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Comfort in the Discomforting: The History of SoundCloud Rap, the Face-Tatted, Hair-Dyed Vision That Showed Hip-hop’s Future

One of the most popular movements in rap last decade traces its roots more to the internet than any specific region. How did a bunch of unpolished songs uploaded to a streaming platform lead to the mainstream rise of artists like Juice WRLD and XXXTentacion?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Editor’s note: On Thursday, Ringer Films will debut Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss, its sixth and final installment of the first volume of the Music Box series. To mark the occasion, we’ve ranked the top 100 rap songs of the 2010s and are looking back at a few of the movements that defined the genre in the decade, including the SoundCloud rap scene that birthed Juice as an artist. Check HBO’s listings or HBO Max to watch the documentary.

“It’s something you can find comfort in. It’s very comforting, but discomforting at the same time.”

This description, put forth by XXXTentacion about his own music on the 2018 album ? doubles as a succinct explanation of SoundCloud rap, the movement of maverick artists that roughly begins with some Three 6 Mafia–inspired occult rap from Florida and later broke through the mainstream on the backs of artists like XXX and Juice WRLD. It’s music that became synonymous with the streaming platform it originated from, ushering in an era of face tattoos, dyed hair, and a rock star lifestyle. And perhaps most interestingly, it didn’t belong to one region—there were hubs in places as varied as South Florida, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Instead, SoundCloud rap belonged to the internet.

“I can’t say it’s [one] certain sound, because I’ve heard so many different rappers do different things on SoundCloud,” says MadeinTYO, a multi-platinum rapper whose 2016 single “Uber Everywhere” was one of the era’s biggest hits. “There’s not a certain sound, but there’s obviously a certain Atlanta sound. There’s a certain Memphis sound, a certain Louisiana sound.”

SoundCloud also felt different musically—unmistakably hip-hop, but more moody and nihilistic, rowdier and more unpolished. Once the genre hit, unmastered two-minute tracks bearing titles like “Fuck Boy Blood Bath,” “BUY GARETTE’S CLOTHING OR I’LL FUCKING KILL YOU,” and “red drop shawty” suddenly became the coolest music online. And those who got it—the young and disgruntled who had little interest in mainstream music—felt seen and spoken to in the same way 2000s teens did by Fall Out Boy, Panic! At the Disco, and Paramore.

But despite all the hallmarks that tie these artists together, there isn’t a consensus definition of what “SoundCloud rap” is. Detractors use the term interchangeably with the phrase “mumble rap,” a derisive way of criticizing the materialistic lyrical content and the looser cadences that some of these young artists employed. (Some of the stodgy attempts to diss it were worse than anything the genre actually produced). But mumble rap is just one head of the SoundCloud Hydra. Every raucous MC who fell under the umbrella (Lil Pump, 6ix9ine, even Rico Nasty) had a moodier foil (Lil Peep, Wifisfuneral, 6 Dogs), and there were plenty of flat-out great lyricists (Denzel Curry, Ski Mask the Slump God, Robb Bank$). The most commercially successful of the scene—XXXTentacion, Juice WRLD, even Lil Uzi Vert depending on who you ask—could move assuredly through both the worlds of raging hardcore and wounded emo. These artists trashed tour buses one night, and the next were up late bawling over an ex.

And the figures who were part of the movement are hesitant to try to present a unified idea of the SoundCloud … sound. For someone like MadeinTYO, the beauty of the streaming site is that it fosters experimentation and allows for easy discovery through its search and social features. Those factors naturally lead to a wide variety of styles. “It’s just a gateway to get informed about the music. It’s a place to go. It’s another platform. A straightforward definition of SoundCloud rap? I don’t know,” TYO says. “You could be creative and do what you want, and I don’t think that’s just rap but SoundCloud, period.”

For others involved in the scene like Roger Gengo—who runs the blog Masked Gorilla, which began covering the genre in its infancy—the emphasis was on camaraderie and interconnectedness more than any stylistic similarities. Not every artist who uploaded to the platform fit into the public’s idea of the bright-haired, Margiela-clad, drug-fueled SoundCloud rapper.

“I look at it as more the community,” says Gengo, who also founded Masked Records. “They were friends with each other, they followed each other. They might have lived with each other. They toured together. Even if they didn’t directly interact, they were all part of the same scene. When people talk about SoundCloud rap now maybe they’re talking about 6ix9ine. But when I look at the early days, it was like those [close-knit artists].”

