While hip-hop is a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry at this point, a big part of what’s kept rap music so fresh and vibrant for almost 40 years now is the constant innovations coming from its various regional sub-genres. While tracing the lineage of rap styles has been made easier with the advent of the internet and the sharing of archives, for some reason there’s always been a challenge with properly tracking the dark corner of the music known as Horrorcore. The blackest sheep of the hip-hop family tree, a proper history of Horrorcore has always been hindered by both the divisiveness within its niche fanbase, as well as so many of the oft-attributed pioneers not wanting to take credit for it. But why has Horrorcore carried such a stigmata stigma?
The elaborate fantasies of early ’80s rap music lent itself well to incorporating elements of popular films and pop culture touchstones. That in mind, if we’re talking the strictest of terms here, perhaps the first instance of proto-Horrorcore could be Jimmy Spicer’s 1980 single “Adventures of Super Rhyme.” A substantial part of the 15-minute long track consists of Spicer telling broadcaster Howard Cosell about the time he met Dracula. From there also came groups like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde who, while not overly demonic in their music, used the spooky fun of horror imagery in their aesthetic, as well as tracks like Dana Dane’s “Nightmares” which began the shift of rap narratives into more frightening dimensions.
By the late ’80s, this resulted in the more haunting narratives becoming commercially viable. In early 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released “A Nightmare on My Street,” an unauthorized hip-hop take on Freddy Krueger, followed later that year by the completely authorized A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Warriors soundtrack cut “Are You Ready for Freddy” by the Fat Boys, which boasted a rapping Robert Englund. But while these were both relatively friendly frights, in other parts of the country, things were no laughing matter. That same year, Prince Johnny C recorded “Assassins” for the Ghetto Boys’ (pre-Scarface and Willie D and spelling it “Geto”) debut album Making Trouble. A brutal Tales From the Crypt-style series of horrific narratives, it became a signature song for the group, later remade by the group’s changing line-up.
On the otherside of the country at this time, you had 16-year-old Detroit-based Esham whose landmark 1989 Boomin’ Words From Hell album used the metaphor of the Motor City as the pit of eternal damnation to color his tales. Esham’s influence on the midwest hip-hop scene cannot be overstated. Along with inspiring the more macabre elements that would go on to inspire a chain reaction of several generations of Horrorcore artists, his independent DIY-approach is rivaled only by Too $hort, E-40 and Master P in terms of building an independent empire. Of course, what has to be noted every time Esham’s name comes up in Horrorcore conversations is his complete and utter rejection of the term. Esham claims he makes “Acid Rap,” which differentiates itself by its usage of rock elements and usage of the more unsettling imagery as metaphors for real life horrors as opposed to Horrorcore’s more fantastical elements. Another artist who similarly rejects branding his work Horrorcore is Kool Keith, who, among other things, pioneered brutally killing MCs in-between the absurd chaos of everything else he innovated on Ultramagnetic MCs 1988 debut Critical Beatdown, and would become frustrated with the title being thrown at his work from “Poppa Large” to Dr. Octagon. He once said he wasn’t Horrorcore, but “pornocore” on 1997’s Sex Style. Esham and Keith would later work together in 2001 on some of their strongest full-lengths Esham’s Tongues and Keith’s Spankmaster.
The first use we could find of the actual term “Horrorcore” was Santa Ana, California, group KMC’s 1991 album Three Men With the Power of Ten. The group, whose name stands for Kaotic Minds Curruptin, released the album on Priority Records. The word slowly began popping up more along the west coast amongst fellow horror minded groups like Los Angeles’ Insane Poetry who, prior to that time, was referring to their brand of sinister rap as “Terrifying Style,” as well as Sacramento’s Brotha Lynch Hung. It could be theorized that the close proximity of this more horrifying strand of rap music to the emerging lucrative gangsta rap market is what put dollar signs in the eyes of label bigwigs thinking Horrorcore could very well be the next big thing as the successor to gangsta rap.
