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Psychopathic Indians and killer clowns

Music writers examine horrorcore rap

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On June 14, when Anybody Killa plays Tremont Music Hall, the venue will likely fill with fans in demented clown paint – yes, Juggalos – excited to see a Psychopathic Records fixture play Charlotte. The Detroit rapper was born James Lowery to Lumbee parents – legit native North Carolinians – and draws on a strong sense of dispossession compounded by an unenviable urban Michigan upbringing. And, yes, he wears clown paint and rhymes in slasher film imagery.

While horror rap artists and fans are the subject of Internet mockery and pseudo-ethnography with tiresome regularity, it's a remarkably healthy subculture: as with Anybody Killa, there's probably more to it than a handful of tired punch lines. Creative Loafing approached two hip-hop experts – SPIN's Brandon Soderberg and INDY Week's Eric Tullis – for a little insight on this much-maligned subgenre.

So, horror rap. How'd this stuff come about?

Brandon Soderberg: I think it's probably more intertwined with hip-hop that's considered good and important than we want to admit. It isn't horrorcore but the Bomb Squad were slicing up Slayer samples, and the Beastie Boys with Rick Rubin's help were rapping over Led Zeppelin. I mean, that's in part what horrorcore is, right? (It's) bringing in this tangible "hard rock" menace to hip-hop. Then you got gangsta rap, which was always about describing violence in gory detail, so even stuff like Schoolly D or NWA were creating raw visceral rap. But it really starts with the Geto Boys, right? They pretty much were a horrorcore group.

At the heart of horrorcore it seems to me though, is nostalgia: which makes it like a lot of weird rap sub genres! So much of the stuff on ICP's Psychopathic Records, in particular, is just longing for this strange moment in the early '90s – when a lot of these goofballs were young and impressionable – when rap was a big deal but the labels hadn't yet figured out how to control it, so they were, like, left with a one-eyed little person like Bushwick Bill or Mobb Deep holding scythes. Rap really had its metal moment there where it was just truly aggressive, un-PC, scary-as-hell music; the next generation of goofy white boys who wanted to piss their parents off embraced Marilyn Manson, Nine Inch Nails, etc. A lot of proto-horrorcore like the Geto Boys probably has more in common with that stuff than it does a lot of "golden era" hip-hop.

Eric Tullis: In the early '90s, in Wichita, Kansas, I hung out with a bunch of gang-bangers who listened to a rapper from Houston named Ganksta N-I-P, who was also down with the Geto Boys. These dudes would always listen to one of his songs called "Reporter From Hell." So, that's where it all started for me. At the time, I just identified it as some scary gangsta rap that these guys thought was more entertaining than serious. It turned out that he was one of the originators of the style.

I just remember feeling excited (and sometimes guilty) that there was finally this secret, evil corner of hip-hop that I could crawl into, that, to me, functioned just like the make-believe of a typical scary movie. For me, the realities of gangsta rap were too much of threat since I actually knew gangsters. With horrorcore, the rapper was obviously pretending, right? None of that stuff actually happens, right? That's what made it safe and approachable for me.

I'm just theorizing here, but where the term "gang" was operative in gangsta-rap, horrorcore gave solo rappers, especially the white ones like Necro, Cage and even Eminem, more of an opportunity to rap about an individual brand of terror and crime without having to pretend that they knew what it was like in the "hood" or in a "gang" situation.

Good point bringing up Eminem, Eric. A lot of stuff off that Slim Shady record edged in on suburban horrorcore, but he got a pass as a "real" rapper while a lot of the clown makeup dudes didn't.

ET: And ICP and Eminem hated each other at one point, if I'm not mistaken.

BS: Eric's point about horrorcore giving white rappers and/or just rappers not from the "streets" or lacking "cred," a way to act hard is great. On a basic level too, if you're doing horrorcore, it gives you that baseline subject matter to riff around, which is crucial to rap for whatever reason. Same way there are gangster rap tropes that rappers can lean on when they need to, horrorcore has its signifiers. Out of that, if a rapper chooses, they do a lot more. ICP for example, have really affecting and sincere songs. Or like, one their last album, Mighty Death Pop, they used their like horrorcore penchant for violence to imagine going to the Grammys and murdering Chris Brown. I guess it is appropriate that I admit here that I gave Mighty Death Pop a "7/10" over at SPIN and named the Freaky Tales disc my "Rap release of the week" the week it dropped.

So where's everyone fall on ICP?

