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The Frenetic Frailty of Ambient Rap

Scenes And Sounds

A look into a quiet, intricate producer-driven strand of internet rap that’s cutting out the noise.

On a recent Friday night, I went to the Bushwick club The End for what the producer umru’s Capacity party series was calling a “Spring Talent Show.” At the event, DJs played demented edits, an electronic act whipped out a guitar, and, like a manic camp counselor, a rapper rallied everyone to sing along to their music. The most peculiar performer was the opener cutspace, whose jarring ambient soundscapes bewildered the crowd. Projections of symbols and hands flickered on the ceiling as twitchy snares and gurgling bass filled the room. At one point, cutspace projected a live FaceTime of his friend, a mysterious figure who calls themselves the “Illiterate Scribe,” doing esoteric line art on a scroll of paper. The twenty-somethings in the audience didn’t know what to do at first, fidgeting and murmuring to their friends, but by the end, everyone was silent and still, focused intently on the Scribe’s movements and the music. 

cutspace is a leading figure in a new wave of producer-driven ambient rap that’s midway between idyllic electronica and freaky glitch-hop. Imagine rap you’d find playing at a gallery exhibition, or stuff you’d listen to while writing a PhD thesis on internet music semiotics. It’s the inverse of today’s hip-hop landscape, which is flooded with ferocious bass and baleful vocals. Quiet, sparse, and intricate, this kind of music lives far from the mosh pit chaos that dominates viral online media. Instead, it’s tucked away in the back channels of SoundCloud and hidden behind account names designed to be almost impossible to type. The shitpost pages and independent interview channels that control the underground often prioritize the wildest beefs and most explosive personas; aggro rap is a fitting soundtrack for a world in constant crisis. But everyone needs a break, an escape from info-vertigo. Maybe one future of the genre is a sound that cuts out the noise.

The origins of this style date back to the late 2010s output of producers like Sadbalmain and Eddie Gianni, who made cloud-rap-inspired work with the now-defunct internet collective Slayworld. Perhaps the most notable ambient-style rapper in the group was the enigmatic Izaya Tiji, whose voice is as subtle and feathery as Spencerian script. His sleek intensity adds a poignant edge to beats like Gianni and FiftyGrand’s “Mouse In The Trap,” which sounds like the foghorns of a ghostly cargo ship. Another one of Tiji’s go-to producers, wifi, told me his sound was shaped by everything from Aphex Twin and Japanese beat wizard Nujabes to the shivery Sadbalmain-produced Yung Bans track “Up.” The radiant frailty of wifi’s beats makes them feel like the soundtrack of a heartbreaking sci-fi romance, as on “Interlude,” which injects a forlorn ache into a sample from the anime Tokyo Ghoul. wifi said he initially wanted his music to sound elegant, like you were in Paris or shopping at a luxury store. But in 2021 he was rewired by a 7-gram shroom trip. Trapped in an abyss of ego death, he said he heard seraphim communicating through a call-and-response of piano, violin, and harp. He decided to try to translate the transcendent experience into terrestrial music. “We’re trying to take essentially how angels talk and put it in a human perspective,” he said.

These structure-shattering, blissful rhythms are the foundation of today’s ambient rap wave. The instrumentals vary from wispy threads of percussion to neon patchworks of frantic sound-splices that aren’t “ambient” in the traditional sense, but more like IDM or the kind of juddering pyrotechnics made by beatmakers like Mr Carmack. Many producers also make purely ambient compositions full of twisted cries and crinkly thuds. It’s a new evolution in a long lineage of glitch music; instead of scratched vinyl and computer-error effects, these artists use DAWs to piece rap percussion into mosaics of misshapen grooves. It’s a stark contrast to the kind of bombastic “glitchcore” rap that went viral on TikTok in the early pandemic.

In the scene’s early days in 2021, its creative energy centered around the collectives cr3st, d1shonorable, and requiem, the latter of which cutspace was a member. He told me at one point there was a massive message group called the “nod chat,” which served as a hotspot for fledgling beatmakers to trade presets and orchestrate collabs. Some of the chats self-destructed through internal hostility; while a few ambient producer groups (midnight rebirth, welcome2heaven) and amorphous "brotherhoods" (theo's DPM) remain, the era of collectives within the scene largely seems over. Still, cutspace said they helped build an essential “ontology” or framework for the modern ambient rap sound.

Beyond his collaborators, cutspace is equally inspired by IDM originators, ambient pioneers like Brian Eno, and legendary Atlanta rap producers such as Zaytoven and MexikoDro. He also draws from natural phenomena, like the murmuration of starlings—how they fly in whirlwind flocks without colliding. “Like, what does that sound like?” he said. “I open up my DAW and I try to figure that out.” The sound design on these ambient rap beats can get so 4K-sharp it’s almost blinding, like you’re wearing glasses that make the world agonizingly crisp. Because of this, they may appear impossible to rap over, but some vocalists glide across the disorienting mixes. Maryland’s xang often sounds like he’s hovering over a void, his voice shadowed by layers of phantasmic reverb. “I need a lot of leads, a lot of deep harmonies, something to draw true emotion from,” xang told me. He said he uses similar pockets as DMV rappers, but it’s hard to tell because of the weirdness of the beats.

One of the scene’s central figures was iokera, who was working towards a music technology and audio engineering degree at NYU before he sadly passed away of cancer at the age of 22 last September. The community hopes to keep his legacy alive. “It’s probably one of the worst things that happened to me through music,” cutspace said, since they connected on both a personal and artistic level. iokera helped define the scene’s sound by emphasizing naturalistic elements (“rhythmic foliage”) like bug noises and ASMR sounds. “He was really pushing the kind of music that we were making in a very creative direction,” cutspace said. Listening to iokera’s track “vines,” with Jedwill, histarkey, and iji, it feels like you’re lying down in a butterfly vivarium, being gently nibbled by sweet insects.

It’s these organic textures that make this strand of ambient rap sound so tactile and distinct, since the producers are looking outward from the insular algorithm-hell of the internet for inspiration. Instead of making direct homages to 90s electronica or blending ambient with TikTok revival fads like shoegaze, they’re gleaning ideas from film, history, and the outside world. wifi said he looks at fractal art and pictures of gemstones and then tries to recreate those images using music. cutspace is obsessed with writing systems, from engravings and graffiti across New York to Cuneiform and ancient scripts. Online, he presents himself as something like a fried academic, writing about his work recovering “long-decommissioned audio munitions” and describing his page as a research institute dedicated to asemics, or language that doesn’t have a meaning. His sound-discovery process is similarly exploratory: he uses an FL Studio plugin to produce long mixes of audio and then scans for the most enticing percussive and melodic shards to harvest.

The ambient beat scene is small but slowly ramping up—and racking up co-signs. The whimsical weird-tronica producer Iglooghost has shouted out artists like hirbawi, whose name and music are inspired by a keffiyeh factory in the Palestinian city of Hebron, as well as the producer iji, whose foreboding beats have integrated things like a cyborgian text-to-speech voice. The scene’s biggest rising star, though, is the Texas-based ian. His 2023 Empty Suit EP might be the subgenre’s best project to date, but ian only blew up this year with the non-ambient “Figure It Out,” which cranks the delirious mania of his quieter rap to a hyper extreme. His confident and cursive tone bamboozled listeners who couldn’t believe he was a tidy-looking white guy. When wifi first heard ian, on the 2023 song “Get Off,” he said he thought it was unreleased Izaya Tiji. 

There’s also Shed Theory, a popular crew specializing in calm-yet-baleful tunes that feel like the opposite of the scene’s sweeter, more organic side. The collective is known for popularizing “nod,” a lethargic style themed after the way people zone out and “nod off” on opiates. Their dazed and creaky vocals often sound more chilling than chilled-out. At shows, fans have opened up “nod pits,” where they pretend to be comatose and crumple over each other. It’s basically the ambient version of a moshpit, but also a sickly satire of the painful drug cycle that many people are stuck in. Some who initially liked the music were turned off after learning about the group’s grim aesthetic. “I just know it’s really kids out there that probably never picked up a pill, but now they’re gonna,” xang said. “Their favorite rappers are rapping about nodding and taking pills and shit and it’s like, do you really deal with that shit?” Instead, many of the artists I spoke with described their music as a kind of aural antidote to an era of “crash-out” rappers that pummel and convulse with rage. “It’s supposed to sound nourishing when you listen to music, not painful,” wifi said.

At its most hypnotic, ambient rap has a medicinal quality similar to ASMR, which tickles your scalp with soft taps and sweet mouth sounds. It’s a balm for the brain, forcing you to adapt to the spare rhythms and appreciate the gleaming beauty in its gentleness. There’s something childlike about this music, both in the way that beats can feel like wonky LEGO contraptions and in their restorative, lullaby-like quality. Many of the scene’s song titles (which guide the listening experience here more than most genres) reflect this innocent wonder and pastoral peacefulness: “Welcome, Be Yourself”; “galene pond”; “soulWell”; “whale in the woods”; “Tarassaco seeds”; “Mucus junction #glitz picnic”; “asphodel fields.” Playing this music with headphones on and eyes closed, it transports you to somewhere tranquil. For a moment, the anxieties of the world slip away. As iokera wrote in his SoundCloud bio, about his music: “weaving Cocoons of sound: for you to Rest , to Sleep , and even to Dream.” 

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