Tay-K and the Banshees

A fabled SoundCloud martyr meets a gothic post-punk tradition.



Since about four years ago, the mythic SoundCloud account that once belonged to Tay-K has been under the apparent control of Wali Da Great, a lesser-known teenager with commendable dedication to (1) getting his raps off, and (2) proving his allyship to one of internet hip-hop’s most notorious martyrs. The page, once a hotbed for nefarious fables and dramatic myth-making, is now somewhat geriatric and vegetative — rife with vapid callbacks to a tried-and-true West-Coast tradition, where deceased or imprisoned forebears are serenaded by upstart storytellers soon to boast their own respective tales. Part of what makes Wali’s efforts so hilarious, if not detestable, is the parasocial relationship they collectively seem to be harboring. “Letter Tay-K,” one of six tracks on the SoundCloud-exclusive mini-album Rugrat Gang Vol. 4 — attributed to Tay-K and Wali Da Great, though mostly featuring Wali and Tay-K’s pre-prison loosie recordings — is almost parodic in its one-sided pandering, confessional truths muddied by mediocre delivery and a sort of homoerotic ethos. Sifting through the Wali-controlled debris of Tay-K’s legend, you get the sense that, perhaps, what made his hero so captivating was that his raps weren’t stakeless; they were evidence in his courtroom hearings, testaments to his trials, detritus of his demise. This scrappy, self-proclaimed “rugrat” was on a destructive death trip, America his audience-slash-accomplice. “If you see somebody that’s living what they’re talking about,” Kollege Kidd’s Richard Autry told the New York Times shortly after Tay-K’s arrest, “it makes the music seem that much more realistic.”

Tay-K, circa 2017. Photo: Cedar Stone

A teenaged Tay-K achieved national renown in 2017, when he released “The Race” while actively on the run from police for murder charges. The track’s earworm, autobiographical hook — “Fuck a beat, I was tryna beat a case / But I ain’t beat that case, bitch I did the race” — was invoked in tweets, remixes and freestyles by superstars and up-and-comers alike, a weighty list that included Travis Scott, 21 Savage, and Young Nudy. Its music video birthed the hip-hop version of Pablo Escobar’s daring White House post-up: a pouting Tay-K hoisting his own “Wanted” sign from the back-seat of a convertible, as if to say “catch me if you can.” Hours after the video was released online, he was apprehended by U.S. marshals; six years later, he sits in San Antonio’s Bexar County Jail, where he awaits trial for a 55-year sentence on charges of capital murder and possession of deadly weapons. 

Tay-K’s story hinges most heavily on death and destruction, whether inflicted upon the self (even if unintentionally), or plotted against others. Decades before “The Race,” or even SoundCloud, an enticing subgenre of alternative music emerged from the punk infrastructure of London, where global pop-rock glory was beginning to decay into something more sinister, and more outwardly nefarious. A descendent of punk without necessarily being post-punk, gothic rock was defined by an infatuation with overtly-dark soundscapes, gothic literature, and artful romanticizations of isolation. Among the most popular gothic rock tracks, in fact, is “Isolation”: a haunting ballad by the band Joy Division, in which self-hatred is bathed in reverb and lofted over jumpy, percussive synths. “I’m ashamed of the things I’ve been put through,” frontman Ian Curtis bemoans in that song, “(and) I’m ashamed of the person I am.”

“If you not talkin’ bout smoke, you could go dat way.”

For all we can make of what he’s told us, Tay-K is far from ashamed of anything: not his journey to Bexar County, not the person he was before he arrived there, not the person he may be when, or even if, he gets out. But his music bears, even if not by design, some of the very out-of-reach quirks that made gothic rock appealing to those weary of power chords and arena tours. The subgenre, in all its melodramatic self-loathing, is something masturbatory and libidinal — a larger-than-life outpouring of worship in pity’s clothing, finding contemporary fans in the worst, most flawed, people you know. The music’s inherent isolation is inflamed with a me-against-the-world quality, reminiscent of its decadent, blood-on-the-cobblestone literary muses. Gothic rock’s most effective dichotomy, and perhaps what makes its parameters so loose, is a melding of quasi-upbeat instrumentalism — hence the jumpy synths in “Isolation” — with contrastingly funereal poetry, to the point where your focus on either of the two depends strictly on the mood you’re in. Though more implicitly than explicitly gothic, The Smiths, for instance, were driven by the one-two punch of Morrissey and Johnny Marr, a strange literary recluse and a restless, fast-strumming jangle-pop guitarist. “The Headmaster Ritual,” opening track to the group’s 1985 sophomore album Meat is Murder, almost tricks you with its funky, proto-StadiumArcadium riffage, before its opening lines offset all festivities: “Belligerent ghouls run Manchester schools / Spineless swines, cemented minds / Sir leads the troops, jealous of youth.”

