Return of the Swag: Getting Silly with Soundcloud’s Up-and-Comers

Artwork by Srikar Poruri.

Jude Noel emerges from the SoundCloud trenches with snapbacks and low-bitrate MP3s.

For better or for worse, Y2K nostalgia has an iron grip on the current pop music zeitgeist, sprouting forth from PC Music’s winking retrofuturism into a universal ache for a time when the internet represented a utopian, interconnected future. I’m glad it means that happy hardcore music can receive its long-overdue critical appraisal, but far less thrilled that Travis Barker has become producer du jour for artists looking to co-opt the vague concept of punk. That’s just how memory works, though — it blurs the lines between the good and bad until it’s all just vaguely familiar enough to feel new again.

In the online trenches of underground hip-hop, however, the past of 20 years ago is old news. Cliques like Sadboys, Goth Money and TeamSESH already mined the aesthetic of their childhoods — the trading cards, anime on VHS, Pen & Pixel graphics — for all it could offer during the early years of Soundcloud rap. Though residual 2000s-inspired visuals can still be found all over the platform (peep this cover art, for instance), a new wave of artists are looking back to a more recent era: the brief cusp between the aughts and the ‘10s, when the rise of social media led to an led to an age of deep-fried photos, unfortunate bow ties, and expertly perched snapbacks.

Check out Louisiana rapper/producer Dani Kiyoko’s recent discography if you need a more concrete example of the vibe in question. Just scrolling down and looking at the cover art feels like browsing an exhibition of late-00s ephemera: screenshots from MySpace-affiliated virtual world Meez, digital collages likely created on Blingee, and tons of mixtape covers lifted directly from ten-year-old Datpiff uploads. 

Kiyoko’s music sorted into the latter category — dubbed “#streetrunnaz music”, after the long-running DJ Spinatik compilation series — is his most interesting output, unapologetically wearing its influences on its sleeve. Tracks like “HOL UP” and “SERVIN” emulate the sound of Gucci Mane’s legendary ‘07-’09 mixtape run to the finest detail, featuring bluesy Zaytoven-esque synth arrangements and the era’s weirdly thin vocal mixes. His REAL $TREET RUNNA 🏃🏾‍♂️ tape takes the reminiscence a step further, exclusively remixing beats Zoomers will likely associate with middle school dances, like Soulja Boy’s “Donk”, Cali Swag District’s “Teach Me How to Dougie”, and New Boyz’ “You’re a Jerk”.

“[Late 2000s music] means the most to me because I grew up on that type of music, like Lil Wayne, Gucci Mane, OJ Da Juiceman, Soulja Boy, Jeezy, Rick Ross, and others in that same era,” says Kiyoko. “I go into making #streetrunnaz music just having fun with it most of all.” 

That sense of fun is what sets the newest wave of Soundcloud artists apart from an emerging industry of uber-slick, futuristic rappers and producers that make up the current underground landscape. Ever since Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late established the nebulous “commercial mixtape” concept, there’s been little room to distinguish a proper album from a rapper’s decidedly non-canonical releases — especially with the prevalence of streaming. Post-Whole Lotta Red, sanitized concepts of “rage” and “punk” have been integrated into this commodified model, reducing the once-transgressive ethic of hardcore punk to distorted 808s and smashed Rolls Royces.  #streetrunnaz, on the other hand, is unique in its unoriginality, reviving the once-ubiquitous mixtape practice of recycling familiar beats from hit songs. 

For many revivalists in Kiyoko’s lane, the aforementioned “You’re a Jerk” is a popular sample. Rapper preme4l, who interpolated the track in his self-produced “jerk anthem 🔋 🚶🏾‍♂️,” says the track represents a simpler time. 

“I like bringing back that 2010-2011 sound,” he says. “[That era] was very memorable in terms of the music we had in those years — it was simple, but it had its own swag to it that I reminisce on in my music.” 

Preme’s take on nostalgia is a bit less accessible than Kiyoko, but it uses experimental production techniques to probe the depths of memory in the vein of James Ferraro’s early work. Inspired by Spaceghostpurrp and HI-C, his music is pitch-shifted and bitcrushed into a hazy recollection of MySpace era youth culture. Even over a good pair of speakers, tracks like “i been on dis shxt” sound like like they’re being played on a cheap MP3 player through plastic earbuds. It isn’t easy on the ears, but it’s totally evocative if you’re young enough to remember Tooth Tunes.

He’s also a driving force behind the Meez agenda: avatars from the online game are a recurring motif in his cover art. 