PnB Rock, the multi-platinum singer and rapper, occupies a unique musical lane within the SoundCloud ecosystem, but his rationale for using the platform was the same as countless aspiring talents throughout the 2010s: You could put out whatever you wanted with no barrier for entry. Services like Apple Music and Spotify (The Ringer’s parent company) still require independent artists to work with a distributor—Spotify tested a direct upload program but discontinued it. SoundCloud, meanwhile, was the Wild West—part streaming service, part intuitive social media platform. And it fits within a lineage of innovation in hip-hop that began with people selling CDs out of their trunks, burning their own mixtapes, sharing songs on blogs, and now, even using TikTok.

“I uploaded all my music onto SoundCloud,” Rock says. “I ain’t have no other option.”

With hindsight, calling it SoundCloud rap was probably the wrong move from the start. It created a series of semantic challenges that we continue to reckon with when we talk about this era in hip-hop. Naming a musical movement after a streaming service naturally leads to a question: What happens when those artists start getting most of their plays on other platforms? Did a SoundCloud artist cease to be a SoundCloud artist once they broke big on Spotify?

On a more granular level, other existential debates still occur. Is there an easy way to describe this music that wouldn’t create the confusing dichotomy of old SoundCloud rap (from the early and mid-2010s) vs. new SoundCloud rap (post–Playboi Carti up-and-comers like SoFaygo, SSGKobe, and Slump6s)? But there’s not really a good alternative. Calling it “mumble rap” or “face tattoo rap” would’ve been reductive. “Emo rap” is the right nomenclature for a subsection of it, but there’s also plenty within the canon that doesn’t fit that mold. (Gengo tried to coin the term “grunge rap” in a widely read 2017 New York Times feature on the scene, but today he wryly says, “It didn’t stick. It was never uttered again.”)

That’s not to say that there aren’t sonic consistencies. Most of the subsets share a love of booming, calamitous bass lines and distorted 808s. There’s also a roughness that runs through the seminal stuff, from SpaceGhostPurrp’s austere, gothic soundscapes for Denzel Curry and Robb Bank$, to Ronny J’s landslide of low-end for Ski Mask and XXX, to Charlie Shuffler’s work for Lil Peep, which juxtaposed elegant, picked guitar with muddy percussion. “Those beats are iconic and really good, but they’re really good because they’re raw,” Shuffler told GQ in 2020.

Techniques that mainstream vocalists were only beginning to experiment with were now unmissable thanks to SoundCloud’s admirable lack of subtlety. The artists, heavily influenced by pop punk, made singing a main tool in their arsenal, not just something they broke out on hooks the way many of their predecessors did. Auto-Tune wasn’t a novelty, it was practically a necessity, since many of them were just beginning to develop their voices. Songs didn’t need to follow the traditional verse-chorus-verse structure. Sometimes they were chorus-verse-chorus. Hell, sometimes they were chorus-bridge-chorus or just … verse, singular.

And ad-libs weren’t just a fun side dish: They became the main course. MadeinTYO’s early hits “Uber Everywhere” and “I Want” are enlivened by his background vocals, something that he says he was encouraged to dial back a bit in more traditional industry settings.

“My first records, I feel like they stood out when it’s, ‘Skrrt skrrt! Skrrt skrrt!’” he says. “I was just super hyped to be on music to where some of my ‘Skrrt skrrts’ got a little less obnoxious when [I] got an engineer in there and they’re like, ‘Let’s turn this down a little bit,’ or, ‘Let’s take this one out.’”

In a sense, the definition of SoundCloud rap was a little like the old Potter Stewart quote about pornography: You know it when you hear it. One of the surefire tells was who was working with whom. Though a lot of the artists that fit into the genre may have met briefly only a handful of times, they recorded at a furious pace, and were constantly sending records back and forth.

Take PnB Rock, whose street R&B sound felt more connected to Paterson, New Jersey, trap crooner Fetty Wap than much of the music his peers were dropping. (“Trap Queen,” Fetty Wap’s 2014 hit, first hooked listeners on SoundCloud, and he’s been vocal about his importance in the platform’s growth.) Rock’s breakout songs, like “Selfish” and “Fleek,” were in the tradition of old-school romantic rap, though he could serve as both the MC and the sensitive singer. Still, he was an active fan of the SoundCloud scene and a game collaborator who worked with nearly every relevant artist of his era. (MadeinTYO and Lil Yachty filled a similar role as important connective pieces.)

