Analysis Hip-hop Research Russia Skateboarding

A [Brief] History of Russian Skateboarding and Its Ties to Rap

In preparation for my Doctoral studies, I am taking the time to seriously investigate the nooks and crannies of Russian hip hop culture. One of those interesting areas is the role of skateboarding in the gradual development of the culture and the unique positionality it took in both aiding and being aided by the growing rap scene, especially in the early 2000s with the rise of R’n’B and pop rap. In this post, I want to go through my research and summarize the development of skateboarding culture in Russia since its beginnings to the turn of the 21st century, focusing specifically on the influence of rap when it arises. Of course, more research is needed and someday this will inevitably turn into a formal article. But for the sake of time, this post will only include the main points that I think are really important and a synthesis of all the other things I’ve neglected to include. The skateboarding culture of Russia is one that has yet to be connected to Russian rap culture and so the possibilities are truly endless. One thing can be said and that is that skateboarding, while it has gradually developed in a full-on sport, started as a way to engage youth in healthy activities rather than succumbing to violence, criminality, drug use, and alcoholism. Our narrative starts in the 1920s with rollerblades, although really the 1970s.

1920s Soviet Rollerblading

Admittedly, I know very little about this having just stumbled upon it one day but here it is. The roots, somewhat, of the Soviet skateboarding culture can be traced back to the 1920s, a time of great innovation and transformation in post-October Russia. By the looks of it, rollerblading was seen as a Socialist-friendly pass time, although I can assume that by the rise of Stalin the context may have changed. I won’t dwell too much on this topic but will say that the rise of “aggressive rollerblading” grew during the 1980s, the same time that skateboarding and rap was gaining its cultural moment.[1] Out from the shadow of the Stalinist regime, however, the rise of discotheque culture in the 1970s helped to give rise to the phenomena of skateboarding culture, although exact dates as to when the culture began is unknown right now.

The 1970s Birth of Russian Skateboarding Culture

At the time, skateboarding is not really understood and those participating in this strange, imported culture are seen as weird youth, the entire culture considered a “yard circus of freaks.”[2] As the decade goes on, the culture begins to form a more formalized conception, and by the mid-late 1970s with the rise of disco, skateboarding is becoming a thriving cultural reality. By the late 1970s, skateboarding was now a prevalent, sociocultural phenomena but it wasn’t understood as connected in any way to hip hop culture just yet as hip hop in Russia wasn’t yet a thing, although Sofia Rotaru’s 1979 song “My Country” would signal the first sound of “rapping” in the country. Further, the name of “skateboarding” wasn’t even conceived of either, the common name being “rolling boards/scooters” rather than skateboarding. Slowly but surely, most prevalently within the Baltic states of the USSR (i.e., Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania), skateboard culture began to arise. Referred to as “asphalt surfers,” these first wave skateboarders were simply attempting to copy what they saw in the best way they could. In 1978, one of the first models of skateboards were created, the Estonian “Rula,” ushering in the first signs of acculturation.

[For a video of early Soviet skateboarding culture, see Rewolda (2019)]

The 1980s and 1990s: The Two Decades of Growth

Picture Credit: Avito

Much like Russian rap culture, the 80s and 90s proved to be seminal periods for the burgeoning culture. Having not only established itself within Soviet cultural life but also having begun the process of localization and national infrastructural development via board creation, the ad hoc nature of the culture would soon change dramatically. The 1980s Summer Moscow Olympics were a huge turning point, not just for Russian hip hop culture for the entirety of Russian life itself. Unmitigated access to Western culture, worldviews, thoughts, conceptions about life, and capital of all kinds pushed many to begin experimenting with the cultures that were now flooding the Russian scene. A well known outcome is the rise of Soviet breakdancing, one of the first “official” elements of hip hop culture to develop within the Russian space, while the group Rush Hour would create their famous album, “Rap,” thanks to the help of Olga Opryatnaya and DJ Alexander Astrov.[3] An interesting turn of events that brings skateboarding intimately close to hip hop culture was the valorization of skateboarding as a social good, a healthy pass time for Soviet youth. Skateboarders could earn the ability to travel for competitions and the whole thing itself was seen as a positive outlet for temperamental youth energy which was being channeled into “unhealthy” forms like rock and punk at the time. Around this time, the domestic creation of different boards was fueling the rise of skateboarding culture, the Virage and the RPOM/APOM among the brands available for purchase.

