commentary Hip-hop Russia

Did you Know? Ambiguity in Russian Hip Hop’s 1980s Constitution

In this blog post, I’m working through a piece of information that I read in an article about Russian graffiti culture. Namely, that the constitution of Russian hip hop culture in the 1980s was constitutionally different than America. Although that goes somewhat without saying, skateboarding playing a far larger role than that in the American contexts,[1] it is important to note that although DJ and discotheque culture did usher in the awakening of Russian hip hop culture’s beginnings, it really wasn’t until the late 80s into the early 90s that DJing and rapping coalesced into what is understood as the culture of hip hop. This, obviously, is not a definite position and one with exceptions everywhere but I want to provide the quotation and work through it to see if there is some validity in there. The passage goes as follows in its full form:

“Through acquaintances who were in America, they got photographs, videos, magazines – everything that had anything to do with a new hobby. Thus, the documentary films “Wildstyle” and “Beat Street” and “Stylewars” [three films about American graffiti and breakdancing] formed among the Soviet youth the idea of ​​hip-hop culture as a symbiosis of three parallel existing independent cultures: rap music, break dance and graffiti.” [my bold]

Andrey Tseluiko 2007, “Street Art in Russia Part 1”

I’ll mostly be ruminating on the subject rather than using a great deal of sources. Think of this post as thinking out loud. Take what I say with a grain of salt. My thinking primarily lies in the “lack of terminology” idea and as I will try to work through, this may be a convincing argument.

A Bit of Exploration

This is the first time I’ve read, in any available sources, what cultural actors at the time thought of as hip hop culture in the context of the Soviet 1980s. More research, and potentially interviews, are needed to clarify this from a more first-person perspective, but seeing as by the late 1970s foreign media and culture was flooding into the country abreast the popularization of disco and club-culture, how could this be true?

One factor could lie with the fact that based on the sources available for graffiti culture and my own hunch, I suspect that the terminology wasn’t there either. Perhaps there was no understanding of what rapping was just yet. The account of Alexander Astrov, legendary Soviet DJ and developer of the first Soviet ‘rap,’ explains that even though groups like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five were known in the country, it was far too divergent from the accepted aesthetic at the time to be replicated. This Western funk/disco rap, the record that radically changed the course of rap in America, was so new that audiences didn’t really know how to react:

“Yes, I have said more than once. I heard the familiar “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash. But one must understand that the same Grandmaster Flash for the Soviet public was a transcendent record. We, who were engaged in discos, listened to it among ourselves, understood that it was cool, but no one would ever dare to put it on in the evening, because everyone knew that people would not dance to this music.”

Nikita Velichka, The Flow (2016)

Further icing on this cake is that fact that Rush Hour, as a group (I’ll bring them back for another point), were not the only group at the time innovating upon this new style. Based on the VKontakte post by Ivan Demidov, really as early as 1985 other groups were trying their hand at the burgeoning style with varying degrees of success.[2] What does this say then? While I am unconvinced that the term “rap” was not understood in the early 1980s, the relationship between the hip hop community and discotheque culture (and MCing) is a major point I’m no certain about. Based on Tseluiko’s comment, DJing and MCing was not yet considered part of the hip hop community although many DJs like Lika Star got their start in DJing. Is it accurate to say that DJing was understood as hip hop culture within the context of the Soviet 1980s? I’m not yet sure.

Another problem I have is with the term “rap.” Should we be led to believe that rap here is being used a synonymous term with DJing or did Tseluiko really mean only the rapping that is commonly understood? This present an existential dilemma because DJing, MCing, and rapping are all very different and cannot be synonymized. How, then, is research into Russian hip hop studies supposed to proceed? There is an expressed need for researchers to accurately talk about the topic, paying attention to the discrepancies between these cultural expressions without watering down their similarities as well. Alexander Astrov had noted that the “rapping” of the Rush Hour group was not so much rapping in the standard context but rather a furthering of the MC style which had pervaded the dance halls of the time. If this is true, then a closer study of the MC techniques of Soviet dance halls is needed to understand where Russian “first-wave” rap really came from in an aesthetic and cultural way.

As one can see, the discourses that emanate from this quote are many, as it holds the possibility of reorienting how researchers think about the constitution of Russian hip hop culture. Whether or not DJing was seen as part of hip hop culture is an interesting question but one that cannot be easily answered without interviews and first-person accounts. More research is needed to identify just what was the constitution of hip hop culture in minds of participants during the 1980s and what was considered part of hip hop, more specifically when did “hip hop culture” actually begin.

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