If you haven’t heard of trap, you’ve likely heard it all the same. Over the last year, it has become a buzzword of current culture, especially in music, but had loose parameters as far as definitions go. In an unofficial survey of friends, I found that everyone had heard of the genre, but no one could nail it down. Trap was overtaking music charts to the point where most people listening to popular music or to the radio had heard trap. Trap artists were winning awards, trap albums going platinum, trap music videos going viral. What interested me most was that trap was going global.
The hip hop sub-genre, which came from Atlanta, has evolved over the last decade and a half to become one of the most popular variants of hip hop and what every middle schooler in the small town in southern Spain where I teach listens to. The hazy beats and gritty lyrics have spread their influence across hip hop and pop, driving or following (depending on your perspective) musical and cultural trends the world over. I found myself asking, “How did we get here?” How can trap be so widely experienced but still mysterious to the mainstream listener? I decided to do some research and upon resurfacing hours later, feel confident in claiming that trap has changed your life, whether you know it or not.
The term “trap” was used and popularized in the Southern US in hip hop culture, beginning in the 90s to refer to where drug deals take place (“the trap”), where drug dealers live and sell (“trap house”), and became “shorthand for inner-city street life” (Redbull). The lyrics can be rough, depicting or prizing the grit and reality/authenticity of street life, including the description of violence, drugs, and criminal activity in explicit terms. Trap artists skew almost exclusively male, and lyrics tend to talk about women rather than to them, embedded in a larger narrative of trap life.
This is by no means an exhaustive history of trap, but here is a timeline to familiarize yourself with the sub-genre’s evolution and the beginnings of its Latin crossover, including some of the important artists, songs, and albums that have led us to the trap-saturated present.
- We’ll drop into Atlanta, Georgia, a hip hop capital in the southern United States. It’s the birthplace of the crunk sub genre (pioneered by Lil Jon) and will later be home to the influential and far reaching movement of trap music.
- The term “trap” is used in a number of songs and album titles under its first definition, relating to the place where drugs are made and/or sold.
- These years mark the early evolution of trap music, which still maintains some of the sounds of crunk and earlier hip hop, especially in the vocals. T.I. releases his album Trap Musik in 2003, Trap-A-Thon by Gucci Mane in 2007, and Jeezy, still Young Jeezy, releases Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 [see the instrumental version of “Trap or Die” to hear an example of the early backdrop for trap]. All three rappers are from or based in Atlanta.
- The term trap evolves to mean inner-city life in general and can be interchanged with the terms hood and streets. Trappin refers to hustling, which could be dealing drugs or a doing a regular job.
- A few producers dominate the trap music scene and make the beats for a number of artists in the genre. Two stand out names are Zaytoven [who worked with Gucci Mane, Migos, Future, 21 Savage, and Lil Uzi Vert] and Lex Luger [who worked with T.I., Gucci Mane, Quavo, and Desiigner, as well as big names in hip hop like Waka Flocka, Rick Ross, Kanye West, Jay Z, Drake, 2 Chainz…]
- NY Times, referring to Lex Luger’s production style says, “The trap sound is harsher and grimmer than other Southern hip hop; it evolved to suit the morally relativist crack-sales narratives of trap rappers like Young Jeezy.”
- Around this time, trap music collides with EDM and dubstep to create trap-house (the genre not the drug house), which features the hallmarks of trap: “skittering beats, double-time hi-hats and eerie synths” but combined them with the feel and the electronic nature of fast paced dance remixes. Think “Harlem Shake” by Baauer.
- “Harlem Shake” is a perfect example of this sound, which Run the Trap describes in 2013 as “1/3 hip hop, 1/3 dance music, and 1/3 dub.”
- While trap music has been both a staple and a force in hip hop for years, it bumped up to the surface less often, but as part of such immensely viral hits as the “Harlem Shake,” that led to imitation videos of everyone from church youth groups to the Norwegian Army.
- Trap slows way down, keeping some of the electronic effects of EDM but removing the dance floor level hype, circa Fetty Wap’s explosive single “Trap Queen.” The track maintains those “skittering beats [and] double-time hi-hats” and sounds distinctly digital. The vocals are moving away from the harsher, spoken and shouted lyrics of crunk, but you can hear a sparser version of crunk style in “Trap Queen” (at 1:22) in a rap section amidst the otherwise sung verses. This song reaches #2 on Billboard’s Hot 100 charts and #2 in U.S. R&B/Hip Hop Songs.
- Established trap/hip hop artists work with newcomers, like Gucci Mane with Rae Sremmurd (“Black Beatles”) and Migos (The Green Album, in 2015). Future works with T.I., Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, and producers Metro Boomin and Mike WiLL Made-It, who become two of the biggest names on the production side of trap and are responsible for much of the sound’s evolution and current popularity.
- Trapsoul, the album by Bryson Tiller, hits airwaves and, along with other artists, ushers in a new sound, as trap intersects with R&B/soul to create a moody but still romantic style.