The second-half of the 1980s saw the regionalization of skateboarding culture, much like the early-mid 1990s for rap culture. Touching the main cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg, skateboarding permeated the farther regions as well, Saratov becoming one of the most important places, much like Ufa for contemporary Russian trap. It’s referred to as the “Capital of Soviet Skateboarding” for good reason, as in this city was founded the first skateboarding zine called “Skate News,” as well as the skating club “Fantastika Club.” In 1989, a famous report by the American magazine Thrasher was published which documented Moscow skateboarding culture for foreign audiences. This was one of the most historically important points in Russian skateboard history.[4]

The 1990s is a period of extreme growth but one that is intrinsically connected with the creation of a substantive Russian hip hop culture. Following the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, more accurately Perestroika in 1985, the blossoming of Russian youth culture began in earnest. It was 1991, however, when the flood gates were opened and the “first wave” of Russian hip hop truly began in its fullest capacity. By this time, breakdancing was just one element in a larger network of hip hop elements, rapping the most popular form at the time, with graffiti just as popular and DJing taking its place as well. Likewise, notable skateboarders began establishing their recognition, Denis Markhasin and Dima Belyaev two in a huge ecosystem of riders. In 1991, the Saratov “Union Cup,” an annual international competition for skateboarding, would begin, again expanding the reach and popularity of this culture. However, youth-against-youth aggression mired the 1990s as many had no idea what the future held for them, the Western-styled “informals” too much for conservative “normal youth.” Attacks by skinheads and radical nationalists against atypical and Westernized youth were common, the rise of Russian gangsta rap coming out of this highly dangerous period. Russia hadn’t yet gotten its socioeconomic feet.

Our story must end here. Thank you for reading and until next time!

[Cover Photo credits: Skaters at Risk, 2019]

Hip-hop Research Russia

The Curious Subgenre of Russian “Thrash Rap”

I came across this rap-based subgenre during some research for another conference paper and it got me thinking about its presence in Russia. Are there thrash rappers in Russia and if so, what kind of music are they making and what is their history? To answer these questions, in a somewhat, simplified manner given the time, I will first define what thrash rap as a subgenre is and then its presence in Russia.

What is Thrash Rap?

Thrash rap can be understood as as the convergence of thrash metal (a harder variation of rock) and rap. Thrash metal is identified in its high levels of aggression and fast tempi, with excessive usages of riffing and virtuosic displays of technical prowess. There’s also an emphasis of the bass register and the downbeat, meaning lots of drums and bass-focused instrumentation. From a scalar point of view, chromatic scales and lots of semitonal movement is used as a way to increase the tension/resolution feel, although it’s mostly connected with the atraditionality of the metal genre. It’s one of the more technical subgenres in the metal universe, and when coalesced with rapping, becomes something very interesting.

Thrash rap is but one element in the larger genre of rap metal. Finding its roots in the 1980s, tenish years after the emergence of DJing thanks to DJ KoolHerc in the Bronx, metal was picked up pioneers of rap including the Beastie Boys, Cyprus Hill, and even Run-DMC. Rap rock was already a thing by the time but thanks to innovators like Urban Dance Squad and then more commonly Rage Against the Machine, rap rock was getting harder as a genre. Towards the end of the 1980s and early 90s, rappers like Public Enemy and the group P.I.D formalized the rap/metal synthesis. The golden era of rap metal, however, is the twenty year period from the 1990s to the end of the 2000s. During this time, rap metal had successfully entered the charts and become a desired genre. Groups like Rage Against the Machine were now joined by other groups and artists like Faith No More, Biohazard, Sepultura, and even Kid Rock (a major influence on the rap metal scene at the time). Towards the end of the 90s, the genre of rap metal began to change a bit as teen pop and nu-metal started to gain traction.

Starting in the 2000s, genres like pop punk and alternative metal were changing the scene entirely. Nevertheless, rap groups like Cyprus Hill used metal textures alongside their ‘Old School’ rapping (Skull & Bones). Other rappers like B-Real and Sen Dog also split off to make their own rap-metal/alternative metal groups, further cementing rap’s influence in the metal and rock space. P.O.D would release their 1999 album, “The Fundamental Elements of Southtown” to critical acclaim, while other groups like Linkin Park and Crazy Town shook up the scene with their nu-metal sound. The former’s albums, “Hybrid Theory” and then “Reanimation,” were instrumental in showcasing the potency of the rap/metal convergence. By this time, however, there was genre splitting all over the place and any attempt to given an accurate reading on one genre is to do a disservice to them all. Nu-metal had shaken up everything and come the 2010s and 2020s, the lines between rap, metal, and rock are as unclear as they ever before. The Suicideboys and even Kendrick Lamar are accredited with using metal in their sound[1].

Following the 2000s, the emergence of many subgenres were seen:

  1. Trap metal
  2. Punk rap
  3. Emo rap
  4. Soundcloud rap
  5. Industrial hip hop
  6. Digital hardcore
  7. Crunkcore

Russian Thrash Rap

Without more research, I won’t be able to say for certain when thrash metal began in Russia nor how the genre of thrash rap ultimately came about. Such topics are for a separate research project but what I can say is that there are numerous artists who are accredited with being thrash rappers. Some names include Daboor, Chevy Baby, Klara Unitasova, Lil Angel$, and Kapitan Demo. One basic plot point is the year 2009, the year that (at least notes) is the beginning of Russian thrash rap.[2] As they note, the reasons why rap became so popular during the 2000s and in to the 2010s was the accessibility of the genre among youth. While rock needed a large amount of knowledge and expertise in order to make a song, rap was a low-tech art form. In their words,

“much lower threshold for entering it: to play rock, you need to at least acquire a musical instrument to record rap – a microphone is enough”

Coming out of this ease of access thinking was the genre called childish rap (or patsansky rap). However, the way Russian thrap is thought of, it is more synonymous with childish rap than a stand-alone genre. Several names belong to MC Anyuta, the group Bad Boys, Sland, and Dan-B. It must be stressed that whether Russian thrash rap can be identified or not, it was a child of digitalization and the supremacy of the Internet in mediating cultural communication and subcultural development. Rather than blossoming from the musical world, Russian thrash rap is more so a byproduct of the mainstreaming of rap and the continued accessibility of the genre and the lifestyle via online portals and community infrastructure. What’s even more interesting is that the pop rapper Morgenshtern is considered in this article to be a thrash rapper, leading to a need for closer interrogation of what it means to be a Russian thrash rapper at all.

