Let us begin with the obvious: Horrorcore is not cool. The rap sub-genre’s most widely reputed practitioner is Insane Clown Posse, about whom I do not need to supply a critical opinion. Horrorcore is thought of as a turn-of-the-millennium cultural misstep, directly adjacent to rap metal and tribal tattoos. Many of the genre’s practitioners studiously avoid the term itself, preferring to call it “death rap,” “acid rap,” or in ICP’s inimitable phrasing, “the wicked shit.” In an early Rolling Stone story, Odd Future was referred to by the fell epithet, leading Tyler, The Creator to end “Sandwitches” by declaring that the group is not, in fact, horrorcore. (It is—more on that later.) But no matter what we want to call it, this weird intersection of rap and horror has remained evergreen, and not just because its scores have provided such fertile ground for sampling. Much of the most lauded hip-hop music of the past year, in fact, has been explicitly born out of trashy goth and death metal, full of paeans to Satan and transgressive violence. Rap and horror are twain ideas, merging and reassembling throughout the years in a way that illuminates both.
The oldest versions of the idea were corny flirtations with the theme: Tracks like Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready For Freddy,” DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince’s “A Nightmare On My Street,” or even Geto Boys’ “Chuckie” were all minor-key riffs on specific movies. These were songs made in the wake of “Thriller,” popcorn-tossing evocations of date night as much as tributes to their filmic inspirations. Elsewhere, the Geto Boys explored better, more transgressive horror-themed raps, like the paranoid hallucinations of “Mind Playing Tricks On Me” or the knife-flashing necrophilia of “Mind Of A Lunatic.”
As hip-hop entered its golden age throughout the early and mid-’90s, horrorcore got better and more specific. Esham transformed crack-ravaged Detroit into a series of influential records, starting with the excellently named Boomin’ Words From Hell, while Big L big-upped Satan on his first single, “Devil’s Son.” Tracks like these helped to crystallize the horrorcore style, with hard drums, minor-key samples, explicit (if stereotypical) references to Satanism, and a lyrical obsession with taboos like rape, torture, and necrophilia.
It’s tempting to contextualize this envelope-pushing violence as something more explicitly political, as if all of these rappers were burying an understandable rage within images of unconscionable cruelty—a sort of Romero-style subversion of exploitation. But the music doesn’t always back that up. This is, more commonly, horror of the slasher or giallo variety, fixated upon the pulse-quickening possibilities of evil, as well as the aesthetic opportunities that violence and the paranormal afford.
Two mid-’90s albums defined these ideological threads better than any other. In 1994, Gravediggaz’ debut 6 Feet Deep found RZA and Prince Paul collaborating at the peak of their powers along with Stetsasonic’s Frukwan, plus, um, a fourth guy. The result was dusty, violent, funny, and endlessly inventive, valorizing bad PCP trips and imagining a suicide hotline that talked you into it. A year later, Memphis’ Three 6 Mafia released its eerie, lo-fi debut Mystic Stylez, a druggy exploration of 35mm, oversaturated haunted-house music. It’s an album of almost ambient violence, its warbling synths a red fog that creeps in from underneath your door and subtly normalizes its lyrical malevolence, like the gradually transforming worlds of Jacob’s Ladder or Silent Hill.
It’s after those high points that the conventional narrative of horrorcore goes off the rails. Insane Clown Posse has been around since the early ’90s, but it became a phenomenon in 1997 with the release of The Great Milenko—an album that crystallized an era and a variety of tastelessness that’s come to define horrorcore. Google the term and you’ll be greeted with endless images of bargain-bin evil-clown rappers who aren’t even affiliated with ICP. It’s worth remembering that all of hip-hop was going through a crisis of jigginess in the late-’90s, and that horrorcore was just one of many affectations trotted out as the golden age crash-landed into the shiny-suit era. DMX appeared in a bathtub full of blood and guested with Marilyn Manson; Eminem spent six minutes murdering his wife on his best-selling albums, and also had Marilyn Manson show up in the video for his most Carpenteresque track. (People were very scared of Marilyn Manson at the time.)
It was an era defined by very few major musical throughways—Clear Channel, MTV, Best Buy—all of which were undermined eventually by the internet. Underground rap, which was flourishing as a response to the artistic paucity of this stuff, provided much better listening, and it also flirted with horrorcore, as on Necro’s over-the-top Gory Days and Cage’s Suspiria-sampling “Weather People.”
The rest of the ’00s were dominated by true believers still working within the proven horrorcore format, chugging away with their clown makeup and brutal revenge fantasies. But something strange happened at the dawn of this decade: Horrorcore resurfaced as a sort of J-horror digital-era echo of its old self, the violence submerged behind obfuscating walls of poorly compressed noise. The “witch house” rush of 2010 was derided at the time as micro-genre overload (R.I.P. seapunk, night bus, glo-fi, etc.), but tracks like Salem’s “Trapdoor” laced blown-out EDM and even druggier DJ Screw effects into the Mystic Stylez tableau.
Seven years later, those same aesthetics—full of digital ephemera, nihilistic violence, glib Satanism, and distorted creepypasta production—are still confounding the rap establishment. Critics have spent much of 2017 grappling with SoundCloud rap like Wifisfuneral and Ski Mask The Slump God, not to mention variants like the goth-emo Ghostemane and the thrashy Ho99o9 Death Kult. SpaceGhostPurrp is the foremost of a whole host of Floridian Laveyan Satanists, who since 2012, have maintained an eerie, spectral presence on the outskirts of the mainstream. And while these artists explored the sonic possibilities of horrorcore, Odd Future also crawled out of the internet at the dawn of this decade to riff on its lyrical possibilities. Little of that early Odd Future stuff is truly worthwhile—at least, depending on who you ask and just how rewarding you find jokes about rape over sub-Neptunes production. But it eventually led to at least one haunted masterpiece in the form of Earl Sweatshirt’s I Don’t Like Shit, I Don’t Go Outside.
Odd Future, of course, later disavowed that style, most of the crew moving on to less violent and more critically well-received music, all of which only reiterates the point: Horrorcore will never be cool. It’s a sort of cringe-worthy phase rappers go through, or something for critics to mistakenly apply to “better” artists. Currently, it’s a pall that hangs over all coverage of SoundCloud rap, which treats it as a sort of juvenilia worth listening to with some level of academic disinterest.
But this is also true of horror filmmaking, often considered a baser genre to be cycled through or dabbled in for fun before directors move on to more serious, sober works. There’s always a temptation to enjoy pulp and genre artwork with air quotes around them, relegated to a single season of the year or even of life—and indeed, even when performed with almost comic exaggeration, horrorcore rap doesn’t really hold up to a sustained listening bender. But it’s worth taking seriously in the context of hip-hop, the same as horror filmmaking is to film, with a ripe vein of artistic malevolence running through its entire life cycle. SoundCloud rap and its murky, violent ilk will inevitably die—maybe soon, probably violently—but the specter of horrorcore will lurk around long afterward. If you’ve watched horror movies, you know the only certainty is that the monster always comes back.