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Introduction to the Subgenres of Hip-Hop!

[PC: Cover Art for Memphis 2000 Album]

The world of Hip-Hop may have officially begun on August 11th, 1973 on 1520 Sedgwick Avenue in New York City, within the walls of a seemingly innoxious community room which, as of 2013 until the present, now serves as low-income housing for residents of NYC, but as of 2020, the traditional genre has sprouted categorial offshoots galore, and what was considered Hip-Hop now is as nebulous as the categories it helped create. From more ordinary subgenres like Alt-Rap, Christian Rap, Gangsta Rap, and Pop Rap, to more terminologically unfamiliar but audibly recognizable subgenres like Nerdcore, Horrorcore, Cloud Rap, and even the polemic genre of Mumble Rap [here is an ‘example’], audiences nationally and internationally have been touched by the cultural movement that started more than 50 years ago in the heart of New York City. Because of the proliferation of mainstream circles of influence with artistic outlets galore, i.e., Television channels, Indie and Popular Artists with their released music, award shows small and large, Professional blogs and socio-cultural ‘news’ networks, the face pace of Social Media in its multifarious formats, live and digital concerts, Independent Labels and their Corporate conglomerate big brothers, etc., it can be arduous to know everything, let alone something about the state of music, and even smaller, let alone a single genre among the hundreds, if not thousands now firmly planted in the musical firmament we can musical modernity.

Thus, I thought I would take the opportunity to walk you through, albeit briefly, five subgenres of Hip-Hop that are relatively ubiquitous in their usage in modern Hip-Hop musical aesthetics, both on a smaller scale like Soundcloud and Indie Artists, to larger names and supplanted figures in contemporary American culture. The phenomenon of the need for musical labels, genres, and their sister-street alternatives, is interesting all on its own, and research conducted in 2011 by a team of three Psychologists regarding the deepening of conscious understanding about human musical preferences had preliminary discovered that of 14 musical genres, they could be boiled down to four categories, namely 1) reflective & complex, 2) intense & rebellious, 3) upbeat & conventional, and 4) energetic & rhythmic, although further classifications were discovered as well. One of the main points made was that musical preference was heavily influenced by social factors revolving around the music chosen, pointing to the vital influence of exterior stimuli in the cultivation of musical taste, affinity, and disdain.

[PC: David Wolff, the subject is Spaceghostpurrp - Getty Images]

What this tells us is that genre could be considered a humanistic attempt to categorize an ever-transforming soundscape of noises and stimuli that give an acoustic form to the social climate of the times and locality from whence it originated. With this definition, genre becomes more pliable and thus is able to match the changing ethnographic framework that it finds itself situated within, neither becoming subsumed nor staying on the fringes, but quite literally answering the call of modernity itself. As I will show, the construct we call genre is nothing more than a fickle identity marker for a substance that has no physical tangibility and that is, in its makeup, only an ordered cluster of sounds that we call X, Y, or Z. Get ready to meet some genres that you already, most likely, know and maybe have a fond appreciation for, but simply cannot recall the technical name for the sounds that you have heard. You’d be surprised at how much you know about music that you don’t realize you are able to recall until you call to mind the acquired information in an external context!

Thank you for reading, and if you enjoy posts like these, please feel free to like or share! If you have any suggestions on songs, topics, or general inquiries you want to be discussed, be sure to check out my website and send me a message!


1. Memphis Rap [Early 1990s-]

With synth notes laying over eerie tonalities and uneasy lyrical stylings paired with grungier visuals, the alternative name of Memphis Horrorcore lives up to its name. Often punctuated with a ‘low-budget’ aesthetic [i.e., Juicy J, “Stomp”], along with sparse instrumentalization, the emphasis is placed on gangsta representation and defense of one’s reputation. Artists include: Gangsta Pat, Three 6 Mafia, SpaceGhostPurrp, Lil 808 Official, just to name a few of the many today.

2. Boom Bap [mid 1980s - early 1990s]

A play on words, the name refers to the characteristic sound that an acoustic drum loop uses when implemented within a track. Utilizing a bass kick for the ‘boom’, while the ‘bap’ is produced by a snare flourish, this aesthetic layer is less a formal genre and more of a compositional tool that has become ubiquitous in a plethora of musical categories such as R&B and Reggae. It is pretty common in 90s Rap [Diamond D & The Psychotic Neurotics - Best Kept Secret], although used rarely today. Artists include: Big Daddy Kane, Ol’ Burger, Supafuh, DJ A.I., the list goes on!

3. West Coast Rap [1970s-]

‘Birthed’ by legends Alonzo Williams and Rodger Clapton, West Coast Rap has undergone various stages of development, in the early 70s being more dance inclined thanks to Williams and Clapton’s DJing excursions. However, in the 80s, and especially after the release of ‘Straight Outta Compton’, the aesthetic changed from dance to street edge, opting for socially aware lyrics, falling more into gangster rap with unapologetic violent tinges. Artists who defined this style are: Ice-T, Snoopy Doggy Dog, Dr. Dre, K-Dee, and many others.

4. Phonk [2000s-]

Considered to be the ‘sound of GenZ’, Phonk takes its musical genetics from an eclectic sampling of 90s genres like Memphis Rap and West Coast’s grungier aesthetic, however, in the recent decade, it has been shifted towards a jazzier framework. The genre itself is of the contemporary times and has absorbed the lighter notes of classical melodies, the sampling craze, as well as utilizing the chopped and screwed technique for gritter textures. Artists include: DJ Smokey, DJ Yung Vamp, Soudiere, Roland Jones, Mask the Slump God, Trippie Redd, although many others do exist.

5. Drill Music [2010s-]

Perhaps the youngest of the genres sampled today, Drill chiefly hails from the Southside of Chicago and its main face, Rapper Chief Keef [Keith Cozart] has said that the core elements of Drill is its tie to its locality, Dro City. It embodies the entirety of the culture: the lingo, the dances, the mentality, and the music.” Musically, its texts revel in their piteous fate, its sonorities are ominous and foreboding, and yet critics describe not as fatalistic, but simply itself. Artists include: Young Chop, Chief Keef, Lil Durk, Fredo Santana, SD, and Lil Rees. However, there are breakout variants, i.e., UK Drill and Brooklyn Drill.


Writer: John David Vandevert []


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