Before becoming the global tour de force it is today, trap music started out as an underground sub-genre of rap in the early 90s in Atlanta, Georgia, and other Southern states in the US. Its name – coined by rapper T.I. in the early 2000s – derives from the trap houses found in disadvantaged neighbourhoods. These abandoned residencies would see the production and sales of illegal drugs, and were where sellers and consumers find themselves ‘trapped’ in the confines of an unfair system, usually at the hands of racial disparity.
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The music – which is anchored by its dramatic synthesised beats, using 808 drum kits with rolling basslines and fast-moving hi-hats – is an extension of gangsta rap. Picking up where the likes of N.W.A, Ice-T and Schoolly D left off, trap converted the harsh realities of the Black experience in America into a new culture that would later dominate pop charts. Early stars of the genre include T.I, Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, and are often referred to as the holy trinity of trap. Producers such as Shawty Redd, DJ Toomp and Zaytoven are considered the pioneers of trap’s sonic identity.
At the turn of the 2010s, trap crossed over into the EDM realm, combining elements of hip-hop with electronic dance music, electro house, and dubstep, and stripping away the genre’s sociopolitical context. This electronic hybrid stole the limelight for a brief moment, but it wasn’t long before the genre returned to its rap roots, thanks to the arrival of a new wave of trap stars. Migos, Future and 2 Chainz are just a few artists that helped kickstart a revival for the genre, cultivating a cultural sonic boom that has since infiltrated the world of pop, and is now the irrefutable cornerstone of contemporary music.
Here, we spotlight some of the genre’s key tracks, walking you through its rise to power from Atlanta’s neighbourhoods through to its position as the trendsetting sound of the future.
Three 6 Mafia – Tear Da Club Up (1995)
Three 6 Mafia’s influence can be found all throughout modern music, with the Memphis group’s co-founders and primary producers DJ Paul and Juicy J responsible for creating the sonic blueprint for much of today’s hip-hop. Their debut album Mystic Stylez blended horrorcore and gangsta rap with a uniquely southern aesthetic, and its unconventional lo-fi production and cult-esque chants paved the way for the arrival of crunk music in the mid to late 90s. But the chattering hi-hats, bass heavy drum patterns and rapid triplet flows heard on Tear Da Club Up, along with its dark and twisted synth melodies and tough talking lyrics, are some of the earliest intimations of trap and would later go on to become the bedrock of the genre’s sound.
Pastor Troy – No Mo Play In G.A. (1998)
Four years after OutKast’s André 3000 declared that “the south got something to say” at the 1995 Source Awards, original king of crunk Pastor Troy took a more hostile approach to putting the other US coasts on notice with the release of his emphatic and highly combative debut album We Ready I Declare War. Its lead single, No Mo Play In G.A., besides being a diss record aimed at Master P and No Limit Records, is a beloved Atlanta anthem rife with hometown pride. The self-produced track’s spring-loaded rhythm – bullied by disorderly symbol crashes, rumbling bass tremors, machine gun sound effects and what is now widely recognised as trap’s archetypal snare – picked up where Three 6 Mafia left off but discernibly more refined.
Drama – Left, Right, Left (1999)
Only a handful of producers can lay claim to being the true pioneers of the original sound and style of trap. Shawty Redd, with his sinister melodies and syncopated chord progressions that sound like something straight from a John Carpenter movie, is one of them. A few years before finding fame for his genre-defining work on the debut albums of Young Jeezy and Gucci Mane, the Atlanta beatsmith marched into the new millennium with Drama’s Left, Right, Left. Introducing the world to the future sound of pop culture, this space age military anthem laced with an animatronic sheen fused deep 808 kick drums, rapid-fire hi-hats and menacing synths – all while Drama did his best Mystikal and Pastor Troy impressions.
