State of The Art: Global Hip Hop Studies (1984-2024)

As I work on this PhD, it has become noticeably apparent that the field of global Hip Hop studies (the expanded version of Hip Hop studies, itself a subfield of Popular Music studies, itself a branch of Musicology) has developed rather simultaneously with Hip Hop studies, albeit forming its own chronology and canonical works. Although works like Rose (1994) and Toop (1984, 1991) are regarded as some of the first of their kind to academically investigate the (then) developing culture of Hip Hop, around the mid-90s it can be also stated the study of global Hip Hop culture simultaneously emerged onto the academic scene, Italy one of the first countries under scrutiny (Adinolfi 1989). Thus, by the early 2000s, a host of sources were then available which signaled an appreciable interest in the dimensions of Hip Hop outside the American context. In this post, I’ll laconically go through the chronological development of global Hip Hop studies and reflect on the avenues by which the field could venture and develop. Most recently, a flurry of books have been published which have been focused on methodological concerns around Hip Hop (Alim et al 2023). Perhaps we are bearing witness to a radical rearticulation of what it means to study Hip Hop on a global dimension? I have my beliefs but let us now turn to the field’s chronology. Of course, I am not done synthesizing sources and finding the ‘state of the art,’ but I can make some basic observations with what I have now.

For the purposes of this chronology, I will refrain from using the terms ‘waves’ used by Harris et al. (2019) in his evaluation of global Hip Hop studies.

Scholarship Before 2000

Although it’s tempting to argue that global Hip Hop studies is a relatively ‘new’ subfield of Hip Hop studies (even the term subfield is contentious and rejected on my part), this is woefully incorrect. In fact, scholarship on the global dimensions of Hip Hop began as early as the mid-1980s, Toop (1984) spotlighting Hip Hop’s Africanist origins. Later, work on regional variations of Hip Hop emerged (Espadalé 1990, Kopytko 1986, Wermuth 1990), signaling the growing focus on non-American Hip Hop culture by non-American scholars. Countries as disparate as Spain, The Netherlands, and New Zealand were having their Hip Hop cultures critically analyzed. Soon, by the 1990s the beginning of the field began. Thanks to Toop’s second edition of “Rap Attack,” Hip Hop’s African origins and global applicability were increasing in attention, some of the first works to reflect on Hip Hop’s diasporic and globalized dimensions being Gilroy (1991) and Robinson et al (1991). Soon after, the study of Hip Hop within German academia really began taking off (Jacob 1993). But the first concrete evaluation of European Hip Hop was Beau (1996), followed soon after by Tony Mitchell’s seminal book, “Popular Music and Local Identity” and continued emphasis on Hip Hop’s African roots (Keyes 1996). Several more regional studies emerged like Australia (White 1999) and France (Hargreaves and McKinney 1998) but it would be during the 2000s when things would pick up, giving rise to Global Hip Hop Studies.

An Establishment of Themes (2000-2009)

Beginning in 2000 with seminal works like Born and Hesmondhalgh (2000), a critical look at Western music through multiple vectors like Exoticism, appropriation, and cultural hybridity, global Hip Hop studies began cementing itself as a credible field outside the American purview. Some of the first works began focusing on topics like identity (Watkins 2000, Auzanneau 2001, Huq 2006), the dynamics of globalization and localization (Condry 2001, Androutsopoulos 2003, Basu and Lemelle 2006), as well as linguistic dimensions (Pennycook 2007). Of course, within the spaces of these pillars including the growing focus on country-specific Hip Hop scenes like Japan (Condry 2006) under the larger topic of globalization and glocalization, the leading concept in more Hip Hop studies discussions of authenticity and what it means to be authentic in Hip Hop, the topic of recent book on the subject (Speers 2017). Moreover, the integration of global Hip Hop communities and American-focused studies began growing in amount, Wermuth (2002) one significant example while Hip Hop on the global stage was being used to study larger cultural dynamics (Cook and Lawerence 2006) and tumultuous political concerns (Khiun 2006). By the second-half of the 2000s, a more concrete understanding of global Hip Hop had been achieved thanks to the work of scholars like Jeff Chang (2006), Halifu Osumare (2008), and highly sourced works like Alim et al. (2009).

A Decade of Achievement (2010-2019)

To say that this period was fruitful for global Hip Hop studies is a phenomenal understatement. In short, the work which was achieved during the previous decade concerning themes like globalization, diasporic movements, politics, cultural politics, linguistics, and cultural hybridity under the larger purview of postcolonial theory, exploded in diversity. During the first-half of the decade, some highly canonical texts of global Hip Hop studies were written during this time including but not limited to Terkourafi (2010), Morgon and Bennett (2011), Nietzsche and Grünzweig (2013), and (Helbig 2014). Further, following James Spady’s publication of his 2013 book, “Mapping and Re-Membering Hip Hop History, Hiphopography and African Diasporic History,” one of the foundations upon which recent books like Williams and Singh (2023) are based, diasporia became an appreciable topic of study. Moreover, deeper analysis of Hip Hop’s African origins paralleled expanded interest into European and non-American Hip Hop scenes including recently begun work in the Scandinavian and Nordic regions (Krogh and Pederson 2008, Holt and Karja 2017) and Cold War Germany (Schmieding 2015). The second-half brought considerable breakthroughs, racialized investigations (Kajikawa 2015) offering new insight into rap on a global scale within the purview of postcolonial theory (Rollefson 2017), while Hip Hop in Europe was now being studied on its own (Miłosz and Helbig 2018) and in short, 2019 was a HUGE year for the field (Shepherd 2019).

The Last Few Years (2020-2023)

What’s rather strange is that I have not come across any studies or books released during 2020, most likely because of the COVID-19 pandemic. I concede, however, that my research isn’t complete and this is not reflective of the reality. Nevertheless, in 2021 the ‘thaw’ broke and studies on global Hip Hop culture resumed, most particularly with Backspin (2021) on the non-academic rung and academically with Young (2022) and Johnson (2022). Most exciting was the growth in research from lesser-known regions of the world like Bishkek (Coppenrath 2022) and non-canonical places in Africa (Lipena Jr. 2023). Moreover, projects like the CIPHER Project began publishing their work, reflecting a systematic evaluation and synthesis of global Hip Hop cultures for their “gems,” or those elements which define the thematic core of Hip Hop itself (Roleffson et al. 2023). Special editions of topical journals have begun reflecting the normalization of global Hip Hop studies as a recognized field of itself (Nietzche and Schick 2022), while recent books from global Hip Hop scholar heavyweights (Alim 2023) are furthering the field with renewed interested on globalization. The second edition of “That’s The Joint” includes a section on global Hip Hop (Forman et al. 2024), the first release of the new year.

