Part 1 of our “Obscure Hip-Hop Genres” series explores the most sinister member of the hip-hop family tree: Horrorcore.

Since its emergence in the South Bronx in the early 1970s, 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. Here, in the first installment of a five-part series examining some of these, we delve into macabre territory with a look at one of the genre’s most deranged styles: Horrorcore.

Perhaps the blackest sheep of hip-hop’s expansive family tree, horrorcore took the violent lyrical content and imagery of its preceding gangsta rap to a new realm of human debasement. While gangsta rap’s lyrics dealt with radical survivalism amidst the extreme violence that plagued urban reality, horrorcore’s agenda delved into something a bit more macabre – incorporating themes such as Satanism, the supernatural and torture which mirrored scenes from a slasher film.

Though the origins of horrorcore still remain a bit murky (its prototype often alluded to Jimmy Spicer’s 1980 single “Adventures of Super Rhyme” where he depicts an encounter with Dracula), the track “Assassins” by Houston-based trio Geto Boys – cut from their 1988 debut LP Making Trouble – is commonly regarded as the first “proper” example of the genre due to its nihilistic accounts of unmotivated murder and extreme misogyny. Despite its lack of recognition as a defined subgenre, the late ’80s saw horrorcore gaining traction in the hip-hop community via acts both within and outside of the underground. In 1988, Philly rap duo DJ Jazzy Jeff & the Fresh Prince made nods to beloved slasher film icon Freddy Krueger in “A Nightmare on My Street,” while the same year brought Fat Boys’ “Are You Ready for Freddy,” which was included on A Nightmare On Elm Street 4: Dream Warriors’ soundtrack and boasted rapping by Freddy himself, actor Robert Englund. New York’s Kool Keith – who claims to have “invented horrorcore” – conjured up a lyrical style that fused the abstract and surreal with the perverse and horrific, promoted in tracks such as “Traveling at the Speed of Thought” – from his group Ultramagnetic MCs’ 1988 release Critical Beatdown – where Keith pledges to “whip your brain, skip your brain and dip your brain in the lotion, while I deck your skull. I’m like a bird when I’m pecking your skull ’til it hurts and swell, puffs, bleed, blood.”

In 1989, horrorcore witnessed the birth of its pioneering antichrist by way of 16-year-old Detroit-based rapper Esham. His influential Boomin’ Words From Hell LP proved that what Esham lacked in age, he made up for in gruesome, unhinged and unapologetic amoralism. Often using the Motor City as a metaphor to represent eternal damnation, Esham, whose fame never seemed to have extended beyond Michigan, became a source of inspiration for generations of horrorcore artists, including fellow Detroit rappers Insane Clown Posse. While struggling to achieve success as a gangsta rap act, the clown-clad duo’s venture into more ghoulish territory lead them to achieve massive cult and commercial notoriety. Replacing Satanism’s Biblical mythology for its own “Dark Carnival,” ICP’s notorious “Gathering of the Juggalos” festival would promote various acts as influential contributors to horrorcore along with their label, Psychopathic Records, which has spent over 20 years signing horrorcore artists as well as matching them on tour with other respected hip-hop acts.

By 1994, horrorcore continued to creep into the mainstream. The release of 6 Feet Deep by horrorcore supergroup Gravediggaz and U.S.A. (Under Satan’s Authority) by The Flatlinerz – a group lead by Def Jam founder Russell Simmons’ nephew Jamal Simmons – were considered to be two of the subgenre’s most respected efforts. In 1995, an independent horror film called The Fear tried to capitalize on the macabre micro-genre by featuring an entirely horrorcore soundtrack, including a title track performed by Esham and The Flatlinerz and “Dead Body Man” by Insane Clown Posse, one of the group’s biggest radio hits. Succeeding years found high profile acts such as D12, Eminem, Big L, Tech N9ne and ICP achieving mainstream success using horror-inspired themes.

Though horrorcore has since faded into niche obscurity, its influence can be seen in many contemporary hip-hop acts – despite sharp opposition to the label. Odd Future’s frequent lyrical references to rape, carnage, arson and the devil have often garnered them the horrorcore tag by a slew of music blogs and fans, despite leader Tyler, The Creator’s acute rebuttal of the term. LA rapper Hopsin wears white contacts to give himself a supernatural appearance (on par with shock jock Marilyn Manson) and writes lyrics that often paint him as volatile and off-kilter. Industrial hip-hop act Death Grips’ use of dark, highly cryptic lyrics and abrasive rapping style and stage persona convey a sense of nihilistic anarchy and occult self-worship. Though often treated as a musical pariah, commonly dismissed as being nothing more than a cartoonish gimmick or marketing ploy, the internet has since unearthed a new generation of horrorcore fans whose admiration of the morbid subgenre suggests that it will always be there lurking in the shadows.

Stay tuned for more obscure hip-hop and in the meantime, check out What We Talk About When We Talk About Hip-Hop in 2015.

For a taste of the ghoulish genre, listen to our Ultimate Highsnobiety Horrorcore Playlist below.

Words by Nico Amarca
Fashion Editor, North America