Trap world: how the 808 beat dominated contemporary music
In the 2010s, the trap beat became one of the defining signatures of contemporary music. Simon Reynolds traces its migration from the streets of Atlanta to the pop charts, spawning scenes across the globe.
“Cookin’ up dope with a Uzi.” Gangsta gritty yet cartoon-absurd, the image of stirring a crockpot of crack with the butt of a machine gun is just one of the memorable lines racing by in Bad and Boujee, a song by the Atlanta trio Migos that reached #1 in Billboard in January 2017. The “boujee” celebrates a nouveau riche notion of high class: cash flashed on the most flagrant status symbol brands like Porsches and Pateks. But as Migos’s Offset gloats at the start of the song, “We ain’t really never had no old money/We got a whole lotta new money though.” The video shows the group hanging at a fast food place, their girls laden with exquisite finery but dining on KFC and Pot Noodle. The track itself, produced by in-demand Atlanta producer Metro Boomin, sounds simultaneously street spartan and luxuriant. The voices – the loping, forward-tumbling flow that Migos patented – hypnotise and hook the listener. As addictive as the drugs they claim to sell, Bad and Boujee has now been streamed around 1.5 billion times on YouTube and Spotify.
The sound is called trap and it has dominated popular music all through the 2010s. Migos and their peers – rappers like Future, 21 Savage, Playboi Carti, 2 Chainz, and Cardi B and producers like Metro Boomin, Zaytoven, Southside, Mike WiLL Made-It – mostly come from either Atlanta or other Southern cities. But their beats and flows and production tricks have proliferated across the globe.
This decade trap has infiltrated pop music, from Katy Perry’s baleful 2013 smash Dark Horse to songs on Miley Cyrus’ Bangerz album (executively produced by Mike WiLL) and more recent hits by Ariana Grande and Billie Eilish. Trap has also inspired mutant underground and street forms, from the EDM substyle (also confusingly called trap) of slamming instrumentals like Baauer’s 2012 viral monster Harlem Shake, to entire subcultures like drill. The latter, a morose form of trap which peaked as violent crime increased in Chicago, went on to inspire a generation of UK drillers. Mediated by the hallucinatory hellscapes of Chicago drill as pioneered by Chief Keef, the UK version is essentially a South London chapter of trap. But the productions by beatmakers like Carns Hill have a British stamp, with trace elements of jungle and UK garage in the oozy bass and looped piano grandeur (interestingly, the London sound has inspired a burgeoning Brooklyn drill scene, with UK producer 808Melo producing most the tracks by breakout rapper Pop Smoke). The gangster nihilism has a local character too, with lyric after lyric fixated on knives and stabbings. Dripping and splashing in UK drill means blood on pavements, unlike in American trap where it signifies looking incandescent with money.
Trap is a sound, a worldview, a life-stance. But before all that it was a word: the name for the place where drugs are sold. Often an abandoned house, the trap typically has a single entrance/exit, making it a more secure fortress against attacks by rival gangs. “Trap”, because it’s a lure for addicts, but there’s also the submerged implication that the lifestyle of dealing is itself a trap: money simply too good to quit, despite the cumulative costs of paranoia and the subliminal spectre of early death. Trap also sounds like the right name for this sound, its clipped, staccato feel resembling the snappy quality of the genre’s sharp snare and hi-hat patterns.
The term was popularised in the 2000s by Atlanta rappers T.I., Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane – whose 2005 LP Trap House was the first of 13 albums and mixtapes by him to feature the word trap. Like those earlier Southern black sounds that took the world by storm – jazz and blues – it started as a lowdown sound with a disreputable aura: the soundtrack in strip clubs and other places where gangsters go to relax and squander their spoils.
