Shiralkar: SoundCloud Rap: How a microgenre went mainstream

Columnist Parth Shiralkar revels in the subgenres SoundCloud brings to the table.

Parth Shiralkar

In 2007, an online music distribution platform by the name of “SoundCloud” was established. The platform spent a few years in a formative period until the 2010s; SoundCloud gained traction in the mid-late 2010s, and artists from hidden spots of the arts world began to slide into the spotlight. Suddenly, low-key artists had a platform to themselves that they could use to access a large audience, and they didn’t need a record deal to get famous overnight.

A new breed of artists took birth in the faraway corners of cities that were not yet famous. These singers and rappers laughed in the face of the modern music scene and relished the limelight of a somewhat controversial nature. Mainstream drugs (cocaine) were swapped out for Xanax and Percocet. A delightfully fresh sound that took inspiration from gritty punk and lo-fi coupled with a slowly intonate rapping cadence and infused with raw lyricism. SoundCloud rap had truly birthed a new subgenre.

This new genre was a nice change from the proper mainstream pop-radio sound of the Drake era. Artists rode this wave and took an unmapped path straight to the top of the Billboard charts. Austin Post (aka Post Malone) was one of these rappers. After he released his debut track “White Iverson” on SoundCloud, it took off and landed at the number 20 spot on the Billboard Hot 100s that year. In the ensuing years, a record deal and a series of successful albums followed.

The rise of this new subculture is distinctly characterized by very explicit lyricism, including odes to intense party narcotics (including the liquid opiate known as “lean”) and casual nihilism, with references to owning top-shelf fashion brand clothing: leading a wild, hedonistic lifestyle. It is a chaotic little niche, divisive almost to the point of being absurd. And there, precisely, is where it generates most of its appeal. The youth, already chasing the post-modernist high, found solace in this new wave, contributing to high sales and the slow transition into the mainstream.

But the settled hip-hop industry didn’t take kindly to these disruptors. Mainstream rappers like Eminem actually took to writing diss verses in their tracks, attacking the unsettling panache of mumble rap. In fact, given what I had heard about SoundCloud and mumble rap, it came as a shock to me as I grew to enjoy the music more than perhaps any mainstream genre at the time. My friends hate it when I play “Magnolia” in the car. Perhaps this detached, rebellious nature of the genre was more instrumental than anything else in my abrupt, intense attraction to it.

Production on tracks stemming from this microgenre will typically comprise of distinct 808 bass lines, catchy hi-hat patterns, a delectable selection of ad-libs and a repeating melody. The verses and hooks are repetitive mutations of the same line. Producers like Pi’erre Bourne are known to have blazed a trail for this new experimental movement of SoundCloud music. Instead of treating their vocals as vocals, per se, these artists treat them as another auxiliary instrument. A fan comment about a Pi’erre Bourne snippet, “Playstation,” said, “The 808s hit only when he’s not singing; it’s almost like he’s having a conversation with the beat.”

Playboi Carti, an Atlanta-based rapper (one of my personal favorites), is known for this style as well. Ethereal, catchy chords and light ad-libs, like he’s breathing life into the empty pockets where kicks skip a beat; switching the game up even more by pitching his vocals up, eventually giving rise to the revolutionary crooning style known simply as “baby voice,” Playboi Carti is one of the few rappers who treads a fine line between being an underground artist and a mainstream rapper.

But the hip-hop industry has never been monolithic. The SoundCloud rap culture is on a steady decline, and, at some point, another subculture will take up the limelight. Regardless of its popularity, however, it’ll always remain a special, vibey form of escapism. Wash your hands and wear a mask.