“I found Yachty [on SoundCloud] when he was a nobody. I found Trippie Redd when he was a nobody. I found X when he was a nobody,” Rock says, a nod to the social component of the service that helped him find these emerging talents. “I’ve got an ear for it and it’s easy for me to tap in with these people because I had a different sound at the time.”

That kind of discovery was made easier thanks to a handful of SoundCloud-specific features. The homepage feed functions like a Twitter timeline, except instead of tweets it shows tracks by artists you follow, while users have the ability to comment on them and easily share them to their own feeds. The platform offers a number of different charts, as well as a curated “Picks for you” playlist informed by your streaming history. It suggests related tracks based on what you’re currently listening to, and fans can see what artists like, songs they repost, who they follow, and which other acts their listeners tend to check out. The social aspects of the app and website are finely honed and streamlined, effectively making hot artists and producers into tastemakers.

Because so much of its creation took place through DMs, text messages, and emailed song files, there’s a real lore around the IRL moments that the SoundCloud scene produced, good and bad. XXXTentacion’s Revenge Tour in 2017, which also featured Ski Mask, took the rappers across the U.S. at a time when they had a real air of mystery surrounding them. The dates are often discussed in hushed tones. It was chaos: XXX jumped from balconies, fights broke out, and, when a Chicago show was canceled, hundreds of young fans angrily took to the streets. But there’s an electricity to the videos of the performances, and watching a whole crowd rap every word of “Take a Step Back” is magnetizing. Eventually, XXX canceled the tour, citing physical and mental health problems, as well as family issues.

Then there’s the 2017 XXL Freshman shoot, which MadeinTYO and PnB Rock both have vivid memories of. The magazine’s cover has become a marker of early-career success—and a cause for debate among fans. TYO and Rock’s inclusion alongside peers like Ugly God and Playboi Carti marked the arrival of SoundCloud artists as the next big thing. But in a room full of rising stars and different energies, XXX’s wary demeanor left an impression on everyone. PnB Rock recalls it with a level of reverence.

“He wasn’t feeling that shit at all. He just felt like, this wasn’t his crowd,” Rock recalls. “He was an antisocial motherfucker. He felt like some of the people there were too cool for him and he wasn’t doing that shit.”

The cypher from the shoot with Carti, Ugly God, MadeinTYO, and XXXTentacion has been viewed more than 50 million times on YouTube, and it says a lot about the different pockets of SoundCloud rap. Carti and MadeinTYO don’t cover much ground lyrically, but they come with sticky flows and capture the charm of their ad-libs. Houston’s Ugly God, whose bawdy persona offered some comic relief to the subgenre’s emotional heaviness, seems amused with himself, but lacks the punch of his two Atlanta counterparts. Then there’s XXX, who by that point had one of the scene’s biggest hits with the chaotic, mosh-inducing “Look at Me!” But on the cypher stage, he strikes a different tone: XXX crouches guardedly. The Sonny Digital beat disappears as if it’s frightened by what’s coming next. “And if the world ever has an apocalypse / I will kill all of you fuckers / Fear will be plentiful, death will be bountiful / I will spare none of you peasants,” he raps. His verse is dramatic and apocalyptic—the thoughts of a troubled, angry teenager. He bashes the Catholic Church and asks broad existential questions as only a 19-year-old can. It’s not exactly nuanced, but compared to the carefree party raps of the previous three MCs, it’s clear why he inspired rabid devotion in young fans.

“When he picked up that microphone, the room stopped,” fellow 2017 Freshman Kyle told XXL in 2019. “That was my first glimpse into, ‘Oh no, he’s serious. He has a lot of passion inside of him.’ Everybody else was trying to have bars and have fun. He was on a mission.”

But apparently, the freestyle was a moment of SoundCloud rap’s most prominent outsider chafing at being among the insiders.

“There were only a few people that X talked to at XXL. He didn’t talk to everybody,” MadeinTYO says. “Yeah, he did his freestyle and everything, but he was really in his shell.”

Juice Wrld Perform At Elysée Montmartr Photo by David Wolff - Patrick/Redferns

There’s a reason DIY music venues and underground subgenres go hand-in-hand. Getting the establishment to open its doors to the Hot New Thing is always an uphill battle.