As trap has risen to mainstream dominance, its emphasis has shifted away from “work hard” (the grind of drug selling and turf-protecting) to “play hard”. According to Alex Tumay, a recording engineer who has worked closely with Metro Boomin and the freakily inventive rapper Young Thug, and was involved with Travis Scott’s early music, this is just a different facet of trap’s obsessive authenticity: “The topics in trap have a lot to do with honesty. The more successful they get, the more they rap about where they are right now” – the post-gig all-night hotel party, the top-shelf liquor and drugs and women, rather than the tense monotony of drug selling.
The sound of trap has evolved too: from the barebones bombast of the 2000s to the sinuous and slinky ooze that, in the hands of artists like Travis Scott, becomes almost a form of ambient music. The abiding cornerstone of trap is the beat. Its roots go far back, all the way to ‘80s electro and the Roland 808 drum machine. Where New York rap followed the path of sampled and looped breakbeats, the South stuck with programmed rhythms. When the party-oriented, shake-that-ass sounds of Miami bass and New Orleans bounce fused with gangsta rap lyrics, trap was born. You recognise trap as a sound, or an influence, from the hi-hats, which run at double-time (or even faster) to the 75-beats-per-minute of the hard-hitting kick drums. There’s a coiled tension and snake-like hiss to those rapid, intricate hi-hat patterns, while rat-a-tat snares conjure a military, parade-ground feel. Today’s trap producers don’t use hardware drum machines anymore, but they create that same dead-and-dry grid-like sound within their computers. On the most fundamental level of function, the bass-boom, the ear-tickling hi-hats, and the louche swagger of the music make trap the go-to party sound of the 2010s.
The other crucial component of trap in the 2010s is the lush weave of Auto-Tuned vocals draped over the bass-booming groove. Pitch-correction technology like Auto-Tune has blurred the border between rapping and singing. “A lot of people who aren’t inherently singers could explore different melodic patterns,” says Tumay, whose engineering forte is vocal processing. “Auto-Tune gave them the confidence to do it. The technology has given us a lot of new melodies, new cadences.” Instead of applying Auto-Tune to their vocals after the fact, MCs like Future use it in real-time; hearing their processed voices through headphones in the studio booth, they’ve learned how to push the effect to extremes. With Young Thug, Travis Scott and Migos’s Quavo, the voice becomes like an instrument, spiralling into blissful trills and moans that sound as ornamented as Arabic music and oddly religious in feeling, at odds with the profane subject matter of the songs.
Although funny, outrageous images and contagious slang fills these songs, trap is not as oriented around narrative or sustained flights of lyricism as the more self-consciously literate forms of rap – the tradition that runs from Rakim to Kendrick Lamar. The crooning MCs of today are more about texture than text. Some old guard rappers and rap fans bemoan this as a decline from the glorious heights of yesteryear, but it’s more the case that invention and personality have moved into a different area of expression. Take the ad lib, one of the most exciting features in trap. A sort of “backing rap”, where a second MC repeats a keyword from each line, interjects a complementary catchphrase, or emits a sound effect or a noise suggestive of exertion or ecstasy, the ad lib has brought an almost choral quality to trap music, an interweaving of vocal parts that in the hands of a trio like Migos can be as swoon-inducing as classic doowop.
As the selling of drugs has dipped into the background of trap, the drugginess of the sound has come to the fore: hip-hop staples like weed and codeine-laced cough syrup have been joined by prescription drugs like Xanax and Percocet. All of these drugs, and others like Molly (MDMA) are endlessly namechecked by MCs but more crucially they shape the woozy glisten of the sound, whose rippling electronic motifs often recall IDM artists like Aphex Twin and Boards of Canada. As Tumay says, it’s the birth of a new kind of psychedelia, but one that’s far bleaker than its ‘60s predecessor: Xans and Perkys are pain-killing and anxiety-deadening drugs. Lil Uzi Vert’s emo-trap hit XO Tour Llif3 features the plaintive couplet “Xanny, help the pain, yeah /Please, Xanny, make it go away” and pivots on the catchy hook “all my friends are dead /push me to the edge”. Trap is the supreme manifestation of what cultural theorist Mark Fisher called “depressive hedonism”, that hollow feeling of numb ennui as you pour expensive liquor down your throat while sporting a mansion’s worth of jewelry on your wrist. Having a spiritual void has become the ultimate status symbol in rap.
