Branching Out (International Hip-Hop Part 1)
Since this column is about more than just hip-hop, I thought I'd take these next few weeks as an opportunity to explore some of the hip-hop that is popular throughout other parts of the world. That way it's not such a huge shock when I start talking about things like Tabla Beat Science, Manu Chao, Seu Jorge and Plastilina Mosh. I'm going to focus on Europe for now, since they have such a thriving and well-established scene.
Sweden: Sweden has one of the largest hip-hop scenes outside of France and the UK. The culture has been around since the mid-1980's, and has exploded in size in the past few years. Artists like Nenah Cherry, Supersci, Looptroop and Infinite Mass are pretty well-established in their home country and have gained some international fame (Nehah Cherry was featured on a Gorillaz album, as well as providing vocals for a number of Groove Armada tracks.) Swedish hip-hop tends to lean more towards the melodic side, and while artists still rhyme in their native tongue, crossing over into the English-speaking market has become quite popular, as well as rhyming in Rinkebysvenska, which is sort of like Latin artists who sing in Spanglish.
My favorite Swedish hip-hop group is Supersci (formerly known as Superscientifiku), who have been around for nearly a decade, but only recently put out a full-length album. If they didn't insert references to their home-country, you could easily mistake them for a West-coast clique. Their English is flawless, the music is funky and laid back, and the beats are spot-on. The song "On The Grind" is one of those tracks that you can listen to over and over again without tiring of it. It puts forth a message of positivity and the hardships of trying to juggle the life of a musician with the life of an average person with a family.
When I'm on the grind / Somebody's always tapping on my shoulder and I'm trying / To get a piece of mine (peace of mind) but I just can't find the time / My baby's always calling me, crying on the line / Won't you please come home to me.
Supersci collaborates with the production team Flyphonic to create one of the best hip-hop albums of 2006. You can hear clips from their album "Pinetrees on the Pavement" at their website .
France: The most well-known French hip-hop artist is probably MC Solaar, a Senegalese rapper who hit the scene in the early 1990's and achived American success after touring with De La Soul and being featured on Guru's Jazzmatazz project. He's put out 6 albums so far, and has another one due out sometime in 2007. He has a complex rhyming style and his songs revolve around club-friendly beats, which is probably one of the reasons he has found such widespread success in Europe, Africa, Russia and the United States.
Another great French hip-hop group is Ttc, who I just recently discovered. Ttc takes a comedic approach to hip-hop and if you take the time to translate some of their songs, you'll notice that the lyrics are both filthy and hilarious. More Jerry Lewis than MC Solaar, Ttc takes a pop and dance hall approach to their music. They'd rather have fun and get people moving than drop introspective and though-provoking albums, which is great, because sometimes you want to put down the Camus and Sartre and just shake your ass to some good tunes. They have plans to tour Europe and then venture into the US this year, so if you happen to see Ticketmaster promoting a Ttc concert, grab tickets and prepare yourself for a night of partying.
My favorite French artist is DJ Cam, who blends hip-hop with acid jazz to create extremely chilled albums. This is the type of stuff that you crank up while sitting in the back yard, drinking red wine and watching the sun set. Wicked turntablism, tons of abstract samples and punchy beats make any of his albums worth buying, but "Mad Blunted Jazz" is by far his best work to date.
Britain: Britain has produced some of the most well-known international hip-hop artists out there. A mix of garage music and UK Grime, artists like Roots Manuva, The Streets and Lady Sovereign have hit it big in the States, due to their unique musical style and unapologetic lyrical content. It's rugged and filled with the blips, bleeps and bass-drops that make the sub-genre so easy to recognize. Another thing about the recent UK scene that makes them stand out is the unwillingness to "Americanize" their music, keeping the accents thick and heavy, and dropping slang terms that might leave you scratching your head in puzzlement. Lady Sovereign has been remixed by Missy Elliot, and Roots Manuva has released dub remixes of his work, as well as collaborating with the UK super group "The Blacknificent Seven".
The Ninja Tune label (run by London residents Matt Black & Jonathan More of Coldcut) has done a wonderful job of promoting UK artists like The Herbaliser, DJ Food, Funki Porcini, Bonobo and Up, Bustle & Out, as well as dozens of others. They have been running a DJ Mix show called Solid Steel for a number of years which can be heard on free-form radio stations across the US, and can be streamed from websites like Australia's Triple-J radio and "The Move" on XM Radio.
Hip-hop is everywhere in Europe, from Croatia to Portugal, Switzerland to Italy, Poland to Bulgaria. While it was considered to be just a fad a decade ago, the scene has exploded, and talented artists from all parts of Europe have garnered mainstream success both at home and abroad. While styles and languages vary from country to country (and even region to region), the one thing that remains constant is the musical proficiency. American hip-hop can be stale at times, and what you hear on the radio rarely reflects the pure talent that some artists have. But the nice thing about international hip-hop is the fact that they're NOT huge in the States, and therefore aren't as willing or quick to conform to FCC standards. You have to look a little bit harder to find the stuff, but when you find it, it's not dumbed down like certain American artists whose are driven more by the idea of money, rims and Cristal. Bonus: It's a fun way to learn another language without resorting to stuffy books-on-tape.
The really impressive thing is that Seetwist finds all this by traveling on foot.