East Coast Boom Bap Was the Trap Music of the '90s

People like to complain that all trap music sounds the same, but was boom bap really that much more diverse?
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People like to complain that all trap music sounds the same, but was boom bap really that much more diverse?

It should be implicitly understood that many of the people who write about rap music online are, to a certain extent, full of shit. Fellow ‘90s babies like myself can only write so credibly about Nas’s ability to “transcendently capture the spirit of Queens in the early ‘90s” given that we were all younger than four years old when Illmatic hit the streets. 

Far be it from me to speak on behalf of others, but even as someone who has personally had the opportunity to visit Queens, I’m still forced to take the words of past commenters at face value. Sadly, as much as I sought it out, there was nothing about my experience at LaGuardia Airport that provided further context for the song “Represent.

As a result of my relative youth, my journey to appreciate the ‘90s hip-hop landscape didn’t really begin until about 2005. It was also around this same time that I discovered the rap blogosphere and attempted to take on the nearly impossible task of keeping up with the fast-paced world of daily releases. And so began the ongoing struggle that I still face to this day: trying to find enough time in a day to revisit old treasures while still keeping my finger on the pulse.

In 2005, I was much better at managing this balancing act than I am today. Without any pressing responsibilities in life, I was able to spend entire days researching ‘90s gems, while still finding enough time to listen to the various loosies posted on Nah Right. As time went on, however, my inevitable decrease in leisure time corresponded with an exponential increase in the sheer volume of music being released on a daily basis, and now I do all I can to not accidentally miss album releases by my favorite (current) artists.

Sadly, this means that my strolls down memory lane have become altogether less frequent. Of course, I still revisit personal favorites like Black on Both Sides and Aquemini as frequently as I can, but many of the older albums I’d digested casually in my younger years have become little more than reference points to me now.

Take, for example, the music of Brand Nubian. Whenever someone references them in conversation, I typically crack a few jokes about how Sadat X sounds like a Muppet rapping through a Snapchat filter, but then cross my fingers and hope that someone changes the topic. I know enough to cover my bases, but not nearly enough to delve into specifics. Shamefully, this describes the extent of my knowledge about many near-classics from the ‘90s. I’m not entirely uneducated, but much like the many high school students who cheat on their essays about Othello, I know the CliffsNotes and little else.

Although it’s not in my best interests to admit this publicly, I can now do so because I’ve finally taken steps to remedy this problem. Prompted by a nudge from our managing editor Brendan, I recently ventured down a rabbit hole, revisiting the music of groups like Black Moon, Smif-N-Wessun, Showbiz and A.G., Organized Konfusion, and several others. Starting my deep dive on the right foot with Black Moon’s Enta Da Stage, I was gripped immediately by the album’s unmanufactured rawness. After running it back once more, I moved on to Smif-N-Wessun’s Da Shinin’, instantly greedy for more of this feeling. A bit of a longer album, I felt my attention waning towards the bottom third, but I consciously combated this feeling, ultimately deeming it an enjoyable listen.

At this point, I let Spotify's algorithm dictate my next recommendation. I hit play on Showbiz and A.G.’s 1995 album Goodfellas, hoping that a move away from Boot Camp Clik to D.I.T.C. would reinvigorate my attention span. Unfortunately, in spite of all the record’s crafty lyrics and deviations in flow, I couldn’t quite keep my mind from wandering. A few hours later, after listening to a couple of more albums from this era, I was finally able to pinpoint the problem: my attention kept drifting because so much of this music sounded the same.

Before you rush to flood my mentions with hate-filled obscenities, allow me to clarify that this is not a generalization I take lightly. I openly acknowledge that it’s broad, overly simplistic, and unconcerned with nuance. And yet, I can’t shake the feeling that it’s mostly accurate. When I say this music sounds the same, I’m not speaking from a standpoint of thematic consistency or quality—in these regards, the similarities are not all that striking—I’m speaking strictly from a standpoint of instrumentation. With some notable exceptions, the majority of songs on these albums feature production that is virtually indistinguishable, marked by repetitive drum patterns, muted samples, and loud percussion that obscures much of the melody.

