There’s a song by the late Detroit hip-hop artist Proof called “Kurt Kobain” which I like to revisit from time to time. It’s an exceptional track, but a rather eerie one to listen to. The lyrics comprise the rapper’s fictional suicide note. Less than a year after its release – the song concludes his 2005 album Searching for Jerry Garcia – Proof was shot and killed at the age of 32.
The content and its context are unsettling. But I don’t bring it up to belabor this uneasiness. Instead, I’d like to share a powerful story by the producer of “Kurt Kobain,” Emile Haynie (via Genius):
That’s definitely the most special record I’ve ever done and will ever do. It’s Proof saying goodbye to the world. It’s a really heavy song. The day that we did it, we were driving around in his car listening to my beats, and we kept listening to that one over and over and we were going to see his uncle who was on his death bed. […]
We spent a lot of time talking about death, losing family members, my dad, and his uncle. So that was the theme, and meanwhile this beat was playing the whole time in the car. It was a heavy day and it made that record happen.
Two years after Proof passed, I was listening to that song, and for whatever reason, I got inspired to find the sample I used. It was by Lamont Dozier. Proof’s dad was a pretty legendary Detroit musician and producer and performer named McKinley Jackson. He had a band called The Politicians. He produced tons of classic Detroit soul records.
When we were cutting the song, we brought in a bass player that used to play with Proof’s dad back in the day. And he’s playing bass on the record and he used to play bass on all Proof’s dad’s stuff. He’s like, ‘Man, I know this music. I can’t figure it out, but I know this music.’ It wasn’t a big deal, but he said it a few times. And in Proof’s lyrics he’s talking to his dad on the song.
Fast forward to years later, and I’m looking at the record that I sampled, and I look at the credits on the back, and it says, ‘Produced by McKinley Jackson.’ Talk about a moment of getting chills. My jaw hit the fucking floor.
The song that Proof wrote that he speaks to his dad on, that’s kind of a goodbye letter, the music [from the sample] was written and produced by his dad.
We had no fucking idea. This was a total coincidence. Only in hip hop would something like this happen. Like I said, it’s the most special record I’ve ever done and will ever do.
“Only in [hip-hop] would something like this happen.” I’m not going to argue whether that statement is true or not; certainly one can make the case that the mystery and miraculousness (or, if you prefer, coincidental nature) of the universe extends beyond one specific genre of music.
Still, there is something to be said about how hip-hop as a culture and art form has served as a conduit for these kinds of larger-than-life, transcendent moments and patterns. The Notorious B.I.G. debuted with an album called Ready To Die and was killed before his next release, Life After Death. The final song (“So It Goes”) on the almighty Mac Miller’s last album as a living artist (Swimming) ends with the line, “Just like a circle, I go back where I’m from.” Getting too morbid? Here’s one that’ll make you chuckle: on 2009’s momentous “Exhibit C”, Jay Electronica rapped that how he was “trying to find the meaning of life in a corona”; he went on to finally release his first album in 2020 during the coronavirus pandemic.
Am I reaching on all these connections? Yes, to a certain extent, of course. I’m not trying to say that there is a grand conspiracy or that these moments all hold some sort of significance or hidden meaning. That is to say: I’m not cosplaying Charlie Day screaming “Pepe Silvia! Pepe Silvia!” here.
My point is simply that there is something about music in general, and specifically hip-hop music, which sets the stage for these kinds of eyebrow-raising, goosebump-inducing connections. Maybe it has something to do with the ethereal nature of art, or the intersection of one’s subconscious and conscious minds, or the relationship between an individual and the collective conscience, or the timelessness that comes with recording a song, or some other energy mumbo jumbo that TikTok-certified esoetrics are more apt to explain. I don’t know what it is, and I don’t think that I, as a regular ass human, am supposed to know what it is. But I do know it exists.
With that being said, let’s talk about Astroworld.
First things first: I don’t at all believe that what went down at this tragic shitshow of a festival was purposeful. I don’t think that Travis Scott was organizing a mass sacrifice or that Kylie Jenner was muttering evil spells as she watched from her VIP seat. I’m not converting letters to numbers and running math equations. No disrepect to those who are, but just… nah.
But Travis Scott did just drop a song called “Escape Plan” with an unsettling artwork that declared “The True Dystopia Is Here!” And he did start the show with an onimous sign saying “See You On The Other Side.” And he did wear a shirt that seemingly shows a line of souls stepping through a portal and becoming demons. And he did echo this imagery with some pretty bizarre onstage visuals. And he did talk about how he loves to see blood and watch his fans “give their bodies” while performing. And he has told us “it ain’t a mosh pit if it ain’t no injuries.” And the firsthand accounts from fans who were there do liken the event to “a concert from hell.”
