My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed, white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.
In the years since leaving the band he cofounded—a period that sees most wealthy, semiretired rock stars pick up some numbingly dull hobby like collecting classic cars or starting boutique liquor brands—Blink-182’s Tom DeLonge has dedicated his life to proving that aliens are real. The To The Stars Academy of Arts & Sciences, as it’s now known, was founded in 2017 by DeLonge alongside a former CIA intelligence officer and an octogenarian parapsychologist who once rather famously concluded that a British TV magician had genuine psychic powers.
To The Stars has, to date, lost tens of millions of dollars. It has also scooped the Department of Defense on three videos showing what the Pentagon describes as “unidentified aerial phenomena.” The best thing about these grainy clips—one of which was taken in 2004, the others in 2015—is that Navy pilots narrate them the way they would in the hackiest alien invasion movies: “Look at that thing, dude!” one shouts to his buddies over the cockpit radio, one eye presumably on a saluting pin-up girl whose picture he’s tacked next to the controls. The second-best thing about them is that they were leaked to the public by the guy who once enraged the executives at his record label by playing them a song that included the lyrics “When you fucked Hitler.”
UFO research is one of the least respected fields of academic research; those who pursue it are often cast as tinfoil-hat-wearing hermits, even by those who are open to the possibility of extraterrestrial life. But DeLonge has been steadfast in his pursuit, and claims to be unbothered by those who don’t take it seriously. That sort of resolve is perhaps more accessible to those who have spent much of their adult lives around someone who does not seem to be governed by the laws of this planet.
DeLonge met Travis Barker when both were 22 years old, and Blink was touring behind its second album, the still formative but hook-laden Dude Ranch. Barker was anchoring the costumed ska-punk outfit The Aquabats, another act on the bill. Blink’s drummer, Scott Raynor, left the tour, and when DeLonge and Mark Hoppus asked the lanky, heavily-tattooed Inland Empire native to fill in, he learned the band’s 20-song setlist in just 45 minutes—information absorption at a pace that, one imagines, can only be explained by someone buried deep inside DoD. In his book Blink-182: The Band, the Breakdown & the Return, Joe Shooman writes that when the Aquabats saw Barker running through soundcheck with DeLonge and Hoppus, they instantly understood what had happened. “We should have looked for a new drummer right then,” one of their members is quoted as saying.
Blink’s reaction was not so immediate. But after some back-and-forth with Raynor, the original drummer would be formally expelled from the band, Barker slotting in to replace him. Their next album, 1999’s Enema of the State, peaked at No. 9 on the Billboard 200, which radically understates its cultural reach through the near-ubiquity of singles “What’s My Age Again?” and “All the Small Things,” and the staying power of the anti-suicide anthem “Adam’s Song.” (Nothing is more warmly received than an earnest turn by a group of goofballs when it’s well executed.) Enema began a five-year run that would culminate in 2003’s comparatively restrained self-titled record, and would see Blink become so dominant in the pop-punk world that their name and the genre tag became functionally interchangeable.
The carefree ethos most people associate with Blink—I’ve already called them “goofballs” and that album “restrained” because of its partial evaporation—comes from the Hoppus and DeLonge’s lyrical sensibilities, and from DeLonge’s preeningly nasal delivery. Barker, by contrast, brought with him a sorely needed rigor. The first drummer he admired was Animal—that would be the Muppet—but as his obsessive streak revealed itself, he moved on to jazz great Buddy Rich and glam-rock icons like Tommy Lee and Alex Van Halen. He practiced relentlessly and arrived at a style that could be ostentatiously technical, but more often relied on familiar rudiments played with uncommon flair, or in uncommon ways: a snare pattern moved to a ride cymbal, unexpected double strokes adding texture to nominally pedestrian 4/4 records. He plays fast, hard, and loud, but finds dynamic range within that approach—think the best classic punk bands’ sounds in toto, think Meek Mill.
After that Blink heyday, Barker played with a handful of other groups such as the rap-rock outfit Transplants and +44, which also included Hoppus. He also, after being known for years as the quiet one in the band, became a minor celebrity the way everyone did in that era, starring on an MTV reality show called Meet the Barkers with his then-wife, Shanna; he also struggled with substance abuse issues. More than anything, though, Blink’s mid-2000s break gave Barker time to indulge one of the few fixations that had to that point been sublimated: his long-running love of hip-hop.
In 2001, Barker appeared in Diddy’s “Bad Boy For Life” video, miming producer Megahertz’s drum track. The clip was not subtle: It saw Puff et al. taking over an idyllic white suburb, riding motorcycles around cul-de-sacs and scandalizing arthritic neighbors. The proportion of American rap audiences accounted for by suburban white teenagers has likely been overstated—their outsized presence possibly explained by the fact they come from families whose landlines were on lists prized by consumer-reporting data collectors—but this was a market that was long prized by executives selling both hip-hop and pop-punk records. While there was certainly no racial subtext to Barker’s presence in said imaginary suburb, he was still presented behind Diddy, an irritant of a second order.
