From Moscow with Flow: How Rap Became Russia's Most Important Genre
Relying on DIY methods and a "fuck the major labels" attitude, homegrown rappers are bringing a fresh, global sound to the Russian underground.
Screenshot via the YouTube video "PHARAOH - ДИКО, НАПРИМЕР" by Dead Dynasty
A version of this article originally appeared on Noisey Germany.
“I’m better than Tupac, Biggie, Eminem, Kendrick, J. Cole, and even Lil Pump," says Face. The rapper from St. Petersburg has an androgynous look about him, with facial tattoos, oversized sunglasses, and long, straight hair, the silky strands of which hang down onto his shoulders. On his track “БУРГЕР" ("Burger"), a minimal-beat banger held together by an excessive baseline, he repeats over and over again that he’s going to rob a Gucci store. Face is 21 years old, and he’s already one of the most controversial rappers in Russia. He’s revered on the schoolyards and adored by the country’s youth, but everyone else—especially the older generation—finds him shocking. Of the 24 million people who viewed the YouTube video for “БУРГЕР,” 288,000 of them pressed the “dislike” button.
Face is one of several young artists who are transforming Russia’s hip-hop scene. Previously, Russian rappers had pulled inspiration from US stars by adapting their techniques to suit Russian lyrics, but recent years have seen the rise of local musicians like Pharaoh and Oxxxymiron, both of whom have created a global sound that can’t ignore its Russian roots. In Russia, rap is more important than ever—for the younger generation, it’s the most popular musical genre in the country. Although MTV Russia had taken to promoting homegrown rappers 10 years earlier, boosting their sales and helping them garner awards, the new generation of Russian rap operates independently of old musical structures. They use social media to promote their work and handle bookings and merch on their own. They’re not dependent on hip-hop channels, given that there’s really only two relevant media outlets in the country, rap.ru and the-flow.ru. Whether racking up millions of views on YouTube or performing on major tours, the country’s indie rappers have taken a DIY approach that is clearly working. What does Russian rap sound like and how political is it? Is it really possible to work freely in a country that imprisoned the members of Pussy Riot in a women’s corrective labor colony? We searched for the answers.
Anyone outside of Russia who wants to learn more about the country’s rap scene is sure to run into one major problem: the language barrier. Of the 11 Russian artists we contacted for this story, many were unreachable; two declined specifically because of their poor English skills. Russians speak Russian; English skills can’t be taken for granted, especially outside the subcultural capitals of St. Petersburg and Moscow.
Fortunately, we were able to Skype with Nikolai* from his apartment in Moscow. Nikolai, who requested that his name be changed for the purposes of this article, studied journalism, works in the music industry, and organizes events. Not only is he a rap aficionado—he's also fully-versed in the latest developments of Russian hip-hop.
Rap Isn't Welcome
“We’re in the third generation of rappers in Russia,” Nikolai explains. “The scene and its fan base are both big, thanks to the demographics—lots of children were born during the 90s.” At the beginning of the decade, young Russians had started getting into rap and doing graffiti to express themselves. The Soviet Union had finally fallen, allowing for a real music scene to take root. In the heyday of the USSR, hip-hop would’ve been totally out of the question: Western music wasn’t welcome, and you weren’t even supposed to wear jeans. But there were exceptions, of course. The first Russian rap track was released in 1984 and had the unimaginative title "Rap"—a Russian-language remake of the Sugar Hill Gang classic "Rapper’s Delight,” produced by the band Час пик. Rap functioned as a means of musical humor, not as a legitimate starting point for hip-hop in the country.
In the wake of the USSR, Russian rap slowly developed into a mainstream genre, sometimes characterized by post-Soviet divisions, corny pathos, or edgy provocation. It sounded just like American rap that had been translated into Russian. Nikolai describes it as an unintentional parody of US hip-hop that didn’t sound great, although people would party to it. Мальчишник or the cross-over attempts of Децл, for example, were both bands considered vulgar by the standards of the time. Hip-hop scenes started to sprout up in bigger cities, but the epicenters of the genre were firmly established in Moscow and St. Petersburg, where they remain today. Many artists flock to either city regardless, as the living conditions in both areas are far superior when compared to the rest of the country. Pharaoh, who we interviewed via email, outlined another reason why these cities are particularly appealing: “Maybe everything is happening there because it’s easier to get a wider variety of drugs.”
For a long time, Russian rap was a walking cliché. Strong men with well-muscled bodies would hang out with other muscular men; women only appeared as dancers in videos, if anything, or were featured as “the angel among a thousand whores,” a popular sexist trope in rap. Macho rap was in style back then and it still is today, rife with machismo images that are deeply anchored in Russian society and politics. Timati is a good example—he’s the most commercially successful rapper in the country and a devout fan of Vladimir Putin. He looks like an oligarch who’s swimming in money, apparently can do whatever he wants because his dad knows a prominent Russian politician, and was recently photographed driving around in his Rolls Royce at night. “[Timati] is a phenomenon in the mainstream media,” Nikolai says. “But everyone in the local scene hates him.”
In the past five years, a new generation of rappers has emerged: They openly discuss issues like depression, experiment with new sounds, and prefer androgynous fashion over displays of machismo. While Timati makes appearances on TV, new rappers upload their music to VKontakte, the most popular social network in the country (also known simply as VK). “Everything happens online now,” Nikolai stresses. Indie labels dominate, and platforms like YouTube and online groups like VK's "Rhythm and Punches" have provided a robust outlet for new rap songs. SoundCloud, on the other hand, isn’t terribly important. CDs aren’t even manufactured; no one in Russia under the age of 35 actually buys them anymore.