If there’s anything that can be said in conclusion, it’s that my PhD focusing on rap in Russia and the aesthetics of Russianness and the Russian identity come from both the vein of Russian Hip Hop studies (the subject of a literature review on its own) and the larger field of global Hip Hop studies. Without the last forty years, my project would have never had to chance to exist.

The Fabric of Authenticity In The Textual Life of Bad Balance’s “Raiders Bad B” (1994) And One Example

Photo Credit: Sekira BRO (XXZP.Biz)

When we talk about authenticity in regards to popular music, it often comes back towards the relationship an artist has with “realness” and credibility as a musician, creative individual, and their persona (on and off the ‘stage’). However, it gets incredibly complicated incredibly quickly in light of mediating factors such as commercialism, gender, identity, cultural belonging, national fidelity, and other seminal elements. One of the most prolific topics is authenticity regarding the genres of rock (Attias 2015, Bromfield 2016) and rap (McLeod 1999, Williams 2007, Wright 2010). Within these related discourses, a myriad of perspectives have emerged, all which require further reading and synthesis on my part. Throughout writings on authenticity in popular music, the throughline is a strong attachment to a tangible, understandable, and accessible form of identity which seems both approachable, recognizable, and attainable in many ways, as if the viewer and anonymous spectator can somehow find themselves in the artist or group. Robert Gardner, talking about popular music and authenticity, notes that authenticity within popular music is hardly fixed and continually fluid, a tenuous negotiation between uncorrupted cultural ownership and commercial “selling out,” the line between these remarkably obscure. As he aptly notes, with the dawning of postmodernism and the rise of a new type of popular music consciousness (perhaps there is such a thing as a “pop music geist”?), there arose a desire for a new type of authenticity shaped by the hands of market interests but not itself ruled by it.

In other words, in order to escape the noticeable hand of inauthentic music making, the “we” have begun searching for forms of music which seem closer to earth, to a naturalized, often imaginary simplicity which is undermined if one looks a bit too much. While genres like country and folk music seem more “authentic” than rock and pop, it’s only because the latter have become synonymized with marked interests while the latter are erroneously connected with non-urban interests. Moreover, usages of “exotic,” non-Western elements, and cultural soundscapes and textures in the forms of “ethno pop” and “world music,” all have their downsides, and offsetting “inauthenticity” only goes so far until one finds themselves back in the same place they were before. When speaking about “world music” and authenticity regarding education, Schippers (2006) notes that there is a grappling that must be done when taking contextual music out of its context and encoding with new contexts based on the listener’s knowledge. In regards to “world music” pop artists, the tension between being and not being authentic often comes back to a ‘strategic’ usage of conventional notions of what inauthenticity looks and sounds like (338). I want to return to Gardner, however, as he poses a seminal point that will become important when talking about rap music and that is the desire for authenticity as something connected to scaled back forms of music as opposed to extremely processed “inauthentic” music that seems to embrace uncritical conformity and standardization. In Gardner’s words,

“With the advent of postmodern culture, many fans of popular music have turned
back to traditional forms of music and culture to satisfy their need for simpler,
purer, and more honest cultural expression.”

Robert Owen Gardner, “Review” (2005): 143. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1525/si.2005.28.1.135.

Rap and Notions of Authenticity

Inevitably, the topic of authenticity regarding Hip Hop culture comes back to the question of cultural ownership and the exercising of that ownership through the normative notions of who should and should not be allowed to be practitioners of the culture (Harrison 2008). Yet, as the header notes, I wish to focus this brief exposition on rap and rappers specifically in light of recent explorations on the metamodernist elements of identity, authenticity, the rapper, and digital mediation (Hicken 2018). Rap’s relation to authenticity is summarized in the phrase, “keepin it real,” alluding in no small way to the legacy of the commercial project of 1990s gangsta rap and the unscrupulous associations of Hip Hop culture with violence, gang activity, criminal conduct, misogyny, extreme forms of masculinity, focus on material success, drug use, sexual promiscuity, alcohol consumption, and slanged speech, among other stereotyped parameters.

This reductionist view of authenticity and Hip Hop culture, while superficial, is helpful in understanding authenticity in relation to rap music. Rather than explicit cultural elements, rap authenticity is connected to one’s knowledge of techniques, aesthetic ‘fathers’ and historical developments, accumulated skills, abilities, and the exercising of creative ingenuity through the act of rapping. Here, a focus on the “Africanisms” of rap become another helpful point in understanding rap authenticity, cultural borrowings like signifying, braggadocio, flyting, toasting, and one-up word games like dozens become the roots of the concept. As Augustyn (2005) writes, the Caribbean and Jazz-era carryovers like toasting and “jive,” a reformed word connected to satirical and parodic presentations of mockery and insult, are immensely important for the music of Hip Hop culture’s eventual birth in the 1970s through Djing and then Mcing and then later, rap.

This, I argue, brings us much closer towards understanding rap authenticity as rather than take a more culturally-focused view, rap authenticity is far more about techniques employed and the aesthetics used when establishing flow style, musical atmosphere, and general style. While a much larger argument, essentially rap authenticity is intimately related towards the expression of knowledge concerning the aesthetic heritage and practices of Hip Hop’s musical forms (i.e., Djing and Mcing/rapping) expressed in the aesthetics of flow and usages of techniques such as breakbeat, sampling, scratching, and flow style. In Williams (2015), a standard for Hip Hop research, these elements are examined in length while the concept of “authenticity” is defined along several different points including racial, subcultural, and situational (see Geoff Harkness), to name a few. Along aesthetic lines, Justin Williams notes that “vinyl aesthetics” have been commonly associated with authenticity. But his explanation on the seminality of “signifyin” is the most important, a living creative link between what is and what was. As he writes,

“Like ragtime, swing, hard bop, bebop, cool, reggae, dub, and hip-hop, these musical forms were Signifyin(g) what came before them…These musical “conversations” can therefore occur between the present and the past [diachronically], or synchronically within a particular genre.”

Williams, Justin. The Cambridge Companion to Hip Hop (2015): 306.

Speaking about authenticity, KRS-One (2009) paints Hip Hop authenticity as an embodiment of one’s true self rather than something always related to rap, albeit historically speaking. Despite my reservations about this type of philosophical reinterpretation of authenticity, I find it telling that he doesn’t focus on the aesthetics but rather knowledge as the true nature of authenticity. Instead of authenticity in rap per se, perhaps it serves Hiphop (the ideology) better to understand the purpose of the rap rather than the rap itself. Again, despite my reservations, it’s rather compelling to think about authenticity as linked with self-knowledge. In his words,

“Hip Hop’s true history is NOT the history of Rap music entertainment. Rap music’s entertainment history can be included in Hip Hop’s history, but to interpret Hip Hop’s cultural history through mainstream Rap music entertainment is a mistake.”

KRS-One, The Gospel of Hip Hop (2009): 52.

One Example

On the album, there are numerous examples of “Hip Hop authenticity” being exemplified through textual themes. I want to focus on the track which talks about jazz not so vaguely entitled, “Jazz is non-music.” The title invokes one of many discourses, that is jazz as something corruptive, inferior to more serious types of music if we follow Adornian thought, and the negative aspects of jazz music. However, there is another reading here, that being jazz as not music per se but a larger culture, much like rap and its relationship to Hip Hop culture as espoused by KRS-One (2009). This reading, jazz as “non music” due to its cultural ties rather than exclusively music, is the reading I think Bad Balance is trying to invoke in this track, and I will seek to substantiate this in a close reading of the text. Such a view of jazz as something greater than its musical form is found in both Russian and Western literature (Johnson 2003, Sofronov 2000), a strong emphasis being placed on jazz’s reclaiming of the African-American identity from the grips of commercialization through various forms of mainstream music derivatives which were educated by jazz but filtered through a decontextualized lens. With this type of reading in mind, let us now take a look at how the track discusses jazz and focus on the discourses made concerning authenticity. The influence of jazz on the aesthetics of rap have been immense (Williams 2010), with the usage of jazz in rap exploited to raise the artistic value of rap from urban culture to a “high” art form worthy of respect. I don’t think, however, this is relevant for Bad Balance.

Firstly, jazz is rendered an animate thing through the process of anthropomorphism, the first verse clear evidence of this can be found [Note: This is incorrect as the Russian language uses gendered nouns. This undermines this point a bit but I will follow it regardless]. The entire verse alludes to the ubiquity of jazz and its ability to spread throughout the world easily. Further, the power of jazz is such that tears are reversed, the mind is rendered suppliant to its power, and there is a universal acceptance to be found in jazz which allows for the celebration of life itself:

“Who has achieved recognition for hard work. Meet him, he welcomes us all. Didn’t you know? His name is Jazz”

Verse 1 (Track No. 7: Jazz Is Non-Music)

Secondly, there is a healing nature to jazz, evidenced by the second verse and its emphasis on jazz’s relationship to nature and the restoration of self found in the restorative hug of jazz’s musical flow. The first four lines of verse two express this natural fire and a cosmic connection with the heavens which cannot be replicated with urban mimetic but only through the DNA of jazz:

“Stars in the sky, lights in the city. They burn to illuminate the paths. In the city, lanterns and lights, alas, do not last forever. A star in the sky is jazz forever.

Verse 2 (Track No. 7: Jazz Is Non-Music)

Thirdly, and most importantly, jazz is treated as something much larger than just music but an entire worldview, mindset, and cultural way of being that seeks to strengthen the fortitude of the individual’s sense of self and usher one into a more collective being with likeminded others. This is supported by the final third of verse two and the entirety of verse three. I quote here elements of verse two and three together to show how they are integrated by this concept:

[Verse 2] He heals our wounds, he lives for us all. Jazz is the heart of music. Jazz is dancing together. [Verse 3] People’s lives – composition, jazz. Finishing well is the goal of each of us. Jazz is not music at all. Jazz is a state of mind.

Verse 2 and 3 (Track No. 7: Jazz Is Non-Music)

Conclusion

As is obvious by the third point, this track argues for the philosophical view of jazz as more than music but an entire Weltanschauung, a worldview that leads to the full realization of one’s being and the restoration of an individual’s peace and potential. This is clearly invoked when discussing the ‘true nature’ of Hip Hop’s elements and its ties to the philosophical roots (spelled by KRS-One as Hiphop). More work is needed to determine how ubiquitous this view was at the time and who else thought about jazz this way during and prior to 1994 but it’s extremely fascinating that this reading of jazz resides next to tracks about the celebration of Hip Hop’s African roots (No. 14), graffiti culture (No.13), and show business (No.4). I also need to find examples of other rappers using jazz as the track’s theme, although this is far more difficult than it seems. Nevertheless, if authenticity looks any way than this may be the largest embodiment I have found, never mind track No. 14. When dealing with “authenticity” and rap in Russia, a different purview must be donned, one that accounts for authenticity rooted in cultural knowledge and philosophy more than skin color and superficial ownership of culture and cultural expression.

The Funk Aesthetics of Bad Balance’s “Raiders of the Bad B” (1994) And The Start of A Theory To Explain It

Let me start this rumination on a historical point. In 1994, the festival “White Nights of St. Petersburg” was held which featured as one of its ‘stars’ the American rap group Run-DMC. What does this mean? Well, there are several points that arise from this fact. Firstly, what was this group and not others invited (as I would assume this would be on invitation and not something otherwise)? Secondly, if Run-DMC had become known to Russia at this time, does this presuppose that gangsta rap (in the East Coast style) was well-known among Russia’s rap community at the time? Thirdly, why did the predominant aesthetic of the Russian early-1990s be more funk-oriented if, as Run-DMC’s appearance demonstrates, gangsta rap was known to Russians? If there was a desire to “catch up” (to use outdated and parochial terminology) then surely using funk rap in the style of the Beastie Boys and The Sugarhill Gang would be against the vogue style of the time? The integration of funk musicality yet gangsta rap narratives poses an interesting question about what the rap “thought style” at the time and what could be used which would sit conterminously with where Russian culture was at. In other words, perhaps the mindset of Russian in the early post-Soviet 1990s could support funk rap but was not yet ready for gangsta rap rawness and aggression? More probing is necessary, so let’s continue onwards!

While some of this cannot be adequately proven, for example that the usage of funk rap in the Russian context as opposed to the more popular gangsta rap has any significance at all or implications of “backwards” thinking for that matter, it is significant in light of the fact that Bad Balance had toured the American East Coast in 1990 and inevitably would have been exposed to the increasingly popular sound of gangsta rap as well as funk (in 1979 the infamous track “Rapper’s Delight” having pushed funk into commercial territory while ). But within the conventional gangsta rap umbrella, a racialized archetype created by mainly White executives looking to profit from the stereotyping of the Black experience for a generally White audience, one must look at the elements of gangsts rap which Bad Balance’s album includes. I am talking about its “conscious” elements, the name for such a subgenre rather diverse (knowledge rap, reality rap, message rap). As Forman (2002) notes, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s 1982 track, “The Message,” had integrated funk with its ‘conscious’ analogues and led the way for a reconceptualization of rap as a viable mode of social, cultural, and political critique. This project was only carried through gangsta rap’s essential epoch with rappers like KRS-One, the group Public Enemy and the larger project of the “Temple of Hip Hop.” KRS-One’s 1989 album, “Self-Destruction,” showed just this, that rap was a legitimate form which could lead towards social benefit, a radical view as the censorship against rap in America during the 1990s would have argued against. Again, I point back to this blending of aesthetic purpose found in funk with narratival purpose found in gangsta rap, a point I will address when looking at the album.

