PHOTO: Matt Mendosa courtesy of Libel Music
PHOTO: Matt Mendosa courtesy of Libel Music

Pop CultureMay 9, 2017

Who are $UICIDEBOY$ and how do they sell out shows around the world – including Auckland?

PHOTO: Matt Mendosa courtesy of Libel Music
PHOTO: Matt Mendosa courtesy of Libel Music

$UICIDEBOY$ are a New Orleans rap duo whose songs have millions of plays on Soundcloud and who sold out their first Auckland show in mere hours. Kate Robertson was there.

$UICIDEBOY$, a white rap duo from the US, sold out Auckland venue The Studio in 24 hours. An act that doesn’t get mainstream radio play, that doesn’t get student radio play, and who certainly aren’t landing themselves on any Spotify-curated playlists that matter, sold out a venue that not even Sampha, one of the most critically-acclaimed acts of the moment, has been able to do. The math doesn’t quite add up, and it’s left those removed from the rapidly growing underground hip-hop subculture scratching their heads.

Raised in low-income households in New Orleans, cousins Ruby da Cherry and $lick $loth (aka Suicide Leopard and Suicide Christ) started making music together in 2014. It’s a collaboration that they say began after Ruby walked away from a decade trying to make it in punk bands and $lick turned his back on drug dealing and small time music promotion. Pulling their respective sounds together, the duo began making a name for themselves producing dark and atmospheric bass-heavy rap under the name $UICIDEBOY$.

It’s impossible to discuss the duo without first addressing their wildly offensive name, which – intentionally – shocks mums the world over. It was born out of a pact made between the cousins when they agreed to start working together. “It was pretty much like cutting the hand, bleeding, and making a pact that there’s no plan B, that if this doesn’t happen by the time we’re 30, I’m blowing my head off”, $lick said in a recent interview with website Mass Appeal.

They admit the substance of their songs is “depressed as shit”, but believe for people listening, simply knowing someone else is feeling the way they are is comfort enough. For $lick it’s really just about connecting and letting people know they’re not alone.

Ask their fans what their friends and families make of them listening to the duo and they’ll give you similar responses:

“When people hear the name $UICIDEBOY$ people freak out, but they just don’t understand.”

“My dad used to listen to NWA back in the day so he doesn’t really give a fuck.”

“My gran was pretty shocked.”

“Punk was outspoken and so is this, people just need to chill out.”

$UICIDEBOY$. Photo: Matt Mendosa courtesy of Libel Music

For Victoria University media and pop culture academic Dr. Geoff Stahl, hearing this kind of music blasting from teenagers’ bedrooms and cars shouldn’t be cause for concern, because it’s actually helping them forge an identity.

“We have to take this quite seriously because it’s a significant moment in a young person’s life and popular music plays a really key role in how they understand themselves and the world around them,” he says. “It’s a space of possibility where they are pushing limits, and sometimes lines get crossed, but it’s a testing ground where they’re learning to be individuals. They don’t always do it in a way that’s acceptable, but I think it’s really valuable nonetheless and we shouldn’t be trying to shut that down.”

Who makes up the demographic testing boundaries through such music? Almost entirely, it’s white middle class teens. That’s a catch-all term for rap music’s biggest-spending consumer group, but one that is as true now as it’s ever been, and the Auckland crowd is no exception. At Sunday night’s show there are Wellington hipsters, Superette-clad Remuera dudes, and groups of teenage girls who wouldn’t be out of place at a Bieber concert.

But don’t confuse these kids with the 2017 Kendrick and J. Cole superfans, because those guys are old news. “Rewind to four years ago when we were in high school, we were being judged for listening to black hip-hop, and now every age group is banging it,” a guy called Oliver tells me. “I’ll jam Kendrick’s Section.80 for the days, but I don’t fuck with his new shit, eh. It’s too mainstream. We’re all about Bones, Xavier Travis, Yung Lean.” He shrugs his shoulders as if to say that he still appreciates the big names, but just can’t be seen with them anymore.

This kind of Kendrick-bashing seems a common theme of the night, which begs the question: are we heading into another Eminem-shaped black hole that will have repercussions for a decade to come? With Marilyn Manson on his way to a revival, a rapidly growing number of collectives producing lyrically dark rap with a following made up of the most privileged socio-economic group, young middle class white guys, it doesn’t seem all that farfetched.  