T.I. – Dope Boyz (2001)
‘Trap music’ was coined in 2003 by Atlanta rapper T.I. who used it as the title of his second album, Trap Muzik. But for many, the self-proclaimed king of the south’s first album, I’m Serious, is where the characterisation of the genre began, specifically on the DJ Toomp-produced Dope Boyz. An ultrasonic rags to riches anthem for those hustling in the noughties drug trade, T.I. salutes his fellow go-getters: “Da dope boyz in the trap n***a/ The thug n***a, drug dealer where you at n***a.” Combining this recognition of the trap lifestyle with Toomp’s analogue ear candy, which hears him take listeners to church with some UGK-inspired organs, the pair planted a flag in the streets of Atlanta, beginning the city’s status as the trap music Mecca.
Young Jeezy – Standing Ovation (2005)
“These are more than words, this is more than rap / This is the streets and I am the trap.” Whether you were from the streets of Atlanta, the suburbs of New Hampshire, or in another country altogether, you felt empowered by the bulletproof confidence of Young Jeezy’s Standing Ovation. The innovative juxtaposition of the Atlanta rapper’s sluggish drawl and smokey, prolonged ad-libs mixed with Drumma Boy’s triumphant digital horns and aggressive 144bpm rhythm brought to power the new sound of the south, and it signalled the arrival of trap’s first superstar. Jeezy’s major label debut, Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, sold over half a million copies in the US in its first four weeks, boosting trap’s mainstream popularity and capturing the attention of record label execs looking for the next big thing.
Waka Flocka Flame – Hard In Da Paint (2009)
The modern sound of trap was popularised by producer Lex Luger, who co-founded the prolific hip-hop production team 808 Mafia. Among his treasure trove of genre-defining joints, his first, Waka Flocka Flame’s Hard In Da Paint, is arguably his most important. Taken from Waka’s hugely influential debut album Flockaveli, the track’s imposing snares and menacing speedball hi-hats, saturated in the remnants of Lil Jon’s crunk juice, delivered a grandiose gut punch to the masses. Luger’s maximalism would go on to influence trap’s gilded age. From Rustie and Hudson Mohawke playing Luger’s songs in their sets to Baauer and UZ borrowing from his production, the Atlanta producer unknowingly set the blueprint for EDM trap. Waka would also later explore the world of EDM, touring with DJ Steve Aoki and dropping a crossover mixtape with DJ Whoo Kid.
Gucci Mane – Lemonade (2009)
The weird and wonderful Gucci Mane helped pioneer trap music in the mid-2000s, bursting onto the scene in 2005 with his gritty and wildly outlandish debut album Trap House. The streets recognised his profound impact early on, but it took mainstream audiences a moment before they jumped onboard the Gucci train. His commercial breakthrough came in 2009 when he released Lemonade, which saw him briefly set aside the truculent hood tales and dark soundscapes he was known for in exchange for something a little shinier. With help from Bangladesh, whose incessant, staccato pianos and icy schoolyard chant resembled something in-house No Limit Records producers Beats By The Pound might have made in the late 90s, Gucci added a layer of fluorescent gloss to trap that would later dominate the sound of the culture.
Three 6 Mafia & Tiësto – Feel It [Feat. Sean Kingston & Flo Rida] (2009)
Finding themselves ahead of the curve once again, Three 6 Mafia were at the forefront of a new wave of trap music moving into the 2010s. Teaming up with EDM super producer Tiësto, DJ Paul and Juicy J blurred creative lines with the release of Feel It, an intoxicating, club-ready banger that came on the heels of David Guetta and Akon’s summer smash Sexy Bitch. This early framework for what would soon be known as EDM trap, or trap-techno, saw the genre’s production cross over to EDM and pop. The sound’s dramatic synthesised production shift blended the 808 drum samples and vocal samples found in southern rap with the build-ups, drops, and breakdowns often associated with dance music, specifically dubstep. Feel It was one of the first to bridge the gap between the two worlds.
