Mystic Stylez: The Immortal Lowlifes of Dungeon Rap

Dungeon synth is an experimental genre. Its existence arose not out of following tradition but exploring something as of yet uncharted. Self produced fantasy ambient from black metal musicians in the 1990's isn't something that arose out of embracing convention. Dungeon synth existed and flourished not by commercial success but rather the craft and care of musicians and fans. At the very heart of the genre is a need to be different and create something unheard before. This is why the edges of dungeon synth are so interesting, as they continue to push and pull apart the sound in so many ways.

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Since the revival of dungeon synth in the early 2010's, there have been experimental creators fusing, twisting, destroying, and reconstructing the sound to see what else can be created. While we have an overall idea of what dungeon synth sounds like, with all of its aesthetic signposts, there are many people within it that sit on the edges, testing where the sound stops and something new begins. Streaming platforms in contemporary times have led to both a cross pollination of micro-styles, as well as a safe place for experimentation without major label involvement to direct a sound. This allows a sound to sometimes exist in many different homes, not truly belonging to any one place. This is where we will begin when talking about dungeon rap; the sometimes unfathomable combination of dungeon synth with hip hop.

If one is paying attention to new dungeon synth releases, they are aware of dungeon rap -- a combination of sampled hip-hop over the dungeon synth's atmosphere. Dungeon rap artists usually have DJ names and their album covers look like underground beat tapes from the 1990s or black metal demos from the same era. While Bandcamp tag sharing allows an album to be shared with many different styles, dungeon rap seems like the deliberate combination of the two styles.

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Scrolling through the Bandcamp tag for the genre opens a constellation of aesthetics that have little care for genre boundaries. The artists of this genre usually range from independent ventures to entire labels specializing in the sound. While dungeon rap may seem an ironic lark meant for novelty, trying desperately to bridge two disparate styles, its history lies entombed in the history of underground horrorcore, darkwave, screw, and Memphis rap, all odd and fascinating genres in their own right.

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To understand dungeon rap, one has to appreciate Memphis rap and its history, as its sound is at the root of many future hip-hop styles. Beginning in the 90's and situated as an independent scene from the binary world of East Coast/West Coast hip-hop, Memphis rap was a niche scene of Southern hip-hop that focused on grim atmospheres and lo-fi production. Artists like Three 6 Mafia, Tommy Wright III, and Gangsta Pat would turn the already bleak universe of hip hop lyrics and production into a hellscape of raw production with amplified themes of violence. The self-produced nature of Memphis rap led to a cult, underground sensation with mixes and albums circulated among fans. This would parallel the underground metal scene of the same era with black metal (and what would later be called dungeon synth) releases circulated among trading circles. Memphis rap would eventually influence popular styles such as crunk and trap, as well as have a more indirect influence on things like Soundcloud rap. With the rise of reliable Internet and streaming sites such as Bandcamp and Soundcloud, Memphis rap became a binding agent to a bevy of microgenres as Phonk (a stylistic tribute to Memphis rap), as well as a community that was open for more experimentation. Looking at the history of Memphis rap, dungeon rap feels like it was inevitable. Its existence was born and eventually flourished in places where access to different types of music and recommendation algorithms can lead one to a new world of sound.

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Dungeon rap, the proper name, appeared in the late 2010s, specifically around the releases and projects of Ukrainian artists Alex Yatsun (DJ Sacred) and Nikita Radivilov (DJ Bishop). Yatsun and Radivilov's projects grew out of an even larger pool of Memphis rap, screw, phonk, and horrorcore cassette tapes that were being released on labels like Doomshop Records. In 2019, the compilation Dungeon Rap: The Introduction, featuring Yatsun and Radivilov under the names DJ Armok, Pillbox, and DJ Bishop, was released. This compilation stated that dungeon rap was a "[A] new movement in underground hip-hop with a sound pulled from war time machinery, rituals, and ancient runes." The introduction continues by saying "[T]he record draws on the sounds of Norwegian black ambient, DJ Sound, Immortal Lowlifes[,] and old school dungeon synth.”

Dungeon Rap: the Introduction combined the already close styles of Memphis rap samples to the backdrop of old school dungeon synth. The sound took both hip hop and dungeon synth samples and intertwined their atmospheres for a cohesive sound. The sound of Dungeon Rap: the Introduction trades dungeon synth's traditional escapism for something more concrete and ultimately bleak. Memphis rap embraces a world rooted in the horror of reality and the psychological terror of the self. Combining that with dungeon synth's history of fantasy and its phantasmagorical tone, it's cast in a hazy place between reality and fantasy. The text accompanying Dungeon Rap: the Introduction expresses it as "[T]he sound of a new tormented world. A guttural vision of social media decay, celebrity status and virtual simulations." This purgatorial state between the real and fantastic is the landscape of dungeon rap, as it never fully resides in either one but always as a specter in both. It would be this compilation and attitude that would kick off a campaign of releases that, at the time of this writing, seems to just be getting started.

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The year 2020 was a strange time for everyone and, to a large extent, it showed that Internet based microgenres were made to weather a pandemic. While live music was being shuttered for months, Internet-based genres were flourishing due to people staying inside on their computers. The Crypt Hop Facebook group was created in late 2019 and by early 2020 had produced a compilation of dungeon rap under the name Crypt Hop Compilations. Crypt Hop was another working name for dungeon rap, though most of the music on the Crypt Hop Compilations was rooted in dungeon synth with beats in the background. Crypt Hop Compilations included a group of dungeon synth artists and beat producers who had little interest in genre distinction and a great deal of interest in putting together experiments. In April of 2020, Crypt Hop Compilations was written about on the blog Dungeons Deep In Space under the title Two Obscure – Yet Groundbreaking – Genres Collide On The Unfathomable ‘Crypt Hop Compilations I’. The Crypt Hop compilations themselves are fascinating, as they are truly a scene with desire to experiment with itself. While there are some known dungeon synth/dark ambient artists such as Elminister, Erythrite Throne, Lurk, and Vandalorum featured, there are many others like Mo' Juiced and DJ 行者 that seem to have wandered in randomly and joined. This acceptance of many styles and a progressive attitude on experimentation lives at the heart of dungeon rap.

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Dungeon rap thrives in places like Bandcamp, Instagram, Soundcloud, and, to a large extent, the opaque world of VK -- Russia's social networking platform. Outside of the tribute to American hip-hop, dungeon rap has a concentration in Russia and Eastern Europe. While the early originators who developed and honed the style of dungeon rap came from the Ukraine, Russia would be the place where it first found a home. Dungeon Beatz was a 2014 compilation released by the label Dungeon Lore Foundation, which combined Russian hip-hop with a dungeon synth backbeat. This genre synthesis was released under the working title of "dark fantasy rap." Dungeon Beatz would be an early instance, if not one of the first combinations, of the two genres, and featured a collective of artists who developed a local scene and found platforms like Soundcloud and Bandcamp a boon for spreading its music. While Dungeon Beatz and dark fantasy rap would not be appreciated as much as later developments, it is perhaps the first chapter in an ongoing story which involves musicians using the internet to craft and create an entire style for a select audience.

Dungeon rap has taught me many things about the internet and the creators who make it. A love for Memphis rap, darkwave, black metal, and minimal synth doesn't have to come with any sense of irony or dissonance between the sounds. The blending of music between things like dungeon synth and hip hop is something I feel could have only happened in the age of the internet, not just due to the access of music but also the shedding of musical tribalism. While I’m sure attitudes about the purity of genres still exist, and dungeon synth certainly went through its own period of musical identity, dungeon rap is dedicated to the blurring of lines without much care to distinctions of purity.