Gengo played a key role in SoundCloud’s move from the fringes to the industry’s radar. Relocating to Los Angeles from New York, he launched the Unmasked concert series, which gave a platform to everyone from Lil Peep to Seshollowaterboyz to Denzel Curry. But, despite these artists’ impressive play counts, Gengo says traditional venues balked at playing host to this new crop of rappers due to a lack of familiarity with their music and concern over what could transpire at the shows.

“The whole idea was that I was going to be the one to take this music from the warehouse, put it on the Sunset Strip, give the artists proper sound systems, a proper greenroom, proper security, a proper stage, and showcase it how I thought they deserved to be showcased,” he says. “However, when I got to L.A., I quickly found out that none of the venues wanted anything to do with it.”

First booking warehouses, he eventually got a well-known West Hollywood venue to host a Yung Lean show in 2014, but videos of fans stage-diving and jumping over barriers at a New York performance freaked the venue out. They made Gengo reach out to the concertgoers to get ahead of any potential incidents. For Gengo, it only cemented how baffled outsiders were by this new wave of passionate fans.

“I sent all the kids an email that said, ‘Hey, we’re here to have a good time. We’re trying to do something for the greater good and for the community. I need everyone to stay calm and stay based,’” he says. “I send [the venue] a version of it and they’re like, ‘What does based mean? Can you explain that to us? Is that a code word to do something bad?’ I was like, ‘No. It means [to] stay positive.’”

Eventually, SoundCloud rap caught on with the masses–first through outlets like The Fader and XXL and later The New York Times in 2017. Artists were finding fans in the Kardashian-Jenner family. Lil Yachty even made a song with Kylie Jenner.

But the music’s increasing notoriety put a spotlight on some of the genre’s biggest stars, bringing attention to their real-life actions. The most notable was XXXTentacion, who was charged with aggravated battery and false imprisonment in 2017 for incidents involving his pregnant ex-girlfriend. (Pitchfork published a harrowing transcript of a phone call where the rapper discussed abuse, trauma, and suicidal ideation.) There were others: Trippie Redd was arrested after a woman said he pistol-whipped her; a tattoo artist filed a police report that said she was sexual assaulted by Pouya and members of his entrourage; others like Famous Dex, 6ix9ine, and Yung Bans have been charged with violent crimes.

In some of these cases, legal troubles may have actually buoyed their careers. Texas rapper Tay-K spent three months eluding authorities for his role in a deadly 2016 home invasion. He bragged about it on his breakout hit “The Race,” which was released when he was 17 and on the lam. Tay-K raps with his chest puffed out: “Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case / But I ain’t beat that case, bitch, I did the race.” In July 2019, he was sentenced to 55 years for murder, and though he hasn’t released music since 2018, everyone from Lil Baby to French Montana to Comethazine has shouted him out on records, making “Free Tay-K” the SoundCloud equivalent of “Free Max B” or “Free Bobby and Rowdy.” And true to his reputation as an impish troublemaker, Lil Pump has been arrested on charges of disorderly behavior in an airport, firing a gun in his house, and driving without a license. These encounters with the law probably didn’t do much to boost his listenership, but they jibed with his image as a trollish, larger-than-life character. (He reached the logical endpoint of that journey when he endorsed Donald Trump for reelection in 2020 and released “LIL PIMP BIG MAGA STEPPIN,” a reference to the former president screwing up his name at a rally.)

These myriad incidents caused trepidation among fans and journalists, and likely contributed to many artists with commercial prospects never moving past the underground. But the broader long-term prospects of the era were further hindered by the deaths of Lil Peep, XXXTentacion, and Juice WRLD. The latter two had already crossed over to the mainstream, while Peep was refining his sound into something bigger and more accessible. Each seemed capable of pleasing their fans and placating mass audiences at once.

“I remember when Juice WRLD died in 2019, Jon Caramanica for The New York Times [called it] ‘the tragic end of SoundCloud rap,’” Gengo remembers. “I tweeted something like, ‘Damn this is crazy, but it’s the truth,’ and I’ve never gotten more angry responses from kids making music on SoundCloud. And I tried to go through this tightrope semantic debate on, which is never a smart move, talking about, ‘Well, I don’t mean anyone making music on SoundCloud. I mean the kids with the colorful hair and the face tattoos. That’s what SoundCloud rap was.’”

