The birth of trap music and the rise of southern hip-hop
JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:
About two minutes into the song, "Y'all Scared," Andre 3000 of OutKast asks a question.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "Y'ALL SCARED")
OUTKAST: (Rapping) Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap?
SUMMERS: Have you ever thought of the meaning of the word trap? It was 1998. OutKast was the pride of Atlanta, and that word trap was showing up all over verses by the city's rappers.
MAURICE GARLAND: I started hearing this word around, like, maybe like '96, '97.
SUMMERS: Maurice Garland is a journalist who grew up in Atlanta and covers its rap scene. At first glance, the answer to Andre 3000's question seemed straightforward.
GARLAND: I mean, you was out there hustling. You know, you was out there trapping.
SUMMERS: So dealing drugs - and the place where you dealt the drugs, that was the trap.
GARLAND: You had a trap set up, which is where you did your business at.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SUMMERS: But then there were the more metaphorical meanings.
GARLAND: I'm trapping because I'm securing something. You know what I'm saying? Like, I'm securing some kind of resources. But, you know, I'm doing it in this illegal manner.
SUMMERS: For A.R. Shaw, another Atlanta hip-hop journalist and author of the book "Trap History," the trap was a consequence of urban planning.
A R SHAW: Atlanta has a lot of one-way streets, a lot of cul-de-sacs. And during the crack cocaine era, a lot of those cul-de-sacs became known as a trap because it was only one way in and one way out.
SUMMERS: Whatever the etymology, by the early 2000s trap had infused itself into the lexicon of Atlanta. And in the city's rap scene, it was about to become a subgenre of its own.
SHAW: They turned something that was negative, which was the crack cocaine era, and they created an art form of music that pretty much told that story.
SUMMERS: All week, to celebrate 50 years of hip-hop, we're looking at key moments that helped define the genre. Today, the birth of trap music and the rise of Southern rap.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
SUMMERS: In 2001, a young rapper from the Bankhead neighborhood of Atlanta released his debut album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M SERIOUS")
TI: (Rapping) Ay, take a good look at me, now picture me unhappy.
SUMMERS: T.I. was born Clifford Joseph Harris Jr. That first album, it wasn't a flop, but it wasn't a smash either. T.I. was dropped from his label, and he started selling mixtapes.
GARLAND: They were selling these things, you know, hand to hand. You know, they would show up in their car, and they would just open the boxes and sell them themselves.
SUMMERS: That's Maurice Garland again. Those mixtapes took off, and T.I. signed with Atlantic Records. In 2003, he released his second official album, and this one was called "Trap Muzik."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAP MUZIK")
TI: (Rapping) Ay, this a trap, c'mon. This ain't no album. This ain't no game. This a trap, trap music.
SUMMERS: This time, T.I. broke through. The album debuted at No. 4 on the Billboard 200 and sold more than 100,000 copies in its first week. And it gave a name to a specific flavor of Atlanta rap that reflected the city's street culture.
GARLAND: When they saw that that was the album title, like, it kind of just sent off like - almost like a bat signal to a degree. Like, hey, yeah, this ain't going to be underground no more.
SUMMERS: A quick note before we go any further. In the decade since this moment, multiple people have made credible allegations of sexual assault by T.I. and his wife, and any story about trap music needs to acknowledge that. For now, let's return to the story.
BRIANA YOUNGER: We are literally 20 years deep on trap music (laughter), and it hasn't gone anywhere.
SUMMERS: Briana Younger is a hip-hop writer. I sat down with her and NPR hip-hop editor, Sheldon Pearce, to talk about the birth of trap and the rise of Southern rap.
SHELDON PEARCE, BYLINE: This sound, this slang, this scene take over rap and become the center of its style and everything that would come after that.
SUMMERS: I started by asking about the remarkable staying power of trap.
PEARCE: Maybe it's the continued waves of evolution. You have that first wave of T.I. and Jeezy and, of course, Gucci on the mixtape circuit...
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAP HOUSE")
GUCCI MANE: (Rapping) In the trap house...
PEARCE: ...To Waka Flocka Flame and the 808 Mafia. And then you have Future and Migos and Young Thug - each wave sort of building on the next. As that is happening, you have this steady infiltration of pop music that is taking place over the course of this rise. Next thing you know, you have Katy Perry going from "Teenage Dream" to working with Migos.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BON APPETIT")
KATY PERRY: (Singing) Looks like you've been starvin'. You got those hungry eyes.
PEARCE: It permeated the culture so deeply that it became nearly impossible to remove it. And it seems like everywhere you look, you can still sort of see the residue.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TRAP OR DIE")
JEEZY: (Rapping) Last time I checked, I was the man on these streets.
SUMMERS: I want to ask you all about mixtape culture around the same time. T.I. was just one of many who used mixtapes to kickstart a career. Can you just help us understand a little bit the mixtape phenomenon and the role that it played in Southern hip-hop.
YOUNGER: It's truly hard to overstate the impact that has on a lot of Southern rappers' careers in particular.
YOUNGER: Lil Wayne's entire career is built around mixtapes. Gucci Mane's entire career is built around mixtapes. And so, yeah, like, the entire lifeblood of Southern rap begins to kind of flow through these mixtapes.
PEARCE: Mixtape culture has always sort of been essential to the way rap has spread on a grassroots level. With the rise of the internet, that meant potentially going beyond your local scene and into suburban homes across the country. And in the course of that, you end up building up these regional scenes in a way that doesn't involve the traditional record industry.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN IN THA DIRTY")
LUDACRIS: (Rapping) Down in the dirty South, this how I go making money, making money. Gettin' that dough. Familiar. Yes.
SUMMERS: So, I mean, at this point, there's a lot more attention on the South, but that doesn't mean that there's necessarily more respect. Briana, can you talk about the ways that Southern rappers were looked at by rappers from New York and those out West?
YOUNGER: Yeah, I think, you know, it very much mirrored the way in which Southerners, particularly Black Southerners, are looked at in general, which is that it's ignorant. It's not really cultured - the Southern twang even. Like, even when people hear the accents, like, there is just a lack of taking any of it seriously or trying to even position it as something that is, like, a part of the broader hip-hop culture that contributes to it and isn't taking from it. To some extent, it almost seemed like they were treated as, like, interlopers.
(SOUNDBITE OF NICKI MINAJ SONG, "DID IT ON'EM")
SUMMERS: You know, I think it's really interesting that as a genre, hip-hop can be so regional in a way that you don't necessarily see when you study and think about other genres of music. They don't necessarily have the same sort of distinct geographical reputations. What do you think makes location so important when we talk about hip-hop?
PEARCE: I think there's such a sense of where you're from being crucial to not only the way that rappers see themselves but the way that they build community. Hip-hop culture by nature is a competitive sport born of breakdancing battles and graffiti bombing, and it's territorial. And while I think sometimes that mentality has gotten rappers in a bit of trouble, more often than not, it has bonded them. They have found pride in where they live and who they know, and they internalize that sense of place into their characters. And it becomes such a source of soul for the music.
YOUNGER: And I think this is just also indicative of every culture but especially Black culture. Like, where you're from influences how you speak, how you dress. And, like, a local identity has always been just an essential part of Black culture as a whole. Even predating hip-hop, you get Detroit techno, Chicago house, and these are, you know, historically Black genres. Like, there's always been this need to identify and signify via location.
SUMMERS: That was journalist Briana Younger and NPR hip-hop editor Shelton Pearce. Tomorrow, we'll continue our series celebrating 50 years of hip-hop with a look at Nicki Minaj and the internet age.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DID IT ON'EM")
NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) Did it on 'em. Man, I just did it on 'em.
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