It's a Trap! How Bass Music Conquered Mainstream Hip-Hop
Now that the Harlem Shake seems to have finally abated (more or less), we are afforded a moment’s reflection. Not upon viral videos and the phenomena surrounding them, but rather upon an emergent trend in hip-hop. No doubt the astute and casual observer alike will have noticed a great deal of stylistic change in the past decade. That the Harlem Shake videos didn’t even feature the titular dance move doesn’t seem to matter at this point. What matters is the accompanying music, and even at thirty seconds you will hear what it is I am referring to.
Yes, just like Chuck D in ’88, I’m talking about bass. And not just a standard low-end frequency either, I mean a whole style that is defined entirely by its love of chest rattling noise, all meant for big systems and murky rooms, a style that (perhaps regrettably) has entered into common parlance as “bass music.” Generically speaking, the name is somewhat a cop-out, largely due to the confusion and diaspora resulting from Dubstep and its ill-fated implosion into public consciousness. It’s not surprising that you’ll find many pre-existing genres falling into this category, but what brings them all together is the one singular, unitary appreciation for bass – a loving veneration for what Roots Manuva once termed as “life-giving.”
That’s all well and good for underground dance music, but where does hip-hop come in? Well, bass in hip-hop, specifically bass built for sound systems – is certainly no new thing. We are immediately reminded of the styles emanating from the Southern States (or, as so many practitioners will tell you, the “Dirty South”). New Orleans Bounce, Memphis Crunk and (surprisingly enough) Miami Bass are all demonstrative of a kind of hip-hop meant not for headphones but for big club speakers. The South has been pushing this brasher, noisier, bassier sound for ages – so why is it only now that such music is being brought to much wider public attention?
To return to the headline of this piece (and that admittedly awful pun), it’s all to do with Trap. Trap music relates more to production than anything else, and if the name’s a mystery you will no doubt have heard its signifiers – splashy, sped up hi-hats, big synths, tight snares, thundering kick drums, and, naturally, a great degree of subbass. Trap has had its origins in the early 2000s with artists like Gucci Mane, T.I. and Three Six Mafia (who scored an early hit for the genre with “Stay Fly“). Interest was, for the most part, limited. That is until the latter half of the decade when digital culture exploded. Prompted by a rapid acceleration and proliferation of music, bass became the emphasis, and hip-hop, long stagnating in the pools of its own excess, found a new elixir.
Turn on the radio and you will hear it. Go to a club and you will feel it. It’s everywhere, from delightfully obnoxious (and incredibly divisive) tracks like “Blowin’ Money Fast“ to stadium-filling anthems like “Niggas in Paris.” Of course, the mainstream isn’t the mainstream without the influence of the underground and here you’ve got a slew of producers coming up, all pushing things forward, from Baauer and his now (in)famous “Harlem Shake“ to production super-duo TNGHT and their instant hit “Higher Ground.”
So what’s the negative of all this? Well, quite an important one. Throw a rock and you will hear the lamentations of those decrying mainstream hip-hop and its cartoonish shunning of intellectualism, its rabid misogyny, and its perverse celebration of lucre in all forms. “She got a big booty so I call her big booty“ spake 2 Chainz in 2012, and thus the world raised its hands to its collective temples in what can only be described as the “facepalm seen around the world.”
From a technical (and less facetious) point of view, the dazzling advances made in the field of production have hampered lyrical ambition and invention, and I can’t think of a better example in the modern day than Kanye West’s G.O.O.D Music collective and their most recent offering, “Cruel Summer.” The singles “Clique“ and “New God Flow“ are just insane tunes, and let’s not even get started with the omnipotent killer that is “Mercy,” but listen to those tracks again and see how many of those lines you find quotable. As catchy as “Lamborghini mercy, your chick she so thirsty” is, see if you can “break it down intellectually” as Chris Rock once said when making similar arguments about the state of rap music.
Inevitably we must arrive at a conclusion by looking to the future, and as for hip-hop the speculation is wide, wide open. Everything moves at such a lightning speed now it’s impossible to keep track of the what, where and how. Today’s big hit will be tomorrow’s old news. But one thing is for certain. What we are experiencing now is a bridging of gaps, of genre and sound and style, and as far as hip-hop goes, the genre will continue to be shaped by a violent and unpredictable transformation and hybridisation. For now it’s bass, but who can tell what will be defining our beats in the years to come? I’m excited, and you should be too.