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Russian Rap Battles: A Rapper's Relationship with the West

In Hip-Hop, on-the-fly rap “battles,” an event where MCs [“master of ceremonies”] go head-to-head and attempt to one-up each other with rhyming acumen, play a vital role as the breeding ground for comradery on an extremely intrinsic level. Dr. Adam Bradley in his 2017 book Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop calls them a “verbal cutting contest” where rhythmic songsters wage war of syntax, displaying their on-the-spot proficiency in poetic versification, reliant on nothing but the spitter’s fierce intellect. Battle rappers are “celebrating themselves, dissing their opponents, and s**t-talking in every other possible way. This form of lyrical celebration of self and denigration of others can be puerile, but it can also be gratifying.” Amidst the ecstatic Bacchanalia and strained voices, rappers cement their image, performative or otherwise. (Jacobson, 2009). However, rap battle ‘philosophy’ isn’t exclusive, migrating from its primordial form as poetic gesting games (Mavima, 2016) to full-fledged ideological spuriousness. From the international “Batalla de los Gallos,” the first organized rap competition for Puerto Rico, the home of rap battles in the Spanish-speaking world,” to rap-battle leagues from nations abounding, e.g. France's “Rap Contenders” and the Middle East’s “Arena,” rap battles have subsequently become hotbeds of neo-nationalist, cosmopolitan individuality.



However in Russia, rap-battles have come to embody a particular breed of Western kinship, having gotten its footing in the brash styles of early 90s, American gangster rap, But it wasn’t until the late 90s/early 2000s with festivals and rap-battles like “Peak-91” (1991), “Rap Music” (1994), “Beat Battle” (2000), and “First MC Battle” (Semenova, 2018), that Russia really started formulating a domestic Hip-Hop aesthetic. (Frolova, 2015). Frolova indicates that once Hip-Hop became publicized it also became commercialized, helping its societal position and non-Western independence grow at an increasingly rapid pace. Zoom forward to 2017, and one of the world’s most analyzed rap battles between rappers Oxxxymiron and Slava KPSS would further make ‘Russian rap’ a portentous reality, everyone from state politicians to linguistic researcher’s rationalizing the contentious parleys (Raspopina). Yet a year prior, beyond the cacophony of St. Petersburg there was another one called “Battle 9,” the ninth iteration of a [then] four-year old competition [still going on today]. That’s where Russia’s controversial, Philosopher/Hip-Hopper found his artistic feet, Dmitry Kuznetsov or Husky jumpstarting his career through his involvement. He participated in three of the ten rounds, being beaten by “Очередной MC” [known as Sega] in a 5:2 loss, producing three, gradationally complex tracks. Husky’s participation in the rap-battle scene suggests an oxymoronic truth about “global” Hip-Hop’s conceptual autonomy, in that its “cultural particularism” is neither original nor a mimetic. Without rap-battles, there would be no Husky, but likewise without the West there would be no Russian Hip-Hop. And yet still, Russian rap-battles cannot be compared to American equivalents, as in Putin’s post-Soviet kingdom, freedom is not yet held.



In a 2016 interview with The Village, Husky would go on to denounce rap-battles for their crude desecration of the artform, They are just spontaneous evil children and nothing else, such statements signalling his refutation of the Russian rap industry’s unexceptional infatuation with Western ‘decadence.’ Like so many Hip-Hoppers around the globe presented with the shiny intoxication of fame, “I had the opportunity to become a battle rapper...But there you are surrounded by drunk schoolchildren who drank a little beer, and now they seem to be feeling a little bit bad. So I quickly got out of there - I could not stand the aggression of the mother's villains [...].” Within Husky’s three tracks and their Orphean semiotics, Husky’s raison d’etre emerged, namely to become what Scriabin had only dreamed of and Rachmaninoff achieved only temporarily, to become the national hero who leads Russian citizenry towards the iconoclastic light of self-liberation. The rapper himself stated so, “The artist himself defines his most important task in art as "defining the secret dark dominant of a human (and especially Russian) being.” So Husky’s initial exposure to the carnivorous, “Westernized” rap-battling circuit proved advantageous, as it revealed that to create a truly ‘Russian’ Hip-Hop identity, one had to look domestically for inspiration and remove their neo-serfdom to the Western paragon.


Russia’s rap scene emerged as an irreverent vein for youth to show their long-desired rejection of the societal chokehold that was Soviet decorum. Known as the “Chernukha [blackening] period,” once the Soviet Union fell, society was inundated with both the furious repercussions of unreleased social-trauma (Majsova, 2017) and capitalist attempts towards financial freedom. So like the West, Rap-battles have become hollow, commercialist money-makers and arbiters of riotous performativity. But unlike the West, they symbolize a permanent revolution,” this time against the right aggressor.


John David Vandevert is a recent graduate of Westminster Choir College in Vocal Performance and current, independent Music Researcher who will be pursuing a Masters in Musicological studies beginning in the fall.




Sources

  1. Bradley, A., 2009. Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop. Civitas Books.

  2. Frolova, E., 2015. Rap as a Form of Sociocultural Reflection of Contemporary Russian Culture. Journal of Philosophy and Cultural Studies, pp.3-52.

  3. Jacobson, Ginger L., "Realness and Hoodness: Authenticity in Hip Hop as Discussed by Adolescent Fans" (2009). Graduate Theses and Dissertations

  4. Mavima, Shingi., Journal of Hip Hop Studies, 2016. Bigger By the Dozens: The Prevalence of Afro-Based Tradition in Battle Rap. [online] 3(1).

  5. Mojsova, Natalija. "RE-READING CINEMA OF PERESTROIKA". DRUŽBOSLOVNE RAZPRAVE, no. 84, 2017, pp. 49-65., Accessed 9 June 2021.

  6. Semenova, Elena A., Journal of Pharmaceutical Sciences and Research, 2018. Psychophysiological Aspects of Aggression and Laughter in the Contemporary Culture of Russian Battle. 10(7), pp.1873-1875.

  7. Raspopina, Sasha. "Russia’S Viral Rap Battle: Is This The Last Cultural Space For Free Speech?". The Calvert Journal, 2017,



Note


An extended version of this article appears on my website, Johndavidvandevert.com where I include a song-by-song analysis of all three Husky tracks from his participation in the 2011 online Hip-Hop.ru rap-battle competition.

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