Illustration: Franco Égalité
It can be hard to keep up with the ever-changing musical landscape of today’s internet.
It feels like new genres and styles, with distinct aesthetics and names, are popping up every day on SoundCloud, TikTok, YouTube, and wherever else. It’s hard as a casual fan to keep track of each and every artist and sound that graces your feed. But, there’s one internet genre in particular that has been floating around for quite a while now—phonk—with many listeners who are unfamiliar with its deep roots in hip hop history.
What is phonk?
“Phonk,” a misspelling of “funk,” was first coined by rapper SpaceGhostPurrp to describe his own music: “real Miami phonk,” as he put it. The name was inspired by the G-funk that SpaceGhostPurrp grew up hearing—he created the term “phonk” with the intention to “kick it and chill back and keep the party rocking with style.”
But, the origins of the laidback, groovy genre sprouted long before SpaceGhostPurrp’s rise to fame in the early 2010s, and far from Miami, Florida—we have the city of Memphis, Tennessee to thank for the sounds that evolved into phonk.
The origins of phonk
In the early 1990s, while boom bap was booming in New York City and G-funk was dominating the West Coast, hip hop artists in Memphis were developing their own sound. Producers like DJ Paul, DJ Squeeky, and DJ Spanish Fly used drum machines and samplers to create laidback, half-time beats. Their haunting melodic samples and wide-open drum patterns left lots of room for local MCs to spit rapidfire lyrics.
Three 6 Mafia’s own Juicy J and Crunchy Black, as well as many others, started to refine a unique style of rapping, packed full with vivid imagery and vulgar language. This style, sometimes called “horrorcore” because of its gory details and eerie samples (at times pulled straight from slasher flicks), spread quickly through the city and beyond (if you aren’t familiar with Memphis rap, Three 6 Mafia, Gangsta Boo, and Tommy Wright III are all great starting points).
Memphis’s influence is undoubtedly widespread. Gucci Mane cited the city’s sound as vital to the development of Atlanta’s trap music, a style of hip hop which has come to dominate US charts over the last fifteen years (the 808’s iconic synthesized cowbell, a classic sample throughout early trap mixtapes, became popular among Memphis producers years earlier). Beyoncé’s GRAMMY-winning album RENAISSANCE even opens with a sample of Memphis rapper Princess Loko, from “Still Pimpin” by Tommy Wright III. Yet, nowhere is the city’s impact more obvious than the internet-born hip hop genre that is phonk.
DIY culture and the lo-fi sound
Unlike the cities of New York and Los Angeles, where record labels began signing popular rappers left and right, most Memphis artists were forced to take a fully DIY approach to distribution. Rappers would burn small batches of tapes to distribute among local record stores, DJs, and friends. Many classic songs from this era have still only survived thanks to these tapes, leaving a hazy, tape-compressed character that fans have grown to love. This effect is even more heightened thanks to the genre’s affinity for resampled hooks, usually taken from other equally lo-fi tapes, creating layer upon layer of crunch, warble, and fuzz.
As lo-fi hip hop developed through online platforms, these tape effects became sought after by many. Some artists who hadn’t found widespread acclaim in their time have even seen successful reissues of their music in recent years, thanks to this revived excitement for the sound.
Producers grew to love not only these lo-fi artifacts, but many of the other sounds associated with them—808 cowbells and kicks, half-time beats, and chopped-and-screwed hooks, for example. These sounds began to see a renaissance in online communities, and lots of producers started building beats inspired by Memphis’ unique style.
However, some remnants of other hip hop genres started finding their way into these tracks—jazz samples, like those that ushered in the popularity of lo-fi hip hop, started finding a home in some tracks. Much slower, sometimes pitch-shifted tempos also became popular, inspired by DJ Screw’s innovative chopped-and-screwed style of remixing. Lil Ugly Mane’s classic phonk track “Serious Shit” is a great example of both of these changes; repitched, chopped-up vocals float over a gentle jazz saxophone, grounded by hard-hitting, undeniably Memphis drums.
What is drift phonk?
Phonk may have been born out of a love for Memphis’ rap artists, but in recent years, subgenres have begun to drift away from the genre’s roots in hip hop. A subgenre known as drift phonk incorporates aesthetics of speed racing to create a higher-energy, EDM-inspired variant. This particular style has found quite a home on platforms like TikTok and YouTube—mixes are often especially blown-out and lo-fi, with 808 cowbell melodies and intense sample chops taking center stage. Oftentimes, the quick, captivating bars that were key to the genre’s inception are put aside in favor of more electronic, production-heavy textures.
What is phonk house?
Drift phonk has also seeped its way into other genres of EDM, creating, for example, the hybrid genre of phonk house: recognizable house grooves, but surrounded by the dark, lo-fi textures that phonk is known for.
Or, on the other end of the genre, some artists have been particularly inspired by darker elements of horrorcore. Fusing hip hop with elements of metal, industrial, and other hardcore genres, some rappers have begun screaming through their horrorcore raps. Often, these horror-inspired artists will also include metal guitars, rock drums, or harsh noise samples to amplify these feelings of fright and unease.
Phonk has come a long way, and it continues to change. There are purists who insist that the genre should only refer to the original hip hop subgenre, rooted in Memphis history and the archival origins of southern hip hop. Other fans have a more inclusive definition, including drift phonk, hardcore horrorcore, and its other more electronic variations.
It’s no surprise that, as it has grown, phonk has reached a wide variety of artists and fans, with varying styles and opinions on the genre. As it continues to spread, it’s inevitable that phonk will keep evolving, reaching new niches and subgenres for artists to explore. If you feel inspired and want to try your hand at creating some phonk yourself, check out phonk samples here on Splice Sounds.
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January 17, 2024