What Does 'Hardcore' Mean in Different Music Genres?

Hardcore
Hardcore

What do you think of when you hear the term "hardcore"?

Porn? If so, you're likely envisioning adult films that go beyond the mainstream, boob-job, grunting, one-man-on-one-woman variety.

Rather: more intensity, more abandon, more danger. (Hardcore auteurs certainly aren't fans of L.A. county's condom ordinance.)

Similarly "hardcore" music implies a strain that's for serious fans of the genre only, that separates itself from pop.

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Beyond that, however, hardcore definitions in various music genres vary widely. It's sometimes performed faster or at louder volumes, and sometimes contains more caustic messages, but not always.

And so below, Weekly critics talk about what constitutes hardcore in the genres of punk, country, EDM, hip-hop, jazz, and even Christian.

Black Flag shortly after the arrival of Henry Rollins, left
Black Flag shortly after the arrival of Henry Rollins, left
Edward Colver

Hardcore Punk

Examples: Black Flag, Minor Threat and Bad Brains

By 1980, the writing was on the wall: Punk was moribund, zombified into a radio friendly sound called new wave. Thus hardcore was born, a fury of white noise fusing Ramones energy, Sham 69 fury and the dull, thudding stupidity of Aerosmith and Ted Nugent. Artistic statements, skinny ties and nods to '60s pop were shown the door. In their place stood shorn-headed suburban teenagers, hopped up on stepped-on coke, ready to deck a cop in the face. That, in essence, is hardcore, and the unholy brew that breathed new life into punk rock. More importantly, the network of independent and DIY venues throughout the nation exists almost entirely because of said punks with nowhere to play. Creating your own venues? That's hardcore. -Nicholas Pell

See also: Top 20 Hardcore Albums in History

 

Merle Haggard
Merle Haggard
flickr/atgeist

Hardcore Country

Examples: Lefty Frizell, Merle Haggard, George Jones

When rockist aesthetes call some country music "hardcore" they tend to mean aggressive, rock-influenced, legacy-aspiring acts like Hank III and Shooter Jennings, guys -- always guys-- who are actually playing something like punk-inflected southern rock. They're country in spirit, is the idea, closer to the Outlaws than to a pop-rocker-with-fiddles like Darius Rucker, although Saint Waylon himself won a Grammy with a cover of "MacArthur Park," so such distinctions are more about the listener's sens of self than something so minor as music.

The George Jones best-of Hardcore Honky Tonk gets closer to the truth, even if that title is less an accurate summation of the contents than a promise to authenticity-obsessed rock fans that Jones is more "real" than Randy Travis. Still, Jones isn't a bad place to start, especially if we agree that the aesthetics of a "hardocre" country run deeper than just whether the songs prize heartache and heavy drinking. The music of Jones, Lefty Frizell, and Merle Haggard could never cross over to pop -- it's often soft-edged, filigreed, eschewing rock abandon for the stately, the mannered, maybe even the high lonesome. Except when it's not: Bob Wills' band swung like Louis Armstrong's, and their sides are as hardcore as anything Black Flag ever blurted. -Alan Scherstuhl

 

Hardcore Techno

Examples: Marusha, Scott Brown, DJ Isaac

Hardcore techno is, simply, aural hell. A mix of trance synths and beats so fast you couldn't set your jackhammer to them, this subgenre has remained on the fringes of EDM for decades and even spawned a viable new Dutch sound called hardstyle. In the '90s hardcore techno was typified by happy hardcore, which featured cartoon, video game and pop samples. There are a myriad of variants, including terrorcore (great for Halloween) and speedcore (great for heart attacks). There was even white-power hardcore in Germany that you could goose-step to, which is bizarre given dance music's gay, minority roots. -Dennis Romero

Hardcore Jazz

Examples: Albert Ayler, Elliott Sharp, and Tim Berne

Hardcore jazz is generally regarded as the more vicious strain of free jazz that was built upon the work of late 1950s innovators like Ornette Coleman and Cecil Taylor. Hummable melodies and swing were replaced by a focus on the potential for tone and the malleability of rhythm and tempo, expanding and contracting beyond a simple 4/4 beat. This often asked a lot of the listener. Rochester City Newspaper columnist Frank DeBlase recently described the music of hardcore jazz saxophonist Tim Berne as follows: "It was just random, screeching note generation with no logic at all. It sounded like a gaggle of geese fucking or an ambulance demolition derby." So, that's, um, another definition. -Sean J. O'Connell

 

RZA from Wu-Tang Clan
RZA from Wu-Tang Clan
Timothy Norris

Hardcore Hip-Hop

Examples: Wu-Tang Clan, Mobb Deep, Kool G Rap

Grim boasts of slaying friends-turned-foes are tempered with odes to fallen street soldiers. Common tropes include covert homicides, codes of ethics (no snitching), brownstone brick psyches, and, of course, authenticity. Closely associated with the coldest gangsters -- skinny jeans-clad suburban rappers get the bottom of a Timberland boot -- hardcore rap also features boom-bap drums that knock to the bone marrow and dusty, crackling, looped samples. Nowadays there's a throwback element to this subgenre, that was forged in the '90s -- its acts don't get much radio play, passed over for "softer," southern-inspired, more dance floor friendly artists. In many ways hardcore hip-hop has become synonymous with "real" or "classic" hip-hop, but the ethos remains the same: integrity above all else. -Max Bell

 

Devil Wears Prada
Devil Wears Prada
Courtesy of the artist

Hardcore Christian

Examples: As I Lay Dying, Devil Wears Prada, No Innocent Victim

From the ecumenical, back-to-basics Christianity that came out of the 1970s Jesus Movement (when lost hippies found Jesus), there's still a strain of anti-authoritarian "damn the man" sentiment that jibes well with current kids of faith. These are the ones who reject the safe, mainstream Christ-pop of Creed and Jars of Clay as emphatically as they reject secular counterculture. Instead, they are inspired by Christian metal, straight-edge punk with its rigid rules (no drinking, no smoking, no fucking) and open-minded "hip with the kids" preachers. It's a generation who found that they could listen to hard, aggressive music -- the kind with distorted guitars, screeching vocals, depressing drop D tuning and metal-infused-drums -- while still being good with God. While the tunes tend to be derivative and tempered by tame and predictable faith-based lyrical content, these Jesus kids can throb, grind, and shred with passable ferocity. -Paul T. Bradley

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