Taken from the spring/summer 2019 issue of Dazed. You can buy a copy of our latest issue here.
Imagine you’ve been asleep since the year 2009. Waking up in our bizarre and electric moment, with Trump and Instagram and Fyre Festival. It’s like the world that existed just a decade ago has been turned upside-down. And yet, for all of the confusion the modern age has wrought, it has also given us Matt Ox, the 14-year-old rapper from Philadelphia whose rise to viral stardom came from a music video prominently featuring fidget spinners. Sitting down to dinner with his mother, Laurel, in Manhattan, Ox is everything you’d hope for in a young kid at a nice restaurant: restless but respectful, and genuinely curious. He carves holes through dinner rolls with his fingers as he explains that he got serious about hip hop around the age of 11, and how, before that, he was mostly concerned with making skits and uploading them to YouTube. What kind of skits? “Any type... like, anything,” he explains.
Ox sports a haircut akin to The Cure frontman Robert Smith’s. Twiggy shards of jet-black hair extend a solid foot from his head, a galaxy unto itself. He wears an oversized coat, slim jeans and Yeezy 500s. It’s New York Fashion Week when we meet, and he looks like a kid you’d find outside of an Off-White function, almost deliriously of-the-moment. But as much as he fits the part of the YouTube star, Ox is modest. He seems genuinely excited to be in New York, his second time in the city. Just two years ago he was in middle school, and perhaps not yet a harbinger of a new generation of musicians who are untethered by genre or form. Back then he was just, as his mom tells it, “really hyper”.
That all changed when the video for “Overwhelming” appeared in 2017. Ox’s vocals on the track are infectious – an agile and playful yap that sounds like a cute spin on the distinctive vocal signature of Playboi Carti. Still, the track might have been a mere blip if it wasn’t for the video, which brought Ox’s penchant for on-camera shenanigans into full view. In between clips of what appears to be the liveliest bodega on the east coast, Ox appears, fidget spinners in both hands, covering his face as if he were a wrestler taunting an opponent. It’s comedic gold and, cut to the earworm of a track, proved to be a bona fide viral hit.
But that was two years ago. And time moves faster now, perhaps because the universe is expanding. What used to take years only takes a few months. Consider the speed at which trap music, for example, simply became pop music. So if ever there was a sense that Ox was merely a fluke or a joke, those claims were put to rest with OX, his debut album released last autumn. While certainly indebted to production from Philly outfit Working on Dying, who have made beats for the likes of Drake and Lil Uzi Vert, Ox’s charisma is undeniable. “Everything is a blessing and a curse at the end of the day,” he tells me when I ask whether he thinks his youth has helped him or hurt him. At the behest of his mother, he refrained from cursing on the record, but he’s an endlessly energetic presence with a spry wit and charming bravado. On “Zero Degrees”: “Drippin’ with the faucet and the Prada walkin’ / Chasin’ guap like Sonic, too much in my pocket.” On “Walk Out”: “Get a bag, I heard you already 30 / And it’s so sad, ’cos I already made what you ain’t earning.” In person, he’s the type of kid you can imagine girls having a crush on in eighth grade. If this were ten years ago, his knack for showmanship might languish at the level of a prolific class clown, but in today’s world, kids like Matt Ox are destined for bigger things.
Ox’s age actually lends itself to the types of beats he finds himself most effective on. Snappy, ebullient trap sounds that have, for years, typified a very specific stratum of hip hop. They have an almost sugary quality to them, marauding dipped in candy. At the same time, trap has worked its way into every corner of popular culture, from Taylor Swift to Diplo and Cardi B. The sound born in Atlanta has, like a hip-hop sleeper cell, infected almost every genre. There was Bauer’s zeitgeist-defining “Harlem Shake” which, in hindsight, could be seen as a forebear to trap’s viral appeal. And of course, artists such as Young Thug, Migos and 2 Chainz, who have spent the past decade becoming household names. 2 Chainz is almost always doing expensive things on television. That Matt Ox, a product of the internet, would gravitate towards trap beats seems obvious. For most of his life, this has simply been what most music sounded like.