There’s one video from the show which has really stuck with me since I saw it. It’s gone pretty viral, so if you’ve been following the news you’ve likely seen it by now. In it, two fans plead with a camera operator to stop the show because people are dying. The cameraman, focused on his job and likely assuming that they were just some belligerent teens, largely ignores them. I’m not going to dive into all the details of the interaction or the man’s response here. Instead, I want to focus on what’s going on in the background — or, rather, on stage.
As the girl shouts, “There is somebody dead in there! There is someone dead!” everything else is mostly silence. Then Travis tells his DJ, “Chase B, let’s do it,” and a yet-to-be-released (perhaps now never-to-be-released) song begins.
The girl steps over to the platform and continues pleading while the track starts and a vocal sample asks: “Have you ever been lost?” A young man pops up behind the camerman and screams, “Stop the show! Stop the show!” while the sample repeats: “Have you ever been lost?” The cameraman glances back to the stage with a look of frustration over having his job interrupted. He begins to shoo them away. The pitch switches into something darker. The sample continues: “…Forever.” The man shoos them away, turns around, and resumes recording. The show continues. The pleas are unanswered.
“Have you ever been lost… forever?”
I don’t quite have the words to explain it, but this video has had a profound effect on me. It’s just… disturbing. It feels like the moment the beat switches you can see a glimmer of hope being extinguished. The folks who need help in the audience are lost forever. The music doesn’t stop.
I think I might be rambling at this point, or perhaps getting a tad bit too stream-of-consciousness with these thoughts, but I don’t really know what to make of all of this. It’s a lot to take in. Again, I’m definitely not saying that Travis is some satan-worshipping occultist who sacrificed innocent people or anything like that. And while there is a (in my opinion rather compelling) case to be made for how his actions both onstage and in years past have helped established an unsafe culture, and how although there was a lot going on outside of his control he has to be held somewhat accountable for the loss of life, none of that is really what inspired me to start writing this piece.
I guess my point is: the energy that you surround yourself with, the thoughts you engage with, the vibes you curate… all of it matters. If you glorify evil, evil will arrive. Is Travis Scott a demon? No. But is Travis Scott’s aesthetic demonic? Well, here’s the definiton of demonic: of, resembling, or characteristic of demons or evil spirits. So, let’s reframe the question. Does Travis Scott’s aesthetic resemble demons or evil spirits? Believe me that I’m not clutching any pearls as I say, yes, undoubtedly, and purposefully, it does.
I’ve been wondering recently if the Astroworld tragedy occurred at another artist’s festival, such as J. Cole’s Dreamville Fest or Tyler, The Creator’s Camp Flog Gnaw, how different or similar the cultural reaction would be. On the surface level, such a comparison underscores that once you’re an organizer of an event, and not just a headliner, you’ll always hold a different level of responsibility for ensuring safety.
But a deeper and more damning reflection reveals how hard it is to even imagine such a harrowing series of events happening at these other artists’ events at all. J. Cole and Tyler, The Creator haven’t cultivated an unsafe culture like Travis has; there is no expectation that one would see ambulances and resusictation attempts at their shows. And, more relevantly to our conversation above, Cole and Tyler don’t devote so much of their time, energy, and art into seeming sinister or glorifying wickedness. (Tyler was obviously very much on those vibes back when “Yonkers” dropped but he matured past them years ago and these days just wants to eat some Brown Sugar Salmon… gotta love the growth!)
There’s a lot of debate on what the future holds for Travis Scott as an artist and celebrity. People who don’t seem to understand the severity of death are concerned he might be “cancelled.” Fans at the show are experiencing PTSD and many will likely never be able to enjoy his songs again. His next album will probably be scrapped; touring will be on hold for at least a while; and many, many lawsuits are on the way. Hopefully, he’ll also get the chance for some healing and growth on his end too. As always with events that concern a public figure with a passionate fanbase, everyone will draw their own lines to determine how comfortable they are engaging with him as an artist again.
All I know is that hip-hop is never just hip-hop. It’s deeper than rap. And just like Biggie didn’t have to know he was going to die, Travis didn’t have to be intentionally trying to create a dystopia to succeed in having built one. Be careful what you manifest. Don’t play with evil energy. Leave it alone.
And with that said… how about we finish off with some positive vibes ?!