Evilgiane & Surf Gang Are Changing The Sound Of Hip-Hop
Despite never hitting the charts, “Goodbye Horses” became the sleeper hit of the ‘90s after appearing in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence Of The Lambs. Demme stumbled into a taxi driven by Diane Luckey during a mid-’80s NYC blizzard and became so smitten with her music that he included it in several of his films, most famously dropping the needle on “Goodbye Horses” for a scene featuring the androgynous serial-killer Buffalo Bill dancing naked with his genitalia tucked behind his crotch, caressing his nipple ring and applying makeup as his prisoner tries to escape. With its gentle coos and warm, echoing synth chords, “Goodbye Horses” became a symbol of counterculture.
Fifteen years after “Goodbye Horses” was popularized by The Silence Of The Lambs, the song appeared in theaters once again, this time in Kevin Smith’s stoner comedy Clerks II. To amuse themselves while loitering in front of Mooby’s, Silent Bob plays “Goodbye Horses” on his boombox while Jay applies chapstick, rocking his shoulders in a sleeveless Got Christ? tee while repeating Buffalo Bill’s vulgarities: “Would you fuck me? I’d fuck me. I’d fuck me hard.”
In 2021, 15 years after Clerks II and 30 years after The Silence Of The Lambs, “Goodbye Horses” reemerged once again — this time in the New York sample drill scene, courtesy of then-burgeoning producer Evilgiane. He flipped Q Lazzarus’ song into a drill beat for POLO PERKS <3 <3 <3's "Horses" on i.c.f.m. Pt. 3 / fortheonesilost, reimagining the band’s darkwave dreamstate with a vision of orchestrated chaos on Ableton. Using sporadic 808s that always manage to hit on the downbeat and snares that slice through seemingly-random hi-hat patterns, Giane and his collective, Surf Gang, are modernizing decades’ worth of music to the tune of hip-hop.
Surf Gang rarely travel alone. Their shows are billed as mini-festivals, their studio sessions feature a revolving door of high-profile guests, and at one point, they even had more than 15 members amongst their ranks.
There are seven boxes on the Zoom call once everyone has arrived. The members with cameras turned on are Giane Chenheu (Evilgiane), Cameron Kozloff (Eera), and the guy known only as Harrison, joined by various behind-the-scenes figures. Spirits are mild. Giane and Harrison seem a bit tired – likely from the extended press run for “The Hillbillies,” the Baby Keem and Kendrick Lamar single that lifted Surf Gang to new levels of notoriety. Eera takes the lead to give the lesser-heard interpretation of Surf Gang’s rise — Giane usually tells the story, but like the Surf Gang producer tag, things are always subject to a little bit of variance.
Evilgiane was raised in the Chinatown district of Brooklyn, where the streets are straddled with all kinds of art (dollar toys, glowing red lanterns, bootleg tees) and each shop has its own soundtrack. Giane claims this as the place of origin for the group’s aesthetic; Surf Gang started out as a skate crew that would zip through Sunset Park and link up at LES Skatepark under the Manhattan Bridge. Although the current members of Surf Gang hadn’t met at that point, skate videos and unofficial skatepark etiquette fostered an insatiable urge to experiment in all of them. “Skating got me into music,” Giane says, tracing his early trials with vaporwave back to those same skate videos.
Harrison seconds that notion, and Eera elaborates, “Skating as a kid, with skate videos promoting having an individual style, and the whole ABD [Already Been Done] culture of not throwing down the same tricks down certain spots or using same songs in videos, was a cultural ground base for making shit in general.” Harrison and Giane agree as Eera points to the learned adaptability and forced creativity of skate culture. “Doing tricks at a certain spot is in essence the same thing as making a beat or making a piece of art,” he says. “It’s your own interpretation of that area and you put your spin on it.”
That last sentence stands out: “You put your spin on it.” We’ve been hearing “Goodbye Horses” for the past 35 years, sometimes reinterpreted through covers and remixes, but never like this. As recent Surf Gang collaborator Hook describes to me on the phone, “There’s not too many songs right now that give you a 2002 vibe.” But the crew’s production style, flipping pop hits with crystalline synthesizers and spontaneous drums, delivers just that: camcorder-filmed Y2K flashiness and a touch of turn-of-the-century optimism.