As if to seal trap’s displacement of rock as this era’s preeminent music of rebellion and dissolute excess, in the 2010s rappers hijacked the concept of “rockstar” and made it their own, and the fans moshed accordingly. Hence Post Malone’s dirge-like Rockstar, the gloriously impudent Black Beatles by Rae Sremmurd and Future calling himself “Future Hendrix”. This decade, rap fashion has referenced rock star aesthetics, with artists ditching baggy attire for leather jackets, skinny jeans and merch which features heavy metal graphics. Trap today supplies what the Stones and Led Zep once did: a fantasy of life without constraints. And millions of fans across the world can’t get enough.
Pull Up is a trap tune that came out in 2018, a few years after Bad and Boujee. But it was made half the way across the globe from Atlanta by the Slovakian rapper Samey, with guest MCs Ego and Yzomandias (from the neighbouring Czech Republic). Released on the leading Central European trap label Fck Them, Pull Up has the trap sound down: it bounces irresistibly, and Samey’s chorus hook is a potent earworm. But where American trap videos feature sleek sci-fi cars, flowing champagne, and scantily clad girls at poolside parties, Samey’s video can’t quite match its aspirations. They’ve got hold of a car with the requisite suicide doors, but the backdrop is a grey Bratislava cityscape of flatblocks and road beneath a freeway flyover. Despite gold teeth and chains and lots of ink, the crew’s clothes don’t reach Migos levels of futuristic flash.
“Yzo is the original /Yzo is not a remake” asserts the bouncing Czech MC Yzomandias. That is neither completely true nor completely false: the inspiration is overwhelming American and specifically Atlantan, from the flows to the slang (references to “guap” or money). Academics have an ugly word, “glocal,” to describe this syndrome: globalised entertainment formats colliding with native cultures. Yet simply through the translation process, the cadences of the Slovakian and Czech languages, and the rappers’ reserves of verve, it comes out different. Despite clear intent to emulate and a ravenous desire to pull it off, Pull Up is not quite the real thing – and all the better for it.
A few years ago, I went on a trip that passed through several different European nations, during which I met up with a series of old friends. The conversation invariably turned to our kids and what they were into musically. The answer, no matter the country, was always “trap!” And it was during these conversations that I learned that every single territory had its own local version.
In France, PNL are huge stars with their mournfully sonorous fusion of trap and variété. Reggaeton-trap fusions pervade Latin America. You can hear trap coming out of cars or bazaars from Morocco to the Indian subcontinent. But nowhere is trap stronger than in Central Europe. Poland’s SB MAFFIJA label scored 137 million streams during the first six months of 2019 while the rapper Taco Hemingway partnered with pop singer Dawid Podsiadlo to fill the country’s sixty-thousand-capacity National Stadium. Trap squads like MO฿฿YN and MCs like Szpaku Szpaku and Kaz Balagne bypass the radio and TV to reach hordes of fans direct through YouTube and Instagram.
In the Czech Republic, the leading label /trap collective is Milion+. According to music critic Miloš Hroch, their sound is “transnational in its nature and core, with no trace of the local in their music videos, just the language of luxury brands and antidepressant pills”. Hroch points to the rural outfit Opak Dissu as an example of Czech rap that is rooted in lived realities rather than “straight outta Atlanta” fantasy. Opak’s ASAP Jarda once told Hroch that he believes “copying America here is bizarre. Half of Czech rappers live at their mom’s place and the second half is at the University. For me traplife is about going to the factory everyday and my roots in the village. We rob that [Atlanta] sound but we fill it with our stories.”
