It’s now a fact - the great renaissance of Russian rap is upon us. What started a couple of years ago as an online-powered subculture, is now a massive cultural force dictating its rules to the mainstream. Russian rap and hip-hop today is a movement of great variety and depth, ruling the minds of millions across the country.
In your crash course on the movement, the first thing to get familiar with is the world of Russian online rap battles, organised by companies like Versus and #Slovospb. The battles attract unprecedented huge audiences: in August, a battle between Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS gained over 13 million views on YouTube in just two days — and 18 million in a week. The world of battles is ruled of by skills in verse and vigour, but it’s not like this for all the rising stars. Style and looks also play a part for the prodigies of Russian cloud rap, like Pharaoh and Tatarka, who can easily find their way to the hearts of the Russian generation Z, which is tuned into the global Instagram hype.
In its early days in the 1990s, Russian hip-hop manifested the country’s emerging connection with Western culture. The current new wave of the genre is, in a way, completely the opposite — it’s all about the authentic voice and identity. Russian language plays a crucial part: profanities mix with elegant poetry in its complex structures, with rappers frequently referring to the rich heritage of Russian literature. Some even call Russian rap the last outpost for free speech in the country.
It’s also crucial to understand that Russian rap today comes from a society in deep economic and political crisis. The beats and the verse take on the huge gap between the rich and the poor, and the lack of understanding between the older generation and Russian youth. There are different routes to take — from escapism in drugs and parties to grimy social realism — but the harsh poetry speaks to kids on the estates in every bleak industrial city in Russia. As for stars, here are eight names you need to know for your first encounter with Russian rap.
If you pick only one name from today’s Russian rap, it's got to be Oxxxymiron. Born in St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) in the mid-80s, Miron Fyodorov moved around a lot with his family, living in Germany and the UK. He studied English language and literature at Oxford, and spent a large part of his 20s in East London, which explains the volatile combination of grime influences and intricate cultural references in his work. Oxxxymiron managed to harness both mainstream popularity and the respect of the hip-hop community — the rap battles he takes part in tend to attract a record-breaking amount of viewers.
Adil Zhalelov aka Scriptonite is from Kazakhstan not Russia — but his output is absolutely integral to the scene. Born in Leninskiy village in North-West Kazakhstan, Scriptonite first came into prominence with his hit “VBVVCTND”. The video for the track depicts the typical deprived post-Soviet town in the middle of nowhere, and the lyrics exposed the harsh reality of growing up in this setting. Scriptonite’s style is incredibly diverse: from trap-influenced bangers to The Weeknd-style soft romantic tunes.
With a buzzcut and often clad in a black sports jacket, Husky has an appearance fit for a Russian rapper. His lyrics, however, are much more complex, and are perhaps the best example of radical poetry from the whole movement. In a wired, neurotic manner, he goes through scenes from day-to-day Russian life, both mundane and terrifying to a point of existential horror. At times, actually, it rings so true it’s like a punch in a stomach. His track "Panelka," for instance, is an ode to Russian estates which evoke the beauty and fatal determinism of La Haine.
Slava KPSS aka Gnoyniy
Slava KPSS is one more hero of online rap battles, and holds the dubious title of the most-watched battle in which he’s beaten (by Oxxxymiron). The high doses of venom is his verses is his main asset: he’s known for mocking not only his nemesis but numerous other rappers and for his frequent use of foul language. He even got in trouble with the Chechen diaspora for the rhymes on his rather explicit love for Chechen girls, for which he had to issue a public apology.
At only 21, Pharaoh is the poster boy of Russian cloud rap and a heartthrob to millions of teenage fans all around the country. With the joys and despair of success, money, sex and weed as his main topics, Pharaoh seems to be permanently on a massive tour around the post-Soviet space — hence, his signature appearance of cynicism and fatigue. A handful of collaborators (including the founder of Yung Russia community Boulevard Depo, interesting in his own right) are united as Dead Dynasty crew — and today it’s hard to believe that this major powerhouse started with a just a couple of DIY videos.
A much needed female voice in the male-dominated scene, Irina Smelaya aka Tatarka made headlines in 2016 by releasing her debut track "Altyn," in the Tatar language. The meanings of the lyrics of this catchy tune are a mystery to most of her Russian audience, but it definitely helped to popularise the Tatar language among young people. Half-Tatar, Smelaya is based in St. Petersburg, and was known before as a popular vlogger. Dressing in Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy and faux furs and posing against a background of Soviet architecture, she definitely has style, and hopefully enough power to motivate a new crop of female rappers.
Sergey Kruppov hails from a small town of Novocheboksarsk on the Volga River. His alias ATL was originally a homage to the code of Atlanta airport in the US. At home both in the world of online rap battles and releases with more polished production (alongside Scriptonite), ATL’s output incorporates diverse musical influences such as intricate ambient, trap and drum and bass.
Coming from the depths of the Russian social network VK, FACE first got exposure off the back of his viral track about Gosha Rubchinskiy. Back then it was not exactly clear if the whole thing is a parody or the real thing — and actually even now the project looks quite a lot like a piss-take. His lyrics are a straightforward cocktail of nihilism and hedonism spiced with Palace and Supreme, the videos are low budget, and 20-year-old Ivan Dremin frankly seems a bit too ridiculous to be real. Which doesn’t bother hundred of thousands of his fans, of course.
For more emerging rappers from around the world, take a peep at our 6 Swedish rappers you need to know right here.