Tracking the Evolution of the Hip-Hop Mosh Pit

We've come a long way since the '80s.
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We've come a long way since the '80s.

If you watch NBA highlights on any given night, you are essentially guaranteed to see a few incredible examples of teams celebrating enthusiastically after an emphatic dunk by one of their teammates. There are, of course, the amazing bench celebrations—the likes of which have served as the fodder for so many great memes—but, for the purposes of this article, I’d like to talk briefly about a different method of celebration: the congratulatory shove.  

The congratulatory shove is chiefly composed of two distinct parts:  

  1. The dunk itself, after which the dunker-in-question will either (a) play it cool, as if what he just did was as unremarkable as remembering his own ATM pin, or (b) Let out some sort of primal scream or gesture, as if what he just did was as vicious as tackling a wild boar with his bare hands.
  2. The post-dunk celebration, wherein the dunker’s teammate—someone who evidently absorbed some of the palpable hype which overflowed from the dunker’s essence in the immediate moments post-dunk—is compelled to transfer it back into the dunker by forcibly pushing him in the chest.  

My life’s ambition is to one day do something cool enough to warrant one of these congratulatory shoves.

Until such time as this occurs, however, I am unfortunately only familiar with the opposite side of the congratulatory shove transaction. Although I may never do something as awe-inspiring as posterize a 7-footer, I can certainly appreciate what it must feel like to watch someone do it. I imagine it must feel similar to the experience I had the first time I heard Kendrick Lamar’s song “DNA.” Between the song’s thundering bass and Kendrick’s visceral bravado, the song imbued me with so much vicarious hype that it felt like the only way for me to recalibrate myself would be to physically transfer this energy elsewhere. Unfortunately, it was 1 a.m., I was sitting immobile in my computer chair, and I was listening to DAMN. quietly in headphones in order to avoid waking up my parents. Being forced to absorb this energy without any outlet to displace it, I couldn’t help but think about how much fun this song would be to mosh to.  

The arrival of the mosh pit as a staple at hip-hop shows is a development that has long been foreshadowed. Although mosh pits have their roots in the punk/hardcore scenes of the early ‘80s, they were initially introduced to hip-hop audiences through the Beastie Boys—who started their careers as a punk band before becoming popular as rappers—and unlikely crossover tours, like the double bill featuring Public Enemy and Anthrax, which followed the success of their 1991 collaboration, “Bring the Noise.” In the years that followed, mosh pits have continued to pop up sporadically within hip-hop, receiving perhaps their largest boost from Onyx, whose 1993 hit song “Slam” was a direct allusion to “slamdancing,”—an alternate term used to describe moshing in the ‘90s—and led to an iconic music video, which featured the members of the group rapping in the middle of an animated mosh pit.

In retrospect, the popularization of the hip-hop mosh pit may very well turn out to be one of the most enduring pieces of Onyx’s legacy, because in the years that followed the success of “Slam,” mosh pits began making periodic appearances at hip-hop shows for a variety of artists, including Wu-Tang Clan, Busta Rhymes, M.O.P. and many others. Admittedly, there is no comprehensive database which documents every time this occurred, but internet research seems to indicate that—even if you overlook the brief cultural obsession with Limp Bizkit-esque rap-rock (a good policy to apply across the board)—there has been a steady diet of moshing throughout hip-hop’s history.  

And yet, even though it never really went anywhere, it seems as if the rap mosh pit began to round a new corner of relevancy at the outset of the current decade. Ushered in by the rise of artists like Odd Future, A$AP Mob and Danny Brown, this era of hip-hop brought with it a new wave of anarchic energy at a time when audiences were apparently ready to embrace it with open arms. Seemingly undeterred by how decidedly un-punk rock it is to draw broad comparisons to punk rock, writers penned countless think pieces, dissecting the various ways in which groups like Odd Future embodied the punk sensibilities of yesteryear. When it came time for these various artists to put on live shows, it only seemed natural that their audiences began organically breaking out into mosh pits, essentially physically manifesting the music’s anarchic energy. Audiences couldn’t very well start killing people, burning shit and fucking school as they watched Tyler, The Creator chant the chorus to his song “Radical,” but breaking out into a rowdy mosh pit seemed like a close secondary option. Quick sidenote: I’m not sure what “fucking school” would entail in the middle of a rap concert, but I imagine it would present logistical challenges.

