Russia

Russian Hip-Hop and Battle Rap

Music mounting a fight for free expression

by Michael Idov
Photography by Maria Ionova-Gribina

Last summer at Moscow’s Flacon, a former Soviet crystal factory converted into a hub of hipster retail and media, a man stood on a rickety ladder painting three huge Xs on a side of a building. A dozen more young men and women lounged around with beers and stale pizza. Flacon being fairly deserted on Sundays, the scene was not witnessed by many—but whoever bothered to look invariably did a double take, followed in most cases by a shy request for a selfie. The fact was, almost everyone in that laid-back mini-crowd was a celebrity known to millions of Russians.

Were they movie stars or pop singers, this scene invariably would have involved some big cars, probably security and al- most certainly no pizza. But they were rappers, specifically underground rappers—whatever “underground” means in a country where it is de facto more popular than the hackneyed, mainstream pop, still presided over by weird disco crooners who got their start in the Soviet-era 1980s. And the mechanisms of Russian rap fame are very different. With two or three exceptions, they are entirely internet-borne; music spreads through VKontakte (a homegrown social network) and YouTube. VK’s biggest rap-themed pablik, or community page, called Rifmy i Panchi, boasts an astonishing three million subscribers. That’s more than one in fifty Russians.

 Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

In the 1980s and early 1990s, when Russia, whose default musical expression is plaintive ballads in A minor, opened itself to new musical styles, hip-hop was just one of the many novelty sounds flooding in. Early rap stars, such as Bad Balance, were at best cute approximations of American originals like Beast- ie Boys or Wu-Tang Clan. All through the 2000s, however, a more uncensored and unvarnished strain of hip-hop gained traction as steadily as the internet itself did. Unlike Russian rock, whose impact was always diluted by vague dreams of a Western crossover, it was tied inescapably to the language and circumstance, and thus more authentic by default. By 2013 or so, it became the defining sound of the new Russia.

With two or three exceptions, [Russian rappers] are entirely internet-borne

Rappers don’t need to appear on magazine covers—rap fans don’t buy magazines—and they rarely court airplay on commercial radio, with its strict obscenity rules. (Ironically, these rules don’t apply to English lyrics; any American visiting Moscow is well-advised to turn on the radio for the odd frisson of hearing Jay-Z unbleeped.) A rapper’s visit to, say, a variety show on a state-controlled TV network is less of a big break and more of a favor to the network; that is, it’s more likely to cost a rapper some old fans than to add any new ones. The Russian YouTube segment has developed its own variety-show infrastructure, most notably VDud and the Big Russian Boss Show—uncensored and pleasantly shaggy. But, as a result, the only point of offline connection between the new stars and their audience is at concerts.

 Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

Which brings us back to those Xs on the wall, denoting the first-ever brick-and-mortar appearance of Oxxxyshop: an online merch store for the godfather of Russia’s underground rap, Oxxxymiron. Its pre-opening party, which is what the gathering was, seemed like a tiny event but felt weirdly significant. Russia’s online hip-hop (you could call it cloud rap if the term wasn’t taken) was finally invading solid three-dimensional space.

Oxxxy himself, née Miron Fedorov, was the reason I fell in with this scene in the first place. Born in 1976 in Soviet Latvia, I belong to the age group that grew up worshipping perestroika-era Russian rock. This was the subculture I tried to commemorate in the screenplay to the 2018 film Leto, set among the real-life stars of the Leningrad underground such as Kino and Aquarium— middle-class, earnest, socially conscious, very chaste and so heavily indebted to glam rock, post- punk and, later, Britpop, that it has sort of forgotten to develop a sound of its own. I loved Kino and Aquarium as much as the next post-Soviet Gen Xer, and perhaps more; an emigration to the States in 1992, however, managed to expose me to the likes of Nas, NWA and DMX at the time when the Russian hip-hop was only taking its first steps. I’ve rooted for it ever since; after all, Russia was a country of great poets, stark social woes and endless public-housing blocks. At some point, a truly world- class Russian rapper was simply bound to emerge.

 Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

The wait lasted until 2011, when—on YouTube, where else—I watched an Oxford-educated Russian Brit tear through three verses of blistering braggadocio (“I shlep across London / with a bag of polonium / Russian rap without immigrants / is merely a colony”). This was Oxxxymiron’s first proper video. I raved about it on Twitter. Oxxxymiron and I met up in Moscow, to which both of us had moved for a time, and became fast friends. Since then, I’ve watched in astonishment from the sidelines as Miron’s fame cycled past all possible showbiz milestones—culminating in a sold-out stadium tour— all on his terms: no patrons, no producers, no flirting with the establishment.

