The Origins of Trap Music
Trap has skyrocketed to global popularity in recent years, thanks to numerous producers that have demonstrated the style’s merit by creating infectious bangers that have dominated dancefloors worldwide. Much like dubstep did at the start of the decade, the surge of interest in trap was noticed by record label big-wigs eager to cash in on current underground trends, which resulted in a steady stream of chart-topping trap hits from some of the biggest names in mainstream music.
Unless you’re too cool for the radio, or you live in a cave and shun civilization entirely, you can probably recall many of them: there’s “Hard in the Paint” by Waka Flocka Flame, “7/11” by Beyonce, “Dark Horse” by Katy Perry and “Bitch Better Have My Money” by Rihanna, to name just a few. And, of course, there’s Baauer’s “Harlem Shake,” which spawned the internet meme of the same name back in 2013.
But what exactly is trap music? Where did the sound and style come from, and who are the pioneering beatmakers and rappers that developed its hallmarks? Well, we’re about to take a look.
The term “trap” was first used as a musical reference by rappers in Atlanta, Georgia, which included the likes of Goodie Mob and even Outkast, and was later adapted by similar artists in Texas, Tennessee and Mississippi. We can get a feel for its backstory just from understanding what the name refers to: a trap is a place where people buy and sell drugs, a hub for the lifestyles of doing and dealing that are extremely difficult to escape from. So “trap” eventually became the name for a subgenre of rap that focused on life in this situation, the soundtrack to the lives of merchants and buyers alike, which often expressed struggling to escape the lifestyle and make it big through music.
While the global popularity of the sound is a recent phenomenon, you might be surprised to discover that one of the earliest trap tunes was released way back in 1992! The song “Pocket Full of Stones” by Underground Kingz (better known as UGK) was featured on their album Too Hard to Swallow, and the lyrics described what it was like to go from being a lowly street dealer to a major kingpin. This song would lay the groundwork for an entire subgenre.
Upon listening to this track, you’ll probably notice that it doesn’t sound much like modern trap music – that’s because early trap rap was defined solely by its lyrical content, while the instrumentals stuck to conventional hip hop structure. That signature modern style we’re looking for has its roots in entirely different scenes, including 80s electro, Miami bass from the early 90s and crunk music of the late 90s and early/mid 2000s. Electro and Miami bass were important stepping stones towards trap, but without crunk, trap would have never been created.
While the DJ/producer duo known as Three 6 Mafia are considered to be the pioneers of crunk, it was Lil Jon that injected it into the mainstream with classic bangers such as “Yeah!” and “Get Low,” which became global hits. Lil Jon’s trademark minimalist yet neck-snapping beats would form the blueprint of what would later become trap, and by examining his production choices we can see why.
Crunk eschewed the complex rhyme patterns and dense subject matter of other forms of hip hop in exchange for simple verses, catchy chants and intentionally repetitive melodies, designed to get any party as turnt up as possible. The powerful sub-bass kicks and snappy claps and snares of the Roland TR-808 and 909 became staples of the subgenre, along with squeaking synth leads and, of course, those essential skittering hi-hats.
Starting to sound familiar, right?
Trap in the early 2000s still sounded pretty different from what we call trap today, since it was still focused on lyrical content, and remained flexible in terms of instrumental styles incorporated. Most popular during this time were heavy-hitting beats with plenty of strings and other orchestral instrumentation, as used by artists such as T.I., Rick Ross and Young Jeezy, who wrote lyrics describing the trap lifestyle. This remained a strong trend until the start of the new decade, when the next wave of pioneers finally connected the vibe and technique of crunk music with the lyrics of trap rappers, igniting a chemical reaction that’s stronger than ever today.
However, it wasn’t a matter of just applying crunk beats to trap rap lyrics: some producers borrowed heavily from the crunk sound, but slowed the BPM and went for a deeper, more resonant aesthetic. The development of this style can be attributed to one very prolific producer that would go on to create beats for some of the biggest names in the music industry, and is arguably the true founding father of modern trap. That man is Lexus Arnel Lewis, better known by his stage name, Lex Luger.
Everything you hear in your head when you think of trap music – the deep kicks and sub bass, tinny claps and rolling hi-hats – are all the direct result of this man’s work. Just like pioneers in any other genre, many other producers have emulated his sound in an attempt to cash in on its vast popularity, and it has since become the biggest subgenre in modern hip hop. Luger had his first breakthrough by making the instrumental for Waka Flocka Flame’s “Hard in the Paint,” his first work to receive major radio airplay. Due to the success of that song and the beat’s infectious energy, he was subsequently sought out by Kanye West, who expressed interest in working with him. Luger went on to make the instrumental for “H•A•M,” the first single from Kanye West and Jay-Z’s collaborative album Watch the Throne, and later went on to work with Snoop Dogg, 2 Chainz, Juicy J, Wiz Khalifa and many others.
While trap is one of the most popular styles of music today, it has already birthed a number of offshoots and slight deviations that have made it an umbrella term in and of itself. There’s the drill music of Chicago producer Young Chop, who has primarily worked with rapper Chief Keef, the atmospheric liquid trap of acts like XXYYXX and Mr. Carmack, and other genre fusions such as trapstep and trap-a-ton (trap + moombahton). It’s come a long way since its inception back in the early 90s, and it’s guaranteed to stick around as a staple of modern electronic music for years to come.