In the mid-aughts a wave of steely-eyed southern rappers introduced hip-hop fans to a new piece of slang: "the trap." Used narrowly, the term refers to a place where drug deals are made—say, an open-air drug market in a blighted city neighborhood. But it can also be used in a broader sense to describe the drug trade itself, as well as the particular psychic state—a blend of paranoia and megalomania—that tends to accompany long-term employment as a dealer. These rappers were so single-mindedly focused on the minutiae of the cocaine trade and the dealing life that fans and critics grouped them together under the rubric "trap rap." For a time commentators used the term as shorthand for Everything That's Wrong With Hip-Hop These Days.
Trap rap is defined by the content of its lyrics, but it also comes with a trademark sound: booming 808-style sub-bass kick drums, twitchy sixty-fourth-note hi-hats, dive-bombing tom fills, and chilly cinematic strings. That sound has reached its apotheosis in young Virginian producer Lex Luger, who in 2010 collaborated with Rick Ross to create two street hits, "B.M.F." and "MC Hammer," out of essentially the same song.
Not surprisingly the elements that were once Luger's idiosyncrasies—especially his reliance on clusters of fast or slow triplets to create a frisson within a beat—have been widely adopted by rap producers looking to replicate his fantastic success. Those idiosyncrasies have also slipped through the border between hip-hop and dance music, which is becoming increasingly porous in today's highly networked music world. Over the past year or so the result of this cross-fertilization, broadly referred to as "trap music," has gripped the EDM scene—though some commentators, including David Drake of New York-via-Chicago hip-hop blog So Many Shrimp, resist describing it as a hybrid. "It might be more accurate to suggest that instead of a single genre called Trap, there are two separate genres of rap and dance music, both of which have gone through 'trap-' phases," he wrote for Complex last month.
During the brief time it's existed, trap music has proved itself highly mutable, and there are already an untold number of offshoots and hybrids—including "acid trap," "trap-ah-ton" (a cross with moombahton, itself a cross between reggaeton and Dutch house music), and, inevitably, "trapstep." But the underlying principle of trap music is simple: instead of combining trap-style drum patterns with a rap by Rick Ross or Waka Flocka Flame or whoever, you pile EDM synths onto them. Despite the starkly contrasting moods that the two component genres evoke on their own—druggy paranoia on one hand, druggy euphoria on the other—they pair quite nicely. The EDM elements help connect trap rap with the electro-influenced sound upon which southern hip-hop was founded, while the trap elements give the ravey synths a whiff of danger. The fact that dubstep has made twitchy, triplet-laden rhythms de rigueur in dance music helps as well.
Partly Chicagoan DJ/production duo Flosstradamus have been mixing dance music and rap music for years, so their recent transition into trap was a natural one. Their take on the style involves wedding deep, syrupy beats to the blown-out, ecstatic sounds of Dutch hardstyle techno. Tracks such as "Underground Anthem" have helped make Floss one of the most popular acts in the trap scene—it has more than 300,000 plays on SoundCloud, and the different videos of it on YouTube add up to another 100,000.
As usual when it comes to trends in EDM, Diplo is involved. Jeffree's, a Tumblr-based offshoot of his Mad Decent label, has released some trap-heavy Flosstradamus tracks. (The duo's bad habit of sampling actual Dutch hardstyle tracks without permission has caused Jeffree's some grief.) He also hired Floss to give his Usher collaboration "Climax" a trap-inflected remix, and the effectiveness of their version suggests that trap music and R&B have a bright future together.
In June Jeffree's also released the EP Trap Shit 6/9 by a mysterious act called UZ (pronounced like "Uzi"). Though Flosstradamus is arguably the biggest name in trap music so far, the mysterious UZ comes closest to the quintessence of the style. The songs on the UZ SoundCloud page are like Lex Luger tracks if Luger had a background as a house-music DJ. The beats twitch and wobble in a Luger-esque way, but the insistent, squelching synths that ride them are almost like acid house in their gnarliness. The fact that UZ is a person or persons posting anonymously to SoundCloud is fitting as well: the trap explosion has happened all over the place geographically, but its virtual home is SoundCloud, where a search for the word "trap" will turn up scads of undiscovered producers showing off their takes on the formula.
UZ also embodies some of the worst tendencies of the trap phenomenon. Critics of the genre—the loudest of whom tend to be rap and dance artists who steer clear of trap—have pointed out that trap musicians have co-opted not only the triplet hi-hat fills and deep 808 kicks of trap rap but also the violence that pervades its lyrics, which is often specifically of the black-on-black variety. Whoever is behind UZ styles the act's name with strings of Unicode symbols that suggest the outline of an automatic rifle, and the computer-generated cover art for Trap Shit 6/9 depicts a golden Uzi set against a faux-leather background—a perfect symbol of trap music's fetish for context-free violent imagery.
It's precisely that lack of context that seems to disturb the anti-trap-music faction the most. Say what you will about trap rappers, but their violent lyrics are at least potentially rooted in real-world experiences. Trap music's popularity among white hipsters from middle-class backgrounds—the same demographic that flipped out over trap rap a few years ago—can easily look voyeuristic or exploitative. The very fact that the term "trap" has been adopted by a privileged class—people who probably can't imagine what it would take to drive someone to deal crack—is rankling to some.
Chicago DJ and producer Million Dollar Mano, who includes a bit of trap in his music's laundry list of influences, posted on Twitter in September, "Black producers make trap and its 'HOOD' or 'ghetto' white culture vulture dj makes it and its 'groundbreaking' 'tasteful' & 'amazing.'" Drake goes further, offering some advice for trap-music fans in his Complex piece: "Trap music is fun, but listeners should be educated on the history of where the music comes from, and give respect to the innovators of the form, learning (via Google) about the pioneers (T.I.!), the sobering social contexts (drug dealers!), and the branded cultural trends (sizzurp!)."
In all likelihood, though, the controversy won't do much damage to trap's popularity with EDM scenesters. What will affect it is if trap becomes a phenomenon in mainstream pop. The time it takes for underground aesthetics to make their way onto chart-dominating records is getting shorter and shorter all the time. Look at Rihanna's recent dive into seapunk, a microgenre that was so small at the beginning of the year that few people outside a tiny cluster of hardcore Tumblr users and cool hunters had heard of it. The kind of exposure Rihanna gave seapunk is exactly the type of thing that provokes fans of underground movements to declare them over. A couple weeks ago Calvin Harris, who produced Rihanna's massively successful "We Found Love," posted a track called "Suge Knight" whose rolling rhythm and tweaky synths bear the unmistakable mark of trap music. All over Twitter people were saying trap was dead.