The Universality of Slap: How cable TV and the internet have united the sound and culture of a generation
In another life I’d probably be a linguist. There’s something I find absolutely fascinating about our ability to say similar things in so many different ways. Some aspects of human existence are universal enough that they transcend continents, cultures, and language. One of the more unexpected ways in which I was confronted with that was with my discovery of Italian trap music. Sometime back in 2016 while meandering the alleyways of the internet I stumbled upon the music of some kid by the name Sfera Ebbasta (who has since gone on to become arguably the hottest artist in Italy). My first surprise was in seeing how good his music sounded. For context, my last foray into Italian rap had taken place 3–4 years earlier when I was first learning the language and I wasn’t all that impressed. Back then the most relevant Italian rapper was still Fabri Fibra, and his shit sounded like Eminem from the “HI MY NAME IS BIPPITY BOO SCOOPITY SCOO” days, with beats to match. In other words, it didn’t slap, at all. Now fast forward to 2016 and here they were with 808s, trap snares, high hats, and kicks that knocked like Young Chop or Metro Boomin. So right off the bat, that shit slapped.
Aside from the productions having gotten better and more modern, the other thing that caught my attention were the bars. The songs were about the usual stuff you’d expect any 20 something who grew up in a tough environment to rap about, but they sounded clever and current. My curiosity was piqued so I kept listening for more. The “ok I actually fucks with this” moment finally came when I heard the opening lines to the song “Sempre Me” by another Italian rapper named Ghali. Given the title, which translates to “Always Me”, I thought I’d get to hear at least one good reference to Mario Balotelli so I was hyped, but what I got turned out to be even better. The song started with the usual adlibs to catch the beat, nothing extraordinary, but then the 2nd line of the opening verse went “Mi fumo Namek, cucino Breaking Bad”, “I’m smoking Namek while cooking Breaking Bad”. And just like that, I was a fan.
I heard the line and it just hit me. If we disregard the numerous safety hazards in smoking as you’re cooking meth (someone clearly didn’t get the right lessons out of Breaking Bad) it was a beautiful reference, simple, evocative, and fun. Here was this kid from some crappy neighborhood in Milan, rapping over a style of music kids from crappy neighborhoods in Atlanta came up with, while making references that were accessible to arguably anyone under the age of 40 who had access to TV and/or internet in the last 20 years. And here I was a Haitian kid half a world away vibing to it. That was beautiful. The best part is that all around the world a bunch of kids seemed to have come to that same realisation at around the same time. If you go on Youtube right now and search *Nationality of choice* reacts to rappers from *Country of choice*, you’ll find hundreds of videos of kids from all over the world listening to and reacting to music from different countries. You have kids from the US discovering German rappers, Russian kids vibing to French rap, hardly understanding a single word, but still vibing.
All of this also fits into a greater pattern of pop culture trade. Now you, a cynic, might say that there is nothing new about people from other countries making American music, and that whatever is popular in the US eventually makes its way across the world, but this is somewhat different because the flow is no longer unidirectional. This exchange of references is not just happening from the States to the rest of the world; it’s vertical and horizontal and backwards all at once. It’s like all the kids who grew up as fans of certain things realised that they didn’t have to simply be consumers, and they started making the music they liked by taking music they already liked and modifying it according to their own tastes and preferences. This exchange can be seen at work when a regular kid from Paris posts a video of himself freestyling over P Square’s Shekini and creates a whole new subgenre in the process. Now people all over the world know MHD and bump afrotrap whether they speak French or not. It’s also why you can have a Nigerian artist like Burna Boy toasting like he’s Jamaican on a beat that’s a hybrid between high life and dancehall while repping PH City.
These new sounds made of old sounds adapted to new surroundings make their way around the world picking up variations as they go, then come back to the US and re-enter the mainstream (often by way of Drake). The specificities might vary depending on whether you’re from Cinisello, the 19ème Arrondissement, or Port Harcourt, but there are still underlying similarities. The “Toronto sound” sounds like the “London sound” which sounds like the “Naija sound”, which itself has an undeniable “Caribbeanness” to it. Drizzle on some syrupy autotune, set it all on a delicate bed of 808s, and voila *chef’s kiss* you have a whole vibe. And this rather nebulous concept of “vibe” is exactly what the kids in these videos are responding to. It’s like getting to hear your favourite song as imagined by people who grew up speaking a different language. It’s something different yet immediately recognisable. It still evokes the same feelings in you, but with the bonus of getting the excitement of re-hearing it like it was the first time.
That being said, as we revel in the beauty of this interconnectedness, there is a decidedly less pleasant yet very important aspect to this situation that needs to be addressed nonetheless: the terms on which this trading and mixing of cultures and references is taking place. The spectre of cultural appropriation looms large over these transactions, and as bigger artists borrow sounds and hop on new waves, there is always a risk of provoking the ire of some fan segments and getting accused (with good reason sometimes) of being “culture vultures”. Beyond the hot takes and social media outrage lies a very real issue. As people with more visibility and bigger platforms borrow from less known sources, they can unfairly hog up all the attention, the credit, and more often than not the very tangible financial profits, at the expense of the pioneers who might’ve come up with the original style. Whether it’s intentional or not remains separate from the impact that such actions may have. This is how you end up with people who think Justin Bieber invented Reggaeton, or that Dancehall wasn’t a thing before Drake did Controlla.
People who make dope things have been getting erased from the history of their creations for a long time. For a large chunk of pop music’s history things like that happened and no one batted an eye. Elvis Presley, the (so-called) King of Rock ’n’ Roll, took Big Mama Thornton’s Hound Dog and made it his be$t $elling $ong, while she got posthumous recognition and an induction into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2013. Hell, the entire genre of rock n roll to this day doesn’t get recognised as the genre of black music that it is. It’s difficult to see the practice stopping given how lucrative it’s been, and how easy it is to dominate a narrative if one has enough power or influence. Fortunately, it’s possible for fans and consumers of music to play a role in mitigating that situation. Because the internet, we have almost instant access to nearly any information we desire, and with artists wearing their references on their sleeves, it’s never been easier to find the origin of something. When we hear a bar we like, (Rap)Genius tells us any hidden meaning behind it, Whosampled shows us all the snippets, drums, or voice loops that went into making any popular beat. So while the artists themselves or their record labels might not always feel inclined to give credit where it’s due, it requires very little effort for a listener to be active and find out where their favourite artists got their inspiration from. By doing this they can give smaller, or less popping, artists a much needed look, while at the same discovering and sharing something new that they’ll have a high chance of liking, so everybody wins and everybody vibes. Because ultimately it doesn’t matter where it’s from or what language it’s in, if a song slaps, it slaps.
Nonexhaustive list of songs that slap from the artists mentioned above: