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.
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.)
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.
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)
T.I. feat. Mac Boney (2003)
“Original Don (Flosstradamus Remix)”
Major Lazer/The Partysquad/Flosstradamus (2012)
Migos feat. Drake (2013)
“Wake Up in the Sky”
Gucci Mane/Bruno Mars/Kodak Black (2018)
Bad Bunny (2020)
Jhay Cortez/Anuel AA/J Balvin (2020)