- This year is big for establishing trap as a mainstream sound. “Bad and Boujee” is released by Atlanta trio Migos, featuring Lil Uzi Vert in October. The track reaches #1 on Billboard’s Hot 100 in January of 2017, as well as on the R&B/Hip Hop charts, and remains in the top 100 for 32 weeks. It replaces “Black Beatles” in the #1 slot, and “for the first time in more than eight years…hip hop-based rap tracks [led] the Hot 100…in back-to-back weeks.” This hadn’t happened since 2008, when two different T.I. tracks followed each other as #1 on the charts. “Panda” by Desiigner comes out this year as well and hits #1 on the Billboard Hot 100. While Desiigner is from Brooklyn, NY, he claims to have women in Atlanta…
- Atlanta is Important, a Summary:
Recently established trap artists who grew up in or are based in Atlanta: Future, Migos (including solo artist Quavo), 21 Savage, Lil Yachty, producer Mike Will-Made It; not to mention previously established artists T.I., Gucci Mane, and Jeezy.
- Metro Boomin is Important, a Summary:
Successful songs from trap artists that worked with producer Metro Boomin: Jumpman by Future, Drake; Bad and Boujee by Migos; Mask Off by Future; Bank Account by 21 Savage; I Get the Bag by Gucci Mane, Migos.
- Mike WiLL Made-It is Important, a Summary:
Successful trap artists that worked with producer Mike Will-Made It: Gucci Mane, T.I., Young Jeezy, Future, Migos, Rae Sremmurd (performance name of the duo that also heads the production company Eardrummers Entertainment).
- The year that trap music expands to Latin America and Spain.
- Most Latin trap artists start releasing music publicly around this time. Bad Bunny works on his first track, “Diles,” with Farruko (who releases an album this year), and Arcángel; J Balvin’s Energia and Fuego’s Fireboy Forever II lean toward trap; C.Tangana and Yung Beef, both from Spain, release albums. The hip hop collective from the Canary Islands, Broke Niños Make Pesos, forms and starts putting out material, mostly on Youtube.
- Cardi B, who is the most successful female trap artist to date, releases “Bodak Yellow.” The track reaches #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, a feat not accomplished by a solo female rapper since Lauryn Hill in 1998. It displaces a Taylor Swift song at the top spot and stays at #1 for three consecutive weeks.
- Latin trap remix of “Bodak Yellow”
- Releases “La Modelo” with reggaeton artist Ozuna, with Cardi singing verses in Spanish
- A collaboration with Jennifer Lopez called “Dinero” is yet to be released (was released in May 2018)
Let’s look at Fetty Wap’s “Trap Queen” as an example of the subgenre (check the timeline for context).
In this song, Fetty Wap describes his relationship with his significant other, his “trap queen,” who is also his business partner. The main setting of the song is their kitchen, where they’re cooking cocaine together (to make crack). Both Fetty Wap and his trap queen benefit from the sales and buy new clothes and jewelry, with plans to purchase either matching Lamborghinis or a Ferrari for him and a Lamborghini for her. In summation: “She ain’t wantin for nothin because I got her everything.”
This serves as a parallel narrative for trap music and its young, famous-overnight artists. “Trap,” referring to a hustle, whether drug related or not, has the goal of self-actualization and economic stability (if not surplus). Fetty Wap and his Trap Queen find this through selling crack, which gives them enough money to carry around stacks of cash as accessories and show off their wealth through clothes and cars. The trap mentality is the same in music. Many trap artists, like Fetty Wap and Migos, grew up in urban areas with issues stemming from historic and institutional level marginalization of minorities. Atlanta, for example, has had one of the highest levels of income inequality, or the biggest gap between the earnings of the rich and poor, of any city in the U.S. in recent years.
Rodney Carmichael for NPR describes Atlanta hip hop talent as “the city’s most fetishized and stigmatized commodity…The irony, of course, is how that inequity has helped to cultivate a trap-rap innovation economy from which Atlanta perpetually feeds.”
In many ways, the music lives strongly within that context; without the inspiration and desperation of trap life, there would likely be no trap music. Hip hop and, most recently, trap represent a realistic avenue for people who grow up in a city like Atlanta, with one of the lowest rates of economic mobility in the U.S. to achieve significant wealth and status (saportareport). The genre is full of success stories where words like “underdog” and “stardom” fit together.
Lex Luger, one of the early producers in trap and from Virginia, “managed to define the sound of a moment in hip hop with nothing but a laptop and a software program that retails for $250.” (nytimes) And it was a pirated copy of the software. Shortly after Lex dropped out of high school to pursue music, Waka Flocka Flame responded to one of the beats he’d emailed and later called him to Atlanta to work on an album. When working from home, Lex made “his most famous beats in the shed behind [a friend’s] house.”
Migos experienced a similar assent into trap glory and prominence with the DIY production on their first tracks, which they recorded on Windows Movie Maker, using a microphone they had nailed to the wall (Rolling Stone). Within a year or two, they had released their first single, “Versace,” produced by Zaytoven, that broke through the Billboard 100, and by 2015, they were making around $60,000 per night of their Dab Tour, performing off of their album YRN 2 (Forbes). In a documentary for Vice, they showed off the recording studio they were still using: a closet outfitted with sound absorbent foam padding and a picture of Tupac. “Despite being huge, [Migos] still operate on the trap mentality, which marries the independent savvy of street level drug dealing with the more punk spirit of DIY. “You’re trapping when you’re hustling.”
A playlist of referenced tracks is available on theIntersection.co
Originally published at www.theintersection.co.