A Bit of Probing

The rise of “pop rap” and more commercially oriented rap during the American 1990s, much like the Russian 2000s, led to a splintering of the rap community along generational lines and its purported goals from its beginning with Afrika Bambaataa and DJ Kool Herk (Forman and Neal, 2004: 63). In Forman’s words, the cultivation of knowledge took a rather decolonial manner through rap and its commitment towards community development. In other words, the self was to be developed from the inside and by a reflexive integration with one’s community fabric:

“The nationalist discourses in this rap subgenre consequently inform minority youths and challenge them to educate themselves and each other in order to mobilize real change. Within their collective communities rather than relying on racist social systems to provide their cultural knowledge (and their spiritual knowledge of self).”

Forman, Murray. The ‘hood comes first-race, space, and place in rap and hip-hop (2002): 184.

With these thoughts in mind, let me now turn to the aesthetics of funk rap found on the album, followed by a theoretical positing of what this means in terms of the integration of 1980s-1990s gangsta rap textual life with the aesthetic life of 1970s-1980s funk rap. This oscillating relationship between two epochs of rap’s development reads as yet another perspective on the routinely visited argument of post-Soviet “backwardness” (Yasin 2014) coupled with the growing theorization of metamodernism (Dempsey 2023, Baciu et al. 2015) which argues sublation through relaxed negotiations of progress and Hegelian actualizing (Sensat 2016). The working belief, at least right now, is one that was argued by DJ Alexander Astrov back in 2016 about his role in creating the album. “Rap,” for the funk rock group ‘Rush Hour’ (in Russian Chas Pik). In the interview Astrov notes how for 1980s Soviet disco culture there was an aesthetic line,

“I heard the familiar “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. But we must understand that the same Grandmaster Flash for the Soviet public was an incredible recording. We, who were involved in discos, listened to it among ourselves, understood that it was cool, but no one would ever dare to play it in the evening, because everyone knew that people would not dance to this music. There was too much funk, not to mention rap.” 

Alexander Astrov in Nikita Velichko for Afisha Daily (2016).

If we assume that such a line was still present up until the early-1990s, although to argue this is rather insecure and up for debate, then it could stand that the usage of funk but with the narratival life of gangsta rap was an extension of this. While Russia was now ready for the full effect of funk, it was now gangsta rap which had to be slowly introduced to Russia, first through text and then music. Whatever the case may be, by the mid-late 1990s it becomes clear that gangsta rap had been not only musically introduced into Russia but textually AND culturally, one could argue due to the rise of crime, inflation, and other social, economic, cultural, and political factors but that’s an argument for later. Let’s now take a look at some funk rap aesthetics.

The Funk Rap Aesthetics in “Raiders of Bad B”

Let’s begin by giving a more concrete articulation of what funk rap actually means in terms of aesthetics. This element helps to ensure that my qualification of Bad Balance’s music as funk is not simply based on artificial appearances but rather is being supported through analytical support. When defining funk rap, Starr and Waterman (2010/notes) give various qualities which can be useful for being explicit in the identification of funk rap aesthetics:

  1. articulated dance rhythms
    • Dance rhythms in popular music extends far back, see Chambers 1985
  2. catchy melodies
  3. call and response relationships in instrumental and vocal line
  4. Layered loops of rhythmic patterns
    • Ostinato and one part of Oddekalv’s “chimericity” (2022)
  5. Focus on groove and rhythmic momentum
    • See point 2 but also in terms of rap and rhythmic groove, see Greenwald (2002)
  6. Accentuated common time
    • This point is supported by Starr and Waterman as an accented hypermetric pulse on two and four which act as the hyperbeat within the large frame of the hypermeasure

Okay, the quest now is to identify these elements in the music of Bad Balance and to definitively state whether they are or are not using funk rap aesthetics in their music or if they are using something analogous to it but not actually utilizing its elements. One could argue this step isn’t really necessary but I would counter this by saying that my argument of Bad Balance’s usage of funk musically and gangsta rap textually relies upon a strong argument that they are in fact using funk rap aesthetics and not something that sounds like funk rap. A further crux to my argument is found in the words of Star and Waterman themselves when talking about the implications of the funk genre itself for the reclaiming of African American culture,

“Funk represented a vigorous reassertion of African American musical values in the face of soft soul’s dominance of the R&B and pop crossover market, and it paved the way for the more commercialized sounds of disco music in the mid-1970s.”

Star and Waterman. American Popular Music: From Minstrelsy to MP3 (2018): 445.

Now that I’ve established what 1970s funk rap is and what funk itself stood for prior to its synthesis with DJing thanks to the “fathers” of Hip Hop (i.e., Afrika Bambaataa, DJ Kool Herk, and Grandmaster Flash), I will now conclude with my theory on Bad Balance’s usage of funk rap aesthetics.

A Theory of Bad Balance’s Usage of Funk Rap Aesthetics

One part of Hip Hop authenticity is the negation, or attempted negation, of commercial tendencies and participation within commercial spaces. In this way, Bad Balance’s usage of funk coalesces with the general belief, at least among Hip Hop heads and what I’ve read and come to internalize, that authenticity was a big deal for rappers within rap culture in Russia. As Osumare (2009) noted in their rather reductive reading of rap culture in Russia, albeit this is because it was not yet studied, the rap community had a lot to prove that rap in Russia wasn’t just a mimetic version of America but something truly original with something original to say. As a result, perhaps the usage of funk held a two-fold meaning. On the one hand, Bad Balance’s use of funk could’ve signaled their affiliation with the aesthetic roots of rap (i.e., 1970s and early-mid 1980s) and thus root them in ‘authenticity’ by showing their aesthetic knowledge. On the other hand, their usage of funk could signal something a bit more superficial, an attachment to the breaking and pre-commercialized world of rap and Hip Hop culture which the group was born from. This falls through if one looks at the text, however, and this becomes a critical point in the deduction of purpose around this synthesis of funk and gangsta rap. As Star and Waterman note, “The Message” pushed rap from local party rap to something they call “social realism,” another name for “conscious” rap (2018: 453). In this way, Bad Balance served the function of both Public Enemy and Grandmaster Flash, both a voice of reason and ethics while at the same time raising the credibility level of rap through an integration of funk aesthetics and topical subject matter. In the end, what resulted from their synthetic work was a thriving culture of different groups and artists who helped make sense of the 1990s for impressionable anomic youth.

Rap and Ethics: Was Bad Balance The Voice of Temperance During the 1990s Or Am I Missing Something Here?

