Rise of the Sad Boys: from Kompakt to Yung Lean, a history of how electronic musicians have worn their sadness on their sleeves

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Musicians, it’s safe to presume, have made sad music since it was possible to make music.

The modern era of pop is full of heartbreak, from the gently crushing opening line of The Beach Boys’ ‘God Only Knows’ to Kelly Rowland’s confessional ‘Dirty Laundry’, released earlier this year, while alternative guitar music – from Jandek, to Nick Drake, to The Smiths – has long suffered a fixation with the forlorn. Electronic music, however, has taken longer to develop: sure, there’s subtle sadness in Kraftwerk, and more obviously in synth-pop, but it wasn’t until the 1990s that acts from the electronic sphere (by which we mean fully electronic, rather than simply bands using synthesisers and the odd computer) started to pride themselves on their sadness. Even then, it wasn’t until the turn of the ’00s that they were wearing their tears like a badge of honour.

In 2013, it’s more acceptable than ever for boys and men to show their sadness. Call it a condition of the internet age or simply evolution, the fact is that some of the most interesting music around is being made by musicians who take pride in being sad – even in the traditionally more macho milieu of hip-hop, where showing the chinks in your armour was once a sign of weakness. Yung Lean, Little Pain and the rest of the #sadboys movement are currently riding the slipstream of Drake, The Weeknd and Kanye West’s game-changing 808s & Heartbreak and filling it with tears, while acts like Superpitcher and James Holden have proved influential by approaching techno with a romantic, Smithsian attitude. In the UK, acts like Darkstar, James Blake and Burial made their impact with club music from a longing outsider perspective, while even grime acts like Ruff Sqwad got involved in the sadness.

This piece attempts to summarise how we got to this point, exploring the major turning points across various genres and the acts who’ve taken most pride in their sadness in this period. What’s become most apparent while writing it, is that although we’ve split the piece into four parts, there have been connections between them since the very start: Superpitcher remixing DNTEL’s ‘The Dream of Evan & Chan’, for instance, or Ryan Hemsworth openly repping Bright Eyes’ Fevers & Mirrors.


The wave of indie-tronica acts that coalesced around the turn of the 2000s is a logical, but also a slightly tenuous place to start – although they were definitely sad boys making electronic music, they also felt closer to the lineage of synth-pop and glum groups like Codeine and Low (granted, with a healthy Warp Records influence, more on which later), rather than house and techno.

Regardless, groups like The Postal Service – whose first collaboration, ‘(This Is) The Dream of Evan & Chan’, was remixed by Kompakt’s Superpitcher in one of the definitive sad boy anthems – and the lesser-celebrated Casiotone for the Painfully Alone are probably bigger influences on the current wave of bedroom producers than many of them would like to admit. It’s also easy to underestimate just how many teenagers were introduced to Aphex and Autechre by Radiohead’s desolate Kid A. Another key record here, perhaps, is Bright Eyes’ 2005 album Digital Ash in a Digital Urn. Until that point, Conor Oberst – an icon for sad indie boys everywhere, lest we forget – had used samples but was still mostly driven by guitar; on Digital Ash, however, Oberst focused more on the computer than ever, using vocal effects and digital synths on tracks like ‘Theme from Piñata’. Sure, it’s hardly an 808s-esque stylistic 180 (there’s still plenty of guitar present), but we suspect that it’s been more influential on the sad boy generation than it’s given credit for.


Crying and dancing. Two activities that should never coincide, you’d think – at least not without a generous measure of rum punch and heartbreak – but in the late ’80s and early ’90s, as techno crossed the Atlantic and influenced a new wave of European artists, electronic music took a turn for the tearful. As the euphoria of acid house gave way to the twitchy mania of hardcore, a cluster of producers reoriented their bleeps, bass and breaks away from the dancefloor and towards the sofa, crafting records for hi-fis and headphones instead of warehouses and fields.

This emergent strand of post-techno naturally found a home in the steel city of Sheffield, the crucible of electronic music in the UK since the late ’70s, when post-punk bands like Clock DVA, The Human League and Cabaret Voltaire swapped guitars and drums for abrasive synths and metronomic beats. Picking up on that legacy at the end of the ’80s were Warp Records acts like The Black Dog, whose founder Ken Downie picked the name in reference to his own experience of depression. The trio idolised Cabaret Voltaire but were equally inspired by the mechanical isolation of Detroit techno, and as Martin Dust (a later addition to The Black Dog line-up) put it to FACT a few years ago, hard electronic music was a perfect fit with the post-industrial environs of Sheffield. “This city’s pretty fucking rubbish, very much in the way that Detroit is … it put all its industrial eggs in two baskets – mining and steel – that are both in decline, “ he noted. “In our studio you can still hear the steam drop hammers on a Sunday when it’s quiet.”

