(TL, DR: Enjoy this Russian Rap Playlist, suckas.
Through my travels, I have fallen privy to unexpected information and earned some unconventional badges of expertise. It may come as a surprise, but for better or worse, I know my way around the core Russian rap scene.
A few people have laughed and been dismissive about the credibility of Russians making hip hop/rap music, and I have told them this:
Think long and hard before you suggest to me that survivors of the Cold War and the dreadful Soviet Union do not grasp the concept of using underground styles of art and music to express themselves about enduring decades and even centuries of institutionalized poverty, starvation, oppression, enslavement of the kholopy and minorities, corruption, horrific violence, and cruelty.
Think of the hardships surviving Communism, unmitigated criminal mobs, collapsing infrastructure, extortion, blackmailing, and law enforcement that notoriously tracked and brutalized them like hounds.
I’ll start with the OGs.
United Kacta (“caste” like a social caste) is the OG Russian rap family, more along the lines of Wu Tang, Cypress Hill, and NWA. In the broader sense it has a huge entourage of additional members and affiliates, but at the core are MCs Vlady, Zmey, Khamil, and Shym. Kacta officially formed in Rostov-on-Don, Russia in the early 90s though some members had been writing/performing rap since they were teens.
They have changed their collective sound over the years, evolving with each subgenre of rap / hip hop and fully embracing each of their own personalities and influences. All four MCs have side projects and/or perform with other rappers including DJ Khobot.
I credit Kacta with being the first Russian group to successfully charter hip hop territory with talent and determination.
Selecting only three videos is the most difficult part of this entire entry, but I have added a lot more to the playlist. I have a sentimental connection with the music and an online acquaintanceship with some members.
Unfortunately they were not touring while I was in Moscow but I was given a standing invitation for next time. Hopefully they will return to New York again soon, as documented below:
Vladi started a rap group when he was a kid that eventually gathered momentum and new members in the early 90s to become Kacta.
He is the most prominent of the group, having countless collaborations with Russia’s other big names. He has so many other genres of music, including his own piano talent, but I will stick to his rap songs.
Shym really shines in two of my favourite Kacta songs:
Khamil & Zmey have an entire subset of their own songs and really feed off each other’s energy more than with other members of United Kacta.
This adorable video shows them as wee ones, just getting started:
=====Vasiliy Mikhaylovich Vakulenko==
Vakulenko, aka Basta, was an original member of Kacta. He also goes by Noggano.
As Noggano he has often collaborated with Guf, a member of Centr.
Noggano with Guf & AK-47
Noggano with Godfather Family
As Basta, he continued to collaborate with more big names and at one point recorded a song featuring Tatu (yah, remember them?)
Basta with Guf
Centr was founded by rappers Guf (aka Rolexx), Ptaha (aka Zanuda), and Princip. They gained some recognition through MTV back in the early 2000s but split for a while in 2010. Princip had a few serious run-ins with the law, but the remaining members recruited Slim and have resumed recording and performing at festivals.
Guf and Slim also have a side project called Gusli.
====HOLD UP, RAP BATTLE TIME!====
A(Z)IZA is Guf’s ex wife and she has drawn a HUGE following. Guf made some harsh jabs at Aziza’s new husband and she, being a poet and performer herself, decided the best way to get back at him was to step into the rap genre and beat him at his own game.
Here’s Guf with his song “Maugli”
A(Z)IZA shot back with this one:
I love her EP The Monkey, and I would place it in a similar vein as AKA Twigs. My only dilemma with Aziza is that I can not tell if the woman on the album cover is her in black face or some model. Hopefully the latter.
===============Back to members of Centr-
Ptaha (aka Zanuda) is an Armenian/Azerbaijani rapper who earned his first success as an actor, music video producer, and soundtrack composer in Russia. He claims he is working on a documentary film about Russian rap but has left us waiting for a few years now.