As I wade through the waters of Bad Balance’s 1994 album, “Bad B. Raiders” (Nalyotchiki Bad B.) and its embodiment of two key “topics” (“Blackness” and Hip Hop authenticity), it’s become starkly apparent that there was a general tenor to rap during the Russian 1990s. If we remember what a musical topic is, namely a “treasury of knowledge about styles” whose ‘treasure’ is shared between composer and listener (Sołtysik 2020), then one naturally has to inquire as to why, if looking at the 14 tracks on the album, themes like narcotic avoidance, pursuit of virtue, unconventional justice, and existentialism arise? Yet, as one can detect from an initial listening and which my analysis of the topic “Hip Hop authenticity” has show, such “conscious” topics are musically embodied through funk rap/rock rap atmospheres and declamatory flows. The natural next question is, “What does this mean? How can such consequential themes be paired with music which seems so antithetical to the subject matter?” Here, one must appeal to rap’s inherent focus, that is social, cultural, and political critique and ‘enlightened’ commentary on self, world, community, nation, and self in and through these spaces. Such considerations are only strengthened when ruminating on the scholarship available regarding rap and its social function, namely as a purveyor of ethics and morals (Bramwell 2011 and Nzinga 2023). As these two papers show, the type of discourses available for rap and ethics covers a great deal of ground.

A Detour Into Ethics

Talking about the political ethics of Hip Hop, Shelby (2015) makes a fabulous point when she addresses that “symbolic impure dissent,” that which is against the normative parameters of society through equally non-normative means, is the true expression of the marginalized. As she writes, ” In publicly communicating condemnation of injustice, solidarity with the oppressed, and defiance in the face of illegitimate authority, impure dissent is a vital element of the political ethics of the oppressed, and hip hop/new media is sometimes the vehicle for its expression.” Yet, this does not quite explain what Bad Balance seems to be trying to do. Their ethics is something different, something which is equally as non-normative and yet uses ethics to dissuade youth from engaging in activities rather than endorsing them as a way to seek liberation and freedom. I am particularly attached to Socrates’ and his ethical beliefs yet a closer inspection of what ethics means in regards to the pursuit of the virtuous is helpful to root my beliefs before going to my findings. For Socrates, the pursuit of self-knowledge and knowledge of the self, maybe two different things entirely, defined the ethical life and thereby defined the truly happy life. In technical terminology, eudaimonia (or ‘the highest good’) could be sought after by a life of active contemplation which would naturally lead someone to do that which is good which would lead them to virtue and thereby when one becomes “conscious” it is up to the person to act in accordance with the good. This is overlooking Plato and Aristotle (Nietlong and Kato, 2020).

Having addressed the classical foundations of ethics, albeit briefly and imprecisely (for more on definitions of ‘the ethical’ see Cuneo 2020), I will now go into my findings and talk about the dimensions therein. In short, the album demonstrates sophistication of the medium and what Allan Moore defined as “reality rap” and “knowledge rap,” although his definitions are noticeably messy and shallow if not unusable (2003). This is to say, there is a line being teetered which plays with “conscious” elements yet not at the expense of the funk communalism which rap came to represent for so long well before commercialism and its sycophant relationship with ‘gangsta realism.’ While Bad Balance uses a funk rap/acid jazz musical texture, reaching for building blocks of what makes rap music aesthetically “authentic” (i.e., sampling, scratching, breakbeat, and a declamatory rap flow), at the same time the group is dealing with some incredibly heavy and profound subject matter. Yet, what makes this a topic is that Bad Balance wasn’t alone in this pairing and throughout the first-half of the 1990s, you can find other groups who used this tenuous pairing to talk about other seminal topics like suicide, stabbings, existential loss, and destroyed relationships not to mention alcoholism as well. It’s of high significance that Bad Balance was not alone in pairing heavy subjects with a more approachable musical texture, as seminal American rap groups and artists like N.W.A and Public Enemy had been doing so with high degrees of success and scorn in equal measure by the 1990s American public.

As I will show in the following words, evidence for the topic of “Blackness,” never mind authenticity for now, can be found in the samples that were used, the tracks related to that, and the themes within the album itself. While only at the beginning, there is ample evidence to suggest that one of the main elements of rap in Russia during the 1990s was a contemplative introspectiveness which can be extrapolated to encapsulate the entirety of Russia’s long 19th-century existence to the present. To escape the Soviet era, Bad Balance may have sought to be the guiding light for a generation of youth in need of leadership and direction, with the best way of doing this being through a medium that could capture their attention on the terms of the youth.

Findings

ElementEvidence (Artist)Analysis
Drug UseNo. 3Reference to marijuana usage
Reference to smoking and the negative effects of Benzopyrene and nicotine inhalation
No. 9Skit of drug use and police are called and they run
DrinkingNo. 3Reference to vodka consumption and the negative effects of the behaviour
CriminalityNo. 6Warning to avoid confrontation with those who try to appear cool but are very aggressive (i.e., skinheads) and their internal fear
ScammingNo. 8Life is a game of gambling and everyone is participating in one or another with winners and losers
Street JusticeNo. 11Enforcement of unconventional justice which lie outside the prescribed law for the good of society
New RussiansNo. 12Those who seek prosperity (New Russians) are willing to do anything to succeed and so one must stay true to theselves and not give into unvirtuous pursuits
Police CorruptionNo.10The apathetic gaze of the policeman against anyone they can find in St. Petersburg at night and their orders to kill with corruption covering their crime
Chart of Findings Based on Track Themes with Explanation (Fig. 1)

Let’s unpack what the chart shows. Firstly, the left column and the themes are extreme reductions of what the tracks actually talk about. If we take track No. 3 (Bad Balance) as just one example, we are faced the realization that the entire track, while technically about drug use and drinking, is far from the stereotypical complexion of these topics as personified in contemporary rap. Pondering on the lines contained within verse 2 it’s instantly recognizable that this track is nothing like modern rap. Dwell on the following and its meaning for a youth having endured the Soviet system given free reigns to a world unknown to him and forced onto him,

Let’s look at ourselves: well, who are we like?
Our natural skin color has changed
Our eyes have become cloudy, our teeth are also black
Cigarettes and vodka are worse than atomic war for us
We love to talk about philosophical topics
We say that we know God and that we will be in Eden soon
Love will come to us when our pockets are full of money
Even if he if it gets too full, love won’t come to us.
Our strong health will let us down.
You consider yourself strong and healthy, don’t you?
(Verse 2 – Михей & Шеф)