The group’s early material rearranged techno tropes into deep and introspective worlds, with albums like 1993’s Temple of Transparent Balls operating at a slower tempo and intended to be digested at home in one immersive listening experience. Their first album, Bytes, a collection of tracks by various aliases released under the name Black Dog Productions, was part of Warp’s massively influential Artificial Intelligence series, described by the label as records “for long journeys, quiet nights and club drowsy dawns.” The series came to define the sound known as ‘Intelligent Dance Music’, and while the term was disowned by many of the scene’s key producers, who rightly rejected the implication that all other dance music must be stupid, it nevertheless had a big impact on the downcast techno that appeared later in the decade. The other original Black Dogs, Andy Turner and Ed Handley, departed in 1995 to concentrate on their own project, Plaid, who along with other Warp acts like Aphex Twin, Autechre and Speedy J, helped push the so-called IDM template further from the dancefloor and deep into headphone territory, as can be heard on their relatively supine 1997 album Not For Threes.

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It was around this time that another branch of dewy-eyed post-techno began to germinate elsewhere in Europe, as DJs and producers in Germany paired the Detroit influence with a pop sensibility to craft new strains of uniquely bleak dance music which, while made for the club, seemed to deny the outright hedonism of raving in favour of an almost euphoric sadness.

Officially launched in 1998, Cologne’s Kompakt led the way with a series of releases built around soft textures and poppy vocals; tracks that, unlike the music of their British peers, were built for maximum impact through big speakers. “The dancefloor should be about the whole wealth of emotion and not just euphoria,” as label boss Michael Mayer put it recently. “The point I am trying to achieve when I’m playing is this moment where everything comes down in the room and becomes amorphous. It’s not hysterical anymore. Hearts are open.” No producer was more in line with this outlook than Kompakt regular Superpitcher [above], whose 2004 album Here Comes Love includes one of the most depressing techno tracks ever made, the ironically titled ‘Happiness’, plus the tune that gives this feature its name, the downtempo ‘Sad Boys’ with its indulgently morose hook, “we are sad boys for life”. Further evidence of Germany’s poignant party vibes was found in records like Lawrence’s soft-focus album The Absence of Blight, released on Hamburg’s Dial Records in 2003, which attains a sadness so graceful it becomes paradoxically life-affirming.

Back in the UK, teen prodigy James Holden [left] came to prominence in the late ’90s producing trance, a subgenre that itself operates almost exclusively in minor keys, utilising them not to bring down the crowd but to heighten feelings of euphoria and bittersweet elation. Constricted by the staleness of so-called progressive trance, however, Holden soon moved into stranger and more intricate techno constructions with the launch of his label Border Community. Releases like Extrawelt’s ‘Soopertrack’ merged the bleep and bass legacy of Warp and with the bubbling ecstacy of trance, while Holden’s own tracks like ‘Lump’ and ‘10101’ paired emotive melodicism with complex and unpredictable rhythms, creating a sound very different from the sparser, poppier German style.

Border Community stalwart Nathan Fake exemplifies the label’s sound better than anyone, with last year’s Steam Days album (which includes a track titled ‘Sadvember’) built on pearlescent textures, liquidised synths and itchy percussion, ruling it too complex for most dancefloors but perfect for in-ear listening. But the definitive Border Community track remains the label boss’s astonishing 2004 remix of Fake’s ‘The Sky Was Pink’, a bittersweet tearjerker that has become so anthemic that Holden now thinks of it as a millstone, as he admitted to FACT earlier this year.

Two other names deserve a brief mention in this history of dance downers – U.S. techno producer-turned-bonafide sad boy Moby, whose 1999 album Play placed the raw emotion of old spirituals against luscious orchestral backdrops, and German producer Ulrich Schnauss, who crystallised the rapturous possibilities of machine music on tracks like the spine-tingling title cut from 2003’s A Strangely Isolated Place.


In 2006, Burial’s eponymous debut provided dubstep with not only its first essential album but also a staggeringly emotive one. The album altered the 2-step rhythms of early Horsepower Productions into anxiety-inducing palpitations and fused them with the paranoia and quiet aggression of Tempa and Big Apple dubstep, eventually arriving at something introspective and melancholy. Yearning female vocals (via Destiny’s Child, Ashanti, etc.) were pitched-down and turned into disembodied ghosts; unlike the Brandy-sampling producers that would follow in his wake, Burial was more interested in haunting the listener than hooking them. Pirate radio static and the mist of south London rain linger over the entire album, as does a general sense of sadness.