ET: I should probably come clean and say that I don't know or care about anything ICP-related. I dig their cult following – the Juggalos – from afar, but that's about it. When I was a kid, one of the first books I read from cover to cover was Stephen King's IT. Since then, I've avoided anything that incorporates scary clown makeup.

BS: I ride for Insane Clown Posse. They know exactly what they're doing and they execute that idea perfectly every time, which is more than I can say for almost every one of my favorite rappers. Last year, one of the bonus discs for The Mighty Death Pop was a single-track, hour-long riff on Too $hort's "Freaky Tales." It's incredible: The Infinite Jest of chubby white guy horrorcore.

The first I ever heard of ICP was in the late 90s, in high school where I grew up in backwoods Eastern North Carolina. There were these two brothers - I think they were twins - who adored ICP. They even went so far as to put on clown makeup and perform as them at some festival in New Bern, N.C., though I only heard about it secondhand. They were supposedly scary dudes, but they always seemed pretty good-natured and funny. They were always nice to me and, at the very least, they weren't as scary as some of the guys who lived there.

One of those guys died young, years ago. It struck me as the saddest thing ever - those brothers loved each other so much. But the ICP identity (I didn't know the word Juggalo yet) seemed to give them something to hold onto in what was a pretty bleak place to grow up for a lot of folks.

ET: Seems like a strange, yet common thread here – people using horror-filled rap music as a form of therapy instead of a negative influence.

BS: Yes, totally! Not trying to nitpick but this is ultimately what all ugly rap music (or just plain music) or just aggressive art does! With horrorcore, because it is all kind of absurd and ridiculous, it's easier, I think, for us to separate our hang-ups. So, like, we get less uneasy hearing violent horrorcore as therapy than say, 2 Chainz screaming about crack sales because, well, horrorcore has less of a basis in reality. In a sense, it's a really useful subgenre. Like a litmus test maybe, for how all rap should be approached: appreciate it, consider it sincere, but maybe not take it so seriously.

I think an important moment in this whole movement is the late-'90s rap-metal explosion, with cartoonish-yet-pissed acts like Korn, (hed) p.e., etc. Are horror rap acts still surfing that wave, or is there a possibility of resurgence?

BS: On a minor level "horrorcore" is back when it comes to like a lot of the supposedly "cool" label co-signed Internet rap: A$AP Rocky; Flatbush Zombies; Spaceghostpurrp. The difference is this is being sold as "cool" or "daring," so no one would ever call it "horrorcore." There's a really amazing dude from New York named Mummz that's doing cool-signifying horrorcore pretty much. The video for "Opening Knell" has him stalking some white couple and wielding a samurai sword. So, in part, this is all marketing or context.

ET: As far as the "wave" goes, it's become too heady for horror rap acts to ride anymore. With groups like Death Grips there's a noticeable, unapologetic split in the way mass-appeal rapmetal is consumed. Horror-rap can't lean on the heavy metal excuse anymore because if someone wants both, there are increasingly more groups like DG that offer both without toning down the noise. Unfortunately, the quality of rapping declines when this happens.

So how about Anybody Killa?

ET: Brotha Lynch Hung – my absolute favorite rapper in the horrorcore subgenre, as well as one of its pioneers – started representing "EBK" (Everybody Killa) on his first album, where he was also rapping about eating fried baby nuts and baby guts. A few years later, he released an album called EBK4. I wouldn't be surprised if that inspired Anybody Killa's name.

I'm all for a hatchet-wielding Native American rapper. And I don't feel the least bit racist or compromised by saying that either, because Anybody Killa has obviously embraced the pernicious, "savage Indian" stereotypes and depictions turned them into an offense mechanism. I see a bit of a soft-side to this guy, but, yes, it's horror-rap.

Earlier, Brandon was talking about scythes, and I actually wonder how many tough-guy, gun-toting rappers would know how to use a hand weapon, like a hatchet, in a fight. I actually wonder how many of them know how to shoot guns.

BS: Another way that this horrorcore stuff is a litmus test for rap fans: how is Anybody Killa any more absurd a persona than Rick Ross? Or even, to bring it back to scythes, Mobb Deep? It seems like we all demand more and less from our horrorcore rappers: their willingness to full-stop enjoy fantasy isolates them. Point is: it's an awesome persona – a vengeful Native American rapper! We could all learn to treat all rap like serious fans of wrestling treat wrestling. Take this crap seriously as you want but accept it isn't real and don't expect authenticity.

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