Through indulgence into the temporary fixes of life’s pains and suffering, the body destroys itself, we become farther from God, and we disobey our interior voice of reason. Characterized as “akratic action” (Lorenz in Polansky 2014), against our better judgment we do that which is uncontrolled and capricious. The entire album reads in this way, an open letter to the rebellious youth who wishes to supersede reason and virtue for something immediate and hedonistic rather than the ethical and good. What makes this particular track the more ironic is that the track, musically speaking, is an upbeat funk texture whose exciting rap flow engages the listener with its energetic sense of movement and rhythmicity. How can we make sense of this pairing? I am sure Bad Balance wouldn’t have framed their tracks in this manner but it is clear that a decisive choice was made to harmonize weighty texts with rather conventional textures. Speaking of consequential topics, track No. 11 (By Law) reads as a highly aware track which speaks to the topics of its time, namely the depreciating ruble, rising inflation, inability to buy Russian goods, and Yeltsin’s new economic policy in 1993 (Hayes 2016). Let’s dwell on the opening lines,

Today, police officers captured another criminal who committed a robbery and murder. Let’s move on to the next messages. A few minutes ago, a summary of messages from the Russian stock exchange arrived. For unknown reasons, the dollar exchange rate began to fall sharply. Joint-Stock Company… (Spoken by Victoria Pierre-Marie)

There’s A Ton More To Say

While there are many more facets to explore, I will finish with one observation I’ve come to see through an investigation of the topics related to “Blackness” (i.e., chernukha) evidenced via the sampling. Namely, Public Enemy’s track “Lost At Birth” (1991) speaks to the intense feeling of listlessness and anomie which seemed forever with the subject speaking in the rap, undoubtedly the true beings at the heart of the group. But, if we extrapolate the theme into one of existentialism in the Kierkegaardian sense, meaning the rejection of mandated logical structures as insufficient to describe the world in which one lives (Lippitt 2023), then it becomes clear that much of rap in Russia during the 1990s was existential. Take, for example, DMJ’s 1993 album, “The World – Mine!”, there are a good number of tracks which deal with various shades of existential rumination while other groups like Wan Moo and their 1995, “Bloody Party,” do much of the same thing, albeit in different ways. The point here is that Bad Balance was not alone in their ethical rapping about pressing sociocultural problems of their time. The implications are huge in how we think about rap during the Russian 1990s and what type of rap was actually being produced at such a critical point in the culture’s development post-Soviet Russian culture.

Evidence of ‘Musique Concrete’ in “Raiders of Bad Balance” (1994) As Evidence of Cross-Hierarchical Aesthetic Exchange

In my ongoing analysis and broader project at establishing the legitimacy of the topics discussed in the last post (i.e., Blackness – Chernukha, and Hip Hop Authenticity), I’ve begun to more comprehensively look at the elements (musical and textual) which form the body of these topics. In today’s post, I will be exploring the usage of ‘musique concrete’ (music built from “concrete” elements already in existence, Schaeffer 2012) in the 1994 album of Bad Balance (1989-) as this holds significance in the ways we think about rap as connected to the “higher” forms of musical expression. Such a thought is educated by Williams (2010), whose article on jazz rap as the “higher” form of rap as opposed to its commercial analogue helped me reconceptualize rap all together. Perhaps, if we think about rap as not a form of popular music, in the abstracted sense of the word, but rather another form by which academic music making and its related academic offshoots like electronic music can filter integrates AND synthesizes with the popular music forms. In at least one case, it seems that the battle-lines of classical music OR popular music have been drawn (Young 2016).

For the rest of us, or at least me, there is a reciprocity between classical music and popular music that has been present from well before the 18th-century and up to the developing present. Classical composers like Mahler, Gershwin, Weil, and Bernstein, to name just a few examples, were not estranged from ‘symphonizing’ and absorbing the popular music of their time. To think that such reflexiveness only went and goes one way is absurd. If we revisit Caplin’s famous book on classical form (1998) and Temperly (2018) with in-depth look at rock, it’s easy to begin recognizing the ways in which a classical/popular synthesis is not estranged from rap. Analytical work on rap (Krims 2001, Gomez-Peck 2023) have shown the intricate nature of rap, far more profound than earlier scholars may have even considered. Therefore, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that Bad Balance consciously used ‘musique concrete’ on their album.

To rephrase, Bad Balance’s usage of ‘musique concrete’ (i.e., the technique of sonic collage of recorded sound) potentially exhibits evidence that while the ‘higher’ forms of music composition like classical music and its analogues found in 20th-century electronic music came to integrate popular music forms into their own aesthetics, so too did the popular music forms integrate “classical music” practices and techniques. This is not a new thought, however, and as early as the 18th century classical music composers were using popular tunes (i.e., folk music tunes and popular dance tunes) in their writings. One only has to look at the ‘father of the string quartet’ Joseph Haydn to see the truth of my statement. There is a great deal of work showing this to be true (Risko 2017 – this is but one example), with Lowe (2002) effectively demonstrating how Haydn transformed the popular minuet into quasi-symphonic novelty.

There is a reflexiveness between the classical and the popular, and what happens in once will inevitably color the other. This relatability is effectively argued in Parakilas (1984) who argues that while glaring differences are unignorable, similarities such as purposefully crafted aesthetics to meet the audience and historical determinism have colored classical music susceptible to the same logics as popular music, if not more so. While I won’t go into for sake of brevity, it’s unlikely that such a technique as musique concrete came out of nowhere for Bad Balance. So, the question remains. Where did they get the idea from? I will now introduce the musique concrete on the album, the ways in which it is expressed in the tracks, and some conclusionary questions I have regarding the implications of the findings. This topic will form the basis of a future article but for now, I hope you will gain something from these preliminary observations and scholastic reflections which will be given in their rawness.

Evidence of Musique Concrete

Within the album, musique concrete creates one of the leading textures throughout the 16 tracks. While I am not concerned with order nor the flow of the album itself, although analytical frameworks exist for such research (Montgomery 2002), it’s noticeable that on five of the tracks the technique is used including the first and last track. In a future post, and part of my ongoing research, I will detail the significance of Bad Balance’s framing of their album using a singular, very short, Gm motivic fragment but for now I will present the chart of the findings and go into further detail about their sonic appearance.

ElementLiteratureTrackAnalysis
Musique ConcreteRap sampling follows in the legacy set by
musique concrete and its emphasis on “sonic collage” (Brandes 2007)
No. 1Layered sounds prior to the formal track beginning
Hip hop has carried through elements of the technique (Hieronymus 2013)No. 6Recorded audio being played leading into layering
Sampling relationship (Johnson 1993)No. 9Recorded audio with layered depth broken up with siren
No. 10Layered short snippets of sampled audio
No. 11Layered sound under beat and flow and oscillations
Findings of Musique Concrete (Fig.1)

As the figure shows, most of the examples of musique concrete on the album consist of layered audio and dynamic sonic textures which incorporate layered sounds either with the musical flow and beat mixed into it, right before, or right after. The extent to which this technique was used in 1990s rap in Russia is as of yet unknown as well as where Bad Balance would have picked up the idea of using this technique at all. While electronic music does have a history creating the technique (i.e., Pierre Schaeffer), it’s rather difficult to argue that the members of Bad Balance, all of whom were engaged either in Djing or breaking prior to the creation of the group, had knowledge of this or even the larger activities of electronic music at the time. More research is needed to amply investigate the extent to which Russian electronic music was within the public consciousness at the time but safe to say that the appearance on the album may be something of chance, only related to musique concrete by nature of technique and not name.