“I think that the construct of American pop music relies (and has always relied) on aesthetic as much as – if not more than – the music itself,” says hip-hop historian Hanif Abdurraqib. “Trap works well in this way, because while it obviously has roots and history in a specific sound, it is also a function of aesthetics: dress, language, movements, a shift in voice or delivery. What makes it popular is what makes any culture possible to commodify: people can perform as tourists, taking what they need and leaving the rest.”
The trap sound is a singular one. Sparse drum patterns provide a loose framework for hi-hats that exist in a world of their own, made intricate with digital audio workstations that allow for rapid-fire sequencing that burrows into your brain. It’s a sound that is distantly familiar. Every trap beat, like a snowflake, is composed of a unique DNA, but a distinct ‘vibe’ is easily recognisable. You’ve heard it before you even push play. But more than a modern invention, trap’s sonic origins can be traced to the foundations of hip hop. It was the Roland 808, introduced in 1980 and used by Afrika Bambaataa and Arthur Baker on the 1982 hit “Planet Rock”, that set the trajectory for hip hop’s pop-culture takeover. The device would trickle its way south to Shawty Redd who, in 2000, used bass-infected 808 hi-hats on Drama’s album Causin’ Drama, where you can hear today’s familiar trap sound take shape. Redd went on to produce Young Jeezy’s 2005 debut Let’s Get It: Thug Motivation 101, a trap classic.
The sound bubbled and boiled in the world of hip hop. T.I., Waka Flocka, Lex Luger and an entire generation of artists developed it into a full-blown movement. But even then, it wasn’t a part of mainstream pop. Arguably, the crossover came with Migos’s debut single “Versace,” remixed to viral effect by Drake in 2013. The track’s infectious, repetitive hook and sing-song melody was a potent distillation of the entire trap sound, making it easy fodder for cross-demographic promotion. It was like a blueprint. All of a sudden, trap and pop and everything in between became one.
This history lesson is more or less besides the point for Ox, who tells me he garnered much of his musical taste from his uncle, who introduced him to Marilyn Manson and Eminem. To Ox, I discover, genre means very little. “I make music, I could be making any type of song,” he says, devouring a porterhouse steak the size of his head. It’s not that he doesn’t care. Many of rap’s current statesmen, acts like 21 Savage and Chief Keef, have given Ox the nod of approval precisely because of how well he fits the mould. It’s just that, to Ox, this is simply how things are. Rap is the most popular genre of music on the planet, and trap is what rap sounds like today. “I like a lot of different music, but at the same time I get bored listening to just one type of artist,” Ox explains. “I can’t be dedicated to just one artist.”
“Over the years trap music has become a little more than, ‘I make music about (the) highs and lows of street life in Atlanta over 808s, flutes and synths,’” says Jae Brown a longtime music-industry executive. “It’s a feeling, a mindset, an attitude and specific energy that I think a lot of younger artists embody. As long as those elements remain authentic, they will connect.”
Just as rap now sounds a little bit pop, a little bit emo, and all sorts of shades in between, the current generation of internet-born artists have an open relationship to genre. There are moments on Chicago-born rapper Juice Wrld’s last record, for instance, that could have been a Blink 182 B-side. Playboi Carti declares himself a punk, and Lil Uzi Vert surely occupies a genre all his own. It’s a fact which has everything to do with the vast and varied ways we exist online. Younger generations have an innate sense of flexibility. “I can listen to any type of song and like it,” says Ox. Most teenagers would also see nothing special about making dance videos with their friends, as Ox did with the Dollar Boyz crew, and posting them online to songs they like. They don’t think twice about posting recordings of beats, vocals, fully fleshed or even half-finished songs on the internet. It’s a normal part of the adolescent experience. The difference is when something sticks, which it most certainly has for Matt Ox.
