Courtesy $uicideboy$

Music

Understanding the Cult Phenomenon That Is $uicideboy$

Deep below the streets of New York City's Times Square, Ruby da Cherry, one half of the cult rap group $uicideboy$, is parting his audience in two like the Red Sea. “Pick a fucking side!” he exhorts the 2,000 or so fans mobbed around the stage, who’ve spent the past hour filling the air with vaporized sweat and the screamed-along words to every song Ruby (aka Aristos Pertrou), and his partner/cousin Slick Sloth (aka Scott Arceneaux Jr., known to his friends and family as Scrim) have delivered. The packed crowd dutifully splits in two, packing itself even tighter in order to clear an empty space about the size of half a basketball court in the middle of the floor.

It feels appropriate that the $uicideboy$ are playing somewhere subterranean, even if the venue is the thoroughly clean-cut PlayStation Theater. In a hyper-saturated media environment where the tiniest cultural trend can become inescapable in the span of an afternoon, the New Orleans duo has managed to grow a massive, zealously devoted fan base while making barely a blip on the mainstream cultural radar. Like fight clubs and speakeasies, they seem fundamentally suited to being underground.

In 2018, $uicideboy$ manage to be everywhere and nowhere all at once. In less than five years they’ve released nearly 50 projects, ranging from singles to full-lengths, that have racked up hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify and YouTube, and drawn in a sprawling, teen-heavy fanbase that’s plastered the title of their new album, I Want to Die in New Orleans, all over Instagram and turned the band’s streetwear label FTP into a successful business. “We're to the point where we can't really go walking around the city without being mobbed,” Ruby says.

But so far they’ve received barely any media coverage, even from sites that are usually all over any rapper who’s making ripples on social media. They haven’t had a single recording reviewed on Pitchfork. As of this writing, they don’t even have an English language entry on Wikipedia–only one in German. The closest thing that they’ve had to a mainstream breakout was when Mike D called them the first thing “my kids related to that I couldn’t embrace,” in an interview with Vulture. (He went on to say of their music, “It’s really loud, I can’t really relate, I don’t really want to listen to it.” The band says they take it as a compliment.)

Ruby and Slick Sloth clearly relish their outsider status. “I've always liked the thing that rejects the status quo,” Ruby tells me a few hours before the scene at the PlayStation Theater, over coffees in the restaurant of their tourist trap hotel around the corner from the Port Authority bus station. The pair grew up in New Orleans obsessing over emo and Dirty South hip hop–styles that flourished freely on the cultural margins before seizing the mainstream’s attention–and they can relate to their fans’ passion for music that most pop consumers don’t know exists.“I'd go out and find these bands to fulfill myself with and kind of latch myself onto,” Ruby says. “I wanted to wear punk clothes and have a mohawk. And my parents were like, 'Not my son...'”

We're to the point where we can't really go walking around the city without being mobbed.

“For me,” says Slick Sloth, “I had so much anger and stuff growing up. My music interests always ended up leaning towards dark music, whether it was Three 6 Mafia or some emo shit like My Chemical Romance.” As they started making their own music, the cousins drifted into separate lanes. Scrim made beats and signed a production deal with a major label, while Ruby played drums in punk bands. Their shared love for two musical worlds that at the time seemed separated by an unbridgeable gap meant that neither felt entirely comfortable in either–outsiders even among other outsiders.

The maternal cousins started collaborating in 2013, after Ruby’s attempt to direct a video for Scrim fell apart. Early on, Scrim and Ruby played up the image of two white scumbags rapping for all the comedic value they could–”bragging about being broke and saying that we don't care,” as Ruby put it. But the pair quickly began mining their personal lives to create more serious, self-reflective music.

They had a lot of material to draw from. $crim’s been supporting his family off and on since he was a teenager. Ruby used to sling drugs from his bicycle. Both suffer from severe depression, and both have struggled with substance abuse. “From ages 14 to like 22, I was going crazy trying everything I could fucking find,” Ruby says, “just to see what it was like.” $crim started abusing painkillers when he was 15, in the wake of his grandfather’s death, and quickly found himself with a crippling heroin addiction. When they started channeling their darker experiences into their music, the results were immediate and overwhelming.

