Balderdash and DatPiffle.
“Language is the dress of thought”, wrote Samuel Johnson – and, like any ethical shopper, sometimes you want to investigate exactly where your dress came from. The music fan’s dictionary is full of unlikely and strange little tags: some (witch house, wonky) have always been ridiculous; others (dubstep, juke) trip off the tongue but, when properly considered, take you by surprise. With the gusto of the amateur lexicographer, then, we thought we’d track down the moments when these units of music journo currency were first coined.
We’ve collected detailed (and, sometimes, first-hand) accounts of how and why 14 of the more memorable genre terms of the last few decades came into being. From happy accidents to off-the-cuff portmanteaux to jokes-gone-wrong (we see you, purple), these are the stories behind the genre tags which continue to define – or, some might say, defile – the music we’re all listening to.
In 2009, a handful of bands from all corners of the U.S. – most of whom were unaware of each other’s existence – found themselves swept up in a bluster of blog hype when alt-culture burn book Hipster Runoff offered up a list of potential genre names for their shared flavour of heat-melted, synth-soaked electronic pop. Was it to be ‘freakgaze’? ‘Conceptro’? ‘GorillavsBearcore’? Blogger Carles settled for ‘chillwave’, and a millstone was born. While chillwavers like Washed Out, Small Black and Neon Indian tried to reject the tag, within a year there was no going back – even the Wall Street Journal had caught on. Shame, really, because the alternative epithet being bandied around at the time was ‘glo-fi’, a much more appealing and accurate descriptor of the oeuvre. Also worth noting is that chillwave, as a genre born of the internet age, linked artists solely by their sound. No label, scene or geography engendered the trend; instead, the ‘trend’ was picked out and repackaged by the blogosphere, eventually setting in motion a second wave of intentional chillwavers. Thanks Carles!
cloud rap /klaʊd-ræp/
In a 2010 article for the Spaceagehustle blog, Walker Chambliss (aka Walkmasterflex) described Main Attrakionz’ Squadda B as “the king of cloud rap”, assuming that the term had been used before. He had presumed that the name had been coined by rap writer Noz while interviewing Lil B, but he was mistaken. In a 2009 article for his influential Cocaine Blunts blog, what Noz actually wrote was: “I got a chance to link up with the Based God himself this weekend. He showed me a cgi picture of an uprooted castle floating amongst clouds and said, “That’s the kind of music I want to make.””
A couple of months later and the term had stuck, with Chambliss cementing it by releasing the defining compilation 3 Years Ahead: The Cloud Rap Tape. To this day, the name is still being used to describe pretty much any lo-fi, hazy rap that makes its way to the net, whether the term suits the material or not.
1. Lil B – ‘I’m God’ (2009)
2. Main Attrakionz – ‘Cloud Skatin’ (feat Danny Brown)’ (2011)
3. Friendzone – ‘Moments Pt.2’ (2013)
v., n., adj.
(c.2000-3, N.W. England)
Blackout Crew’s 2008 smash ‘Put A Donk On It’ introduced North West England’s spin on bouncy house into the vernacular at large, but it was far from the first usage: both The Donk Devils and Kings Of Donk were releasing records back in 2004. Self-evidently, the ‘donk’ in question refers to the pneumatic bosh-bosh that powers the music, but Vice‘s 2009 ‘donkumentary’ – very much donk’s answer to Buena Vista Social Club – does hint at some alternative genealogies for the word. Blackout Crew’s Jack Ryder talks about the donk hit essentially being a processed, souped-up metronome click (“it’s just a click, virtually, it just goes “dink”, like that”), suggesting a possible route of bastardisation. Similarly, ‘donk’ is a Dutch name – an acoustic nod to the steroid-enhanced happy hardcore being peddled by the likes of Klubbheads. Unusually, ‘donk’ operates as a noun (“put a donk on it”), a verb (“donk something up”) or an adjective (“that’s proper donk”), making it one of the more adaptable terms on the list.