Surf Gang’s story is deeply informed by hip-hop history and cultural tipping points. “I’ve been doing graffiti as long as I’ve been skating. I write ‘Surf,’ and that was just one of my throwies,” Giane recollects. He doesn’t think too much of it, citing “New York shit” and “curiosity” as his reasons for indulging in the art form. Even so, Giane and his friends’ obsession with Wild Style, Charlie Abearn’s 1983 film widely regarded as hip-hop’s first motion picture, spurred a love for hip-hop’s foundations as well as its visual aesthetic.
Evilgiane’s instinct is to play with hip-hop fundamentals. After watching Wild Style, he began to mirror other counterculturists in the mid-‘90s such as DJ Q-Bert and Dan The Automator, using their hip-hop equipment to transform virtually any record into a drum machine. In San Francisco, turntablists like Invisibl Skratch Picklz repurposed pop records, scratching as their own collective of genre-flipping beat jugglers. For instance, on “DJ Polar Bear vs. Shiggar Fraggar,” the artists spin and rework Bill Conti’s “Going The Distance” from the Rocky film score. Nearly 30 years later, Giane adapts that same resourcefulness for the modern day.
Sample drill is the most accessible thing to happen to hip-hop since Vince Staples hopped on a Flume beat for Big Fish Theory. It’s the direct result of decades’ worth of beloved pop music having no place in contemporary culture other than weddings, sporting events, and decade-themed parties. Similar to how Staples blended popular electronica with his own rapping, Surf Gang bridges the gap between pop and hip-hop, stuttering their hi-hats and sporadically placing bass drum hits against Bon Iver loops and Flight Facilities vocal tracks.
Despite the subgenre’s adoption of the term “sample drill,” the term is misleading. The soundscapes aren’t sinister. There are no thick, sliding 808s that mimic Pop Smoke’s basslines. And frankly, Surf Gang don’t typically work with regional drill rappers from Chicago and the different boroughs in New York. Instead, Surf Gang use pop samples as a means to access the timeless nostalgia of intergenerational Hot 100 hits and the pre-memorized choruses that define your local club’s karaoke nights.
In February of 2021, Moh Baretta even dropped a full tape of supposed-sample drill beats with the title, #THISISNOTADRILL. The vices and proscribed dealings of trap music might bleed through Surf Gang’s lyrical output, but Moh emphasized to me: “We was doing the shit a little differently. I don’t rap about drill shit because I’m not a drill rapper. I don’t sit outside and do what drill people do all day. I’m like, ‘Alright bet, we’re going to hop on these drill beats and talk about shit that more people can relate to that don’t be on that.'”
Earl Sweatshirt’s “Making The Band (Danity Kane)” shows that Surf Gang don’t need samples to make sample drill. Even without a persisting excerpted loop, the beat generates its own pulse, driven forward by the wistful hum of Clams Casino’s synthesizers. As Evilgiane’s hi-hats, snares, and 808s scatter off-beat, each piece of his drum kit adds to the polyrhythms syncopating his bass drum kicks. Evilgiane becomes one with the beat; as Earl repeats: “Bruce Banner how I handle the rage,” Giane replies to the rapper by sampling a snippet of Bill Bixby’s Bruce Banner announcing: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m angry.”
The drum pattern on “The Hillbillies” even emulates the hit-hit-trip-e-let drum kicks from “dikkontrol,” Tapp’s Baltimore club beat that inspired decades worth of Jersey club music. As Eera puts it, “Giane’s taking shit from all different places to recontextualize it into what he’s making.” It doesn’t matter if it’s a drum line from across the bridge in New Jersey or a dusty copy of Sade’s Love Deluxe, anything can be repurposed
Unlike previous generations of producers, music, music history, and information in general has always been available at Giane’s disposal. Thinking back to being an early adopter of internet culture, he tells me, “I got my internet personality from being on Facebook and early Instagram and early Twitter and MySpace as a kid.” Eera, speaking on behalf of the three members, chimes in: “I’ve been on a computer for as early as I can remember, for my whole life basically.”
When you’re born into an era where everything is available at your fingertips, the blueprint changes. Surf Gang don’t need to abide by the manufactured rules of hip-hop antiquity, including the one about not identifying your samples; DJ Premier would probably have a heart attack if he saw the self-snitching on the tracklist to Polo Perk’s mixtape PUNK GOES DRILL+** HOSTEDBYSHOKURADIO. When I ask Evilgiane about hip-hop’s biggest unspoken rule, he’s surprised that people still care about that: “I don’t give a fuck about sample snitching. Who gives a – bro, the point is to put people onto music. At least when I sample shit, I’m trying to put n****s on.”