Ruby still remembers the first time a fan told him his music had saved their life. “It was in Dallas,” he recalls. “We played some warehouse and there were maybe a hundred kids there–maybe a hundred kids. And this one kid came up to me and he was crying and he was like, 'Hey man, I just wanna let you know that my mom just died of cancer a couple weeks ago and I would have killed myself if I didn't discover you guys.' Scott and I were speechless.”

The pair had discovered what would become their signature sound, mixing the murky, bad-trip ambience of Three 6 Mafia’s early mixtape days with emo’s self-lacerating lyrics, melodies that lean more towards pop-punk than pop-rap, and fusillades of distorted electronic noise. It’s not exactly a commercially friendly sound, but the pair invested literally everything they had in it. According to $uicideboy$ legend, the name was inspired by a pact $crim and Ruby made to kill themselves if they didn’t break out by the time they turned 30.

We're trying to show people, 'Hey, there's a positive side of things.' You don't have to be a goody two shoes blissed out Christian to fucking be like that.

When $uicideboy$ first started, they were just one act in what would become a zeitgeist-shifting wave of “SoundCloud rappers” figuring out how to fit scene-kid vulnerability into hip-hop aesthetics, but they took a different approach than most: harsher, knottier, more inward-looking. And despite their links to some of the biggest stars to come out of that movement—they took the late (and controversial) rapper XXXTentacion out on tour early on–they developed their own distinct fan base.

At the $uicideboy$ show at the PlayStation Theater the energy feels less like a typical rap concert and more like the first time I saw Marilyn Manson, right after their cover of “Sweet Dreams” took off. There are the same call-and-response bits with the audience, the same image of thousands of middle fingers being held in the air, the same feeling of pent-up rage finally finding a release. And just like that Marilyn Manson concert, nearly everyone in attendance to see $uicideboy$ is white.

$uicideboy$ have connected with a particular type of fan: young and white, usually poor, mostly male, who doesn’t have the right taste or education to fit in with either mainstream society or the counterculture. In an earlier time they’d probably have been listening to Manson or Korn or metal, and not Three 6 Mafia. The bands they love are typically ignored by coastal elites and the media, the same way they’re ignored by them, which is one of the reasons why they’re so famously loyal. (Just ask the Insane Clown Posse, who turned a whole generation of this kind of fan into something very much like an actual religious cult.) On the $uicideboy$ subreddit fans trade concert setlists and memes alongside harrowing personal stories that read like dispatches from the forefront of the opioid epidemic, the mental health epidemic, and pretty much everything else shitty that’s going on in the downmarket corners of middle America.

Seeing a $uicideboy$ show is like seeing their fan base’s collective anxiety dumped out on stage, in the form of young rappers screaming about self annihilation over glitched-out electronic noise, in front of a wall of glitched out video of fighter jets dropping streaks of flaming napalm. I’m a middle-aged, middle class creative professional who’s in therapy and does yoga, so I’m well outside their target audience, but after a day of typically dread-inducing headlines the spectacle did a lot to exorcise the sense of doom I’d been carrying around. I can only imagine how badly I’d need it if I was still 20 and suicidal and everyone was telling me the world was about to end.
To those of us outside their fan base, $uicideboy$’s music can be as loud and alienating as Mike D described it. (The band says they take his comments as a compliment.) It can also be unrelentingly bleak and nihilistic, like normally vibrant trap music rendered in low-res, hi-contrast black and white. But while it may have started as a celebration of their worst habits, $crim and Ruby have managed to turn their music into something undeniably therapeutic. Giving young people a chance to get up close and personal with the void always looks scary to older generations, but it’s one of the most effective ways to dispose of exactly the kind of suicidal-ideation self-hatred that the pair raps about.

Despite outward appearances, Ruby tells me, “We're trying to show people, 'Hey, there's a positive side of things.' You don't have to be a goody two shoes blissed out Christian to fucking be like that. It's literally as simple as changing the fucking station in your mind.”

$uicideboy$ are in a sweet spot, career-wise, with about as large an audience as an act can get and still have it feel like a shared secret between fans. Moving forward will mean navigating new challenges, including how to keep old fans from feeling abandoned when new ones start finding the band. And no one, especially rappers on a path to stardom, likes moving backwards. But when Ruby and $crim say that they’re not particularly worried about where things go, I believe them. They’re still young and hungry, but if you spend time with them you get the sense that they’ve already earned something much bigger than any paycheck they’ll ever cash: a reason to keep them waking up each day.

“We've lasted five years,” $crim tells me, “which is five years longer than we ever thought.”

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