Saturday, January 29, 2011

European Rap (Essay)

"Representing the 'hood" is a term that one frequently hears in hip-hop circles. Historically, rappers have been obsessed with telling you where they're from and why they're proud to be from a particular area. That's why Run-D.M.C. described themselves as "kings from Queens" (as in the Queens borough of New York City), and it's why N.W.A called their second album, Straight Outta Compton (as in Compton, CA, the tough Los Angeles ghetto that N.W.A was from). It's also why hip-hoppers from Long Island, NY affectionately call that area "Strong Island" and why many southern MCs refer to their region as the Dirty South (not dirty as in physically unclean -- dirty as in having explicit lyrics). From Master P in New Orleans to the Roots in Philadelphia, rappers all over the United States have been representing the 'hood and doing so in a very loud, vocal way -- they want to make sure that listeners know exactly where they're from.

But the 'hood doesn't necessarily have to be in the United States or anywhere else in North America. Rap is huge in most parts of the world, and there are hip-hop scenes in places that range from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil to Tokyo, Japan to Johannesburg, South Africa. There are rappers in Mozambique; there are rappers in the Philippines and different parts of India (where numerous Indian pop singers have incorporated hip-hop elements). The main focus of this essay, however, is European rap, and that could be anything from an Irish MC in Dublin to a German rapper in Munich (which the English-language section of a German hip-hop website calls "Muthaphukkin' Money Makin' Munich"). When a European rapper talks about life in the 'hood, he/she could be talking about Venice, Italy -- or perhaps the 'hood could be in Stockholm, Sweden or Barcelona, Spain. From Scandinavia to Portugal, hip-hop has been huge in Europe since the '80s.

In terms of European geography, this essay does not take a purist approach and classifies British, Scottish and Irish rap as part of the European hip-hop spectrum. Technically, the British Isles are not right on the European continent; one couldn't drive a car from London to Vienna or from Dublin to Geneva (unless the car could also function as a submarine -- and those kind of cars only exist in sci-fi movies). Nonetheless, the countries of the British Isles (England, Ireland and Scotland) are essentially part of the greater European community, and Americans tend to think of them as European countries -- if your ancestors were from Ireland but you were born and raised in New Jersey, you're considered a Euro-American. And if you're busting a rhyme on the streets of Manchester, Dublin or Glasgow, you're as much a part of European rap as someone from Paris, Copenhagen or Berlin.

For the most part, European rap has received very little attention in the U.S. -- and the language barrier has been a definite factor. To a hip-hop head from West Philly, East Oakland or South-Central L.A., it might sound strange to hear Germany's Die Fantastischen Vier rapping in German, Italy's Articolo 31 rapping in Italian or France's MC Solaar rapping in French. But it isn't considered strange in Europe, where all of those artists are well known and have sold a lot of CDs. Europeans, for the most part, tend to be a lot more multilingual than Americans; it isn't uncommon for someone to graduate from a European high school speaking several languages fluently (including English). Consequently, European hip-hop heads are used to hearing MCs flowing in different languages -- they speak enough English to understand most or all of Jay-Z's lyrics, but they're also quite comfortable hearing MC Solaar getting busy in French. Solaar (a jazz-influenced alternative rapper along the lines of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and the Jungle Brothers) is not only a major rap star in France; he's also sold a ton of CDs in other European countries. Solaar isn't nearly as well known in the U.S., but like other major European rappers, he has demonstrated that an MC can be a superstar by catering to the European market.

The fact that Europeans tend to be more multilingual than Americans not only explains why European rap fans are willing to hear rapping in different languages -- it also explains why some rappers from countries where English isn't the official language have been able to rap in English exclusively (including Denmark's Bootfunk and Sweden's ADL). Again, becoming multilingual is encouraged in many of Europe's public school systems, and fluency in English is a goal of many European kids -- they want to be able to understand the dialogue in a Martin Scorsese movie, the lyrics of a Lil' Kim tune or the material on CNN's website. In terms of language, European MCs generally feel that different options are available; a Dutch rapper might feel perfectly comfortable flowing in English, or he/she might prefer to rap in Dutch. Hip-hop fans in Holland (where the popular rappers have ranged from DTF and 24K to the Osdorp Posse) are open to hearing local artists rapping in either Dutch or English -- for that matter, Dutch rap fans are open to hearing rapping in French, German, Italian or Spanish. MC Solaar and Die Fantastischen Vier (whose name is German for the Fantastic Five) have sold plenty of CDs in the Netherlands.

Because English is the primary language of the British Isles, it stands to reason that British, Irish and Scottish MCs have a greater chance of reaching the American market than someone who raps in Dutch, German, French or Italian exclusively. And on rare occasions, British rappers have enjoyed exposure in the U.S. -- Monie Love, who reached her commercial peak in the late '80s and early '90s, is the British MC who has enjoyed the greatest commercial success in North America. Other noteworthy British hip-hoppers have ranged from the London Posse, Derek B and the Demon Boyz to the Wee Papa Girls and the Cookie Crew (two female pop-rap groups that have been described as a U.K. equivalent of Salt-N-Pepa). Linguists who take a close look at the hip-hop trends of the British Isles will hear the English language used in many different ways; British rap has, in some cases, sounded like a mixture of Cockney and African-American slang, whereas Irish and Scottish rappers have often combined a brogue with African-American slang. In fact, one can hear the parallels between House of Pain (the Irish-American rap group that made Everlast famous) and Scaryéire, a hardcore rap group from Ireland. Scaryéire is an intriguing example of multiculturalism -- the Irish rappers love African-American culture, but instead of trying to sound exactly like black MCs from the U.S., they combine African-American and Irish/Celtic influences. Instead of rapping about growing up in the projects of North Philly -- something they haven't experienced -- Scaryéire's members are wise enough to rap about something they do have first-hand knowledge of: life in Ireland. Scaryéire has represented the 'hood, which is also what rappers have done in Italy (where noteworthy hip-hoppers have ranged from Nuovi Briganti to the militantly sociopolitical 99 Posse). Italian hip-hop heads will tell you that MCs from different parts of Italy rap with different accents -- in Palermo, for example, one might encounter MCs with a Sicilian/Southern Italian way of rapping, whereas MCs from Milan have more of a Northern Italian flow. And there's a similar situation in Spain, where a rapper from Barcelona is likely to have a different accent from a Madrid-based rapper. It should be noted that Spanish-language rapping in Spain sounds a lot different from Spanish-language rapping in Latin America; similarly, Portuguese-language rapping in Portugal sounds a lot different from Portuguese-language rapping in Brazil (the only Latin American country where Spanish isn't the official language).

Although much of this essay has focused on Western Europe, hip-hop has been getting bigger and bigger in Eastern Europe. Back in the '80s -- when Eastern Europe was still dominated by Soviet-style communist regimes -- hip-hop was very underground in places like the Soviet Union, Poland, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) and Hungary. Rap, like rock, was especially frowned upon in Albania and Romania, both of which had brutally repressive, totally xenophobic Stalinist regimes. But after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe in the late '80s and early '90s, it became a lot easier to obtain rap CDs in that part of the world. Rappers from former communist countries have ranged from Poland's BZiK to the Czech Republic's Rapmasters.

Whether or not European rap artists will make inroads in the U.S. remains to be seen; obviously, Europeans who rap in English have a better shot than those who don't (although British, Irish and Scottish rappers have tended to do much better in Europe than in North America). But then, plenty of European MCs have been selling a ton of CDs with little or no help from the U.S. market -- and that trend will likely continue for some time to come.

by Alex Henderson


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