How a global crisis, drift racing and Memphis hip-hop gave us phonk – the music of the TikTok generation

How a global crisis, drift racing and Memphis hip-hop gave us phonk – the music of the TikTok generation

What’s that sound you hear – a combination of down-tempo hip-hop, menacing bass, distorted drums and plucky synths? It’s phonk!

Still have no idea what we’re talking about? You’ve probably heard it if you’re on TikTok, awkwardly played over a Peaky Blinders or Jordan Peterson clip that has snuck into your algorithm.

TikTok user Shortbadger certainly cuts to the chase explaining the genre in one of their videos: “creators wanted people to not just hear their words, but feel their words”. Shortbadger also uses comedy to hint at phonk’s subversive (and sometimes troubling) nature.

Actually, Phonk has an altogether more interesting history. On the surface it seems to be another musical resurgence story driven by the social media economy – a bit like Sophie Ellis-Bextor’s Murder on the Dancefloor or Kate Bush’s Running up that Hill, both of which re-entered the charts after years of relative obscurity.

But once you dig a little deeper, you’ll find government censorship, online rebellion and the disruption of American-dominated popular culture.

By smashing together components of hip-hop, EDM, metal and dubstep, phonk is placed as one of the most prominent new genres of music. And with it comes a subversion of popular music taste-making – and a whole lotta politics.

Read more:
Running Up That Hill: How Stranger Things and TikTok pushed Kate Bush’s 1985 pop classic back to the top of the charts

A brief early history

A quick check of online repositories tells us Phonk’s origins are in the Southern hip-hop of ’90s Memphis.

While you may not be directly familiar with the ’90s Memphis hip-hop scene, you will have felt its influence in popular music from recent decades. Known for its expert and nuanced use of the Roland 808 drum machine (particularly pitched kick-drums and snappy hi-hats), styles such as trap and other modern EDM and hip-hop movements owe a lot of their stylistic choices to this scene.

Artists such as DJ Screw, a hip-hop DJ originally from Texas, initially championed phonk by using this palette of sounds in their mixtapes – and helped popularise the style through the mid-’90s.

But it wasn’t until rapper and producer SpaceGhostPurrp started releasing his SUMMA PHONK mixtapes in the early 2010s that phonk really gained attention. He then worked as a producer for hip-hop stars ASAP Rocky and Wiz Khalifa, helping to cement the stylistic elements of phonk in the hip-hop zeitgeist.

The rise of phonk through racing culture

Fast-forward to early 2020: COVID is dominating the world news; lockdowns have led to an uptick in social media use; the post-truth era of Trumpism marches forward; and Spotify dominates music streaming through its self-serving, exploitative model of music commerce.

This was the perfect storm in which phonk could be repositioned as the soundtrack of the TikTok generation. By the last quarter of 2020, TikTok had amassed more than 700 million global users, overtaking Spotify to become the main outlet through which music promotion (and exploitation) could occur.

Much like the DIY expansion of dubstep that took place some ten years ago, young artists such as KORDHELL and $WERVE! brought millions of ears to their phonk music by attracting attention from talent scouts, including at Spotify.

Incidentally, 2020 was also the year Spotify launched in Russia as a new platform for the proliferation of Russian underground music. This scene had also started embracing the stylistic ethos of phonk from the US.

In fact, what you’re most likely to identify as phonk today is actually a sub-movement called “drift phonk”, championed by Russian producers in the early 2020s. The name comes from the marriage of the music with TikTok videos of drift car racing.

Drift phonk’s ominous rhythms and detuned (shifted from the original pitch) melodies are a perfect match for the adrenaline-fuelled culture of underground street racing. The relationship between phonk and racing videos helped spread the style across social media. It even extended to the Fast and Furious franchise, with the release of Drift Tape (Phonk Vol 1).

Much like hip-hop and punk before it, phonk’s use of distorted and aggressive sounds engages young audiences struggling with anxiety brought about by the state of the world. It’s a subversive soundtrack to a generation rallying against authority in a challenging geopolitical landscape.

Phonk’s future is assured

In early 2022, in the midst of its invasion of Ukraine, the Russian Kremlin clamped down on TikTok by banning all non-Russian content. A state-owned company even tried (and ultimately failed) to develop a rival video platform of its own.

Less than a month after the start of the invasion, the Russian government had legislation on “fake news” that made any anti-Russian military content illegal and punishable by imprisonment. Spotify pulled its availability in March 2022, citing the new law as its key reason.

Meanwhile, TikTok still remains available in Russia, but with significant content restrictions, so Russian makers of drift phonk may have had their market pathways severed.

Nonetheless, phonk lives on – ringing loudly in the ears of social media platforms. And while it’s often tied to critiques of our ever-shrinking attention span (given how widely it’s consumed through TikTok), it has undoubtedly become a part of our cultural zeitgeist.

From the meme-level phonk walk that is so 2023, to fresh 2024 Oscars content, creators are continuously finding new, inventive ways to use this music.

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