“Trap music is the hood symphony.” -Sonny Digital
In a digital climate where thinkpieces about trap seem to spill from keyboards like cascades of word vomit, no writer has been able to succinctly capture the power of Atlanta’s homegrown genre like Sonny Digital. On Saturday evening, the production prodigy joined fellow beatmakers Zaytoven and Metro Boomin at Red Bull Music Academy Festival’s Beatmaker Roundtable, and over the course of two hours, a conversation about the creative process, Gucci Mane’s oft inscrutable rhymes, and Atlanta’s hip-hop haven unfolded. Red Bull’s roundtable carved a space for the three men of the moment to dish about their place in hip-hop’s most contested genre, something that has rarely been afforded to them as its progenitors and practitioners.
During the roundtable, the artists spoke about trap in stark contrast to the doomsday language employed by so many gatekeepers. “Trap music to me is hustling music,” Zaytoven said. “It’s motivational,” added 22-year-old Metro Boomin. For the Atlanta-born rhythm to be portrayed in such benign, almost aspirational terms, we writers must be getting something wrong.
Sure, there’s a case to make for interrogating the way trap has been divorced from its original context, becoming the fodder of neon-clad EDM bros. There’s something to be said for the way it mistakenly became an umbrella term used to make sense of a burgeoning movement, “an unnecessary, insecure and ahistorical crossing of wires,” in the words of writer David Drake. But one thing stands out above all else, at least in terms of the way the genre’s forefathers see it: the global rise of trap might not actually be so bad.
There’s a wide gulf between the valleys of appropriation and appreciation.
A sentiment that echoed throughout the conversation is that none of these producers ever thought people would actually listen to the beats they made. Zaytoven observes, “That’s big for trap music to me, because we never thought people would listen to it like that. We making hits for the guys around the neighborhood and it turned into such a big thing.”
That’s not just the obligatory modesty expected of most creative geniuses; it’s just real life for people like Zaytoven, who was a church man and barbershop employee before he engineered Gucci Mane’s first mixtapes and Top 40 hits for Usher. Same goes for Metro Boomin, who says he used stalk other producers on Twitter and email them beats he made on FruityLoops in high school.
No, Zaytoven thinks trap music’s global expansion is “real progression.” Arguably, the archetype of that growth is Steve Lean, the Barcelona-based hitmaker who shapes the sound of Spanish hypebeast parade PXXR GVNG. The controversial crew’s street videos have millions of hits on YouTube, and their filthy, warped perreo futurism has garnered them a massive following in Spain.
That internet fame grabbed the attention of 808 Mafia, a production crew who are almost singlehandedly responsible for trap’s post-2010 resurgence. The team invited Steve Lean to join the Atlanta-based production house in late 2014. Lex Luger and Southside, the crew’s founders, have produced hits for Future, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, Waka Flocka Flame, and the rest of the Brick Squad family, spawning turn up staples like “Hard in Da Paint.”
PXXR GVNG’s music embodies that vida callejera narrative.
Since he linked up with 808 Mafia, Lean dropped his Route to Spain EP, produced dozens of hits for the GVNG and their reggaeton alter egos La Mafia del Amor, and collaborated with Southside and Metro Boomin himself on “Guapo” and “Beef Boy” respectively.
I’ll be transparent: Metro and 808 Mafia’s work with Steve Lean may not be a meticulously outlined strategy for the global domination of trap. In fact, during the Red Bull roundtable, Zaytoven and Sonny Digital alluded to the fact that their prolific output isn’t always born from light bulb moments or sparks of creativity, but rather, from a need to stay relevant in Atlanta’s hyperspeed hip-hop world.
What is imperative here is that trap music’s creators don’t see a gaggle of light-skinned Barcelona boys as appropriators on the hunt to jack their swag. Instead, much to the chagrin of many writers, they’re just paying homage to trap music’s roots. “It’s progression; trap is its own now,” said Zaytoven during the conversation. Reflecting on the Producer Camp he runs, and a Nigerian beatmaker he was particularly inspired by, Zaytoven said, “They really in tune to the music that we do.”
Perhaps PXXR GVNG is in tune too; their music embodies trap’s quintessential vida callejera narrative. The group’s 2015 album features galaxy-sized beats and rhymes about pussy, drug dealing, and family. Their infamous street videos star blunts, cars, and video vixen stereotypes, themes that mirror the lives of genre-defining rappers like Future or Gucci Mane.
Beyond their thematic commonalities, PXXR GVNG and Atlanta’s top producers share something else: their work ethic. During the roundtable, Metro revealed he didn’t know how to use the production software program ProTools until he lived with Sonny Digital. It’s that punk DIY spirit – not technical prowess – that Atlanta producers might be seeing in the work of a 20-year-old beatmaker raised in Barcelona, who lacks formal training, but is driven by passion instead. When Zaytoven started making beats, he saw trap music as “dirty,” and attempted to let the genre’s dog-eared textures and “unrehearsed, edgy” grime shine through – not necessarily on purpose, but solely because he didn’t know how to smooth out those edges from a technical perspective.
As a forum for some of hip-hop’s hottest beatmakers to air their grievances and speak openly about where their loyalties lie, it’s important to recognize and understand these producers’ approach to the global rise of trap. It serves as a reminder that there’s a wide gulf between the valleys of appropriation and appreciation, one that trap music’s progenitors seem keenly aware of. For a scene that’s as community-oriented as Atlanta, outsiders would do well to remember that.
Red Bull Music Academy Festival runs until May 22. For our favorite picks from the festival lineup, click here.