(c. 2002, London)
Taken literally, dubstep is a combination of two words – ‘dub’, referring back to the Caribbean musical form, and step, a regular suffix when it comes to genre names (see 2-step and clown-step). It’s commonly accepted that DJ Hatcha (one of the first DJs to support future dubstep icons like Benga, Skream and Loefah, and a buyer at South London record store Big Apple) coined the term – speaking to Dubspot, he claims that “at the time, [at FWD>>, the first dubstep club night] it was very minimal, a bit dubby … I think I was being interviewed by Martin Clark [Hatcha claims that the interview took place in 2004, though as pointed out in the comments section, it’s also used in a 2002 interview with him by Steve ‘Kode9’ Goodman] and he asked “What term of music is this?” At the time I just said, “dubstep”, and that was it.”
electronic dance music (EDM) /ɪlɛkˈtrɒnɪk-dɑns-myuzɪk/ (/i’di’ɛmˈ/)
(c. 2010, US)
As recently as 2009, when a North American said ‘electronic dance music’, they meant exactly what they said – music for dancing to, made with computers not guitars. Used interchangeably with ‘electronica’, the unsatisfying catch-all made sense in a musical culture that had never seen house or techno break into the mainstream, as they have done sporadically in Europe since the ’80s.
But sometime in the late noughties, young Americans started turning up to Las Vegas speedways in their droves, spangled on boosters and demanding to hear all manner of hands-in-the-air bangers cranked out by reborn trance DJs like Paul Van Dyk. Clad in day-glo bikinis and fur boots, the fans may look like they’ve fallen through a timewarp from Gatecrasher circa ’98, but they don’t discriminate musically – trance, electro, techno or dubstep; all genres are welcome as long as they can bring the Big Drops. And that’s where Electronic Dance Music cleaves itself from electronic dance music en masse – EDM may cross genres, but what acts like Skrillex, Steve Aoki and Avicii have in common is a restless traversing of euphoric peaks and troughs; high drama delivered with digital sheen.
Semantically, though, it may be that the rise of the term EDM was a marketing move as much as anything – with raves virtually outlawed in the U.S. by the turn of the millennium, savvy promoters looking to give their events an air of legitimacy steered clear of the old terminology, also banning rave accoutrements like dummies and glowsticks, and taking a stance against the scene’s (obviously still endemic) drug use.
In fact, recent research suggests that EDM may not be a genre at all, but something more like a demographic – a recent survey discovered that more than a quarter of EDM devotees like going to the events but don’t actually listen to the music.
fidget house /ˈfɪdʒɪt-haʊs/
(c.2005-9, London/Los Angeles)
The wobbly, rubbery subset of electro house (typified by Crookers’ megahit remix of Kid Cudi’s ‘Day ‘n’ Nite’) dominated clubs on both sides of the Atlantic, updating big beat by borrowing global sounds. While ‘fidget’ certainly describes the anxious music (or its tweaked-up audience), the origin is more tongue-in-cheek. “We came up with ‘fidget house’ as a joke, which has now gone a little too far,” Jesse Rose told DJ Mag in 2008. “Switch, Trevor Loveys, Hervé and myself all make and play ‘fidget house’, and although we all have different influences we are influenced by music that isn’t straight-up house.” As The Guardian reported at the time, “it’s a scene that doesn’t really exist beyond the internet, and the term seems to be used so that bloggers know what to put in the genre field in iTunes before uploading songs,” a description that could be used to describe most names on this list.
(c. late 1800s, Southern America)
Much like the music itself (read FACT’s recent interview with R.P. Boo to learn more about the dispute over who made the first footwork track), the origins of “juke” (as regards the form of dance music) are pretty cloudy. Writing in Resident Advisor, Dave Quam claims that “the word juke began to rear its head in the ’90s underground. Who coined it, though, is an open question … plenty want to claim credit, but no one had quite been able to figure it out.” The word itself, of course, has a history that stretches further back: a juke house or juke joint refers to black American clubs from the late 1800s, and to juke was to dance at one of those establishments. The origin of juke, it’s believed, comes from “joog”, a Gullah (an English-based form of Creole spoken off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina) term meaning “disorderly” or “wicked”.
In the fall of 2009, DC-bred DJ/producer Dave Nada was set to DJ a suburban “skipping party” for his high school-aged cousin and his mostly-Latino cohort. Bachata and reggaeton were the order of the day — not the house and techno that Nada had on hand. Fortuitously, Nada realized that slowing down amped-up Dutch house tracks like the Afrojack remix of Silvio Ecomo & Chuckie’s ‘Moombah’ would closely resemble the dembow rhythm popular in reggaeton. ‘Moombah’ at 108BPM was a hit. As Nada had done with the name of his production duo (which fuses his stage name with that of partner Matt Nordstrom into the portmanteau Nadastrom), he christened the genre ‘moombahton’.
1. Dave Nada – ‘Moombahton’ (2010)
2. Dave Nada – ‘Riverside’ (Moombahton Edit) (2010)
3. Yeah Yeah Yeahs – ‘Heads Will Roll’ (A-Mac Moombahton Edit) (2010)
Purple, the Bristol sound that encompassed the output of Joker, Gemmy, Guido and others, and sometimes came suffixed with “wow”, was first referenced back in 2008. Joker, in an interview with online magazine Dub Studio, informed them that when he produced a beat, it sounds “purple” and added a picture for proof. According to his collaborator and friend James Ginzburg (better known as Ginz), this was all part of a simple prank that spiralled out of control: “He would play little games with interviewers when he was young, just making loads of shit up and seeing if people would publish it, and people ran with it”.
This may not, however, have been its first appearance; Gemmy had apparently titled a track ‘Purple Moon’ before this, even thought it only showed up (on a FACT mix, no less) in 2009. He told Resident Advisor back then that this track “was kind of the beginning of the whole purple thing.” The truth may be a little more obscure – at the time, the producers, Joker especially, were listening to plenty of the material emerging from US rap crew The Diplomats (or Dipset for short), and with all of the references to purple (Cam’Ron’s Purple Haze being an obvious example), it’s hard to believe the usage was a total accident.
Seapunk is essentially a dolphin-based viral in-joke started by a bunch of internet-obsessed Brooklyn art kids, but despite its flippant beginnings, it’s one of the most authentic genres in the list in terms of its subcultural cachet. For a start, it’s a true scene – established by a close-knit group of hardcore believers, it has its own label (Coral Records) and a unique sea-faring visual aesthetic of ’90s digital detritus, from Ecco the Dolphin to pixellated yin-yang symbols. Seapunk originator, DJ and producer Lil Internet said he came up with the style after having a surreal dream about wearing a leather jacket studded with barnacles.
Seapunkers also pioneered the mermaid-inspired turquoise hair trend that leaked into the mainstream last year via Rihanna, Azealia Banks and Katy Perry. While some originators were miffed at the dissipation of their creation, Lil Internet was chill about the whole thing, tweeting “Kids! #Seapunk is safe! Culture is free for everyone to share!”, and going on to produce Banks’ recent track ‘Yung Rapunxel’. Oh, the music? Well, that’s a secondary concern, really – suffice to say it’s an ultra-digital mash-up of frantic ’90s hardcore, plasticky trance stabs, aquatic slurps and new age wibble. The seapunk visual vibe has continued to ooze into popular culture – you can now buy yin-yang leggings on the British high street – but its influence on music has been limited so far.
Another ‘say-what-you-hear’ coinage, Scandinavia’s fey answer to purple gets its name from Daniel “DJ Kool Dust” Savio – by his own admission, the second-ever skweee producer (behind Frans ‘Pavan’ Carlqvist). Speaking to now-retired skweeestorians Skweeelicious, Savio talked through the genesis of contemporary music’s least elegant genre handle (sometimes styled with an exclamation mark, incidentally):
“I had just gotten a new synthesizer, the Roland Alpha Juno1 and fell in love with it. My idea was to make a couple of tracks using nothing but the Juno for drums and everything. I came up with the name, (I originally spelled it ‘squee’) while trying to squeeze the juice out of my Juno till the last drop. That was my first 7″ for Flogsta Danshall and the first tracks I did using the skweee formula – ‘Bubble Bump’ and ‘Yu Love Bibimbab’ at 106 bpm. Pavan wanted to call it “prim” (primitive), but Randy Barracuda recognized that my name was stronger. So there was ‘skweee’.”
