It's tempting to roll your eyes when a band bursts out of the gate boasting their own invented genre label. On their weirdly intoxicating debut album, Wormfood, Detroit duo Jamaican Queens have branded their particular style "Detroit trap pop," but it's a note-perfect description—over nine familiar-yet-strangely-foreign tunes, vocalist/producer Ryan Spencer and producer/instrumentalist Adam Pressley dole out warbled, snot-nosed indie-pop melodies over hip-hop beats (booming 808 snares, whizzing synths), with a gritty, street-level lyrical approach focused on urban violence, drug parties, and social decay.
"I think that trap music in general is a pretty cool new style," Spencer says, referring to the dubstep/hip-hop hybrid currently crossing over from the underground into the mainstream. "I guess it's not new, but a style of music that's underground, and not a lot of people know about it, especially in the indie-rock world. They've been separate for so long. And those two things are just now starting to merge—a grimy, hip-hop style with a more artistic feel, you know? More pop or accessible to people who don't normally seek out an urban style of music. It's a combination of that, I guess—the grimier hip-hop world that's run by drugs and crime merging with indie-rock grooves."
The road to Detroit trap pop wasn't especially linear, given the duo's musical history. Over the past few years, Spencer and Pressley sparked a local buzz via the fractured art-rock of their previous outfit, Prussia. When that band called it quits in 2012, the duo suddenly bonded over their mutual fascination with hip-hop production, collaborating over beats Pressley made on the software program Ableton.
"Adam and I, when he moved to Detroit and we were still working on an album with Prussia, he and I both started getting really into hip-hop music, and he started showing me some of his productions," Spencer says. "I didn't use Ableton at the time—we were using Pro Tools to record with Prussia—and at the same time, he was showing me the stuff he was doing with hip-hop music. And I'd never done that—I'd always made lo-fi tape recordings and stuff, and never really ventured into the other form. And then I started getting really inspired by the stuff he was making, and I got the program as well."
Wormfood is certainly engaging from a sonic standpoint—Spencer and Pressley are effectively mingling electronic music, hip-hop, and indie rock, but the end result is far from "laptop pop" or the typical beat-based trendy indie that's become the blog-approved norm in recent years. The most crucial thread throughout these songs is Spencer's vivid, brutally honest, and often harrowing worldview—lyrics inspired by failed relationships, gospel music, mushroom-fueled parties, and knife-wielding psychos.
The album's catchiest and most intense moment is the lead single, "Kids Get Away," a track that demonstrates Spencer's knack for intensifying real life events through colorful imagery.
"I would say that a lot of the songs are true events or true occurrences in my life, and some of it's just things that I totally blow out of proportion," he says. "It could be something really, really small that happens to me or something I dwell on that I make a more grandiose story out of. Even ‘Kids Get Away'—it's inspired by that girl who got followed home, and these people cut her face. She's actually okay now, I know that. I think she moved out of Detroit. That part's true—but then I think there's another character in the story that's obsessed with her and is in love with her, and that's not true. But I thought it was an interesting concept, someone taking care of this girl and falling in love with her."
The music—like the band itself—has fallen into place rather quickly.
"We've really only been a band for about eight months," Spencer says. "It was just maybe in March we started putting together the live show, and we played our first show in June. It is definitely happening a lot faster than it did with Prussia. All of the people that were working with Prussia had a big hand in helping us out. Our booking agent was in Chicago, and he wanted us to come there a few times. And after we did that, he started booking us, and he's been a huge help in helping us get shows. Since then, it's just been our own promotions and playing non-stop, and it's just all kind of coming together really well."
"Detroit trap pop" might, on its surface, sound like the worst kind of blog bait, but Jamaican Queens' delicate balance of the off-putting and the inviting has some shelf life.
"It makes something morbid almost beautiful," Spencer says.