It may follow that, in the footsteps of research that relates sampling to the technique of the “sonic collage” by which musique concrete is associated (Brandes 2007) that this is the popular form of Schaeffer’s technique. However, this downplays the independent nature of sampling and its original creators, although similarities are not ignorable. As the chart notes, the relationship between musique concrete and sampling is distinct, and perhaps there is considerable room here for further academic study (theme of the article?). I further speculate how related, albeit in retrospect and from the position of the ‘God-figure’ researcher, how connected Bad Balance’s usage of musique concrete was to the early Soviet Futurist movement. Of course, this is through their role in the cultural milieu rather than more substantial, named relationality but the case stands nonetheless. In my defense of my topics and analysis of sampling, I am arguing that Bad Balance served, in many respects, the function of Public Enemy. I would argue further that Bad Balance’s usage of musique concrete is then serving the function of a Futurist/Suprematist-like artist statement, renegotiating music’s very ontology itself. The reconceptualization of music as ‘low’ as rap through a reclaiming of noise itself seems something analogous with the whole project of Hip Hop itself, no? What Russolo called “noise-sound” (1913) seems on-par with the opening of the album and its exploration:

Raiders of Bad Balance (1994): See Track One, “Inside You”

Further, it should be noted that the musique concrete that is used in No. 9 is more akin to recorded audio which then broken with a roaring police siren. Whether this actually counts as musique concrete given the nature of the audio playing is debatable but if we take the definition of musique concrete offered by Daniel Teruggi, “the act of composing as organising sounds together in a continuity that creates sense for the listener” (2015), then the usage is all about creating a comprehensible through-line for the listener. In this way, track no. 9 (Old Musician) and its intimate opening is itself the prime example of musique concrete just like the other examples on the album. The internal nature of the technique devised by Schaeffer is the creation of programmatic compositionalism through the usage of pre-recorded sound composed in such a way as to sustain a narrative for the listener from beginning to end. What “narrative” means here may be up for debate, using Teruggi’s words “continuity,” but the point here is that pre-recorded sound which plays into a developing, long-range, narrative is the raison d’etre of the technique and thus, it’s usage is not estranged from rap, either through the form of sampling or layered sound fragments. The point is a sustained narrative.

Conclusionary Thoughts

Where do these observations leave the situation that Bad Balance uses something analogous to musique concrete as well as sampling? Well, my position, as the last paragraph briefly inferred, I think if musique concrete is defined as the usage of pre-recorded sound in the creation of a narrative which is sustained throughout the course of a piece then yes, Bad Balance used musique concrete. The difficulty becomes determining the differences between this technique and sampling as they use both. This is the prime theme of the article which will result from this post’s findings. Determining how much musique concrete is related to sampling and how much they stand apart will help further substantiate the usage, never mind the difficulty of proving that the group knew what they were doing and/or didn’t. Maybe authorial intention isn’t needed and the technique of musique concrete simply became a part of the thought style of music at the time irregardless of genre? While such metaphysical thoughts don’t stand the judgment of academia without ample development, I find it interesting how such an important rap group to Russia during the 1990s would come to use this technique. Your guess is as good as mine!

Case Study Summary: Bad Balance and Topic Theory Analysis of “Bad B. Raiders” (1994)

The project of deciphering the “Russian” in the rap produced in Russia during the period from 1990 to 1999 is coming along. As of right now, I am currently working on my first case study. Namely, the seminal group Bad Balance and their first “official” album release, their first album “Seven Do Not Wait For One” (1991) having been censored by the Soviet government and only released in 2009. For the purposes of the musical analysis, I will withold detailing the contents of the non-musical analysis for a later post, I am using a three-fold theoretical framing which I have only begun to apply to the album and the music contemporary with Bad Balance’s album (at least up until 1994).

Theoretical Framework

My theoretical framing can be seen below:

Topic TheoryLa Rue Style AnalysisDalhaus Analysis/Value Judgment
The creation of ‘topics’ that hold specific meaning for composer and
listener which is then shared
between each other and manipulated
Background, Observation (SHMRG), Conclusion, Evaulation1. Functional
2. Aesthetic
3. Historical
Fig. 1. Theoretical framework

As you can see in this chart, the three ‘theories’ I am using can be defined as helping to explain why the musical aesthetics (i.e., elements) are being utilized, how they relate to each other, and how they relate to larger discourses within their contextual setting.

With topic theory, while conventionally applied to 18th and 19th century repertoire, it has been recently applied to video game music (Lavengood and Williams 2023), educating my usage. The style analysis method cultivate by Jan LaRue (1970) is a highly effective method by which music’s elements can be systematically deconstructed and reconstructed using a framework centered around a coherency between the parts and their integrality. Finally, Carl Dalhaus’ theorization on rational judgement of musical aesthetics as related to their place in the larger context of music history (1983, tersely summarized as functional –> aesthetic –> historical) allows me to augment my analytical mindset towards an aesthetic judgment congruent with the chapter which rap in Russia found itself in the 1990s.

While it is easy to historicize the rap being made during the 1990s in Russia, to those within the scene the experimentation around what rap could be in the Russian context would have primarily taken on an aesthetic sentiment, the functional usages of rap a secondary but not insignificant element. Having introduced my framework, I will summarize what I have found. There are two topics which I am investigating: ‘Blackness’ (chernukha) and authenticity.


An Introduction to ‘Blackness’ (Chernukha)

In short, this concept refers to the period after the beginning of Gorbachov’s perestroika in 1985 (i.e., late-1980s) when, within the realm of late-Soviet cinema, nudity was allowed on screen for the first time as well as sexual suggestivity under the banner of “new naturalism.” The unbastardized human form was allowed to be pictured on screen, accompanied with the destigmitization of alocoholism, drug use, sexual liberalism, as well as violence, criminality, gang culture, and other topics. Essentially, the unmanicured, visceral, and carnal elements of human existence were now free to be talked about openly, characterized as “black” due to their antithetical status for a ‘healthy’ society. In this way, I argue that these concepts seeped into “first wave” rap in Russia so much so that they became an aestheticized ‘topic’ by rappers at the time. The term is also linked with political corruption and other political misgivings at the time. Such a concept falls under the purview of the concept ‘New Russians.’

