If there’s one sub-genre of hip-hop that I’m not privy too, then it would definitely be horrorcore. Horrorcore, formed in the early 90s, saw rappers bring up horror-themed subject matter in their rhymes, often discussing topics such as serial killing and satan worship. I often find horrorcore rappers to be gimmicky, and reliant on cheap shocks rather than lyrical prowess (Insane Clown Posse has become a definitive act for the genre for these reasons). That said though, the genre certainly has an important place in hip-hop history, and in many ways bridges the gap between late 80s gangsta rap, with hardcore artists of the late 90s. With the success of gangsta rappers like N.W.A. and The Geto Boys, combined with the fact that hip-hop producers were beginning to sample heavy metal songs, it was logical that rappers would eventually incorporate horror-film-esque imagery into their lyrics. The genre would eventually influence plenty of big-name artists, most notably Eminem, whose id-laced psycho drama was a most lucid result of the horror core milieu. In fact, perhaps Eminem’s chief influence might be the horror core granddaddy himself, Esham.
Referenced by Shady in both songs and interviews (“I’m a cross between Manson, Esham and Ozzy”), the fellow Detroit rapper is probably next to J Dilla as one of the city’s most integral contributors toward shaping the city’s rap scene. Growing up, Esham spent his summers staying with his grandmother in New York, where he became familiar with the burgeoning hip-hop scene there. It’s practical to believe that his New York exposure combined with Detroit’s reputation as a “rock city” complemented Esham’s image as a demonic emcee with some of the most grotesque lyrics imaginable, but it was an image that was fully original for the time. Releasing his first album when he was just 16 years old (1989’s Boomin’ Words From Hell), Sham quickly established himself as an emcee with talent and flavor well beyond his years, and he’d reach his peak 4 years later.
KKKill the Fetus, released in 1993, is without a doubt Esham’s best album, if not simply the greatest horrorcore album ever made. Oozing with songs about sex, murder, drugs, etc., the album was pretty much guaranteed not to see much radio play (the album title alone is enough to guarantee that). Listening to KKKill the Fetus now, however, it is certainly accessible asides from it’s off-putting content. Produced entirely by Esham himself, the album’s base sound is actually in-dept to cross-over acts like The Beastie Boys, as it has plenty of rock samples and a head-banging sound (“666 with a mic in my hand!”). It’s just he gave it a gritty hallucinogenic texture to it, that he appropriately titled “acid rap”.
Esham happened to be gifted with one of the most unmistakable voices in 90s rap. High-pitched and squelchy, Esham sounds like something of a cross between a diseased rat and a zombified b-boy, but it works for what he’s trying to do. There’s little argument that Esham isn’t a shock rapper (the song “Jackie” might be the genre’s most committed ode to oral sex), but he’s good at it, and certainly boundary pushing with his content. The title-track is a grim track about abortion, featuring a wicked sample of Funkadelic’s “Maggot Brain“. In it, Esham talks about how ending a pregnancy will prevent a child from coming into a dark and hating world (“It’s just a little embryo attached to an umbilical/You can let that baby grow, but I’d kill it though”). It’s an ugly song for sure, but it’s hard to remember an earlier case of a rap song focusing on this, and you can’t really knock the guy for being pro-choice.
Clocking in at 73 minutes with 23 tracks, KKKill the Fetus certainly runs the risk of being sprawling, but those that can delve into his style aren’t likely to find a bad song in the bunch. After this record, Esham would experiment with other styles, and collaborate more with his derivatives (he was signed to ICP’s Psychopathic Records for a time), and the results would more often than not be satisfactory at best. KKKill the Fetus captures the rapper when he was young, nihilistic and extremely talented, and it was all the better for it. Not for the faint of heart, but horrorcore fans won’t find a better reason to justify their musical preferences than this.