What Is Trap Music?

Your Definitive Guide to Trap Music

What does “Trap Music” mean? You’ve probably heard Youtube reviewer, Anthony Fantano, better known as TheNeedleDrop refer to trap music as “rattling hi-hats” but the genre that has melded into contemporary hip hop is so much more.

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Trap Music, so it goes, was coined by Atlanta rap artist T.I on his sophomore studio album, Trap Muzik. The album details life on the block for hustlers. The “trap” so to speak is the allure of criminal enterprise and fast money. The “trap music” was the sound of the streets. It was the hustler talking back to his peers and giving notes.

Trap Music first became part of popular nomenclature when T.I gave a three-dimensional view of the trap on Trap Muzik, telling both the negative consequences and what it was like living life in the fast lane. This is best encapsulated on the single, “Rubber Band Man,”.

While T.I was the first to put a label on it, the concept of a rapper teaching “game” had existed for some time. T.I alludes to Pimp C’s “Pocket Full of Stones,” which would an early reference point for young trappers.

Trap or Die

Trap continued with the likes of Young Jeezy, Gucci Mane, and OJ Da Juiceman. Following T.I was Young Jeezy.

Jeezy came out hot with Tha Streets Iz Watchin, quickly associating himself with kingmaker, Coach K. Shortly after, Young Jeezy’s Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101 album acted as a blueprint for the modern trap sound with its 808s and hi-hats, while taking the concept of giving game in a song and making it into an album. It was considered a hustler’s handbook.

Thug Motivation 101 had been hailed by critics and had a huge influence on future rappers.

“I consider Thug Motivation to be the Get Rich or Die Tryin’ of the South,” Dj Drama told Complex.

Jeezy proclaimed himself a trap star on the album. The album is a diary of sorts. Jeezy details how he made his loot. On the last verse of “Thug Motivation 101” he raps:

“I’m the author of the book, yeah a genius wrote it
There’s a message in my words, you gotta decode it
I seen it all, every gram, every bird
I spit the truth, every noun, every verb
I never exaggerated one line, one dime
Never lied to the people, not one time”

For aspiring hustlers and those living the street life, Jeezy says his word is gospel.

The album helped make the Atlanta rap scene take off in the mainstream. But trap would eventually be bigger than even Jeezy or T.I and become an international phenomenon. Trap would extend its presence with a new sound coming from Toronto, as well as Latinx artists developing their own take on trap.

But trap forebearers Gucci Mane, OJ Da Juiceman, and Waka Flocka Flame helped turn the genre into what it is today.

Where is Trap Today?

Trap has recently developed an international flavor. Toronto took the trap sound and made ambient, moody music that has been embraced the world over. While Atlanta focused on bringing the drums of the 808s out, Toronto’s sound is often mutated resembling something more out of EDM than hip hop. 

Toronto is more melodic, and sparse with its treatment of the 808s. One only need think of a Sean Leon track and you can hear the airy synths that sound like they’re part of a molly comedown. 

Songs like “King ST. W,” or “25 & Whyln,” have moments where Leon lets the beat breathe so long you would think you’re listening to an interlude.

Toronto trap is often denoted by its reflective nature. Often Toronto rappers will contemplate their life choices and vices vis-à-vis The Weeknd. 

Jazz Cartier went so far as to brand his music as “cinematic trap,” epitomized by his sophomore effort. Hotel Paranoia is a master class in utilizing dark melodic trap music  that vacillates between self-doubt and self-aggrandizing. 

Then there’s the Latin Trap sound that has been encapsulated by Bad Bunny. Bursting onto the scene with his hit song “Soy Peor,” – which literally translates to “I’m the Worst” – Bad Bunny’s name became synonymous with Latin Trap.

Bad Bunny’s brand of Latin Trap was more emotive than even previous versions of trap. Songs like “200 MPH” or “Quien Tu Eres?” demonstrate dexterous musicality. 

Fusing reggaeton and trap was a natural evolution. Like Toronto’s trap music, Bad Bunny’s trap music infused with reggaeton takes cues from Jamaica’s dubbing culture. 

Bad Bunny’s trap is so rich in influence, it feels almost decadent. No wonder why then he became the poster boy for  “música urbana,” the appellation given to Latin Trap. He can create braggadocious rhymes over Dem bow riddims and then turn around and collaborate with Ricky Martin. 

Roland 808 and Mannie Fresh

Sonically, trap evolved through the use of the Roland 808. Afrika Bambaataa’s pioneering “Planet Rock,” is credited with first introducing the sound of 808s into the collective consciousness. Through the Roland 808, hi-hats became a fixture in hip hop.

Producer Mannie Fresh’s drum sequencing placed hi-hats front and center, helping spread the sound beyond just the American south. Fresh was a hi-hat evangelist, promulgating the sound with his work with Cash Money Records.

Mannie Fresh’s use of hi-hats and synthesizers would help shaped things to come. His compositions would often take the synth sounds from old funk records while combining his trademark 808 drums. His ear for production helped rap get more in touch with more ersatz sounds. 

Without Mannie Fresh, trap music would not have spread as far and wide as it did.

The Brick Squad

1017 Records, better known as Bricksquad, helped catapult trap music to another stratosphere. Founded by Gucci Mane, the label put on some of the most prominent purveyors of trap music.

Flockavelli and Trap Music’s Apex

Gucci Mane furthered the evolution of trap by signing early proponent of the trap sound, Wacka Flocka Flame. Flame later became one of the most recognized names associated with trap music.

Wacka Flocka Flame’s studio debut, Flockavelli was anti-corporate America. An insular taste of the streets. It’s raw qualities with various ad-libs celebrate a rough-around-the-edges approach. 

