Code Orange

Is Hardcore Punk's Current Boom at Odds With Its Outsider Ethos?

Over the summer, beloved mid-2000s Boston hardcore band Have Heart, broke their ten-year hiatus with a series of comeback shows, one of which drew upward of 8,500 people to a parking lot in Massachussets. It was arguably the biggest non-festival hardcore show of all time, and video footage of it -- and the sold-out ones that followed -- captured a genuinely breathtaking level of crowd participation. 

For old heads and young hardcore fans alike, it was one of many recent signs that the genre is in the midst of a considerable upswing. Ever since hardcore was birthed on the streets of New York in the early 80s, the rough-and-tough offshoot of punk has been alive and well. However, for the last few years, hardcore’s been having a moment that’s earned it recognition from outside of its healthy yet insular circle. 

In 2018, the Pittsburgh metallic hardcore band Code Orange were nominated for best metal performance at the Grammys, which was monumental for the hardcore community (Hatebreed’s 2005 nomination was the last time a hardcore-adjacent band was included in that category). Another popular contemporary hardcore band, Turnstile, played the big-ticket Coachella music festival earlier this year and collaborated with EDM overlord Diplo on their 2018 album Time & Space. And back in September, the sophomore album from Kentucky metalcore band Knocked Loose -- who came from hardcore and continue to play to hardcore audiences -- peaked at No. 26 on the Billboard 200, a rare feat for a hardcore band. 

Hardcore, at least aesthetically speaking, is also leaking into the mainstream. The album cover for rapper Playboi Carti’s lauded 2018 record, Die Lit, features a mosh pit from a hardcore punk show. Over the summer, Florida rapper Denzel Curry collaborated with hardcore legends Bad Brains and the cult-adored hardcore band Fucked Up on a couple songs. And for big time rappers like Travis Scott and Lil Uzi Vert, the success of their arena live shows are currently determined by the intensity of their mosh pits, which is how hardcore shows in basements and small clubs have been judged for decades . 

“It’s interesting when we talk about hardcore being successful or thriving: in context of what?” says Justice Tripp, who fronts two very different yet popular hardcore bands of the 2010’s, Trapped Under Ice and Angel Du$t. “For a lot of people [success] means huge sold-out shows, money coming in. In the context of hardcore, success and what it means to thrive means, basically: Did people jump off the stage? Did people spin-kick?

“Trapped Under Ice started playing at the Sidebar in Baltimore, which is a 90-cap room,” he continues. “And sold out or not, if people were spin-kicking we just sold out Madison Square Garden.” 

For most left-of-center genres of music, a period of eye-batting collaborations and historic accomplishments would be a cause for celebration. For hardcore, it’s trickier than that. On the whole, hardcore is a proudly self-imposed island nation within heavy music’s vast geographical makeup. And if you zoom in closer, it’s actually a fully-fledged archipelago; a series of individual styles and identities -- some heavier, faster, and/or catchier than others -- that all call themselves hardcore, but don’t always agree on what hardcore really means. 

The genre formed as a direct alternative to the explosion of punk in the late ‘70s, by youths who wanted an even more aggressive style of music. Whereas punk rock was identified by the cartoonish bops of the Ramones and the eventually stadium-sized anthems of The Clash, early ‘80s hardcore bands like Black Flag and Bad Brains were marked by chaotic yelling and violent mosh pits. By the end of the ‘80s, hardcore had logically begun to mix with metal (which was developing its multifaceted identity at the same time), and from the early ‘90s until now there’s been a thriving -- and at times Billboard-dominating -- conglomerate of the two styles, aptly dubbed metalcore. However, by virtue of hardcore’s roots in punk and its generally accepted ethos (anti-authoritarian, socially progressive, DIY), the community has always distinguished itself from metal, while at the same time distancing itself from most of punk’s subgenres. 

By willfully -- and again, proudly -- avoiding full-on assimilation with two rock subgenres that do, despite their own reactionary identities, provide opportunities for commercial success, hardcore has historically secured its own isolation from both the pop and rock zeitgeists. It’s outsider music made by and for young rowdy outsiders, and its success has never been defined in monetary or populist terms. 

