“Aquatopias cradle and lull you into a deep end of placid angles.” – Kodwo Eshun
Seapunk’s placid angles are more than a little slippery. Part music, part aesthetic, part fashion, part meme, the concept embraces the immersive nature of water. The best introduction to seapunk appears in a recent blog series at Mishka Bloglin, where dj Pictureplane describes it as “a mostly internet-based phenomenon, birthed out of the tumblr and twitter universes as a means to describe a lifestyle aesthetic that is all things oceanic and of the sea.” The hashtag #seapunk, and supplementary tags like #splishsplash and #oceangang have already made ripples in the twitterverse. The tag evokes a particular sound and look: turquoise-bleached hair, tumblrs with aquatic backgrounds, and mellow dance and rap music featuring aquatic or sea mammal sound effects. It is a thankless task to confine seapunk to a definitive term like “genre” “movement” or “style,” because its fluidity is its strength. For example, “Follow the Sun” by MIL3¥ $3RI•VS features a playful/ironic sample of Midnight Star’s 80’s club hit “Midas Touch” pitched down and filtered and cutely layered with marine sounds, but shares very little with the ambient, slower tempo “underwater juke” track “Kensington,” an original composition by Indigo Bunting. They do not have much in common musically, but both tracks can thematically categorized as seapunk.
Post-ironic and consciously teen-oriented, seapunk’s ocean is a hungry tumblrsphere reveling in the retro-futurism of the 1990s. Its aesthetic influences include 16-bit video games like SEGA’s Ecco the Dolphin and Sonic the Hedgehog, 3D screensavers, Lisa Frank, rave culture, bratty teens, anime, and “Bad Boy”-esque pleather ghetto-fab, all rendered beyond the wildest wet dreams of cyberpunk-era Angelfire and Netscape Navigator surfers. More than regurgitated future-of-the-past, seapunk’s champions catalogue, assemble, and take the above source material to its extreme saturation point with almost spiritual fervor.
Before I knew what seapunk was, I could only wonder about the subtle references to the wavy and the oceanic cropping up in blissed out, pseudo-baptismal electro-r&b tracks of early 2011. It wasn’t until I did a radio show with rapper Le1f and dj/label impresario Taliesin that they gave me the context to the fact that this “water made on computers” has a traceable narrative, edging me to look more deeply.
Sub-cultural trends tend to gain traction when accompanied by a compelling origin myth, and seapunk’s fittingly began in a dream tweeted at 4am. Dj and dystopian twitter wizard Lil Internet had a vision one night about a leather jacket bejeweled with barnacles instead of studs. He promptly woke up and tweeted about it, thus birthing the #seapunk hashtag. According to him, “the dream became a meme and the meme became a scene, but aside from having the dream and coining the term I had little to do with it’s evolution into an actual real-life subculture.”
[Artwork by Kevin Heckart for Coral Records]
That evolution exists in a precarious position. Memes are both infectious and ethereal. As much it is a delight to both consume and participate in #seapunk culture by delving into its origins and manifestations, the rise and abandonment of seapunk’s older siblings: witch house, chillwave, and based rap, provokes anxiety. Additionally, its navel-gazing nature and nostalgic lean ensures almost instantaneous disregard by the hipster-phobes among us. When trying to describe it to friends, I’ve observed excitement slowly drain from some of their faces as I try to unpack how it is more of an aesthetic than a genre, the infinite nature of tumblr culture, and its linkages to universal and ancient water-worship systems. “That’s fucking stupid,” is a common reaction.
Yes, its trendiness can feel silly, but there’s also something very seductive in how seapunk re-infuses the natural world into the screens and speakers we humans use to connect to each other. We are all aware of the accelerated depletion of the wonder and beauty of our planet and the cordoning off of what remains for ecotourism or conservation. We are also very tied to rigid classifications of art, music, and technology. The soothing imagery and sounds of seapunk are a reaction and a sedative.
