Ushat Gryazi: "Ssadiny" (2011)
In the heyday of US rap - arguably the early 1990s - Western exponents were keen to give their rhythmic narratives the most dignified lineage possible. It was not at all uncommon to hear parallels drawn between fledgling rap and Southern jazz or, more importantly, the blues. Although the practice of so-called "party rhymes" was certainly widespread in rap's early years, inviting listeners to (merely) enjoy themselves, melancholy themes of urban experience would multiply. Rap become a documentary, often humorless tool. Performers strove hard to maintain a sense of optimism amid the pervasive pressures of material experience: bad living conditions, authoritarian violence, drug-related issues, and so forth.
In a word, the connection between blues and rap was logical indeed: both offered consolation in the face of tangible troubles. Both aimed to salvage a small space of respect: one's home, street, or zip code. Defensive walls were set up against the outside world. If we look at three new rap recordings from Moscow and St. Petersburg, similarly spatial emphases are both uppermost and yet unique. There's a special way in which these Slavic artists employ a US art form.
Let's begin with the Moscow collective known as Ushat Gryazi, which might be translated as "Dirt Tub." We first investigated this rap project not longer after FFM was launched. From the outset it was clear that Ushat Gryazi would not be purveyors of party rhymes; the colorless hues of recent photos lead us to suspect that little has changed.
Ushat Gryazi (Moscow)
This is how they spoke of their initial recordings, three years ago: "There are soul-searching songs of naked sincerity [in our catalog]; there's both intelligence and great melodies, too. We use quotes from the classics and so on, but there's always a grim sense of some dead-end. It all creates an atmosphere of blind rage - and a really severe realism. It's almost like classic [US] rap: all about the fact that life's crap and that it's so easy to lose control nowadays... The difference, however, is that Ushat Gryazi talk about these simple, common matters in ways that'll make you see and believe... that this is how things really are."
This is how things really are
In other words, the defensive stance of urban US rap contra mundum was taken on board and then colored with even greater pessimism. The need to defend one's home and dignity was underscored, while the likelihood of victory was downplayed. This relationship between sound and society is even more evident on the brand-new Ushat Gryazi recordings, entitled "Ssadiny" ("Scratches" or "Abrasions") - as dramaticaly illustrated in our uppermost image.
The musicians now define their output as follows, dealing with various facets of "personal experience amid social conflicts... These are grown-up, intelligent tales of some remarkable events, feelings, and [individual] acts. Each composition is like a barely visible scratch on your heart, aching with the autumn evenings [as they grow darker]. The mistakes and ideals of our youth now look like some kind of phantom pain. Yet because of that pain, we reach adulthood with our jaw clenched tight..."
Tension and time's passage move together.
Poster for yesterday's Ushat Gryazi CD launch in Moscow
"These are songs for people who no longer want to bite their tongue. For people who are tired of looking for life's [comforting] guidebook." Put differently, life's dilemmas have not been solved, and so Ushat Gryazi dedicate their efforts to stressed and embittered folks who are "[even] unable to shrug off the pain of their school years." Lasting injuries are acquired early on. The predominant air here is one of joyless endurance, best shown by the track "Old Things" (Starye veshchi), which evinces considerable sympathy for the broken, and yet much-loved objects strewn around a typical house. A table with cracked, yet serviceable legs seems more relevant - and impressive - than any costly, ostentatious artifact.
Look at your hands. Life-lines are crisscrossed with barely visible abrasions
And because of this same admirable spirit of endurance, we are now told: "The debut compositions by Ushat Gryazi were full of aggression. They expressed the anger of somebody who's forced into a corner. Now, however, these more mature songs [at least] show a flicker of hope." Once again, the metaphor of scratches and raw flesh returns: "Look at your hands. Your life-lines are crisscrossed with barely visible abrasions. They're the traces left by people, events, feelings, and mistakes. Each of those scratches has made you stronger, though; none of them will fade."
Andreo RA (St. Petersburg): "One-Room Planet" (2011)
It's useful to compare this grim determination with the more romantic approach of St. Petersburg rap/hip-hop exponent Andreo RA, who is currently collaborating with Morning Records. The newest recordings - whose title translates as "One-Room Planet" - draw constantly upon Saint-Exupery's "Little Prince," a story known to millions of Russian schoolchildren. From the very outset, these downtempo narratives speak of a desired and safe residence. Andreo RA does so by playing upon Saint-Exupery's narrative: "Once upon a time there was a little prince. He lived on a planet that was only slightly larger than himself..."
This reconsideration of a literary classic then continues in a sadder, more localized vein: "Nobody, though, will make movies about us - or write stories, even. People like us should be shipped off to the hospital..."
People like us should be shipped off to the hospital...
Material existence has become punishing. It has also forced reverie to scale back its operations considerably. For that same reason, Andreo RA, when recently interviewed by the Russian press, was less keen to call his work "rap" or "hip-hop"; he preferred to trace its origins back to the catalog of Russia's troubled poets such as Vladimir Vysotskii, Sergei Esenin, and Vladimir Maiakovskii. This, he says, "is the kind of verse that makes your blood vessels burst." Esenin and Maiakovskii committed suicide; Vysotskii died from drink. The parallels are not jolly.
He later adds (in considerably gentler terms): "Dreams have the ability to come true... if you know how you keep a handle on your desires."
Andreo RA (St. Petersburg)
Two years of work went into fashioning these hushed and yet sobering tales. More time did not lead to a more optimistic worldview.
The same, considerable levels of skepticism and self-irony are what stand behind the work of another St. Petersburg rapper, Igor' Zakruzhnykh, otherwise known as Strannik Stk, who was born and raised in Siberia. He recalls that instead of bedtime stories, his young parents - themselves college students - would play him rock music until he fell asleep. That unusual practice, apparently, led to an early love for various genres and a commitment to music, although he would eventually receive a higher education in the unrelated field of computer programming.
Zakruzhnykh - not unlike Andreo RA - recently declared himself "a hopeless romantic who's stuck in the culture of prior centuries. I simply don't see any genuine beauty in modern life or society. Nonetheless, I try [in my songs] to deal with the most vital aspects of our common problems and experiences..." These multiple social, musical, and educational strands have now led to a debut album: "53 Weeks."
Strannik Stk (Igor' Zakruzhnykh [left], St. Petersburg)
A good introduction to the recording - from a philosophical standpoint - would come from the opening track "Pritchi" ("Parables" or "Tall Tales," perhaps). The song invites all listeners to "forget the worn-out tales" so prevalent in society, especially those concerning our personal worth (or the lack thereof). Zakruzhnykh tries to fashion an upbeat declaration or two: "Don't forget that you're an individual./ Stop for a moment, take a look up/ And remind yourself: 'I'm a human being!'/ Whatever you do, things will work out:/ Your path will turn towards the sun./ We're all dancing above an abyss of falsehood./ Just ask yourself: 'Who needs this life?'"
Happy fatalism seems the best outlook for a shell-shocked romantic.
I haven't heard anything this upbeat for ages!
At another venue, he calls himself "one of Russia's more intellectual rappers." Precisely which categories, we might ask, would constitute smart, insightful rap in this difficult nation? "Shyness and melancholy," he says. We're an extremely long way from US primetime bluster. And yet, when the video for "Pritchi" was uploaded to YouTube, some comments quickly appeared from approving listeners and viewers: "I haven't heard anything this upbeat for ages!" "I don't like rap - but this really hits the spot!" Stoicism is cause for relative comfort; it at least allows for the slightest of smiles. And a steely gaze - just in case.