Russia’s rap scene is based on a DIY ethos, and continues to operate accordingly. It flourished without assistance from the record industry and the commercial structures within it. There’s a dominant “fuck the major labels” attitude; artists make most of their money off merchandise and endless live performances in Russia’s major cities. “The language barrier is one of the reasons why Russian rap is so huge,” Nikolai explains. “Even a lot of younger people still don’t speak English all that well, so they don’t listen to a lot of American rap.”
Pharaoh, King of Russian Emo-Rap
Pharaoh is an artist who’s especially loved by young people around the country. He wears his hair down and slinks around in fancy streetwear. He raps about the clear demarcation between his work and the mainstream; his tracks speak to highly emotional fights for independence. “I felt opposed to all the music being made in Russia back then,” he told Noisey over email. “I was like, Fuck them all, I’m on my own shit.”
Pharaoh aspires to be more than a mega social media star on Instagram, as he mentions in his video " ФОСФОР " ("Phosphor"). He sings, lets out tortured death screams like Kurt Cobain, and raps with a flow that hints at Eminem's influence. Dystopian beats underscore Pharaoh’s emotional explosions. It’s enough to send a shiver down your spine.
The DIY approach has permeated Dead Dynasty, Pharaoh’s collective. “I prefer to record for myself so that I can push my musical vision forward, you know what I mean?” he explains, adding that he works on his own videos and cites Quentin Tarantino as a big influence. While the comment may seem like a cliché you’d hear from any young rapper regardless of their nationality, with Pharaoh, it actually holds up: Whoever wants to make music independently has to get things done themselves. The music industry in Russia isn’t as open to progressive trends as the industries in the US and the UK are.
At 22 years old, Pharaoh is up there with Face as one of the most promising talents in the Russian scene. But his rise wasn’t obvious from the start. About five years ago, at the beginning of his career, his sound was similar to that of Yung Lean’s; only recently, in his latest release “ Pink Phloyd,” did it become clear that Pharaoh had his own undeniably unique sound. Society’s sudden acceptance of the genre makes him skeptical. “Society only started to accept [hip-hop] as soon as young people started paying lots of attention to it, and only once [they realized there was] money to be made from it. That’s so hypocritical,” he argues. Sure, it’s cool to perform live before a crowd of 5,000 people, but Pharaoh still has his concerns. “The subculture is growing, but as it [becomes more popular] it becomes less creative.”
The rapper says this tendency is especially true of Moscow, where he was born. He describes the neighborhood where he grew up as a normal area with normal drug problems, whereas today the city has become much more crowded to the point where it “feels like an anthill.” Above all, he says that people are more vain today than they were back then. Either way, his creative base is still in Moscow. “At age 18, I decided to put everything into music. It was worth it,” he tells us. As if to confirm this, his manager mentions Pharaoh’s upcoming European tour. The rapper says he’s confident enough to fight his way through that anthill and ignore any rejection of new sounds. When he wants to retreat from the hustle and bustle of urban life, he records a new track or heads to his best friend’s apartment, his favorite spot in Moscow. “I basically live there.”
Oxxxymiron, "The Biggest Battle Rapper in the World"
Pharaoh is right about the commercialization of subculture, but Oxxxymiron proves that it’s still possible for creativity to blossom even with mainstream success. The rapper is from St. Petersburg, where “Versus”—the country’s largest rap battle event—takes place. “There’s an enormous hype around rap battles right now,” Nikolai explains. Oxxxymiron has established himself as Russia’s best battle rapper, and the hip-hop magazine Source recently acknowledged him as the best one in the world. They support that claim with the YouTube video of his battle against the US’ own Dizaster, which has over 10 million views. Millions of people regularly tune in to Oxxxymiron’s YouTube channel to watch him verbally annihilate his opponents, both in Russian and in English. The bilingual rapper was raised in London.
Originally born in Leningrad (present-day St. Petersburg), Oxxxymiron’s parents relocated to London shortly after the birth of their son. There, he struggled. Although he attended school in the grey suburbs of London and came from rather precarious circumstances, he was ultimately accepted to Oxford University, where he studied English literature and learned to rap from grime MCs on the city streets. Today, even his Russian lyrics have a literary quality to them. Oxxxymiron is poetic in his verbal assaults, focuses on concept tracks on his albums, and flows as if he were still standing on a street corner in East London. At 33-years-old—and after years of hustling—he’s one of the most important rappers in Russia, largely thanks to his battles. Despite a brief interlude of working with Optik Russia—the subsidiary of Optik Records, which was founded by prominent German rapper Kool Savas—and an array of projects that didn’t garner much attention, Oxxxymiron’s victorious rap battles kickstarted his career.
He might be 10 years older than the fresh talent coming from Moscow and St. Petersburg, but Oxxxymiron is wholly on their side. He too is a DIY artist, although he’s more focused on lyrics than his younger colleagues are. His sound is brute when compared to the eldritch sound of Pharaoh—which just goes to show how diverse Russian rap has become. “The new generation has more knowledge of global music and what’s happening in different scenes, and they mix these influences into their own sound,” Nikolai explains. It took awhile, but the era of bad copies within Russia’s musical landscape has finally come to an end, replaced by a flourishing, totally unique hip-hop scene.
Johann Voigt is on Twitter.
This article originally appeared on Noisey DE.