Apparently, there is a Russian thrash rap series, “Bonus.” Whether it really is thrash rap who knows but the quality is associated with it regardless.


Hip-hop Research

Rap/Graffiti Connections: Miss-T and Basket

In my research preparation for a conference on the role of girls and women in popular music (my theme being women in Russian rap), I remembered that I had found out about a connection between the first famous Russian graffiti artist (Basket) and the rapper Miss-T.

In short, Miss-T was part of a 2000s girl group called “Distant Light.” However, I suspect at some point Miss-T wanted to go solo. But at this point she had received help on lyrical skill and technical points from Master Sheff who then pointed her in the direction of rapper Legalize (husband to female rapper Simone Yori Makanda). However, somewhere the relationship didn’t quite work and soon she needed some more help. Reaching out to (now well-known) graffiti artist and then member of the group Bad Balance, Miss-T asked Basket (or in Russian Баскет) for help in shooting a music video. In this post, I want to explore some of these details and illuminate myself on what this famous collaboration really was.

The Important Part

Miss-T’s journey to rap is not the traditional way. Rather, after having visited American, she became incredibly interested in the Russian hip hop scene. Sometime after, she connected with someone named Trek (not sure who this is). Nevertheless, after some communication Miss T and her group were sent to a training course to learn about breakdance, rap, and the art of hip hop. Here is where Miss T’s connection to Basket comes in. Miss T was sent to the “Bad B Hip Hop School” which, if I understand correctly, just means that she studied with the members of Bad Balance. According to her old website, she learned how to graffiti with the laissez-fair style of teaching by Basket. As the website notes,

” She bombed the walls of Moscow with graffiti, for which she got into the police. Basket just showed the walls, gave out balloons [cans of paint], and in the morning checked the result.”

What she actually learned, I’m not entirely sure. A search for evidence of this bombing (or illegal spray painting one’s initials or insignia on trains, walls, etc) gives you nothing. So this relationship is all but a memory for those involved and her art may still be there somewhere in Moscow to this day. However the relationship between Basket and Miss T goes a bit deeper.

Recording a Music Video

After having gone through this training of sorts, Miss T went back to Sheff and said that she still needed help with lyrics. So he pointed her towards Legalize who, although a notable rapper in his own right, didn’t quite make texts that were mutually enjoyed. What these were I have no idea although Legalize’s 2003 track entitled “Dr. BLEFF calls her out in overt detail. It can be assumed that their relationship was not a good one, and soon after she was pointed in the direction of Basket.

The video was aired on the television show “12 Angry Spectators,” although I’m not sure what the video is called. More research is needed to uncover what the track was called but the process inspired Miss T to finally branch out on her own. She would soon release the track, “I am Miss T,” and her name would forever be imprinted within the annals of Russian rap history. The track was even recorded on the compilation album, “Hip-hop info No. 8” (2001).

That’s all for now. While small, the relationship is historically important for the legacy of female Russian rap!


The Study of Censorship of Hip-Hop in Russia: A New Avenue for Research?

In preparation for the “Music and Censorship in the 20th and 21th Centuries” virtual conference as hosted by the Luigi Boccherini Opera Omnia Study Center, where I will be presenting on ongoing research I’m doing into censorship of Russian hip-hop, a visual aid has been rudimentarily created in order to help visualize the issue.

Using Tableau Public (and some major elbow grease as I’m not a skilled Digital Humanities scholar, although I’ve written one article about it [it was a conference talk that never materialized]), I have mapped the cases of censorship which are place-specific. These date from 2010 (one of the earliest cases) to 2022 (one of the most recent cases), and demonstrates the landscape of contemporary Russia for hip-hop artists. There are some non-Russian cases (i.e., Belarus, Ukraine), and these provide a certain contextual aura to the map, as bans on entry have also been linked to political position on the Crimean peninsula and cultural influence.

As is visible, the majority of cases come from Moscow and the Western regions of Russia, although a case of censorship was recorded as far East as Yakutsk which seems a remote area for censorship. However, this map provides a clue into the geographical orientation of popular music censorship in Russia, as central Russia has had little to no cases, signaling hip-hop artists rarely venture to those areas. Are there hip-hop artists from those areas? If so, who are they and what do they sound like? Why are they not targets of censorship? Lots of unanswered questions. As the conference paper comes to be formed, I will be sharing more information on the cases recorded below including censorship bodies, reasons, outcomes, etc.

I hope this visual helps you, and click here if you’d like to check out the original.