Hardcore Rap is a style/sub-genre of hip hop characterized by aggressive confrontational rapping derived from the scene of battling, freestyles, and cyphers. The subject matter can vary from boasting, storytelling, reflecting on life and street, or expressing a multitude of strong feelings or beliefs. Typically, Hardcore Rap songs have an anger, aggressiveness, vulgarity, and/or edginess to the music and refrains from R&B or Pop sounds such as singing on hooks. In the 1980s Hardcore Rap typically had Boom Bap beats that featured scratching and no progression but by the 1990s, Hardcore Rap expanded to different types of production.
SOUND AND CONTENT
Hardcore Rap is characterized by its content and can combine with many subgenres that are characterized by their production such as Boom Bap, G-Funk, Electro-hop, and others. Some songs certainly have a darkness or eeriness to them but this can come from many different production techniques and styles.
Hardcore rap is characterized by aggressive, confrontational, competitive, and/or edgy content. The rap performance is usually the main focus and sung hooks are less common. Alternative Rap shares many styles with it but is usually delivered in a less aggressive manner. However, this line is very blurry as rappers generally considered hardcore can have plenty of easy-going songs in their catalogue and alternative rappers may have a healthy catalogue of edgier songs as well. Styles such as lyrical rap, reality rap, and political/conscious rap can be delivered in a lighthearted tone, threatening tone, or in the wide range of tones in between.
Hardcore Rap can draw from several different descriptions/styles that may be used to give a more specific description of a song.
Lyrical Rap is a term to describe rap that showcases a high-level of literary devices more akin to poetry in their raps. This description can come in a wide variety of ways including wordplay, advanced rhyme schemes, extended metaphors, and/or other creative content. It has existed ever since emceeing became competitive whether it was done in freestyles, cyphers, and/or rap battles. Often it is characterized by rappers bragging about being the superior rapper as opposed to the toughest, richest, or biggest hustler. With that being said, artists such as Redman will make songs that showcases skills without focusing in on that claim or any particular topic. Also, artists such as Nas, Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, and Notorious B.I.G. have received critical acclaim by weaving highly technical raps into content rich material.
Streethop/Street-level Rap/Reality Rap
This style doesn’t have a specific universal term but it’s been described as Streethop, Street-level Rap, and/or Reality Rap. Essentially, it refers to the hardcore rap that describes the unfiltered life in the inner city. This may be seen through the eyes of a personal reflection and/or a fictional character version of the rapper. Although the emotion and content can vary, a common theme would be the sense of struggle and frustration due to growing up poor. Gangsta Rap and Mafioso Rap are popular versions of this style.
Gangsta Rap became a full fledge subgenre due to its explosion of popularity in the late 1980s. After starting in Philly, the style was adapted by numerous West Coast artists and was brought to the mainstream through them. It was a direct reflection of the gang culture that existed in California with many of the rappers being actual gang members or affiliates. The song content could vary but the aim of the subgenre was always to provide the point of view from the gangster regardless of what the song was specifically about. It often embraced the villain role by bragging about making illegal money, disrespecting women, speaking out against police, embracing pimp culture or promiscuity, glorifying violence, and other various ways. It became a controversial but wildly successful and influential style of rap.
A microgenre of hardcore rap that became popular in the East Coast in the mid 90s. Mafioso Rap shared similarities to the more popular Gangsta Rap but alluded to a world of mafia style organized crime more often associated with Italian Mobsters or South American drug cartels rather than black american gangs. This more sophisticated version of Gangsta Rap painted an equally violent content but delivered with a calmer tone. Often alluding that they do not get their hands dirty but have subordinates who will.
Sometimes hip hop music can be described as socially conscious because it challenges the dominant cultural, political, philosophical, and economic consensus, and/or comments on social issues and conflicts. Conscious does not necessarily mean it is overtly political, but the terms “conscious hip hop” and “political hip hop” overlap often. Themes of conscious hip hop in Hardcore rap can include police brutality, the economy, or depictions of the struggles of ordinary people. Conscious Rap that focuses more on Afrocentricity, religion, aversion to crime and violence, and have a less aggressive delivery can be labeled as Alternative Rap. This type also seeks to raise awareness of social issues, leaving the listeners to form their own opinions, rather than aggressively advocating for certain ideas and demanding actions like in Hardcore Rap.
Some hardcore rap focuses on political commentary or is connected to social activism. It has helped to create a new form of social expression for subordinate groups to speak about their exclusions, injustices and lack of power. Political hip-hop is the use of hip hop music to send political messages to inspire action or to convince the listener of a particular worldview. There is no all-encompassing political hip-hop ideology. Notable artists that focused on making political and socially conscious music include Public Enemy, Paris, and Tupac.
