From Compton to the Kremlin: hip hop’s presence in Russia

Ever since my cousin introduced me to Mos Def when I was 13, I’ve had an obsession for hip hop.  I listen to all the greats from the 80’s and 90’s, some from the 00’s, and remain on the lookout for new talent coming around today.  Although I love the genre, my perspective has always been limited to American rappers, because I never believed that anyone could do hip hop justice outside the U.S. of A.  Little did I know, there exists a thriving hip hop subculture in a place where I least expected, the vast expanse that is Russia.

Dino MC 47

The Russian Hip Hop group Dino MC 47, infamous for denouncing the Russian government after two suicide bombers killed 40 in Moscow in 2010

Now, just because you exist does not necessarily mean you’re out there throwing down fresh rhymes, and that goes for all rappers everywhere.  So admittedly I was skeptical of these Russian upstarts.  After all, my favorite rappers usually hail from the deadly streets of Compton, CA or the run down projects of Brooklyn, NY.  Could Russian rappers ever hope to channel the same level of swagger, angst, and danger that MC’s like Biggie Smalls did?

That’s probably not a fair comparison for anyone, but guys like Artyom Tatischevsky  out of the Samara region in Russia have caught my attention.  His beats are chill, he has a nice flow, and his poetry (as far as I can tell) comments on the struggle of being a rapper in Russia today.  He’s aware that he isn’t big, but he’s not afraid to take bold shots at the musical tastes of the pop music loving majority in his track “Titmice Sang”:

936full-timati

Timati, an international pop culture icon just following the trends.

MC’s like Artyom are undiscovered.  He does’t have his own website, but instead uses the Russian equivalent of Facebook, VKontakte to advertise his upcoming albums and performances.  He doesn’t get a lot of media attention, but he is honest about his roots and about his opinion of society, and for that he has my respect.

On the other hand, there are a whole slew of rappers in Russia who seem to be doing their best to emulate the direction which hip hop has been going in the U.S.  These guys are all about the money, women, cars, and clubs – they are widely known in Russia and abroad.  Timati has his own website and has done songs with several American rappers including Long Beach’s own Snoop Dogg (or Snoop Lion).  He appears in articles for popular networks such as MTV, and appears to be interested in branding himself as some sort of russified P. Diddy.

Hip hop is clearly still in its early stages of development in Russia, but Vladimir Putin himself publicly recognized its importance when he addressed a crowd of youths at a rap battle meant to discourage drug use:

“These youngsters who work at this art in our country – they bring unique Russian charm.  Street rap may be a little bit rough, but it contains social meaning, raising social problems.”

While this statement is probably more meant to rescue Putin’s approval ratings than to express his actual feelings about hip hop, I agree with the gist of what he is saying.  Hip hop began in America as a way for the underprivileged, the forgotten, and the angry to voice their perspective on life and produced what is some of the most visceral, meaningful poetry I’ve ever heard.  It could certainly come out that way in Russia if artists like Artyom Tatischevsky continue to rap about what’s in their soul, and don’t fall under the glamorous spell which American pop culture has cast on the genre.