Shortly after he was imprisoned, Tay-K digitally released his first and only mixtape #SantanaWorld (+), named for fellow upstart Texas rapper Santana Sage, with whom he once comprised the hip-hop collective Daytona Boyz. (In January of 2016, Sage was arrested for his involvement in a New Year’s Eve traffic-stop shooting, in which a female college student was killed following an altercation. “Free Santana” is a common motif across both Tay-K’s online presence and those of his contemporaries — including, but not limited to, Wali Da Great.) That December, after months of being a viral online fascination, the mixtape was officially re-released by RCA Records in collaboration with the imprint 88 Classic. Like gothic rock, Tay-K’s iteration of lived-in murder-rap is dramatized, in retrospect, by the looming prospect of crashing and burning: a fate he shares with forebears of the goth era lost to either suicide, far-right rabbit holes, or premature death. In 21 lightning-fast minutes, the mixtape balances murderous proclivities with airy, almost uplifting, synth-laden atmospheres. His raps feature a growly, pubescent drawl that demands subjugation; his stories are mostly of criminal exploits, the teen-aged fugitive himself a lone protagonist against a world out to catch him red-handed. Deep cut “Dat Way” features nihilistic-yet-directionless premises typical of gothic narrators: “Sometimes I be so damn high (I) don’t know what to say,” he admits, matter-of-factly, before lurching into a laundry-list of menacing activities. By the end of the song, we find him pushing away all members of society unattuned to his destructive lifestyle — a recurring theme for disciples of the reclusively-ignorant, self-destructive Morrissey tradition. “If you not talkin’ bout smoke,” he instructs, “you could go dat way.”

“But much like the gothic rock tradition his story extends, many of these answers are shrouded in beyond-the-studio mystery and controversy — components that make even the most straightforward music enigmatic, strange and perpetually out of reach.”

Hip-hop, especially in the mouths of sophomoric figures like Tay-K, is often criticized for its hyper-masculine vision, a man-topia where women are the currency of street politics before they are human. “Masturbatory,” in the worlds of both SoundCloud-era hip-hop and gothic-rock England, is a doubly fitting descriptor: self-pleasing in the sense that both are auto-deifying and libidinal; self-pleasing, too, in the sense that they are each often hotbeds for myopic masculinity, weaponizing a lack of female touch to loft frightening, gendered manifestos. Among the most celebrated acts of the gothic sphere is Type O Negative, a 90s goth-metal band from New York City with cinematic, larger-than-life sonic appeal. (Slow, Deep and Hard, the band’s 1991 debut album, took its cover — a close-up of a penis entering a vagina during intercourse — from a pornographic magazine.) 1996’s October Rust is often cited as a cornerstone of the subgenre; much like its U.K. predecessors, it thrives heavily on a marriage of deific instrumentalism to me-against-the-world doctrine, women occupying much of the antagonized space “the world” typically might. It’s easy to picture selections like “Love You To Death” as first-time-sex soundtracks, best utilized by pubescent frat-boy freshmen who see fucking as a form of social conquest. “Now close those eyes and let me love you to death,” a villainous, baritone voice demands in its pre-chorus — less a romantic gesture than a rape-y one. “Shall I prove I mean what I’m saying, begging / I say the beast inside me is gonna get ya, get ya, get…” Women function to similar ends, of currency and conquest, in Tay-K’s troubled cinematic universe: “Now his bitch’s ass on my dick, bathroom,” he declares of a murdered enemy in “After You”; in “Dat Way,” the sole woman mentioned is a “white bitch” who “hold(s) the yoppa, call her Mary K.”

Tay-K’s niche legend is complicated, in part, by questions of how his age plays into his (1) raps, and (2) sins. By some metric, it’s appealing to fit him into the famed Black-youth plea passed down from the likes of Lorraine Hansbury to Tupac Shakur: “What’s the matter with you all! I didn’t make this world! It was given to me this way!” On the contrary, of course, is the evidence-supported vision of Tay-K as a savage, regardless of age or intent — a designation that could easily have been limited to his music, had it not bled into his life the way it so infamously did. The rapper’s storied infatuation with the term “rugrat,” both on his digital footprint and across his short-lived discography, feels like an explicit invitation towards the former interpretation, a pity-grab that takes aim at the very questions looming over his trial. (It remains a heated topic, even now, whether he should have been tried as a juvenile or an adult.) But much like the gothic rock tradition his story extends, many of these answers are shrouded in beyond-the-studio mystery and controversy — components that make even the most straightforward music enigmatic, strange and perpetually out of reach.