Another microgenre that developed within Hardcore Rap was Horrorcore Rap. This genre represented the hardcore rap that dealt more with paranoia, mental instability, supernatural, occult, and psychological thriller elements. Whereas most hardcore rap lyrics are grounded in realism, Horrorcore would often dive into over the top violence or descriptions. For example, Rza from Gravediggaz rapping about being soaking wet and strapped to an electric chair, then chewing his arm off to escape. Although this style is more associated with the Geto Boys and Gravediggaz, Detroit rapper Eminem used horrorcore in his early music.
Dirty South Rap was a subgenre used to describe the sound of the southern Hardcore Rap that combined with the Bounce Music culture of New Orleans and Miami Bass music. It often had more straight forward lyrics, slower-tempo but high energy beats, and slower rapping. The production techniques also differed since it usually contained more live instrumentation and/or electronic sounds as opposed to the heavy sampling found in East and West Coast music.
Trap is a style of hip hop music originated in Atlanta derived from Dirty South that emerged in the mid 2000s. It is typified by sub-divided hi-hats, heavy, sub-bass layered kick drums in the style of the Roland TR-808 drum machine, typically in half time syncopated rhythms, layered with drones expressed by muted or slightly muted abstract or orchestral synthesizers and an overall melancholy to dark ambience and lyrical content. The term “trap” referred to places where drug deals take place and many early trap songs used the word repeatedly. By the next decade it was being used to describe the sound of the music regardless if the content centered around the “trap.” Trap music is defined by its ominous, bleak and gritty lyrical content which varies widely according to the artist. Typical lyrical themes include hardship in the “trap”, street life, poverty, violence, and harsh experiences that artists have faced in their urban surroundings. Drill is a Chicago spinoff of Trap Music that focuses more on violence than drug dealing.
Sound and Content Summary
Summary of Common Elements of Hardcore Rap Music
- Focus on rapped verses
- BPM – Any Range
- Angry, aggressive, or threatening delivery
- Edgy content that reflects street life
- Hardcore Rap heavily relies on the rapper to carry the song. Often show a mastery of lyrical technique or express strong views.
Hardcore Rap has existed ever since emcees first started to battle over breakbeats. Some of the popular battles include the Cold Crush Brothers Vs Fantastic 5 and Kool Moe Dee Vs Busy Bee both in 1981.
Boom Bap / Hardcore Rap
The first releases by the Sugarhill Gang, Kurtis Blow, and Grandmaster Flash were more radio friendly music as hardcore rap was not viewed as marketable at the time. This changed when Run DMC released it’s single “It’s Like That” that also featured the B-side “Sucker M.C.s” in 1983.
It featured Boom Bap production and became the primary sound of Hardcore Rap during the rest of the 1980s. It was pioneered by Russell Simmons’ and Rick Rubin’s Def Jam records which launched acts such as Run DMC, Beastie Boys, LL Cool J, and Public Enemy. Also, during this time Queensbridge DJ Marley Marl introduced sampling which also became a staple in the Boom Bap sound. By the mid 1980s the Boom Bap sound had surpassed electro-hop in popularity and by the late 80s the sound had spread to different regions of the U.S. and many Hardcore Rap acts had platinum sales as well.
The Boom Bap Hardcore Rap sound is still present today but after reaching its peak in the late 80s, it has been steadily declining due to the emergence of other production styles in Hip Hop.
In 1985, the Gangsta Rap subgenre started with a record by Schoolly D named “P.S.K.” which stood for Park Side Killers, a gang in Philadelphia at the time. The first verse of the song was about picking a woman that turned out to be a prostitute and the second verse ended with him pulling a gun on somebody but then deciding to outrap the guy instead. The song is noted for featuring graphic sex, gunplay, buying and using drugs, and use of the word “nigga”.
Starting with Los Angeles rapper Ice-T who was inspired by Schoolly D, Gangsta Rap became a huge phenomenon out in the west coast with the most notable act being N.W.A. By the early 90s, the style had spread throughout the rest of the country and remained a dominant subgenre from 1987 to about 1996.
After the deaths of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G., the Gangsta Rap aesthetic took a step back in the late 90s as rappers chased crossover success and newer emerging hardcore rappers didn’t label themselves or take on the Gangsta aesthetic. In 2003 the emergence of 50 Cent and G-Unit put Gangsta Rap back into the forefront but over the next few years the Gangsta image became more downplayed.
East Coast 90s Revival
During the early 1990s hardcore rap started to take a backseat to Pop Rap, New Jack Swing, West Coast Gangsta Rap, and G-Funk. Even on the East Coast, the Afrocentric alternative rap that had been started by the Native Tongues posse influenced much of the music being released there. However, the mid 90s saw a revival of Hardcore with acts such as Wu-Tang, Nas, Notorious B.I.G., Mobb Deep, and Jay-Z emerging.