“Hardcore is gonna stay where it’s at because it’s just its nature to alienate, to be slightly off of the zeitgeist,” Patrick Kindlon says. He’s been fronting hardcore bands since the early 2000s (currently: Self Defense Family and Drug Church) and also hosts a comprehensive weekly hardcore podcast called Axe to Grind, which makes him a historian in hardcore years. “Not far enough that you can’t play shows, but far enough that you can’t break as big as you could in other genres of music.”

Therefore, what does it mean for a genre that’s intrinsically hermetic and individualist to attain notoriety from outside of its own pits? Whether it be a Grammy nomination, a Coachella performance, or even a handful of uncommon major label signings (Turnstile, Angel Du$t, and Code Orange each signed to Roadrunner Records, a division of Warner Music Group, over the last few years). And more importantly, why is the genre’s reach extending now of all times? 

Both Tripp and 33-year-old Sunny Singh -- a hardcore archivist who’s filmed over 3,000 hardcore sets for his popular YouTube channel Hate5six -- agree that accesbility is the biggest factor. “A lot of people are discovering hardcore through different vectors, whether it’s YouTube or Spotify,” Singh says. “It’s just so much easier now to discover it and I think there’s such a variety of bands that are in hardcore, or are hardcore-adjacent, that are acting as gateways and bringing these people in.”

That phrase “hardcore-adjacent” might be the single most definitive trait of the genre in its current form. Throughout the last decade, many of the most popular hardcore bands are the ones who’ve incorporated other styles of music into their own. Much of that influence came from metal, which is clearly represented in the Hate5six YouTube stats. Most of the top-viewed sets on the channel are from various types of metallic hardcore bands like Code Orange, Jesus Piece, Knocked Loose, Vein, Nails and Power Trip; bands whose hardcore identities are constantly debated in the comments sections, but who wouldn’t have even been given a seat at the table in decades prior. 

Vein’s style of hardcore is particularly unique to the current era because of the unabashed influence they draw from nu-metal. The subgenre, which blends rap vocal deliveries and hip-hop rhythms with metallic instrumentation, dominated rock radio in the late ‘90s and was, by virtue of its popularity, completely derided by the hardcore community. Now, for a band comprised of early twenty-somethings like Vein, pulling from groups like Slipknot and Korn has become a totally acceptable influence. 

“To an actual kid, like a 23-year-old, Korn might as well be The Rolling Stones,” Kindlon says. “Because [Korn is] just this inescapable thing that you grew up with. It was something that was playing on terrestrial radio. So I see kids now doing bands that have overt Korn parts because they think it’s fun and funny.”

Other outside genres have crept in as well throughout the decade. Industrial is a big influence on Code Orange and Harms Way; disco and dimension-bending pop can be heard in the bafflingly sweet melodies of The Armed; Tripp namechecked the jangly post-punk of The Feelies as an inspiration for the latest Angel Du$t record, which is littered with acoustic guitars; and trendy up-and-comers like Krimewatch and Show Me The Body draw from hip-hop as much as punk. 

“Kids are much more fearless on influences right now,” Kindlon says. “When Turnstile put out Nonstop Feeling everybody said, ‘There’s 311 parts in this.’ And instead of getting defensive, they just kept playing music. And the result was people said, ‘Oh, I guess that’s cool.’ And shockingly, it was!” 

“I think young people are on that,” Tripp says. “They don’t give a f--k about what you label something. They’re not trying to put a lot of walls up around the term of their genre.” 

Connie Sgarbossa was one of those kids who grew up with the idea that genre is arbitrary. She’s the 24-year-old frontwoman of the rising self-proclaimed “metalcore” band SeeYouSpaceCowboy, who began in the screamo scene (a sister scene to hardcore that blends ‘90s-style emo with screams that are more pained than assertive) but now operate within the hardcore community. They just finished up a U.S. tour with Knocked Loose, Stick To Your Guns, Rotting Out and Candy, four very different bands that all fall under the broad tent of hardcore that Sgarbossa’s generation is propping up. 

“I thought Poison the Well and Harms Way were both in the same scene,” she says of the hardcore and metalcore bands, respectively, while talking about her introduction to the genre. “I feel like back in the day there was this movement where hardcore is hardcore, it’s just this. And anything else is not that. But now we have bands like Knocked Loose. . .they’re definitely a metalcore band. But they’re in the hardcore scene. Sanction plays deathcore breakdowns, but it’s f--king sick and they incorporate that into their music to create this great blend.” 

Bands like those and SeeYouSpaceCowboy, who sound more like bands you’d see at Warped Tour than on local hardcore bills, are acting as gateways into hardcore for people with all sorts of different tastes. A recent example that underscores the genre’s wide net is the Florida emo/indie band Pool Kids. After releasing a well-received emo-pop album in 2018, the Tallahassee quartet pulled a silly yet earnest April Fools joke earlier this year and released a two-song 7” under the name POOL (a cheeky nod to Code Orange, who dropped the “kids” from their name in 2014) that’s full-on bludgeoning beatdown hardcore. 

“While we were sort of doing it as a joke, all of us are hardcore and punk fans, and this was a fun opportunity to branch out and do something completely different from what we normally do,” 22-year-old Nicolette Alvarez says, whose throat-searing vocals you can hear on the recording. 

As a band from outside of the hardcore community, they were genuinely taken aback by how welcoming the scene was to their winking embrace of the genre. “Even people on the internet in the meanest subreddits out there have only been super supportive, guitarist Christine Goodwyne says. “I seriously went into this expecting backlash, like people saying we’re making a joke of their genre or being super gate-keepy and just ragging on us. But I literally have not seen one comment like that.”

This type of sonic and social inclusivity is in turn opening up hardcore to people of different identities and backgrounds. Over the summer, the evergreen -- and totally legitimate -- debate about representation in the hardcore scene cropped up again, and many people took the genre’s overwhelmingly white male makeup to task. However, while hardcore’s violent live shows and majority masculine fanbase make it look unwelcoming on its surface, some of the scene’s marginalized members think it’s already more inclusive and diverse than it gets credit for. Sgarbossa, a trans woman who comes from an anarchist punk tradition, thinks hardcore is “one of the most inclusive genres you can find right now.” 

“There are genres like metal and s--t that are way less progressive than hardcore, way less inclusive,” she says. “Because it’s not part of their mantra to be. That’s why hardcore is important, because it is in our ethos to be inclusive, to be progressive.”

“I understand the anxiety,” she continues. “I understand the fear associated with being a minority in the scene. But there’s really nothing stopping you. Extreme transphobia doesn’t exist in the hardcore scene, at least not from what I’ve experienced.”

However, there are signs that people with socially regressive, right-wing viewpoints are also finding hardcore as it becomes more accessible to people who aren’t familiar with its ethos. As someone who spends a great deal of time browsing YouTube comments, Singh has a unique vantage point for seeing the types of voices who are new to hardcore. 

“One thing I’ve noticed is that as more people are discovering hardcore through a recommended video, or they see a hardcore band play a fest and they discover it that way, people who don’t have progressive politics are [coming in],” he says. “So I’ve been seeing a lot more right-leaning opinions seep in, whether it’s in the comments section or people directing really disgusting racism at me for various reasons. People don’t know about the history of hardcore being a rejection of society and trying to create an alternative space.”

But that dissonance has also created an opportunity for dialogue between socially progressive hardcore fans and these uninformed newcomers. “I’m seeing more debate between people saying, ‘Why is this band talking about black lives matter during their set? They should just shut up and play their music,’” Singh says. “ And then seeing the counter argument, like, ‘Well, no, hardcore comes from punk and the whole thing about punk is to talk about social issues.’”

In fact, hardcore’s socio-political focus was an incredibly liberating and fulfilling way for Pool Kids to explore themes that they didn’t feel they could in their emo music. 

“We felt freed to talk explicitly about environmental issues when we started doing POOL,” Alvarez says. “Many times I’ve seen other indie/emo artists kind of skirt around speaking on things and trying to take an a-political route with branding, marketing, lyrical content, etc. And I think the attitude and the nature of the music itself allows hardcore artists to talk bluntly about issues when they are and aren’t performing.”

Everyone who contributed to this article thinks that hardcore’s openness to new styles, perspectives and identites is generally a good thing. However, in terms of the scene’s cultural understanding of its musical lineage, Kindlon is wary that a genre that’s more invested in its outside influences is standing on shaky ground. 

