Why Hip Hop Suddenly Loves Heavy Metal
Last year, Florida rapper Robb Banks posted artwork from a black metal album, Leviathan's Verräter, on his Instagram. As the artwork features a man in corpse paint and a classically illegible metal logo, it seems unlikely that it would be mistaken for anything other than an album from metal's bleakest genre, but even still, Banks felt the need to tell his followers that it was not the cover of his next mixtape. It's hard to imagine a previous era of hip hop in which such a disclaimer would have been necessary, but today, even the most pop-friendly artists are co-opting metal aesthetics.
In typography, fashion, and live shows, rappers are adopting various aspects of metal in unprecedented numbers, whether that means Kanye copping the Metallica font for his Yeezus logo, Travis Scott wearing a Slayer shirt in GQ, or ScHoolboy Q urging you to mosh at his concerts. A few years ago, it would have seemed unthinkable for A$AP Rocky to collaborate with a rapper who owns a Burzum shirt, or for Pusha T to commission merch from an artist who had previously only worked with death metal bands like Nunslaughter and Rotting Christ. But that's nothing compared to how mainstream the phenomenon's gone this year.
Justin Bieber's "Purpose" tour apparel mimicked the band Pentagram's logo, Rihanna unveiled a very metal logo at the VMAs a few weeks ago, and fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar featured model Gigi Hadid wearing an "edgy rock tee" (AKA vintage Metallica shirt) as the header to its list of 2016 summer looks. Since metal music itself hasn't seen any huge leaps in the charts since its big-ticket days of the '80s and early '90s, it would seem that rappers are more to blame for this new wave of popularization than anyone else, as they were on this steez a year or two before the latest wave of pop stars and fashionistas.
But apart from Bones' throat-shredding screams in the above live performance of Rocky's "Canal Street," there are very few traces of actual metal influence in the music of the many young rappers who take fashion and performance cues from those genres. In fact, the actual sound of that genre is far rarer on rap records today than it was ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago.
In the mid '80s, metalhead Rick Rubin set a precedent by sampling Black Sabbath, AC/DC, and Led Zeppelin on the Beastie Boys' Licensed to Ill, and Terminator X went even heavier, creating Public Enemy's "She Watch Channel Zero?!" atop a bed of riffs lifted from Slayer's classic "Angel of Death." Bands like Rage Against the Machine and Ice-T's Body Count went on to create more balanced fusions of the genres with live instrumentation in the '90s, and Cypress Hill even started attracting metal fans with their ominous aesthetic on the album BlackSunday, though they barely ever made use of anything resembling a metal riff. It was common to see people moshing at their shows, even though the heaviest thing they were sampling was one of Black Sabbath's more subdued songs.
Metal mining persisted into the late '90s and early 2000s, with Three 6 Mafia's Koopsta Knicca sampling Metallica, Lil Wayne sampling Iron Maiden, Lil Jonreworking Ozzy Osborne's "Crazy Train" for Trick Daddy, and Busta Rhymes getting the Prince of Darkness himself to reprise Sabbath's "Iron Man"-- but you could never call it popular. In the last ten years, metal sampling's all but died out. There are, however, astonishing outliers that diverge from the classic metal pantheon rappers tend to favor (Sabbath, Maiden, Metallica, Slayer). Take Trae Tha Truth's 2008 cut "I'm Fresh," which licks the riff from Electric Wizard's "Dopethrone," a cult classic. Pairing screwed-up Houston with stoner metal is a genius combination, but not one that's been attempted very often.
These days, Lil Uzi Vert slaps a Metallica-inspired logo on tapes that have more in common with electropop than they do with any sort of guitar-driven music. It seems like hip hop's increasing interest in metal aesthetics seems to be coinciding with a waning interest in actual metal music. To get a better perspective on the matter, I got in contact with illustrator Mark Riddick, who worked exclusively with underground metal bands until last year. His personal involvement in hip hop and pop design work, like a vast majority of the things that are now en vogue, just so happens to be at least somewhat traceable back to Kanye West.