Albums such as the classic “Illmatic” by Nas, take on the role of a by-stander while Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die” depict a gloomy life of one active in drug dealing. “Ready to Die” describes the journey of a young male desperate to make money that ends up living a life that stresses him out to the point he commits suicide. Jay-Z’s “Reasonable Doubt” depicts a drug dealer that is constantly questioning if his ends justify the means. Artists such as these produced thought-provoking content that deeply explore the mentality these environments cause and are still viewed today as all time legends. To end the decade, rappers DMX and Ja Rule also joined the mainstream of highly successful East Coast Hardcore acts.
One of the first socially conscious hip-hop songs was “How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?” by Brother D with Collective Effort. The first majorly successful hip hop song containing conscious rap was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” in 1982, an influential political and conscious hip hop track, decrying the poverty, violence, and dead-end lives of the urban poor of the time. Furthermore, the complex socio-political issues before hip hop and during all of its stages severely influenced its birth and direction. Political hip hop was put into the forefront by Public Enemy in the late 80s and early 90s. On the west coast, rapper Paris became a major figure for political rap songs. Later acts such as Tupac, Nas, and Kendrick Lamar also found great success in political hardcore rap songs.
Dirty South Rap
The most successful Southern independent labels during the mid-to-late 90s came out of the cities of Memphis and New Orleans. Both scenes borrowed heavily from a production style first introduced by way of the obscure late-1980s New York rap group The Showboys, heavily sampling the beats from their song “Drag Rap (Trigger Man). By the turn of the century these scenes found mainstream success through Cash Money Records and No Limit Records out of New Orleans and Hypnotize Minds out of Memphis, revolutionizing financial structures and strategies for independent Southern rap labels.
By the early 2000s, artists from all over the South had begun to develop mainstream popularity with Dirty South Rap. This style blended Hardcore Rap with the homegrown sounds of the screw techniques found in Houston, New Orleans Bounce Music and Florida’s Miami Bass Music.
The height of Southern hip-hop was reached from 2002 through 2004. In 2002, Southern hip-hop artists accounted for 50 to 60 percent of the singles on hip-hop music charts. Around the mid 2000s Atlanta became the dominant Hip Hop scene and the Atlanta style Trap Music became a phenomenon that spread across the country.
Atlanta Trap Music
Although the term “trap” had been used in southern Hip Hop as early as 1988. The subgenre was really born with the release of T.I.’s album simply labeled “Trap Muzik” in 2003. During the mid 2000s the subgenre was more of a content description as songs would usually say the word “trap” in the hook or repeat it throughout the song. Overtime though, it became linked with a certain sound that included a synth, orchestra and string swells with tight, bass-heavy 808 kick drums. The trap sound has been the most dominant subgenre of hip hop since the Late 2000s and has spread from Atlanta to the rest of the U.S. and into genres outside of Hip Hop. Besides T.I., other pioneer acts include Gucci Man, Young Jeezy, and Future. There is certainly contention with the labeling of the subgenre. As some would say that trap music must feature content referencing the “trap” while others view it purely sonically. On the Web show everyday struggle, Future pointed out that he doesn’t view club music that doesn’t refer to the trap as trap music, nor does he think any music made outside of Atlanta should use that term.
Chicago Drill Music
Drill music is a spinoff of Trap Music that emerged in the early 2010s that often shares its production techniques but tends to focus more on violence than drug dealing. “Drill” is a slang term for use of automatic weapons: old-time Chicago gangsters would ‘drill’ someone. The current use now means to fight or retaliate, and “can be used for anything from females getting dolled up to all out war in the streets. Dro City rapper Pacman, considered the stylistic originator of the genre, is credited as the first to apply the term to the local hip hop music. In the drill scene, rap conflict and gang conflict overlap, and many of the young rappers come from backgrounds with experience of violence.
Boom Bap Rap – Rap music over stripped down production, human drums, scratching and samples.
Gangsta Rap – Street-level rap that embraces the gangster persona and edgy material.
Dirty South Rap – Hardcore rap blended with southern production styles from the southern U.S.
Trap Rap – Atlanta based Dirty South Rap that focuses on drug dealing and a particular beat style.
Drill Rap – Spinoff of Trap Music originated in Chicago that focuses on violence as opposed to drug dealing.
Some of the key Hardcore rappers and rap groups
- Beastie Boys
- Cardi B
- Public Enemy
- Run DMC
- Wu Tang
Classic/Popular Hardcore Rap Albums
- Run DMC – Run D.M.C. (1984)
- Beastie Boys – License to Ill (1986)
- Public Enemy – It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (1988)
- Snoop Dogg – Doggystyle (1993)
- Nas – Illmatic (1994)
- Notorious BIG – Ready To Die (1994)
- 2pac – All Eyez On Me (1996)
- Wu-Tang Clan – Forever (1997)
- DMX – It’s Dark and Hell Is Hot (1998)
- Eminem – The Marshall Mathers LP (2000)
- 50 Cent – Get Rich or Die Tryin’ (2003)
- T.I. – King (2006)
- Cardi B – Invasion of Privacy (2018)