One of the more unlikely songs to enter the Billboard Top 40 this year is "Look at Me!" from Broward County, Florida's XXXTentacion. The unnerved track has a blown-out sound like it's emerging from a busted cell-phone speaker, lyrics that are violently sexual, and features a 10-year-old sample from London dubstep artist Mala. The track has been streamed over 76 million times on SoundCloud alone. The 19-year-old rapper is leading a swell of purposefully decayed-sounding music coming from South Florida, including Lil Pump, Ski Mask the Slump God, Smokepurpp and WifisFuneral. Currently, they're dominating democratically chosen platforms like SoundCloud, where a third of the Top 50 at any point boast the fried, distorted sound. Though by every measure a noise unlike anything on the radio, XXXTentacion and his peers may become rap's new standard.
"For things to become a movement you have to have at least one artist and one song," says Todd Moscowitz, the founder of Alamo Records, a new label that looks to jump at this particular moment. Formerly of 300, Warner Bros., and Asylum Records, Moscowitz witnessed many rap movements emerge in the last couple decades including the mainstream rises of both Atlanta and Houston. He's taken to calling this the "lo-fi movement," due to the music's heavily distorted bass, D.I.Y. sensibility and intentional lack of polish. Moscowitz likened it Seventies punk rock, but the style parallels closer to the home-brewed Nineties lonerism of bands like Sebadoh or Guided By Voices. Many figures of this scene come from lineage of Spaceghostpurrp and Raider Klan, early Aughts Florida artists who made intentionally lo-fi rap fueled by the murky Nineties mixtapes from labels like Houston's Screwed Up Records and Memphis' Hypnotize Minds.
"I got started as a producer first," says Smokepurpp, one of the first artists signed to Alamo Records, seated in their Manhattan offices, "but really I feel my beats had more life than anyone could rap on them." Born in Chicago, he was three when his family moved to Miami, and only began seriously rapping a couple years ago. An early act that took off over his off-kilter production was Lil Pump another teenaged Florida rapper.
"[Lil Pump] wasn't really rapping on the microphone," says Smokepurpp about the eccentric pink-haired Florida teen MC. "He was at my house and I made him record his first song, no microphone. He recorded on a headphone microphone." Smokepurpp, who engineers and mixes his own work, intentionally embraces the perverse sound of a track like "Ski Mask" or Lil Pump's "Elementary."
"It was like the worst recording set up, [but] you could set it up anywhere and that was the wave we were one," says Ski Mask the Slump God, a Ft. Lauderdale rapper, describing the initial recording rig used by himself and XXXTentacion. "The raw energy of that – the distortion – is our speciality and we used that to our advantage." That energy is what's attracted Diplo, who released "Looking For a Star" with XXXTentacion in May, and Lil Yachty, who recently palled around with XXXTentacion at Miami's Rolling Loud Festival.
"Yachty's given verses to so many dudes that are relevant in the underground [rap world]," says Adam Grandmaison, host of the SoundCloud-rap-friendly No Jumper podcast, citing verses Yachty gave to rappers like Kevin Pollari or Black Kray. Before Yachty signed a major label deal, these rappers were his digital peers, and even if he now appears in Target ads that connection is still strong.
"There is a giant surge in streaming of hip-hop songs right now," says Grandmaison, noting how Billboard's recent embrace of streaming data is helping boost these artists. "As big as hip-hop has always been, these songs are taking over the charts." In short, SoundCloud-born rap hits are arriving so fast that labels are now adjusting on the fly to these shifting trends.
"It's much more about navigation now and less about a regimented and rigid plan that you march down the field," says Moscowitz. Alamo Records, who also signed Wifisfuneral, understands there must be fluidity to promotion and managing artists in 2017. An album is nice for narratives, but often these rappers drop singles on SoundCloud that get millions of plays and sell out shows wherever they go. As Moscowitz says, "I think people that ride the wave will do really well."
"[Once] our music started to get popular, we started to go out of our way to different states," says Ski Mask the Slump God, talking about early shows with XXXTentacion. "We bought sprinter vans and drove all the way from Florida and back."
However, over the last year, the subgenre's biggest name, XXXTentacion, spent most of the time in jail over charges of aggravated battery of a pregnant woman, false imprisonment and witness tampering. He was released from jail on March 26th. The two first met in juvenile detention and quickly pushed each other to start rapping. XXX bought a Snowball microphone off Ebay and they were able to bring together Ski Mask's rapid fire aggressive flow with XXX's punkish snarl. Now, Ski Mask is a minor celebrity on Instagram with over 500k followers, where his posts offer a window into a rapper on the verge of stardom.
"This generation and wave of rap are using social media in a way that no other class has," says Cole Bennett, a music video director from Chicago, who has shot videos for Famous Dex, Lil Pump, and Smokepurpp. "Mainstream acts are only going to make a tweet when they drop an album and they may not tweet for months. These young guys are talking to kids every day."