Then-Hyperdub labelmates Darkstar would follow Burial’s downcast direction with tracks like B-sides ‘Break’ and ‘Out of Touch’, and the vocoded pair ‘Need You’ and ‘Aidy’s Girl Is a Computer’. Even with incomprehensible vocals, ‘Aidy’s Girl’ is still imbued with a “proximal sense of melancholy”; the song is an ode to a digital lover — Weird Science for the OKCupid generation. Hyperdub’s Quarta 330 would use a glitched-out Gameboy to make similarly affected digital love letters, leaning on video game soundtracks for a sense of nostalgia on tracks like ‘Bleeps From Outer Space’. The tactic has remained popular; look no further than Ryan Hemsworth’s Chrono Trigger-referencing bootlegs for a recent example.

A couple years after the release of Burial’s second album, the melancholic, mutated 2-step that he pioneered would attain such critical mass that it would get its own — and much-maligned — genre name: post-dubstep. The poster boys for the sound, associates Mount Kimbie and James Blake, would gird Burial’s refracted dance tunes with pop structures. Mount Kimbie would do it as early as 2009’s ‘Maybes’, and then across the singles that became their landmark album Crooks & Lovers. For his part, Blake took the plunge in sadness by assuming the role of singer-songwriter and placing himself behind the microphone and piano. His early material, like the jubilant ‘CMYK’, gave way to the surging ‘Klavierwerke’, and then to the “isolationist headphone music” of his stunning debut album. As troubadour, Blake would give the sad boys of dubstep a voice, one unsure of family, love, and self.

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Rap has long had its fair share of self-loathing and grim imagery – Kool Keith, Wu-Tang Clan and even Eminem weren’t afraid of looking to life’s greasy underbelly for inspiration, but it would be a stretch to define them as sad, per se. It was really the Anticon-led emo rap phenomenon that kicked off rap’s obsession with the internal. Whether it was Sole’s deeply politicized whines or Sage Francis’s poetic turns, there was something different about this set of rhymes than had come before, and while they were far from perfect, they suggested that there was a whole world of mopey sadness out there yet to be scribbled onto ring-bound pads (or later, Blackberrys).

It took the mainstream to make moves into weepier territory for sad rap to really gain traction, and the moment when that finally happened was as obvious as a single solitary tear down a young child’s rosy-red cheek. It was Kanye West’s [above] introspective and downplayed 808s & Heartbreak that we can blame for the shift, and when it landed in late 2008 it felt like a gate had been thrown open for good. ‘Love Lockdown’ was the first single, and was a marked shift from the grandiose theatrics of the rapper’s previous album Graduation, replacing the soulful samples and thick, dusty breaks with autotuned crooning and sparse electronic rhythms. Critics hardly knew what to make of it, and devotees of West’s recognisable, deeply original productions up until that point were understandably pissed off. Imagine then the horror when the album was revealed to be even more downplayed than its advance single, but while it predictably polarised listeners, it bravely shifted expectations of what a rap record should be.

West had always upheld an introspective streak, more so than the majority of rappers at least, but 808s & Heartbreak was anchored by the breakup of a long-term relationship and the tragic, unexpected death of his beloved mother Donda. The record could barely be described as rap at all, finding West more comfortable robotically half-singing wistful couplets than offering the boastful punch lines he’d made his calling card on previous albums. Whether or not rappers were directly listening to this record in particular, West had broken down a barrier, and informed the wider world that it was okay for an emcee to talk about feelings that may have been considered taboo prior. Not everybody liked the record, but it’s hard to argue that lines like ‘Welcome to Heartbreak’’s “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs” didn’t signify a tidal change in the way rappers were perceived.

Kid Cudi’s fingerprints on the record were stark and obvious, and his own ‘Day And Night’ was maybe 808 & Heartbreaks’ own inspiration. While talking about hard times was business as usual for many rappers, talking about loneliness was just something that didn’t really seem very rap at all. So Cudi’s bizarrely catchy single, which contains lines like “Within his dreams he sees the life he made, made/The pain is deep you won’t hear a peep, peep” was a massive step from the norm. The fact that it caught on and became a worldwide hit (thanks in part to a Euro-centric rework from Crookers) makes 808s & Heartbreaks seem like far less of an accident.