When Barker became more earnestly involved in rap, it was in a slightly later period, the height of the genre’s late 2000s and early 2010s pop maximalism. Due to the proliferation of newly sophisticated production software like Pro Tools (and the increasingly fraught and expensive sampling process), the sound of hip-hop beats was skewing more digital than ever. But this was also a time when rap and rock were flirting with one another in hopes of turning out music far different from the rap-rock that had flourished around the turn of the century. It was not unusual to see Lil Wayne, a dabbling guitarist himself, wearing clothing from the Barker-founded Famous Stars and Straps line, nor was it to hear him rap over electric guitars that were nearly indistinguishable from the computerized fog producers like The Runners might lure him into.
And so it was a welcome counterweight when Barker would offer his muscular drumming services to MCs who might have grown sick of rapping to tinny .wav files. From 2007 through the end of that decade, Barker remixed a variety of popular rap songs, giving a rock edge to “Crank That (Soulja Boy)” that was oblivious to the original’s charms, making even more exuberant Rich Boy’s “Throw Some D’s,” even deepening the pocket of the first song on Eminem’s grotesquely underrated Relapse. Barker’s original hip-hop work in these early stages was ill conceived—see “Dope Boys,” where The Game is The Game, desperate and unconvincing—but he was building a rolodex, shrewdly out of step with the times: urgent where rap had grown laconic and confrontationally physical where it had become dissociative.
In 2011, Barker issued his first solo album, Give the Drummer Some, where an impressive collection of rappers drop almost uniformly pedestrian verses over 12 Barker productions. Most of those songs feature lineups that are natural fits. It’s shocking, for example, to hear “Carry It,” which also features Raekwon, and realize that RZA and Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello didn’t already have a half-dozen records together. On “Knockin’,” the assembled trio of Snoop Dogg, E-40, and Ludacris show Barker’s thorough understanding of their styles might mesh with his: that song employs uniquely fluid, expressive vocalists to tackle one of the album’s sparest, but most shapeshifting beats. (Not all these decisions are so astute, though. Speaking of ill conceived: Eight years after Kanye West had bragged on The College Dropout about pairing seemingly unconnected rappers like Freeway and Yasiin Bey, Barker shoehorned Bun B and Tech N9ne together on the regrettable “Raw Shit.”)
Despite the often middling raps, Give the Drummer Some is a successful project that never sounds like a post-facto edit or mashup—or, worse, like the middlebrow, post-Roots “THESE INSTRUMENTS ARE REAL” muzak made for car commercials and fast-casual restaurants. As far back as Enema of the State, Barker was arranging Blink’s songs, essentially acting as a producer even when he was not credited as such. Here he has the wisdom and restraint to simply provide the ideal pocket when the song calls for it, saving the extravagant runs for choice moments. He does not steamroll his guests. More importantly, the drum tracks during the songs’ verses push many of the MCs into the ideal modes. Lead single “Jump Down” builds a rattling, bass-drenched cocoon around Chicago eccentrics The Cool Kids, while the relentless “If You Want To” requires of Lupe Fiasco the economy of rhythm that has almost always yielded his most compelling writing.
While it was plenty revealing when it comes to Barker’s sensibility as a producer, Give the Drummer Some was simply too stuffed with stars to reveal much about his taste in rap. (Its first song alone features Lil Wayne, Rick Ross, The Game, and Swizz Beatz.) But as the 2010s wore on—and Barker’s novelty as a rap collaborator wore off—he narrowed his stylistic aperture, suggesting he had been an omnivore by opportunity but was now allowed, or required, to exercise his taste.
Barker’s later rap work leans on artists who have frequently embraced guitars, rock-star aesthetics, and depressive, even suicidal songwriting. (An aside on the etymology of emo rap: We are finally at a place where the term is being applied to songs that filter what most would recognize as the stylistic hallmarks of emo proper through a hip-hop lens; in years past, the tag would be affixed to artists like Atmosphere, Joe Budden, even Drake and Scarface.) Barker has worked with Trippie Redd, and has collaborated extensively with Trippie’s fellow Ohian Machine Gun Kelly, who attempted to jumpstart his own critical reevaluation with 2020’s pop-punk effort Tickets to My Downfall. Barker’s spoken about being a fan of the late Lil Peep, who single-handedly reimagined the relationship between rap and emo, and remixed “Falling Down,” Peep’s duet with the similarly departed XXXTentaction—a rapper who operated off of impulse and in radical short form in a way that would not be unusual to fans of emo.
What makes Travis Barker’s hip-hop experiments palatable is his insistence, not unlike Peep’s, on finding or building connective tissue between it and other genres. They are the spiritual opposite of those acoustic covers of rap songs—Barker accentuates the existing architecture, challenging rappers to move as athletically as possible, highlighting the elasticity of their voices. And sometimes, what an artist, scene, or entire genre can use is a jolt of pure adrenaline—something unfamiliar, something odd, something alien.
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. His work has appeared in Rolling Stone, New York magazine, and GQ.