Analysis Uncategorized

Exploratory Analysis: “Russianness” in AK-47’s Track “Circle Tinted” (2009)

From an analytical perspective, to attempt to empirically deduce the “Russianness” of music created in Russia is a thankless task as you run up against the difficulty of defining your parameters. The lack of functional clarity of what “Russianness” is, although many texts, both historic and contemporary, argue otherwise, paints any analysis using this term as suppositional unless firmly rooted in sociohistoricity.

Any research methodology must be based upon several key principles, chief among them being the substantiation of the “scientific method” (i.e., observation, hypothesis, implication, testing) [1]. However, when it comes to more musically-oriented analytical procedures, where it is far less based on stringent methodologies and more on the detection of constructed formulas as set by historical principles and/or constructed epistemic and analytical frameworks (e.g., Ruwet’s “Methods” based on semiotics [2], Middleton’s theory-by-gesture [3], and A. B. Marx’s “Formenlehre” [4, 5]), analysis becomes rooted not in hypothesis but in schemas. Therefore, when attempting to understand the “Russianness” in the repertoire of Russian hip-hop, it’s not enough to note cursory observations in the track’s timbre, texture, rhythm, instrumentalism, and textual theme.

Rather, because of the epistemological difficulties in ascertaining what “Russianness” actually is from a phenomenological [its appearance to observers] and even ontological [fundamental] standpoint, it’s not possible to make just one schema of “musical Russianness.” However, as my Master’s dissertation is hopefully demonstrating, by reviewing what was historically understood as musically “Russian” (e.g., moods, theory, semantics), a piecemeal methodology forms that can provide a possible in-road into the construction of a functional methodology. Essentially, systematically tracking the qualities and theoretical aesthetics that were (and are) commonly attributed to the “Russian character” [6], the “Russian soul” [7], if you will, I argue that you are left with a succinct list of tenants that can be adequately used for analytical purposes. Perfect? Not at all, but at least what this method gives you is an analytical base that is advantageous in “first-order” observations (i.e., superficial aesthetics and structural considerations).

It’s also notable that due to the relationship between “Russianness” and “musical Russianness” and the ‘politics’ of 19th c. Russia, the aesthetic delineation of the second as educated by the first, gestated itself from national discourses, is not simply musical. Thus, “musical Russianness” is as much about implication as intention, where masculine voices could be a convention or supercharged semiotic. In short, how you read “Russianness” in music is a strong factor in what you’ll find, which Helmers (2014) address when he calls for the foregrounding of reception.

In this vein, using previously collected notes, I will attempt to do a very brief musical analysis dedicated to revealing the “musical Russianness” within the track. However, I will be looking at one layer in particular, and that is the connection to folk music that the track professes in its base ostinato pattern [see figure one].

Via Music

As is evident if you listen to the song, the music is comprised of, essentially, a highly repetitive ostinato with a secondary melodic ostinato overtop. Musically speaking, the track is very typical for the Russian “Old School”, the track having been released in 2009. One can’t quite call it completely boom bap but rather a “Russified” rendition of the boom bap texture, as there is no overt syncopated bass underneath the rapping. However, the “Russian” element comes into play as an isolated analysis of the base ostinato reveals something very interesting indeed:

Fig. 1: Main theme of the track and the underlying ostinato

What is this, you might be asking, and how is this an example of “Russianness” within the track? For starters, it reads as very much ‘Russian’ due to its clearly minor tonality of Db minor (or C# minor, dependent upon your view), and it’s very slow within the song, which colors the ostinato in an introspective tenor. However, this ostinato is also connected to Russian folk music more tangibly and perhaps is connected to the “protyazhnaya” (or the ‘drawn out song’), a historical folk song form intimately connected to the legacy of Russian music. M. Locanto explains,

The protyazhnaya was a type of slow, melismatic lyrical folk song which in the mid-nineteenth century came to be seen as a paradigm for all Russian folksong, or even as the essence of Russian creativity and the ‘Russian soul’ itself.”