“I started playing Meez at 7 years old until it shut down, and it was so ahead of its time with the way we dressed up and created our characters,” says Preme. “If it was still here it would likely be a million dollar game. It’s bringing back memories fasho.” 

While folks in the #streetrunnaz camp are hellbent on recreating the sights and sounds of their childhood, Atlanta’s Bear1Boss, whom DJ Phat co-signed on our pages earlier this year, focuses more on channeling the era’s laissez-faire ethos. He seems to drop an hour-long mixtape on a monthly basis, but June’s Super Fancy 2 illustrates my point best. Though its production is pretty contemporary, inspired by EDM and future bass a la Trippie Redd’s “Miss the Rage,” the tape is laden with Datpiff-era tropes, exaggerated to the point of surrealism. 

Taking heavily Autotuned cues from the oldest selections in Young Thug and Chief Keef catalogues, Bear1 throws structure to the wind, locking into freestyled phrases and extracting every bit of melody or odd syncopation he can out of them. Maybe it’s sacrilege to make this comparison, but his style of rapping recalls the liner notes of Coltrane’s Blue Train. Like Trane, Bear1’s a “searching musician…his literally wailing sound – spearing, sharp and resonant – creates what might be best described as an ominous atmosphere that seems to suggest (from a purely emotional standpoint) a kind of intense probing into things far off, unknown and mysterious.”

While he’s not part of a jazz sextet, Bear1Boss does assume a role more similar to bandleader than top-billed emcee on Super Fancy 2, letting engineers buffet his voice with countless filters and sfx as he becomes one with the work of his producer (usually popstar benny) and his DJ MainoDaPlug, whose screamed interludes lay down the parameters for what it means to be fancy. Tyler, The Creator’s collaborations with DJ Drama on this year’s Call Me When You Get Lost may have introduced his younger, less well-versed fans to the jarring world of mixtape hosting, but Maino takes things to an extreme not seen since the heyday of DJ Holiday. He’s as present on each track as Bear1 is, turning the whole mixtape into a psychedelic collage of canned sound effects, DJ drops, and stuttering verses that feel more preoccupied with testing the limits of his voice than storytelling. 

Bump Young Thug’s 1017 Thug mixtape or Chief Keef’s Bang 2, both of which dropped in 2013, and you’re tuning into the sound of artists figuring out their sound in real time — testing strange flows, letting their Autotune veer off into dissonant territory, and having fun with it above all. Even if their experiments don’t always work, the listener can feel as though they’re a part of the process, sharing in the ecstasy of the hits and learning from the misses. Bear1’s reclamation of not just the sound, but the informality of Datpiff culture is totally subversive. More importantly, it’s also a good time. 

It’s Houston’s Tisakorean, however, who best embodies the swag rap era’s pioneering spirit. He uses TikTok and Instagram the same way Soulja Boy dominated MySpace and YouTube in 2007, flooding the platforms with off-the-cuff dances and trends that seem ridiculous in theory, but are infectious in practice. He has an uncanny ability to conjure brilliance from hokey sounds that seem to have been picked at random from FL Studio presets — sirens, canned horns, xylophones — re-interpreting them into dense webs of ad-libs and wonky rhythm. Songs like “WERKKK” bear some similarity to the post-punk movement in the early 80s, deconstructing dance music into a skeletal form and decorating it with bizarro noises. It’s a contemporary “Bela Lugosi’s Dead” combined with Pere Ubu’s yelpy vocals — plus you can hit the Woah to it. 

Tisa’s fully embraced silliness of late, putting him at the vanguard of a new movement that’s as punk as it is puerile. His two latest tapes, pResiLly and mr.siLLYfLow, eschew formal structure for an abstract expressionist approach to rapping. “Tilly Wonka”, the intro to the latter release, flips a sample of “Pure Imagination” from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory into a canvas for Tisa to punch in brushstrokes of emotion. “Imagine you being this silly,” he repeats ad infinitum, offering a thesis for the tracks that follow. The music itself might be a little unpolished, but it’s unmistakably the product of an artist totally in sync with their subconscious mind. 

“It’s just funny how you can like the complete opposite thing of something else you like. Soulja Boy and Pharrell,” he told Populist Magazine earlier this year. This juxtaposition of high and low art is what makes Tisa’s work (and the music made by everyone else listed in this piece) so alluring. At a time when there’s a Twitter thread riffing on old Gucci Mane cover art every couple of weeks and zoomers on TikTok marvel at videos of high schoolers in 2010, pop culture is primed for a look back at the charm of the early Obama years. Prepare yourselves for the return of the swag. 

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