With a global pandemic redefining life as we know it, an election that could determine the fate of our fragile democracy (click here for DJ Butter’s last minute NC voting resources), and Halloween just around the corner, it is safe to say that spooky season is in full effect. Given the circumstances, I thought it apt to take a brief look at hip-hop’s spookiest subgenre: horrorcore.
The ethos of horrorcore reflects that of the horror film, but it is presented in the context of hip-hop. As a result, rappers touch on macabre themes of death and the occult, and the depictions of violence and drugs normally found in hip-hop are turned up to extreme, sometimes campy, levels of exaggeration. Ironically, this is the least horrific kind of horrorcore – instead, some artists abandon the theatrics in favor of dark depictions of isolation, mental illness and drug abuse that make for a truly unsettling experience. It’s important to note that horrorcore does not exist in a vacuum, and shares similarities to other subgenres of music like emo rap, nu-metal, and hardcore hip-hop.
Though the origin of the sound can be traced back to the 80s, it didn’t gain popularity until the 90s. Released in 1991, “Mind Playing Tricks on Me” by Geto Boyz, with its lyrical themes of paranoia, can be considered foundational for the subgenre. Meanwhile, The Flatlinerz embraced satanic imagery on their 1994 album U.S.A (Under Satan’s Authority), and Gravediggaz burst onto the scene with their debut album 6 Feet Deep. Legendary groups Three 6 Mafia and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony both broke through in 1995, with Mystic Stylez and E. 1999 Eternal respectively, bringing horrorcore’s aesthetics to an even wider audience. During this time, the Insane Clown Posse was amassing a cult following of Juggalos with their over-the-top depictions of violence, reflected in their 1997 song “Hokus Pokus”.
Like the rest of hip-hop, horrorcore has changed dramatically throughout the years. In the early 2010s, the edgy subject matter and dark production of Tyler, The Creator’s early work earned him the horrorcore designation – a label he readily rejected. With a new generation of rappers inspired by the heyday of horrorcore came a new sound: boom bap drum loops were traded in for woozy, brooding instrumentals inspired by cloud rap. In 2015, this shift was evident in the music of Lil Ugly Mane, whose album Oblivion Access brought the subgenre to new nihilistic heights, and Ghostemane, who adopted the triplet flow pioneered by Three 6 Mafia and Bone-Thugs-N-Harmony.
Around the same time, another side of horrorcore was conceived in its intersection with rock music, specifically metal. Artists like XXXTentacion (though his sound would later veer into emo territory) and City Morgue pioneered this hyper distorted and aggressive style of hip-hop. Earlier in 2020, Mario Judah burst onto the scene with his own unique interpretation of the genre, complete with a melodramatic singing voice and trap production. Presently, the group clipping. offers one of the most exciting takes on horrorcore, with experimental production that includes field recordings and lyrical content that subverts common horror tropes.
There you have it: an autopsy of horrorcore – one hip-hop’s most idiosyncratic, dynamic, and controversial subgenres – and with it a Halloween soundtrack curated by yours truly. Happy haunting!
– DJ Mango