The impact is undeniable. PinkPantheress went from featuring Surf Gang on to hell with it (Remixes) to bringing on Cash Cobain, the raunchy South Bronx sample drill artist, to produce her new album’s Central Cee collab, “Nice To Meet You.” Drake flipped Frank Ocean’s Django Unchained outtake “Wiseman” for the opener to For All The Dogs. Rapping on an Evilgiane beat, Kendrick Lamar and Baby Keem got nominated for Best Rap Performance at the Grammys. Within five years, Surf Gang’s sound and aesthetics traveled from the fringes of the underground all the way to production credits for the biggest names in hip-hop.
Longtime friend and affiliate RealYungPhil told me that while working on his joint Dr. Phil tape, “One of the times [Giane] was out in LA, he pulled up to my house and damn near went through every beat on his computer and let me pick whatever I wanted.” Even over the phone, I could hear a twinge of regret in RealYungPhil’s voice. Having unfiltered access to Evilgiane’s collection of unreleased beats is as close to a modern cornucopia as you can get, now more of a privilege than ever, passing from the ears of K$upreme to Slimesito to A$AP Rocky and Playboi Carti shortly thereafter.
Although Surf Gang is currently a band of three producers, this wasn’t always the case. The list of members in the collective once read like Gen Z’s X-Men: POLO PERKS <3 <3 <3, Babyxsosa, Moh Baretta, Hartó Falion, Pasto Flacco, Gonerprod, Tommytohotty, Caspr, JDN, Bobainee, Sub9k, Smoove Dinero, plus others who'd be up for debate thanks to their long list of affiliates. There's no origin story of mythic proportions for Surf Gang. Harrison tells me, "I met Giane through a mutual friend in maybe late 2017. We learned Ableton together and started making a sound. We started to meet artists, and it kind of went from there." With Harrison hailing from Minneapolis, Eera from LA, and Giane from New York, they had all been familiar with each other through SoundCloud, but it wasn't until a year later in August of 2018 that Harrison and Giane finally crossed paths with Eera. For Eera, it was just a matter of being at the right place at the right time: "I met them at a studio session in Times Square, off some random shit. We were there producing for this artist, and I had just moved to New York that day. The dude just hit me up, I pulled up to the studio, and Giane and Harrison were there."
Over a phone call, ex-member Moh Baretta paints a picture of the collective’s early days: “2019 Surf Gang versus now, they’re two completely different universes. Things felt a lot more surreal back then.” Moh tells me stories about running around the city with an abundance of beats, resorting to DIY tactics to record, including trading weed for studio time. “It was mad frustrating at first,” he says. “We weren’t starting out, but we didn’t have the name that Surf Gang has now. It was a whole lot of creating these situations where we could go and make art.”
Hook speaks of studio sessions that require mutual trust and vulnerability. Since all the Surf Gang producers are seemingly introverts, talking can be at a minimum; Hook lays out a scene closer to Rick Rubin’s Shangri-La Studio than any “packed-out session” I’ve ever heard of. She describes a musical monastery, “looking at somebody recording all day and not having anything to say other than just, ‘meditate and vibe.'” Hook adds that Surf Gang “always have their beats ready to go” so that they can spend more time in the moment with their collaborators. It’s a process dedicated to artist development, whether that be personalizing a beat or guiding the artist through self-reflection. Harrison confirms the sentiment: “The internet hasn’t really influenced our shit that much…. We like to work with artists in real life.”
Surf Gang’s improvisation gives their art its mysterious X-factor. Eera confides, “In the beginning, crafting what someone would consider to be a Surf Gang-style beat or production, we were just doing a lot of shit that was unconventional interesting or doing shit that’s — I don’t want to say dumb, but trying ideas that are at first glance probably kind of stupid, just to see what it would sound like. And a lot of those mistakes or dumb ideas ended up being ways that we created a signature sound over time.”
When Surf Gang performed their first show in LA on March 27, 2021, everything changed. Thousands of fans showed up (in peak COVID). Thousands more heard that Earl Sweatshirt was in attendance. By the time SGV1 came out that June, Surf Gang hit their tipping point. A little over a year later, the group put out their final tape as a collective, At Least We Tried. The project’s title only hints at the behind-the-scenes fallouts that led to the dissolution of the original Surf Gang.
