How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk

How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk

From the UK’s Slowthai to JPEGMAFIA and Rico Nasty in the US, a thrilling hip-hop punk hybrid sound is stirring young people into a frenzy, writes Thomas Hobbs.

There are few things more exhilarating than being stuck in the middle of a mosh pit during a JPEGMAFIA show.

On stage at this year’s Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona, the 30-year-old US rapper’s topless body, dripping with sweat, contorts urgently as he channels the aggression of the crowd into brutal bursts of movement that sit somewhere between an intoxicated Iggy Pop and an irate DMX.

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With vocals that quickly shift from gentle to vicious, the artist, real name Barrington Hendricks, raps rapidly like a machine gun, with lyrics, couched in internet speak, that are often scathingly satirical. One of his songs is called I Might Vote 4 Trump, while on his typically experimental new album, All My Heroes Are Cornballs, he raps, as a black man, about wanting to be adopted by Madonna and merrily drinking the tears of “rednecks”.

How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk
View image of (Credit: David Hanes-Gonzales)

But the fact he does all this over ugly, uneven beats, built around thick waves of distortion and screaming synths, means Hendricks could just as easily be categorised as punk rock as hip-hop. Free the Frail, one of his new LP’s standout tracks, speaks directly to punk’s anti-capitalist values, as Hendricks claims: “I don’t rely on the strength of my image”. 

Back in the 1980s, rap and punk were both genres that got frowned upon by the elite just for being what they were – JPEGMAFIA, aka Barrington Hendricks

In Barcelona, as dozens of teenagers enthusiastically bang heads to songs with subversive titles such as I Cannot Wait Until Morrissey Dies and Digital Blackface, it’s easy to draw a parallel between Hendricks and the bold onstage personas of legendary anti-establishment acts like The Sex Pistols or The Clash, artists who also knew how to channel youthful angst into something euphoric and liberating.

Hendricks is happy to indulge in the comparison. “Back in the early 1980s when rappers couldn’t perform in the fancy venues because the police were too racist and scared, it was the punk venues letting them in to perform,” he tells BBC Culture. “I guess race was the big thing separating [rap and punk] in the general public eye, but they were both resilient genres that got [frowned upon] by the elite just for being what they were. They gave a home to outsiders. I [have] always felt like they were just the same thing, but both wrapped up in a different way.”

Growing up, he explains, he was equally enthusiastic about political rappers like Ice Cube and Chuck D as hardcore punk bands like Bad Brains and Fear. “I saw Fear perform live at a young age, so I guess you could say I draw from that same energy.”

Modern punk heroes

Today, JPEGMAFIA is one of dozens of young rappers and rap acts drawing heavily from the DIY ethos of punk rock to create music to be moshed to. The likes of Death Grips, Run The Jewels, Denzel Curry, Danny Brown, Sheck Wes, Rico Nasty, Ski Mask The Slump God, and Travis Scott (who was arrested back in 2017 after the police accused him of inciting a riot at one of his shows) perform with the same transgressive vigour of 1970s punk icons. When Sheck Wes plays the stirring Mo Bamba live, it recalls the renegade firecracker spirit of Nirvana’s iconic Smells Like Teen Spirit video.

In the UK, snarling Northampton rapper Slowthai thrillingly struts around the stage like a modern-day Sid Vicious. He blasts what he sees as the toxicity of Brexit Britain in a way that’s pure punk provocation. It’s no surprise, for example, that he carried around a fake severed head of Prime Minister Boris Johnson during his performance at last month’s Mercury Prize amid ugly beats inspired just as much by Gang of Four as Dizzee Rascal. His punk-ish rap peers include Scarlxrd and Master Peace. On the other hand, you could also point to the hip-hop influence of lo-fi British punk bands like Idles and Sleaford Mods as a sign of the convergence between the two genres.

How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk
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Prolific Long Island producer Kenny Beats, real name Kenneth Blume III, has worked with many of the aforementioned artists, helping shape the punk-rap sound that’s currently ruling the underground. He believes the fact more and more rap artists are gaining a penchant for primal screaming and ugly production is simply a reflection of our times. “The other month I played a show just 24 hours after there were two mass shootings here in America,” he says. “The planet is literally on fire, so what more can an artist like Rico Nasty do but scream? It’s instinctual to rappers at this particular moment. It’s how they process the world.” He says he’s currently producing a record for hardcore punk band Trash Talk “that’s pure thrash with no electronic drums, but that way of working isn’t too dissimilar from when I work with JPEGMAFIA or Slowthai.”

