As hip-hop developed in the 80s and 90s, the genre became synonymous with violence, drugs, and sex. But even as rappers sought to prove their realness, it has always been understood – by the artists that make it and the fans that love it, at least – that hip-hop is a reflection and a comment on society’s ills, not the cause of them.
For many proponents of hardcore hip-hop and gangsta rap, these street-life narratives were a mix of reporting, fiction-writing, and therapy that charged American institutions like the government, police and schools with the responsibility for urban decay.
Hip-hop has always been hyperbole. But what happens when the hyperbole is pushed to extremes? What happens when lyrics about gangland murder becomes slasher flick serial killing, when chasing women becomes acts of violence, when getting high and drunk at a party becomes addiction, paranoia and psychosis?
You get horrorcore, an often maligned sub-genre that has existed for nearly as long as hip-hop itself and that specializes in the macabre, the sinister, the disgusting and the shocking. Here are 15 of the best, most important horrorcore albums, sorted chronologically to show how the genre has developed over more than a quarter century.
Geto Boys – Grip It! On That Other Level (1989)
When original Geto Boys member Prince Johnny C used machetes and chainsaws to slice up sex workers on the Freddy Krueger- and Texas Chainsaw Massacre-inspired Assassins (off 1988’s Making Trouble), he unknowingly spawned the horrorcore genre. He wasn’t part of the group by the time they dropped Grip It! On That Other Level, but the Houston crew picked up where he left off. While mostly a Southern version of the gangsta rap taking over New York and Los Angeles, Grip It! amped up the misogyny and menace, whether Scarface was pouring his rival’s blood in a saucepan or Bushwick Bill was disfiguring punks in prison. The album’s darkest song, Mind of a Lunatic, would prove to be the its most influential, as the paranoid fantasies of rape, murder and necrophilia would come to define horrorcore. And the scariest part? When Willie D assured listeners: “This is fact, not fictional.”
Ganksta N-I-P – The South Park Psycho (1992)
The Geto Boys would soon find a like-minded collaborator in Houston’s Ganksta N-I-P, who wrote the super-violent, Child’s Play-inspired Chuckie for Bushwick Bill, and made his debut with The South Park Psycho. After introducing himself as “the craziest motherfucking rapper on earth”, N-I-P delievered the true-to-its-title Horror Movie Rap, mixing nursery rhymes, the iconic Halloween sample and tales of cannibalism and bestiality. N-I-P helped establish horrorcore’s use of black-as-hell humor (tales of blood popsicles and “breast feed[ing] newborn babies with unleaded gas”) and self-destruction as the purest form of annihilation: “A mothafuckin’ psycho… I need to be dead/ took the knife out of my neck and ate the meat out my own head”.
Insane Poetry – Grim Reality (1992)
Like gangsta rap, horrorcore could not be contained to a specific geographic area. Enter Insane Poetry, a Los Angeles crew who juxtaposed the breakbeats and soul samples of N.W.A. and Public Enemy with slasher similes and murderous metaphors. Grim Reality is split into “Grim” and “Reality” sides: side A is heavy with dark fantasies that “make the Charles Manson family look like the Huxtables” while side B explores the real horrors of mental illness, the AIDS epidemic, and Falling Down-styled murder sprees, foreshadowing rappers that would use horrorcore as a hyperbolic form of social commentary.
Esham – KKKill the Fetus (1993)
If this list was strictly chronological, Esham would be near the top. In 1989, a 16-year-old Esham helped establish horrorcore with Boomin’ Words from Hell, a self-produced album full of electro-rap dispatches from Detroit’s hellish streets, and in 1992, he released one of hip-hop’s first double albums, the rap-rock Judgement Day. But he reached a creative peak with KKKill the Fetus, combining the sounds of those albums while wondering “what drives people … to the depths of evil”. His growth as a rapper allowed him to explore the underlying issues beneath his homicidal and suicidal thoughts, often taking aim at a society that had already left him for dead (after a character kills his wife and kids, he’s hung up on by the suicide hotline). From this vantage point, he sees the forced abortion of the claustrophobic title track not as cruelty, but as mercy: “Why would you want to make a life in this world we live in? You should terminate it, because it’s a lousy world”.
