Lil Peep at Webster Hall in New York in April.
Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

The Rowdy World of Rap’s New Underground

The lo-fi rap that thrives on SoundCloud teems with unruly energy. Can it survive the mainstream?

Lil Peep at Webster Hall in New York in April. Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

SEATTLE — One night this spring, the rapper Lil Pump, 16, with braces on his teeth, was asleep — or something like it — on the couch in the upstairs green room at the Columbia City Theater here, his blond and pink dreads dangling in front of his face and a pair of Gucci high-tops slung around his neck.

In walked his longtime friend and fellow rapper Smokepurpp, 20, in a loosefitting plaid shirt over a Nirvana T-shirt, wondering, “Who got Xanax and Percocet?”

In the high-ceilinged, brick-walled main room, around 300 fans were bouncing off one another, waiting for the show to begin. They were young — the bar was effectively closed, and a woman was selling cans of Sunkist and Minute Maid Lemonade from an ice-filled tub.

Eventually Lil Pump roused himself and sneaked out the back door. When he finally made it to the stage — joining Smokepurpp, who had been scheduled to go on after him — he was received full-throatedly, rowdily, sweatily. Perhaps a little too much so: Someone in the crowd said something Lil Pump didn’t take kindly to, and he replied with a kick to a young man’s head. Soon, the front of the room was a royal rumble, sending combatants from the stage to the floor, and some on the floor running for the doors.

Afterward, back in the green room, Lil Pump, with bloody scratches on his face, excitedly checked out footage of the scrap on a friend’s phone, telling him to send it to a popular hip-hop gossip blogger, then let out his signature shout, “ESKEDDDDDDDITTT” — “Let’s get it,” stretched out to the point of absurdist comedy.

ImageLil Pump, left, and Smokepurpp at the Roseland Theater in Portland, Ore., in March, on the first night of their tour organized by No Jumper.
Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

It was just another unpredictable, bruising night in the world of SoundCloud rap — a swelling subgenre that takes its name from its creators’ preferred streaming service — which in the last year has become the most vital and disruptive new movement in hip-hop thanks to rebellious music, volcanic energy and occasional acts of malevolence.

Its stars are internet celebrities, fashioning themselves into outlandish characters in the anime that is modern hip-hop: the theatrical Florida tag team Smokepurpp and Lil Pump (who perform solo, and also together as Gucci Gang); the anguished heartthrob Lil Peep; the problematic outlaw XXXTentacion. The aesthetic is high-end streetwear meets high fashion, with face tattoos, hair dyed in wild colors and a prescription-drug ooze. The music is low-fidelity and insistent, throbbing with distorted bass, like trap music reduced over a hot fire to its rawest component parts.

At its best, it has an almost punklike purity, emphasizing abandon over structure, rawness over dexterity. “It sounds so unpolished, so youthful,” said Roger Gengo, whose website Masked Gorilla has cataloged this scene since its infancy. He likened the aesthetic to “all the punk and grunge bands I grew up on. I get why people call it SoundCloud rap, but I call it grunge rap.”

Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

It is, in some ways, a logical retort to the smoothness of Drake-era major-label rap, which has long ceded most of its sharp elbows and street bluster. (Indeed, XXXTentacion has made Drake a target of his social-media diatribes.) It is also something of a natural sound for the streaming era, which rewards gut-level accessibility and sonic consistency.

These artists — and hundreds more like them — have gathered primarily on SoundCloud, the streaming service most oriented toward music discovery, and the one with the lowest barrier to entry. That has meant a new ecosystem of rising stars, who ascend quicker than ever — releasing songs that get millions of listens, booking nationwide tours, selling merchandise — without traditional gatekeepers.

Not all hip-hop counter-movements seep into the genre’s mainstream, but SoundCloud rap is growing fast, and major labels are hovering. A few rappers — Lil Pump, Smokepurpp and Wifisfuneral among them — have recently signed deals. And the scene has a breakout hit, “Look at Me,” by XXXTentacion, which recently climbed from SoundCloud ubiquity to No. 34 on the Billboard Hot 100 and is in rotation on hip-hop radio.

Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

The open question is how much of this renegade energy — from the songs, which have more in common with hardcore than hip-hop, to the fistfights, to the drugs — will survive during the bumpy transition into the mainstream.

The song Smokepurpp was set to perform just before the show-ending rumble is called “Ski Mask,” and its video encapsulates everything that is so titillating about this scene. It’s a surrealist soft-focus street adventure taking cues from low-budget science-fiction films and first-person-shooter video games. At one point, Lil Pump stomps across the screen, machine gun aimed into his own mouth — an extreme image to go along with extreme music.

“When people laugh at us, we laugh with them; we know it’s funny,” Smokepurpp said before the Seattle show. “We did this so you guys can react like that.”

Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

Smokepurpp’s tour with Lil Pump was organized by No Jumper, which in the last couple of years has become The Paris Review of the face-tattoo set, its long-form video interviews considered a first step toward credibility for oodles of SoundCloud-rap would-bes. Adam22, a lanky, heavily tattooed BMX biker who is No Jumper’s owner and chief interviewer, played den father on the tour.

“It’s so far beyond what any thinking person could consider to be 100 percent real,” he said of the theatrical imagery deployed by Smokepurpp and Lil Pump, who are, he said, “so aware of what makes a song popular or what makes a tweet go viral that they have completely redefined the idea of what it is to be a rapper.”

This penchant for meme-first exaggeration — inflating characters until they become larger than life — is a hallmark of the scene. “When I first met all these kids, these kids looked 10 percent punk,” said Jimmy Duval, one of the scene’s key producers. “As the sound got bigger, their image got bigger with the sound.”

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

That reckless energy is often transferred into the crowds, which skew young, male and white, and frequently feature mosh pits. “You go to a show, and it’s a punk rock show,” said Tariq Cherif, one of the founders of Miami’s Rolling Loud Festival, which booked several of these artists to play in May. “They wanna rage, they wanna sweat, they wanna scream.”

But sometimes, as at the Seattle show, the extreme behavior spills into the real world. Ski Mask the Slump God was attacked onstage while performing in Los Angeles. On social media, Lil Pump bragged about crashing a new Porsche and, after reaching one million followers on Instagram, celebrated with a Xanax-shaped cake. The current XXXTentacion tour has been riddled with problems: One night, he was attacked onstage by a rival; another, he punched a fan; at another, Wifisfuneral stage dove only to find himself on the receiving end of a beat down, landing him in the hospital.

XXXTentacion was arrested twice in 2016, including on a charge of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman. While he was in jail — he was released in March — “Look at Me” became the scene’s breakout hit, making him the movement’s troubled and troubling poster child.

Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

His public behavior since his release has toggled between earnest interactions with gobsmacked fans captured on social media — something many SoundCloud artists excel at, communicating directly to their audience in their language — and less savory choices, like tweeting the apparent home address of a rival, or saying impolite things about Drake’s mother in retribution for Drake seeming to have borrowed his “Look at Me” rhyme patterns on a recent song.

Before he went to jail, he was on the same popularity level as many of his generational peers, but now, seemingly in large part because of his outlaw reputation, his fame is growing the fastest. On his current tour, while a potential criminal trial looms for the aggravated battery charge, he is performing to more than 1,000 people a night; online, T-shirts, skateboard decks and iPhone cases with his mug shot abound. In one example of cross-promotion, XXXTentacion was handed the keys to SoundCloud’s Snapchat during Rolling Loud, but a representative for the streaming service declined to further detail how the company had directly worked with these artists. (XXXTentacion’s representatives declined to make him available for an interview.)

