Carter III, doing some emotional/political heavy-lifting on tracks like “Tie My Hands,” his ode to New Orleans post-Katrina—a subject that hadn’t received much attention since Kanye’s shot heard ’round the world, while Lupe Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and The Cool helped to re-popularize the art of storytelling. We weren’t out of the woods though—remember when Weezy decided to pick up a guitar on Rebirth?
Still, as of 2008, nothing was the same. Social earthquakes were taking place: Barack Obama was elected to his first term, police brutality was suddenly on every smartphone screen, and Prop 8 flickered between flashes of hopes and despair.
In music, social accountability was countered by the birth of anti-Christ-hip-hop collective Odd Future. OF revitalized the punk attitude in rap, while an unprompted blip from Sub Pop, the former noise rock elite, generated art rap incarnate in Shabazz Palaces. By 2012, we had two magnum opuses on society’s ills—Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music and Kendrick Lamar’s good kid, M.A.A.D City. Nas’ challenge had been accepted: hip-hop wasn’t dead—it was back and dialing its own equivalent of distortion up to 11.
Hip-hop wasn’t dead—it was back and dialing its own equivalent of distortion up to 11.
Taking cue from these post-HHID landmarks, many rappers’ works have begun to resemble the abrasive, skull-jarring vocals and energy akin to the likes of Ian MacKaye and Joe Strummer. Listening to Chief Keef over clawing drill beats, you practically feel his spit on your face; and when Killer Mike and El-P bring their respective rap and production chops to the table, every ounce of their apocalyptic, pent-up rage practically smashes your face in (“Southern Fried,” “Close Your Eyes and Count to Fuck”). And let’s not forget Kanye’s Yeezus, with buzzsaw cuts like “On Sight” and “I Am A God” described by late great punk legend Lou Reed as “a real scream of terror. It makes my hair stand on end.” That album rips out your eardrums out, leaving you with two distinct options: marvel at or cringe away from its controlled chaos.
But punk’s essence didn’t stop at music. Malcolm McLaren, the manager of both the Sex Pistols and Television, used his artists as living advertorials for his “anti-fashion” clothes from his shop in London. Stylized to oppose the excessiveness of high fashion at the time, McLaren ended up spearheading the commercialization of punk streetwear: safety pins, ripped jeans, haphazard graphics of upside down crosses and swastikas.
Such anti-styles and attitudes have resurfaced in modern-day rap, most notably through Young Thug and Migos, both of whom are products of the New Atlanta Trap movement. Thugger’s androgynous fashion sense consistently lights up the Internet (his performance on Jimmy Fallon and his Dazed photo shoot are noteworthy examples). “Oh yeah, that was a dress, I think it was like a seven, eight-year-old’s dress, like a little girl’s dress,” Thug said proudly in an interview with Complex. JoJo Zazur, Young Thug’s stylist, said in an interview that the eccentric sartorialist enjoys trolling the crowd:
“Sometimes he’ll do stuff on purpose that he knows will piss people off. If people start talking shit about his nails being red, he’ll put crystals on the nails…He goes out of his way to make sure people know he doesn’t care.”
These New ATLiens have adopted a similar anti-logic to their lyricism as well. According to hip-hop’s old guard, rap succeeds only when a rapper’s lyricism is providing a message and “weaving a tale,” (see: Big Daddy Kane’s “Raw”). And yet Thugger and Migos, two of hip-hop’s hottest acts, have done just the opposite. Their lyrics are all about the delivery—words become an afterthought when Thug’s alien lilt or Quavo’s sultry Auto-Tune hits. They recall the unintelligible screaming of a punk show, ideologically if not acoustically.
Thugger is an acrobat in audio-lyrical gymnastics. Between Thug’s surrealistic verses and blabbering sound effects that manage to stop you mid-track to go “wait what” (see: “Trigger Finger”), his backtracking on his own stream-of-consciousness on “Just Might Be” (“her heart like an old diaper, I can’t leave it, leave it”), and even rare moments of social consciousness (“OD”), it’s clear Thugger enjoys taking any concept in rap and slamming it on down on its head at his own convenience. He’s rap’s Andy Warhol.
Migos similarly undermined listener’s assumptions in their 2013 banger “Versace.” At face value the track comes off as a mindless club staple, largely thanks to Zaytoven’s earworm beat. Yet the anthemic track actually doubles as a poignant commentary on materiality and luxury. As Brandon Sotenburg explained in his review of the track, Takeoff, Offset, and Quavo’s hissing repetition of the fashion house’s name ad nauseaum destroys the actual meaning behind the word. Whether you get it and deem them geniuses or miss out completely and consider them idiots won’t ruffle Migos’ feathers either way.
But ultimately, this recent era of rap punk has not been wholly united by its sound, nor its style—rather, rap comes full circle in mirroring punk’s origin: a reaction to a extremely pressing societal issues. They’ve come together through a collective frustration with police brutality and the uphill contemporary civil rights battle. In 2015, Kendrick Lamar’s frustrated views of race relations defined his monumental To Pimp A Butterfly; and more recently, Vince Staples’ debut Summertime ’06 digs deep into punk’s own pool of nihilism regarding the future of his hometown. The irony—or confusion—surrounding these releases is their mainstream acceptance. Kendrick, Vince, and RTJ are being hailed as heroes by the very societal powers they condemn.
Looking back at punk’s own beginnings and evolution, it’s clear that rap has walked a similar, if not almost identical, path. But whereas punk flatlined and fell out of the public eye, rap picked up the mic, continuing to maintain relevancy by keeping a finger on the capitalist pulse, calling out its evils at every turn despite the spotlight. And that, I’d say, is punk as fuck.