Auckland’s $UICIDEBOY$ crowd are divided. The passionate music consumers are listening widely, and although steering clear of the top 40, still seek out up and coming artists of all races and ethnicities. They spend New Year’s at Rhythm and Vines, listen to George FM, and aren’t diehard fangirls and boys. Then there are the fans who live and breathe this scene, from the way they dress to the way they present themselves online.

“It’s still a young scene”, Christchurch fan Connor says of the rapidly growing following $UICIDEBOY$ and their contemporaries have acquired. “It’s been around four or five years, but is only now starting to split off into sub-cultures and even more combinations of this trap vibe. You get the scrawny white guys like Ghostemane and Pouya, then you’ve got Lil Pump and Slug Christ who’re completely different.

“The hypebeast culture has also followed through to New Zealand a lot more. Brands like Supreme have always had a stronghold on the world, but this movement has really highlighted it. It can be a disgusting culture, but it is what it is.”

As rap from Compton and Atlanta – made, for the most part, by black people – becomes increasingly political, many white fans are narrowing their listening, sending them down a Soundcloud rabbit hole where the algorithmic suggestions for artists making similar music are endless.

“Denzel Curry would be the one outlier”, Isaac Thomas says when asked about the racial diversity of his playlists. “West Coast rap just isn’t relatable. Most of the people who listen to $UICIDEBOY$ aren’t from the hood. Our older influences would be Three 6 Mafia. That being said, the scene is about 30 percent African American right now, which is rad because they usually go way harder. People like XXXTentacion have gone from nothing to 800,000 followers on Soundcloud and two million on Insta almost overnight. He’s even got Drake ripping off his songs.”

But will they edge out Drake? Not even the diehards think so.

“It’s a movement that will only get bigger as more kids start listening to it, but Kendrick and Drake will be at the top for a long time to come. They aren’t going anywhere.”

The snowballing of outwardly aggressive acts like Pouya, the hypebeast trickle-down, the prevalence of white rappers and a young white audience raises questions in a genre with a history of white people capitalising on a traditionally black artform. Combine that with concerns that the graphic lyrical themes will be received literally by its audience and you’ve got a minefield. It’s a justifiable concern, but again one Dr Stahl believes shouldn’t be dwelled on.

We might well take into account the triggering and deliberately provocative lyrics, but these things do need to be taken with a grain of salt,” he says. “People come to the music with expectations and a certain kind of knowingness.”

He says the same goes for any possible racial implications of white people adapting rap music as a white subcultural expression. “Hip hop right now is strong enough to survive an incursion by what you might call the ‘white imposters’. It’s a broad enough church to include white, Latino, transgender and queer people. We’re at a stage now where hip hop is such a big part of popular culture that it’s become quite pluralistic. It’s so expansive and inclusive that it would be really hard to make any kind of claim about cultural appropriation.”

As for Sunday night’s sold out show, the duo couldn’t have defied more stereotypes if they tried. It’s easy to come to these sorts of shows with certain expectations, but when a group that raps about extreme violence, addiction and mental illness stops a show to personally give drinking water to the overheated crowd (“Y’all really gotta stay hydrated”), and express genuine gratitude for every single person in the room, it’s hard not to be won over. Highly skilled, technical rappers, the pair executed a demanding setlist with a stamina and ease that left bigger names who’ve graced our shores of late for dead (see: Post Malone).

It’s only human to desire connection and purpose, to find belonging in something bigger than oneself. It’s here where Ruby and $lick have capitalised and built a community where their fans see them as not only relatable, but accessible. Their fans are family, and time and time again the Boy$ have voiced just how important having that authentic connection is for them. It’s a fine balance to maintain, and one that is complicated by being white performers offering authenticity to a white audience who find less of a connection to the black artists that dominate the historically black genre. Both are issues that will follow the $uicide Boy$ as they struggle to keep pace with the rate at which their profile is growing, but their ‘Bad and Boujee’ moment is coming, of that we can be certain.

$UICIDEBOY$ play their second Auckland show at The Studio tonight.

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