Though these rappers operate on the fringes of the hip-hop mainstream, they are not without antecedent. They are the bad-boy junior league of the genre’s emerging psychedelic era, inheritors of experimentalists like Lil Uzi Vert, Young Thug and the internet-rap hero Chief Keef. And in some ways, this is a regional scene passing for an internet phenomenon: Most of the crucial artists and producers hail from the Miami area. The sound’s aesthetic lineage is traceable through several of that city’s micromovement stars over the last few years — Spaceghostpurrp and the Raider Klan, Denzel Curry, Yung Simmie, Fat Nick and Pouya.

Credit...Kyle Johnson for The New York Times

It’s a sound attributable to a handful of rappers, but an even smaller number of producers. “Everything is literally made with me not even getting out of my bed and a kid coming and getting on the mike and screaming or rapping,” said Ronny J, producer of Smokepurpp’s “Audi,” among others (and who recently signed with Atlantic Records as an artist). Mr. Duval made the original beat for “Look at Me” almost two years ago for a different rapper. “No one had ever pushed it that far — that was very extreme,” Mr. Duval said of the song’s distortion. “Now these kids are all coming to me, and they’re all like, ‘I need that sound.’”

Whether a sound this jagged can survive in the less forgiving waters of the rap radio mainstream remains to be seen. “Even though it’s big, it’s still an outlier sound,” Mr. Duval said. “No drastic sound like this can last.”

The rappers, too, are finding that a little streamlining goes a long way. As Smokepurpp’s online hobby has become a potential career — he recently signed with Alamo Records, an imprint of Interscope, which also signed Wifisfuneral — he has had to shift his priorities. “Back in the day, it was probably more 85-15,” he said, describing how he split his attention between image and music. “As of now, it’s more like 60 percent music, 40 percent image.”


Drugs, he said, had a purpose: “I do Xannies cause they actually relax me,” he said, referring to Xanax. “People think I just do it for fun.”

A few weeks later, he was in Alamo’s New York office, looking more lucid. The label’s founder, Todd Moscowitz, said he had given Smokepurpp some advice, reminding him that if he wanted to elevate to the next level of success, he would need to rely on drugs less.

As part of his plan to shift Smokepurpp closer to the mainstream, Mr. Moscowitz moved him into a New York apartment and put a team — graphic designers, merchandise experts and blogger — to work. Mid-interview, Mr. Moscowitz called a representative of Chief Keef to offer $10,000 for a verse on Smokepurpp’s coming mixtape. Out in the office, Smokepurpp looked over artwork for a new single in which he recreated the funeral coffin photograph of the shock-punker G. G. Allin, who died of an apparent drug overdose in 1993.

Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times

With increasingly outlandish reference points, and thanks to the direct fan contact afforded by the internet, this scene is evolving rapidly. It has room for woozily melodic rappers like UnoTheActivist; rock-influenced sing-rappers like Trippie Redd; and even Matt Ox, a white preteen rapper from Philadelphia whose breakthrough video, “Overwhelming,” was full of fidget spinners.

“Each year — each half a year — barriers are stripped away from hip-hop,” Mr. Gengo said.

That’s clearest in the rise of Lil Peep, who over the last 24 months has evolved into something like the scene’s Kurt Cobain, with several astonishingly gloomy and diabolically melodic releases, and a body that is in constant flux: hair dyed one color after another, an anarchy sign and the word “crybaby” tattooed on his face.

“When I talk about understanding the meme,” Adam22 said, “he gets it.”

Lil Peep, who is white, started as a more straightforward rapper, but his recent releases, particularly the excellent “Hellboy,” have skewed more toward modern, forward-sounding emo.

“I’m not a SoundCloud rapper anymore — I’m off of that,” he said in New York in April, before playing a transfixing set in Webster Hall’s Marlin Room, on a stage that included the sagging bed from his Los Angeles apartment, the one on which he’s made much of his music. His songs find a middle ground between hip-hop bluster and emo’s bulked-up anxiety, a blend that feels eminently of the moment, and inevitable.

Just before the beginning of the interview, he’d pulled a Xanax out of a prescription bottle with the name scratched off and taken it. A half-hour later, he was in slow-motion, insisting, “I go as hard as I can when I’m anxiety-free.”