Some of the void that was created by those deaths has been filled—by their own music. Since his death, two XXXTentacion albums have been released to solid commercial success (though both Skins and Bad Vibes Forever were derided by critics due to their unfinished nature). Juice WRLD now has two posthumous albums, including 2020’s chart-topping Legends Never Die and this month’s Fighting Demons, which comes as HBO and Ringer Films prep the release of Juice WRLD: Into the Abyss on Thursday. Lil Peep’s estate put out one studio album in 2018, while also getting early tapes like crybaby and HELLBOY onto major DSPs and releasing a steady stream of smaller projects.

Handling the release of unfinished music and public promotion is incredibly fraught, as those involved have to balance the artist’s creative intentions with the interest of fans, while still respecting the wishes of bereaved family and friends. In a moving Pitchfork interview, Peep’s mother, Liza Womack, spoke about how challenging it can be both to grieve and simultaneously steer her son’s legacy. He’s a particularly important figure here, because his November 2017 death from an accidental overdose informed the way fans, loved ones, and business partners of deceased SoundCloud musicians react to things like leaked records, documentaries, and re-released music.

“[Peep] was really the first young artist to die of this whole wave and there have now been so many, unfortunately. There weren’t any recent examples to go by,” says Gengo. “Now, it’s such an accepted part where you know how to act online and you know how to release the music, hopefully. You know how to handle things properly. That one was like a crash course for all these other ones.”

Because the artist isn’t around to dictate the direction their music takes, certain forays into the mainstream have been met with skepticism by hardcore fans. Granted, Peep, Juice, and XXX were all playing with more polished sounds by the time of their deaths, but seeing extremely down-the-middle pop names like Marshmello, Maroon 5, and Maluma alongside theirs can still feel jarring. (There’s also been plenty of controversy around “Falling Down,” a Peep and X collaboration released after both passed.)

Of the SoundCloud artists still here, there are a handful of unambiguous successes in 2021. Both Playboi Carti and Lil Uzi Vert have emerged as superstars with passionate diehards and widespread appeal enough to headline major festivals. Trippie Redd holds court a tier below those two. Lil Yachty and Ski Mask have long, stable careers ahead, albeit probably not at the top of the charts. The $uicideboy$ have built a sustainable commercial model by creating a huge cult base; their 2021 album debuted at no. 7 and their live shows are raucous. Denzel Curry’s loyal fans ensure his solo albums debut in the Top 40, tours sell well, and his singles occasionally get RIAA certifications.

Plenty of others, however, find themselves in more tenuous positions. Lil Skies has one of the smoothest voices to emerge from the scene, but his quantifiable success has taken a dip since its apex in 2018 and 2019, perhaps because his sound was so radio-ready from the jump. Some rappers like Smokepurpp and Comethazine, who excelled only at turn-up music, have been the butt of jokes for their lackluster recent sales figures.

MCs who blew up between 2018 and 2020 like Lil Tecca are doing well—and could loosely be defined as post-SoundCloud—but many of them have sanded down the jagged corners of the original music considerably. Gengo also brings up the example of Post Malone, whose 2015 breakout “White Iverson” first blew up on SoundCloud, and who shares some aesthetic markers with the artists mentioned in this piece. By a lot of standards, Malone is the most successful musician to come from SoundCloud, but he’s been fully immersed into pop culture to the point of doing Super Bowl commercials for Bud Light.

“Post Malone is the most successful SoundCloud rapper ever, tenfold, but when you soften those edges and you do your own thing, you leave the underground and you’re not a SoundCloud rapper anymore,” says Gengo. “No one will ever look at [Post], even with his face tattoos, and be like, ‘He’s a SoundCloud rapper.’”

Cosmetically, the music world doesn’t look much different from when SoundCloud rap came to the fore. But there are a few reasons it seems incredibly unlikely we’ll get something similar anytime soon. First, as Gengo notes, this underground scene was able to grow organically for years away from the gaze of both major media outlets and record labels. Secondly, the nature of music coverage was changing in this window–suddenly the blogs that broke artists like Mac Miller or Big Sean had less cachet than they did five years prior, but tech mediums for music discovery like TikTok weren’t developed like they are now.

“It was such a unique circumstance at the intersection of the end of blogs and the start of streaming and playlists,” he says. “These kids were running wild with no one watching and the music industry will make sure that never happens again.”

And it’s impossible to untether the rise and fall of SoundCloud rap from the increasing omnipresence of streaming. In 2012, when Florida collective Raider Klan was establishing a real presence, streaming accounted for just 15 percent of total U.S. music revenue. By 2017, when the XXXTentacions and Lil Pumps were signing major deals, it was up to 65 percent of the whole pie. As of 2020, that’s at a staggering 83 percent, the lion’s share of which comes from paid subscriptions to services like Apple Music and Spotify.

