DIY rap vampires
“They don’t have no bacon or no shit?” KeithCharles Spacebar squints at the room service menu. “What is all this shit?”
We’re holed up in an East London hotel room on a dreary winter afternoon. Father – de facto leader of Awful Records – hospitably offers everyone a glass of red wine and instructs Keith to “just order the damn food.” Keith’s curled up in his bed alongside fellow Awful member Abra, both of whom are drying off after being soaked with cold rain during our impromptu photo shoot. Uniformly dressed in black, they bicker and joke around like tight friends – to the extent that it can be tricky to extract a straight-faced answer from them. But that’s all part of Awful’s appeal.
The trio in front of me makes up less than a fifth of Awful Records. The collective also includes rappers, singers, producers and general multitaskers such as Slug Christ, RichPoSlim, Lord Narf, Playboi Carti, Alexandria, “rhythm and creep” experimentalist Gahm, Toronto artist (and sole non-Atlanta based member) Tommy Genesis and Ethereal, who Father describes as “the centre-piece to the web” and whose name generally seems to be held in high regard. Although iLoveMakonnen – ATL’s shroomed-out, hit-making sing-rap eccentric – isn’t a member, he’s a frequent collaborator and a kindred spirit.
At the time of writing, there are 17 members of Awful Records. While separate recordings are inevitable and out-of-town studios are now available to them, the members are constantly featured on each other’s releases, and congregations still happen whenever possible. So what are the right conditions for a productive Awful recording session?
“Needs to be dark,” Keith says, his head popping back out from under the covers. “And hot.”
“Druggy,” Abra laughs.
“As long as we’re all together in one spot, and there’s a little less sunlight out and we’re drinking, or smoking, or…” Keith’s voice croaks a little. “Drinking.”
Awful Records began with the feedback loop of inspiration between KeithCharles Spacebar, Father and Ethereal (who wasn’t counted as an actual Awful member until 2014) in 2011, and by the following year the group was official. But with the viral success of Father’s Makonnen-assisted anthem Look At Wrist and the crew’s buzzworthy appearance at New York’s industry-tailored CMJ festival, 2014 was the year Awful truly broke through.
With such a prolific output, a degree of commitment was required if you were to follow the Awful story over the last couple of years. True to the anarchic nature of a DIY operation, the group’s Soundcloud page is a constant stream of full lengths, EPs, loose tracks and in-house remixes, with the member’s releases often clashing in the same week. “There’s no schedule,” Father shrugs. “It’s whenever you’re done. Like I heard you’re not supposed to drop anything in December because most publications are either off work or are still concentrated on their end of year lists. But I don’t give a fuck, it’s not for them, it’s for the fans.”
With this paradox of youthful chaos and self-autonomy, Awful Records have drawn many comparisons to Odd Future in their earlier era, and although I’m sure they’d probably wince a little at the suggestion, there’s maybe more to the reference than just lazy journalistic convenience. For one, there are certain elements of a signature Awful beat – lo-fi minimalism, spaced-out synths – that could be distantly related to some of Tyler and Leftbrain’s earlier productions. Then there’s also the encouragement of eccentricity and, for some members, the embrace of the taboo emotional palette of depression and suicidal thought.
Having been the frontman of the extreme metal band An Isle Ate Her, it’s no wonder Awful’s self-proclaimed “based goth” Slug Christ feels the most comfortable in this darker territory. When I bring up Slug in conversation, Keith and Father fondly reminisce on seeing him perform at a Halloween party. “He crawled over the guitarist’s back, and he was still going off on the mic,” Father remembers. “And then he just collapsed in the corner of the room. He expelled demons, and then lay in a foetal position for a very long time. That was my introduction to him.”
Like Slug, Abra became socially acquainted with the Awful Records members via Atlanta’s music scene before officially joining. Under the guidance of her highly religious parents, she’d previously steered away from secular music during her younger years. But with a desire to join in with the other kids around her by soaking up Atlanta’s rich music culture (as Christian missionaries, her parents had moved from New York to London before settling in Altanta when she was a child), she later found herself covering hip-hop songs with her guitar and casually uploading the recordings to YouTube.