Ye's a known fan of metal tees, having been spotted wearing ones from slightly more obscure bands like Type O Negative, and it appears that this interest extends to his creative team. According to Riddick, DONDA's Virgil Abloh requested a list of "heavy metal illustrators" a few years back, and his name came up due to a past connection with a label executive. DONDA contacted Riddick about designing a "King" playing card, and that ended up being used for Pusha T's "Darkest Before Dawn" merch line. "Pusha T was my first client outside of the realm of underground metal music to publish my work," Riddick confirmed via email. It's now less than a year after that shirt hit shelves, and he's already done design work for Justin Bieber and Rihanna's aforementioned metal-inspired merch and logos.
"I’ve been surprised to receive requests from such unlikely clients this year," he said. "As you can imagine, I’m deeply rooted in the underground death metal scene so I’m very far removed from anything related to other genres of music." As he points out, artists whose music has very little in common with any style of metal are seeking out illustrators from not just any metal community, but one of its least commercial and most abrasive. He at least has a guess as to why that's the case.
"I’m uncertain why heavy metal graphics are an obsession for pop music and the high fashion industry at this time," he said. "In terms of intrigue, I suppose the subversive and gruesome nature of my artwork might be appealing to a pop artist seeking to add a level of shock value to their work."
This strikes me as the opposite of what was happening with Cypress Hill in the mid-'90s. Here's the group's B-Real describing their unlikely success with the headbanger demographic in an interview with HipHopDX:
"We’ve seen more white kids and more skater kids, metal kids listening to us and Wu-Tang– the harder-edged hip hop... When we came in, there wasn’t any punk rock elements in the music, but our attitude was very punk rock. Our music and our look-- as far as album covers-- looked more on the rock side. They looked [like] mysterious, dark, metal shit. I think that’s what was kind of the appeal."
In their case, metal-style imagery attracted people to artists who weren't very metal; today, artists who aren't very metal are attracted to metal-style imagery. All that's needed is a shared passion, whether that's horror movies, grimy tones, or authenticity. For Robb Banks, it's the latter. Over the phone, he explained his interest in metal:
"I’m not gonna sit here and say I’m a fan of metal in general, I was always solely a fan of black metal. Mayhem, Darkthrone, shit like that. I always respect the artist that does everything they talk about, so that’s why I fuck with Mayhem and even [Burzum founder and convicted murderer] Varg Vikernes, people who was doing something for a reason. Even if you could look at it as wrong or crazy, he believed in what he was doing. It’s like rap, where you have everyone saying they do shit, but not everyone actually lives it."
The title, lifted from his song "ULT," scathingly refers to conspiracy theorist Alex Jones asking, "Are black people terrorists?" in the wake of Michael Brown's murder a few years ago, but it also nods to some of the music that inspires Curry. "I’m a black terrorist, and as far as the metal part, my music is pretty turnt, like metal," Curry told me over the phone. "I’m really influenced people like Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies... I love Trash Talk and thrash metal." Unlike many of his contemporaries, Curry's got tracks that actually take cues from this music. Last year's "6 Billion Dollar N*gga" not only reflects hardcore punk's sub-two minute song lengths, but also some of black metal's grimy, lo-fi sonics.
Despite their respective connections to metal, Curry and Banks won't be seen rocking vintage band tees like many of their contemporaries.
"When it comes down to band shirts and shit like that, I just can’t do it," said Banks. "That shit always rubbed me the wrong way, but to be honest, I don’t really give a fuck what other n*ggas doing. It’s not my place to tell someone what they can or can’t wear."
Curry's a bit less forgiving.
"I mean, if you don’t know about the shit, I think you shouldn’t be rocking it," he said. "I even get on my homie’s case. He be rocking Metallica shirts and I’ll be like, ‘Yo, do you even know a whole album by Metallica? Do you listen to it?’ And he’s like, ‘They’re hard bro, that’s why I wear it! I wear it because I like it.’ And I’m just like, ‘Damn, you can’t even name me one Metallica song, bruh.’ If anything, I should be wearing the damn shirt, I bought a whole Metallica album."
