For a few months last year, one of the most entrancing places on the internet was the YouTube page of a musician called Certified Trapper. He would post endlessly. The songs were alluring, free-flowing blips of internal monologue. The videos were ruthlessly DIY affairs, shot mostly at home: Certified executing peculiar proprietary dance moves; Certified cartoonishly flashing his gold teeth; Certified grooving in front of anodyne greenscreen images of churches and traffic intersections. Eventually, the endless flow abated—not because Certified got burned out, but because he got signed.
Jeff Vaughn is the CEO of Signal Records, a joint venture with Columbia. He gave Certified his deal, and he’s a true believer. “He’s the most unique, most talented, and most polarizing presence in the city and in music, period,” Vaughn says. The city in question isn’t New York or LA or Atlanta, the country’s traditional rap hubs. It’s Milwaukee.
And it’s not just Certified: Some of the most exciting rap music being made right now comes from America’s 31st largest city. From Wisconsin. Certified is predated by similarly singular acts like Mari Boy Mula Mar and has already cultivated oddball protégés like AyooLii. Then there’s Big Frank, Carvie P, Munch Lauren, Steve Da Stoner, MarijuanaXO, Joe Pablo. You may have never heard of them but they’re big in Milwaukee—and, increasingly, they’re big on TikTok, where the city’s locally grown dance moves have boosted the city’s sound. If you see someone on TikTok slightly crouching down, stretching one arm out as if pointing at the horizon and panning across the room, you’re seeing Milwaukee. A rapper named 50K Stash created the move and now everyone in Milwaukee is doing it. All the time. And so are all their fans and imitators on TikTok. What started as a local trend has become a massive online swell.
The TikTok-friendly Milwaukee sound is defined by short tracks, loosely rattling bass, and an immediately recognizable metronome-esque hand-clap rhythm. It’s known as lowend. One of the earliest lowend hits, Esco and Shawn P’s “Like Yhop,” takes Natasha Bedingfield’s pop standard “Unwritten,” drenches it in the claps, and runs it through utterly blown-out speakers. “Feel the raaaain on your skiiiin, like yhoooop!” It’s a gem.
Lowend “is built around these eighth-note claps that at least partly have their origins in Louisiana styles like bounce and ratchet,” says John Chiaverina, the Milwaukee-raised writer and musician known as Rustbelt. “Those styles clearly have a history in the city,” but as filtered through the iPhones and the minds of Certified Trapper, AyooLii, and a whole bunch of other would-be stars, it’s now spinning off in bold new directions. Milwaukee, says Chiaverina, “is building a trademark sound.”
With Certified Trapper, that trademark sound, and the viral dances that go with it, could go pop. “I see him as somewhere between Pharrell and Young Thug,” Vaughn says. “At the moment, people either love him or hate him, but in the long run I believe he has one of the broadest potential commercial appeals of any artist of his generation.”
Fifty years in, and hip hop is still finding all new ways to get weird. Some Milwaukee stuff can be so oblique and odd that it borders on outsider art. But no one in Milwaukee is making content without wanting it to be heard. Behind it all is a desire to blow up. In Milwaukee, there is a pervading belief that the next strange banger you post could be the one that gets you signed.
Born Ali Abdi in Kenya, AyooLii moved to Wisconsin as a toddler. His family is part of the city’s small Somali Bantu community. He grew up performing traditional dances with his cousins at birthday parties. His dad was into flashy Congolese artists like Dr. Sakis and Awilo Longomba. When he was 14 or 15 years old, he started posting comedy skits online. Then he started making joke songs. One day he sat down with a pen and paper and thought, “I’m about to become a rapper.”
It was after he linked up with Certified Trapper that things really started to take off. The first time they met was right in the middle of Certified’s interview with a local YouTube personality, Tommy G. You can see AyooLii hang around a gun-laden scene, befuddled. The hyerpbolic interview was later posted as the misleadingly titled “Day In The Life Of A Gangster Rapper” and helped Certified significantly grow his audience. (Tommy G himself had just recently built an audience thanks to a video about the Kia Boyz, a Milwaukee crew known for stealing, yes, Kias.) Now AyooLii sees Certified as a mentor: “He gave me his blueprint.” It’s a maximalist approach.
TikTok has very successfully activated a nation of aspiring artists to function in TikTok’s best interest by constantly creating more TikTok content. It’s the number-two most popular platform for music discovery for 16- to 19-year-olds, second only to YouTube, and anyone looking to get noticed has to engage with the app. That’s the depressing part of all this. As one local artist, Khal!l, told me: “I don’t make music for an app. I make it out of love. I wanna create an atmosphere where we can mosh-pit but then also cry and hold hands and shit.” And yet Khal!l is deeply aware that in order to do that, he has to utilize TikTok. He trades tips with his music friends on how to finesse the algorithm. They’ve all mostly stopped using hashtags and focus instead on their captions, knowing that TikTok will automatically suck up their text and spit it out to adjoining niche communities. To date, the flood of posts tagged with Milwaukee’s area code, 414, have topped more than 800 million views.