Gravediggaz – 6 Feet Deep (1994)
What kung fu flicks are to Wu-Tang, grindhouse horror is to Gravediggaz. The New York supergroup comprised of RZA, De La Soul production master Prince Paul, Frukwan and Poetic found gory gold with 6 Feet Deep (or Niggamortis, as it was titled overseas). In the same way that RZA and company used a hodgepodge of Eastern philosophies and Five Percenter cultures with the Wu, he and his fellow Gravediggaz used horrorcore as a pose to explore higher truths. “It means digging graves of the mentally dead, and it stood [for] resurrecting the mentally dead from their state of unawareness and ignorance,” said Frukwan. Still, it was a pose they wore well, whether imagining substance-aided hallucinations on Defective Trip (Trippin’), satirizing the idea that music was making kids kill themselves or others on 1-800-Suicide, or exposing paranoia and mental anguish amid the courtroom confessions of Diary of a Madman.
Flatlinerz – U.S.A.(1994)
While not particularly well-regarded or well-received at the time, U.S.A. (short for “Under Satan’s Authority”) – the lone album by NYC trio Flatlinerz – is nonetheless a key part of horrorcore history, if only because the group was the first to use the term on a record. The fact that Tempest, Gravedigger, and Redrum (Jamel Simmons, a nephew of Russell Simmons) used horrorcore trappings as a metaphor for real world darkness, to “observe death in order to appreciate life we’re living”, was perhaps lost on audiences that were delving into the hardcore worlds of other Def Jam records like Onyx’s Bacdafucup and Method Man’s Tical. Still, the group managed to beat Busta Rhymes to punch with their This Is Serious PSA sample and were one of the first to sample video games; Flatlinerz might have been one-note, but perhaps they were also ahead of their time.
Big L – Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous (1995)
Harlem’s Big L established his twisted bona fides with 1993’s Devil’s Son, a “bugged out dream” featuring gunplay, nun rape, and pre-school murder. Two years later, he debuted with Lifestylez ov da Poor & Dangerous, a New York rap classic and the only album he released before his death in a 1999 drive-by. While Columbia Records pushed for the inclusion of more conscious material like Put It On and Fed Up wit the Bullshit, the Devil’s Son couldn’t be silenced, and songs like All Black and Danger Zone are full of gory murders, AIDS jokes, and beyond the pale boasts like “I’m the type to snap in Heaven with a MAC-11 and rape Christ”. He even imagined himself as Harlem’s own Freddy Krueger, rapping “I’m on some satanic shit strictly/ little kids be wakin’ up cryin’/ Yellin’, ‘Mommy, Big L is comin’ to get me!’”
Three 6 Mafia – Mystic Stylez (1995)
For the first half of the 90s, Three 6 Mafia were unlike anything in hip-hop. The Memphis crew made tapes full of lo-fi menace, turning drug-dazed paranoia into satanic lyrics and syrupy music. The apotheosis of this style (as opposed to the cleaner crunk sound they would help pioneer a few years later) is Mystic Stylez. With piano and synth melodies right out of horror scores (often literally, as they sampled Brainscan and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare), the members of the Mafia traded verses, invoking the Antichrist and trying to bring about the apocalypse. The torture manual of Live by Yo Rep raised the stakes for diss tracks, and while Juicy J and DJ Paul would eventually find more fame, Lord Infamous earned his keep by spitting vivid, triplet-heavy tales of razor blade vivisections and Gangsta Boo became the first woman of horrorcore with lyrics about voodoo ceremonies and crucifixions.
Brotha Lynch Hung – Season of da Siccness (1995)
The themes of horrorcore have cropped up in every region and within nearly every subgenre of hip-hop; West Coast G-funk is no different. Imagine a young Snoop Dogg dipping his blunts in PCP and rapping about killing and eating babies, and you’re most of the way to Brotha Lynch Hung. The Sacramento rapper made the kind of trunk-rattling, funky worm-filled music that you’d expect from his time and place, pushing gangsta rap tropes to its dark and disgusting limits on the self-produced Season Of Da Siccness.