Things in Russia move fast, and by that summer Sunday at Flacon the old crystal factory, Oxxxymiron was already a men- tor to a whole generation of rappers, managing a full stable of them through his label, Booking Machine. As a DJ inside the shop put on a backing track to one of Oxxxymiron’s hits, Booking Machine’s latest signee, Souloud—a 21-year-old R&B artist—took the mic and spat a perfect cover of it from memory.

Mainstream pop [is] still presided over by weird disco crooners who got their start in the Soviet-era 1980s

As I listened, an extremely polite young man named Bogdan recognized me—from a book I’d written ten years earlier, of all things—and engaged me in the absolute last conversation I expected to have that day: a long, involved discussion about Vladimir Nabokov and Joseph Brodsky. Frankly, I had to make an effort to keep up. A bit surreally, Bogdan was the brother and manager of Russia’s newest rap sensation: Ivan Dryomin, known simply as Face.

Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina, 2018

Face is the anti-Oxxxy. Where Miron thrives on complicated rhyme schemes and literary references (One of his songs rhymes “playback” with “Michel Houellebecq.”), Face’s style made Migos sound like Kendrick Lamar. He had ironically (or not) appropriated Lil Pump’s “Esketit” yell, further muddling it into nonsense as “Eschkere,” and his biggest hit boasted the dumbest chorus in the biz: “I am going to the Gucci store in St. Petersburg / She eats my dick like it’s a burger.” The idea that Ivan and his brother might be secret intellectuals intrigued me for days.

On the one hand, the most striking difference between Russian hip-hop and the US scenes that inspired it is its bellicosity: Russia has a unique obsession with battle rap. In the States, it’s something of a dying art form that peaked around 2000 with Eminem’s 8 Mile; in Russia, it’s a quasi-national sport with multiple leagues, and a top battle can easily clear 20 to 30 million views on YouTube, literally an order of magnitude more than the best American battle rappers can hope for. This phenomenon could be ascribed both to Russia’s aforementioned literary bent and, perhaps more to the point, to the post-Soviet obsession with turning all entertainment into a competition with a winner and a loser.

 Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

On the other hand, for all its uncensored bravado and battle-honed aggression, Russian rap is almost entirely apolitical—or has been up to a point. In fact, it has proved itself to be much more timid than the musically milquetoast perestroika rock, which at least called things by their names. In his 2015 masterwork, Gorgorod, Oxxxymiron seemed to criticize some of the more oppressive aspects of Russian life so obliquely that he felt compelled to invent a fictional city-state, and a “mayor” of that city, to make his points. This is the kind of thing that Soviet novelists used to do in order to sneak social commentary past the censors. (“Even your favorite Lamar simply says ‘Fuck Trump,’” yelled Oxxxymiron’s archnemesis Gnoiny in their 2017 battle, the world’s most-viewed and the only one Oxxxy lost).

Things were even sadder with the other two Russian rappers of Oxxxymiron’s stature. (In the absence of other metrics, I’ll use the ability to sell out Moscow’s Olympic Stadium as a benchmark.) Vasily Vakulenko, a living classic well into his second decade at the top, had spun himself into several alter egos, only one of which—a faux bandit named Noggano—was al- lowed to call cops “pigs,” for instance. His main rap avatar, Basta, meanwhile felt right at home in the heart of the Russian official culture—on Channel One’s hit version of The Voice, or playing concerts at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses.

The audience dances as rapper Husky performs in Moscow.  Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

Russia’s third rap superstar, Timati, inarguably the least talented of the group, occupied the farthest end of this spectrum. He was a devoted fan of the Putin administration, a fact that has been popping up in his lyrics with increasing urgency, and a friend to Chechen strongman Ramzan Kadyrov. In return, the state showered him with perks and opportunities, including all-media support. Timati’s Black Star business empire currently encompasses not just Russia’s most lucrative rap label but a cybersport league, a line of clothing, a barbershop and a popular burger franchise. Discounting several trollishly alt-right figures for whom Putin was not authoritarian enough, the only self-identified “opposition” rapper with a sizeable following was Noize MC.