“The whole hippie thing was still happening around that time, and for us, that was bullshit. We lived in a dreary, polluted, dismal town in Birmingham, and we were angry about it. And that was reflected in our music.”

A foundational text of gothic literature is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a dystopic, woman-less world of crime and death. The novel sees a well-respected scientist experiment on himself in secret — creating a primal, murderous alter-ego (Mr. Hyde) that lurks at night, then returns to normal form by sunrise, feeling deeply remorseful of his deeds. Gothic British literature, like the gothic rock and SoundCloud hip-hop eras it preceded, was infatuated with similar “dark sides,” especially in social contexts that strictly stigmatized and forbade them. As industrialization carved out new potential for social mobility in Victorian England, a bedrock of contemporary gothic aesthetics, it became increasingly necessary — especially among the elite — to affirm one’s standing by being as normal as possible. Such normalcy was rooted in a complex system of social ideals that aimed to distinguish between “true” gentlemen and rogue, dangerous imposters. Violations of unwritten codes were punished by ostracization and public outcry, not only because they provoked immediate fears, but larger, societal ones as well: the most dreadful prospects, in Victorian England, were of degeneration and decay, slow-burn killers to the glory brought on by a waning British Empire.

Tensions brewing within the populace came to a head with “Jack the Ripper,” perpetrator of several gruesome, never-to-be-solved murders carried out against female sex workers. Much of the case’s immediate fallout served to highlight already-prevalent stigmas. “Faced with a ‘senseless crime,’ press commentary invoked the figure of the Gothic sex beast, a ‘man monster’ motivated by ‘bloodthirsty lust’ who ‘goes forth stealthily and takes his victims when and where he already pleases,’” the scholar Judith Walkowitz wrote in her essay Jack the Ripper and the Myth of Male Violence. “People allowed their imagination to run riot. There was talk of black magic and vampires.”

“Like Tay-K’s brief stint as an object of national curiosity, it functions best as an alternative way of being, even if its time as a chart fixture is long gone.”

Goth figures in rock and hip-hop have often found inspiration in similar characters, even if they’ve never gone as far as to emulate their deeds. Lydia Lunch, a goth-adjacent contemporary of Sonic Youth and New York City’s “No Wave” milieu, was famously infatuated with Charles Manson; decades after Kim Gordon would invoke him in “Death Valley ‘69,” Death Grips would sample a monologue of his on the opening track to their debut mixtape, Exmilitary. Part of what makes radical countercultures difficult to sustain is the amorphous task of being counter-anything — an antagonistic ethos that may begin with an anti-government agenda, then ride its “subversion” into Nazi regalia and sexist praxis. But being infatuated with hellish, murderous figures like Jack the Ripper and Charles Manson, for artists and consumers alike, creates the libidinal effect of dabbling in a “dark side” without necessarily having to be swallowed by it. It isn’t a stretch to envision this dynamic as an underlying motive for hip-hop’s top listening demographic, white men: removed from pressures of being a Black man, let alone a Black criminal, the music is less reality than green-screen — a fierce backdrop against which savage imaginations may run wild.

One of the first recorded uses of the term “gothic rock” came in 1977, when it was invoked by critic John Stickney of Williams College to describe a local concert by the Doors. The band “met New York for better or worse at a press conference in the gloomy vaulted wine cellar of the Delmonico Hotel,” Stickney wrote, “the perfect room to honor the Gothic rock of the Doors. (…) Significantly titled ‘Strange Days,’ the new album’s music is just as erotic, just as hard-driving, just as compelling but twice as terrifying as their first effort.” If Strange Days is, at least unofficially, the first gothic rock album, it’s a snug fit: Where Jim Morrison was a sex-obsessed figure with macabre poetry, Ray Manzarek and Robby Krieger were a virtuosic musical backbone, churning out arrangements odd enough to make their vocalist’s musings mythic. “Masturbatory,” too, was a term both lyrically and literally integral to their lore — the decline of Jim Morrison’s career began with a controversial 1969 performance in Miami, where he exposed and pleasured himself before an audience of ten thousand.

From a 1931 film adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde.

