Rap Reaches Russia European hip-hop is much more than a copy of U.S. subculture - By Thomas Winkler
Graffiti and gold chains have marked Berlin and other Western European capitals for some time now. Now hoodies and baggy pants have finally reached Moscow as hip-hop continues to spread.
Call it a joint venture. It certainly seemed like one. As the German received his Russian guest, Berlin was moving and shaking. Stretch limousines pulled up to a chic hotel in the middle of the German capital's new city center on Potsdamer Platz. Bodyguards patrolled the area and the yellow press jostled for position. Strangely, this was no natural gas deal worth millions. Instead, it was simply two rappers who recorded a song together and were promoting it.
Seryoga, who commutes between Kiev and Moscow, is Russia's most successful wordsmith. Among other things, he moderated the Russian MTV Awards show. Azad from Frankfurt am Main is Germany's most prestigious street rapper. That the two of them met for the first German-Russian hip-hop summit proves the point: Rap has reached Russia.
Just a few years ago, the eastern edge of Europe was terra incognita on hip-hop's world map. Today, the scene's modus operandi is the same everywhere. In Europe, rappers also "feature" each other on songs and even provide cross-border assists when necessary.
That isn't the only thing that hip-hop imported from the U.S., its country of origin. Along with gold chains and baggy pants, hoodies and tracksuits, it also included the graffiti and b-boys, the secret language and the rituals. And lest we forget, the basic musical idea - a mike and two turntables, a rapper and a DJ, rhymes and beats.
The American specifications for hip-hop, however, have been modified in Europe. Usually at the beginning, it is a pure adoption of American models. But it doesn't take long before new, regional content is integrated - presented in the rapper's own idiom. These days, not only Europeans are rapping, but also Africans, Asians, South Americans and Australians. The majority do so in their native languages, a few even in local dialects.
This multilingualism fundamentally distinguishes the worldwide triumph of hip-hop from another, similarly successful U.S. music export, rock-and-roll. Rock music has also branched out into hundreds of regional variations. But German-speaking rock musicians have never been successful in Spain or Scandinavia, for the most part. Apparently rap is better adaptable to local needs and can more easily speak to local, individual problems and still cross borders.
In Germany, hip-hop is at least as varied as in the U.S. The Berlin version of "gangster rap" - called "Berliner Härte" (Berliner toughness) - is the most commercially successful at the moment. Rappers like Bushido or Sido play with the New York gangster rap clichés, shock with threatening gestures and use the conditions of "inner city projects" in the U.S. by applying them to the immigrant-dominated quarters in large German cities.
Alongside this, however, are lively underground scenes of "porno rap," "freestyle" and "conscious rap," often done in dialect. Dendemann from Hamburg has a way with words that is without equal. He handles rhymes like Eminem did at his best.
In the mid-1980s, the first Germans discovered hip-hop culture for themselves. Often it began with television reports, for example the first, legendary documentary films like "Wild Style." Since that time, more and more "writers" defaced the walls of buildings in Germany, breakers got their moves on in pedestrian zones, and several young men from Stuttgart got to know early rap in the local GI bars and then founded a band.
The Fantastischen Vier (Fantastic Four) is the most commercially successful German rap group to this day. Rapping, they represented the majority of German society. The title of the band's biography explicitly defines rap as the last musical influence of the occupying forces (Die letzte Besatzermusik). And this is a thoroughly positive characterization for the four rappers from the former American occupied zone.
In the 1980s, a number of local scenes comparable to the one in Stuttgart arose in Hamburg, Munich and Berlin. Even sleepy Heidelberg was a hip-hop stronghold for a time. When Advanced Chemistry rapped about their lives and experiences as children of guest workers on "Fremd im eigenen Land" (Stranger in my own country), Germany made its first acquaintance with the culture of second-generation immigrants from the suburbs. Today, the two German rappers with the best "skillz" are of Turkish (Kool Savas) and African-German (Samy Deluxe) descent.
This pattern can be observed in almost every European country. Around Europe, the ethnic migrant minorities have appropriated hip-hop as their means of expression. In France, it's the children of the Arab majority from the outskirts of Paris and Marseille. In Britain, it's the offspring of immigrants from nations belonging to the Commonwealth. In Belgium, it's the children of immigrants from the former colonies of Rwanda, Congo and Burundi.
In Eastern and southeastern Europe, the situation is different. The former communist countries have very little experience with immigration even to this day. Thus in Russia, the majority of rappers are Russian. The Czech Republic's "gypsy.cz" are Roma. Croatia's Edo Maajka came from Bosnia as a war refugee. Mar?elo, Serbia's most important rapper, studied literature in Belgrade.
Hip-hop was invented three decades ago in the Bronx. In the meantime, rap music and the culture it has spawned have spread the world over. Re-imports of rap music into the U.S. haven't been successful to date. But Seryoga, who combines rapping with the demeanor of a Russian oligarch, seems to be respected even on the other side of the big pond.
Early in January, the rapper, who enjoys posing wearing lots of furs, was denied entry into the U.S. His previously issued visa for the visit was cancelled at the last minute. Maybe American hip-hoppers fear foreign competition, too.
- Thomas Winkler is a freelance writer living in Berlin.