What Makes Trap ... Trap?

Our resident musicologist unpacks the era-defining sound.

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It’s one of the biggest music styles in the world today, with billions of streams across the planet, and most fans of hip-hop, EDM and contemporary pop can identify the sound when they hear it. Since its beginnings in Southern hip-hop during the 1990s, trap has come a long way and sprouted many a subgenre, including trap pop, Latin trap, trap metal, trap EDM, phonk and drill. So what makes trap trap?

Feeling the Beat(s)

Can we hear trap’s origins in its BPM (beats per minute)? Maybe, but it depends on which tempo you mean. Trap beats are unusual because we can “feel” the music at half-speed or double-speed. Ask a trap producer how they set the BPM on their software and they’ll likely give you a number between 140 and 180. But if you nod your head in time with the music, you’re probably going to feel a pulse of half that amount — 70 to 90 BPM. This difference between the slow interpretation of the song and the double-speed equivalent is called a “tempo octave,” and it is key to understanding trap beats.

To figure out which way you personally feel the pulse, take a listen to the hook from 21 Savage’s “Bank Account” at 1:17, when he counts “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight M’s in my bank account.” If you’re nodding along slowly on one, three and five, you’re hearing the slower beat; if you nod with every word of the count, you’re feeling the 2017 track at the higher tempo octave — this is the BPM producers use, because it makes hi-hat subdivisions easier to think about and program. Both options are “correct,” but it’s this dual-tempo personality that makes trap so versatile for the listener. You can feel it as a (sorta dark) slow jam or as a full-on workout soundtrack.

Vice Muzik

Chart the average tempo of any period in dance-music history and you’ll learn something about what was happening at that time, from the dance moves of the day to the recreational drug of choice. Trap makes no secret of its illicit beginnings. In ’90s Atlanta slang, a “trap” or “trap house” is a place where illegal drugs are sold and often consumed. And that druggy, often otherworldly slowness in trap music has been influenced by the severely dangerous narcotic-cough-syrup concoction known as “lean.”

Roland’s TR-08 Rhythm Composer, the contemporary iteration of the company’s iconic 808 drum machine. Credit: Ilya S. Savenok/Getty Images for PUMA and Roland.

Go 808 or Go Home

As every music producer (and Kanye fan) knows, the Roland TR-808 is music history’s best-loved drum machine. First released in 1980, it gained a cult following among electronic musicians who fell in love with its synthesized “unrealistic” sounds — the snappy snare drum, the super-short closed hi-hat and, most notably, the kick drum with its variable decay control. From the subtle “boop” of Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” (1982) to the long 2-note pitched “booms” of Drake’s “God’s Plan” (2018), 808 kicks have paved each generation’s dance floor for almost four decades, because the sound is so filled with low-frequency energy. Original 808 kicks were tuned to 56Hz — approximately equivalent to a note of A in the bass — and this means that some producers simply tune the kick drum to the song’s key, losing the bass synth altogether. Trap tends to prefer longer-decay kick sounds, and these days they’re usually made with software such as Ableton Live or FL Studio, using samples of the original hardware or, more often, software versions. (Here’s a free online 808 to play with — try out that “decay” control to hear the bassline effect.)

In trap there’s only one rule with kick drums, which is to never, ever use four-on-the-floor (this isn’t techno). There’s usually a kick on the downbeat, but after that it plays a pattern that defines the groove and sometimes drops out entirely. The other defining part of a trap beat is the hi-hat. It uses a super-short “crisp” sample, and the pattern is usually based on 8 notes to the bar (16 to the bar if you’re feeling the slower tempo octave). But it’s the trippy in-between hats that really make the beats distinctive. If you put a note in between some of the 8s you get 16s; again, using “Bank Account” (150 BPM) as an example, the hat plays a distinctive repeating 2-bar pattern – “ta-ta-tatata-ta-ta-ta-ta- / tatata-ta-ta-ta-tatatatatata.”

“Bank Account,” by 21 Savage: 808 parts at 150 BPM.

And things get really interesting when you start to subdivide further, into hi-hat triplets (3 beats in the space of 2); rolls (beats so close together they blur into a zipper effect); and swing (making two hats fit a triplet feel). For a great example, take a listen to Rick Ross’ “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast)” (2010) — the 140 BPM hi-hat is like an early trap tutorial, with 8s, 16s, triplets and rolls throughout.

The snares and claps are usually less rhythmic than the hats, playing straighter parts. Fast-trap listeners and many producers think of the snare on beat 3 of the bar; slow-feel people hear it on beat 2.

Bass … and Space

One of the reasons that trap works so well for rappers is that it leaves plenty of space in the middle of the mix. The kick drum and hi-hat keep out of the way on the bottom and top ends, and the bassline, if there is one at all, can be just a simple long, dark synth drone. Topline instrumental melodies can be simple single-note lines, and sometimes there’s no need for a chordal instrument at all, though there are some artists (notably Flosstradamus) who cheerfully use full orchestral samples side by side with synths and vocals, and find a way to make it all work together in the mix.

Shown in the grid below is an excerpt from the bassline of Flosstradamus’ “2 MUCH” (feat. 24hrs) (2018). It isn’t trying to be rhythmic at all, just creating atmospheric low-end texture, although there’s some creative use of the drone at 0:45, when the long single note glides slowly upward as the snare’s 16s build before the drop.

Flosstradamus’ “2 MUCH”: intro bassline with long, sustained notes typical of trap.

Three Decades of Trap?

We can let future historians argue about trap’s start date — somewhere between ’92 and ’98, depending on who you ask. For me, those subdivided hi-hats seem to grow more common toward the end of that decade, so I’m starting there.

