Emo rap has been growing immensely over the past couple of years. Artists like Lil Peep, Xxxtentacion, and Juice WRLD started on platforms like Soundcloud and grew to be international names seemingly overnight. Their music takes familiar elements of hip-hop, trap, pop punk & screamo – combining lyrical and musical styles to release something new and unique.
Bending genres isn’t new. We’ve had crossover artists as long as we’ve had genres to crossover to. But with this new wave of emo rap, we’re seeing the same do-it-yourself approach that many diehard punk fans and underground rap fans love.
So as a producer or mixer on one of these sessions, you might be wondering what your role is. What are you supposed to bring to the table for these artists? Do you mix it like a rap song or a pop punk song? Do you treat the vocals as singing or rapping?
Let’s pull back the curtain and get you all the info you need to know about mixing and mastering an emo rap song
808s & Heartbreak
Perhaps Kanye was onto something when he named his 2008 album, but surely he had no idea where the genre would go at the time. Regardless, the use of 808s and heart-breaking lyrics are as present as ever in emo rap and emo trap songs.
You’re sure to find a few hard-hitting, 808-style kicks and snares in the mix, which you’ll want to feature right alongside the vocals as you would with most hip hop. A great kick should be full and present. There isn’t a lot else going on in the mix (but we’ll get to that in a minute).
Using a peak clipper on both kick and snare samples is a great way to add a bit of lo-fi distortion to those tracks and help them stand out.
Lyrically, you’ll know exactly where the “emo” in “emo rap” comes from. Depending on the artist, lyrics range from depression and suicide to break-ups and drug use – definitely not the stuff you’re going to hear on the pop charts. Even still, fans relate and empathize with what they’re hearing.
Lyrics about heartbreak are universal.
Emo Rap Vocals
Emo rap artists will often transition between singing, rapping & screaming in their songs. Layered vocals are also a common theme with a higher-pitched vocal mixed toward the front and a spoken-style vocal behind it. These techniques add character and style to the song.
When you look at the sources of inspiration for the genre, this technique is super common in pop punk. Just look at blink-182 - a pop punk band with two singers who constantly swap back and forth between Mark Hoppus’ baritone vocals and Tom DeLonge’s tenor (or Matt Skiba, in recent years). When the two sing together, you get a great push and pull feel between the voices.
This is exactly the same effect a great, layered vocal can provide to an emo rap track.
Creating An Ambience
While the production is sparse outside of the beat, that doesn’t mean it has to be boring. Emo rap producers are constantly seeking out chilling, haunting samples they can use in their tracks. Things like old, out of tune pianos or children’s toys to create an unsettling atmosphere for the song. Simple, twinkling guitar parts can also fill this role nicely.
These elements of the mix are great on their own, but a producer or engineer should be able to take them to another level with the right effects.
Reverb can place the sound in a deeper, darker place. Delays can add movement to a simple loop. Combine those with chorusing, phasing & other time-based effects, and you’ll end up with a warbled, dark sound that’s the perfect background for your song.
Finishing Your Mix
I’m not usually one to recommend mastering your own mixes. There are professionals out there who spend years training to do it the right way. Even just having another mixer who offers mastering services do it for you will add a second set of ears to your work and fix things you might not catch.
With emo rap, I’m completely fine breaking that advice.
Emo rap started on Soundcloud and still has its biggest following there. There’s something about the lo-fi production sound that’s a staple of the genre, so there isn’t always a need to get it sounding “pristine” like a professional can do.
Instead, use your session as an opportunity to experiment with your mixing and mastering process. Artists in emo rap are usually pretty open to concepts like heavy compression and saturation on particular instruments or their mix bus.
Understand their vision and get as creative as you can to help them realize it.
Just take a look at how CMFRT is using various limiting, clipping & more to get the sound he’s after in this clip:
I really love what he chose to do with JST Clip on his kick and snare tracks in this particular session.
It’s All About The Drums
Finding the right balance between your kick and snare is important in any mix, but it’s really just the start. Trap beats need controlled, consistent hi hats. Tom fills need to sound full without masking other instruments. It’s not a necessity for some genres – it’s something you need to know how to do for all genres.If you’re serious about getting the right drum mix in any session from emo rap to pop punk to metal, check out our eBook, Taking Control of Your Drum Mix – available exclusively to JST VIP members for a limited time!