Ukrainian music is far from being homogenous — it varies and varies greatly depending on a genre you listen to.
This way, listening to Ukrainian folk and electronic music might feel like discovering a new and vibrant city somewhere in the midst of Western Europe or the US. But once you switch to hip-hop, in an instance you get carried over to a sparsely populated countryside where your dear grandma lives — place vaguely familiar and warming to your heat, but too depressing to stay in for more than a week.
The above is the most flattering terms one could describe whatever was happening to the rap and hip-hop scene throughout the years of Ukrainian independence. The industry just wasn’t there, and acts like VUZV and TNMK were nothing more than a couple of bright spots on the otherwise blank canvas.
But everything changes, and here, in Ukraine, hip-hop music finally breaks into new and exciting heyday after many years of complete drought.
Today, I invite you to have a look at three trends behind the hip-hop revolution in Ukraine.
- Grebz, Kurgan & Agregat and the art of corky rap
There is one defining trait that sets aside Ukrainian rap from anything else you can hear out there — it’s funny and absurd, and often absurdly funny. A great layer of artists exists mainly to make fun out of popular culture, socio-political events and life in general. One example of this is a group called MOZGI. They, for instance, made a whole song to poke fun at the mayor of Kyiv Vitali Klitschko and his struggles to pronounce a word “digitalization”.
And, yes, it’s all fun and entertaining, but most rap in this specific niche happens to be heavily overproduced to appeal to the widest audience possible. Which is not necessarily a bad thing — all people need something to listen to — but it would be a stretch to say that it represents the genre at its best.
But don’t worry — I’ve got here at least two acts which will make your inner hip-hop esthete rejoice.
First one is Kurgan & Agregat.
These three handsome fellas represent what might be called a Ukrainian rural rap. They rhyme in “surzhyk” — a range of mixed dialects of Ukrainian and Russian languages used in certain regions of Ukraine — and it’s usually hilarious, witty and simply brilliant.
Shirt-sleeve is the best word to describe the group’s narratives. In very plain straightforward words, they devote odes to hot school teachers, awkward hairstyles and life in the countryside. When I say in plain words — I really mean the plainest rhymes you can imagine.
If I’m a Christmas tree — you’re a garland
If I’m a florist — you’re a rose
If I’m a builder — you’re a trowel
And sometimes they get by with just very obscene but funny use of filthy language.
Check it out:
The second group I must mention is Grebz.
The success of Grebz in both Ukraine and Russia was just phenomenal. They came in sight from nowhere and became the most popular hip-hop group of 2016.
Undeniably, Grebz was a well-thought project designed to please everyone: from people who tend to listen to whatever is popular right now to those who value something fresh, unique and original.
Their songs are a wild mix of hip-hop, rap and house music supercharged by dynamic and strikingly different rapping styles.
It’s truly incredible how absurd their lyrics are, and at the same time how much sense they make for anyone who grew up in this culture. Their hooks are irresistibly catchy — you simply can’t stand still when you hear them.
The group broke up after a year of existence into a couple of separate projects including YOURA and KYIVSTONER. This year two members of Grebz released four new songs, which was slightly exciting, but not really.
Anyway, it does look like their time and success are in the past now. But you can still enjoy their incredible album “Дом на колесах”.
2. alyona alyona, Alina Pash and the new female narrative
Female rap is becoming more of a serious thing lately worldwide, and Ukraine is catching up with this trend as well. Though still being a fairly recent phenomenon, female rappers have already shaken the ground of the local landscape and created a space for new narratives to emerge. You can already see acts as diverse as FO SHO breaking through a glass ceiling and sharing their perspective on things. Their song XTRA is your traditional soul/RnB anthem to self-respect and self-appreciation.
FO SHO is, indeed, fun and exotic for a Ukrainian listener but on a global scale, they hardly bring anything new. It’s pretty much derivative and stale.
Luckily, there are two ladies who bring much needed local flavour to the old hip-hop tradition and make something unique and original out of it.
A bit more about them below.
A former nursery teacher, alyona alyona has just recently become a true sensation of Ukrainian rap. You can see stories about her being featured in international magazines — from Vogue to The Independent. And she, indeed, deserves all the praise and accolades she receives.
Alyona alyona is the epitome of meaningful rapping. She doesn’t sing about hoes, bitches or boobies; instead — her lyrics tackle the uneasy subjects of bullying, body image and self-confidence. Alyona masterfully uses Ukrainian language, which sometimes might come into sight as foreign or poorly-compatible with hip-hop, but in her delivery, this inference feels unsustainable.
My personal favourite track of her, “Вiдчиняй”, is an audacious enunciation of the new age — where the younger generation takes the lead and guides the country to a better future. Which feels slightly prophetic taking into account overwhelming political changes in Ukraine.
Moving on, Alina Pash.
Alina Pash is definitely an artist more concerned with experimentation and less focused on her image integrity — sometimes to the degree that it’s really hard to understand who Alina Pash genuinely wants to be.
This year she released “Pintea” — a two-part album comprising of 20 songs and more than 50 minutes of listening time.
Ambitious, but not always warranted.
It’s even hard to disentangle the album into separate elements. There are so many current and trendy tricks present on the album it should definitely feel like a huge success, but, on the whole, the experience of listening to is kind of incoherent. I just can’t get rid of feelings that I heard all of that from some other artists.
Anyways, this is obviously a subjective observation of mine which cannot diminish the significance of Alina Pash for Ukrainian music.
Pash brings a unique and rich visual aesthetics informed by her Transcarpathian background. And, more importantly, she manages to combine the western tradition of hip hop and soul music with pure Ukrainian, and sometimes even Middle Eastern, folk motives —making some of her songs sound like nothing you’ve ever heard before.
3. Digitalization and the rise of independent artists
This last point isn’t really about a separate trend— it’s rather something that informs everything that’s happening right now. The spread of the internet and the rise of social media have a lot to do with how new Ukriainain artists introduce their music to the local audience. And because the hip hop market here is relatively small and undeveloped, the threshold for reaching an interested audience is rather small. This allows good new projects to become popular in a relatively small period of time.
The above applies to many artists I’ve already mentioned here, but there are so many more new faces it would take another article to look at all of them. So here are a few of them you can keep your eyes on for now:
- KALUSH — the group has only released one song, which, nevertheless, looks really promising. KALUSH represents the western part of Ukraine, and their distinct dialect and absolutely ineligible flow create an incredibly refreshing sound.
2. YOURA — the first solo project of a well-known Ukrainian record producer Yuriy Bardash. His album “Plan B” is a remarkably precise and relevant reflection of present-day — from its mechanic and robotic sound to the dynamic and steep narration of the problems not foreign to people in his homeland.
3. вышел покурить — a rather depressing teenage-rapper who rhymes about rather depressing teenage problems we’re all acquainted with; and I like it. It doesn’t matter that the subject of his attention is as old as the world itself — what matters is the rawness and candidness of this particular expression.
This is all I have for today. Enjoy and share. Lots of love.