There are, of course, subtle variations between songs that are noticeable when you listen to them back to back, but after listening to enough of them in a row, it’s impossible not to identify observable patterns. There’s a reason, after all, that all these albums can be categorized under the banner of “boom bap.” It’s the only subgenre where the creative stagnation is all but built in by way of its onomatopoeic name. Much like brand name pharmaceuticals and their generic counterparts, the beats are essentially interchangeable. In an alternate universe where Smif-N-Wessun didn’t exist, Organized Konfusion may have easily recorded an entire album to the instrumentals featured on Da Shinin’, and no one would have noticed. If not necessarily identical twins, the following two beats are certainly fraternal:

If you’re starting to feel your blood boil with anger, hopefully you can appreciate that I’ve written this in service of a greater point. 

As frustrating as it may be to read a barely-informed millennial dismissively generalize years’ worth of musical output as “sounding the same,” we’re currently living in an era where it’s commonplace for people to make these sorts of generalizations all the time. Notable critics and elder statesmen who often speak about mid-‘90s boom bap being the pinnacle of rap achievement are now the same people who speak in sweeping terms about how “all trap music sounds the same.” 

Consider this recent rant where Diddy laments a perceived lack of originality amongst newer artists or the following video where Snoop Dogg does a mocking impersonation to illustrate that “all them n----- sound the same:”

Forgive me, then, for speaking out of turn, but for a generation of listeners who might bend over backwards to explain the minutiae that separated one barely distinguishable Buckwild production from the next, it seems mildly hypocritical that they’re not able to observe the many nuances that separate 2 Chainz’s music from that of Young Thug’s. For as fashionable as it is to complain about the lack of creativity in trap music, it’s undeniable that there is more sonic variation observable on Migos’ Culture II alone than there may have been across four or five different boom bap albums from the ‘90s. This isn’t to say that Culture II is better than those albums, just that it inarguably plays host to a wider array of sounds.

Of course, this is a bit of an unfair comparison because the production on Culture II ostensibly benefited from almost 25 years’ worth of innovation that musicians from the mid-‘90s simply did not have access to. From a technological perspective alone, there are many explanations for why it must have been harder for producers from this era to integrate more diverse sounds into their compositions. And yet, popular West Coast and Southern rap groups—like Tha Dogg Pound and Three 6 Mafia respectively—found a way to tailor unique sounds that sounded nothing like East Coast boom bap, proving that the tools for innovation existed, they just weren’t being utilized.

This leads me to believe that the excessive concentration of repetitive boom bap music from this era wasn’t so much a byproduct of circumstance, but rather a series of deliberate creative choices. It’s not even a phenomenon that is particularly hard to track. As the boom bap sound gained traction, it produced a snowball effect, becoming the music that listeners wanted to hear and the music artists wanted to make. Artists who were inspired by this music drew on these influences to create similar music, which led to future artists being inspired to create similar music, which led to—you get the point, this cycle simply continued until the culture eventually reached a saturation point.

If this doesn’t sound familiar yet, it should, because this is also a precise description of what is happening with the culture’s current obsession with trap music. The question of whether society has reached its breaking point just yet is up for debate, but there are certain signs to indicate that we’re approaching it. On the one hand, the argument I’d made earlier about the production from Da Shinin’ being seamlessly transferable to an Organized Konfusion record could apply to any two of the uninspired collaborative trap albums released last year (Without Warning, Huncho Jack, Super Slimey, etc.), but on the other hand, new trap music is still being released and consumed with a voracious appetite.

The speed of the release cycle is certainly accelerating this process. Whereas it took many years for people to tire of the boom bap phenomenon—and many people never did—the countless trap songs being released on an ongoing basis certainly make the arrival of this saturation point feel imminent. Whereas boom bap got to run its course because it took listeners approximately half a decade to figure out what I learned on Spotify in one day, trap music has been unfairly lamented from the start because of this same accessibility. 

Those who vocally complain that they’ve grown tired of the trap sound aren’t necessarily wrong to do so, but the only way for society to move past it is to let its popularity subside just as organically as it ascended. Just like boom bap before it, trap will one day see its star fall from the sky, and a new dominant sound will emerge, leaving future old heads like myself to complain about how rap used to be so much less repetitive in my day.

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