During the 1992 bidding war for Long Island rapper R.A. the Rugged Man and his Crustified Dibbs project, he was brought into the Def Jam offices by Chris Lighty and Lyor Cohen and had his potential future as a Horrorcore star mapped out for him. “I was incorporating horror films in all my rhymes,” he told us. “They were looking at me to be that guy. They wanted me to be the ‘Bloody Axe’ kid. I got the lecture from Def Jam. Lyor said ‘Rappers from the street have gats and guns, but you could have bloody axes! Fucks the gats, we’re going to do bloody axes!’ I always wanted to do everything opposite, all the films from my childhood influenced my music, but when everyone jumped on the horror thing it looked like a fad to me. It looked corny so I pulled my horror references out.” While R.A. went on to sign to Jive, Def Jam still attempted to make a foray into pushing Horrorcore with The Flatlinerz, a group lead by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons’ nephew Jamal Simmons.
While there had been more popular ad horrific hip-hop songs around this time from Rap-a-Lot artists Ganksta N-I-P (whose album Psychic Thoughts (are what I conceive) may have the single most perplexing cover in rap history) and the Geto Boys, the Def Jam push for Horrorcore really made the burgeoning sub-genre seem like a fortified movement. So much so that, being this was the early ’90s when entire genres were popularized via the symbiotic relationship of a film soundtracks, A-Pix Films tried to capitalize with their 1995 release The Fear having an entirely Horrorcore soundtrack. Lead by a title track performed by Esham and featuring The Flatlinerz, even the VHS box art for the film plugged the music, boasting a quote that says the film’s soundtrack will do for Horrorcore “what Singles did for Grunge.”
Also on the soundtrack was “Dead Body Man,” the biggest radio single for the Detroit duo who would go on to become something of Horrorcore’s good will ambassadors, the Insane Clown Posse. While Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope seemingly preferred to refer to their music as “the wicked shit,” they eventually seemed cool with the term to the point where their annual Gathering of the Juggalos festival would promote various acts as pioneers or influential contributors to Horrorcore. Their label, Psychopathic Records, has also spent 20 years signing Horrorcore artists young and old, as well as matching them on tour with other hip-hop acts they respect.
But as the initial Horrorcore boom somewhat fizzled out, the acts who survived managed to change with the times. Hip-hop Horrorcore supergroup Gravediggaz — RZA, Prince Paul, Stetasonic’s Frukwon and Poetic — released 1994’s 6 Feet Deep on G Street Records, an album considered the sub-genre’s finest hour. But as RZA and eventually Paul departed from the group, Frukwon and Poetic moved away from the more macabre elements and focused on the more philosophical side of death. As times continued to change, the New York underground also saw the rise of Necro AKA Necrodamus, hip-hop psychic. With an emphasis on multi-syllable-heavy lyricism at the forefront and the more unspeakable sex and violence imagery riding shotgun to Hell with him, Necro’s sidestepped the Horrorcore designation by referring to his music as “Death Rap,” something which has made both his work and collaborations with artists like Raekwon and groups like Non-Phixion a little easier to swallow for more traditional hip-hop heads.
It’s a divide that’s become somewhat indicative of the Horrorcore “us vs. them” mentality that’s seemed to define the genre through most of the 2000s. Not unlike the same divide that Nerdcore’s often perceived as, Horrorcore’s return to the underground has made a substantial chunk of the fan-base appear self-contained, as if they were introduced to Horrorcore, only like Horrorcore and that’s it. While this seclusion had a brief visible moment in the mainstream thanks to G Child’s appearance on VH1’s “White Rapper Show,” in recent years this sentiment’s seemed to subside thanks to the likes of Tech N9ne and his Strange Music family’s efforts to reach out to any listeners who might seek out something that’s a bit weird and connect them to all corners of the hip-hop map.
Today, it seems the only people who don’t see “Horrorcore” as a dirty word are its listeners. When early reviews of Odd Future referred to their music as Horrorcore, to the point where Rolling Stone in their annual summer Hot List referred to Earl Sweatshirt as “Hot Horrorcore Revivalist,” leader Tyler, the Creator had to repeatedly point out that they were “not fucking Horrorcore.” But, as we’ve seen, this sentiment echoes back to the sub-genre’s infancy. Perhaps its how cartoony the name “Horrorcore” sounds, or the failures of it to catch out as a mainstream phenomenon, but nobody’s ever really wanted to take credit for creating it. Well, that is except for legendary Harlem rapper Big L who made no secret about believing his 1993 single “Devil’s Son” made him one of the originators of Horrorcore.
Regardless, now that the internet has made music fans more connected than ever, once marginalized sub-genres like Horrorcore can now find a fanbase and flourish like never before. Horrorcore’s always going to be there lurking in the shadows.