“There’s a different culture of artists coming through hip-hop right now,” says TM88, the Atlanta producer who worked with Future and Gucci Mane before helming “XO Tour Llif3.” Lil Uzi Vert is leading a new wave of MCs who explicitly reference the style, live dynamics and messages of traditional punk. And unlike previous hardcore movements in hip-hop, this one is staking a claim at the genre’s center. While mainstream figures like Uzi and Travis Scott have made headlines for their unhinged concerts, buzzed-about MCs like XXXTentacion and Playboi Carti have followed them into the top 40 with corrosive, drubbing beats.
“It’s not melodic; it’s aggressive, it’s violent, it’s misogynistic, and it plays extremely well live,” says Jeff Vaughn, vp A&R at Artist Partner Group, a joint venture with Atlantic Records. Many of these rappers -- including Lil Pump, Pouya and Smokepurpp -- come from Florida, a longtime hardcore mecca, and their songs share characteristics with early punk singles: They’re short, repetitive, wrapped in distortion and grimly effective. It’s also not unusual to hear lyrics full of gunplay, pill-popping and sordid sex fantasies that would understandably alienate the casual rap listener. “It’s what the game needs now,” says Ski Mask the Slump God, a native of Florida’s Broward County whose blistering scream-rap song “Take a Step Back” has 28 million SoundCloud plays. “Someone who doesn’t give a fuck about the rules and is just going to fuck shit up.”
The punk influence has spread to the scene’s visual decor: The general style frequently evokes grubby basement shows, and artists often sport black T-shirts emblazoned with the logos of punk and metal bands like Bad Brains, Slayer and Metallica. Promoter Alex Damashek, who has staged rap shows in New York for over a decade, cites “ripped jeans, dyed hair and nose rings” as part of the uniform. “The skater aesthetic is a big part of it,” adds Heath Miller, vice president/talent buyer for Manhattan’s Webster Hall, and because moshing is prevalent, “you don’t see people with their fresh white kicks.”
Scott has also pushed his recent shows to a new level of intensity: the “Goosebumps” rapper caught flak for encouraging fans to jump from the second-floor balcony during an April show at New York’s Terminal 5 (one fan sustained minor injuries). Earlier this year, Damashek organized a show with Ski Mask and Wifisfuneral; the crowd started moshing during the opening DJ set and continued through the show’s three-hour duration.
“They’re basically doing exactly what punk rock did to classic rock in the 1980s,” says Damashek. “They take a middle finger to the rules.”
That anti-establishment sentiment has always been the shared root between punk and hip-hop. “That’s the connection -- to not be ground down by the machine,” says John Lydon, the 61-year-old former leader of the Sex Pistols who was part of a punk-rap fusion with Afrika Bambaataa in 1984. In the 1990s and 2000s, hip-hop acts like Cypress Hill and Beastie Boys flirted with punk signifiers, though it was more common for rock groups like Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit to borrow hip-hop styles than it was for black MCs to nod to the predominantly white punk world.
One underrated punk-rap strain, according to TM88: crunk music, which briefly dominated top 40 radio in the mid-2000s. “When Lil Jon was doing it, everybody was jumping and fighting in the club,” he says. This decade, L.A. collective Odd Future evoked a punk spirit with uncontainable energy and pitch-black lyrics, while Kanye West’s 2013 Yeezus album was full of squalling, scorched-earth beats.
The rise of abrasive rap is a logical backlash to a mass softening of popular hip-hop. Artists like Drake and Chance the Rapper emphasize melody and have scored tuneful smashes, while the pillowy instrumentals of rap-inflected tropical house (think Maroon 5’s “Don’t Wanna Know” with Kendrick Lamar) have taken over pop radio.
Vaughn started noticing the streaming power of dissonant rap eight months ago, right around when XXXTentacion’s “Look at Me!” started accruing millions of plays. The distortion-filled single from the controversial Lauderhill, Fla., native (last October, he was arrested for attacking his pregnant then-girlfriend) hit No. 34 on the Hot 100. Atlanta’s Playboi Carti reached the top 40 with “Magnolia,” which builds around a loop of pummeling bass. Meanwhile, the SoundCloud page of New Orleans duo $uicideboy$ is filled with songs that have racked up millions of plays each. One track, “You’re Now Tuning in to 66.6 FM with DJ Rapture (The Hottest Hour of the Evening),” is full of Kurt Cobain references and lyrics like “Fuck it if I die tonight, I’m gambling with my fucking life.”
For Ski Mask, who is touring with XXXTentacion, their movement will hinge on the live shows -- the combination of rhymes and mosh pits has caught on with a younger demographic. “There’s no point to paying your money and not getting a little buck wild,” says Ski Mask. “You better jump, get sweaty, almost pass out, have an experience.”
That experience won’t be ending anytime soon. Rumors of major-label signings follow Lil Pump and XXXTentacion, while older acts are responding to the public interest: Lil Jon recently featured on an ode to moshing titled “In the Pit.” And overseas crowds are responding in the same way that they reacted to Public Enemy -- by forming mosh pits. “I’m seeing this stuff become huge in Russia, Europe and Australia,” says Vaughn. “It feels global.”
This story originally appeared in the July 1 issue of Billboard.