Back in January 2018, the walls of Milan’s subway were plastered with the sprawl-out figure of a 25-year-old with pink hair, a matching pink-fur coat, form-fitting plaid pants, and customized Nike Air Force Ones, against a bright yellow backdrop. Each shoe was adorned with a pendant. The right pendant was a powder-pink US dollar sign and the left a baby-blue Euro icon. The pendants are not only a fitting (and probably unintentional) metaphor for the globalization and American-influence but resemble the initials of Italy’s self-proclaimed ‘Trap King’ Sfera Ebbasta.
The poster is an ad for his since-released album Rockstar. And the album name is fitting in that here, in Italy, trap stars are the new generation of rockstars. Flashy & androgynous clothing, coloured hair, and audacious jewellery are all staples of Jonathan Groves aka Sfera Ebbasta, and a handful of other young trappers influenced more by American hip-hop and trap than anything homegrown.
The development of the Italian trap scene is slightly bizarre and unexpected considering the history of hip hop in Italy. Many musical genres have been imported to the peninsula over the years, though usually through the underground. Hip hop in particular was a scene generally dominated by teens and young adults of middle class families. The scene was also political and tended to lean left, according to music journalist and trap-enthusiast Francesco Fusaro.
“The Italian group of hip hop heads was very small, very middle class and very dedicated,” Fusaro told me over Skype from his home in London, where he now lives. “Now there is electronic music with a trap beat and the combo of the two has produced music that is not really rap. Nas and Method Man had a great flow but now you’re not expecting that. [Trappers] don’t really rap, they chat and sing on top of a rhythm.”
The new influence is clearly imported from American shores. And it is not as familiar with the heavy hitters of hip hop lore. Sfera told Pause Magazine last year that he never listened to Tupac or Biggie – not incredibly surprising consider both were killed before his 5th birthday. His influences were 50 Cent, Lil Wayne, and, believe it or not, Soulja Boy.
“They’ve hijacked the language and made it their own,” Fusaro said. “When you hear Sfera Ebbasta say ‘Skwwww,’ that’s Migos.”
Tommy Kuti, a 28-year-old Nigerian-born rapper/trapper from Brescia contracted to Universal, recently told me he discovered hip hop on a trip to the UK as a child. His cousin introduced him to 50 Cent and Kuti made a decision right then.
“I decided then that I would invent Italian rap!” he beamed, before laughing at his own youthful naivety. But his memory reflects how hip hop hadn’t infiltrated the mainstream in Italy yet.
In the 2000s Italian rap grew and gained enough popularity to find a place next to pop music on the radio. Rappers like Fabri Fibra and Gue Pequeno are among the respected elders of the Italian rap game and are regularly among the most listened to on platforms like YouTube and Spotify.
The real breakout for Italian trap music didn’t come though until 2016. This is when a new generation of guys entered the scene as trappers – distinguishing themselves from traditional rappers. This generation in their early and mid 20s mostly derived their influences not from Italian rap but American influences like Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, and 50 Cent.
In 2016, Sfera’s album with the country’s most prominent trap producer Charlie Charles, XDVR, went gold, selling over 25,000 copies. He was the fourth most listened to rap artist that year. Also in 2016, Milan-native Ghali released Ninna Nanna (Lullaby), which broke records for Italian trap music by receiving the most Spotify plays in one day.
The last year though, trap has exploded. Ghali’s hit Happy Days was the hit of the summer in 2017 and was followed up by his multilingual release Habibi. This year, Sfera’s Rockstar was eagerly anticipated by the public. His 11-track record features some globally recognized names, including Rich the Kid, Tinie Tempah, and Quavo of Migos – arguably the world’s leading trap group at the moment.
With trap riding a wave at the pinnacle of popular culture at the moment, it’s interesting to note how Italian rap never had the influence over youth culture the way that trap does today.
“These new guys don’t look hip hop, they just look normal. When I was in high school people used to say to me what’s wrong with your pants,” Fusaro said, recalling the days when sagging was the trend. “Today you can show up like any dude.”
One example Fusaro cites is that of the Rome-based Dark Polo Gang. A foursome who chat over highly produced beats by producer Sick Luke, DPG are masters of the marketing to youth culture, particular using the youth scene’s primary tool of communication – Instagram. The Dark Polo Gang Instagram account has 229,000 followers but each individual has a significantly higher following on their personal accounts.
“DPG influencing Rome youth and it’s amazing to see these kids wearing women’s sunglasses and in crossover androgynous clothing,” Fusaro said, adding it is particular impressive considering certain traditional, anti-LGBT attitudes prevalent in Italy to see the youth highjacking LGBT fashion.
This fusion of fashion and music is by no means unique in history. But the emergence of trap stars in the fashion scene might be why the genre has found a welcome home in Italy. Last year at Milan Fashion week Sfera Ebbasta walked the runway for Marcelo Burlon’s County of Milan, while Ghali took to the stage for Damir Doma, and another trapper Tedua modeled for Dolce & Gabbana.
“Nobody does fashion like Italians,” Kuti told us. And not only is trap breaking into the mainstream but it’s also breaking social barriers.
“If someone said ten years ago that a son of a Tunisian family would be at the top (of the music game) I’d say it’s impossible,” Fusaro said, speaking of Ghali, who was born to Tunisian parents. “I’d have said not in 20 years time but Ghali is influential and no other rapper from my generation could have done that. Trap brings recognition and with a quality and professionalism we struggled to see with the true hip hop generation in Italy.”