But ultimately, in Milwaukee, they know that trying to solve the algorithm is foolish—they know the ground could always shift beneath their feet. So all they can really do is flood the platforms. As Khal!l put it, “We gotta ride this horse ’til the hooves fall off.”
For AyooLii, at least, constantly creating comes natural. “Make beats, make a vlog, shoot music videos—two or three clips doing me, just being myself in front of the camera, doing the little African dances,“ he explains. “I edit in iMovie. I make my songs in Studio One, I use FL to make my beats. And then the next day—repeat! Record it, edit, go, you ain’t got nothing to think about, you feel me? I’m on to the next one.” Five months ago, he says, there was nothing in his apartment. “Check the video for ‘Michael Myers.’ It’s just me dancing with a drill.” Now he’s got a guitar, a piano, a desk, LED lights. “I’m trying to better myself every day.”
But that still means being true to his own instincts. Online, fans will tell AyooLii, “‘Hey bro, use this EQ, mix this.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t wanna do none of that.’”
Another thing he often hears: To make it, he has to leave Wisconsin. But he’s not listening. “I always believed Milwaukee would have this chance. Lowend? Certified Trapper?! I fell in love with it. I felt, this is so different. This is so new.” Now, he’s developing his own protégés. He’s plotting to incorporate traditional clothing items like the ma’awis into his AyooLii persona. “I’ma really be the first Bantu rapper,” he promises.
As to what happens next in Milwaukee, AyooLii says, “I don’t wanna be the biggest, the most richest—I just wanna be a part of it. We got a lot of kids in Milwaukee inspired by what we do. They’re shooting videos on phones. They’re making songs off BandLab and blowing up. It’s crazy!”
The term lowend comes from the “lowends,” the part of East Milwaukee where the street numbers are the low ones on the city’s grid system. On a lovely, calm morning in June, I go to the lowends to meet the rapper Steve Da Stoner, who lives with his extended family on a tree-lined street of ramshackle homes just a few blocks from a Milwaukee Police Department station. By way of greeting me, he pats me down, as if the MPD had sent me from up the road. “Gotta make sure you not wearing a wire!” Then he offers his blunt. “You smoke weed?”
We settle down in a camping tent propped up in the sideyard. His kids run around, politely picking up trash. His pitbull, Bullet, lingers. He smiles and stretches out his arms. “I’m still in the hood but shit, I’m on my way up out this bitch.”
In his thirties, Steve is a decade or more older than many of his Milwaukee contemporaries. One of his scene peers, Carvie P, is actually one of his childhood friend’s sons. His music is less lowend, more straight street rap. In one charmingly hyperlocal lyric, he raps, “I’m from the Mil’, please don’t get it twisted / I was raised by those n***** who caught Jeffrey Dahmer slipping.” (Milwaukee’s most infamous son was murdered in prison.) But just like the city’s teens and twentysomethings, Steve found success dancing on TikTok.
He pulls up his account on the music distribution platform DistroKid to show me stats: tens of millions of Spotify streams, tens of thousands of dollars paid out. His current viral shtick, set to his song “Barkin’,” has him stringing together the viral finger-point Milwaukee dance with a bit he lifted from the 2003 Nick Cannon movie Love Don’t Cost a Thing.
Two of Steve’s brothers, including one who was his close musical collaborator, are currently incarcerated. He’s currently raising one of his brother’s two children, along with his own four children.
Many of the Milwaukee-sound TikToks are pure entertainment—10-second blips of kitchen dances done off the cuff. But behind Steve’s is the hope that, one day, he’ll be able to change his family’s life with music money. “I’m thinking everything I do is gonna go viral because I put a hundred percent into every single thing I do,” he says. “And if I don’t hit, I just make something else. You don’t know what may happen. I could wake up, might be rich tomorrow.”
And just look at Certified. “He did that shit. Ain’t nobody thought that shit was finna go nowhere. Now he got Ds [diamonds] in his mouth—now he smiling every time he get on Live.”
The lodestar of the Milwaukee scene wasn’t actually in Milwaukee when I was in town. Certified Trapper was on a national tour with the Detroit rapper BabyTron. When we connect on the phone from a stop in Portland, Certified takes me back to the beginning, when he was 10 or 11, just messing around with musicmaking.
He first used free demos of Mixcraft, then moved on to GarageBand on his phone and “got to be damn near a professional,” he laughs. Largely using the app’s in-house library of sounds, he’d mess around endlessly, following his own pure instincts. “It’s not like I was influenced by a lot of people. I just knew I had to come up with a new style, a new sound.” Later, he’d build a home recording set up with Pro Tools and Logic. He had an aunt that had the Adobe suite, so he started editing his own music videos as well. “Sometimes I’d just trap all day, and then at the end of my little trapping spree, I’d just get to dropping fire and going crazy. Some days I’d just do this shit, like all day.”
AyooLii is still in awe of what he saw the first night he worked with Certified. “He literally made 10 beats in like five minutes. I’m like, bro! And then he made a whole mixtape, Lost In The Sauce, and all the videos. Bro, he’s a workaholic.” He calls Certified “a genius.”
Certified’s prodigious output can feel impenetrable. But, Certified says, it all came from being responsive to his audience. “Some people don’t understand—I used to drop like five or 10 videos in a day, and the fans, they’d be telling me to do that shit again.” It got him buzz in the city. It got him signed. It got him the tour with BabyTron. When he gets home, he’s going to work on getting his passport. He’s plotting shows overseas. He’d love to go to Douala, Cameroon, where he has family connections.
Not too long ago, Certified actually moved from Milwaukee to Houston in order to extricate himself from people he says were a negative influence. Still, Certified moves in line with the Milwaukee scene, which is bubbling over with familiarity.
In Milwaukee, I’d learn, direct numbers and emails are listed on social media profiles, but mostly everyone communicates via Instagram DMs. I saw one rapper post that he was now doing kids birthday parties for $500 a pop. When I contacted said rapper for an interview, he briefly pretended to be his own manager before giving up the facade. Ahead of July 4, another rapper was constantly posting offers of fireworks for sale. Certified Trapper has a major label publicist, who connected us for our interview. At the end of our call, though, Certified volunteered his own phone number.
On my last day in Milwaukee, I hang with AyooLii and his crew, Run Along Forever, backstage at Summerfest, Milwaukee’s massive annual music festival. Summerfest lineups are usually dominated by big national names; rap music has been historically underrepresented. (Tonight’s headliner is the 46-year-old country star Eric Church.) For Run Along Forever, after a string of bars and basement house shows, this is a huge leap forward.
Out on the festival grounds, there’s a ferris wheel, a cornhole, and tents offering gutter-leaf-protection services. A little cluster of Greek and Mexican restaurants is billed as the Ethnic Gardens. Multigenerational family units move together, dressed with proud blandness. It all feels thoroughly, elementally American—and within all that, a joyously inscrutable internet scene is about to have a rare physical manifestation.
The Run Along artist known as Subsad, who is from Mexico by way of Arizona, hangs out quietly wearing a pink Bratz backpack. Lil Jul, whose dad is a regional musician best known for a song called “Sex and Beer,” stomps around in a safari hat, talking about eating too many edibles, getting kicked out of a bar the night, and being ready to fight everyone wearing these silver rings he got at H&M. AyooLii wonders, “What if I faint?”
After a few hours of waiting around, Run Along Forever is finally minutes from showtime and the nervous energy is palpable. This feels like a rare privilege: watching a bunch of young people have the biggest collective moment of their lives.
Sunny Lou, the crew’s engineer-slash-life-coach, pulls everyone together for a pep talk. He’s screaming over the speakers. “There’s three kinds of people out there! People who don’t know you—make ’em love you! People who love you—make ’em love you more! People who hate you—make ’em hate you more!” It hits. Even I’m ready to run through a brick wall for Sunny.
Then, crisis: The Run Along Forever laptop isn’t connecting to the stage speakers. From a fever pitch, everyone goes back to idling while Sunny tries to undo the disaster. He quickly decides to AirDrop all the music to another laptop that is syncing in with the system. But for some reason, now AirDrop isn’t working. For 10 minutes, Sunny sits on his knees, pounds his fist in frustration, and curses the failing technology. They’re running out of time; they could lose their slot, their moment. Then Sunny has a moment of pure inspiration. He checks the other laptop’s settings. It’s on “contacts only.”
So, boom, they sort it, and the day is saved: The boys are on. “Open it up!” they scream at the kids in the front, who duly start a mosh pit. A bunch of people both on and off the stage are desperate to have the best times of their lives. When it’s his turn to go, Subsad whips his Bratz backpack toward stage right—the most dramatic Bratz backpack toss I’ll ever be lucky enough to see.
When AyooLii comes on to finish the set, the whole place is doing the 50K Stash finger point. A dude gets on his buddy’s shoulders in the front row to finger point from a higher elevation point. An 8-year-old by me is nearly convulsing with finger points. A security guard absconds from his duties to finger point. The people shout out “Play that shit!”, and everyone knows what “that shit” is.
They’ve gotten from the internet to here, and it feels like a confirmation of the ethos of the city right now. “If you only have a laptop and some earphones you can do it,” Certified Trapper told me. “If you only have a phone, you can do that shit.” For the city of Milwaukee, who knows what the algorithm is going to do tomorrow? But somewhere out on the road, Certified is dreaming of passports and international flights. And tonight, at Summerfest, Run Along Forever is popping.
AyooLii rolls into “Shmackin Town,” his biggest song to date. After a snippet of Lipps Inc.’s “Funky Town,” it takes off on a cracking, thumping bass for 82 seconds of pure, concentrated party music. “Welcome to Milwaukee!” AyooLii bellows. “Shmackin town!” Glow sticks materialize. It’s madness. “I ain’t gon’ lie,” I hear over the din of the crowd. “His bitch ass got a hit. That’s a hit.”