Punk Goes Crunk: The Quiet Clairvoyant

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Like with all good stories, this one starts in 2008. In that glorious fall one decade ago, I was a shy string bean with big dreams of studying writing in the Pacific Northwest (mortuary school in Pittsburgh being my plan B). I had bangs that looked like they were burned off in some kind of Jackass-esque accident and my favorite shade of nail polish was neon green from Five Below. It was a nice contrast against the sleeves of my black hoodie ripped over my thumbs – the perfect ensemble for being a public nuisance in the Walmart arcade or chasing the token long-haired boys around my school’s open mic night.

Yeah, I was pretty cool, but not as cool as my friend Em. I was always jealous of how thick her hair was because it straightened into the most perfect texture for teasing a la Melissa from Millionaires. But her good looks aside, what made her a cut-above was the fact that she was smart, funny, and did not regress into doing molly off Borgore’s nutsack like much of our fallen emo brethren in 2011. When we met eyes on the first day of gifted English 9, we instantly did the quick second look/overt eyes maneuver. When a scene kid saw another scene kid it was like a dog seeing another dog. Coupled with my lip-pierced friend from middle school, Sam, we became the three amigos in a class full of Kaplan test prep-ass Normies, eventually going on to cause some shock waves when the Shakespeare unit allowed us to finesse in a graphic presentation on the Plague.

But it wasn’t all Peta2-approved pizza Lunchables. While times have evolved pretty rapidly in the past ten years, being yourself—whether that was gay, goth, or just a Clamato-sipping vampire—was not always easy. One day Em took her seat in front of me and stripped down to her polka dot cami, frantically flipping her bright white tee inside out. “I know he’s the teacher who will actually get mad at me for wearing it,” she explained, referring to our non-denominational Christian, acoustic-guitar strumming overlord. She unfolded the top for a moment to expose its melted hot pink lettering:

I SET MY FUCKING FRIENDS ON FIRE.

Although I’m pretty sure I read it as YOUR MOM WILL NEVER LET YOU BE THIS COOL.

I recently had a flashback to this event when one of my favorite artists circa 2018 collabed on a new track called “Don’t Take Me for Pomegranate” with no other than I Set My Friends on Fire themselves. Lil Lotus, who rose to viral prominence on Soundcloud due to his resurrection of A1 post-hardcore vocal tones, helped revive my awareness of the electronic metalcore outfit’s existence.

Shortly after ISMFOF’s inception, they signed to Epitaph and dropped their iconic You Can’t Spell Slaughter Without Laughter almost 10 years ago to the day. A happy pink manatee adrift in a sea of cartoon guts – it was a rare cover by which you could judge the book. By maintaining a sense of humor in the same way that say, grindcore acts, do, the abrasive five-some exploited the anything-goes era while still operating within the weirdo-hissing-in-your-English-class narrative. Recipes like “Crank That”—a hot take on Soulja Boy’s megahit—shook up everything that kids like me, Em, and Sam knew about post-hardcore (and what it had the potential to be). Fortunately, it is a potential that we have gotten to see realized.

Another pivotal record dropped in my peek-year of ’08 – Punk Goes Crunk, the seventh installment in Fearless Records’ Punk Goes… cover series. The album has an all-star lineup including Scary Kids Scaring Kids and my hometown’s heroes, All Time Low. But there’s perhaps no greater expression of the Punk Goes ethos than The Devil Wears Prada’s rendition of Big Tymers’ classic “Still Fly.” With a nostalgia-littered comment section, the song has fled iPod Nanos for the YouTube rabbit hole, holding our hands and taking us into orchestral odes to gator boots and a pimped-out Gucci suit. Man, I’d love to go back to my hometown all scene queen rich, complete with good tattoos, a full set, and a credit score in the 400s. The only problem is that it requires me to go back to my hometown. Fortunately, I have TDWP (and, giving credit where it’s due, Big Tymers) to quench that urge without having to leave Pacific Standard Time.

Apparently, I wasn’t alone in the spiritual shook-shake sensed from Punk Goes Crunk. “Still Fly” became a cult classic among TDWP fans, much to the band’s disappointment. The christcore unit refused to keep playing it live, presumably because they were bummed that a cover bumped harder than their self-written songs. While I’m sure that must suck, it’s a shame that they didn’t use it as a teachable moment and play to their strengths. Yano, put a pause on the Jesus riff salad shtick for a second and use their chuga-chuga talents in re-interpreting hip-hop hits. Because -core has such prominent rhythm guitar, it translates studio-minted beats pretty damn seamlessly. As I’ve talked about time and time again, many -core bands failed to see this potential, while others saw it and executed it poorly (@fallinginreverse). But, a few had a sense that crunkcore was on to something, and man, fusion has fucking exploded into something great.

As exemplified by I Set My Friends on Fire’s collab with Lil Lotus, the idea of essentially merging the best of Three 6 Mafia and Senses Fail was homed in a way that not only goes hard, but can be taken a bit more seriously. The fleeting electronic moments historically utilized by ISMFOF, as well as other classics like Asking Alexandria, become more of a central element. Trap beats are illustrated by melodic guitar and drumming patterns remain at the -core while offering a few nods to more timeless rock and roll. The quintessential androgynous vocal tone pulls at the heartstrings, but the mixing gives it a dash of modernity recognizable in survivors like Bring Me the Horizon. Certainly, we grow up without losing who we once were.

And so, the question is begged: did Punk Goes Crunk serve as an omen of the modern state of experimental hip-hop? Perhaps it did play a role in shaping its major trailblazers, even if it did so subconsciously. That leads us to another question, one that’s even harder to answer. As I was standing in the crowd last weekend watching influence-fusioner Bexey perform his heart out with a Jack Skeleton beanie on his head and a Band-Aid tattoo on his face, I couldn’t help but wonder if all the Ems, Sams, and Jennas in the crowd will one day shed this identity, just to participate in its revival in 2028. As Bex said in reference to his departed friend, Lil Peep, energy never dies. Maybe I endlessly pontificate about my scene kid days in this here column because leaving my hometown didn’t erase all the subliminal lights that have dazzled me since I was 14. They’re all still there, influencing me, my friends, my favorite artists, and the next generation to come.

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