Boom Bap, Trap and Ageing in Belo Horizonte’s Rap Music Scene
State University of Minas Gerais (Brazil)
Belo Horizonte is the sixth largest Brazilian city in terms of population, with circa 2.5 million inhabitants. The city is the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, a hilly place that was one of the first Brazilian cities where the elements of hip-hop culture could be noticed, in the middle of the 1980s. Despite not having as much visibility as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte has one of the most important and diverse rap/hip-hop scenes in the country.
I have a long-term relationship with local hip-hop, whether as a fan, communicator, musician and, more recently, researcher. Between 2016 and 2018 I carried out research on the local rap scene. I was interested in local beat making practices, in order to investigate the use of samples by the producers of the city. During the fieldwork, I mainly visited studios to interview producers and observe recording sessions, but I would also go to some gigs and parties. The major part of my fieldwork was made among what I’m calling “the boom bap generation”, a group of coeval rappers and beatmakers that grew during the 1990s. Most of these artists emerged in the local hip-hop scene in the early 2000s and extended the footsteps of the local pioneers, helping to consolidate Belo Horizonte's rap music. These artists are now more than 35 years old and a large number of them are still active in the scene. In other contexts, being 35 years old is a regular stage of adulthood, but in hip-hop, that age indicates experience and longevity, since most people get involved with hip-hop during adolescence and their early youth. In a milieu where most people are between the ages of 16 and 24, being 35-or-more years old may demonstrate a respectable experience in the scene.
This report is a record of some situations experienced in the field that highlight the passage of time and the clash between generations in the local hip-hop. Such a clash of generations doesn’t occur explicitly, through disses, exchanges of insults or physical attacks. It is something that happens between the lines of coexistence and in the daily life of local culture. To a large extent, the more experienced hip-hoppers have always welcomed and encouraged the younger ones. I talked to DJ Roger Dee, who has been part of Belo Horizonte’s hip-hop since the first generation of local hip-hoppers, and one of those who share this feeling. I asked him what it's like to get old in the scene and witness several generations of hip-hoppers. Dee presented a very positive account of this experience:
First of all, I think that I’m not an old guy in hip-hop. You can’t say that: “This guy is old in Hip-hop”, because we’re always updating ourselves in hip-hop. Secondly, I’ve witnessed several generations doing several different things, each generation in their time. I see the current time as a very productive time to Belo Horizonte’s hip-hop. There were a lot of important periods to me, and also some periods in which I think it was hard for the hip-hop to survive here. But what gives me hope is the fact that there’s always emerged a generation that perfectly understood what the essence of hip-hop was and kept it alive until today. I think this current generation is giving continuity to my dream, and the endurance of my dream is their dream.
However, aside from all the intergenerational support and mutual respect, it was possible to perceive some disparities among distinct generations in private conversations and in the events experienced during the overall period I have been involved with local hip-hop. Such divergences include peculiar understanding of the essence of hip-hop, the lack of acknowledgment of older producers’ works by the younger and, more recently, divergences in musical taste, exemplified in this account by the debate on “boom bap” and “trap” beats.
15 April 2018. A Sunday afternoon. After almost four years, I’m going to Duelo de MCs again. Duelo de MCs is the most important hip-hop party in the city of Belo Horizonte. The event involves all the elements of hip-hop, but the main focus of the audience is the rap battle involving local MCs. Duelo de MCs can be translated as “MCs’ duel”, or “MCs’ battle”, and the name is due to the fact that the event started as a small rap battle, and gained a huge proportion since its beginning, in 2008. It happens once a month, on Sundays, and is held under Santa Tereza’s viaduct, located downtown Belo Horizonte.
After more than 10 years of existence, Duelo de MCs epitomizes Belo Horizonte’s hip-hop. The event reached national prominence due to its longevity and by annually hosting a national rap battle, called Duelo de MCs Nacional (National Rap Battle), which involves representatives from all the regions of the country. The national battle has a complex qualifying process that involves several stages. Only 16 MCs qualify to the final stage in Belo Horizonte, in a large event of rhyming battles that provides cash prizes, record deals, as well as a huge visibility for the winning MCs.