“Back That Azz Up”
Juvenile feat. Mannie Fresh and Lil Wayne (1998)     
BPM: 95.8/191.6

This track was released 22 years ago, yet a lot of the elements are already in place. Producer Mannie Fresh’s hats are on every 16th, with some 32s that add interest. The dark bass drones aren’t there yet; the bass sound is pretty much following the kick drum, propelling more groove in the spaces between. There’s an underpinning 8-bar chord loop using D-minor, G-minor and A, which is long by today’s standards, and a string-synth sound playing the topline melody; but the 808 parts wouldn’t sound out of place in a much more recent production.

“Trap Muzik”
T.I. feat. Mac Boney (2003) 
BPM: 76/152 

Ironically, considering T.I.’s arguable claim to have invented the term, this is perhaps the least trap-sounding track of our collection here, at least by the standards that have evolved since. The snare is busier than we’d hear today, with the hat playing 16s and occasional 32s. The form is straight A-B (rap/chorus) until 2:56, when the mix is raided by the Atlanta police, complete with sirens and barking dogs, and we hear the escape from the trap house.

“Original Don (Flosstradamus Remix)”
Major Lazer/The Partysquad/Flosstradamus (2012)
BPM: 67.5/135

Rumors of trap music sounding sparse may have been exaggerated. This remix breaks a lot of rules, throwing in stadium-crowd noises, pitch-shifted voice samples, a distinctive “oom-papa” synth brass phrase and some wonderful experiments with form — you never know what section is coming next. Rhythmically there’s a playoff between 16s/32s sections (0:00-0:31) and full-on hi-hat triplets (1:26); it almost sounds like we’re in 12/8 time, thanks to the snares, claps and the lolloping vocal sample joining the party.

“Versace (Remix)”  
Migos feat. Drake (2013)      
BPM: 66/132 

The breakout single for Migos has a compelling rap vocal with a triplet rhythm throughout, so there’s a playoff between the vocal flow (12 to the bar) and the complex 808 hats and toms, which are centered around a 16s feel. The midrange has some great-sounding synth patches, including the bell-chime that overscores the chorus, and a fat, low orchestral brass sample [1:47]. There is no extra bass drone — rather, the 808 kick-drum samples are tuned to A and B-flat and set to a long decay.

“March Madness”
Future (2015) 
BPM: 60/120 

You can actually set your watch to this tempo: It’s exactly 120 BPM, or 2 beats per second. The G-minor/E-flat 4-bar chord loop (and the bassline) is the same throughout, but as with all trap, it’s the rhythmic interplay that engages the listener. The ethereal delayed synth arpeggios play triplets throughout, rhythmically in sync with the vocal, and even the vocal echo is in the same groove. The hi-hats dance between 16s, 32s and 12s, sometimes referencing the vocal’s triplets and sometimes building a world of their own. It’s a trippy, mind-expanding mix, making the dark lyric story (police violence, guns, sex, drugs) all the more powerful.

“Wake Up in the Sky”        
Gucci Mane/Bruno Mars/Kodak Black (2018)         
BPM: 71.5/143

In the mid-2010s we began to see trap start to influence mainstream pop and R&B, with Taylor Swift’s “End Game” and Ariana Grande’s “God is a woman” being recent examples. (And you’re undoubtedly familiar with the ubiquitous, but still pretty cool, country trap of “Old Town Road.”) Here, genre pioneer Gucci Mane adds authentic beats to Bruno Mars’ smooth electric piano chords, the harmonic complexity of which tells the listener we need to feel this slow jam at a sedate 71.5 BPM. The 808 clap sound rides high in the mix, and you may think you also hear its open hi-hat, but don’t be fooled — it’s a carefully programmed fast roll, with some automated pitch shift on the hats at the end of each chorus.

“Nonstop”     
Drake (2018)  
BPM: 77.5/155

This dark, dry trap beat is further evidence of the style’s full assimilation into the mainstream, appearing on 2018’s most popular album by the year’s most popular artist. Drake’s tribute to Memphis rap samples the obscure 1995 mixtape track “My Head Is Spinnin’” by DJ Squeeky and Mack Daddy Ju; the vocalist is Lil Sko, whose line (“My head is spinnin’, smokin’ on the chicken, the bass is kickin’”) earns him a songwriting credit. The mix in the verses is sparse, with nothing but 808 and bass drone, leaving us to hear every nuance of Drake’s understated rapping.

“25/8”
Bad Bunny (2020)     
BPM: 76/152

Latin trap is huge, particularly in Puerto Rico, and Bad Bunny’s album YHLQMDLG is on the A-list of contemporary trap/reggaeton releases. The minor-key 4-chord loop underpins the whole track, and the sections are defined by dropping individual drums in and out — or sometimes the whole kit. It’s a master class in tension-and-release, and the enticingly brief hi-hat sections play with triplets and 32s while panning all over the mix. It sounds great in HiFi quality on good speakers, and even better on headphones.

“Medusa”     
Jhay Cortez/Anuel AA/J Balvin (2020)
BPM: 98/196

Staying in Puerto Rico and ramping up the tempo to a full-on 196 BPM, this urgent-sounding track uses arrangement and dynamics to keep us engaged throughout its 5:05 runtime. Like lots of trap, it opens with the main keyboard melody and makes us wait 24 whole bars until the beat drops at 0:31. Here, there’s an authentic 808 open hi-hat, panned hard left in the mix, as well as rolls throughout — which interact playfully with the Spanish rolled ‘r’ in the vocal. There’s even a “Versace” quote!

Main image of Gucci Mane by Gary Miller/Getty Images.

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