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T.I., Flosstradamus, UZ and More On Trap Music's Evolution

floss_audience.jpgFlosstradamus DJing at The Regency Ballroom in San Francisco. (Photo by Grady Brannan)

The rabbit warrens of Soundcloud don't have anything in common with the inner city streets of Atlanta but, as hip-hop and EDM heads have noticed, much like that Southern city, the music-sharing site has become a hub for trap music -- or, rather, its electronic-tinged spinoff.   

Original trap, which rose to prominence after T.I. released Trap Muzik in 2003 (an album that was, incidentally, co-produced by Kanye West), took its moniker from "the trap," a term typically associated with the inner city streets of Atlanta and the drug-dealing culture therein. "We just did what was on our mind at the time," says DJ Toomp, the Grammy-winning, Atlanta-based producer who's worked with everyone from T.I. and Kanye to Mariah Carey and Rick Ross and who executive produced Trap Muzik. "[T.I.] and I understood that whole movement, we both had partners that were locked up and we saw the lifestyle of the big-time guys back then." Of the genre's 808-heavy sound, Toomp adds, "You gotta give props to Rick Rubin. The way he was using the 808 drum machine back then -- what he was doing with the Beastie Boys -- wasn't too far from what we were doing."    

"Rubber Band Man" by T.I. from 2003's Trap Muzik

Following T.I.'s break-out album, a crop of rappers and producers, mostly based in the South, continued producing trap beats and songs throughout the aughts, but by the middle part of the decade, buzzier Southern-based hip-hop genres like crunk and non-Southern-based artists like Kanye West seemed to eclipse the trap scene. It was towards the end of the decade and into the next that trap seemed to re-enter the mainstream and begin a revival that more closely approximated the genre's early aughts popularity; producers like Virginia-based 22-year-old wunderkind Lex Luger along with Atlanta-based rappers like 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka Flame and Memphis' Juicy J began dominating the radiowaves and reignited interest in trap. But, within the last year (or, more accurately, year and a half), a new crop of DJs has emerged who are creating a sound that, while similar in style, has less in common with the original genre's hard-edged substance or locus in the South.

For the most part, the Internet is trap 2.0's street corner, with new productions and songs spreading like wildfire with the click of a mouse. Though the origins and the audience might have changed (not to mention the fact that many dance-trap mixes lack rap vocals entirely), much of the sound elements remain: the 808 drums, frenetic hi-hats, booming bass, the prominent use of snares and vocal chops.

floss_stage.jpgFlosstradamus' J2K (left) and Autobot (right) (Photo by Grady Brannan) 

Flosstradamus, the Chicago-and-Brookyn-based DJ duo who first achieved popularity in the mid-00s with raucous rap-dance mash-ups and who are widely credited with being leaders in the new trap game, says the genre's evolution started as one big digital game of telephone. In fall of 2011 "I was making rap demos and the style and beat I was making was a trap beat for a trap rapper," Flosstradamus' Josh Young (a.k.a. J2K) explains. "I put the genre as 'trap' on Soundcloud because that was the influence and what it sounded like." He adds, "The rappers were slacking off and not returning the product in time." Young says he and his partner Curt Cameruci (a.k.a. Autobot) "got frustrated with people not doing our projects fast enough so we started putting the songs out ourselves."

Young says that the duo's "post-apocalyptic trap" EP, Total Recall, released in February of 2012 by Diplo's Mad Decent imprint, Jeffree's, was actually intended for Sir Michael Rocks (The Cool Kids rapper formerly known as Mikey Rocks). "He passed on the track and we threw it up on Soundcloud with the genre 'Trap' because of the style of drums I used."

"And the kids that were hearing [those tracks] and latching onto it had no reference for what original trap was so they thought it was a new genre," Young explains. "That's why it became what it was."     

While their productions may have initially been intended for trap artists to rhyme over, it was their January 2012 remix of a decidedly different style of song -- Major Lazer's "Original Don" -- that "blew [new trap] out of the water for the first time," as Young puts it.  

Flosstradamus' remix of Major Lazer's "Original Don"

"'Original Don' came out and it was like, 'Yo, did you hear this song? Let's make something like it,'" L.A.-based producer ETC!ETC! says, citing the track as one of the catalysts behind his own experimentation with new trap. "Trap had been in hip-hop for a long time but what Flosstradamus did was give it a twist and make it into EDM and make it relevant. It made trap more exciting."

It wasn't long after "Original Don" came out that a slew of other young producers like RL Grime and Salva (whose joint remix of Kanye West's "Mercy" was arguably one of 2012's Songs of the Summer), Baauer (he of "Harlem Shake" fame), and a mysterious, masked DJ going by the name of UZ burst onto the the nascent trap scene. And, in a sure sign that the genre was taking off, other DJs bristled at being included in the movement, producers TNGHT being a particularly vocal example. Pretty soon everyone from Azealia Banks ("BBD") to Beyoncé ("Bow Down / I Been On") and even Lady Gaga ("Cake Like Lady Gaga") were incorporating trap beats into their songs. 

"Cake Like Lady Gaga" by DJ White Shadow and Lady Gaga

And, aside from these mainstream artists and fairly well-known DJs, bedroom producers have been making their own mixes and posting them to Soundcloud, where you can also find thousands and thousands of tracks with the "trap" tag.

