What is Phonk Music?

Phonk music is a subgenre of hip hop that emerged from Memphis rap, characterized by its lo-fi aesthetics, heavy bass, and use of samples from older songs, horror movies, or other forms of media. Rooted in the southern United States in the early 1990s, it has grown into a very popular and distinctive genre with a diverse set of influences.

The soundscape of Phonk is filled with low-fi beats, creepy synths, and deep bass lines that mix with the artist’s vocals to create a haunting, almost eerie, atmosphere.

Tying to its origins, many Phonk tracks make use of samples, often repurposing snippets from older funk, jazz, and Memphis rap tracks to create a unique and hypnotic rhythm.

As for its evolution, Phonk mirrors the trajectory of many genres, originating from underground hip-hop scenes and gradually becoming more mainstream. Artists who have majorly contributed to the growth of the Phonk genre include Tommy Wright III, DJ Smokey, SpaceGhostPurrp, and more.

These influential figures have pushed Phonk into new arenas, and their impact can be felt in some of today’s popular subgenres, such as Trap and Lo-fi. All these factors combined have helped Phonk music to retain its relevance and influence in the modern music industry.

Where Phonk Music Began

Phonk music is a riveting subgenre of hip hop that finds its roots in the 1990s Memphis rap scene, a time when the boundaries of music were being pushed, and fresh sounds were emerging. Straddling the line between hip-hop and trap music, Phonk carries a distinct identity stemming from its intriguing mix of lo-fi aesthetics, raw grit, and darkness that sets it apart from its counterparts.

The roots of Phonk music are intertwined with the 1990s Memphis rap, which was full of vibrant ideas and unconventional creative energies. This era gave birth to Phonk, a music style that was as much a product of its time as it was a daring departure from standard norms.

An intriguing crossover between hip-hop and trap music, Phonk incorporates elements of both these genres, yet it is defined by its unique characteristics. The thematic darkness, haunting rhythms, and lo-fi production quality are central to the Phonk sound, setting it apart from the standard hip-hop and trap landscape.

Phonk music doesn’t shy away from experimenting with different styles. Its elements can trace back to jazz, funk, and soul, but it also borrows heavily from modern trap music. It’s the synthesis of these diverse influences that make Phonk an unforgettable auditory experience.

In essence, Phonk music isn’t just a subgenre of hip hop; it’s a distinct style that has carved out its niche in the music world. Its textures, themes, and influences categorize a unique sonic world that offers an entirely different listening experience.

The Evolution of Phonk Music

As the authentic product of the 1990s Memphis rap scene, Phonk has undergone an intriguing evolution that has redefined its standing in the music world. Rooted in eclectic beats and haunting rhythms, the progression of Phonk music tells a compelling story of an underground trend evolving into a phenomenon of mainstream popularity.

Tracing back to the 90s, Phonk was initially a raw, underground movement nurtured by a tight-knit community of creative artists in Memphis and Houston. Artists like DJ Screw, DJ Squeeky, X-Raided, DJ Spanish Fly, and the collective Three 6 Mafia helped build the genre as the pioneers of Phonk. This was where the defining characteristics of Phonk – the haunting rhythms, thick bass lines, and eerie vocals – were cemented.

However, Phonk music was defined in the late 90’s with the Houston chopped and screwed music genre, which is actually the precursor of Phonk music. The genre kept lying in the underground until the 2000s, when artists like SpaceGhostPurrp repopularized it, moving the genre to the mainstream scene.

The rise of internet platforms and digital music services, like SoundCloud, played a crucial role in Phonk’s increased visibility. These platforms allowed Phonk artists to reach global audiences with their unique sound, significantly boosting the genre’s overall popularity. SpaceGhostPurrp’s famous songs like “Pheel tha Phonk,” “Bringin’ tha Phonk,” and “Keep Bringin’ became worldwide hits. At the time, the word “Phonk” was born, as the band used it as the slang for “funk.” 

The current state of Phonk evidences a blend of the old and new, the hardcore and mainstream, the gritty and polished. Today’s Phonk retains its roots with the trademark beat, lo-fi aesthetics, and dark undertones but also borrows from other modern trends, giving it a contemporary touch.

The evolution of Phonk music paints a comprehensive journey of a unique music genre that has defied boundaries and slowly carved its wave in the vast ocean of the music world. Today, Phonk is a genre that commands a strong and dedicated following, far beyond the confines of its initial Memphis base.

The Signature Sound of Phonk Music

With its unique blend of eclectic elements, Phonk music is a distinguished musical genre that stands proud in its own right with several distinctive characteristics. Traits such as the use of vocals from old Memphis rap tapes, and hard-hitting samples from hip-hop, jazz, and funk, are a testament to its rich and varied soundscape.