========================= FEMALE VOICES ===========================
Russian ladies are getting LOUDER in the rap and hip hop scene. They appear to be driven more by the freedom of having a voice and finding their place in the world outside the typical limited occupations and roles for women in Russia than by a hunger for self-expression.
I read a Russian-language interview of one new rapper talking about how difficult it is to be a female rapper and to speak from a woman’s perspective about women’s issues in a man’s world- not just living daily life but treading the unwelcoming, often sexist and downright disgusting language of rap. She feels anything outside that perspective is not usually taken seriously, but the women in rap have a lot to say and they have no plans to pipe down any time soon.
A surprising number of women in the Russian rap scene are young and are classically trained singers and musicians. Rap was something they wanted to try for fun and ended up becoming so immersed in the ongoing Rap Battle frenzy that they never looked back.
Rap Battle Between Mozee and Masha Hima
Female-led electro folk rap
================== THE RAP FAMILY GETS BIGGER ==========================
For every American genre of rap there is a Russian rapper you can file into it. I make no claim (not one!) to be an expert on rap. It isn’t even one of my top music preferences. I love old school hip hop though, and I have an open mind so I can vibe with most anything.
Just like in America, there are some truly cringe-worthy acts. I won’t waste your time on those but here are some more you may enjoy:
Brother for Brother
Born in Kazakhstan, Scriptonite has become a major player in the Russian rap scene.
His style has really evolved in a short period of time, from old school to electro/rave.
I also like this because he samples one of my favourite songs “Cry Me A River”
One of the most promising new acts speaks to the part of me that would call this a guilty pleasure, but I think you should like what you like without feeling guilty. I guess what I’m saying is that I like this song.
If you are still with me, buckle up.
Little Big and Tommy Ca$h are both as bizarre and intriguing as they are clever. Under heavy beats and flashy imagery, they speak about real issues of social and political climates of Russia and other nations under the fallen USSR. At times the biting satire and criticism is a hard pill to swallow.
Formed in 2013 in St. Petersburg, Little Big falls more into the electro/rave genre on the weird end of the rap spectrum. They call themselves satire artists of Russian culture, exposing outsiders to Russian folk music, dance, and lifestyles However, the dark and gripping lyrics in many of their songs expose Russia in a different sense of the word. Little Big also works with Estonian rapper Tommy Ca$h.
Born and raised in a Russian-speaking village near Talinn, Estonia, 27-year old Tommy Ca$h has finally started gaining well-deserved recognition. He started writing his own music when he was in his teens and is well-known for his dancing. He recently released a line of clothing as well.
The most fascinating thing about Tommy Cash is how he seamlessly curates people of all cultures, languages, shapes, sizes, physical abilities, and personalities with his own unique brand. He often speaks about the struggle to be who you are, as you are, in the body and in the place you were born in. Like Little Big, these tender revelations touch a nerve under a wild, frenetic sound.
This is sort of a play on words because Molly/Maly= little in Russian.
The most striking difference between Russian and American/English rap is not only the language, but the lyrical content. You won’t find as much of the derogatory hatred toward women, death threats, incitement of violence, or worse in most Russian rap. In the midst of toxic masculinity, and the grit and anguish that comes from a place of unspeakable experiences, often you will hear longing for a more stable and connected society.
There is an absolute lack of understanding by most Russians regarding Black and African-American culture and history, true, but as an outsider it seems the common link is a connection to this style of music to express aspects of their lives by means outside the norm. Russians duly credit the Americans for rap music without hesitation. The earliest Russian rappers often imitated American acts closely, but as time moved forward each found their own voices and distinct styles.
This is by no means an all-inclusive guide. If this is exactly what you did not know you needed in your life, I hope you are on the right path now. Years ago when I was first learning to speak Russian, listening to these songs vastly improved my vocabulary and pronunciation. I have straight-faced quoted some of these lyrics in conversation when I could not remember a phrase I needed and far away, on the other side of the globe, I was understood.
Find these songs and more on my Russkiy Rap Playlist.
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