When SoundCloud launched in 2007, it was initially populated by DJs who posted hours-long sets, like the much-missed collective East Village Radio. It was the new MySpace, a service where Flying Lotus posted workshop demos, and labels like Warp and Ninja Tune posted advance singles of upcoming albums. Some of the service’s earliest legal battles were against major labels that objected to DJs mixing their tracks without legal consent, as well as musicians that posted their material without proper clearance. Eventually, it turned into a YouTube-style service where people uploaded “freeleases” in search of internet buzz. Bryson Tiller, Kehlani and, most famously, Chance the Rapper are just a few who uploaded their mixtapes to SoundCloud.
Before SoundCloud rap was a phenomenon feted by Rolling Stone, the New York Times, Complex, and dozens of lesser trend-hunter publications, there was Tumblr rap, the nickname briefly given to buzzy acts like SpaceGhostPurrp and Antwon; and MySpace rap, which yielded “hipster rappers” like the Cool Kids, Uffie, Pase Rock, and Amanda Blank. (Before he signed with Lil Wayne’s Young Money and went supernova, Drake was one of MySpace’s most popular unsigned artists.) SoundCloud rap may be useful today to describe a gaggle of rappers that share sonic traits: lo-fi production, hooky chants, emphatic lyrics that are usually talk-sung, and vague shock tactics that are as punk rock as Billy Idol. But at the end of the day, SoundCloud is just a service.
With that in mind, SoundCloud rap sounds like an extension of a thread that arguably began in 2010 with Odd Future (whom some publications compared to the Sex Pistols). As the genre of rap becomes more notional than actual—lyrics are harmonized and sung in barely recognizable hip-hop cadences, and beats are reduced to murky approximations of a boom-bap tempo—MCs trade form for texture, and professionalism for bellicosity. SoundCloud rappers are representative of the genre’s post-regional phase, when it’s no longer uncommon for a Philadelphia hook-man like Lil Uzi to sound like a trapper from Atlanta, a Texas melodicist like Post Malone to sound like a rapper/singer from Chicago, or a Florida bedroom producer like SpaceGhostPurrp to sound like a gangster from Memphis. In the whirlpool of internet culture, everyone is a digital representation of Chris Anderson’s “long tail” theory.
This doesn’t mean that SoundCloud rap isn’t responsible for vital work. Those aforementioned stories are motivated by controversial upstarts like XXXTENTACION, Tay-K (both of whom are facing serious criminal allegations) as well as Lil Pump, Lil Peep (RIP), Wifisfuneral, Smokepurrp and a handful of others landing on Billboard’s streaming-enhanced Hot 100 charts. Smokepurrp’s drawling “Audi”—with its chants of “lean, lean, double cup” and pummeling trap bass drums—is as vital as any 2 Chainz single this year, and Rico Nasty’s loopy nursery chant “Hey Arnold” replicates Lil Yachty’s charm. (In fact, the latter eventually appeared on a “Hey Arnold” remix.)
Still, much of SoundCloud rap’s entrée into the 2017 Zeitgeist can be credited to its successful atomization. There are dozens of rappers who fit into the rubric, and it’s unlikely that you’ll remember most of them five years from now. But it’s fun while it lasts.