There’s also the Roma rapper Dollar Prync, whose lyrics deal with small-time crime – robbery, street scuffles between gangs – and life as a member of a minority treated with prejudice and discrimination. His song Okamura Skap disses the xenophobic Czech politician Tomio Okamura: “Gypsies, Russians, Vietnamese are sharpening their knives on you – Okamura, die”, he spits, denouncing the stereotypes peddled by far-right politicians that immigrants are parasites sucking up social benefits. “Meanwhile you motherfuckers are fucking millions into your own pockets.”
In Italy, the outfit Dark Polo Gang became the vortex of a debate among rap fans and critics. Decried as a mindless decline from rap’s glory days by some, they are celebrated ironically by others as simulation-trap given unexpected substance thanks to genuinely impressive beats by producer Sick Luke. Dark Polo Gang’s videos for hits like Cono Gelato hover in a zone somewhere between mimicry and parody: a miasma of gold grills, SUVs, and hand guns stuck down the elasticated waist of swimming trunks.
Damir Ivic, a historian of Italian rap, says that his country’s first wave of homegrown hip-hop rap in the ‘90s, known as the “Posse movement”, had a more quirky native character. “It was quite different from the rest of Europe, encapsulating reggae, ska, and patchanka – for a few years we felt like there was a cohesive alternative scene.” But he argues that the new breed of trap-inspired rappers like Dark Polo Gang, Sfera Ebbasta, and Young Signorino has “nearly zero Italian flavour” and consists of “tattooed youngsters moaning about success and/or drugs and/or being wasted” just like their emo-tinged, fashion conscious counterparts in Sweden like Yung Lean. As in some other countries, Italian trap has triggered mainstream media concern, especially following the death of six kids at a Sfera Ebbasta concert. Pickpockets used ammonia or other caustic sprays to create panic and make it easier to rob people. An emergency exit collapsed in the stampede. “Suddenly a connection between such a tragic accident and the ‘evil-ish’ soul of trap music has been made,” observes Ivic wryly.
Euro-Trap also gets criticised by fans of conscious hip-hop who bemoan its apolitical hedonism, its sexism and materialism. A raw, non-ideological anti-authority stance can be found here and there: Austria’s Yung Hurn’s Fick Die Polizei, which needs no translation, comes with a video woven out of hand-held footage of rioting anarchists, burning police cars, and tear gas. But Hurn has also put out more standard trap-themed tunes like Ferrari, Stoli, the salacious Ponny and Skrt Skrt, the latter titled after Migos’s famous “tires skidding” ad lib.
“We are speaking the language of today’s youth,” said Bad Bunny, the Puerto Rican reggaeton-trap artist who featured in Cardi B’s huge hit I Like It. A genre born in black America embraced by young people across the world and a sound that indicates a rebellious attitude, trap has indeed become a kind of pop Esperanto. Esperanto translates as “one who hopes” – the language was invented in the hopes of fostering universal brotherhood.
Yet trap, beneath its brash self-confidence, is based on a disillusionment in which hope for collective advancement is not a form of audacity but delusion. Trap sees life as feral – something captured in Bad and Boujee when Offset describes his gang as “savage, ruthless”. In this war of all against all, you’re either a victor or a victim – and the social odds are stacked against you becoming one of the winning few rather than the “losing” many. As visions of life go, it’s bleak and it’s depoliticising. The fact that it resonates so strongly all across the world – particularly in the formerly Communist countries of Eastern Europe, those that have adjusted most harshly to American-style free market economics – is revealing.
If trap became the defining sound of the 2010s, it’s because it captured the pathologies of our era – the glamour of money, the lure of fame as an individualistic escape route, the decadence of self-medicating hedonism – and welded them to the ultimate party soundtrack. It’s fitting that the decade’s dominant and most addictive sound should derive its name from the place where drugs are sold. The irrepressible and inexhaustible generation of new flows, fresh slanguage, and startling production tricks collides with a stock set of themes and a beat that is instantly recognisable. Trap as the changing same, as a music that keeps reinventing itself even as it serves the base function it always has, is a fitting metaphor for our times.
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