‘Trap’ is a Southern term for the place where drugs are sold (a “trap house”) or the act of selling drugs, and it’s heavy with connotations of the other kind of trap: a situation that is impossible to escape. An early reference in rap comes from Big Boi on Outkast’s ‘SpottieOttieDopaliscious’: “United Parcel Service & the people at the Post Office / didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss / So now you back in the trap just that, trapped / Go on and marinate on that for a minute.”
In 2003, T.I. inaugurated the genre — in subject matter if not exactly sound — with Trap Muzik, Young Jeezy’s Trap or Die and Gucci Mane’s Trap House would follow two years later, ending the party-friendly era of crunk with tales of street life and drug dealing set to 808-heavy soundtracks crafted by producers like Zaytoven, Shawty Redd, and Drumma Boy. Then-teenaged producer Lex Luger would reinvigorate the genre with a run of singles (‘Hard in da Paint’, ‘B.M.F.’, ‘H.A.M.’) based on a metallic template of menacing synths and machine-gun snare and hi-hat rolls.
Luger (and those before him) would be widely imitated — not just by hip-hop producers, but by a growing number of electronic musicians far removed from the genre’s trap house inspirations. While artists like Girl Unit, Rustie, TNGHT, Kuedo, and the like were incorporating trap trademarks into their music, Diplo’s Mad Decent imprint appropriated the name itself, describing Flosstradamus as “post-apocalyptic trap” in early 2012, tagging Baauer’s ‘Harlem Shake’ as “trap,” and releasing UZ’s Trap Shit by the summer.
witch house /wɪtʃ-haʊs/
Another genre created in jest, Travis Egady (aka Pictureplane) can be held responsible for witch house. Egady and fellow musician Shams came up with the term to describe their own music, which Egady says was “occult-based house music”, but they weren’t really being serious about it. After hyping the name up to Pitchfork (“I was saying that we were witch house bands, and that 2010 was going to be the year of witch house”), it seemed to catch on, but instead of being mostly associated with Egady’s original crew of himself, Shams and Modern Witch, the name seemed to stick to doomy shoegaze/screwed and chopped act SALEM.
We can thank our lucky stars that it was ‘witch house’ that stuck, though, with Brooklyn duo Creep’s lamentable ‘rape gaze’ micro-genre confined to the dungeon where it belongs. It may have been simply put on the band’s Myspace page as a joke, but it wasn’t a very funny one.
Not to be confused with ‘wonky techno’, a term used to group together a breed of producers (Neil Landstrumm, Si Begg et al) making techno that refused to stick to 4×4, wonky was coined by Martin ‘Blackdown’ Clark in an April 2008 Pitchfork article. Clark claimed that wonky was “a theme – not a genre” that was defined by its “off-kilter, unstable synths … crossing hip-hop, hyphy, grime, chip tunes, dubstep, crunk and electro.” Many of the artists cited by Clark in his column – Hudson Mohawke, Ikonika, Flying Lotus and Guido were some of the names mentioned – took against the term, though the most vicious reaction was saved for Simon Reynolds, who drew links between wonky and ketamine in a Guardian article from March 2009. Hudson Mohawke took to DJing in a “ketamine – just say neigh” t-shirt, while Zomby claimed in a MySpace post that “no one does ketamine … I thought it died in the late eighties after that shitty Madonna tour ended.”
Still, it could be worse: another early term used to describe Rustie’s music was “aqua-crunk”. Coined in jest by a local flyer in reference to Rustie’s love of aquatic techno group Drexciya and then picked up on by others, it thankfully didn’t stick around long.