How the cult of Drain Gang rose from meme to myth


Two months ago, before it was tragically devastated by an arson attack, I went to the Brooklyn club Rash for what you could call an “internet music” night. Playing were Umru, Alice Gas, Petal Supply, and dazegxd, musicians all associated with hyperpop, or more broadly the Digicore Extended Cinematic Universe. I was struck by the amount of people wearing Drain Gang merch—the Drain Gang that had just performed the last two nights at the Knockdown Center in Queens, as the start of a longer tour. The Swedish collective’s dreamy, underground rap-steeped sounds are miles from the pounding electronica that surged through Rash, and as far as I know they’ve never collaborated with Umru or any of the other musicians performing that night. Meanwhile, at the actual Drain Gang show the evening before, I spotted multiple internet musicians in the queue and the audience. For both artists and fans comprising this very online generation of music, attending the Swedish group’s first post-pandemic show seemed like something of a pilgrimage.

All this validated my belief that Drain Gang and its de facto frontman, Bladee, are a massive influence on this new wave. Formed nearly a decade ago, DG has risen from meme to myth, emerging from the underground as a cult beloved by critics, nerds, and eccentric teens the internet over. Bladee has become the internet musician’s internet musician, a forerunner to a lot of this new music.

So far, most analyses of Bladee’s impact have centered around his processed vocals, ethereal beats, and existential lyrics. They don’t get too deep into dissecting how this Nord with an abrasive voice grew a fanbase that follows him like he’s not just a mortal man—Benjamin, 28; enjoys Auto-Tune and fruity fashion—but actually the pope. Nor how his style has become constitutional for a rising swarm of offbeat internet artists shooting off in a plethora of directions and shaping the future of music, even if some washed purists whine that it all sounds like liquid ass.

For me, Bladee and DG’s impact is about not just the music. It’s the culture surrounding them, the way people stretch Bladee’s lyrics into sprawling conspiracy theories and show up to Drain Gang shows looking like gender-bamboozling Sims with a hodgepodge of erratic clothes and colors. Drain culture: an abyss of in-jokes, slang, visuals, and fashion. More than many other internet musicians—maybe the most since Lil B’s Based cosmos—DG’s aesthetic has mission creeped into a full-scale mythology with startling reach. The group’s stans stretch wide: from Babyxsosa and cute penguins to an olympic swimmer and PewDiePie, the biggest (human) YouTuber. Professional gamers fw Bladee, as do loquacious Substack “gossip theorists” and post-woke writers and exuberant grandmas and maybe Hunter Schafer by proxy (she donned a Claire Barrow in an episode of Euphoria). Skepta: longtime drainer. Clairo: been on that quirky drain wave ever since Eversince in 2016, according to her SoundCloud likes. Addison Rae: “Peroxide” dance when? Unexpected converts arrive by the day; Lana Del Rey just enlisted, apparently.

Imagine all those people in the same room—weird! Like a popular drifter hosting a potluck that brings disparate friend groups under one roof, Drain Gang seems to resonate across multiple subcultures with folks who may not normally flock to listen to underground music. Bladee’s influence, in particular, lies both in his sound and this amorphous alternativeness, which manifests as an inwardness and impishness that transcends emo cliches and banal punchlines and inspires endless memes and commentary. He’s become a talisman for a strain of alt-pop aesthetics and internet-infused silliness that dominates youth culture nowadays. 

When Bladee first started releasing music in the early 2010s, he was overshadowed by his countryman/collaborator Yung Lean, who was in another Swedish collective, the Sad Boys. Lean’s songs were similar but flashier, laden with provocative barbs and fated for memedom. Peep this extrovert-introvert duality between the two in Nardwuar’s old interview with the Swedish pals: the main airtime given to Bladee, standing shyly in the back with narrow sunglasses covering his eyes, is to explain how to pronounce his name. Bladee’s music needed longer to seep into the culture, mirroring how it often takes fans multiple listens to love the man’s vocals: so cyborgian and holographic they’re like iridescent white, the aural equivalent of vinyl fabric billowing in the wind.

