I remember when it was considered weird to like electronic music.
It was only four years ago. I had just returned from my first rave: a too-hot, too-sweaty disaster of a massive held at the Cow Palace. As I gushed to my high school classmates about my amazing experience getting lost in the stylings of Steve Aoki, Boys Noize, and Benny Benassi, I was met with a mix of disgust and confusion. Weren’t raves really dirty? Didn’t the music sound like Transformers having sex? Don’t you have to be on ecstasy to like that shit?
I remember when friends wouldn’t let me play dubstep in the car. Yesterday, a girl of about sixteen drove by me playing this. The times have changed.
Electronic dance music is now everybody’s dance music. The artists I saw four years ago now take top billing at Coachella and other glow-in-the-dark festivals, attendance of which has become the highest expression of social pertinence. No pop singer has truly made it until she’s collaborated with Calvin Harris, and the hardest drop to hit my speakers in the last year came from a Taylor Swift song played over the . At the breakneck pace of a song, electronic music has flown forth from a thousand murky, underground tributaries and spiked the waters of the entire mainstream.
In today’s cult of the new/hot/hype, EDM’s key virtue is its eternal ability to surprise. The DJ is the first musician to have the entire history and future of music at his fingertips; he can sample, recycle, and remix in real time. Thanks to online communities like Soundcloud, dance genres are mutating rapidly. What began as a diverse yet stable taxonomy of house, techno, dubstep, and a few other key genres has dissolved into a phantasmagoria of hybrids mixing basslines, beats, and time signatures. And from this primordial soup arose a strangely primordial genre of dance music, a demonic yet seductive Aphrodite born from frothy seas: nothing gets the kids going like trap music.
Trap first emerged as a flavor of Southern hip hop about a decade ago. It was named for its lyrical content: the “trap” refers to both the place where drugs are sold and the drug trade itself. These rappers painted the paradoxes of being trapped in the drug game – the manic highs, the violent lows – over a canvas of kick drums, hi-hats, cinematic strings, and brassy horns. The effect was dramatic. Within a few years, producers like Hudson Mohawke began to realize they didn’t even have to add vocals to these beats to get people dancing. The genre left the streets and headed straight for the clubs.
With the release of TNGHT’s self-titled debut in 2012, “trap” took on new meaning as a vibrant class of electronic music. Trap DJs like Flosstradamus, RL Grime, and Yellow Claw have sketched the frontiers of a musical landscape where heavy hip hop beats build up to dubstep drops. The air of these songs is thick with women’s voices stammering in fast-paced loops (“reaching for, reaching for”) and males exclaiming in oft-played samples (“damn son, where’d you find this?”). With 140 beats per minute and layers of intersecting synths, trap songs offer plenty of inspiration to move. The frenzied build-ups and heavy basslines defy passive enjoyment: wherever trap is playing loudly, one must dance or leave.
Trap is getting weirder. Last year at Coachella, TNGHT opened their genre-defining set with a new track called “Acrylics.” When the ominous lullaby gave way to relentless assault, I knew that whatever I was hearing had surely departed from the realm of music and entered on to a plane of pure vibration. Facing the subwoofers with the crescent moon at our backs, we sunburnt ravers improvised dances rife with rhythmic hand motions, as if casting spells to defend our bodies against the onslaught of bass. The experience was nothing short of mythical.
Even as it is spirited further and further from its rough roots, trap music retains its epic quality. The horns still blare ruthlessly; the voices still chant indecipherably. There’s something evil about trap, as if it communicates the mocking laughter of some capricious deity. Parents in the 1950’s thought Elvis and his music were the harbinger of devil worship – what would they say about Diplo’s remix of “Demons”? The diabolical effect is heightened when DJs mix in rap vocals from the early days of trap. Over menacing beats, we hear the megalomania of the drug dealer expressed in triumphant fusillades. For a few minutes, the entire dance-floor revels in his wins.
Extreme as it might be, trap music continues to sneak its way into the tastes of more and more young people. After spending most of the last year abroad, I was surprised to find on my return to the States that EDM-fortified trap was going mainstream: a genre once unplayable at Stanford events had infiltrated the radio in the form of a song by Katy Perry. Deeper and darker trap anthems now prevail in the late hours of college parties, and there’s no telling who will turn up to join in the mystic response of the dance-floor collective. Trap’s effects are completely involuntary. Even those who scoffed at house music four years ago can’t help but lose their shit when the second drop in that “Love Sosa” remix hits the speakers at a party.
Weaned on the synthetic production of early 2000’s pop, we are the generation of electronic music. There were once those among us who resisted the more brazen computerization of sound that prevailed in the EDM revolution. Today they are a small minority, barely audible over the recurrent pounding of trap bangers.
I went to see experimental producer Yheti at the Era Art Bar last weekend and found myself in the midst of an amazing scene. I have long associated electronic music events with a specific blend of types: there’s the raver girl decked in neon, the long-haired sketchball rolling out of his mind, the pack of bros flaunting jacked arms in frat tanks. What I found in Oakland was something else entirely – an unexpected union of hardcore EDM with the fringe tribes of the East Bay. People paraded about the small space in outlandish costumes and flashed each other huge smiles. I saw a preponderance of dreadlocks and buttons demanding queer rights. In the wings, an artist-in-residence sketched psychedelic patterns to the beat of the music and a professional painted faces for free. The crowd bounced as one, only to dissolve into individuated madness with each surprising drop. I was never quite sure what the aesthetic of “future” was meant to signify until I saw the dialectical image of hippies and bassheads come together before my eyes.
Heard from loud speakers with strong subs, songs like “Acrylics” and Yheti’s “Crack the Window”hardly sound like music anymore. At this compelling level, they exert a profound and mysterious effect, often serving, like traditional music, to bring people together. I was playing trap in the aftermath of Theta Delt’s quarterly Easy Groove event last weekend when I realized with a sinking feeling that the party would have to end: the dance-floor had dwindled down and my friends were now outnumbered by students from Foothill College, encroaching “outsiders” that I frequently see but rarely interact with at our parties. As I prepared to cut the sound, one of them approached me with a song request. I played his recommendation, and it was dope so I played another, and then I let him take over the laptop. I fell into a familiar and free mode of dance as the two groups on the floor began to merge, united by our mutual love for the strange and evil sounds filling the TDX lounge. The Stanford and Foothill students traded obscure dance moves and grimaced wickedly in each other’s faces. Together, we ran the trap.
As I once more commandeered the laptop to play a final song, I looked out over the 3AM remnants of our party. Some were swirling slowly to the track’s build-up, others bounced in anticipation of the impending breakdown. For a split second, I felt that I was presiding over the utopia heralded by the prophet Nietzsche: eyes closed, each dancer forgot their prejudices in the sublime unity of the music. They raised their hands above their heads and moved their lips as if in prayer.
Then the drop arrived and the moment passed. To the frantic loop of Banks’s cry, one of the Foothill guys made an aggressive advance on one of my Stanford friends. She responded with a well-placed kick. The hell that had been raised and barely contained by the trap music suddenly broke loose and the two factions began to fight. All semblance of harmony disappeared as insults and threats were flung back and forth. The music provided too good of a soundtrack to the madness; I had to end the song early and ask my new friends to leave. I felt defeated. Nobody won.
But we were still in the trap. The trap always wins.
drawing credit: Gideon Weiler