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Trap music is one of the most influential sub-genres in the storied history of hip hop. Artists like Jeezy, T.I, Shawty Lo, Gucci Mane, Future and so many more have contributed to the sound and style.
Atlanta-born journalist, author and storyteller, A.R Shaw has written the first book to firmly detail the birth and rise of Trap music. He’s calling it “Trap History.” Its upcoming release will be complemented by an audio documentary.
We got the chance to sit down with Shaw and discuss the inspiration behind telling this story, the roots of Trap music, and defining moments and the social ramifications that have made trap what it is today. Check out our conversation with the writer below.
As an established journalist, and now author, how’d you get your start in media?
Yeah, so I’ve been a journalist for over 10 years now. I went to school for journalism at Georgia State University. After graduation, I began to freelance for a few different publications, and eventually, I became the editor at Rolling Out Magazine, where we cover a lot of black culture. So, pretty much right out of college I’ve been in the media field. I guess this is what I do man.. I tell stories.
Growing up in Atlanta, talk a little bit about the music that you came up on.
I’m a kid who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, so I was raised on kind of two separate eras of Atlanta music. When I was young, there was bass music, guys like Kilo Ali, Hitman Sammy Sam and Raheem The Dream. Eventually in the 90s, we got LaFace records with OutKast, TLC, Goodie Mob and that whole vibe. Then in the 2000s, you get a T.I, Gucci and Jeezy. So, I pretty much got a chance to see the whole Atlanta scene unfold. I saw it go from a place that didn’t have a real position on the map when it comes to music to being what a lot of people see as the “Black Mecca” of urban music.
You said you decided to write “Trap History” because it’s “a story that had never been written.” What inspired you to tell a broader story — not just highlighting Trap music — but the societal elements, the lifestyle and overall culture?
Growing up in Atlanta, I saw small segments of our culture like crunk, Trap and other sub-genres emerge from the city. But, it’s really when you get the chance to travel... I went to London for the Olympics one year and I remember this lady telling me they were having a club event called “Trap Night.” I’m thinking, what do you guys know about Trap (laughs)? I still saw Trap as this southern thing, but as it kept growing, over time I was seeing the international impact it was having.
I wondered if people really knew the story of Trap, and that trap was indicative of not only the selling and buying of drugs, but told the stories of people who really live in the trap. I wanted to show that these were actual people. People who bought houses that became traps, people who are trapped by the system and the conditions. I wanted to touch not just on the music, but give people a 360 view.
What would you say is the origin of Trap music?
It’s kind of like this gumbo made due to perfect timing in Atlanta. In the 80s, you had bass music that was pretty much imported from Miami. With the rise of strip clubs and skating rinks, bass music became really big in the city. It was a local thing that wasn’t getting too much mainstream attention, but then there was crunk music, which is an extension of bass, and then snap music — all rooting out of party music.
It evolved over time to Trap, which still has that heavy 808 thump with snare kicks. Producers always experiment with different sounds and artists began to find new ways to tell their stories, and in the early 2000s, that’s when it all came together. That’s when Trap music jumped off.
For many, when they think of early Trap, they think of Jeezy’s Trap or Die or early T.I releases like Trap Muzik. As someone who’s seen its evolution from the start, name some of the most important figures in the rise of Trap music?
T.I., Jeezy and Gucci all came out roughly around the same time, and put a stamp on what we know to be Trap music. T.I. coined the phrase in 2003 with his album, but years before these guys made their rise, there were several other artists who made street music. You had guys like the Ghetto Mafia from the east side, a group called A-Dam Shame, The Hard Boys and Hitman Sammy Sam. Those artists kind of inspired the later rappers. There were also artists from other states. You’ve got to give a nod to UGK out of Texas, as well as the whole Memphis movement with Three 6 Mafia, Project Pat and Playa Fly. Their sound inspired several versions of Atlanta Trap. It was a perfect storm.
There have been a handful of moments in Atlanta’s music history that have impacted the sound of music. Looking back, what was the defining moment for Atlanta hip hop?
In the book (laughs), I label it as B.O and A.O. That’s before OutKast and after OutKast. Before them, music was one thing. But, after them, it was a whole different ball game. You can credit a lot of that to LaFace records and all of the artists that they brought to the table with Outkast, a TLC and even Usher. The ‘90s were a big moment. OutKast kicked in the door and inspired so many different artists. The sound of Atlanta is always evolving. From an OutKast to a T.I. to a Future to a Young Thug... There are so many variations of Atlanta music.
How impactful were The Aphilliates, DJ Drama and the Gangsta Grillz imprint to the elevation of Trap and Atlanta music?
There’s a chapter in the book where I talk about this. Drama and the guys came down from Philly and went to school at Clark Atlanta. They came up in the LaFace era, and took their mixtape hustle and brought it down south. Their movement, specifically what they did with Trap or Die, was almost like he dropped an album because the momentum was so strong in the city. Labels didn’t get it. What they did show is that artists can still have an independent feel and make money without the labels, and eventually labels embraced the idea of mixtapes to create buzz for albums. It’s interesting how it started off as being perceived as a criminal thing to being something that everyone does.
Give me your three favorite projects that fall under the trap music umbrella.
I would have to go with T.I’s Trap Muzik. He got a second chance after being dropped by LaFace in the ‘90s. He was an independent artist for a couple years, and with Trap Muzik, he kind of gave himself a second life.
Jeezy’s Trap or Die. When it hit, man, it was classic. It showed people another side of Atlanta. Then, I would have to go with Gucci Mane’s Mr. Davis. This was the album where we saw the growth of a person man. Gucci and 2010, and Gucci around this time is like a whole different person. We saw the growth.
Migos’ Culture, a few Future projects like Dirty Sprite 2, as well as some Young Thug are also some I would throw in there if I were introducing somebody to Trap music.
What do you hope people take away from “Trap History”?
This is a music book, but at the same time, it’s a history book. I think Atlanta is going to be studied like the Harlem Renaissance down the line. I want to tell the stories of those who didn’t really get a chance to have their voice heard on record. I want to show both sides. I want to show the impact of not just the artists, but the lifestyle that inspired what these artists rap about. Atlanta still has a lot of issues with poverty and having the highest income inequality gap in America. We don’t want any more generations to grow up in the Trap, but for it to be something they grow out of.
For more information on “Trap History” and A.R Shaw, head over to TrapHistory.com.