Plumbing the myriad shades of sadness—from violent loneliness to the ambient throb of anhedonia—was a staple of Bladee’s early songs. He once cried, “RIP my hopes and dreams, I don’t wanna wake up.” Chief Keef was an obvious inspiration for his sing-rap sound, which took the Chicago drill legend’s melodic droning style to the hilt. But his music has shifted in a happier, more dazed-and-elated direction. Where fans once described his music as balm for anxiety and revered Bladee as a truth-teller tapped in with the struggles of miserable teens who like getting high asf, now many celebrate his carefree cheekiness.

Dropping pills in creamy McFlurries, sleeping with his jeans on, refusing to utter a curse word on a track because he says he’s a “good boy,” declaring his life is a DVD cartoon—you could make a WatchMojo “Top 25” of Bladee’s silliest lyrics. His best lines are like aphorisms and cutesy riddles for people who on a daily basis live and breathe a specific kind of be-yourself brainrot goofiness. It’s poetry for the Zoomer shitpost era. Moments of clarity (“She a nympho, I’m not really shit though”) sidle next to lumbering brags (“I made your swag, I feel like your dad”) and spiritual confessions. He’ll drop a ridiculous line advertising the imaginary “Drain high school football tryouts!” mere seconds before saying he thinks beauty can only be beautiful because, with time, it decays. They’re the kind of slightly-off lines you’d expect from Global Self Hypnosis. They evoke the semi-ironic humor of YouTube poops, which brim with odd juxtapositions.

For sure, some of Bladee’s lyrics are rambly to the point of incoherence, and others could probably be filed under “12-year-old who thinks he’s hard fr, Joker Arc Type Shit Lmfao.” Fortunately, his vocals are coated in so much ear-numbing Auto-Tune you can just ignore the lyrics and let the melodies and instrumentals hypnotize. Much of Bladee’s production over the years has been handled by Drain Gang’s own Whitearmor. Though he’s versatile and capable of carrying songs sans vocals, his name has become synonymous with a kind of “Drain Gang type beat.” Think twitchy drums, a cold ambience. Synths that flutter like fairies hopscotching across the astral plane. 

The emotional palette of his beats is what has always set them apart. Distinct from most rap production, the vibe hews closer to genres like IDM or hauntology. A Whitearmor beat like “sugar” (or at least the first minute of it) could fit a Boards of Canada tape. 

Whether through the psychedelic sound or the psychic resonance of his lyrics, Bladee’s music has always worked toward some form of catharsis. Fans feast on the malleability of his words and emotions, how you can interpret what he says loosely and link it to your life. He has a knack for picking out specific phrases and expresses his feelings with a kind of tender sensitivity that makes the descriptions radiate, almost like he’s writing with a fluorescent marker pen.

A strong gnostic energy permeates Bladee’s music, especially on recent albums, where he compares the body to a cage and sings about darkness fusing with light over a river of backing vocals like a one-man church choir. He named an album angel #s. Some of Bladee-ology’s most assiduous armchair theorists believe he’s a Freemason. Others have speculated more haphazardly that he’s into Luciferian blood rituals (luckily QAnoners have not picked up on this and origamyed Bladee into their mythos, not yet). Whatever the truth, whatever Bladee may or may not be affiliated with, some listeners truly believe he embodies the divine. One LA Drain show attendee who had been to the ICU after overdosing told an interviewer they thought the combo of wearing Bladee pants while holding a lucky Bladee coin was what saved their life.