I witnessed the rise of the event, at its early days. Until 2012, my Friday night’s program was leaving my job around 7:00 PM, walking downtown and meeting my girlfriend and friends at Praça da Estação (Station Square) to wait for Duelo de MCs to begin. My son was born in 2012, and since that I’ve had to change some habits. My nightlife has to be limited, and I can’t attend the events that often. From this time on, I can’t remember going to Duelo anymore. Now, things are quite different from what it was at that time. The event is not weekly anymore, and it doesn’t happen on Friday nights. Several local artists arose after Duelo’s rise, along with a new generation of fans. Even what is considered rap music changed, as well as the way the beats sound, the content and the way rappers sing.
That day I went to the event all by myself, I hadn’t arranged with anyone. If I went to Duelo a few years earlier, it wouldn’t be necessary to call anybody, because I was sure I could meet a lot of friends there. But now things are very different. That Sunday I couldn’t find more than 5 people I knew. There were around 800 people at the event, and a great part of them seemed to be less than 20 years old. The clothes are different, and also haircuts, tattoos (in the face) and accessories. I remember that when I met Castilho, one of the 5 people I knew, the only thing I could say was, “I think we’re getting old, dude. I don’t know anybody. There are only teenagers here”! Castilho is a rapper from a band called Zimun. He was part of a group of people that organized Duelo de MCs in its early days. Now he is only involved with his band and his personal projects. He totally agreed with me and said he was there just waiting for a friend and then they would go to another place. He also said that he couldn’t recognize a large number of familiar faces there.
This personal experience of returning to Duelo de MCs clearly exposed to me the passage of time, and how a new generation occupied a space that my contemporary fellows have built and lived. After that, I started to talk about these feelings with some of the respondents that contributed to my research, like rapper Neghaum, a rapper from the “boom bap generation”. He started to rap in 1999, and since then he has been in the scene, first with the group Kontrast, but now at his solo career. I asked his opinion on the differences between being a former young person and now an adult in hip-hop:
Young people feel attracted by hip-hop, but today it has mature people too. I think the feeling is the same in both cases, but when you’re an adult, your actions are somehow limited. You can’t go to the gigs with the same frequency, because you have a lot of grown people’s tasks to do. You don’t live with your parents anymore, when you come home, there is no “mommy-made” food, no done laundry. You have to do this kind of stuff, for you and your offspring. Young people have more energy and more readiness to perform their actions within hip-hop, but the feeling rooted inside ourselves is the same.
As well as Roger Dee, Neghaum sees himself linked to new generations, but he addresses some issues of being mature in hip-hop, especially the demands and responsibilities of adult life, which reduces time and energy available for artistic and cultural action. Since most old-school local artists have not been able to achieve full sustainability in their artistic careers, they have to divide themselves between other professional tasks and artistic dedication. This becomes an even greater challenge in adulthood, since most of them have children and other family demands.
Throughout my research, I came across two categories used by local producers to define beat making trends: “boom bap” and “trap”. The term “boom bap” is used by local artists and audiences to describe those beats from the “golden era” of rap music. Originating on the east coast of the United States, this style has frequent use of acoustic drum tones, usually extracted from drum breaks of funk bands, as well as other samples of several musical genres from the past decades. The drum loops are based in a constant eighth-notes hi-hat pattern, and they sound clearly at the top of the mix. “Boom bap” is used to refer to beats made by producers like RZA, DJ Premier, 9th Wonder, and used by rappers like KRS One, Nas and groups like Wu Tang Clan, Onyx and Mobb Deep. Wu Tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.” is a good example of this style (1994).