A 21st-Century protest

In this age of social media, where people fire off snarky political opinions every couple of seconds, Kenny believes that anti-establishment protest music can have trouble cutting through. To have a real impact, it’s less about what you say than how you say it. “You need to make people think about society in a less literal and more primal way,” he says. “It’s about using the least amount of sounds to make the most amount of noise and energy, and making a bass stab really feel like you’ve been punched in the face. A lot of the rap I produce really has that kind of punk essence. When I work with JPEGMAFIA he asks me for the worst beat possible as I guess a rapper that makes something that’s raw and ugly and chaotic is definitely going to stand out and feel more human right now, because things aren’t pretty out there.”

Rico Nasty, real name Maria Kelly, is a 22-year-old Maryland rapper every bit as enigmatic and hell-raising live as JPEGMAFIA – the fact she’s pushing similar buttons as a woman makes her, arguably, even more important. On songs like Bitch I’m Nasty and Rage, which are both produced by Kenny Beats, who also guided the music on her most recent album Anger Management, Kelly attacks the gnarly guitars and cutting drums with real venom, every word delivered like she’s face-to-face with her worst enemy. Sometimes she just starts screaming in between bars.

I’ll see straight guys moshing with the gay guys and I love that – Rico Nasty, aka Maria Kelly

Evoking the DC comic book character Harley Quinn, her bold onstage look is about reclaiming the colours white female punk artists wore before her and showing her fans, many of whom feel like outsiders, that they can be anything they want to be. It’s quietly revolutionary.

“If you come to a Rico Nasty show you’ll see all kinds of people, dancing together as one in the mosh pit,” she explains. “I’ll see straight guys moshing with the gay guys and I love that. A lot of these people aren’t able to let out their anger in the real world without being demonised, particularly black women, but they can at my show and to my songs. It’s a safe space to let out all the rage, and that’s healthy. It’s like group therapy.”

In a world with infinite choice, thanks to streaming platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music, Kelly believes fans expect more from their favourite artists – because, if their interest palls, they can quickly move on to something else. By embodying the fearless punk values of her hero Joan Jett, she can ensure she lives up to their estimations, she says. “They gotta see me go crazy on stage or I’m not doing my job! it’s all about showing emotions because they paid good money to see you and they don’t want to just see me stand still. You’re the person who made their favourite song so you should be performing until your voice cracks [like the punk artists voices’ used to do].”

How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk
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It’s something Hendricks very much agrees with. Punk in the 1970s was a reaction to the overly conceptual progressive rock that bands like Pink Floyd and Genesis were releasing. The Sex Pistols’ two-minute songs, which used a minimal amount of chords played as shoddily as possible, were in stark contrast to the stadium rock that some young people found pretentious.

Similarly, Hendricks believes the reason rap with punk sensibilities resonates right now is because the melodic ‘trap’ sound that has dominated the radio for so long is also starting to become stale. Hip-hop fans could be looking for something to counter the neatly produced club trap anthems by stars like Drake and Migos, which means music that’s more unhinged and doesn’t read from a script, and artists who enjoy giving their all on stage and are comfortable making people feel, well, uncomfortable.

“So much of rap sounds the same, and that’s okay, but that means some people want something that can be the complete opposite too. We’re entering an era where you have to leave a part of yourself on the stage and really make the crowd move. People aren’t going to just accept your presence or you miming to a song; you have to really do your job, you know? Maybe that’s where [punk-rap] comes in. I feel like this is the only time this sound really has a chance to break through into the mainstream.”

Two genres united

But if punk-rap makes sense for this particular cultural moment, it’s hardly a new phenomenon. As John Robb, the author of Punk Rock: An Oral History – and a rock legend in his own right as lead vocalist in post-punk band The Membranes – points out, rap and punk first became intertwined in the 1980s, a time when The Clash experimented with a rap edge on The Magnificent Seven.

He believes Public Enemy were the first band to really bring the two different audiences together, with their rough, hard-hitting boom-bap sound resonating with both black kids in the inner cities and white kids in the suburbs. The fact that, in the 1980s, iconic producer Rick Rubin would split his time between producing new albums for hip-hop acts like Run DMC and The Beastie Boys and hardcore bands like Slayer and The Cult, also helped to create links between the two cultures.  