The sounds and lyrics conjure a world on their own, but what really ties everything together is the visuals. As a teen, while growing up in Skanstull—a tiny pocket of southern Stockholm that was once a toll station, and before that an execution site—Bladee took up graffiti. He’s talked about how tagging leaked into his music-making approach. Many of his covers, his clothing, and his non-music paintings look scrawled, like digital street art. There are evil apples with palm trees for hair. Panoramas cluttered with creatures like micro Niki de Saint Phalle sculptures. EXETER’s cover could be the mutant offspring of a Digimon that hooked up with an evil Beyblade. Unlike the airbrushed perfection of so many modern visuals—the rap-star shimmering against a stark backdrop; taut physiques alight with manipulated glints to seize your helplessly horny eyeballs—Bladee’s images are homespun and sexless, inimitably dopey.

Cover art for Bladee’s EXETER.

For ages, it seemed that Bladee would remain relatively unknown and unliked, that chatter about him and DG would be confined to niche cult forums, the reserve of geeks who say stuff like “I’m on my sigma grindset beat poggers” after clinching a tight game of League of Legends. This conception of him as the Nerd’s Enigma was boosted by his minimal interviews and sparse social media presence. An aura swelled around Bladee as fans galaxy-brained doofy conspiracies and crushed him into weird as hell memes.

But after dropping a spate of projects through the 10s, he started arcing out of the shadows, his audience expanding into a new generation of listeners. Google Trends shows the word “Bladee” jumped around 2019, climbing increasingly into the present. The central forum where fans discuss Bladee (r/sadboys, which was ostensibly a Yung Lean forum but has also become a Drainer hub) spiked in subscribers around 2019-2020. Many fans also found Bladee/DG early during the pandemic via TikTok, where the “Bladee” hashtag has hoovered up 275 million views. 

Around then, a similar ascension lifted Ecco2k, the second-biggest Drain star beloved for his intimate lyrics about lust and drug use and his frail vocals, so soft and sugary it’s like having whipped cream blown in your ears. Ecco has arguably always been the most avant of the already avant Draingarde, whisking the crew in new directions. While Bladee was rapping with reverb-jacked bombast over icy trap fix-ins during the mid-to-late 2010s, Ecco was producing backroomsy cursed ambient and drawing thick cig puffs of electronic noise on his iPhone 5.

It’s clear Ecco’s evolving art-pop sensibility has worn on Bladee over the years, like a friend adopting his bestie’s catchphrases. On Crest, Bladee and Ecco’s March collaborative album executively produced by Whitearmor, the two prance and sway around each other like angels playing infection tag on heaven’s jungle gym. Whitearmor’s magnum opus may be the eight-minute “5 Star Crest (4 Vattenrum),” and especially its final two. The starbursting drums and synths fade into faint tremors and blushing twinges—small bubbles of sound, over which Ecco murmurs quietly, almost imperceptibly, like he’s undersea gazing at schools of fish as their tiny eyes glow up warmly, then diminish in the dark blue depths. 

Haters will say Drain Gang lost their edge. But real fans know they’ve always been this soft and introspective, they just buried it under hard drums and esoteric lyrics about druggy paranoia. They might have once sounded similar to modern rappers, warbling in Auto-Tune, but they never luxuriated in male hip-hop’s chronic hyper-braggadocio and misogyny. Their rap was always a kind of anti-pop: sad, shy, intimate. “Genre is limiting yourself,” Bladee said in 2019, well before the unrelenting tide of articles came declaring hyperpop the death of all sonic boundaries. “Just be yourself and let that be the genre.” It reads like facile advice a parent would proffer an insecure child. But it’s a crisp explanation for their music now, which spurns rap and pop’s decadent individualism, the constant posturing as a star. Compare it to Dry Cleaning’s muted post-punk: there’s gritty instrumentation as a steady backdrop, but the vocals are deadpan and disappointed, a spectacle of plainness; the lyrics orbit mundane events and everyday objects.  

Bladee, Ecco, Whitearmor, Lean, and DG’s fourth member, Thaiboy Digital—basically that whole Swedish coterie of vocalists and beatmakers—have always been interested in style. A couple of the earliest docu-style YouTube videos featuring Lean/Bladee follow them shopping (in Brooklyn, in Tokyo). Bladee’s early music found him rapping about having “Gucci eyes,” name dropping Cartier. Margiela. Prada. Bape. Along with Hollister, Oakley, Nike, True Religion.