Preliminary Findings

The two ‘topics’ of ‘blackness’ and ‘authenticity’ each carry their own elements, and although I am only at the beginning of constructing my argument, what I have found seems to be interesting and corroborates at least partially my theoretical position.

  • Blackness
    • Aesthetics
      • Emphasized minor element
      • Heavy/thick/dense texture
      • Film noir instrumentals
      • Bricolage
      • Exoticism
      • Accented contrasts
      • Unresolved dissonances/clashing rhythms
      • Musique concrete
      • ‘Sensuality’
  • Authenticity
    • Aesthetics
      • Funk rap/acid jazz texture
      • Declamatory Flow style
      • Scratching
      • Sampling
      • Breakbeat

I will develop these concepts in a subsequent post, but as it is demonstrated here, there are clear arguments to be had for the veritability of these two ‘topics’ as they relate to ‘first wave’ rap in Russia during the 1990s. Given that during this wave, rap was primarily funk-infused, confluent with Americas 1970s-80s, by the mid-point of the 90s things had drastically changed, becoming almost analogous to the American 1980s onwards. More work is needed to flush out these findings but there is enough room to say that rap in Russia’s 1990s was indeed unique.

Contextualizing The Development of Rap Aesthetics in Russia From 1990 to 1999 And A Hypothesis

In this post, I focus on detailing how the aesthetic development of rap during the 1990s was related to and intrinsically shaped by the transition from a socialist-dominated Russia to a quasi-Western Russia. This transition from an ideologically-dominated space to one of chronic ambiguity wrapped in rediscovered Orthodoxy after the secular Soviet past, one which Putin and others have smeared with a nostalgic haze, was attemptively patched over by Yeltsin through different governmental actions and initiatives. And yet, reflecting upon the further division between civic and ethnic national identity, the regeneration of de-ideologized philosophy on Russian life, increased anxiety around Russian masculinity, socioeconomic precarity, and the rise of radical nationalism as a result of increased immigration all find outlets in the aesthetic development of rap at the time. I will first present an overview of the period from 1990 to 1999 as it relates to the development of national identity discourses and then detail how rap’s aesthetics reflect the development of national identity discourses and the eventual feeling of anti-Western distrust which itself led to the rise of right-wing nationalism and the era of Putin.

Summarizing The Period Multidimensionally

Essentially, the rise of something we could call “Russian rap,” in the aesthetic sense, grew out of a period of massive upheaval of anything resembling a stable, cohesive sense of economic, political, and ideological nationhood. With the abject failure of Gorbachev’s perestroika, less a failure however and more a flawed synthesis of oil and water, the rise of Russia’s next phase was not an easily afforded one, with twists and turns taking the project of a “democratic Russia,” ironically the name of a short-lived post-Soviet movement (Brudny 2013) very much off course. The 1990s were a time of great opportunity for Russia to free itself from the Marxist-Leninist dogma of the Soviet period but despite the attempts, neoliberalism too helped steer Russia very much off course. The “dashing 90s” as some called it (Viatkin and Maksimov 2020) quickly turned into a “lost decade” (Yurlov 1999) and all throughout, rap was there to give the period a soundtrack. Just as rock was the sound of the Soviet 1960s, punk and new wave the sound of the 1970s, and disco the sound of the 1980s, during the 1990s it was rap which gave a voice to anomic youth looking for answers as to why their country was falling apart. Just as the 1960s Stilyagi youth were “hungry for information” (Troitsky 1988), so too were the ‘children’ of the 1990s dissatisfied. The splits in youth culture too between formali and informali, advanced youth and normal youth, golden youth versus normal youth, all spoke to divergent relationships with socioeconomic positionality, access to Western culture, and ideological belief (Kultura 2005). Study of the period reveals a push and pull oscillation between the government, economic reforms, political developments, and national belief. All these factors contribute in no small way to the progression of rap in Russia from Western mimesis to domestic original during the 1990s.

Having set up the period with a very curt look at the period, I will now briefly articulate how the aesthetics of rap in Russia during the period relate to the surrounding domestic context.

The Aesthetics of Rap In Russia And Their Context

Shortly after the birth of Hip Hop culture in the South Bronx in New York, rap made its way to Russia through the disco-funk form of Mcing (Master of Ceremonies), the forerunner to the style known as rap (Gosa in Williams 2015). One of the first examples of what could be called the “Russian MC turn” was Sofia Rotaru’s final 30-second chant in her song “My Homeland” from 1979. But more to the point, rap during the 1980s was in its nascent form but was by no means absent from popular music life, with many examples parodying the funk rap imagery and sound of American groups at the time. With the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 coming after, mind you, the gradual (read: unavoidable) opening of Soviet Russia to the West and Western culture through events like the 1980s Summer Olympics, Gorbachev’s Perestroika and the opening of political dissent, and the 1985 World Festival of Youth and Students. This is all to say that with the opening of Russia to the West, and “Western modernity” and its colonial paradigms of progress (Mignolo 2011), the youth’s ravenous post-Soviet worldview could finally be expressed now through expressionary means. In the early years of Russia’s post-Soviet emancipation, the optimism held in adopting the worldview, traditions, and culture of the previously censured Western world was still a driver of civilizational development out from the rotting flesh of the Soviet system. The struggle to become European, to reignite the Petrine project of Russian Europeanization was a prevailing mission of the new chapter in Russian history (Baranov, 2015). To do this, the genres of funk, disco, and ‘pop’ (best understood as the term estradnaya musika, or variety music) were advantageous tools for the ideological restructuring of the post-Soviet imaginary. As I have written on my other blog, the early adoption of aesthetics like ‘New Jack Swing,’ hip house (mixture of house music with Mcing), bounce, G-funk, and East/West coast mixture speak to a blurring of the lines between attempting to join the Western world and forming an original, albeit mimetic, alternative to the West. As a result, samples in rap at the time featured regularly prominent American rap names like NWA, Beastie Boys, Public Enemy, and Afrika Bambaataa, while early domestic samples like Russian rap group К.Т.Л. Ди.Л.Л, composers Alexander Borodin and Pyotr Tchaikovsky, and Russian pop singer Alla Pugacheva show the gradual acculturation of rap. By the mid-1990s, the growth of R’n’B and the influence of trip hop, post-disco subgenres likes boogie, and jazz-fusion along with latter-half hardening like gangsta rap, mafiosos, and rapcore are intrinsically linked to the crisis of identity facing Russia at the time. While the rosy eyes of market capitalism was wearing off, with crime growing in strength, and the eventual worsening of Russia’s political situation both domestically and abroad, rap quickly left the doe-eyed optimism it once had in the European project. The “second world” realized its mistake and in Russia’s case, was ready to take a strongly nationalistic U-turn.


In the next post, I will go into a bit more detail about the intrinsic connection I profess there is between the context surrounding rap in Russia during the 1990s.