(Cover Photo by Tyler Casey)
Punk Rock was a musical inevitability.
It was the microcosm of minimalism in rock music. Historically, art naturally ebbs and flows towards a path of growing complexity before it reverses and goes back to basics. When maximalism becomes the status quo there’s only one way to go. You can see this trend in painting at the end of romanticism/realism in its transition to cubism and abstraction; the shift in style between the Baroque and Classical periods of music; even in the evolution of zombie movies from Night of the Living Dead to the Walking Dead.
At the beginning of a movement, artists feel the need to challenge themselves, push the envelope. But later on artists will rebel against the status quo, especially when it becomes too difficult to innovate on technique. Rock and roll is no different as it began with the likes of Elvis, The Beatles and The Stones. The genre evolved through the 60s and 70s as virtuosos like Jimi Hendrix and Van Halen pushed the technical envelope, while progressive rockers like King Crimson and Rush challenged the structure. By the mid 70’s the genre was ripe for a deconstruction.
In comes punk rock, a countercultural potpourri of British subculture and the grungy depths of the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Punk stripped down the comparatively clean production of classic rockers and ditched the technique of the progressive shredders in favor of their “3 chords and the truth” styles. It was raw and self produced. Punk rockers ditched the big labels, favoring instead independent labels and word of mouth. Noisy and chaotic, punk spits in the face of established rock conventions and the “phonies” that created them. The “Truth” part of that wouldn’t come until later in punk’s evolution when bands began to confrontationally tackle political and social issues. Punk’s minimalist harmony made a great medium for such messages. Simple guitar, bass and drums create an emotional canvas on which bands could paint their politically driven messages. It’s hard to pay attention to a message when the melody and harmony are complex, so punk rock opts instead to ditch complexity.
(Photo by Natalie Parham)
Punk is built on a specific type of angst. It is anti-authoritarian and thus tends to lean more liberal. But it also embraces anarchism and individualism. While punk’s message was largely political, it took the form of many different types of transgression. It was outwardly non-conformist sporting bondage gear, tight leather, offensive t-shirts. Often clothes would be DIY or second-hand to support their anti-consumerist/anti-capitalist views. Punk wasn’t only art, it was an aesthetic. The irony of all this is that punk was later brought back kicking and screaming from the grave in the form of pop-punk, and in doing so sold out to the very Man they fought so hard against with only a couple of decades of removal.
Enter SoundCloud Rap
Of course, the cycle continues today but now it’s in the newest mainstream genre, rap. And it’s happening in the form of mumble rap, emo rap, or more colloquially, Soundcloud rap. (For those unfamiliar, Soundcloud rap is a style of rap that originated in the early 2010s on Soundcloud, a distribution platform/social media site where artists post their music for free. Named for being unintelligible, the genre’s most distinct characteristic is that the rapper mumbles the lyrics while leaning heavy on the autotune.) Soundcloud artists get insanely popular, often putting up numbers that rival mainstream artists. Production is minimalist out of necessity due to the grassroots, bottom up approach artists take to gaining popularity; even to the point where some more established Soundcloud artists will intentionally make the mix more Lo-Fi to preserve the aesthetic. Lyrics tend to be about gettin’ money, gettin’ women, doin’ blow, cappin’ haters and an undeterminable, almost hyperbolic sadness. More on that in a sec.
Soundcloud rap/mumble rap as a whole is a deconstruction of rap and hip hop. Since hip hop’s emergence as a popular genre it has evolved quickly. From the technical chops of Rakim, Andre 3000 and Eminem, to the maximalist production of Kanye and Jay Z, to the grand narratives of Kendrick Lamar or Vince Staples, hip hop is a deep and complex world to jump into now. If the 80s and 90’s were the classical-era of hip hop and the 2000s and early-2010s were the romantic-era, then now comes the predictable decline. Soundcloud rap is the punk rock of hip hop.
Grassroots emergence and fandom? Check.
Kneecapped production? Check.
Soundcloud rap, like punk rock, indulges in a certain kind of transgression. But where punk rock was defined by a level of activism, political songs hellbent on trying to break from capitalist traditions into some kind of anarchy, Soundcloud rap takes the opposite approach. Soundcloud rappers embrace the hopelessness of it all, screaming from the rooftops about depression, self medication and nihilism. Rappers embrace the seemingly inescapable nature of late-capitalism and the absurdity of existence. The world is depressing, society is depressing, might as well accept it, relish in our material wealth and send ourselves into a hedonistic early oblivion.
(Photo by Liao Je Wei)
Just as punk rock did, listeners assume the identity of the artists they listen to. But where punk rock was focused on externalities, Soundcloud rap is self destructive. Where punk rock was focused on fixing the political system, Soundcloud rap focuses on how to deal with how punk rock failed.
Soundcloud rap has now penetrated the mainstream. Similarly to how listening to an old Ramones or Iggy Pop song is a little rough around the edges, listening to early Ski Mask the God or X tracks can be a pretty rough prospect. These artists simply touched a nerve with their audiences and the movement was being propelled by pure community energy. And now the same way Blink 182 and Green Day put the punk moniker up in lights, you see Lil Baby and Post Malone being played incessantly on the radio.
The beginnings of punk rock and Soundcloud rap were phenomena, the extremes of society putting raw emotion into art and in doing so gave a voice to those who perhaps didn’t have it before. It’s easy to dismiss what sonically doesn’t meet the standards of the era, but we must never forget that minimalism is just another step towards the evolution of something new.