“American pop music relies on aesthetic as much as the music itself. What makes (trap) popular is what makes any culture possible to commodify: people can perform as tourists, taking what they need and leaving the rest” – Hanif Abdurraqib
The accelerated pace of online fame has made for a crop of young rappers whose celebrity arrives seemingly overnight. Following the tragic death of Lil Peep in 2017, a number of young hip-hop artists – so-called ‘Soundcloud rappers’ – have spoken publicly about substance abuse and mental health among the genre’s younger fans and artists. The subject matter also features prominently in lyrics.
Ox has been home-schooled since the fame took off, which, according to his mum, is the past year. “I don’t like school, I’d rather watch YouTube videos,” he explains. “I wish there was a YouTube school where you could just search what you want to learn.” You get the sense when meeting him that Ox is doing the best he can to adjust to the sudden onset of celebrity. It can’t be easy going from being a kid in middle school to appearing all over the internet in a matter of months. He has plans to release new music this year and has found the pace of a major label surprisingly stifling. (Ox signed with Motown in 2018, following a run of early singles with Warner.) Meanwhile, he has an eye toward doing more live shows, a challenge when you’re 14 years old.
Does Ox think he makes trap music? “I do sometimes. But sometimes I could make R&B, sometimes I could make screamo – I can make anything,” he says. “That’s just the way I see myself. I do what I want and make it how I like it.” How does he feel about the emo influence on a lot of new rappers? “I feel like there’s times when I go to a wrong place in my brain like I’m going insane, but I never go to, like, emo.” Who are some of his favourite older artists? “I like Soulja Boy and Lil B.”
It’s difficult to even say that Matt Ox is only, or primarily, a musician. He’s most excited when we talk about his recent trip to Paris, where he walked for Enfants Riches Déprimés’ AW19 collection. “Out of all the models I was the only one they didn’t do any hair or make-up on,” he boasts. (A photo of Ox at the show went viral on Twitter.) “It’s just natural, you feel me?” Ox also hangs out with influencer and model Luka Sabbat, as well as Kerwin Frost, who invited him to a fashion week party the night before. As instrumental as the music was to the proliferation and development of trap, so, too, was the style. It’s why the convergence of the worlds of hip hop and high fashion makes perfect sense. “Versace”, after all, is an ode to one of fashion’s most maximalist labels. In this way, Ox seems to be right at home. A natural showman, he clearly takes the idea of style very seriously, even if he isn’t well-versed on designers. His early appreciation of Marilyn Manson had almost everything to do with the way Manson dressed, Ox tells me.
Today’s musicians are likely to also be models, or prolific live-streamers, or gamers, or actors, or all five. We’ve come to expect from artists, in our hyperconnected world, a nimbleness of form. The ethos of trap music, very much tied to hustling your way out of an intractable situation, is well-suited for this new paradigm. But, of course, it’s easy to find critics of a teenage white kid who raps with an ‘urban’ lilt. Ox fights headwinds of comparison to Danielle Bregoli AKA Bhad Bhabie and Lil Tay, both acts seen as more ephemeral than substantive. But those comparisons do little to understand Matt Ox, or even the acts used to discredit him, in real time. These are individuals born after 9⁄11. Who turned 14 having years of experience with smartphones, who are the most technologically adept of any generation. Which isn’t to say the power structures that shape our world aren’t also at work on them, but that the language is entirely different.
Trap music is sort of proto-algorithmic – this is music designed to get right to you, and fast. It only makes sense for it to effectively define the sound of a generation so well attuned to finding what it wants. It’s the distillation of a “vibe”, as Matt Ox describes it, “of energy that you can just feel”. It’s really like the way he describes the early YouTube skits that he came of age making. It can be anything. And in 2019, that’s true for everything.
Matt Ox will be performing Sunday 5 May at Rolling Loud, Miami
Hair Mustafa Yanaz at Art + Commerce, make-up Caoilfhionn Gifford at Streeters using M.A.C, prop styling Burke Battelle, photography assistant Jesse Gouveia, styling assistants Jordan Duddy, Isabella Kavanagh, Amy Dinneen, hair assistants Nastya Miliaeva, Abra Kennedy, lighting assistant John Law, digital operator Ryan Jones, production Concrete Rep, on-set production Rosco Production