From UGK to Chief Keef: A look at the history of trap in rap and its subsequent influence on drill

From UGK to Chief Keef: A look at the history of trap in rap and its subsequent influence on drill
Eric Gruneisen

What is trap music? According to T.I., on the title track of his genre-defining Trap Muzik, it ain't no album and it ain't no game. Indeed, the origins of trap go beyond music -- beyond even the Atlanta corners where drugs are dealt and rubber bands are filled -- into the houses where crack cocaine is cooked, weighed and packaged.

See also: Horrorcore: From Esham to Hopsin, a look at the history of rap's most terrifying subgenre

These days, you're more likely to hear the word "trap" in a trendy dance club than an underground hip-hop club, but long before trap was affiliated with a certain style of dance music, it was championed by a few hard-nosed rappers whose lives, in accordance with the genre's very name, were stuck in the drug houses of American ghettos. Before the trap was a musical trope, it was a literal trap and a means of survival.

Trap, as it is known in rap circles, is only tangentially related to trap as it is known in EDM circles. DJs such as Flosstradamus, UZ and Baauer have borrowed elements of aggressive trap-rap production -- the rattling hi-hats, booming 808s, snapping snares and towering, almost classical melodies -- to ramp up the energy of their epic drops. Other than a few musical qualities, electronic trap and trap rap have little in common.

The roots for trap rap, which will henceforth be referred to simply as "trap," or "trap music," were sown in the South during the '90s with gangsta-rap acts like Memphis's 8 Ball & MJG, NOLA's Master P and Port Aurthur's UGK, many of whom financed their rap dream with illicit activities like selling drugs and pimping. The music then didn't sound like trap music as we know it today, but it was trap music in a broad sense -- music about life with no possibility of upward mobility.

Some time during the late '90s in Atlanta, the term "trap" began to refer specifically to the crackhouse, and rappers such as OutKast, Ghetto Mafia and A-Dam-Shame began to include the word in their music. OutKast, one of the cleaner acts to gain mainstream attention at the time, used the word in "Spottieottiedopaliscious:" "United Parcel Service and the people at the Post Office didn't call you back because you had cloudy piss, so now you back in the trap -- just that, trapped."

While OutKast warned its listeners to avoid the pitfalls of the trap, other rappers embraced the drug life, calling themselves "trap stars," boasting about how much "work" they could flip because, well, everybody deserves to take pride in their job. For a while, trap was a derogatory term for generally ignorant rap -- which is unfair, because these MCs were simply rapping about the life they lived, what they perceived to be their only career option. Needless to say, rapping about that life eventually became fashionable, and as the millennium turned, it became difficult to distinguish which of the rappers were geniune reporters and which were performance artists.


In 2003, trap's blueprint came in the form of Atlanta rapper T.I.'s second studio album, Trap Muzik. T.I. Explained his intentions, "Whether you in the trap selling dope, whether you in the trap buying dope, whether you in the trap trying to get out -- whatever the case may be, I'm trying to deal with all aspects of that lifestyle." The album covered the glamour of that life ("24's"), the tragedy ("Be Easy") and everything in between. And not only did it tell the now familiar tale of the trap, production from DJ Troomp, David Banner and T.I. himself began to resemble the sound that we affiliate with trap music today.

Two years later, Atlanta rapper Young Jeezy released his breakout mixtape Trap or Die, as well as the multi-platinum Let's Get It: Thug Motivation 101, and trap music was in full swing as the preeminent rap genre. "And Then What," which portrayed the manufacture and sale of crack, was the album's lead single and was featured on MTV and radio stations across the country.

Even massive commercial hits like "My Hood" (which borrowed the prevailing melody from T.I.'s "Rubberband Man") remained near to the gritty drug life: "Take you back when I was sixteen with a bankroll/Posted on a corner like a light pole/They used to call us track stars/Before they even stopped, we ran to them cars." Production from Shawty Redd, Mannie Fresh and Drumma Boy further established the production tendencies that would become synonymous with trap music.

The same year, another Atlanta rapper, Gucci Mane, would release his debut album, Trap House, produced in large part by Zaytoven, which was marked by a label dispute with Young Jeezy over the track "Icy" and a murder charge on Gucci. Over the next few years, Gucci released a massive number of mixtapes, including some with famed trap DJ Trap-A-Holics.

In 2007, Gucci founded 1017 Brick Squad, the label that would feature some of the most important trap figures of the new decade, including Waka Flocka Flame, Lex Luger and Chief Keef. Under his new label, after a six month period of incarceration, Gucci released The State Vs. Radric Davis in 2009 and The Appeal: Georgia's Most Wanted in 2010, his two most commercially successful albums.

In 2010, Lex Luger captured trap's momentum. By producing most of the tracks for Wacka Flocka Flame's Flockaveli and multiple tracks on Rick Ross's Teflon Don, Luger became the go-to producer for the definitive trap sound. His style features the signature rickety hi-hats, popping snares, low 808s and anthemic melodies, and his work with Flocka and Ross is tailor-made for partying. This is where EDM and trap begin to intersect and why Lex Luger is one of the most influential EDM and rap producers in the last five years.

Where Lex Luger and Flocka brought some of the more lighthearted, though still thoroughly explicit, trap music to date, drill, a trap derivative founded in Southside Chicago, brought it back into the dark side. Drill is the antithesis to Chicago's traditional soulful rap sound; it is hypnotic, nihilistic music, devoid of self-consciousness or what would be considered conventionally lyrical rap -- and it is deeply tied to Chicago's violent crime problem. Drill was founded by the deceased rapper Pacman as a representation of what gang life was like in Southside Chicago. No fluff. No filler.

This is where the future of trap seems to be heading and where most of the more important producers in trap thus far have intersected in terms of influence. The national breakout of drill can be traced to a single song, Chief Keef's "I Don't Like," produced by Young Chop, who lists Lex Luger, Zaytoven, Drumma Boy and Shawty Redd as important precursors to the style. Given Keef's Finally Rich, the first nationally recognized drill album, critics hate the music. Then again, they hated trap when it began, too.

Sponsor Content


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >