“Russian Paradise” (AK-47, Noggano): The Curious Case of the ‘Kitschy Underground’

“Just look in my eyes and you will see Russian paradise”

[Chorus: It serves as an homage to Coolio’s 1995 track “Gangster’s Paradise”]

When it comes to hip-hop, authenticity comes through the proximity to the nitty gritty, and the difficulties of the working man’s worlds, the minority reality, and the inner city left to its own devices. However, when it comes to Russian rap (ESPECIALLY) mid-2010s rap, it seems to create ‘underground’ rap doesn’t necessarily mean one thing anymore. Rather, it’s easier to ascertain what underground rap is through what it’s NOT, although even the determination of what is and is not mainstream is a tricky and not all together easy task. So what happens when a rap track uses many of the aesthetic elements of the ‘underground’ and yet is relatively ‘above ground’ when it comes to publicity, allusions, commercial popularity, and even language itself? Further, what should be understood when a hip-hop tracks purposefully pokes fun at the serious nature of the genre itself, and parodies itself to the point where a listener doesn’t know whether to laugh at its humor and jeer at its juvenile nature? Well, let me introduce you to one of the most peculiar Russian rap tracks that I’ve come across. Namely, “Russian Paradise” by the ‘Old School’ Russian rap group AK-47 (comprised of Vitya AK and Mitya AK).

What The Heck is “Russian Paradise”?

“Russian Paradise” was the 17th and final track on AK-47’s 2015 album “Third” (or in Russian Третий), released on June 16th, and reaching fame only three days later.

The larger album is very much conventionally ‘rap’ in aesthetics, replete with texts about the underbelly of the everyday grind, the difficulties of youth and Russian life itself, maturity and the realization of existential mortality, and a whole lot of braggadocio and signifying. The track features many names from the ‘Old School’ and ‘Pre-New School’ eras of Russian rap including Triagutrika, Tony Tonite, and Noggano, and reads as very much an attempt to prove the viability of hip-hop in Russia OR substantiate the existence of Russian hip-hop as its own unique phenomenon. This notion of “proving one’s worth” when it comes to the purposeful attempt to construct a hip-hop aesthetic divergent from, but inevitably reliant upon, Western hip-hop forms is a hard issue which all Russian rappers deal with.

The way they choose to go about its answer is another matter, and in this album it can be understood as the use of geographical placement, nationally-specific existential reality checks, and experiences so culturally personal that only one from the country being referred to would comprehend the magnitude of the polemic. But this is to say nothing of the track’s musical life which is heavily steeped in a (harmonically) minor world outfitted with G-funk sobriety, accompanied by a conversational rap rap flow that read in a pedantic but firm rhythm, with all the necessary inflections and articulations needed to really sell the story being told.

Based on popular reception and its place on the charts (apparently reaching the no.1 place as the best-selling album), the music critic Boris Barabanov deeming the album “philosophical and patriotic” with verses bathed in “ease and grace.” In short, the album did really well domestically, and despite the album’s inordinate reliance on ‘Old School’ techniques like turntablism, slow tempos, melancholic soundscapes, transparent musical texture, and at one point “Old School trap” if that’s a thing, it can’t rightfully be called underground. It’s fully mainstream.

But What About The “Kitschy Underground”?

Having briefly introduced the track and its grosser album, I want to explore this term and what I mean when I say this track is the arbiter of the notion of the “kitschy underground.” This term is useful in understanding the essentialization, and subsequent exploitation of hip-hop music aesthetics for very nefarious means.

In a way, all I’m saying is that this track embodies Old-School techniques not as a mode of authentic music making but as a way to purposefully align themselves with a certain aesthetic ideology which, through the utilization of boom bap and G-funk, paints their music as more authentic than say a contemporary Atlanta trap track. Due to the proximity of the latter to the mainstream world than the former, Old-School techniques are no longer innocently used and are instead tools for the purposeful exploitation of authenticity discourse through the mode of musical aesthetic alignment. In this light, the New-School (of which many Old-School rappers are a part of) have reduced the latter’s musical traditions to a set of aesthetic parameters which prove themselves lucrative among hip-hop fans in Russia who gravitate towards more “authentic” forms of hip-hop musicking.

It’s all rather fascinating but the point here is that the “kitschy” element arises from the surreptitious exploitation of Old-School, underground, techniques for the purposes of mainstream, or New-School, success. Reducing the Old-School to a set of devices and then using them in order to legitimize New-School musics seems a ubiquitous trend in modern Russian rap if you listen closely. You could argue that the rappers involved were themselves part of the genuine era of the Russian hip-hop ‘Old-School’ but to naively assume that they aren’t capable of essentializing the Old for the lucrative New is by default essentializing Old-School rappers as somehow faithful to a very normative conception of “hip-hop authenticity” (or as most Scholars and hip-hop practitioners refer to the quality as, realness).

In Conclusion

The phenomenon of an Old-School rapper becoming a mainstream rapper through the process of their career only to subvert the binaries of Old-School vs. New-School, and underground vs. mainstream through the purposeful usage of former’s technique and yet have said techniques render the music thoroughly within the purview of the latter is research worthy.

By exploiting the aesthetic principles that the Old-School hip-hop world were made of in the pursuit of realness within a musical world where realness is no longer tied to the Old-School, AK-47 is participating in what I call “de/re-contextual aesthetic synthesis“. This means that the original manifestation of a certain aesthetic (and its wider sociocultural biome) is removed for a new aesthetic reality (and sociocultural biome), although the base functionality of the original aesthetic is used to put the new into the old’s ethos.

Cosplaying as “authentic hip-hop”, New-School rappers use the aesthetic language (or “intonational vocabulary” as B. Asafiev would say) of the Old-School in order to be taken more seriously, or gain a fanbase untapped until now. This should not be considered only applicable to New-School rappers. Instead, now that we are more than 15+ years out from the end of the Russian Old-School and even longer for the American Old-School, in order to maintain their popularity and aesthetic appeal, Old-School rappers are forced to parody their original realness in a form that is both sardonic towards themselves, those who force them to do it, and those who consume their music ONLY because they are parodying the Old-School.

By treating Old-School hip-hop aesthetic to the polluting mechanics of “kitsch”, rappers gain realness and their music becomes real. However, a very tainted kind.

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