In six months, all of this changed.

Face, he of the dumb chants about dicks and burgers, was the first. The former Gucci hoarder suddenly came out with an album called Mysterious Ways, devoted entirely to a bleak picture of Russia’s rotten justice system, censorship, militarization of everyday life, corruption and out-of-control drug epidemics. It wasn’t exactly artful, and the rhymes remained as clunky as ever, but it was the most daring thing anyone in Russian rap had done in ages—perhaps ever.

For all its uncensored bravado and battle-honed aggression, Russian rap is almost entirely apolitical—or has been up to a point.

The other catalyst was the hounding of a new-school rapper named Husky. Husky was a street poet type, not as pointedly intellectual as Oxxxymiron but, out of all of his contemporaries, the only one whose lyrics could easily pass for (good) modern poetry on the page. He favored blunt metaphors (“I don’t wanttobehandsome/Idon’twanttoberich/Iwanttobea machine gun unloaded into people’s faces” is as indelicate as it gets, but also a line one can easily imagine from the bolshevik poet Vladimir Mayakovsky on a particularly depressing day.)

A video for another song, “Judas,” showed drug use to shore up the central metaphor of art as an illegal substance. Husky’s troubles began with the YouTube video being blocked by the state censorship authority, and continued with a rash of canceled concerts. All November, the Russian authorities hounded rappers and other independent performers, using seemingly coordinated complaints lodged by “parents’ committees.” After Husky’s show in Chelyabinsk got canceled on a flimsy pre- text, the rapper got on top of a parked car and, surrounded by a crowd, began chanting his signature song, “Ay”: Stop the party (ay!)

I will be singing my music (ay!)

The world’s most honest music (ay!) The music of broken eyes…
The police grabbed him on the spot, a myriad of phones filming the arrest.
This was the last straw. The next day, Oxxxymiron reached out to Basta and Noize MC to mount a concert in Husky’s honor, which would double as a rally against censorship. The show would simply be called “I Will Be Singing My Music,” after the lyric; all proceeds would go to Husky’s defense fund. The tickets—seven thousand or so—sold out almost at once. For Oxxxymiron, and even more so for Basta, this would be the first overtly political action of their lives; Alexei Navalny, the de facto leader of Russia’s anti-Putin forces, tweeted approvingly about the concert and ended up coming to it. Just days before, this would have been unimaginable.

A Husky concert at Adrenaline Stadium.  Photograph by Maria Ionova-Gribina.

And then, hours before the concert, Husky got released. The would-be protest turned into a celebration. By the end of the night, as Face and his brother Bogdan joined Oxxxymiron, Noize MC and Basta on stage with TV Rain broadcasting the whole thing live, it felt like a triumphant culmination of some- thing previously only hinted at, on a quiet summer Sunday at Flacon: an online force’s sudden lunge into the real world. The public pressure created by the concert was instantly credited with pushing Putin’s administration to ease off on rapper persecution. A few days later, two rappers, Ptaha and Zhigan, were invited to speak at the State Duma, and the country’s main TV propagandist, Dmitry Kiselev, devoted his next show to a defense of rap as an art form, going so far as to spit a few painfully awkward rhymes. It seemed that even the Kremlin realized that whatever you do to the rest of the country, you do not want to piss off the rappers.

In Russia [battle rap] is a quasi-national sport with multiple leagues

“When you can’t stop something, you should direct it,” Putin cryptically remarked when asked about rap in December 2018. While the idea of state-subsidized, Kremlin-friendly rap seems comical at first, it fits in with the longtime Putinist strategy of grooming and maintaining manageable pseudo-opposition. Rap’s young audience, however, has long learned to spot the fakes. And as a generation reared exclusively on hip-hop finally comes of age, this first flex of rap’s political muscle is only a glimpse of things to come. In fact, we are far more likely to see the first Russian rapper-politician ascend to elected office than the first Russian rapper with a hit in the Western charts.

In both cases, however, the smart money is on Oxxxymiron.

CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Idov

Michael Idov is the author of Dressed Up for a Riot: Misadventures in Putin's Moscow. He is the former editor of GQ Russia and staff writer at New York Magazine.

Maria Ionova-Gribina

Maria Ionova-Gribina is a Moscow-born photographer and artist who has exhibited in numerous contemporary art and photography exhibitions.

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