Only a few months later Canadian TV star Drake’s breakout mixtape So Far Gone took Kanye and Cudi’s blueprint to even greater heights. The stage had been set, and if 808s showed us through the door to a new era of rap, So Far Gone ushered us into the main hall, even making a distinct nod to its predecessor with the inclusion of ‘Say What’s Real’, which pinched the beat from Kanye’s own ‘Say You Will’. In the past, a child star transitioning into rap would have likely plumped for record of wall-to-wall party anthems – not so Drake, who seemed to have a different idea for his career. Like Kanye he hadn’t grown up on the streets selling drugs or guns, so to talk about that life would have been annoyingly disingenuous, but instead smartly musing on his desire for fame, and how that might change him too much, he came up with sad boy rap’s New Testament. In an interview with Complex, Drake revealed that the tape’s themes emerged from the question, “Are we becoming the men that our mothers divorced?” and this message has carried into much of his later work.

It wasn’t long before Drake became the poster-boy for a new splinter of the rap spectrum, and by the time he issued maybe the scene’s most obvious stand-out in sad rap drunk dialling anthem ‘Marvins Room’, he had amassed a large following of like-minded rappers, producers and singers. The most prominent of these would have to be fellow Canadian The Weeknd; Abel Tesfaye was championed early on by Drake, who no doubt heard the similarities between their music and quickly gave him a right-hand spot in sad boy rap’s throne room. It wasn’t just the star-laced mainstream who would take to the sad boy sound however, and Tumblr pages everywhere were erupting with productions and freestyles dripping with the kind of melancholy usually confined to teenage diaries and episodes of My So Called Life.

One rapper emerged from the mess of internet talent who has been easily as important as Kanye West in the development of sad boy rap. Far away from the smooth, woozy weeping-in-the-shower stylings of Drake and The Weeknd, sitting in a Berkeley bedroom with his rescued cat Keke was Brandon McCartney, aka Lil B, and he took sad and often surreal rap into places other emcees couldn’t (or wouldn’t) reach. Plying his patented ‘based’ style, McCartney proved very early on that he wasn’t inhabiting the same space as his contemporaries, not least in 2010 with the confounding Rain In England, which found the rapper uttering jagged spoken word poems over beatless washes of minor-key new age pads and synthesized strings. It was with a rapid stream of seemingly unending mixtapes, however, that he captured the hearts and mind of forum addicts and young bloggers, and within a surprisingly short time he became a bona fide internet sensation. If you’re doubting his sad boy cred and don’t fancy trawling through over 500 tracks, just peep the now infamous video for ‘I Love You’, which shows McCartney weeping real tears in a pet shop in possibly the most obvious sad rap moment recorded on camera.

The Lil B domino effect followed, and whether it was through associated producers like Clams Casino, Keyboard Kid or Beautiful Lou, or the cloud rap set that followed (artists such as Main Attrakionz, Friendzone, Ryan Hemsworth and even to a degree A$AP Rocky), this new Tumblr wave of rap made its emotional content its primary calling card. Just take a listen to Main Attrakionz’ Friendzone-produced ‘Perfect Skies’ – while it doesn’t find rappers Mondre M.A.N. and Squadda Bambino crying in public, the gorgeous, airy production from Friendzone and free-form wordplay from the two emcees is a far cry from rap’s rugged past. A softly spoken sensitivity was finally acceptable, maybe not as the norm but certainly as a valid sideline, so in 2013 crept it’s not hugely surprising that sad boy rap has reached its logical conclusion.

Enter Swedish Lil B devotee and figurehead of the aptly monikered Sad Boys, Yung Lean [right]. At 16 years old, Lean probably remembers little about a pre-Kanye pre-Drake rap landscape, and it hardly matters. Apparently sad because he lives in a place where there’s no Squadda Bambino or Lil B, his mixtape Unknown Death 2002 is the epitome of sad rap – alien, stoned, passive and teenaged. The fact that Lean and his crew grew up so far from rap’s U.S. birthplace isn’t even a concern any more; these kids learned what they know from Youtube and Google, and Lil B’s barrage of free material was as important to their development as The Velvet Underground’s Loaded was to Pavement’s.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Brooklyn-based rapper Little Pain (aka Conan O’Cryin’, aka Mr. Sobbin’ Williams) explores similar themes with his Too Sad Crew, and ‘High Cry’ is a prime example. Produced by Baton Rouge beatmaker (and paid-up sad boy) suicideyear, the track begins with the immortal line “pop a tear I’m cryin”, and there can be no doubt that Pain is on the same page as Lean and his Arizona ice tea sipping troops. The rapper may in fact be taking things a step further: “A nigga so sad that I’m cryin’ while I’m cryin” is depressing even by Lean’s standards, and Pain doesn’t seem to have any interest in offsetting his tears by employing any of the Swedish savant’s Lil B-patented surrealism. It all leaves us wondering what the next step could even be at this point – rappers so sad that they can’t even rap any more, just sitting in near silence uttering an occasional stifled whimper? We’re guessing that Little Pain’s forthcoming When Thugz Cry mixtape might offer at least some insight.

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