The large footprint of those two apps has always put SoundCloud in an odd position. At first, artists weren’t making any money there, save for those who had been invited to use SoundCloud Pro. In October 2018, after the SoundCloud rap wave had jumped to the mainstream, the company launched SoundCloud Premier, a monetization program that allowed a wider range of artists to make money sharing their songs. In the announcement newsletter, the company mentioned $uicideboy$, Lil Yachty, and MadeinTYO, a clear nod to these important early figures.

“Music movements originate and thrive on SoundCloud because of the unique ways artists can directly connect with a community around their sound and expression. Hip-hop trailblazers like Lil Uzi Vert, Juice WRLD, Rico Nasty, and Denzel Curry shared their first-ever tracks on SoundCloud, which allowed them to reach and build a massive audience in real time, display their personalities, accept feedback and authentically grow a loyal fan base on the platform and beyond,” says Erika Montes, VP of artist relations at SoundCloud.

In some ways the dim commercial prospect of very early SoundCloud was part of the fun. The really great artists made decisions that, well, no one would make if their main priority was getting famous or scoring a quick buck. Some of the first big Lil Peep songs sampled everything from Oasis to indie bands like the Microphones. This was in part a product of young, eager producers like Nedarb and Charlie Shuffler.

“At that time, I didn’t even think I was really gonna have a career in music,” says Shuffler, who produced songs like “big city blues” and “gucci mane” for Peep. “I wasn’t even thinking about, ‘Oh, this song might come out on Spotify or Apple Music one day.’ I just wanted music to come out with my name on it.”

It’s still an underappreciated feat when some of those early Peep songs make it to major streaming services—his 2016 classic HELLBOY finally came to streaming last year—and it’s worth wondering whether those samples would be cleared if it weren’t for the tragic nature of his death. Pop-punk band Yellowcard famously dropped a lawsuit they were pursuing against the estate of Juice WRLD that claimed he borrowed one of their melodies on his megahit “Lucid Dreams.” While the band filed the suit before Juice’s death, many think the bad optics of suing the grieving mother of a recently deceased 21-year-old contributed to that decision, and the band’s lawyer basically said as much in a July 2020 statement.

Young artists rarely focus on turning profits and clearing samples the way veterans do, but that proliferated here because of the rise of leak culture. The rap blogs of the late 2000s and early 2010s gave free music serious prestige, but, in ways both good and bad, SoundCloud arguably perfected it. Suddenly, almost every young artist found their music in unexpected places online.

“SoundCloud, you’ll hear a lot of songs that are not mixed-mastered. They can be at any sound and you’ll hear a lot of leaks, a lot of stuff that wasn’t finished,” says MadeinTYO. “A lot of things that you would’ve never got to hear on Apple.”

Sometimes these leaks disappeared into the ether, but, occasionally, fans would pool money together to purchase an unreleased song from a hacker or other source. MadeinTYO says that several of his collaborations with Juice WRLD were leaked, and some were even purchased through these “group buys.”

“Because I follow my fans, I’ll see it on my timeline. ‘Hey, we’re $10,000 down.’ I’m like, ‘Oh my god. That is so crazy,’” says MadeinTYO. “So here it is, Juice isn’t here. I’m not eating off that. His mother’s not eating off of that. But someone got the file and just came up on $20,000-$40,000 just off of selling the record.”

There was a silver lining to the leaking of songs. In-the-know fans would go crazy for these tracks, often building a buzz that likely wouldn’t have come from a straightforward release. They’d plead on social media for the artist to put the song out until eventually it caught the attention of more casual listeners.

“I used to be tripping like a motherfucker when people would leak my shit. I’m this close to damn-near trying-to-find-you-type shit,” PnNB Rock recalls. “But now, I don’t give a fuck if you leak my shit. It’s part of the culture now. Leak is the culture. Unreleased is the culture.“

Earlier in 2021, Cochise and $NOT, two young artists who came to prominence in the latter days of the SoundCloud scene, scored an unlikely hit with their track “Tell Em.” Initially an unassuming leak, it became the first Billboard Hot 100 appearance for both of them. It also worked for Carti, who built a huge fan base off of his leaked tracks, culminating in the chart-topping success of 2020’s Whole Lotta Red. The previous year, an unauthorized snippet of his unreleased song “Kid Cudi” was uploaded to Spotify and quickly made its way to the top of the United States Viral Top 50 chart.