(2021, 165)

A serious counterargument to this ostensible connection, outside of the fact that the style’s origins are from Mongolia and not Russia as some claim, (Zemtskovsky, 1967) can be drawn from the very texture of the ‘drawn-out song’ itself. From a structural level, the genre is lyrical and operates outside the conventional mode of verticle harmony (a theme commonly associated with Western music). Further, there is no underlying ostinato-like fabric to the mixture, as usually there are only a few singers, and they operate in counterpoint with each other (e.g., “All the Universe” [8]). Thus, we are back at square one. If it’s not the “lingering song” that the track is echoing with its ostinato, what is the track’s ostinato alluding to then?

Figure 2: Second melodic motif of the track, overlaid on top of the bass motif

If we go off the process of “negation”, then we can definitely say that the track is not echoing the ethos of the “Ditty” (Chastushki), as it’s not upbeat nor jubilant enough. There isn’t an accordion used as well (e.g., ‘Play Harmony!’). It’s also not indicative of the “Ritual song” as, again, it’s not celebratory, nor is the theme a match for its pragmatic usage [9]. In the long list of negations, it’s also not what is called “dance songs” (khoroddnie pesni) [10], “Cossack songs” [11], “Nagrish” [12], another strongly Russian dance style, and certainly not the “comic song” [13]. So, again I ask, what is making this repetitive melodic pattern sound and feel Russian?

I argue that within this debate on what is and is not musically Russian, therein lies a strong argument that the invocation of “Russianness” is inherently linked with the inability to cogently identify what invokes the ‘Russian’ feeling. The appropriation of ambiguity into the very schema of “musical Russianness”, even when the aesthetic is shrewdly identified, promotes this idea of exclusivity and originality, two tenants that are symbiotically connected to “Russianness” as a geopolitical and sociocultural term. If said quality is a collection of ‘cultural codes’ used to define the Russian existence and identity (Hellberg-Hirn 1998), then perhaps the foreign analyzer will always be ostracized from gaining a true picture of its existence.

Is this acceptable to state that one can endorse its presence without knowing what makes it present in the first place? Can I justifiably say that this track is “musically Russian” based on my internal feeling of “folk” rather than something substantial? Is it Academically untenable to construct a methodology on aesthetic hunches?

In Conclusion

As this hopefully demonstrated, the aesthetic deduction of “musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop is as much a process of identifying what said track is NOT than what the track IS via aesthetic means. This type of analytical framework cannot be regarded as novel, as Nikolay Rimsky-Korsakov was among many who noted that the whole method concocted by the “Kuchkists” (i.e., The Mighty Five), a collective of five auto-didactic composers in the mid-19th century, was rooted in the removal of aesthetic devices and techniques deemed too Western. Thus, in this track, there is a tension between the “boom bap” Old School of the Americas and the Russian “Old School”, similar in nomenclature but aesthetically idiosyncratic enough to warrant more research going forward. In any case, the “Russian” element is not musically clear, yet there is a fundamental “folk” quality to the ostinati. Why? What is being indicated by its usage here, and what meaning does it hold for the geo-political orientation of its artistic fabric? How is the track transformed into a player in larger networks of Rancierian-like political power exchanges through its usage?

The only way to unambiguously find out is to ask the creator, “Why the ostinato?” Without this question, I may never know exactly why this pattern was used. And here lies the conundrum between “musical Russianness” and Russian hip-hop. Unless you confirm the teleological usage of a certain aesthetic trait and stylistic characteristics, you may never actually know why something is there. Thus, the music researcher is left to cogitate their own reason, leading to the polemic state of “musical Russianness” today. Speculation, subjective readings, and theory but in the end, no one answer. “Musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop is as much about coming to terms with the reality of ambiguity as it coming up with real answers.

In the end, there is no methodology for “musical Russianness”. All there is, however, are theories supported by the historical, social, and political track record of the Russian nation. For me, however, this is unsatisfying. I will continue to search for the aesthetic evidence of “musical Russianness” in Russian hip-hop. It’s there, within the genetics of the genre, but where those genetics begin is not yet known.



“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.