Bells & Whistles, Vol. 3: The origin story no one asked for

The world feels immensely bleak right now. I’m not ready to process it all, and I’m certainly not gonna use this newsletter to make sense of crippling loss. Instead, I’m sitting at home for a while, getting my head out of the internet and listening to hours and hours of Drakeo the Ruler till the new year rolls around. In this edition of Bells & Whistles, I tell the origin story no one asked for and H.D. Angel digs into SoundCloud’s old guard learning new tricks. Reminder that you can get this in your inbox by signing up here. – Mano Sundaresan

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Why I started No Bells

Alright it’s definitely strange to make this the third entry in a biweekly newsletter for a nearly year-old blog. But with the year wrapping up, I feel like I owe you guys something resembling an origin story. So without further ado…the Story Of No Bells (Mano’s Version):

2020 was my first year actually writing. I’d been doing it before, but I think that was the year I fully committed myself to it. I had a day job, and I pitched publications on the side. It was really challenging. Because it wasn’t my entire livelihood, I could afford to pitch selectively, only taking on the work that I cared about. But still, I struggled mightily getting anything to land. I tried to pitch my first internet music stories that year to some publications you definitely follow, and almost no one bit. By the end of the year, I was happy with the work I’d published, but also kind of unfulfilled and burned out. So, I did the thing every disillusioned writer in 2020 did: make a Substack.

This felt how I thought it would: fun, liberating, a little intimidating. I published a few things that I was proud of: an interview with billy woods, an MA rap scene report, a listening log of the plugg music I was into. It felt good. But soon, Substack started to make headlines for the wrong reasons and started to bore me. I mean, Tone Glow forever! But I didn’t like how Substack looked. I didn’t like how it pushed you towards monetization from the jump and encouraged you to enter the writer-personality pipeline. I didn’t like sharing a newsletter design with Glenn Greenwald. 

Around this time in early March, I’d been digging into the Wayback Machine, perusing the archives of Noz’s blog Cocaine Blunts and old Source and XXL magazines. At the same time, I saw young music blogs like Ringtone Mag and Creative Hustle and Finals carving little worlds out of their respective corners of the internet. It seemed cool to own what you make, to write with friends and define the parameters of your digital abode. So one day, I bought the domain and decided to just start designing a website. I didn’t know shit about WordPress or CSS, but many, many hours later I had brute-forced a basic template. It looked kinda ass but at least it wasn’t Substack.

Initially, I envisioned No Bells as a one-stop-shop for music writing that was left by the wayside or wouldn’t quite fit anywhere else. In this spirit, we published our first guest piece by H.D. Angel: a great interview with Lord Jah Monte Ogbon that’d been collecting dust. The next few months, we published all kinds of stuff: bloggy things, an interview with Wiz Khalifa’s engineer, a sprawling Rx Papi/Rxk Nephew profile

Then, in the fall, I put out a callout for a graphic designer. I wanted some art for Jude Noel’s piece on the swag era revival. In the most random twist, my high school friend Srikar Poruri whom I hadn’t talked to in years came through. On top of that, he started thinking about new concepts for a web revamp. He created a whole set of design guidelines and experimented with our work on other platforms. He fully bought into No Bells, and now he’s creative directing this thing for the long haul.

This brings us to where we’re at now. We’re in an interesting, slightly troubling place where we can’t yet compensate writers but want to do deep dives and more extensive reporting on rap and internet music. We’ll figure something out hopefully. But the fact that we’re even thinking about these things…it’s because y’all are reading. So thank you so, so much. I thought I was insane for starting this. Still do, but not as much. We’ve got a lot more coming in 2022. – Mano Sundaresan

SoundCloud chant rap lives on

There’s a certain class of SoundCloud guys who never really made the jump to crossover stardom a few years ago and have since sort of lagged in the popular imagination, stuck name-dropped in YouTube comments lamenting how they ‘should have blown up.’ But the truth is, they never left. 

One of my favorite holdovers from that era is Warhol.SS, who’s making the coolest music of his career. He’s added urgency to the lethargic SoundCloud chant raps he cut his teeth on, and now he’s a winding specialist whose verses coil in on themselves like recent work from Chief Keef or CEO Trayle (an occasional collaborator). “Go Get It” feels like a Lyrical Lemonade song from a gritty, dystopian future.

Warhol’s not alone in these stylistic developments. ICYTWAT has a hot record online, “Off the Leash!”, that feels like a similar razor-sharp progression of stock 2016 flows. It’s got a remake from internet rap’s current favorite sons yungxchris and BabySantana, who pack the monotone call-and-response with more syllables. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Whole Lotta Red, where Carti’s anguished, edge-of-the-beat styling seems like an evolution of what XXXTentacion or Matt Ox were doing back in 2018 – and it’s already been borrowed by the uber-mainstream, too. Ox himself is going crazy right now, pulling off Rubik’s-Cube head-spinners that emphasize “bars” but are still clearly rooted in that timeline. 

And on a totally different side of SoundCloud, the sigilkore scene is layering chant-raps into what’s basically electronic dance music. On his album Am iii Pretty?, Sellasouls burrows into one metronomic chant for nearly an hour, finding endless ways to explore its rhythmic dimensions. Just like NOLA bounce chants eventually gave way to Juvenile and Wayne, the spacey, repetitive mantras of the official ‘SoundCloud rap’ era are being honed into increasingly complex forms without losing their original DNA. – H.D. Angel

Between the year-end lists we just dropped and this newsletter, there’s more than enough for you to read and listen to for the next few weeks. Gonna go hide under a rock till 2022. Whether this is your first No Bells newsletter or you’ve been rocking with us since Day 1, thanks for your support. Stay safe, and see you in the new year.