“If you’re an artist and you’re not leaking a couple songs on SoundCloud or uploading SoundCloud exclusives, then you’re doing it wrong,” says Gengo.

Rolling Loud New York 2021 Photo by Astrida Valigorsky/Getty Images

Perhaps the most surprising thing about the SoundCloud era for outsiders—though surely not for people involved—is the lasting influence of music once considered disposable by critics. Some of today’s biggest stars are clearly products of SoundCloud, including Juice WRLD protégé the Kid Laroi, who topped the charts this year with his Justin Bieber duet “Stay.” And, of course, there’s Billie Eilish, who has unreleased music with MadeinTYO, publicly mourned XXXTentacion’s death, and used to wear gaudy, punk-and-rap-inspired designer outfits before an aesthetic shift ahead of her 2021 sophomore album. (It’s perhaps no surprise that her musical origins can be traced to the platform—in 2015, a 13-year-old Eilish began uploading songs to SoundCloud “just for fun,” and within a year, one named “Ocean Eyes” would catch the attention of labels.) MadeinTYO even posits that Lil Nas X could be considered a SoundCloud artist for his use of the platform early in his career; “Old Town Road” was initially a SoundCloud loosie before becoming one of the biggest songs in Billboard history. “You put Lil Nas and everybody into that same category of SoundCloud rap and the sky’s the limit,” he says.

Beyond normalizing colorful hair and face tattoos, the SoundCloud era helped spawn plenty of important industry infrastructure that will make it easier for the next class of oddball kids to get discovered. In 2015, the first iteration of Rolling Loud took place in Miami with nascent artists like Denzel Curry, Robb Bank$, Chris Travis, and Xavier Wulf sharing the bill with Schoolboy Q, Juicy J, and Travis Scott. Now, in addition to Florida, the festival is staged in New York and Southern California, and there are plans for a show in Portugal in 2022. The headliners are huge stars including J. Cole, Lil Baby, and Post Malone, but promising young artists like bktherula, Ken Car$on, and 2KBABY are given early slots.

The scene also was critically important to the resurgence of music videos. Cole Bennett established himself as SoundCloud’s preeminent director with signature, effects-heavy productions for Juice WRLD, Lil Xan, and Ski Mask the Slump God. His moody yet frenetic visual palette has inspired scores of video-makers since. Along the way, his company Lyrical Lemonade became a brand name in the industry, releasing podcasts, publishing blog posts, and shooting behind-the-scenes content. Now, it throws a festival of its own in Chicago, while Bennett is directing for both A-listers (Eminem, Lil Durk, Post Malone) and hot newcomers (Nardo Wick, $NOT, BabySantana).

The existence of institutions and entities like this will surely help artists transition to the limelight, but SoundCloud rap was also allowed a time to incubate that it’s hard to imagine future underground movements will be given. Labels are quicker on the uptake now, and with the ubiquity of apps like TikTok—which can turn 10 seconds of an unfinished demo into a bona fide social media sensation—the time from first hit to seven-figure deal is shorter than ever. Take the recent explosion of digicore, another scene of progressive young artists combining genres that began on SoundCloud, as well as other online platforms like Discord and Twitch. Artists with big potential, like Midwxst, glaive, and ericdoa, are all still actively releasing songs on SoundCloud, but they were signed to major labels within months of building notoriety.

“​​There’s not a lot of breeding time on SoundCloud anymore,” says Gengo.

Though it’s been around for barely 18 months, digicore—and its parent genre, hyperpop—have already been praised by i-D, The New Yorker, and even SoundCloud itself. There’s an official Spotify playlist for hyperpop that has more than 250,000 likes. This music is clicking with young people, the concerts are high-energy, and the industry seems intent on not being late to the party this time.

And maybe that’ll be the big legacy of SoundCloud rap. It could end up being the last time a scene was able to percolate and get that popular while remaining off the grid. When the music was at its best and most impactful, the people making it weren’t burdened by commercial pressure or a desire to hit the Hot 100. Some of them just got so good that it happened anyway.

“It’s supposed to feel like you don’t need your parents to log in and give you a card,” says MadeinTYO. “It’s supposed to feel like you can just do whatever, and I think that’s how artists felt.”

Grant Rindner is a culture writer who has contributed to GQ, Rolling Stone, i-D, and other outlets.

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