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The History of Horrorcore Rap

Flatlinerz
Flatlinerz
Courtesy of Def Jam

What has kept hip-hop fresh for almost 40 years are the constant innovations from various regional sub-genres.

But for some reason there's always been a challenge with properly tracking the dark corner of the music known as horrorcore. The blackest sheep of the hip-hop family tree, a proper history of horrorcore has always been hindered by both the divisiveness within its fanbase, as well as so many of the oft-attributed pioneers not wanting to take credit for it.

So, why has horrorcore carried such a stigmata stigma?

Early '80s rap music lent itself well to elements of films and pop culture touchstones. And so if we're talking the strictest of terms here, perhaps the first instance of proto-horrorcore could be Jimmy Spicer's 1980 single "Adventures of Super Rhyme."

A substantial part of the 15-minute long track consists of Spicer telling broadcaster Howard Cosell about the time he met Dracula.

From there also came groups like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde who, while not overly demonic, used the spooky fun of horror imagery in their aesthetic, as well as tracks like Dana Dane's "Nightmares" which shifted rap narratives into more frightening dimensions.

By the late '80s, this resulted in the more haunting narratives becoming commercially viable. In 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released "A Nightmare on My Street," an unauthorized hip-hop take on Freddy Krueger, followed later that year by the completely authorized A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Warriors soundtrack cut "Are You Ready for Freddy" by the Fat Boys, which boasted a rapping Robert Englund.

But while these were both relatively friendly frights, in other parts of the country, things got quite dark. That same year, Prince Johnny C's group Ghetto Boys' (this was how the group's name was spelled before Scarface and Willie D) recorded "Assassins" for their debut album Making Trouble. A brutal Tales From the Crypt-style series of horrific narratives, it became a signature song for the group, later remade by the group's new line-up.

On the other side of the country at this time was 16-year-old Detroit-based Esham, whose landmark 1989 Boomin' Words From Hell album used the metaphor of the Motor City to represent the pit of eternal damnation.

Esham's influence on midwest hip-hop cannot be overstated. Along with inspiring the more macabre elements that would go on to inspire several generations of horrorcore artists, his independent DIY-approach is rivaled only by Too $hort, E-40 and Master P in terms of building an independent empire.

Of course, Esham completely and utterly rejected the term horrorcore. He claims he makes "acid rap," differentiated by its usage of rock elements and more unsettling imagery as metaphors for real life horrors (as opposed to Horrorcore's more fantastical elements).

Another artist who similarly rejects horrorcore branding is Kool Keith, who, among other things, pioneered brutally killing MCs in-between the absurd chaos of everything else on Ultramagnetic MCs' 1988 debut Critical Beatdown. He would become frustrated with the title being thrown at his work from "Poppa Large" to Dr. Octagon.

On 1997's Sex Style he said he wasn't horrorcore, but "pornocore." Esham and Keith would later work together in 2001 on some of their strongest full-lengths: Esham's Tongues and Keith's Spankmaster.

The first use we could find of the actual term "Horrorcore" was Santa Ana, California, group KMC's 1991 album Three Men With the Power of Ten.

The group, whose name stands for Kaotic Minds Curruptin, released the album on Priority Records. The word slowly began popping up more along the West coast among fellow horror minded groups like Los Angeles' Insane Poetry who, prior to that time, was referring to their brand of sinister rap as "Terrifying Style," as well as Sacramento's Brotha Lynch Hung.

With the popularity of gangsta rap, perhaps label bigwigs thought horrorcore could be the next big thing.

During the 1992 bidding war for Long Island rapper R.A. the Rugged Man and his Crustified Dibbs project, he was brought into the Def Jam offices by Chris Lighty and Lyor Cohen and had his potential future as a horrorcore star mapped out for him.

"I was incorporating horror films in all my rhymes," he says. "They were looking at me to be that guy. They wanted me to be the 'Bloody Axe' kid. I got the lecture from Def Jam. Lyor said 'Rappers from the street have gats and guns, but you could have bloody axes! Fucks the gats, we're going to do bloody axes!' I always wanted to do everything opposite, all the films from my childhood influenced my music, but when everyone jumped on the horror thing it looked like a fad to me. It looked corny so I pulled my horror references out."

While R.A. later signed with Jive, Def Jam was still attempted to make a foray into horrorcore with The Flatlinerz, a group lead by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons' nephew Jamal Simmons.

Meanwhile, rap-a-Lot artist Ganksta N-I-P's album Psychic Thoughts (Are What I Conceive) may have had the most perplexing cover in rap history; along with his Houston colleagues Geto Boys -- he wrote their enduring song "Chuckie" -- the Def Jam push for horrorcore helped solidify the movement.

A-Pix Films tried to capitalize with their 1995 release The Fear, which had an entirely horrorcore soundtrack. Led by a title track performed by Esham and featuring The Flatlinerz, even the VHS box art for the film plugged the music, saying its soundtrack would do for horrorcore "what Singles did for Grunge."

Also on the soundtrack was "Dead Body Man", the biggest radio single for the Detroit duo Insane Clown Posse.

While Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope seemed to prefer calling their music "the wicked shit," they eventually seemed cool with the term to the point where their annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival would promote various acts as influential contributors to horrorcore. Their label, Psychopathic Records, has also spent 20 years signing horrorcore artists young and old, as well as matching them on tour with other hip-hop acts they respect.

But as the initial Horrorcore boom somewhat fizzled out, the acts who survived managed to change with the times.

Hip-hop horrorcore supergroup Gravediggaz -- RZA, Prince Paul, Stetasonic's Frukwon and Poetic -- released 1994's 6 Feet Deep, an album considered the sub-genre's finest hour.

But as RZA and eventually Paul departed from the group, Frukwon and Poetic moved away from the more macabre elements and focused on the more philosophical side of death. As times continued to change, the New York underground also saw the rise of Necro AKA Necrodamus, hip-hop psychic. With both multi-syllable-heavy lyricism and unspeakable sex and violence imagery, Necro's sidestepped the horrorcore designation by referring to his music as "Death Rap," something which has made both his work and collaborations with artists like Raekwon and groups like Non-Phixion a little easier to swallow for more traditional hip-hop heads.

Today, it seems the only people who don't see "Horrorcore" as a dirty word are its listeners. When early reviews of Odd Future referred to their music as horrorcore -- Rolling Stone referred to Earl Sweatshirt as a "Hot Horrorcore Revivalist" -- leader Tyler, the Creator said they were "not fucking Horrorcore".

That's always been the way with horrorcore. Perhaps its how cartoony the name "horrorcore" sounds, or its failures to catch on as a mainstream phenomenon, but nobody's ever really wanted to take credit for creating it.

Well, that is except for legendary Harlem rapper Big L who made no secret about believing his 1993 single "Devil's Son" made him one of the originators of horrorcore.

Regardless, now that the internet has made music fans more connected than ever, one suspects horrorcore's always going to be there lurking in the shadows.

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