The ocean isn’t a new source material for progressive, collective electronic music. Kodwo Eshun described their aquatopian ideal in his 1998 article in The Wire on the anonymous Detroit collective Drexciya. The group, influenced by ’90’s rave culture as well as early Detroit techno acts like Cybrotron and Juan Atkins, was more than a little obsessed with the element of water:
“Well, water is the most powerful element on this planet. Water has many different properties. It comes in many different forms and many different shapes and different weights. And that’s the way we see our music–we can come in any different size or shape that we want depending on the rhythm of the song, how aggressive the song is, how transparent or how big it is, how clear, how diluted, how fast, how slow, it all depends-the same properties as water” – Interview with Andrew Duke
Drexciya’s music is more aggressively militant both thematically and harmonically than seapunk tends to be (see the synth-heavy funk of “Bubble Metropolis”). All of their productions were deeply rooted in a mythology that during the transatlantic slave trade, the fetuses of enslaved African women thrown overboard mutated into a water-breathing species living in an underwater world called Drexciya. The narrative goes deep and addresses political issues of forced migration, reparations, and urban conditions.
It is unclear how much of an influence Drexciya has had on musicians producing seapunk, but Boody B & Le1f’s “Born Underwater” seems to me the closest progeny of the Drexciyan mythos from current seapunk producers. In the track, Erykah Badu’s distorted wails (sampled from “On & On”) edge forward what sounds like a soundtrack from an eerie afrofuturist thriller. It is an encounter with an isolated, mutant sea goddess, empowered by her surroundings, welcoming the listener into her lair. It has a rare emotional depth.
Beyond Drexciya, references to water have been bubbling up all over the global electronic music scene for the past decade. Videos have featured water ripple effects, waterfalls, and climate change imagery (like dj/rupture and Matt Shadetek’s Solar Life Raft medley), and the use of waves crashing and other aquatic noises as sound effects as transitions are pervasive, particularly in French House (see Crydamoure Presents Waves Vols. 1 and 2). Noticing the waterfall background in Nguzunguzu’s DIS Magazine mix “The Perfect Lullaby” and the imagery in the video for “Water Bass Power (Timesup Sand Mix),” I asked them about their relationship to seapunk. They claimed not to have too much knowledge of it, but noted that the aquatic themes in their videos and productions are not incidental. “Since the beginning we’ve been water based. It’s a theme we’ve stuck with—Nguzunguzu is on the boat in the water warding off evil water spirits, and guiding vessels.” The call of the sea has clearly been resonant under the surface of cultural consciousness.
The most visible node of seapunk is Coral Records, led by Fire for Effect/Albert Redwine. Their official releases have been “#Seapunk Vol. 1,” “The Beach” by Fire for Effect, and a split by Kansas City’s Ari and Papoose called the “Soaked EP.” The sound of Coral Records is rave music “lite”—wet industrial softened around the edges with grown and sexy chiptune, the occasional juke track, references turn-of-the-century filter house, and ambient sound collages. According to Redwine, seapunk is “more than just a conceptual movement but a real one. The label is simply a vehicle to propel likeminded individuals onto a higher plane of the crystal grid consciousness.” These manic-panic’d children of Yemaya are poised to (*ahem*) make the most waves, and also profit the most, from seapunk’s popularity.
While Coral Records exists on a more dance-oriented tendril of seapunk, there is an equally curious parallel within the rap community. Soulja Boy might be most visible ambassador of the aquatopian ethos in popular culture. His track “Came Out the Water” and subsequent tracks by Ocean Gang affiliates have no clear spiritual or political agenda, but are more “based”. Using the vocal looping technique, and free association lyricism popularized by Lil B The Based God, their communion with the sea is atmospheric and invokes a meditative trance state. The most sophisticated seapunk rap out there could be the collaborations between psychedelic hip-hop producer Sea Things and art rappers Main Attrakionz. “On Deck” is a trippy, layered ode to being on the brink of fame. It feels like my favorite daydream about The Avalanches producing for Young Money.
There’s something fantastically uterine and telekinetic about how a seemingly disparate constellation of influences has coalesced so quickly around a single theme. In a great article on the seapunk visual aesthetic and the new web, Luna Vega writes, “it literally sounds like how it looks, but unless you’re online or familiar with new web culture, that concept is extremely confusing.” But for those who are familiar, it presents an opportunity to #splishsplash around. Like the seemingly magical nature of the wireless technology that drives our social economy, #seapunk is invisibly tethered together within a vast network of musicians, net artists, and youth culture enthusiasts gazing around at the rising waters and trying to make sense of it.