Open it up! How rap went wild for the moshpit
Rap shows used to encourage a play-it-cool attitude. So why have they become more like punk and metal gigs?
It only takes a few minutes of Look Mom I Can Fly – the Travis Scott-produced documentary about his own rise to fame – to realise where the inspiration for the title came from. The film’s opening scenes are a seemingly endless reel of fans throwing themselves from the stage to the crowd, surfing on top of one another, and opening up circle pits before charging into each other at full pelt.
While the presence of moshpits at hip-hop gigs can be traced back as far as the late ’80s, with acts like Beastie Boys stage-diving while playing to crossover crowds of rap and rock fans, and Onyx celebrating slam dancing (an early name for moshing) back in ’93, it’s only in this decade that moshing has become a constituent part of nearly any rap event you go to.
It’s probably no coincidence that the rise of moshpits at rap shows has coincided with the genre’s shift away from the slick boom-bap style beat that underpinned most hip-hop songs for decades, and towards the more intense, bass-driven trap sound. While hip-hop gigs used to see fans casually nod their heads, in recent years acts like Lil Uzi Vert, Playboi Carti, Young Thug, Danny Brown, A$AP Mob, and Migos have been at the vanguard of a cultural shift that’s seen rap acts adopting performance styles more commonly associated with punk and metal bands – and they’ve often embraced the rockstar aesthetic too.
This latest evolution of rap’s relationship with moshing and stage diving arguably began with Odd Future – the rebellious DIY rap crew that birthed Tyler, The Creator, Frank Ocean, Hodgy Beats, Earl Sweatshirt and Syd and Matt Martians of The Internet. In their early years, the then-adolescent group were eager to disrespect the elder generation’s rules, and their skater-punk aesthetic swept up audiences at the 2011 outing of the SXSW industry showcase. At one show, Hodgy threw himself from the roof of the venue and Tyler broke a fan’s nose after leaping from a speaker stack into the crowd. The following day, Tyler suffered his own nasal injury after a fan clocked him with a bottle of Mountain Dew. And their third appearance at the festival was cut short after the group dashed their mics on the floor and stormed offstage.
It’s a phenomenon that’s transferred to UK rap and grime acts too. In an effort to encourage their fans to open up a circle at their gigs, Mist and MoStack released a track called Mosh Pit. slowthai spends the majority of his shows in his boxer shorts, writhing around in the front rows. “I want to have a moment with every single person individually,” he told me last year, “where we exchange some energy.” This year Octavian asked the crowd at Glastonbury to crown his debut appearance at the festival with “the biggest moshpit I’ve ever seen”, and the melodramatic strings of Giggs-featuring Drake track KMT demands the crowd opens up a circle as soon as it starts. Lethal Bizzle, who was at the forefront of the short-lived mid-noughties “grindie” gimmick, has been stirring pits since at least 2008 and the grime resurgence of this decade saw MCs become a big hit at once rock-orientated festivals like Reading and Leeds, full of teenagers happy to jump around to the sound of frenetic bars and hard-edged beats.
Technically defined as a kind of dance, moshing has been around since the early ’80s – emerging out of hardcore punk scenes on either side of the US, in California and Washington D.C. It’s not entirely clear how the term “mosh” itself came about, but a widely believed explanation is that it morphed from the way Bad Brains’ Jamaican frontman, H.R., pronounced the word “mash”. Similar to the “pogo dance” that was popularised by punk bands in the ’70s, it’s typified by people pushing into one another in circle pits, crowd-surfing, and stage-diving.
To the outside observer, it looks like a bunch of kids kicking seven shades of shit out of each other. But those more entrenched in the practice see it as something else entirely.
Matt Jarvis is a chartered psychologist and self-professed veteran mosher. He describes moshpits as “a microcosm of social psychology in which a complex set of social processes allow a high level of physical contact with a minimum of antagonism and harm.”
Or, more simply, not just a bunch of kids kicking seven shades of shit out of each other.
Jarvis says that while crowds tend to encourage what psychologists call ‘deindividuation’ – “losing your inhibitions as you become more anonymous” – he doesn’t observe the same effect in the context of a mosh pit, largely because deindividuation is more commonly associated with negative behaviours. “Deindividuation doesn’t really explain the positive behaviour exhibited by the overwhelming majority of moshers,” he explains, “I see the key to understanding this as social identity. Fans at gigs experience a shared euphoria and sense of emotional closeness and profound shared experience – a quasi-spiritual experience if you like. At that moment, shared identity as fans is a tremendously powerful influence and this leads to overwhelmingly pro-social behaviour, at least to others identifiable as part of the same group. In this context it’s not surprising that moshpits are safer and more ordered than they appear.”
That’s not to say that moshing doesn’t entail any risk, of course. One study in 2017 recorded high rates of head injuries resulting from “general moshing”. Travis Scott was sued in the same year by a fan left paralysed by a balcony fall at one of his shows ( “It ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries,” he later rapped).
Jarvis is keen to emphasise that consent and respect are key constituents of any moshpit. And for crowd safety consultant Paul Wartheimer, head of LA-based Crowd Management Strategies, it’s impossible to ignore “the communal bonding moshing creates, at its best, among all ages, sexes, and all walks of life”. Wartheimer entered his first moshpit as a young crowd safety professional in 1992, looking to gain first-hand experience of the phenomenon. “None of my colleagues would join me!” he remembers. After three decades in the industry, he’s not surprised to see hip-hop fans take up moshing with such aplomb.
Nor is Jarvis. “In the age of mass and social media, every subculture can see at any time what happens in other scenes and can take from them what they want. That is extremely healthy!” he says. “Moshing is hugely fun and cathartic, and it makes the emotional experience of a gig more intense. I suppose – though I have no first hand knowledge here – that all the same social psychology will apply to hip hop just as it does in rock. So why not?”
By now, it’s a cliché that our constant connectivity can leave people feeling disconnected from reality – and from one another. Moshing can offer a physical catharsis and outlet for people living under the confines of 21st century life. One young rap fan in London told me he sees moshpits as an opportunity to “just get it all out”. The intersection of depression and elation to be found in Lil Uzi Vert singing “Push me to the edge /All my friends are dead” whilst leaping into the embrace of the audience might look familiar to people who’ve followed the development of punk through to hardcore and emo.
And while it’s possible to draw comparisons between the uptempo, distorted sounds that’80s hardcore has in common with pit-generating trap, both Jarvis and Wartheimer argue that experiences in the pit are arguably more about searching for some kind of connection or belonging. The straight-edge hardcore scene was bound by a shared sense of “hardcore pride”, with frontmen just as likely to deliver a “fuck this shit” monologue as an inspiring call to arms before leaping into the next pit. Travis Scott’s mythmaking Netflix film feels like a feature-length compilation of these moments, for a new generation.
“I firmly believe that the spirit of the pit is not primarily about anger, but about the euphoric expression of shared identity,” explains Jarvis. Though he does have one admission: “Of course the music needs a certain tempo before moshing becomes practical. It’s never going to catch on at a Tom Jones gig – no disrespect to the great man…”
Love them or loathe them, it’s clear that moshpits serve a distinct purpose for those who choose to participate. The way in which the practice has careered between different sounds and subcultures over the past forty years is testament to its appeal. “For those who like to mosh, it only takes standing room space and a good beat,” Paul Wartheimer argues. “The type of music has become secondary.”