Notably, just as the increased relevancy of the hip-hop mosh pit was marked by an abstract shift in attitude, it was also catalyzed by a much-easier-to-track shift in the sonic direction of the music itself. As the word “trap” went from describing lyrical content to becoming more commonly associated with a style of production, Kanye West’s Yeezus was simultaneously inspiring a digression in sound through its experimentation with industrial music and subsequent popularization of the sentient 808 drum. Always one step ahead of his time, Kanye seemed to predict the eventual confluence of these two production styles, as he provided a template for it on his song “Blood on the Leaves.” It wasn’t a coincidence that his performances of this song were marked by attempts on his part to encourage audiences to break out into giant mosh pits.

As this 808-heavy trap sound came to dominate mainstream rap in the coming years, it was only a matter of time before more rappers began following in Kanye’s footsteps. This isn’t to say that older hip-hop beats didn’t ever elicit this sort of response, but it’d be disingenuous for me to claim that there isn’t something particularly aggressive about the sound of modern production. A DJ Premier banger may have caused listeners to raise their arms and bounce in rhythm, but a Mike WiLL Made-It beat resonates around the walls of a room and physically vibrates through a listener’s chest, producing a much more visceral sensation. Travis Scott’s “Piss on Your Grave” isn’t a song you can simply nod your head to because there’s something distinct about the production that transforms this song into a full body experience.

The example of Travis Scott is a pertinent one because due to his intersecting pun and trap sensibilities, he has become somewhat of a poster child for the recent ascendancy of the hip-hop mosh pit. Travis is notorious for putting on shows where his rambunctious energy is so infectious that it spills over into the crowd. A video that went viral a few weeks ago shows that even Drake couldn’t resist the urge to jump into the mosh pit while making a guest appearance at one of Travis’s recent tour stops to perform their collaboration “Portland.” Of course, Travis is just a particularly visible example, but this phenomenon extends in infinite directions beyond him. Kendrick’s audiences have taken to breaking out into mosh pits during performances of “m.A.A.d city,” Young Thug concerts routinely erupt into boisterous mosh pits, and A$AP Ferg and Lil Uzi Vert recently released a video for their song “Uzi Gang,” where a crowd can be seen moshing aggressively to the song.

Of course, it’s worth noting that, in many of these cases, the term “mosh pit” is a bit of a misnomer. At their most aggressive, hardcore mosh pits can begin to resemble an impromptu fight-club scenario, and in comparison to these, the rap equivalents are often much tamer, essentially boiling down to a choreographed dance where a mass of people enthusiastically nudge each other while jumping in unison. I’m not sure whether this distinction is all that significant, however, as both types of mosh pits essentially exist to serve the same purpose. In fact, the hip-hop version actually seems like a more evolved iteration, in that it allows hip-hop crowds to relieve themselves of pent-up aggression without leading to any significant injuries. At their worst, hardcore mosh pits have led to trampling—and, in rare cases, death—and considering the racially charged dynamics which make it hard to book rap shows whenever something even slightly violent happens at one, it’s probably for the best that the rap mosh pit remains a bit more restrained overall.  

Ultimately, I’m happy to witness the rise of the rap mosh pit, because it solves an ongoing problem I’ve had that I can best explain by drawing a convoluted comparison to the 1999 movie The Green Mile. In this movie, John Coffey—a death row inmate with magical healing powers that the film never explains—uses his powers to heal the prison warden’s wife, but then falls violently ill because he doesn’t expel her disease into the air, as is his usual healing practice. A few scenes later, it becomes clear that John Coffey has been purposefully holding on to this disease so that he can expel it into the movie’s antagonist as a righteous punishment for his behavior.

Just as John Coffey was physically debilitated until he could expel the disease he’d absorbed, for years this is how I felt every time I heard a rap song like “DNA.” and had no outlet for my excess energy. Knowing that I can attend a rap concert and rid myself of this energy by participating in a mosh pit is my personal equivalent of John Coffee’s dished out punishment.