So what exactly happened? Where did the rappers and the rest of the producers go? Well, think about why group projects never work out: personalities clash, some do more work than others, people disappear, someone may or may not have hooked up with someone else’s girlfriend, and some people would just rather work alone.
The cracks were already beginning to appear at the time of that star-making concert in LA. When I spoke to Polo Perks in October 2022 before the release of At Least We Tried, he explained that despite Surf Gang’s rising profile, most of the group wasn’t making much effort to capitalize on it. “I ain’t even have a venue for that Surf Gang show until two days before that show,” Polo said. “I went all around LA to the craziest venues, hoods, everything in LA, by myself…. That was Bobainee’s first paid show, that was Moh’s first paid show, that was 1600j’s first paid show, that was a lot of people’s first paid show. It was a lot of people’s first show in general, and it was because I got tired of just sitting here – this internet shit ain’t it.”
Polo Perks noted a lack of initiative in the group, going on to say, “When you’re older and it’s crunch time for you, people will be like, ‘Alright bro, go ahead then. Say less, you can do it.'” At the time of the show, Polo was 26, roughly five years older than the majority of the group with over five years of experience opening for artists among the likes of G-Herbo, Juice WRLD, and Lil Uzi Vert – a rarity when compared to Surf Gang’s relative inexperience.
The group started falling just a few months after their LA show. Babyxsosa announced on her Instagram Story that she was no longer a part of Surf Gang, and she was taken off upcoming show posters with no explanation as to why. At that point, Sosa was Surf Gang’s most popular rapper after her single, “Everywhereigo,” went viral on TikTok for GAWD’s overexaggerated 808s and Sosa’s elastic phrasing, stretching the end of her phrases in a synth-laden lullaby.
When Babyxsosa left, internal conflict tore Surf Gang apart. Bobainee went on Instagram Live in December of 2021 to announce his departure from the collective, declining to explain why. A few weeks later, Caspr followed suit after feeling disrespected by the members of the group. After that everyone started dropping like flies. TommyToHotty was accused of sexual assault, Jdn and GonerProd stopped producing for the group, and by 2022, the only rappers left in the group were Polo Perks, Moh Baretta, Pasto Flacco, and Harto Falion.
Named by Moh Baretta and Polo Perks, At Least We Tried marked the official end of Surf Gang as a rapper-producer collective. Both rappers describe their exit as a necessary pivot in order to build name recognition apart from the collective. Moh explains: “I’ve helped build this brand [Surf Gang] up, and that’s what’s up, but it’s time to build mine up now too. [50 Caliber] is my personal brand, so I’m just going to take some time and step away. I’ve got to get what I’ve got going on off the ground. Surf Gang’s going up off the ground and that’s great, and I’m going to make sure my shit is intact too.”
Polo offered a similar sentiment: “It sucks. I really sit down and think about the people who came out, the people who bought the music, the people who bought the merch. I think about them on a daily basis, but they’re just going to have to take that as motivation that shit changes. Nothing is forever. That’s how I see it, and that’s not a bad thing.”
With three members left standing, Evilgiane, Harrison, and Eera are using Surf Gang Records as a platform to release projects with anyone from Matt Ox to 454 to John Glacier. Eera clarifies, “Surf Gang has always been us presenting artists we’re interested in through our lens. It was never intended to be a group performance. If you look back, there are songs from people that have never been considered by press as part of the group that we were releasing, like songs from Black Kray and songs that were on the Surf Gang page that were our style of beats, but they were never considered by anybody to be in the group.”
The focus is on the future — including “BASIC,” Evilgiane’s new single out today featuring Anycia & Robb Bank$. But as Surf Gang begin their next chapter, their YouTube remains a testament to the young collective’s growing pains and giant leaps. Perusing their archives, “Horses” is particularly extraordinary because despite not having a music video, it remains the second most streamed song on i.c.f.m. Pt. 3 – the ghost of Q Lazzarus’ seed in culture, revived by Surf Gang’s drum kit, dated by Polo Perk’s departure from the collective in 2022. In terms of status, “Horses” pales in comparison to Giane’s other feats — the work with Kendrick, PinkPantheress, Earl, and so on — but the song should be considered the moment that Evilgiane became the face of sample drill, hip-hop’s latest countercultural movement.