Horrorcore is hip hop’s fearsome freakshow
Many popular movie directors got their start in horror films: J.J. Abrams, Guillermo del Toro and James Cameron to name a few. In the film industry, horror is where many directors and producers begin to make a name for themselves. The same can be said for hip hop, as underground rappers debuted in the eerie, little-known subgenre that is horrorcore.
Marked by harsh, aggressive beats and over-the-top depictions of taboo subjects, horrorcore is hip hop’s foray into the supernatural. Often it was an outlet for their twisted fantasies. Drug abuse, slasher-style murder, mental derangement and satanic messages all found a home in horrorcore. Starting in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the genre began to take shape, and its influence would run deep in hip hop for years to come.
Early horrorcore pioneers were some of hip hop’s greatest experimenters and influencers. The Geto Boys’s 1991 single “Mind Playing Tricks on Me,” widely hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop tracks of all time, is a journey through paranoia that set the groundwork for horrorcore’s pervasive themes of mental illness. Three 6 Mafia was the first to introduce sinister, hardcore beats and satanic, occult-themed lyrics on their 1995 debut album Mystic Stylez. Bone Thugs-N-Harmony followed suit on E. 1999 Eternal with ominous cuts like “Crept And We Came” and “East 1999.” All horrorcore needed was someone to bring all those elements together.
The album that started it all
The genre-defining moment came in 1996 with the release of Dr. Octagonecologyst, the otherworldly story of the alien gynecologist Dr. Octagon. The mad genius behind the record is Kool Keith, founder of the influential hip-hop group Ultramagnetic MCs, an artist who would go on to claim he invented horrorcore with the album’s release. He may not have invented horrorcore per se, but he definitely wrote the bible for it: Packed with disturbing rhymes and surreal messages, the tales of Dr. Octagon were the culmination of all prior experimentations in horrorcore.
I remember the first time I listened to Dr. Octagonecologyst, I was dumbstruck by its extraterrestrial imagery and deadpan non sequiturs. I knew I just listened to something brilliant, but I found it so unsettling that I didn’t revisit the record for over a year. Each time I went back, I left more confused about it than before — but I began to find comfort in the discomfort that is Dr. Octagonecologyst. I would not be the only Detroiter to feel that way.
The mantle of horrorcore has largely been taken on by a counterculture wave of Detroit artists associated with rap duo Insane Clown Posse (ICP) and their label, Psychopathic Records. ICP coined their own style of horrorcore in the mid ’90s focused on transgressive tongue-in-cheek lyrics. They maintain a dedicated base of “juggalos,” a nickname for ICP fans. Juggalos, a fringe group united by a shared love for ICP-brand horrorcore, have developed their own culture: They wear clown makeup, share a common slang and find a catharsis in expressions of anger and violence. (Despite this, they are largely harmless and confine most of that expression to ICP’s elaborate concert theatrics and festivals).
Other Detroit artists have also taken influence from horrorcore. Legendary underground hip-hop duo Binary Star included a horrorcore cut on their debut in 1999, “Wolf Man Jack.” More recently, rapper Danny Brown has flirted with horrorcore on his 2016 album Atrocity Exhibition, which feels like the soundtrack to a Stephen-King-style funhouse.
In the Mainstream
Horrorcore has struggled to find mainstream success by nature of its lyrics and themes, but one Detroit horrorcore rapper launched his career as hip hop’s best-selling artist. The only exception who found mainstream success in horrorcore without watering down his lyrics is Eminem. Even at his most profane and terrifying on The Slim Shady LP and The Marshall Mathers LP, he shattered sales records and dominated the charts.
Since then, no other true horrorcore records have reached the mainstream, let alone replicating the enormous sales of Eminem. However, other mainstream artists have launched their careers with horrorcore and found success as their styles changed. Most notably, Tyler, the Creator built a fan base out of his first two albums, Bastard and Goblin, which were filled to the brim with disturbing, demonic depictions of rape, murder and mental illness.
Today, artists from a range of genres still draw influence from horrorcore ― usually in sonic style rather than lyrical themes. The shock factor of horrorcore has lost its charm to most listeners, but the eerie sound has inspired many. Grimes has cited the underground horrorcore group Jedi Mind Tricks as one of her influences. The blood-curdling screams and cackles on Kanye West and Kid Cudi’s 2018 album Kids See Ghosts are reminiscent of Dr. Octagonecologyst. Even Billie Eilish’s latest single, “bury a friend,” draws on the themes of horrorcore, though stripped of the gruesome lyrics central to the genre.
Horrorcore’s time in the limelight has faded since the days of The Marshall Mathers LP. The violent splatter-film-style lyrics may forever be a niche reserved for juggalos, but darker themes, hardcore beats and supernatural soundscapes are beginning to rear their head in hip hop once again with artists like Earl Sweatshirt and JPEGMAFIA. As rappers and producers continue to innovate new ways to scare listeners, they show just how deep their horrorcore influences run.