The History of Horrorcore
Def Jam Records The Flatlinerz
While hip-hop is a worldwide multi-billion dollar industry at this point, a big part of what's kept rap music so fresh and vibrant for almost 40 years now is the constant innovations coming from its various regional sub-genres. While tracing the lineage of rap styles has been made easier with the advent of the internet and the sharing of archives, for some reason there's always been a challenge with properly tracking the dark corner of the music known as Horrorcore. The blackest sheep of the hip-hop family tree, a proper history of Horrorcore has always been hindered by both the divisiveness within its niche fanbase, as well as so many of the oft-attributed pioneers not wanting to take credit for it. But why has Horrorcore carried such a
The elaborate fantasies of early '80s rap music lent itself well to incorporating elements of popular films and pop culture touchstones. That in mind, if we're talking the strictest of terms here, perhaps the first instance of proto-Horrorcore could be Jimmy Spicer's 1980 single "Adventures of Super Rhyme." A substantial part of the 15-minute long track consists of Spicer telling broadcaster Howard Cosell about the time he met Dracula. From there also came groups like Dr. Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde who, while not overly demonic in their music, used the spooky fun of horror imagery in their aesthetic, as well as tracks like Dana Dane's "Nightmares" which began the shift of rap narratives into more frightening dimensions.
By the late '80s, this resulted in the more haunting narratives becoming commercially viable. In early 1988, DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince released "A Nightmare on My Street," an unauthorized hip-hop take on Freddy Krueger, followed later that year by the completely authorized A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Warriors soundtrack cut "Are You Ready for Freddy" by the Fat Boys, which boasted a rapping Robert Englund. But while these were both relatively friendly frights, in other parts of the country, things were no laughing matter. That same year, Prince Johnny C recorded "Assassins" for the Ghetto Boys' (pre-Scarface and Willie D and spelling it "Geto") debut album Making Trouble. A brutal Tales From the Crypt-style series of horrific narratives, it became a signature song for the group, later remade by the group's changing line-up.
On the otherside of the country at this time, you had 16-year-old Detroit-based Esham whose landmark 1989 Boomin' Words From Hell album used the metaphor of the Motor City as the pit of eternal damnation to color his tales. Esham's influence on the midwest hip-hop scene cannot be overstated. Along with inspiring the more macabre elements that would go on to inspire a chain reaction of several generations of Horrorcore artists, his independent DIY-approach is rivaled only by Too $hort, E-40 and Master P in terms of building an independent empire. Of course, what has to be noted every time Esham's name comes up in Horrorcore conversations is his complete and utter rejection of the term. Esham claims he makes "Acid Rap," which differentiates itself by its usage of rock elements and usage of the more unsettling imagery as metaphors for real life horrors as opposed to Horrorcore's more fantastical elements. Another artist who similarly rejects branding his work Horrorcore is Kool Keith, who, among other things, pioneered brutally killing MCs in-between the absurd chaos of everything else he innovated on Ultramagnetic MCs 1988 debut Critical Beatdown, and would become frustrated with the title being thrown at his work from "Poppa Large" to Dr. Octagon. He once said he wasn't Horrorcore, but "pornocore" on 1997's Sex Style. Esham and Keith would later work together in 2001 on some of their strongest full-lengths Esham's Tongues and Keith's Spankmaster.
The first use we could find of the actual term "Horrorcore" was Santa Ana, California, group KMC's 1991 album Three Men With the Power of Ten. The group, whose name stands for Kaotic Minds Curruptin, released the album on Priority Records. The word slowly began popping up more along the west coast amongst fellow horror minded groups like Los Angeles' Insane Poetry who, prior to that time, was referring to their brand of sinister rap as "Terrifying Style," as well as Sacramento's Brotha Lynch Hung. It could be theorized that the close proximity of this more horrifying strand of rap music to the emerging lucrative gangsta rap market is what put dollar signs in the eyes of label bigwigs thinking Horrorcore could very well be the next big thing as the successor to gangsta rap.