How Emo Morphed From Rock to Rap
They say emo rap formed around 2012 with the Soundcloud rapper gen, but we have a different hypothesis and it involves Eminem, JAY-Z and a whole stack of earlier emos.
Linkin Park in concert (Photo: Kevin Mazur)
What is ‘emo’ anyway? Isn’t all music emotional? Isn’t most stuff created from the ebb and flow of artists’ fluctuating feelings, presented to their audience to get an emotional rise or reaction? It wasn’t till the late 80s that emo actually became a subgenre itself. With the slowing capacity of hardcore punk’s frenetic seize of the music scene across Europe and the States, its demise made way for something of a consolation prize for rock fans that still craved a deep gutteral pull that just meant less surfing and more swaying. Emo eventually became a lived experience, but first it was headphones music, created for teenage bedrooms and angsty walks in the rain alone.
Quickly, these tropes made emo a subculture as well as a subgenre, where clothes and makeup became closely tied to the listening experience and fandom of emo bands that hit the big time across vast plains of the music world; bands that struck an intense emotional chord with their devoted hordes of fans. A particular brand of fandom was born, where fellow fans felt like kindred spirits. This type of fan would return when the trap and the emo rap scene that penetrates the entertainment scene today appeared. More on that later.
People say the internet made people image conscious, but then how do you explain the 80s? Punk rock, especially in England, had a gargantuan effect upon fashion and appearance, particularly on how people aligned themselves with musical acts and made them a political movement with their actual bodies and voices. The uprising of punk rock had grown from being handfuls of rebels and anarchists existing in the throbbing underbelly of frustrated cities growing in capitalist nature, to entire subcultures rooted in enormous walls of sound that idealistically captured the frustrated, angry emotions of the people. Emo and screamo – characterized in the late 80s to early 90s by bands like Orchid and Jerome's Dream, as well as Japanese band envy – were almost a controlled antidote to the messiness of punk rock.
You only have to take a look at some of emo rock’s biggest players and line them next to the sadboi rap stars of recent years to see the flurry of similarities. Gone are the huge egos, bravados and bling of their predecessors; in come the grubby entourages, mass tattoos and scuzzy merch or paraphernalia. Baggy clothes, eyeliner, dodgy purple drank, and facial tattoos are the more unhinged and less demanding version of Vivienne Westwood tartan, and Cristal champagne and Hummers, if you will.
As the Weezer, Brand New, Paramore and Death Cab For Cutie glory days flourished, fans were able to sing along to lyrics, and the rise of the internet meant fans could form close relationships with other superfans. Festivals boomed with the elation of seeing tens of your favorite acts in one place with other fans for days at a time. Gone were the days of a concert every few years from your favorite band: in came your annual appointment with your emo heroes and your misery fix. But the same was happening with hip hop. Shows and artists were more accessible; no one had seen such a heightened level of unfiltered fandom in the rap world as that for Biggie or Eminem. The attention was heavy and dedicated, with fans betrothed to their heroes like they had been in the 60s during Beatlemania.
The more confessional and self-pitying, the better the emo rock of the early 00s. Lyricism was at the core of emo’s meaning; as they are in other genres such as folk and of course, rap. As the 90s arrived, so did the heightened era of rap and rap culture, where East and West Coast divides made way for some of the most provocative and groundbreaking real talk that music had ever heard. Here you can predict the (metaphorical) lines between emo rock and emo rap and how they fast became blurred, along with their brand of fans: hawk-eyed, obsessive, utterly devoted and keen to take sides – to sometimes perilous degrees. With the addition of pop singer Dido (who was also pretty unabashedly emo with her bleak tonality and sad girl songwriting), Eminem’s massive radio hit ‘Stan’ marked the beginning of a mainstream merge of emo rock and rap.
Linkin Park’s signature style also led to the almighty 2004 collaboration where the emo-rock-rap group reworked and married some of their finest Hybrid Theory songs with selected JAY-Z tracks. What started as a cyber/digital mashup bit of fun ended in studio time and re-recordings. Both acts were so pumped with the results they decided to release it and performed it one time only, in Hollywood in 2004. Neither of these artists’ fanbases expected a hybrid of this sort; but the alchemy somehow made perfect sense. It was an extraordinary time for music and for JAY-Z in particular to take such a plunge just one year after the success of JAY-Z’s The Black Album. People were very excited to hear ‘Big Pimpin’’ blended with ‘Papercut’, even more so ‘Encore’ with ‘Numb’. Ever the boss, the 6-track EP Collision Course was released on JAY’s Roc-A-Fella Records which continued as one of the US’ most revered Black-owned music businesses when JAY-Z took over all rights the same year.