Dr Dooom – First Come, First Served (1999)
Kool Keith says he invented horrorcore, and while the timeline may be off, he definitely took the genre in new directions. After the anything-goes, alternative hip-hop of 1996’s Dr. Octagonecologyst, Keith took the mantle of Dr. Dooom, a cannibalistic murderer who kills Dr. Octagon on the first track of First Come, First Served. His hallucinatory, free associative lyrics make his twisted tales that much more vivid (“using charcoal to broil, wrap your jealous eyeballs in aluminum foil”), and his almost casual couplets read like American Psycho: “three weeks ago I dumped a bag of legs with beer kegs/ went to Ralph’s and bought a six-pack and some eggs”. And producer KutMasta Kurt didn’t stop at sampling obscure horror scores: with its theremins and assorted bumps in the night, First Come, First Served sounds like a funhouse-haunted house hybrid.
Insane Clown Posse – The Amazing Jeckel Brothers (1999)
At this point, we move from Kool Keith, perhaps hip-hop’s most eccentric innovator, to the Insane Clown Posse, regarded by non-Juggalos as the nadir not just of hip-hop, but of all music. Violent J and Shaggy 2 Dope emerged at the beginning of the decade, mixing their Detroit neighbor Esham’s self-described acid rap with early Beastie Boys frat antics and a face-painted sideshow shtick. No horrorcore list would be complete without an ICP record, so for completion’s sake, it might as well be the album that features Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Snoop Dogg, and a cover of Geto Boys’ Assassins, the song that started the genre.
Tech N9ne – Anghellic (2001)
Kansas City hip-hop icon Tech N9ne pressed his machine gun flows into Satan’s service on Anghellic, checking all the horrorcore boxes: samples and dialogue from Halloween, Hellraiser, and The Haunting, lyrics about backroom abortions on Real Killer, and anti-religious imagery on the Roger Troutman-assisted Twisted. But it’s Tech’s verbal dexterity and emotional honesty that elevates Anghellic beyond genre. On Suicide Letters, he opens up the kind of pain that would lead him to suicide, and on Breathe (which appears on the 2003 repressing of the album), he turns his rat-a-tat flow into a Carpenteresque melody.
Necro – Gory Days (2001)
The younger brother of Non Phixion’s Ill Bill, Necro emerged at the turn of the millennium, continuing the hardcore-horrorcore tradition in New York rap. After the sex-and-violence of his controversial debut I Need Drugs, Necro focused on the latter on Gory Days, telling detailed tales of depravity on songs with a consonant-heavy flow, a slight lisp, and a sense of humor. How else would you explain interpolating the hook of Salt-N-Pepa’s Let’s Talk About Sex into “Let’s talk about death baby/ Disintegration of flesh you’ll see/ Let’s talk about all the good things and the bad things/ In hacking up ya meat”?
Cage – Movies for the Blind (2002)
Before teaming with indie hip-hop heavyweights Definitive Jux for 2005 stand-out Hell’s Winter, Cage provided a backpacker alternative to Eminem’s lyrically-dense sleaze with Movies for the Blind. Like the best horrorcore, Movies is an extreme take on real life trauma – in this case, the sixteen months Cage spent at the Stony Lodge psychiatric hospital… and his fantasies of murdering the stepfather that put him there.
Twiztid – Man’s Myth (2005)
Insane Clown Posse aren’t the only face-painted rap duo from Detroit: there’s also Twiztid, which signed with ICP’s Psychopathic Records in 1997 and have been a constant presence in the horrorcore world since. As opposed to their divisive patrons, Twiztid can actually rap, and often turn out tightly-constructed albums full of sub-Eminem bombast and ominous beats that are surprisingly hearty. As far as Juggalo rap is concerned, Man’s Myth is probably your best bet for a horrorcore fix.