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All You Need To Know About Phonk, the Dance Subgenre That’s Taking Off

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Kordhell stumbled upon the YouTube channel Evil Aesthetic (stylized Ǝ V I L Æ S T H Ǝ T I C) by happenstance while digitally crate-digging in 2020. The U.K.-born, Los Angeles-based producer had a background in black metal; Evil Aesthetic specializes in phonk — a style indebted to ’90s Memphis hip-hop. Kordhell heard a kinship. “Phonk sounded similar to what I was already doing,” he says. “It was super dark, with almost a horror vibe, but in a hip-hop way.”

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The producer decided to try his hand at phonk, and since then, the genre’s profile and Kordhell’s have risen together. Phonk fandom had primarily been underground, but starting in 2020, it became increasingly popular on TikTok, popping up in clips of car racing, weight lifting and more. That same year, Kordhell scored a record deal with independent label Black 17 Media. He now has two of the most commercially successful singles associated with the genre and has landed a spot on the upcoming mixtape that will accompany the 10th Fast and Furious movie — much of which is phonk-based.

“I signed him in October 2020 when he was doing 5,000 plays a day,” says Tyler Blatchley, who co-founded Black 17 Media in 2015. “Now he’s doing 4 million plays a day on Spotify alone.”

While phonk encompasses a slew of subgenres, one macho variant known as drift phonk has become most popular. Drift phonk hits like Pharmacist’s “North Memphis” and Kaito Shoma’s “Scary Garry” are icy and volatile. They nod to lo-fi Memphis rap mixtapes — creeping basslines, caffeinated hi-hats, eerie, pitch-shifted electronic cowbells — and incorporate samples of drilling, rat-tat-tat lines from rappers like Kingpin Skinny Pimp and DJ Paul, founder of Three 6 Mafia.

Blatchley first discovered “Scary Garry” on TikTok, where it appeared in adrenalized automotive videos. Black 17 had previously distributed some of DJ Paul’s solo releases, making the label ideally positioned to clear Shoma’s sample and officially release the track. “Scary Garry” started to gain attention on Spotify, and after that, Blatchley says, “I found more of these phonk songs and started playing middleman, clearing the samples and putting them on Spotify.” Black 17 now works with more than 300 phonk acts.

Word spread in the drift phonk community that there was an avenue to officially release songs with Memphis samples — and actually make money. Blatchley estimates that 60% of his signings have been brought to him by another act he was already working with; as a result, Black 17 pays an A&R fee out of its profits to any artist that brings a future signing to the label’s attention.

Because many of drift phonk’s most successful producers are based thousands of miles from the source of the samples that animate their work, they may have little understanding of Memphis hip-hop lineage — or of the lines they are sampling. But DJ Paul and Kingpin Skinny Pimp, at least, have said they are happy to be poached from. Phonk’s recent popularity has offered both a new source of income and a new source of exposure: The two are often credited as featured vocalists on tracks with hundreds of millions of streams.

Black 17 focused its phonk marketing in Europe, especially Eastern Europe, and South America, both because the music was already resonating there, and because the cost of TikTok influencer and advertising campaigns is considerably less in those regions than it is in the U.S. Black 17 co-founder Jake Houstle led an effort to establish exclusive relationships with a number of TikTok pages that were active in the phonk scene, which helped drive attention to the label’s new releases. 

At the moment, the biggest threat to drift phonk’s growth is geopolitical: Many of its most popular artists are from Russia and Ukraine, two countries at war. A number of acts on Black 17’s roster have tried to flee their homes since fighting broke out in February.

But this tumultuous backdrop hasn’t slowed phonk’s rise. Earlier this year, Artist Partner Group took notice of the genre’s streaming numbers and connection to car culture and decided it would fit well on the next Fast and Furious mixtape. (APG has worked on multiple installments of the Fast and Furious soundtrack.) “We wanted to use a lot of fun music and really lean into the genre,” says Olly Shepard, APG’s vp of film/TV and synchronization. And in May, Spotify launched its official phonk playlist.

Yokai, a “phonk connoisseur” who chronicles its artists and subgenres on YouTube, used to “not even bother trying to explain to most people what the music was,” figuring he’d only elicit blank stares. Now, he says, the genre “has grown to a point where most people have at least a passing familiarity with it.” By the end of 2022, Black 17’s roster of phonk signings is on track to earn over 4 billion Spotify streams. And after experiencing streaming success abroad, Houstle says, “we’ve reached a point where we have the marketing dollars to start playing around in the U.S.”

As for Kordhell, he recently became one of the 500 most popular artists on Spotify, a first for a phonk producer. He’s been busy with upcoming productions and remixes. “I’m exhausted,” he says. But he wouldn’t have it any other way: “I want to ride the wave.”

A version of this story originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 2022, issue of Billboard.

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