They’re still passionate about clothing now; Bladee and Ecco have modeled multiple times, most recently for Marc Jacobs’ Heaven collection. But their looks have become more overtly andro, embracing a kind of anything-goes gender-euphoria. In a recent music video, Ecco wore willowy blonde hair and peach lips. Bladee had braids and pink sleeves. Some listeners joked about the song’s softness: “Shit got me blushing and kicking my feet.” While not groundbreaking by any means, it’s refreshing to see a collective once inextricable from deep internet and underground rap associations—a stereotypically “masculine” setting—so openly adopt androgyny. They’ve become idols for a certain sort of queer or femme-leaning listener, and some non-cis fans have written about how listening to DG has helped them live with gender dysphoria.

Attend any Drain Gang show and you’ll see bunches of fans molded in their image. Striped blue-and-orange shirts rub up against lacy black garter belts and gothic fishnets. Animal-themed hats that could belong to a five-year-old hover over thrifted oversized tees and cargo shorts. Boys look like girls and girls look like boys, and some look like furries and others non-binary, and many just aliens or Poptropica avatars that should’ve stayed on the computer screen.

It wasn’t always like this, but Drain Gang’s fanbase seemed to diversify at a rate corresponding with their rise. Listening to the music used to carry negative connotations—the alt-right once glommed onto Bladee and many associated the music with being a loser. The invective “draincel”—drainer plus incel—was invented to describe fans, after all. It’s hard to tell when this mood inverted. While the practice of loving DG still shoulders some self-deprecating undertones of virginity, edgy fits, and pestiferous odors (“They brewed a new COVID strain at the show” / “I know it smell crazy in the Drain Pit”), it’s become a largely positive preference, a signifier of taste that doesn’t petrify the hoes anymore.

Similarly, the word “Drain” and all its conjugations have morphed into an alt-Zoomer rallying cry. I can imagine people using the word “Drain” without even knowing where it came from, just because it sounds cool. Bladee once described the concept of “drain” as a flexible descriptor to talk about “loss and gain,” how you can drain something of its essence in a pleasurable way but also suffer from feeling drained of lifeforce. Its meaning has sprawled loosely beyond that; fans Mad Lib it as a verb, a positive and negative adjective, a prefix, an honorific. 

The word was even briefly used to describe an internet rap microgenre of artists inspired by Drain Gang: “draincore.” To replace that awkward descriptor in 2019, lonelee coined “digicore.” Since then, digicore has mushroomed into a universe of experimental vocalists and producers who dance on the edge of silly and sad. Of course, DG isn’t a sacred text for all of these artists. But it’s striking how ingrained the Drain ethos is in the scene’s DNA. (Check out kmoe’s TikTok—it’s got fun videos of him dancing to Bladee, flexing DG merch; he also flipped Ecco’s “Peroxide.”) “Draincore,” meanwhile, has taken on a new life. Mostly divorced from DG, it’s become a visual aesthetic often used alongside nebulous hashtags like “darkcore” and “cybercore.” TikTok creators paste with abandon—on “edgy” edits, on Roblox thirst traps.

More easily than in a geographic scene, ideas drift on the internet; they get picked up intentionally by some artists and subconsciously germinate within others. Vocal textures and beat micro-innovations breed new permutations. Just as Bladee ingested the internet(ish) music before him—he’s cited Keef and Glo Gang, James Ferraro’s Bebetune$, Lil B, Basshunter—his ethos and sound drips over these new digicore (+hyperpop) producers and performers, who chug Auto-Tune and often moan and croon in a similar enervated drawl, who mope over EDM-bent beats twitching with electrolytes, whose lyrics unravel clenched emotions.