“Public Enemy were really the first band to resonate with both camps,” says Robb. “Chuck D was a huge fan of The Clash and I know from speaking with him, he studied all of the punk bands. I saw them on the Anthrax tour and Public Enemy blew this hardcore band right off the stage. I’m sure every white punk fan in the audience became a rap fan after that.”

These kids live in such a distorted world that the music is lying if it isn’t distorted as well – John Robb

As the 1990s arrived, hip-hop’s punk sensibility was further enforced by in-your-face acts like Ice Cube, DMX, Onyx, and Rage Against the Machine. Then, although he’s easy to mock now, Atlanta rapper Lil Jon also spliced genres to innovative effect with ‘crunk’, his southern rap take on punk, which prioritised uncomfortably loud horns and repetitive screams. It’s no surprise that Denzel Curry, one of punk-rap’s most prominent artists, channelled Lil Jon’s trademark “what” screams on his 2018 song SUMO | ZUMO. “Lil Jon was definitely a pioneer for some of the punk-rap acts we see now,” agrees Kenny Beats. “He showed you could scream on a song and still have a hit on the radio. He even sampled [US heavy metal guitarist] Randy Rhoads, so it was obvious he knew what he was doing.”

But Lil Jon was hardly an anti-establishment renegade, more just someone who found a sound that stood out from the norm. It was around a decade ago that punk-rap really returned with a vengeance, via authentic anarchist acts like Tyler the Creator’s Odd Future collective. The Los Angeles group weren’t afraid to release incendiary singles where hooks were built around calls to burn schools, among other things, while beats were both manic and minimalist. They lived the punk life they rapped about, hanging out at skate parks and dingy clubs in three-day-old clothes. This DIY spirit made them feel like the black Sex Pistols. And Kanye West borrowed punk elements for his brilliantly bleak 2013 album Yeezus. On it, he took Odd Future-style industrial sonics and made them more palatable for the mainstream, sampling post-punk bands such as Section 25 and offering up riotous tirades like Black Skinhead.

How today’s rappers are resurrecting the spirit of punk
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

But Kenny Beats believes one of the most important songs in this new age of punk could be Look At Me by XXXTentacion – the controversial Florida rapper, real name Jahseh Onfroy, who was shot dead last year at the age of 20, while facing multiple criminal charges. The 2017 song features uncomfortable levels of distortion and unhinged vocals as Onfroy, then just a teenager recording in his bedroom with a cheap microphone bought on eBay, refers to himself as the new Kurt Cobain. Peaking at 34 on the Billboard 100, it was the moment punk-rap showed it could really be a force on the pop charts. 

“Whatever you think [about the person and the allegations], there’s no denying Look at Me was one of the most punk-rock moments in a long, long time,” says Kenny Beats, when asked why the song resonates so much with the current generation of rap fans. “You play it in a room and people are ready to riot. XXX sounds like a scary cult leader rapping over the worst sounding MP3 I’ve ever heard, but everything about that song bottles this idea of being young and not giving a damn. It’s the reason why you hear distorted drums on an Ariana Grande song or people putting out two minute singles. Its influence is everywhere. It doesn’t have a message, but that’s what makes it have one somehow.”

People get upset that the old rock ‘n’ roll attitude doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s right there in front of them – JPEGMAFIA, aka Barrington Hendricks

As conversation rages around Brexit, Trump and global warming, there is a feeling among some young people that they are paying for the sins of their parents and have inherited a world that is teetering on the edge. It’s in this context that the darker punk-rap sound has resonated deeply, says Robb. “These kids live in such a distorted world that the music is lying if it isn’t distorted as well.”

However, he’s keen to point out the impact of the internet in making this style of music popular too: “You’ve got to remember that genre boundaries don’t really exist like they did before. With streaming, every genre cross-pollinates into the next and you just hop from one thing to another. That makes it easier for punk-rap to thrive than it could in the 1980s or 1990s, as back then, everything had to be a hit on a radio. Now, you just put it on Soundcloud and it gets a million views and kids will treat like you like a rock star.”

So often, Hendricks says, he reads “lazy” articles from white music journalists speculating when guitar-driven punk is going to make a comeback and “save music”. Yet he believes this is a blinkered question founded in racism – critics are unwilling to acknowledge that punk never went anywhere, but its spirit is now embodied by hip-hop, and phallic guitars have been replaced by dusty 808 drums. 

“[Rock music] is stagnant, yet here we are in 2019 still clinging on to this old idea of what rock ‘n’ roll is. People get upset that the old attitude doesn’t exist anymore, but it’s right there in front of them: we’re the new rock stars”.

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