Hip-hop from Hell

Horrorcore salutes Ice Cube and Alice Cooper
By CHRIS FARAONE  |  October 29, 2009


NOT SO CRAZY Blender called Insane Clown Posse the worst group of all time, but they bank millions.

Depraved hip-hop is the biggest thing to hit trailer-trash America since sliced meds — and not just in redneck pockets, where rap music hardly reached before, but in suburban enclaves where acts like Twiztid and Tech N9ne sell out shows with ease. Around New England, crypt-hop champions including Q-Strange of Providence and Zombie Death Squad out of Boston have disregarded civility for years.

“We talk about what people fear most: death and getting beaten the fuck up,” says ZDS’ Ricky Mortis, who on disc describes himself as “clinically depressed, vexed, and drowning in stress.” “But this isn’t on some thug shit — I just like songs about guns, drugs, sex, violence, and porn.” Adds Lateb, of the Squad: “Who doesn’t?”

Horrorcore is what happens when wayward punks salute Ice Cube and Alice Cooper. Fixated on bloodlust and savage carnal revelry, the morbid hip-hop subgenre (along with such similar variations as death rap and acid rap) is fisting the nation deeper than most parents will be comfortable with. Insane Clown Posse (ICP), famously mocked by Blender as the worst group of all-time, outlived that particular tormenter, and they continue to bank millions from music and merchandise sales. Hip-hop is dead, as crypt-hop’s mega-sales attest — just ask the 500-plus who crowded Lupo’s in the spring for a Tech N9ne show or the 1000-plus war-painted trenchcoat mobsters who swelled Worcester Palladium for an ICP opera October 18.

“People are fucking bored,” continues Mortis. “When you live in a neighborhood where the only thing you can do is sit in a Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot and get high with some kid named Kenny, then this is what you listen to. They’re just pent-up, pissed-off kids, and even though we might be a little older, we’re not really any different.”

Just as with trends in larger hip-hop culture, horrorcore was conceived by black cats before being co-opted and spun into a multi-million-dollar industry by mostly Caucasian practi-tioners. There’s little debate that African-American Michigan rapper Esham pioneered the niche (which he now calls “acid rap”) in 1989, when the then-13-year-old debuted with the unholy Boomin’ Words from Hell. Unlike most contemporary gore rappers, whose rhymes are grounded more in fantasy than in reality, Esham in early hyperbolic efforts like KKKill the Fetus and Closed Casket served up shattered reflections of the real mayhem that consumed his Seven Mile neck of East Detroit.

The Motor City has a rich history of violent rap to go along with Alice Cooper, the Stooges, and the MC5, and since the early ’90s, the Esham-modeled ICP and their Psychopathic Records brand have amassed a significant legionnaire army. Known as Juggalos and Juggalettes, ICP fanatics flock to shows masked in clown paint and hatchet gear, and over the past two decades they’ve purchased more than seven million records. The last Gathering of the Juggalos — ICP’s annual Midwestern trailer-park shit show and backyard-wrestling extrava-ganza — drew more than 20,000 heads while incorporating relatable acts from outside the Psychopathic family that included Ice Cube, Onyx, GWAR, and Scarface. And when consid-ering Detroit’s role in popularizing nihilistic hip-hop, one can’t forget Eminem, the pretty-boy vagrant who ushered Esham aesthetics onto MTV. (In case you forgot: one of Shady’s first hits was a fantasy about murdering his wife.)

While Juggalo nation spawned in Michigan, the East Coast has gone Chucky on us, too. Q-Strange’s Creation to Exeqtion chronicles the exploits of a deranged serial killer in detail so graphic even the artist seems taken aback. “I will sometimes go back to this and wonder what the fuck I was thinking,” the Providence rapper writes of one track.

But the gloom started with two acts. The first was Flatlinerz, a Def Jam afterthought whose Wes Craven antics failed to catch on. More important were Gravediggaz, a collective boasting Poetic, Stetsasonic vets Prince Paul and Frukwan, and Wu-Tang ringleader RZA that emerged from underground in 1994 with Niggamortis. A major inspiration for such acts as Zombie Death Squad (who respect boom-bap principles as much as they do shock value), Gravediggaz cleared a lane for artists like South Brooklyn producer/rapper Necro, whose despi-cability touches youth noir everywhere but who also gets respect from the traditional rap establishment.

“Horrorcore artists are usually cheesy lyrically,” writes Necro, who recently lent a dark chord to Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx Pt. II. “They rap about murder and killing in a corny way. . . . My rhymes are not based around horror movies. . . . My subjects might be dark, but I will rap about mad shit [from] human trafficking to cockroaches to dispos-ing a corpse to pimping bitches to the way I grew up in the projects. I consider myself the most extreme hip-hop [artist] on the planet.”

With lyrically competent gloom acts like Necro and Tech N9ne straddling the “Rock the Bells” and “Gathering of the Juggalos” demographics, it would seem that violent an-guish is gaining in acceptance in underground-rap circles. According to some, that development should be credited to the likes of Black Sabbath, Cannibal Corpse, and any number of other punk and metal bands who are the true forefathers of horrorcore and death rap.

“The concept underneath Zombie Death Squad is that all these rappers now are doing the same thing — like fucking zombies,” says Mortis. “That’s why you see artists like Necro and Tech N9ne — who have crazy, disgusting live shows — becoming more popular with rap fans who are sick of watching guys standing on stage and doing nothing. Per-sonally, I stole a lot of my shit from the Misfits [who will perform at Lupo’s on Sunday, November 1]. I can’t hide my influences — I have a fucking Black Flag tattoo on my arm.”

Reminiscent of the media frenzy that surrounded Judas Priest and teen suicides in 1990 is how horrorcore is now on trial for a rash of recent murders that include a quadruple homicide in Virginia and, closer to Rhode Island, the Kimberly Cates slaying in New Hampshire. This is neither the time nor the forum to host a chicken-or-bad-egg debate, but you might recall that the Granite State birthed GG Allin some half a century ago, so it’s hardly news that our northern neighbors have long fiended for creative depravity.

As for why rappers are held more accountable than Stephen King and George A. Romero, R.A. the Rugged Man — who recently wrote and produced the B horror flick Bad Biology (and who will perform along with ZDS at Harpers Ferry in Allston, Massachusetts, on Halloween) — chalks it up to hypocrisy. “People will complain about me and then go see some bitch’s tits get ripped off in Saw. They look at films as entertainment and fiction, but in rap music they’re trusting, for some reason.”  

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  Topics: Music Features , Entertainment, Hip-Hop and Rap, Scarface (Rapper),  More more >
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