The album centers around perfecting the ‘hood banger. Imagine DMX being pumped with testosterone while watching cage-fighting and you have an idea of the manic energy on the majority of songs. 

“Fuck the Club Up,” featuring Pastor Troy tries to recreate the energy of Three 6 Mafia’s “Tear Da Club Up,” which was notorious for creating a hostile club environment. Flockavelli taps into this visceral energy and often veers into distasteful territory.

But that is its charm. It is a rejection of placating to corporate America or being radio-friendly. It retains much of the grit often associated with critically acclaimed groups like the Wu-Tang Clan or Boot Camp Clik. 

Trap was once insular. Meant to be the streets anti-statement towards the industry. It provided a sociopolitical context for the often poor housing conditions of public housing that often affected the poor African Americans of Atlanta.

Pink Trap House

But trap music as with all of hip hop continues to evolve. Artist 2 Chainz, for the release of his Pretty Girls Like Trap Music album offered free HIV-testing and held an art gallery in a property that he bought that famously became known as the pink trap house.

Other endeavours into making trap more palatable include T.I. creating a trap museum in Atlanta.

Atlanta has a complex history. During the 1970s there was major push to revamp the city by then-Mayor Maynord Jackson who decidedly chose to modernize Atlanta by building up its airport.

Atlanta has been home to the world’s busiest airport by pedestrian traffic since 1998. Thus, Atlanta became a mecca of sorts. But the attention it has received has been a double-edged sword.

Everyone knows Atlanta for its strip clubs. And the musical output coming from Atlanta reflects that seedy underbelly. So trap music became an extension of an underground world. As funky and soulful as Outkast was, even they had tipped their hats to the hustlers and sex workers of Atlanta.

This image has been hard to shake off. Atlanta is also now becoming a city of transplants. So the preservation of Atlanta’s history is extremely important.

For a long time, Atlanta, has been seen as New York and L.A’s country cousin that didn’t get the respect it deserved. But in recent years, Atlanta has been having a renaissance. The New York Times has called Atlanta “hip hop’s center of gravity.”

So it stands to reason that the next generation of artists will look towards Atlanta for influence.

But For all its contributions and cultural capital in the music business, Atlanta hasn’t been able to translate that into hip hop having pull in the business community.

“People are scared of the young black creative,” recounts Wil May, the founder of Atlanta company #COOL, speaking to NPR

Though things are slowly starting to change.

Enter The Migos

Atlanta group, the Migos were already on the come up when they breakthrough to the mainstream after Drake decided to remix their song, “Versace.”

But it was the breakthrough hit “Bad and Boujee” produced by Metro Boomin with Lil Uzi Vert that sent them over the edge.

Migos have gone to become household names even being name-checked in an award speech by Donald Glover for his hit tv series Atlanta.

Migos were influential to the Atlanta scene. The triplet flow has become a mainstay in hip hop for a while now. The rising stars of the Migos brought back the spotlight to Atlanta with their charisma. And their lingo permeated the culture, so it was fitting that they called their sophomore effort Culture.

Appropriately, Migos did an homage to Soul Train. Migos like Soul Train have now become an integral part of black culture.

In an early interview with Dj Vlad, the Migos explain that the grew up listening to mostly Atlanta hiphop. Hiphop that had bounce. Certainly, trap music as a southern style of music had influences crunk, snap, and bounce music. On the song “Walk It Talk It,” we hear that bounce.

So Migos are important figures in the evolution of trap. They are carrying the torch for the Atlanta music scene. As is Future.

Has Trap Lost Its Soul?

One of the characteristics trap has taken on since its progressed is its druggy aesthetic.

Trap music has been referencing lean since at least 2008 where it was referenced on OJ Da Juiceman and Gucci Mane song “Good Night,”. Although, lean has been a fixture in southern hip hop for a long time even pre-dating the chopped and screwed era.

Lean went on to become part of the trap star image after Future released his Dirty Sprite mixtape. Future’s now iconic and often emulated vocal performances mimic the psychedelic influence of the drug. So it wasn’t a complete surprise that the sound made its way into drug-fueled rave music.

In a 2013 article with DJ Mag, producer Drumma Boy explains that trap music is a lot like trance music. The parallels explain how trap made its way into the electronic music festival circuit. Rappers like Waka Flocka Flame have been known to dip their toes into the neon iridescent water of EDM.

Trap has moved away from its connection to the streets to be more about the sound. It’s more of a state of mind.

However, its importance to Atlanta should not be forgotten and the efforts to document trap music have been commendable. Acts like Future and the Migos are carrying on the spirit of Jeezy and Gucci Mane.

Trap has many connotations. For some it represents the gritty reality of Atlanta, for others its the dark mind state of someone who is out on the hustle. A hurried existence.

Eventually, people will move on from trap music but it has definitely left an indelible mark on hip hop. Trap started as a statement, became a movement, then a sub-genre, then a musical influence.

The evolution of trap has nearly spanned the last decade. Trap has become its own distinct style that rappers can incorporate. Artists like Drake, ScHoolboy Q, and Kendrick Lamar, have borrowed from trap music as an inventive way to spruce up and service some of their songs.

The state of trap music and what it is is constant flux. Trap has become its own sort of language that has refused to die. Hip hop listeners can’t quite define it at first but instantly know it when they hear it.

Trap germinates. Trap is 808s. Trap is talking about the streets. Trap is Atlanta. Trap is Toronto. Trap is Latin culture. Trap is EDM. Trap is everything under the sun. Trap we now know is permeable.

It’s an abstraction. A vague concept. But if I had to pinpoint one thing we can definitely call trap is that it is a state of mind. It’s trap or die; or in other words; evolve or perish.

Below is a timeline of how trap has changed and evolved over the years.

A Trap Timeline

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