"It's attracting a wider audience" than other EDM genres, Young says. Trap "is based in hip-hop and everyone likes hip-hop. Even if you say you don't like it, you'll get drunk at a club and Biggie comes on and you'll know all the words and you're gonna nod your head." He adds, "I feel like trap is something that speaks to all generations -- or at least generations from the last fuckin' forty years."

"Bow Down / I Been On" by Beyoncé

And, with the majority of today's most popular forms of EDM being imported from Europe, there's something uniquely American-sounding in this hip-hop based dance music. "Finally the US kids have something to call their own, and at a time when everyone is listening to dance music, the most palatable and digestible sound is trap," UZ writes via email (in an effort to maintain his hidden identity).

"For many people, trap is a way out of a mundane life," UZ continues. "There is a certain vibe or quality that is captured by the ATL guys, something that is very real, dark, and grimey. What we do is add the party element to it." White Shadow, a Chicago-based producer and Lady Gaga's DJ (he's the one responsible for the pop star's foray into trap with "Cake Like Lady Gaga") agrees with UZ's assessment of why the genre has become so massive. Trap "is full of anger and emotion, almost to a point of violence but in the best way possible," he says. It's "a very effective delivery vehicle for chords that make people feel something."

Opponents of the genre have criticized its propensity for darkness as "trap music's fetish for context-free violent imagery," a co-opting of sorts of trap rap's original violent content without any of its origins. UZ's Uzi logo has often been singled out and one writer said the producer "embodies some of the worst tendencies of the trap phenomenon." For his part, the masked producer isn't fazed by proverbial haters. UZ writes, "Critics are just that: critical. They don't live this, they just sit back and tell everyone why they think something is good or not. Who cares what they say." He adds, "We make music for ourselves and if people like it, cool. If they don't, it doesn't bother me at all."

Other critics point to new trap's "whiter, less-rap-oriented rave crowd" audience as further proof of its problems. "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," Miles Raymer writes in The Chicago Reader.

UZ_HighRes_thesupermaniak.jpegUZ (Photo by thesupermaniak)

But, as UZ points out, "suburban white kids have been buying rap music and catapulting rappers' careers for years, so to think they wouldn't gravitate to this 'EDM Trap' explosion is naïve. Everyone likes to get a lil' gully and wild out sometimes."

Talking to the King of the South himself, T.I. says he has no problem with the new electronic sub-genre. "If a part of the evolution of this genre is that it goes from [being about] the lyrical content to what you hear sonically, if that's what it takes to keep the genre alive and keep it in the minds and hearts of people and is the common bond that brings people together to hear the music, then I'm not gonna say it's a problem," the rapper says. "I'm not gonna be one of those sour [artists] that says, 'It's not what I had in mind when I created this,' because you can't make people take away from it what you want them to take away."

"And, hey man, whatever is progressing the art form, I'm going to be in support of that," T.I. says. "Whatever keeps us growing, evolving, knocking down doors, removing limitations and expanding the genre, that's what I'm for."

In an interview with Stereogum, Gucci Mane producer Burn One says, "Trap has always been about a lifestyle and you can't emulate a lifestyle...But a name is just a name and no one owns a style of music...As long as it's good, it's cool by me."

Other trap producers seem bemused by the whole thing. "It's confusing," says DJ Toomp. "[New trap] is still considered house or EDM music to me. The last title I would give it is trap." Still, he says he's a fan. "I love it. I respect the sound. But they should change the name. It shouldn't take more than 60 seconds [to come up with a new name]. When you have something that strong in terms of a sound and movement, you can call it whatever and it'll get cool over night."

Over the last year or so, it appears that this movement also includes a particular fashion aesthetic. "You can definitely tell when someone is [dressed] for a trap show. 100%" ETC!ETC! says. "There's a lot of kids wearing Fox gear like Flosstradamus or wearing Pyrex Vision. They'll wear bandanas and cover their face like UZ. It's hood."

pyrexvisionlook.jpgLooks by Pyrex Vision

The style associated with the trap scene seems to be in line with broader trends; Fox and Pyrex Vision are joined in the marketplace by other buzzy luxury streetwear brands like Hood By Air or UK-based KTZ, whose athletic and motorcross-inspired pieces share a similar goth-y vibe. And Pyrex Vision, for its part, was founded by Virgil Abloh who, when he's not designing clothing, also happens to be Kanye West's art director and a member of DJ/art collective #Been #Trill, who have been known to spin trap-heavy sets at cool kid parties. Even Kim Kardashian has been spotted rocking some Pyrex Vision.

But for now, if fashion is any indicator of music preference, it may still feel like swagged out dubstep bros still outnumber the kids with bandanas over their faces 10-1 at your typical EDM festival -- though that could soon be changing. "All the dubstep DJs I know don't play it as much anymore. They play trap because it's more relevant," ETC!ETC! says. "But it is getting a little repetitive. As long as someone puts a new twist on it again, is has the chance to stay in the EDM scene for a while."

From today's perspective, that seems likely. "It's evolving so fast because it's from the Internet," Josh Young says. "Kids are defining it and finding out about it. Producers are finding out about it and reinterpreting it and progressing it every single day." But, he adds less optimistically, "It's all something the Internet has created, is going to progress, and will eventually kill."

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