Baauer – Harlem Shake (2012)
During the height of trap’s crossover into EDM, the track that best embodied this newfangled sonic shift was Baauer’s Harlem Shake. Made while the Philadelphia-born DJ and producer was studying as an audio engineer in Harlem, the song’s erratic mechanical bassline, electro house synth riffs, harsh snares, growling lion sounds and vocal samples took the world by storm – inspiring a viral dance of the same name that saw NBA players, army squadrons, TV personalities and many others take part. This widespread popularity helped Harlem Shake conquer charts around the globe and land the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, which coincided with YouTube streaming data being incorporated into chart figures for the first time.
Migos – Versace (2013)
When talking about defining moments in pop culture there aren’t too many as clearly identifiable as when Migos dropped Versace. The tight-knit Atlanta trio – Quavo, Offset, and Takeoff – changed the creative trajectory of modern music with the sound and style of their gold-laced debut single. Swimming in boundless opulence and luxurious high-end fashion, the shimmering sounds of Zaytoven’s vivid backdrop: a menagerie of weightless drum kicks, glitchy sound effects and muffled horns, drew from his groundbreaking work with Gucci Mane while introducing a new sonic wave. The track – which also saw Drake jump on its remix – is most notable for resurrecting the triplet flow within rap and bringing it to mainstream attention. Migos weren’t the first, but they were without doubt responsible for innovating the style and boosting its popularity among many of today’s rappers.
Bryson Tiller – Exchange (2016)
Much like how D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Raphael Saadiq and Lauryn Hill’s commercial success in the 90s popularised neo soul, Kentucky singer-songwriter Bryson Tiller, along with the likes of Tory Lanez and Brent Faiyaz, spearheaded a new sound in modern R&B in the mid-2010s, inspired sonically by the rebirth of contemporary trap. Tiller slapped a label on it with his debut album T R A P S O U L, which blended trap beats and liquid melodies with explicit lyrical content about sex and love, often delivered in a hybrid form of rapping and singing. The shimmering Exchange, with its skittish hi-hats and K.P. & Envyi sample, sees Tiller get personal about a past breakup, spawning a number of Instagram caption worthy bars while defining the trap soul movement in the process.
Future – Mask Off (2017)
In the slipstream of Migos’ success came a bevy of new trap stars in the mid-late 2010s, each bringing their own individual style but still preserving the traditional elements of the genre. One of trap’s biggest years commercially came in 2017: Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow, Playboi Carti’s Magnolia and Lil Uzi Vert’s XO Tour Llif3 were all released within the same 12 months. Another track released that year was Future’s Mask Off, the Metro Boomin-produced anthemic juggernaut about the need for freedom and celebration of selfhood. Showcasing the genre-bending possibilities of trap through the introduction of idiosyncratic samples, Metro’s stoned flute lick – lifted from Carlton Williams’ Prison Song – plays like a Final Fantasy score drunk off sizzurp. The track also spawned the viral #MaskOffChallenge, in which professional and amateur musicians recreated the flute sample from the track using whatever they could: violins, electric guitars, saxophones, trumpets, trombones, vocals and more.
Lil Nas X – Old Town Road [Feat. Billy Ray Cyrus] (2019)
Having infiltrated the initial trepidation of mainstream audiences, trap is now fully immersed in pop culture. From its use in commercials to being a mainstay in the social media world of memes and gifs, the genre – delivered in a variety of hybrid formats – has emerged the most influential sound of the modern era. Even traditional pop artists are jumping on the bandwagon, with the likes of Katy Perry and Ariana Grande using trap sonics and sensibilities to underscore some of their biggest hits. In 2019, Lil Nas X cemented the genre’s status as the crown jewel of pop with the release of his game-changing ‘country trap’ anthem Old Town Road. Comprised of banjo strums, trunk-rattling bass, various Hip Hop cues, and a feature from country stalwart Billy Ray Cyrus, the song topped the Billboard chart for 19 consecutive weeks, making it the longest running number-one single of all time.
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