24 November 2023

Meet the elusive teenage TikTokers leading music’s ‘phonk’ explosion

HUNGER traverses the sound waves of one of the fastest growing emerging musical genres, and speaks to the youngsters behind the flourishing subculture.

If you’ve been on TikTok over the past two years, you’ll definitely have heard the dark, driving dance sounds of ‘phonk’. As well as racking up more than 31 billion views under the hashtag, the genre – which fuses heavy basslines, lo-fi beats, funk, hip-hop and soul samples –has its own dedicated sub-Reddit page with 28,000 members. ‘Phonk’ is also the fastest-growing playlist on Spotify, with an increase of 2.3 million followers in the past year alone; alongside a simplistic bio that reads “the beat of your drift”, it now totals over seven million listeners, with much of its demographic coming from the gaming world and car community. 

“I love phonk for its distinctive and catchy melodies,” one fan tells HUNGER, “and also the community – artists have close connections with their fans and with other producers”. For Josh Mateer, A&R lead at TikTok, Phonk is a “a real global movement as an emerging genre. Witnessing the growth of Phonk unfold over the past few years has been nothing short of phenomenal,” he adds. 

Before TikTok made it “a thing”, however, phonk was deep-rooted in 90’s Memphis rap and then found a home on SoundCloud, with pioneers like DJ Yung Vamp, Soudiere, and DJ Smokey being the driving force behind it.

More recently, the genre has been given a very Gen Z stamp by producers from across the globe, including Kordhell, g30x_em, and INTERWORLD. It has resulted in many of these elusive teen beat-makers with all-caps aliases blowing up outside any mainstream awareness – so much so that K-Pop groups are sampling the sound and many of the scene’s artists descended on Amsterdam in October for ADE’s first ever ‘Phonk Nation’ party

One of the young prodigies who played at the all-nighter was scene-leader $werve, a 15-year-old who hasn’t even done his GCSEs yet counts over half a million followers on TikTok and 4.2million monthly listeners on Spotify. He started producing at just 12 and has become the UK’s biggest streaming phonk artist in just 18 months. His new single, ‘Success’, showcases his signature house phonk style, and he also infiltrated the commercial pop scene with a remix of Switch Disco’s ‘React’ featuring Ella Henderson earlier this year. 

He’s come a long way from being taught the basic skills of production during a Discord voice channel. “I then got used to the software and started to find my own style and my own ways of doing things,” he recalls. $werve says he found it easy to learn – “because I was so passionate about doing it; once I had learnt the basics of the program, it almost came as a natural talent”. 

The musician later landed on the genre of phonk “because it sounded so unique but barely anybody was making it”, he continues. At the time, he says there were only two viral phonk songs. “I thought I could bring a new wave to the genre,” he says, adding that researching online helped him to discover that “phonk isn’t just loud cowbell songs”. 

Having later gone viral with his own track, $werve reflects that “without TikTok, phonk as a whole wouldn’t have gotten any recognition”. More personally, he says that “TikTok really helped the world find out about my music, and phonk as a whole. Spotify playlists play a big part in a phonk song’s success too, but those playlists wouldn’t have been made if TikTok didn’t push the genre in the first place,” he adds. 

But why does he think the sound is resonating with people around the world? “Most of the time, phonk doesn’t contain words, and if it does it’s mainly a voice in the background, so it’s easy for people from all countries to listen to,” he suggests. “Phonk is also very popular with people who go to the gym, and people who play video games, and these are activities that people worldwide participate in,” he adds. 

To be one of the leading figures in such a rapidly growing genre, $werve feels “very accomplished; one day in 2020 I was just a regular listener of the genre”, he considers; “and now everyone who listens knows my name”. Another promising talent who took ADE by storm was Norway-based Slowboy, who has risen from the underground scene to become a driving force in the Brazilian take on the phonk sound. With 6.7 million monthly Spotify listeners, his beats have garnered over 100 million streams for ‘Brazilian Phonk Mano’ across various platforms. His knack for experimentation formed the creation of the Brazilian funk/phonk hybrid coined ‘Brazilian Phonk’ or ‘Phunk’, where he stands as the top artist in the scene. Having inspired an influx of artists to create and embrace this new genre, his new tracks have been supported on Annie Nightingale’s BBC Radio 1 show.

Although they didn’t play the aforementioned ADE party,  also present were Essex-based SXCREDMANEwhose most known song ‘Attack of the Killer Beast’ went viral in 2023, with nearly 40 million listens on Spotify – and  Serbia-based FXRCE who emerged onto the music scene at just 13-years-old with the release of his iconic track ‘DEUS DA GUERRA’ (over 26 million listens on Spotify) which propelled him into the international spotlight. 

With streaming stats as astronomical as these, and the phonk scene continuing to grow, there’s no doubt that the teenagers behind it are some of the coolest on the planet. The kids are certainly alright, as they say. 

  • Writer Ben Jolley
  • Images Supplied

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