Despite the music industry being a horrifically frightful entity in itself, its brightest and boldest creatives have always found a fascination with the grotesque, gruesome and ghostly. Whether it be the hushed rumours of devilish blues singers making pacts with the devil in the 1920s or the gory soliloquies of contemporary rappers who claim they are the devil, our greatest musicians have always been emboldened to explore the deepest and most decrepit recesses of the human experience.
The unquestionable bond between creativity and the darker side of our imaginations has resulted in an everlasting partnership between the underground and the underworld. Now that the countdown to Halloween has begun and the ghosts and ghouls lurking in every corner have begun to gather in anticipation of All Hallows Eve, we are looking at the way in which musicians from Black Sabbath to Denzell Curry have been inspired by the supernatural and occult and how Horror has permeated the realms of movies and music.
THE FIRST MUSICIANS OF THE UNDERWORLD
Musicians have always been a mouthpiece through which society explores its darkest fascinations, twisted fantasies and eerie obsessions. In a historical context where the written word was reserved for the rich, bards and poets became living libraries that passed down tales of every war, fanciful folklore, tragedy and unexplainable anomaly endured, meaning that music and the macabre have been married far before heavy metal and hip-hop.
However, the evolution of artists from passive observes to protagonists in dark and devilish tales can first be traced back to a dusty crossroad in 1920’s Mississippi where one aspiring musician named Robert Johnson would become infamous the world over for selling his soul to the devil in return for a godly ability on the acoustic guitar. From the 1920s onward the interplay between music and the underworld rapidly escalated as Blues, Jazz, Rock n Roll, and later Rap continued to push boundaries and explore societal themes despised by overbearing and conservative governments and religious entities.
Inarguably, the racial undertones that pervade the associating of predominantly Black artist-driven genres with the work of the Devil was a disgusting use of racist propaganda by white music executives who feared the dwindling interest in white genres like Bluegrass & Country. However, the act of embracing such diatribe claims and enshrouding artists like Robert Johnson in a mysterious allure of hellishly divine musical ability became an act of protestation at the injustices of the music industry and wider society, one that would later be used by Kanye West on his track ‘Eyes Closed’: “I sold my soul to the devil: that’s a crappy deal, Least it came with a few toys like a Happy Meal”.
As genres like Rock n’ Roll became colonised by white artists, such as Elvis’s blatant swindling of Chuck Berry as the so-called “King Of Rock”, the direct association with musicians and the spooky dealings of the underworld became less literal. That was of course unless the Catholic Church felt like banning a band it felt was too ‘sinful’ for public consumption such as Marilyn Manson, Black Sabbath, The Eagles, Slayer & even The Beatles. In general, Halloween-ish themes of the supernatural stopped being projected onto artists and instead became embraced and explored by them, becoming the bedrock of endless genres like Thrash, Grindcore, Celtic Metal, Horror Punk, Deathrock, Anarcho Punk, Riot Grrl, Trap Metal and many more.
HORROR & HIP-HOP
So where does this relationship between musicians and the macabre exist today in an era of music that can often feel dictated by the sterile trends of social media and corporate entities? Hip-Hop in all its elements has been the natural progression and evolutions of those early genres like Jazz, Soul, Blues and Rock more often than not sampling from those original bards of beastly stories. Therefore, ever since DJ Kool Herc hosted the first ‘Back To School Jam’ in 1970s Brooklyn, MC’s have been carrying forward the age-old relationship between the underworld and the underground.
Much like how Wu-Tang folded in the sounds, aesthetics and visuals of Japanese Chanbara and Kung Fu cinema, many other early pioneers of Hip-Hop found refuge in the silver screen and began merging the worlds of Hip-Hop and horror. In 1993, Harlem MC and apprentice of Fat Joe’s DITC crew Big L released his debut demo tape that featured a track titled Devils Son which opens with the line “L’s a rebel, on a higher level, go get a shovel, Cause I’m the only son of the motherfucking devil.” He continues throughout the opening verse to tie himself with the devil adding “On my skull the 666, no tricks when I catch fits, my mom picks up the crucifix. And I kill chumps for the cheapest price I’m rolling with Satan, not Jesus Christ.” Big L’s manifestation as the Devils son is indicative of an early 90s wordsmith renaissance that saw MC’s push their ability to shock and stand out to bizarre and grippingly graphic ends.
Similarly, California based rapper Ras Kass often used his high intellect and penmanship to explore relationships between humanity and the occult. His 1998 album Rasassination features a track titled ‘Interview with A Vampire’ that essentially emulates a conversation between Ras, God and The Devil as each tackle the twisted circular relationship between sin and salvation. Throughout the creeping beat, Ras interjects as The Devil using a terrifying edited voice to create a truly out of the box thinking track that feasts on our fascinations with mortality, allowing the musician to talk and conversate about life and death directly with his old friend the devil himself.
The entire Horrorcore subgenre of Hip-Hop was birthed by the wickedly talented artists in these late 90’s/early 2000’s years as MC’s pushed past the often simplistic wordplay of 80’s hip-hop to begin dealing with complex themes, characters and questions just as Hollywood began on its own renaissance of horror and slasher movies, something not seen since ‘The Exorcist’ era of the early 1970’s. Artists like Insane Clown Posse, Necro, Gravediggaz, Dark Lotus and Esham pioneered a new wave of horror-centric hip-hop just as movies like Saw, The Ring, Final Destination, Battle Royale and The Devils Backbone first appeared on cinema screens in the opening years of the 2000s.
Even artists considered less experimental and raw as Big L & Ras Kass jumped into the bloodied waters of horror-inspired rap. The hegemonic duo of Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince may not have been known for their love of horror however in many ways they can be viewed as one of the earliest adopters of the genre as their 1988 single ‘A Nightmare on My Street’ parodies the classic film Nightmare on Elm Street. Throughout the track, Will Smith goes back and forth with Freddy Kruger after rejecting Freddy’s request to be his ‘Partner in Rhyme’ stating, “Yo Fred, I think you got me all wrong/I ain’t partners with nobody with nails that long.” The situation only settles in once Freddy kill Jazzy Jeff at the end of the track as the twinkling piano of the movie’s soundtrack fade out into the distance.
More subtle signs of approbation for the Horror genre pervade the back catalogues of more contemporary Hip-Hop stars. Busta Rhymes famously sampled Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score for ‘Gimme Some More’, A$AP Rocky pulled from the eerie track ‘Goblin’ by Suspiria for his collaboration with Tyler the Creator on ‘Telephone Calls’, and most recently Travis Scott drew inspiration from the Candyman score for Days Before Rodeo: The Prayer.
Today, much like how hip-hop of the late ’90s and early 2000s became a reflection of contemporary cinematic trends, modern rap is being greatly influenced by Japanese Anime with artists sampling soundtracks and referencing characters throughout their verses. That is not to say that the impact of Horror has regressed in any way as it certainly hasn’t. Projects like The TA1300 by Denzel Curry, Unrendered by Bones, and Anti-Icon by Gostmane all follow in the ghostly footsteps of countless horrorcore MC’s and cursed crossroad blues artists.