While the music scene draincore is no more, there’s a loose microgenre—often called “hexD”—of experimental artists like Fax Gang who pull from the deformed and distorted end of the drain oeuvre, dirtying their cybernetic singing in a brutal haze of reverb and noise. The most thrilling in this vein is Yabujin, an artist whose personal life is almost completely veiled to the public. All we know is that they’re from Lithuania, and eerily preoccupied with North Korean aesthetics. Despite disappearing and deleting without leaving a digital footprint, their accessible music has spawned a small but dedicated faith online. Another subset of online artists making a 2020s update of eurotrance seem to also draw from DG. See capoxxo, oaf1, and Dreamcache’s Dance Dance Revolution-frenetic “Perfect.” hoshie star, one of the wave’s most ascendant with their and Rebzyyx’s 3 a.m. breakdown anthem “all I want is you,” told me they’ve always taken inspo from Bladee’s reverb-wasted aesthetic and vocal mixes on tracks like “Facetime” and “Doorman.”

You can feel the impact in some of the musicians’ quote-unquote deficiencies, too. “I know it’s kind of a joke at this point, but Bladee maybe doesn’t have a good voice, yet it works so well,” Umru mused in a recent interview. Like Yung Lean’s discordant humming on his new album Stardust, Bladee’s patchy vocals achieve a special gleam when framed against lush synth tones. There’s a similar tension in music by bedroom digicore stars with a keen ear for melody and charmingly fuzzy timbres like dltzk or d0llywood1. And there’s 100 gecs, perhaps the closest new gen analog to Bladee in terms of building a culty fanbase online via puking on the pallid face and balding head of tuneful music norms and blazing past the contempt of dorks who say this shit isn’t Real Music!!! (Laura Les and Dylan Brady are veteran drainers, ofc.)

The inherent disarray and disappearance of internet texts—the way chatter is scattered across myriad forums, platforms, and private chats, and the inescapable fact that so many pivotal videos and memes and myth-building conversations get deleted or lost in the digital void—makes it almost impossible to fully delineate how a cultish fanbase forms online. There’s often no seismic, epoch-defining moment. Or a single album or song that everyone hears because it’s broadcast across monoculture channels: TV, radio. Underground internet musicians accrue fame and myth through the steady buildup of Instagram stories and lives, loosies, TikTok edits, micro-viral fan tweets that gain 1,000 or so likes and become an inside joke, which help to etch a sense of “community” around a specific subset of people who see and retweet it. This kind of mercurial legend-construction can result in knowledge gaps when an artist rises up.

Similar to how, as Mano Sundaresan argued, Yeat’s dizzying ascent meant some critics and even fans weren’t aware of the rapper’s roots in the Slayworld cluster and didn’t know how to properly contextualize his style, I can imagine people coming to Bladee and Drain Gang now and having little clue about what went on in the group’s inchoate years. There’s not much extant writing about how people perceived DG back in 2013-2015. The internet’s unlimited access to YouTube tutorials and self-publishing tools has democratized the ability to make music and find fame, and resulted in a panoply of microscenes and innovations. But it has also bred more ghosts—artists who grow successful but whose musical past is dotted with elisions, breaks, erasures, mysteries. Luckily, by traveling back in time through ancient Reddit posts and panoramically viewing today’s music landscape, it’s possible to glimpse how this unit has grown.

It’s rare that one group helps lay the foundation for two separate art scenes—three, if you count the aesthetic excrescence “draincore” that thrives with millions of TikTok hits and as a buzzword for YouTube mixes. The other evening, sipping some aggressively overpriced drink in a garden in New York, I remarked to my friend that it’s never felt so good to be a drainer before. After a decade spent figuring out their aesthetic, swinging between eerie cloud rap and androgynous avant-pop, the beatific Swedish crew has developed into what feels like a religion with sounds, visuals, and language all its own.

7 thoughts on “How the cult of Drain Gang rose from meme to myth”

  1. how is it “rare that one group helps lay the foundation for two separate art scenes?” that is how art works. also lay off the pedantic vocabulary, nepo baby.

    Reply

Thoughts? Let us know

%d bloggers like this: