“It might become as big as hip-hop”: the rise and rise of hyperactive subgenre glitchcore

The pounding, pixellated style has rejuvenated SoundCloud – and it's not just another fad, insist its pioneering producers. Kyann-Sian Williams scratches the glitch. (Main image of 100 Gecs: press)

Every year has its own musical phenomenon – even 2020. The last 12 months, musically speaking at least, have been all about hyperpop… or glitchcore… or whatever name sticks. Thinking outside the box when it comes to synth placements, hyperpop and and its manic cousin glitchcore steer away from the traditional production ideas – such as being on the beat – and just go with the flow.

2017 was the year that bedroom rap – all lo-fi sounds and lyrical vulnerability – came to the forefront. Many charting hits (see: Juice WRLD’s massive ‘Lucid Dreams’ – created from the bedroom of Platinum-selling Internet Money co-founder Nick Mira) were created in the music production programme Logic and uploaded on that mighty little app, SoundCloud. Three years on, hits are still made in people’s bedrooms (and graduates such as Trippie Redd are still going strong), but it seems the SoundCloud community has moved on from that sound of before for something a little more pixelated.

A tiny, tight-knit community of hyperpop creators have started a brand new refreshing movement, where it’s no longer just about your innate musical talents, but how you can use your musical prowess to post-edit the weirdest, most cinematic audio experience ever in roughly three minutes. Living in a digital age where creativity is endless – especially when softwares and programs like Splice and Bandlab are so attainable – new sounds are birthed everyday from the minds of young creatives time on their hands.

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And 2020 was, for obvious reasons, a good year to hunker down and hone your production skills.

Last year saw the production house PC Music and stars such as Charli XCX and A. G. Cook help to push forward the hyperpop subgenre. Experimental American duo 100 Gecs and their divisive 2019 debut album ‘1000 Gecs’, blazed a trail for the hyperpop community to get in front of the mainstream. Now hyperpop has morphed into glitchcore, the latter defined by high-pitched vocals layered atop impaling 808s and wailing hi-hats that stop and start all over the place. Basically, glitchcore is hyperpop on steroids.

Given their similarities, it’s perhaps inevitable some people conflate hyperpop and glitchcore. Are they ultimately the same thing? The general consensus is that it depends. Producer Stef of the hyper-pop collective helixtears, who have a roster of knockout hyperpop stars (including Ontario’s blackwinterwells) across North America, insists that there is a difference between the two. “Hyperpop is more melodic and poppy,” he says, “whereas glitchcore is indescribable”. Glitchcore has also described a whole art movement full of – you guessed it – pixelated images that mimic an actual glitch like Instagram artists Iguana Alana’s popular art, which utilises glitchcore (and sometimes hyperpop) songs as background music.

Earlier this year, Spotify released a whole playlist called ‘Hyperpop’, dedicated to the buzz around the popular scene. Championing the likes of Swedish rapper and scene veteran Bladee and the mainstream punk princess Rico Nasty, the playlist has become a go-to for all things hyperpop. In September, the streaming service invited A.G. Cook to take over and edit the playlist, and his curation threw up further controversy about what the hell the genre actually is.

London-based synth maestro MISOGI, a true glitchcore evangelist, takes up the story: “When A.G. Cook took over the Hyperpop playlist, one of the songs he put on there was [Philadelphia rapper] Lil Uzi [Vert]’s ‘Futsal Shuffle’, and people were angry about that – how was Uzi hyperpop? But if you actually listen to it, it is.” It’s true: with the excessive use of computerised chords, the song is a hyperbolic take on the current pop sounds, making it hyperpop.

So are rappers such as Lil Uzi Vert and his frequent collaborator Playboi Carti, who extorts a similar sound, true hyperpop stars? NME jumped on a zoom with a bunch of up-and-coming SoundCloud producers – the aforementioned helixtears, MISOGI and blackwinterwells, a veteran who was making hyperpop year before it was cool – who explained that hyperpop and glitchcore have bled into rap in recent years. “A lot of people who make hyperpop started off making plug music,” blackwinterwells says, referencing 808-heavy rap beats stuffed with jumpy, cartoony samples and heavy bass pioneered by South Carolina rapper Pi’erre Bourne.

