Our fifth and final installment of our “Obscure Hip-Hop Genres” series cascades into the depths of cyberspace where hip-hop’s most surreal subgenre was formed: Cloud Rap.

Since its emergence in the South Bronx in the early ’70s, hip-hop has been a cultural phenomenon with variety at its core. Characterized by four distinct elements or “pillars” – emceeing (oral), turntablism (aural), breakdancing (physical) and graffiti (visual) – the genre has long offered many avenues for creativity and expression, with fashion serving as an unseen fifth.

Like almost no other form of music, hip-hop is colored by the attitudes, aspirations and experiences of its environment. With that in mind, it’s not surprising that it has found itself twisted into a multitude of styles, subgenres and regionally specific varieties by those eager to create something they can call their own. After examining Horrorcore, Chopped and ScrewedCrunk, and Baltimore Club, we conclude our Obscure Hip-Hop Genres series with a look at the atmospheric, spacey sounds of Cloud Rap.

Amalgamated in the ether of cyber space, Cloud Rap – arguably the most experimental genre in this series – is commonly defined via its reliance on ethereal, New Age-like atmospherics and sedated beats over decipherable lyrics and speedy rapping styles – not dissimilar to the syrupy, gauzy sounds of Chopped and Screwed. Artists affiliated with Cloud Rap often employ chant-like vocal samples; harmonizing and elongating notes to produce a surreal, mystical sonic effect that occasionally veers on the abstract and absurd.

Its origin is about as cloudy as its namesake and common belief suggests that cult rap icon and Internet maverick Lil B was the first rapper to coin the term. Apparently during an interview that occurred with rap journalist Noz back in 2009, the Based God pointed to an airbrushed painting of a castle floating on some cumuli in the sky, exclaiming, “That’s the kind of music I want to make.” The anecdote seemed to gain traction in the blogosphere, and soon the spacey subgenre garnered its own tag cloud which began to pop-up on a slew music-sharing sites (MySpace, Bandcamp, Soundcloud, YouTube) widely popularized by bedroom producers and indie artists.

Early characteristics of Cloud Rap – mainly pioneered via its alleged creator Lil B – often made use of nonsensical catchphrases and Twitter baits, such as the interjection “swag” and references to being “based,” highlighting a sense of self-aware absurdity as an attempt to parody while simultaneously embracing the internet culture from where it was forged. Cloud Rap would also delve into more immersive territory, as demonstrated by producers such as Clams Casino, Eric Dingus and Shlohmo, who meld sludgey 808 snares with melodic ambience and trancelike synth patterns, and rappers like Main Attrakionz and Cities Aviv, whose lyrics often echo and reverb over weighty, stoned-out instrumentals.

Raptured from the YouTube rabbit hole, the subgenre would also generate a few rather surprising Internet sensations. Sweden’s Yung Lean would become one of the most polarizing and recognizable internet-born artists of the modern era; producing a signature flavor of melancholic, dreamy rapping that would shift the genre’s platform to a free-for-all zone. After the 2013 video for his single “Ginseng Strip 2002” went viral – now at almost 5 million views – the Nordic teenage emcee, along with his crew of Sadboys, would become a global cult phenomenon – catching the ear of top-tier music blogs and headline a slew of subcultural think pieces and op-eds. The same can be said for the enigmatic Minnesota-bred 16-year-old Spooky Black, whose cyber fame skyrocketed in 2014 after a series of popular Soundcloud releases and the bizarre viral success of his haunting (albeit comedic) “Without You” video.

The subgenre achieved mainstream recognition with the emergence of A$AP Rocky back in 2011. After the release of his mixtape Live. Love. A$AP (2011) and debut studio album Long.Live.A$AP (2013), critics began slapping the Cloud Rap tag onto the rapper’s sound, drawing comparisons to its airy production and slowed down rapping style. The subgenre still manages to float around the blogosphere, though the wave of interest it initially garnered has gradually subdued.

Drift into cyberspace with our Ultimate Highsnobiety Cloud Rap Playlist.

Words by Nico Amarca
Fashion Editor, North America