Let’s talk about Djent-Hop

Hacktivist made their official debut with their self-titled EP on the 12th November, it’s available on Spotify, and most of it’s on Youtube. Go listen to it. Their musical style is probably best described as Djent-Hop. (It’s not a particularly accurate term, as I will explain below, but it’s catchy, and every music critic wants to name a new genre.)

For the uninitiated, Djent is a subgenre of tech-metal that has become immensely popular in the last decade. An onomatopoeic term, it’s based off the blunt, distorted sound of palm-muted guitar note, usually low-end, and can refer to the genre, the style of music and the surrounding culture. If you’re familiar with their music, Meshuggah are usually credited with creating the genre, along with other groups such as Sikth and Periphery (all linked with a video to give you a taste.) It’s influenced heavily by progressive metal, often with ridiculous time signatures and complex structures with ambient passages, and hardcore; vocals often take the form of shouting and higher-range screams, and clean passages have been coming into fashion( – see ExistImmortal for example). More recently, electronic elements have seen a growing importance in groups such as Animals as Leaders. Instrumentally, Hacktivist are most definitely under the Djent sub-umbrella. The double-bass reinforces the rhythmic nature of the guitars, ambient passages usually support the vocals, and while the prog elements are lacking, there’s one very good reason for that; the vocalists rap. Rapping over 5/8 would probably make quite a mess. (However, please take this as a challenge.)

The ‘-hop’ part of the term, hopefully obviously comes from Hip-Hop, which doesn’t quite work. Hip-hop is one of the most argued genre definitions in music history, and began as a cultural movement in the ’70s that was explicitly anti-gang, anti-violence anti-drug, anti-a lot of what is associated with modern Rap (which I use as an umbrella term for the very vague style of music, equal to ‘rock’, more-or-less meaning music with guitars). While the term ‘Hip-Hop’, however, can also be used as such an umbrella term for music based on samples and a rapping vocal style, it can also refer to a specific genre within this style, pre-Gangsta, with more pointed content, and audible jazz and soul influences from artists such as A Tribe Called Quest. As such complex genre definition is going to get boring and confusing, let me explain what I mean more directly; the ‘-hop’ half of my term above is, above all, used to describe the vocal style used by Hacktivist – rapping. However, the nuance of it doesn’t quite fit because their style of rap is based off more modern hardcore rap styles closer to Grime.

This is where Hacktivist get interesting – Grime is a fundamentally English music form, particularly of London, and even more specifically East London. It’s based in ‘heavier’ Rap subgenres, such as Drum’n’Bass, which use musical elements which are very easily linked to heavier guitar-based music – samples of which have often been utilised to form the basis of a song. For an example, Public Enemy’s ‘She watch Channel Zero’ is based off a loop of the breakdown from Slayer’s Raining Blood. Yeah. Given the percussive, rhythmic nature of Djent riffs, and even some vocals (listen to that Sikth song again), mirrored in double-bass drum patterns, this makes it far more suited for a genre merger than many other forays into rap-metal, which were often based on Thrash. Now, it’s been done successfully before, the most famous example of it being Rage Against the Machine, and every teenager’s favourite Nu Metal bands such as Linkin Park and Limp Bizkit, but these examples differ in several ways. Firstly, none of them are really heavy enough to support energy that goes with more agitated, violent rap styles that London clubs seem to favour; secondly, the instrumental sections of these groups really took a backseat to the vocals (less so with RATM); thirdly, they were gimmicky (except RATM) – they marketed to one particularly type of listener, the one in the corner full of angst, and the rap was mostly a sort of add-on to try and include more of the teenage demographic.

Hacktivist certainly goes for the first problem with flying rugby tackle. The music is most definitely heavy, and well produced. The vocals are clear without being isolated, the drums are high in the mix to emphasise the rhythm of the music, and the distortion melds it all together into a wonderful technical wall of loud.

The second problem, really boils down to how well the vocals are integrated into the music, and is where Hacktivist have the most difficulty. While the riffs can most definitely be described as ‘prominent’, ‘headbangable’, or ‘tasty’, they lack some of the virtuoso lead parts that are the bread and butter of most Djent groups, the structure doesn’t quite mesh. Rap and Metal often seem to alternate, the guitars busting out in between verses, and backing vocals with ambient passages. It feels a bit… stuck together, at times. However, if you listen to their cover of Niggas in Paris, written by Kanye West and Jay-Z, which simply adds Djent along the same rhythm and structure, with a more aggressive take on the vocals , it works. It really does. This suggests, therefore, that the problem may lie in this band’s particular songwriting process, rather than a fundamental problem with the musical combination.

The third problem is probably the most interesting. I think it mostly works, and will continue to grow into much more of an accepted and musically cohesive idea, but the concept of Djent-Hop too gimmicky? The jury’s still out on that one. Maybe a different question should be asked: if it’s a gimmick that sounds good, who cares? I listen to Skindred. Reggae metal. The vocalist’s accent? Most definitely put on. Here’s what he really sounds like. But I think it’s good music, and it’s only a problem if the gimmick gets in the way of that. For Hacktivist, I think it does exactly the opposite.  It opens doors.

The best thing about Hacktivist is their name – it’s a reference to Djent’s presence as a culture is based on the internet, in forums such as got-djent.com, which allows it be a perpetually youthful movement. Bands like Hacktivist have used this to make whatever music they wanted to make, and publicize it with the support of like-minded individuals. And Djent is such a small part of it, because the internet is where the people willing to experiment with music live. They’re the people who will give us post-jazz electro-folkcore just as soon as someone invents the keykele, or the mandosynth, and founds a forum. While it will, in all likelihood, be terrible music, http://www.farmwerkforums.com will represent something amazing; that music will never run out of ideas.

3 comments

  1. I claim credit for finding out about Hacktivist for you. The Guardian article I read about them in compared them to Dubstep. Not in terms of sound, but in terms of it being a sort of grimy genre fusion, driven by the underground and based in the UK (at least I think that’s where Dubstep originates). Thoughts?

    1. I had a look at the article, which I don’t like for several reasons, firstly for their depiction of Djent as primarily electronic, which is just wrong, and secondly because they barely talk about the band’s music…

      As for the comparison to Dubstep, I see where that comes from. Hacktivist’s sound is fundamentally English, London-based, mainly due to the vocals, but a similar effect could be achieved with any number of more relevant comparisons, say for example, actually talking about Grime or Djent. I guess you can use it is a parallel for the growing popularity for ‘heavier’ music in the mainstream, but that’s been going much longer than Dubstep has, and would be a far more intelligent comment to make, rather than simply dropping ‘dubstep’ as a buzzword to interest people.

  2. True, their main point was that Dupstep and “Djent-Hop” is fusing electronic music with a heavier, grimy sound, but Djent isn’t really electronic.

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