SCENE AND HEARD: THE RISE OF SLAVIC RAP
Monday 15 December 2008
I thought Armenian rapper Kro was one of a kind when I wrote about
him recently. But he’s just the tip of the iceberg
I recently stumbled across the above video of an Armenian rapper
based in LA called Kro. As you can see, he uses lots of the cliched US
gangsta rap iconography like fast cars, wads of cash, his mean-looking
"homies" throwing up gang signs, plus that age-old rap video trick
of superimposing yourself next to a large purring lion, which you
are pretending to stroke.
Deciding that Kro was simply too special to have any counterparts,
I assumed his broken English gangsta rap with traditional eastern
European folk crooning shtick had to be an anomaly – until I received
an email from a journalist called Charlie Amter, who writes about
nightlife for the Los Angeles Times. After seeing the video on my
blog, Charlie wrote to inform me that there was a thriving Armenian
rap scene in and around LA: "Los Angeles is rife with Armenian rappers
who have dreams of ‘making it’ in the rap game. Some have aspirations
of crossing over into the commercial realm, but most seem content
to make videos that are passed around on YouTube, giving them fame
in their communities. Armenians who grew up here have adopted rap
as their music, just as easily as they have adopted the Los Angeles
Lakers as =0 D their team."
There are an estimated 1.5 million Armenians living in the United
States and it is in California where you will find the largest
Armenian-American population. Heavily influenced by the historic west
coast hip-hop scene, young Armenian men in and around LA have been
making their own form of gangsta rap. The heart of this scene resides
in Armenian hotspots like the San Fernando Valley and Glendale –
a city where over a quarter of the residents are Armenian.
I have been trawling the internet in search of some of these rappers –
and have discovered they are almost all as, erm, unique as Kro. The
standouts include Apostles – a pair of identikit cannabis-adorned
doo-rag-wearing rhymers who make PJ & Duncan look like Biggie and 2Pac,
a dense-looking chap called 118 whose cheesy rhymes are apparently
supposed to be sexy, and Super Sako, who looks like a cross between
DJ Khaled and Airport’s Jeremy Spake, but is the most accomplished
lyricist out of all the Armenian rappers I have encountered (ie he
is able to string a slightly coherent sentence together).
The homoeroticism in lots of US rap is also evident but these
Armenian guys often take it to another level. Some of the videos are
so overtly camp it’s hard to tell whether or not they are spoofs. But,
according to Charlie Amter, they are deadly serious about their music:
"Laugh at your own peril – everyone in LA knows that Armenian guys
are not to be fucked with.
These guys may not have the best flows, but you can bet they know
how to fight. And some have guns."
LA also has a large Russian contingent who appreciate some home grown
eastern European rap. Last year a Kiev-born promoter flew Russia’s
most popular rapper, the award-winning Seryoga (accolades include
a gong for best ringtone at the MTV Russia Music Awards in 2005,
don’t you know), from Moscow to play a packed club on Sunset Strip,
with tickets starting at $60.
Seryoga, who has been labelled the Slavic Eminem, has sold well
over a million albums worldwide and his debut LP went to number one
in countries including Belarus, Ukraine and Russia. Just like his
Armenian pals, Seryoga also has a penchant for some traditional folk
instrumentation and crooning in his tracks. His music is much more
agreeable though. In fact, I’ve repeatedly found myself humming
the tune to songs like Gangsta No More over the past couple of
days. There’s something about a wistful accordion riff which strangely
complements a polished hip-hop beat.
With the help of an excellent blog about lesser-known hip-hop scenes
from around the world (hiphopattack.blogspot.com), I’ve come across
lots more rappers from eastern and central Europe. None so far has
been able to match the affecting and thought-provoking rhymes of
Hungarian rapper and YouTube sensation Speak (you know, the "Yeah,
c’mo n" guy) but there are a few with unusual names.
Broken English, it seems, isn’t just used in the rhymes of these
One Russian artist called Ligalize has decided to adopt the
bastardised language for his moniker, and I’m hoping it was a case
of something being lost in translation with the unfortunately-titled
Polish MC Molesta. It’s not all bad names and silly pseudonyms,
though. Bulgarian rapper Mechoka has the best hip-hop album title
I have ever encountered: Gladna Mechka Horo Ne Igrae (Hungry Bear
As talented and respected a rapper as Lil Wayne may be, I don’t think
he’ll be coming up with a title to match this any time soon.