The term “trap”, in turn, refers to the contemporary beats that evolved after 2000, especially from Atlanta producers and rappers. These beats have a slower tempo, around 70 BPM, Roland TR-808 electronic drum tones are often used, as well as several synthesizer tones with a somber, gloomy feature as heard in Future’s “Codeine Crazy” (2014). Another predominant feature is the constant use of subwoofer tones on the bass drum and bass lines. The type of beat programming also differs markedly from the boom bap beats. An unfolded hi-hat marking is used, based on 16th-notes, with frequent variation, through the insertion of 32nd-notes or 16th-triplets-notes along the hi-hat line, resulting in a rattle sensation, or a "tssss" sound.
Most of the time, both terms are locally used in a generalizing way, which suppresses other styles of beat production. In a conversation during the fieldwork, MC and journalist PDR Valentim highlighted this frivolous use of the two terms:
Maybe “boom bap” is everything that isn’t “trap”. But, in practice, it may not be effectively this way, because there are a lot of other ways to make a rap beat. There are other kinds of stuff that aren’t necessarily what we understand as boom bap. But I think that the main use of the terms is this: when it isn’t trap, they say it’s boom bap, you know.
It has been possible to notice, in the last few years, a shift in the beats created and used by the local artists. This change dialogues with those noted in international rap music, especially in the mainstream rap scene. Like American rappers, local rappers are increasingly singing over trap beats. Rapper Fabrício FBC’s work is a clear example of this trend. FBC is an important exponent of the generation that arose from 2010 onwards, after the rise of Duelo de MCs. His first EP, Caos (2013), didn’t feature any trap beat. But his album SCA (2018), has just one boom bap track: “Contradições” (Contradictions) (FBC 2018a). All the others are trap style tracks, like “Ela é Green” (She’s Green) (FBC 2018b). During our conversation, PDR Valentim emphasized the role of trap as the contemporary trend in rap music:
I think trap music is in the place of what, currently, hip-hop music business presents as the main trend, right? Trap became the main trend so everybody will somehow try to align themselves with the trend. So, it’s like: “Trap music is what is hype? Those kids are enjoying that? So that’s what I’m gonna do. I need to update myself, so I’ll make some trap stuff”.
I must confess that it was hard for me to appreciate this new generation of rappers that sing over trap beats. It took me a long time to start enjoying them. I thought they talk too much about money and pleasure, I thought they cared too much about melodic singing and, above all, the beats sounded very unusual. I started to think that I was too old for all this trap stuff, and maybe my musical taste was tied to a certain era and the affective relationship I have with a group of songs and artists. I thought that I would never enjoy this new beat making trend with a slower tempo, synthesized drum tones and rattle hi-hat lines. But after listening more carefully to the tracks of local artists, I became more receptive to some of them, especially those who I consider that write critical lyrics, like Gustavo Djonga and Fabrício FBC. Both rappers are aligned with contemporary trends of rap music, but their singular touch made it possible for me to start enjoying this contemporary trend.
In an interview with producer/rapper Clebin Quirino, we talked about boom bap rap and he stated that the predilection for boom bap beats is part of the experience of a particular generation of artists and audience:
The guys that like boom bap beats are the ones that listened to rap music during the 1990s. The guys that listened to rap music after the decade of 2000 have distinct standards to say what is fine, what is cool to listen to. But most parts of the guys who ask me for a beat are people that listened to rap music during the 1990s. These are the guys that have this boom bap taste. And I also like that.
As well as Clebin, I observed that younger rappers and beatmakers are those who have adhered to this trend more easily, and they use trap beats in a natural and ordinary way. But I also observed that older artists are also singing over trap beats as well, even though they’re not acquainted to it. Talking to some people about that fact, I realized that the two trends are not mutually excluding. Producers who make boom bap beats also make trap style beats. Rappers who sing over trap beats also sing over boom bap beats. Here is one example.
4 April 2018. Labs Studio. Producer/beatmaker Preto C and rapper Neghaum worked on a track of Neghaum’s new solo work album. The beat of the song was a real trap beat, with all the features a trap beat must have: rattling hi-hats, sub-bass frequencies, and an ethereal atmosphere. But it was a love song. During the session, Neghaum experimented with different words in the sentences, to verify the flow, his breathing during his chant, and the pronunciation of each word.
