By now, most people have seen (or made) a “Harlem Shake” video, featuring the popular, frenetic, bouncing single by New York producer Baauer. The song has experienced a recent explosion of popularity, and it should – it’s a great track. The song is also an excellent example of how the electronic trap-style genre is continuing to burst onto the radar of mainstream electronic music consumers. But as this gritty, hip-hop infused genre continues to enter the vocabulary of popular culture, many wonder: what is trap music, and is it here to stay?
Trap music’s origins began in the southern United States, influenced by artists such as Houston-based DJ Screw and T.I., from Atlanta. Rappers such as Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame began to bring trap-centric rap into the club scene, with Gucci Mane’s mixtape Trapaholics being a big influence, as well as Waka Flocka Flame’s debut album, Flockaveli. Drawing from that tough, street vibe, the sound of electronic trap music was born. The beats are usually a showcase of Roland-TR 808 drum machines, snares, heavy bass, and hip-hop tempos. Electronic trap music also incorporates synth elements seen in Dutch house, a style of house music with a harder edge.
Trap music began to really make a name for itself in 2012, with Chicago duo Flosstradamus shaping the more popular electronic take on the sound. Their remix of “Original Don” by Major Lazer went viral, and resulted in several other artists playing and making trap music. Zebo, a well-known Chicago DJ, has released several installments of Trap to the Future, a mixtape series featuring heavy-hitting trap artists such as DJ Sliink, Gent and Jawns, and Baauer. Zebo also has debuted several trap songs of his own, such as “Drank”, a smooth club track sampling Kendrick Lamar’s hit, “Swimming Pools”. However, Zebo’s desire to create trap music began during his dorm room days. He cites the heavy hip hop beats that trap originated from as inspiration for his music-making career, saying “When I went off to college my roommates were really into the whole Three 6 Mafia trap sound and played their albums constantly. At first I was a bit weary as there was some crazy / dark lyrical content, but what caught my attention was the beats. A hard 808 sound with some crazy samples, synth lines, and an angst like energy. What I particularly liked about those Three 6 specific beats was that sometimes they would change in the middle and drop with something completely new, but still be the same song. From there I got into other rap, but mainly for the beats, I didn’t really care about a lot of the lyrics as it was not really something I could relate with, or it was just on some garbage. About 5 years ago my homey Bird Peterson started putting out these Drankenstein mixes that took big dance tunes and remixed them into this Trap Rap sort of style. I hadn’t heard anything like that before and was really into it and from there I started hearing more people put out this “Trap Rave” sound. It really made me think that it could be something big when Flosstradamus started putting out their remixes and which brought the sound to a much larger audience. Because of that it was cool to play rap beats out in sets and people would go off… I couldn’t have been happier.”
Local St. Andrews DJ Oliver Twist shares a similar story to Zebo. After being introduced to trap music by friends and classmates, Twist says, “It didn’t take long before I had my favorite trap producers and started trying to incorporate their songs in my sets.” He often incorporates Jeffree’s released banger “Swoop” into several of his sets at bars such as The Vic or Rascals, claiming that “I have always preferred 70 bpm dubstep to higher tempo moombahton and electro house, so trap music was right up my ally.” The real question, however, is on trap music’s staying power. It is a style of music with simplistic, inverted drops, 808 beats, and a darker, more intense sound than that of radio hits such as “No Beef”, by Steve Aoki and Afrojack, or “Bangarang”, by Grammy winning artist Skrillex. Trap music has evolved from being a southern rap term to an emerging club-pleasing genre, but is questioned on if it can move beyond its current status.
Musicians such as Hudson Mohawke, a Glasgow-born producer and “genre-smashing” DJ, have helped to give the trap-style genre some versatility and depth, due to his recent collaboration with artist Lunice as TNGHT. Before their TNGHT act, both producers were better known on the glitch-hop and trip-hop scenes, but with their shared experience and love of beat production, they have added a new dimension to electronic trap music. Another example of the genre’s growth is found in Midnight Conspiracy, a Chicago house duo known for their experimentation with style and their electrifying live sets. They play with several types of electronic music in their shows, saying “If a song is good, we’ll play it no matter the genre. We jump around genres and bpms throughout a set. It makes things more interesting for the audience and for us. The same goes for the music we make. Our next five or so songs are Electro, Drum & Bass, Trap, Juke or Booty House, Dubstep, Drumstep and the fun realm of 110 bpms like our last single, Sentinel. Just like our sets, our music is all over the board, not genre specific, just good tunes.” They feel that trap will “evolve similarly to how Dubstep got progressively more aggressive or how Moombahton evolved into Moombahcore. I’m guessing it’ll get heavier.”
While trap may begin to follow a more powerful-sounding trend, Zebo feels that “I am seeing a lot of subgenres emerging for the TrapStyle and I’m a big fan on people taking the sound and running with the possibilities. I really like the ‘Purple’ sound that I hear coming from the west coast that has a psychedelic, melodic, and downtempo vibe. Not all of the tunes have to be bangers and I like that people are making tunes that can not only rock a party at peak hour but also be used in building up and bringing down the vibe of the night.” Electronic trap music is in a transitional state at the moment. For some, it has been a beloved and relatively underground genre. Now, trap tracks such as “Harlem Shake” are quickly making their way to the masses, and will soon see an upward trend this summer, thanks to the many electronic music festivals occurring around the world.
There’s no doubt that this is a sonic movement in the making – but why? Perhaps it was a lack of variety in the market. Oliver Twist feels that “Dubstep, drum n bass, glitch hop, electrohouse and all those genres have all been around for so long without any major evolvement. I think people were waiting for something new.” For popular audiences and rave-centric fans alike, Zebo feels that “the genre has worked so well because it has bridged the electronic dance and rap communities both within their own mainstream and underground followings.” But ultimately, it gets down to what makes people want to move. Midnight Conspiracy’s theory on trap is simple: “It’s the 80s and 90s hip hop beats. It’s something people have always had an easy time getting down to on a dance floor, and it’ll continue to be like that far into the future.”
Words: Staley Sharples
Originally Published in 2013