Gothic rock would take its most concrete form in the late 1970s, championed by enigmatic English groups like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Bauhaus, and the Cure. Over the following decades, its infatuation with darkness would manifest on physical fronts, acts often wielding face paint and leather outerwear to substantiate abrasive “dark side” literature. Among gothic rock’s most direct predecessors was Black Sabbath, one of the first UK acts to counter pervasive prosperity-gospel with horror and dread. “The whole hippie thing was still happening around that time,” Ozzy Osbourne, the group’s frontman, told Guitar World in a 2008 feature. “And for us, that was bullshit. We lived in a dreary, polluted, dismal town in Birmingham, and we were angry about it. And that was reflected in our music.”

“For some post-punk purists, perhaps an analog is to be found in what some interpret as a “cheapening” of the era’s ethos, readymade for young devotees — and corporations — who get to say the lines and wear the rags without suffering the consequences of either.”

From its onset, hip-hop was born out of similar premises — a stark reminder, whether from Gil Scott Heron or Kanye West, that while Black America fought through every passing day, “Whitey” was “on the moon.” By Tay-K’s ascent, much of this ethos had been, like any other subculture, diluted by way of oversaturation: rap music bore both a clear surface and an equally-clear underground, tiered and layered like the iceberg diagrams invoked to visualize the dark web. Though many had done it before him, Tay-K’s brand of autobiographical, as-it-happens myth-making was invigorating to the rap internet because it felt unapologetically authentic, staked in real-life savagery with real-life consequences. In similar fashion, where pop-rock foundations laid by Led Zeppelin and Queen furthered narratives of love and merrymaking, gothic rock positioned itself as a messenger for less-appealing realities, often actively muddying the lives of its troubled protagonists. Up to present day, even as the music itself lacks its former prevalence, goth aesthetics remain solaces to those on the fringes of collective high-spirits: “goth,” now, seems to denote outerwear before it denotes a late-70s post-punk milieu. Like Tay-K’s brief stint as an object of national curiosity, it functions best as an alternative way of being, even if its time as a chart fixture is long gone.

As of the writing of this piece, the latest track posted to Tay-K’s official SoundCloud page is “Bling Bling,” a seemingly-unfinished 2017 loosie that has since been freestyled over by a sprawling cast of characters. Tay-K himself only offers one, auto-tuned verse before the instrumental plays out; as usual, he’s rapping about nefarious rugrat exploits: no-mask stick-ups, promethazine, pouring Aunt Jemima (not the pancake syrup) into his soda. It’s a feel-good track that hinges, like gothic rock did, on contradictory sonic makeups — murderous poetry over airy production, like Morrissey’s macabre lyricism over Johnny Marr’s happy-go-lucky riffage. What makes any version of it hilarious (and sort of sad), though, is how abruptly the prospect of what could have been is interrupted by what actually is. The iteration that exists on the SoundCloud page is completed, predictably, with a verse by Wali Da Great, rife with cheap rhymes (“my ice is my wife”; “got the cash, got the rash”; “haters could never be me, yeah I smoke a lot of trees, I’m a straight-up G”) and empty gangsta-rap rhetoric. For some post-punk purists, perhaps an analog is to be found in what some interpret as a “cheapening” of the era’s ethos, readymade for young devotees — and corporations — who get to say the lines and wear the rags without suffering the consequences of either. About two months ago, Kim Gordon posted a screenshot of a $4,000 YSL Nirvana T-shirt to her Instagram page. “Sick,” she captioned the post. “So punk!”

As sarcastic as Kim Gordon’s terse weigh-in may be, punk and all its sub-categories are increasingly self-anointed things: if you’re willing to assign yourself a cultural lineage, abide by its rules, and adopt its ethos — especially as its progenitors fade away — it’s quite easy to don that identity long-term, unchallenged. Jekyll and Hyde, Stevenson’s foundational gothic novel, hinges almost prophetically on libidinal self-modification, its titular figure(s) riding darkside-surface switcheroos en route to a painful demise. In the book’s famed final chapter, a flustered Jekyll, stuck in Hyde’s body, admits to his crimes in a hand-written letter before killing himself. “Should the throes of change take me in the act of writing it, Hyde will tear it in pieces,” he writes, “but if some time shall have elapsed after I have laid it by, his wonderful selfishness and circumscription to the moment will probably save it once again from the action of his ape-like spite. And indeed the doom that is closing on us both has already changed and crushed him.” No matter which image of Tay-K you choose to subscribe to — the troubled rugrat, the savage criminal — the doom his music documented has already crushed him. His story is, through and through, a gothic tale: self-absorbed, libidinal, and eternally on the run from all things palatable or bright.

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