Following Father’s encouragement, Abra would eventually join Awful in 2014 as the group’s ‘Darkwave Duchess’, creating a distinctive style of melodic, icy synth-pop for her RnB-orientated vocals. With her self-deprecating, humorous social media presence (“pull up to the club like what up i have social anxiety i want to go back home”) and her constant online interaction with her fans, she presents herself as a relatable, down to earth artist. “Ask me a question on Tumblr, and I’ll try and be honest if I can. It builds a dynamic,” she says. “It’s really important for me to make people feel like they can do this stuff like this too, and produce stuff that they want to. Because I spent a lot of time having people tell me I couldn’t produce.”
With last year’s Who’s Gonna Get Fucked First? being among the most popular Awful releases to date, Father remains in his leadership position. As its title and artwork promised, the LP’s lyrics portrayed dimly-lit, drug-fuelled sexual decadence with devious humour. With his voice rarely simmering above a relaxed drawl, Father’s hedonistic horndog persona has been the defining characteristic of his music. “I’ve always liked wilder shit,” he explains, looking surprisingly shy when the subject is raised. “[But] I have been learning to articulate myself – the same raunchiness, but more sensual and less in your face.”
Although it would probably be missing the point to moralise Father’s unfiltered filth, Who’s Gonna… had a few lyrics which encouraged critics to discuss Awful’s perceived sex-positive attitude (“She ain’t got no panties on, on the dancefloor / I say she’s sexually liberated, you call her ass a hoe?!” RichPoSlim laments during his guest verse on BET Uncut). “I’m not really concentrated on giving out a positive message,” Father insists. “Somebody said to me on Tumblr one day like “Oh my god, you talk about this, that and the other, and you know you’re such an influencer on kids – you shouldn’t be doing that. And I’m like ‘I didn’t put the shit to your lips and make you fucking smoke it.’ That’s a saying. Like, I’m not Uncle Ben tellin’…”
Keith interjects – “‘I didn’t put the shit to your lips and make you fucking smoke it.’ That’s a saying?!” Father rolls his eyes, and everyone in the room laughs.
"The relationships in Awful aren’t forced. We’re family, and we act like family"
Later that evening, Father, Abra and KeithCharles Spacebar play a show at London’s Village Underground as part of Clock Strikes 13 – an events series which primarily showcased leftfield and progressive areas of electronic dance music. Keith precedes a brief cluster of songs with a DJ set, with Playboi Carti’s minor viral hit Broke Boi sounding galvanised by the venue’s massive soundsystem. Abra, who has previously struggled with performance anxiety, throws herself into her songs. “This is for you guys at the back not fucking with me, I see you staring across the room,” she yells, before launching into her single Roses XOXO. Arriving onstage to the unmistakable bassline of Wrist, Father proceeds to command a turnt up, but refreshingly unaggressive crowd with his effortless charisma. The show is well-attended, but it seems far from sold out. But even if Awful Records aren’t pulling in huge numbers, the industry has definitely been watching. A fortnight later, Father tweets the news that Abra and Playboi Carti are “getting ready” to sign with major labels.
As the members of Awful Records’ careers begin to accelerate at different speeds, you’d imagine tension levels are beginning to mount among its members. But, speaking to Abra over the phone around a month later, she argues that it’s creative chemistry that brought the crew together rather than the hope of financial gain, and she describes a sense of loyalty that bounds them together. “There’s a lot of talented people in Atlanta and – like, there’s really no other way to say it – they just suck as people,” she explains. “We call them ‘Glo parasites’, they’ll never invest in anybody unless that person is already poppin’. Father could put [those people] on, but he won’t. The relationships in Awful aren’t forced. We’re family, and we act like family.”
“Father has invested a lot into us and hasn’t asked for anything back, and I think we’re all under the impression that we owe him and we owe each other the same risk he’s taken on us,” she says, with a sense of determination in her voice. “We’ve all gone into this with pure intentions. We have a lot of integrity for our art. And I think that will take us very far.”