Curry's mindset is a common one among people who *actually* listen to metal. This year, a writer for metal blog MetalSucks went to Justin Bieber's "Purpose" tour stop in Brooklyn to see if fans were as bout it bout it as the Metallica tee-wearing, Pentagram logo-ripping star. The host keeps a harmless, friendly enough tone, but the whole idea of asking pre-teen girls if they rock with Cannibal Corpse is a little condescending. Jake Phelps, editor-in-chief of the iconic skate magazine Thrasher, took this sentiment even further last week in an interview with Hypebeast. Like vintage metal tees, Thrasher's instantly-recognizable clothing is a favorite choice for celebrities seeking an "edgy" look, but Phelps seems to loathe the fact that non-skating poseurs seek it out. “We don’t send boxes [of clothing] to Justin Bieber or Rihanna or those fucking clowns... The pavement is where the real shit is. Blood and scabs, does it get realer than that?”
This "Do u even skate bro??" or "Nice Metallica shirt, name one of their songs" mentality is somewhat understandable in once-underground scenes whose aesthetics suddenly go mainstream while the scene's main cultural export (i.e. metal or skateboarding) remains unheralded and unprofitable. But is it really worth getting bent out of shape over? Mark Riddick takes a much more levelheaded, optimistic opinion of the aesthetic changes he's helped to usher in, and also provides some helpful perspective on the subject of logo-ripping:
"In my opinion, the repurposing of a logo or image is a way to pay homage to something great that came before you. In terms of the Yeezus versus Metallica logo, my understanding is that Kanye’s team had permission to appropriate the Metallica logo for the Yeezus tour merchandise campaign. In addition, the Pentagram logo was based off of Black Sabbath’s “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath” album title type treatment. The type has since been converted to a font, easily accessible by anyone. In addition, some other metal bands, besides Pentagram, have based their logo on this typeface.
I’m positive [hip hop and pop's use of metal aesthetics] will be a temporary fascination as trends are always changing; they come and they go. I’m grateful to have somehow been a part of this unusual phenomenon nonetheless. Having these unique opportunities to publish my artwork have allowed me to be a liaison for the underground metal music scene. Underground metal culture is oozing with talent, both artistically and musically, and shouldn’t go unnoticed."
The only part of this aesthetic appropriation that does make me a little sad is that it feels like a missed opportunity to try the whole rap/metal fusion thing again. (Lord knows the nu-metal wave of 10-15 years ago failed at that.) Metal and hip hop have more similarities than most members of either genre seem to want to admit. They're the two genres that have historically caused censorship advocates, religious leaders, and parents the most headaches. They both have "stoner" subgenres. They both spend more time meditating on the concept of evil than any other style of music. They're both responsible for the best mosh pits I've ever participated in. Can't we bond over those things?
There are bright spots, in terms of rappers currently incorporating some traces of metal and punk into their work. Curry, Banks, and Yung Simmie are making Florida the biggest hotbed for an aggressive young movement since the state's fertile death metal scene of the '80s and '90s. Bones' usual style is moody gothic rap, but he's also made screamo songs and sampled post-hardcore band La Dispute. Ratking expertly emulate the scuzz of skate and punk subcultures, and sometimes work alongside NYC sludge-punkers Show Me The Body. Acts like Dälek, Death Grips and Clipping. are far, far left of mainstream rap, but incorporate abrasive strains of industrial, metal, and punk into their music.
Even if the majority of rappers and rap fans who wear metal gear talk the talk but don't walk the walk, it's worth it if just one person sees someone they admire wearing a Slayer shirt and subsequently listens to Reign in Blood for the first time. In a year, hip hop and pop stars will probably be on to the next fad, but I'm hoping at least some trace amounts of metal have latched onto the next generation and lead to some ugly, brutal, hair-raising rap music.