Since last year a cohort of underground rappers with a penchant for aggro instrumentals, histrionic lyrics, and face tattoos has been attracting a lot of national media attention—in the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Ringer, Pitchfork, Complex, and elsewhere. In June 2017 Times critic Jon Caramanica popularized the term “Soundcloud rap” to describe a scene that included Trippie Redd, Lil Peep, Lil Pump, and XXXTentacion. The New Yorker‘s coverage, on the other hand, has opted for a name that says more about the music than about its delivery platform: “Emo rap.”
For around 15 years now, “emo rap” has been applied to a long string of artists, many of them radically different from one another. But the unwitting early-2000s originators of the subgenre and today’s Lil Xans and Lil Peeps have a few things in common: They’ve all made music that exposes surprising vulnerability, they’ve all borrowed from punk aesthetics, and they’ve all launched their careers underground, sometimes in reaction to mainstream hip-hop trends. In the early 2000s, mainstream meant gangsta rap—50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’ was the best-selling album of 2003. But at the same time, Minneapolis hip-hop duo Atmosphere was heating up the national underground.
Friday 6:45 PM, Radicals Stage
If you believe Atmosphere rapper Sean “Slug” Daley, he coined the phrase “emo rap” while clowning a rock journalist in a 1997 interview. “I was, like, playing—’Oh, but it’s emo rap,'” he told Underground Hip Hop in 2007. “They were like, ‘Oh, I get it. That makes sense,’ and from there it spread. I already cut off two of my toes, reprimanding myself for saying that shit.” Whether he’s telling the truth or not (I haven’t seen his feet), in the early aughts Daley became emo rap’s poster boy, and the possibly imaginary subgenre grew to include many other acts associated with his independent Rhymesayers label.
Atmosphere didn’t make sonically radical music; their scuffed-up, sample-based productions could’ve been made during the 90s boom-bap era. But Slug’s detailed verses—he picked apart what he saw as his weaknesses and faults, and also frequently vented bitterly about failed relationships—represented a new lyrical approach in hip-hop. They appealed to an audience that didn’t care for “In da Club.” In 2003 Sun-Times contributor David Jakubiak reviewed a headlining Atmosphere set at Metro: “It’s been called emo-rap, and it’s something that taps directly into the consciousness of the hordes of white youths who call themselves ‘the real hip-hop.'” In 2004 Mark Donohue, music director at Emerson College radio station WERS-FM, discussed the phenomenon with the Boston Globe: “There’s always been a huge suburban audience for [gangsta or hardcore] hip-hop, but this is the hip-hop for the kids in high school who were more into the punk scene and weren’t part of the popular crowd.”
Emo rap’s audience also helped illustrate the aesthetic crossover at work. Caramanica’s definitive early emo-rap feature in the February 2004 issue of Spin described Atmosphere fans at Scribble Jam who “look like they got lost en route to a Death Cab for Cutie show.” After Atmosphere played a Warped Tour show in Cleveland in 2003, he noticed singer Zach Davidson of forgotten Seattle emo band Vendetta Red buying one of their T-shirts. Emo rap became a burgeoning subculture at the same time as emo rock took over the mainstream, and Atmosphere bridged the two scenes. That 2003 Warped Tour run was one of three for the group, and they coreleased their best album, 2003’s Seven’s Travels, on venerable punk label Epitaph.
As the 2000s wore on, emo mutated from Dashboard Confessional to Panic! at the Disco in just a few years. Emo rap didn’t much change at first, but once the term existed, it started getting slapped onto all sorts of inappropriate things: Kid Cudi, Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreaks, Drake. The new class of emo rappers—the ones who also get called Soundcloud rappers—actually make music that owes a debt to Atmosphere, whether they know it or not. If you’d talked a bunch of hip-hop-loving kids into saving their allowance to go to Warped Tour 15 years ago, and they’d caught an Atmosphere set between Taking Back Sunday and the Used, they’d probably sound like Lil Peep and Juice Wrld now too. v