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As the use of 808s has trickled into lo-fi hip-hop, it’s perhaps natural that producers such as 100 Gecs should take the lo fi sound and ‘glitch’ it, get rappers on the beat (they produced Rico Nasty’s ‘IPHONE’) and – lo and behold – birth hyperpop. With stars jumping on these highly computerised beats with heavily auto-tuned voices, the once-stigmatised vocal correction tool has morphed from being “a tool to perfect to being used as its own medium”, in the words of Helixtears producer Babs. And just like that, pioneering hyperpop stars such as and Bladee shifted this lo-fi sound into something more rampant.

Says MISOGI: “Hyperpop is, in essence, a hip-hop subgenre… If you just listen to the beats created, it’s a hip-hop beat. They’re using the Pi’erre Bourne 808, they’re using hi-hats and they’re using trap drums for a lot of these songs. The hyperpop element is the glitchy vocals and the trance and techno-synths, but at its core, it’s definitely rap, to some extent.”

Around 2016, SoundCloud gave rise to a subgenre known in some circles as ‘mumble rap’ (there’s crossover with bedroom rap), with the aforementioned Lil Uzi Vert and Lil Yachty taking to the forefront, semi-nonsensical lyrics and ad libs. The sound was widely ridiculed among hip-hop aficionados, which created a kind of stigma around being a rapper who emerged from the platform. Detroit’s Deth Coni, who makes deafening glitchy rap and is a bubbling star on the platform, tells NME that he’s “no longer just a SoundCloud rapper”, and wishes to be seen as more than that.

Yet for many producers and rappers, it seems that glitchcore has injected new life into SoundCloud. What attracts a rapper to these non-traditional arrangements, though? Delaware-born rapper and 100 Gecs associate Lil West (you’d know him from 100gecs’ ‘gecgecgec (remix)’) tells NME just how “refreshing” the scene is and why it really is the future: “It definitely should be way bigger than it is… It’s a genre that can fuse with everything… country, rap, rock, metal – whatever it is, [glitchcore] can fuse with it and make it its own thing.”

Lil West believes many rappers are moving towards glitchcore because “nobody’s really following the rules no more and nobody’s trying to make a specific song. I just like doing different stuff and I just feel like I can do a lot.” West appears on the ‘gecgecgecs’, a track from 100 Gecs’ second album ‘1000 Gecs and The Tree of Clues’, which was released earlier this year. “When they sent it to me,” he says, “it was kind of fun because I’m like, ‘Oh it’s a challenge!’ and it makes music fun all over again. It’s something different.”

 “It’s a genre that can fuse with everything… country, rap, rock, metal” – rapper Lil West

MISOGI, who has worked with the likes of British punk rapper Master Peace and Philadelphia electronic artist Instupendo, agrees. “AJ Tracey and Lil West are very open-minded and listen to a lot of genres,” he explains. “There are others that you could never get on that type of beat: imagine [west London rapper] Fredo on one! You could never get him on a hyperpop track.”

The producer adds that he believes London is “quite forward” musically, and says of feted Venezuelan artist Arca: “[She] lives here and she’s one of the main pioneers of this sort of weirder electronic music. She’s been doing it for so long.”

But when it comes to underground music, he insists that the US is still where the tastemakers are: “The UK are definitely behind America when it comes to smaller genres. When I was starting out, I was making music in a genre that wasn’t defined yet. So whenever I looked at my insights, it was all America. California is the music centre of the world when it comes to underground music. But I wouldn’t say we’re behind; the taste’s different. If you are someone living in England and you’re talking to Americans a lot on the internet, you might be into hyperpop more.”

Former NME cover star Rico Nasty has helped to take glitchcore mainstream. Credit: Jonathan Weiner for NME

With this brand new scene emerging, and 2020 giving these new stars a lot of time to create their moreish glitches while being locked up in the house, many introverted pop-stars-in-waiting haven’t had to worry about performances and personas, since their constant output of these distorted sounds have been enough to gain a following. Without the pandemic and ensuing self-isolation, would 2020 still be the year of hyperpop and glitchcore?

Lil West insists that the sound isn’t going anywhere: “I think it’s going to get bigger and bigger and there’ll be more artists spiralling into the wave. Hyper-pop will probably become mainstream and be… it might be as big as hip-hop.”

Ultimately, like any nascent musical scene, glitchcore and hyperpop are full of teenagers chasing their musical dreams, pushing forward what pop music sounds like. And with this controlled chaotic sound crossing over to the rap world via the likes of Uzi and Carti, these sounds are the new normal, birthed in a year where ‘normal’ doesn’t exist.

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