“If hardcore has an identity now, it’s ashamed of itself more than it’s ashamed of its influences,” he says. “And that’s very different from the way that I grew up… I see the memes. People will slam hardcore, largely the scene but also the music, while extoling the virtues of third-rate nu-metal. To think that the genre that you’re playing is silly but your out of genre influences are not, that’s a world of difference from what I was accustomed to. And I think that that’s helped shape the current landscape.” 

However, one could argue that hardcore’s never been defined by a specific sound. While seeking members for the now-legendary hardcore band Agnostic Front in the early 80s, Vinnie Stigma chose recruits based on how good they were in pits and how loyal they were to the scene -- not for their musical prowess. From there, “scene citizenship” and one’s investment in the hardcore community were of equal, if not more, value than their actual take on the music. Today, most hardcore kids don’t run their local scenes as if they’re organizing a gang. But the modern-day translation of the hardcore mentality is still completely intangible.

“The mindset [of hardcore is] that we’re all here to make music for catharsis,” Sgarbossa says. “That we do this not to make it big or be successful. We do this because there’s some unrest inside of us that we need to let out in some way. And that’s why to me the genre doesn’t necessarily matter. As long as we’re playing music for catharsis or listening to it for that, and you’re going to shows to get away from your daily life, to experience something that makes you feel okay for a little bit.”

For Tripp, the defining factor is authenticity. He’s quick to acknowledge that he holds the unpopular opinion among his 30-something peers that emo-rappers like Wicca Phase Springs Eternal and Ghostemane, both of whom come from hardcore in some way, should be included under the hardcore umbrella. He feels the same way about Vein and Denzel Curry. 

“If you look at what punk is throughout history it’s sounded like so many things,” he continues. “And the only common factor is, like, it’s authentic. Somebody can play their instruments or not; they can be violent and fast; it can be slow, it can be anything. And really hardcore, metal and all that s--t: it’s all punk in mentality.”

No one’s able to predict what the next few years will entail for hardcore. With bands like Code Orange, Knocked Loose and Power Trip solidifying their bases in the metal scene (a genre that’s kind to aging artists), rappers like Carti and Curry sporting hardcore in the mainstream, and a band like Have Heart demonstrating that blowout reunions are feasible, there’s reason to hope that this boom period will lead to something greater. Kindlon ruefully disagrees. 

“I want to say that everybody’s having a moment because that’s what sounds positive and what we need to hear right now. But I’ve been around too long to say anybody’s having a moment.” 

He thinks back to a few points in hardcore’s history that can be compared to the current moment in question. For instance, Roadrunner signed bands like Madball, Vision of Disorder, and Earth Crisis during metalcore’s fledgling years, but none of those bands became household names outside of hardcore. Sick of it All and Crime In Stereo also had their own promising brushes with mainstream breakouts, but neither of them ever quite got there.

“It’s almost in [hardcore’s] DNA to self-destruct,” he says. “I think it’s just the nature of the thing. It’s music aimed at young people and it’s also highly physical. So you can be in a shoegaze band until you’re 65. If you’re doing posi jumps on stage at 40, you better be in superior physical condition.”

And even if you can bust moves and put on a hell of a show to 8,500 screaming fans, Kindlon doesn’t think that sort of magnitudinal energy is sustainable. “There were a lot of people who attended those Have Heart shows who haven’t been to a show in eight years. Because we’re talking about Facebook olds. We’re talking about people who use Facebook and say things like, ‘Oh s--t, comin’ out of mosh retirement.’”

But for a genre that’s been energized for almost 40 years by small rooms of passionate spin-kickers, all of this predicting and analyzing is ultimately moot. Clearly, there are still swaths of people all over the world who find some sort of solace in the loosely defined-yet-viscerally felt context of hardcore. There will always be young people and there will always be outsiders. Popular bands will pop up, moments will be had, moments will cease, and then new artists will take their place. The hardcore lifecycle has always been that way, and maybe that’s what’s prevented the scene from ever caving in on itself. 

“Hardcore’s kinetic,” Sgarbossa says. “It’s always changing, it’s always moving. It can’t be static.”