Key to Phonk’s unique sound is the vocals, often sampled from early 1990s Memphis rap tapes. These vocals, usually distorted and pitched down, provide a haunting and raw depth that defines the Phonk experience.

Another defining feature of Phonk is the usage of samples. These can range from old hip hop tracks to elements from jazz and funk, subtly woven into the beats to create a captivating and rhythmically engaging soundscape. The genius behind this is maintaining a foundational consistency while sprinkling in the unexpected.

Lastly, central to Phonk is the lo-fi aesthetic. This invariably contributes to its dark, gritty sound. Raw, unpolished, yet incredibly appealing, the low-fidelity sound is Phonk’s badge of distinction in the modern music landscape.

These elements, when combined, result in Phonk music’s distinct identity – an intoxicating mix that’s a treat to the musical senses. The vocals, the chosen samples, and the seductive lo-fi aesthetic all come together to make Phonk a hard-hitting musical journey, distinctive and undeniable in its appeal.

Influential Phonk Artists

All music genres owe their identity to the musicians who drive them forward, and Phonk is no exception. Several influential figures have graced the Phonk scene, leaving their distinctive imprints and playing critical roles in shaping the genre’s overall sound and journey.

Tommy Wright III is an artist who deserves recognition for keeping the flame of Phonk music alive. Known for his gritty and raw style, Wright has a catalog marked by haunting beats and powerful lyrics that stir up the essence of classic Phonk. He is one of the pioneers of the genre, building the foundations of Phonk music back in the 90s.

DJ Smokey, a significant player in the SoundCloud scene, has greatly contributed to Phonk’s popularity. His unique blend of trap beats and chill melodies borrowed from old rap tapes highlights the genre’s potential for dynamic interplay. He is one of the most famous names in the post-phonk era called “new age phonk.”

Lastly, the impact of SpaceGhostPurrp can’t be overstated in the Phonk landscape. As part of the SoundCloud generation, his music embodies Phonk’s dark ambiance and trap-infused beats, showing a wider audience how classic brings new. 

Fueled by the contributions of these influential figures, Phonk music has made its mark in the broader hip-hop and trap music scenes. They have all played instrumental roles in shaping the genre’s unique sound, contributing to its increasing popularity, and influencing its evolution over the years.

Subgenres and Modern Influence of Phonk

The breadth and influence of Phonk music extend beyond its primary genre, making its mark on subgenres and various modern platforms. Popularized in contemporary spaces like TikTok or the drifting scene, Phonk’s influence is deeply felt across various cultural touchpoints.

One such subgenre is “Drift Phonk.” This style takes fascinating elements from Phonk and combines them with energetic beats that perfectly score drifting, popular motorsport where cars intentionally oversteer.

In the world of Electronic Dance Music (EDM), Phonk’s influence is evident. Many EDM tracks borrow the haunting rhythms, groovy bass, and low-fidelity aesthetic from Phonk, demonstrating its widespread appeal and adaptable nature.

In the age of social media, Phonk has found a new playground. Platforms such as TikTok have generously embraced the unique sound of Phonk, with numerous viral tracks illustrating the genre’s accessibility and catchy, immersive vibes.

In 2022, phonk became a big part of the mainstream scene, and Spotify released an official Phonk playlist, which received more than 3 million likes immediately.

The subgenres and the modern influence of Phonk further validate its position in the music world, showing how Phonk’s unique attributes can be adapted and reinterpreted in different cultural contexts. It continues to echo in varying facets of the music landscape and user-centric platforms, securing Phonk’s place in the modern zeitgeist.


To conclude, Phonk music stands as a captivating subgenre of hip hop that offers a unique blend of elements stemming from its roots in the 1990s Memphis rap scene to its incorporation into modern platforms like TikTok. 

The characteristics of Phonk, from eerie vocals sampled from old Memphis rap tapes to lo-fi beats infused with samples from hip-hop, jazz, and funk, all contribute to its nuanced and unforgettable sound profile. As aided by the digital age, SoundCloud, and social media platforms, Phonk’s evolution and its influence over other subgenres like Drift Phonk continue to rise.

Influential figures such as Tommy Wright III, DJ Smokey, and SpaceGhostPurrp have significantly contributed to Phonk’s rich tapestry and its growing popularity. All these elements solidify Phonk as a genre to reckon with, demonstrating its persistent relevance, adaptability, and robust influence in the contemporary music landscape.

Berk Oztuna

Berk Oztuna

Berk Öztuna is a handpan player, percussionist, and guitarist. He has been playing multiple instruments over the last 10 years. He started his music career as a guitarist, playing with several bands before putting his main focus into playing the handpan.

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