One hour later we started to talk about the local scene and the new generation of artists and audiences that rule the contemporary scenario of the local rap music. I remember I asked Neghaum why he decided to work on a trap beat. He said:
I was curious to try a trap beat because it’s a challenge for us who are older. And I think it is also linked to the question of adapting to the business, the market, the scene itself, do you understand? That's why I wanted to make it. And I confess to you that each day I enjoy this new stuff more. It was hard for me... to be curious about that, adapt myself to it, and desiring to sing over it. But it is necessary, right? Nowadays I understand this language better. But I must confess that when I listen to a boom bap beat it sounds much more comfortable to me, it’s much more convenient to me.
In January 2018, I talked to Dica Beats, a young beatmaker from the current generation. During his interview, he stated that he’s more into boom bap beats, which have an “underground” feel. He declared, “If you want to be massively listened, you gotta make a trap. But I don’t like it very much. I like those boom bap beats that are more underground.” Dica linked boom bap to an alternative style of rap music. What one day was the main trend in rap music, now is seen by the new generation as alternative, underground, and sometimes outdated. Young people rap over a boom bap beat to evoke an underground aura. Experienced rappers rhyme over a trap beat to access a contemporary feeling.
In circa 4 decades of existence in Belo Horizonte, hip-hop culture remains active through the participation of different generations of practitioners. Because it is a living and constantly changing phenomenon, contemporary hip-hop embraces new attributes as well as solidifies the learning that comes from the experience of the founding fathers (and mothers). As well as other contexts, it is possible to observe a process of aging of local audiences and artists of rap music. Although not with the same measure, it is possible to observe much of the issues reported by Forman (2013, 2014). However, generational differences are still not so visible in the local context.
The local discussion on boom bap and trap is a suitable case for looking at differences between generations on a local level. Those who grew up listening to rap music in the 1990s have a natural tendency to value boom bap rap, while the younger ones value trap, a trend in contemporary rap music. Such predilections illustrate the formation of musical taste in each of the generations and reverberate the experience of the agents in local hip-hop culture at different times. Still, the choice for one or other style is not exclusive, since there are young people who like boom bap and older people who like trap. In this sense, the choice of rappers, DJs and beatmakers is based on the interest of diversifying their musicality; their relationship with the audience and the current context of mainstream rap, as well as the intention of being linked to less commercial (or underground) sub-genres.
Furthermore, this debate also exposes some challenges of growing old at a local hip-hop scene, like being present in gigs and parties; communicating with new generations; being listened by a younger audience; not looking thematically and musically dated; being able to appreciate the musical aesthetics of the new generations; as well as being respected among the youngsters, without accessing an “age-based authority” (Forman 2014) that relies on arguments like “I’ve been there...” or “back in the days...”. In Belo Horizonte, hip-hop is aging but is still young. This assumed contradiction is what makes it possible to embrace, sometimes in a conflicted way, an aesthetic and generational diversity.
I would like to acknowledge Clebin Quirino, Roger Dee, Neghaum, PDR Valentim, Preto C, Castilho, Dica Beats, Paula Manzali,and also the Minas Gerais State Agency for Research and Development (FAPEMIG) for supporting the research through its scholarship program.
Michel Brasil is a musician, communicator and researcher. His research interests are black music (from Brazil and abroad), rap/hip-hop, baile funk music, and Brazilian popular music. Michel performs as a drummer in several acts involving funk, rap, rock and black music. He is also a collaborator at a rap music radio show called Hora RAP, broadcasted by the radio of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (Rádio UFMG Educativa 104,5 FM).
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 DJ Roger Dee, personal communication with the author (on Whatsapp), 30 October 2018.
 Neghaum, personal communication with the author (on Whatsapp), 5 November 2018.
 PDR Valentim, interview with the author (Belo Horizonte), 5 April 2018.
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 Dica Beats, interview with the author (digital recording), 19 January 2018.