A way into: Horrorcore, Gangster Rap’s ugly cousin

By February 21, 2018


Image: Three 6 Mafia, Jay West via Wikimedia Commons

If you think you’ve got a penchant for the Marquis De Sade of rapper, or the Slipknot of hip hop collectives, then Horrorcore may be just thing for you. It doesn’t cater for those who spend all day waxing lyrical about what was in a Dilla crate that his mum sold to a man in Idaho for $400, nor does it preach the socio-political, conscious Kendrick Lamar rap; Horrorcore is a “pull you out bed at five in the morning, and extract your darkest nightmares” kind of hip hop.

Gangster Rap music has been suffering from accusations of First Amendment rights violations over the last couple of decades, with legislative bodies in the UK and US attempting to conflate rap lyrics with reality in order to sway juries and secure unjust convictions. The hip hop sub-genre that is Horrorcore doesn’t suffer the same attacks. Its content is so over the top that it bypasses the evidence locker and goes straight into the dumpster of narrative fiction.

Lying at the the intersection of iconoclasm and iniquity, some of the tropes you might find in this polarising Hip Hop sub-genre are: mental health, anti-religious sentiment, ultra-violence, misogyny, nihilism, and the occult.

Join me on a journey through some of Horrorcore’s canonical hits, old favourites and new flavours.

1. Geto Boys – Bring It On (Houston, Texas), 1993

Often credited — although I’m not sure by whom — as early pioneers of the Horrorcore sub-genre, Geto Boys transcend the boundaries of mere gangster rap, with their lyricism characterised by a horror film-like fictitious abjection, as well a taste for hyperbole.

‘Bring It On’ features a who’s who of Houston’s Rap-A-Lot Records, with Too Much Trouble, DMG, Big Mello, Mr. 3-2, Ganksta NIP, Odd Squad, 5th Ward Boyz, Seagram, and 2 Low all putting a word in. Odd Squad’s 1994 release ‘Fadanuf Fa Erybody!!’ is a real gem if you’re looking to catch up on the Rap-A-Lot back catalogue.

Of this list’s tracks, ‘Bring It On’ is probably the lightest in tone due the major keys in the melody loop that’s sampled, but just peep the content if you think it ain’t Horrorcore. Give it to em NIP: ‘So bring it on, I’m ready to slaughter. Sitting in church, drinking a 40 of holy water.’

2. Big L – Devil’s Son (New York, New York), 1993

A track now from an East Coast icon who died before his time, Big L. His track ‘Devil’s Son’ starts with the Nas sample, ‘When I was twelve, I went to hell for snuffin’ Jesus,’ and thus the tone is set.

The most foul line has to be: ‘It’s Big L and I’m all about takin’ funds, I’m a stone villain, known for killin’ and rapin’ nuns. Ayo, I even kill handicapped and crippled bitches, look at my scalp real close and you’ll see triple sixes.’

Big L is the only East coast artist to be featured on this list, but various New York residents had that Horrorcore sound, most notably The Wu-Tang Klan, as well as Onyx. 

3. Three 6 Mafia – Fuckin Wit Dis Click (Memphis, Tennessee), 1995

Speaking of triple sixes, no Horrorcore list would be complete without an addition from the Three 6 Mafia. Southern Gods, mixtape legends and Oscar winners, Three 6’s legacy is still felt strongly to this day. The production tool kit used by these guys in the early 90’s has informed much of the trap sound we now hear.

‘Fuckin Wit Dis Click’ is from their debut studio album Mystic Stylez, which was recorded on a 16-track in a basement studio in North Memphis, and rap has never been the same since. The track is deeply permeated by this wicked sound — from the minor key beats to the horror movie intro samples. Even the album cover is foul.

4. Brotha Lynch Hung – Liquor Sicc (Sacramento, California), 1995

Perhaps the quintessence of Horrorcore, ‘Liquor Sicc’ sees a spooky narrative intro give way to classic g-funk synths — it’s California hip hop like you’ve never heard it before. Taken from Brotha Lynch Hung’s second studio album, Season Of Da Siccness, Lynch tells tales of revenge, and muses on how to get equal with those who took the life of his cousin, Q-ball.

He raps about being ‘sicc’ off of liquor, drifting in and out of a state of consciousness and control. Blurring the lines of sanity is common trope within Horrorcore, and this album, as well as his first, 24 Deep, are brilliant exhibitions of the genre in its prime.

5. G Herbo (Lil Herb) – Jugghouse* (Chicago, Illinois), 2014

Ok, I’ll come clean, this one isn’t really Horrorcore, it’s drill music. drill music is another hip hop sub-genre originating from the unprecedentedly violent streets of Chicago. In the same time frame, more US Citizens died of gun crime in Chicago than died in Iraq, thus earning the Windy City a new nickname, Chiraq.

The sad thing is, the portraits G Herbo paints of life on the East Side of Chicago are filled with so much pain and death, you almost wish they were fiction. 

Similar to watching a scary movie, the fun of Horrorcore lies in its absurd, adrenaline-fuelled escapism. However, it’s important not to conflate it with real rap illustrations of problematic life in urban America, which is Lil Herb’s lyrical foundation. Easily one of the hardest tracks on the list, the horror of Jugghouse lies in its reality.

*A jugg house, also known as a trap house, is where a collective of individuals will collaboratively sell drugs.

6. XXXTENTACION – Look At Me (Lauderhill, Florida), 2015

XXXTENTACION is part of a new generation of face-tattooed rappers that blow  up on the internet. The Soundcloud success of XXXTENTACION is the modern equivalent of the mixtape success of groups like Three Six Mafia, both artists who experienced underground success outside of the major label sphere. 

‘Look At Me’ opens with the now famous line, ‘Ayy, I’m like “Bitch, who is your mans?” Ayy, can’t keep my dick in my pants.’ The track samples ‘Changes’ by Mala, which was remixed to perfection by Harmonimix (James Blake). The slowed down and distorted sample is characteristic of Horrorcore instrumentation, giving one the sense that something is slightly off.

Like all the rappers on this list, XXXTENTACION is product of his environment. For a closer look into the complicated Florida life that birthed artists like this, see Sean Baker’s 2017 drama, The Florida Project.

7. Eastghost – No Resistance No Demons (Portland, Oregon), 2016

Last but not least, we have a track that is by far the least gangster of the list, but perhaps the most horrific. The song was not made by a rapper but instead a bedroom producer from Oregon called Eastghost. It borrows musical tropes from Horrorcore to create a hybridised version of the sub-genre.

Pitched-down vocals and heavy distortion are the subject of the day, but as the track is production rather than lyrically orientated, ‘No Resistance No Demons’ is the most musically sophisticated track on the list, and probably one of my favourites.

Hail Satan!

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