If you’re not yet familiar with the current renaissance of Russian rap, it’s time to do some background reading. The new generation of Russian rappers are making some serious waves - breaking YouTube records and earning big bucks. And it’s not just about music; Russian rap is about redefining the language, forging new identities and finding uncensored space to speak out about social issues. But within the global history of the movement, it can be a bit puzzling - why, for instance, do Russians seem to be into something so culturally alien to them?
The history of Russian rap and hip-hop dates back to the turbulent era of the dissolution of the Soviet Union. With the first attempts to adapt the genre to the Russian audience in the late '80s, it truly flourished in the 1990s. The country was suddenly flooded with all kinds of foreign goods: from jeans and fake sportswear to advertising, music, TV and magazines. The emergence of the rap scene was at the epicenter of this cultural explosion. After all, rap embodies everything which was forbidden in the Soviet Union; with the flashy dress-code and explicit lyrics about sex, parties, money and wasted youth, it became a phenomenon for the youth culture.
Back then, a lot of the aesthetic was borrowed from the West, and it took decades to shake off American visual tropes. Yet in their awkward bandanas and huge jeans, '90s rappers were a trusted voice for the first post-Soviet generation. Today some look retro, some completely ridiculous — but it is worth revisiting these hidden gems.
When Mister Maloy’s debut “Gonna Die Young” became a hit in 1992, he was just 13-years-old, and he clearly spoke to all the Russian '90s kids out there. In the track, he muses on the dangers of alcohol, drugs and cigarettes — suddenly available on every street corner and at any age. The video was shot on a budget of $150 in a ruined courtyard, which was a familiar setting for teenage ramblings at the time. And no, he didn’t die young — but nor could he sustain his first success past the mid '90s.
Malchishnik (translated from Russian as “bachelor party”) was a pioneering rap group from the early '90s, which tested the ability of the mainstream to deal with controversy to the max. They played on the new generation’s desire to talk openly and publicly about sex, starting from their breakthrough hit “Sex Without a Break.” Their main topic was often delivered in an explicit manner, leading to numerous scandals and bans on radio and TV. Malchishnik also kickstarted the career of Dolphin, who remains one of the most influential rap and spoken-word performers in Russia to this day.
Originally from Ukraine, Vlad Valov aka Sheff started his career in late '80s as a break dance performer before establishing himself as a rap powerhouse. Apart from releasing his own records, he produced other artists and established rap groups Bad Balance and Bad B. Alliance (their political manifesto “Hope for Tomorrow” still hasn’t lost its edge). Sheff’s output exemplified Russian rap’s move into a more affluent and largely Westernized aesthetic and sound. Hard to believe that this kind of attitude and pathos could be taken seriously, but hey, you have to give him some kudos for introducing large gold bling and these cutting-edge special effects.
In the early 2000s, Detsl was Russian hip-hop’s main teenage heartthrob and a role model for thousands of school kids across the country. His skinny frame draped in enormous clothes was a staple of the early days of Russian MTV, and just about everybody owned a CD of his debut. His texts dealt with topics close to the heart of every teenager: house parties, troubles at school, occasional street fights and eternal questions such as 'What did you accomplish for hip-hop in your formative years?'
Mikhei’s music occupied a unique niche somewhere in between rap and emerging pop, and incorporated influences of reggae and soul music. He tragically died in 2002 from a stroke, but beforehand, he managed to produce a range of lasting hits, including the still frequently-cited “Love is a Bitch.”
Hailing from Rostov-on-Don, a port city in the south of Russia, Kasta came into prominence in early 2000s with an emphasis on a street-influenced, rougher aesthetic and socially-conscious verses. Their critique of the wild capitalism and consumerism of the time was frequently spiced up with the presence of a traditionally masculine code of honor, enabling them to find success with a massive audience.
Krovostok is much more than a rap group; they're a major Russian cultural phenomenon. Active since the early 2000s, they avoid any involvement in the mainstream yet, thanks to their cult status, their albums don’t even need promo anymore. In their lyrics, the real, dark history of the '90s mixes with tales of violence amd dreams of a delirious alcoholic and strange Russian mysticism, all delivered in a calm and almost detached manner. It’s not surprising that in 2015 the group’s texts were outlawed in Russia as something which could provoke “aggressive and antisocial behaviour” — in the ultra-sanitized space of Russian mainstream media, there is definitely no space for them.
For more Russian rap goodness, take a look at our list of eight emerging artists you should get to know right here.