Blazoned across the CD cover shown above is a particular digit: "2." It refers to a second compilation of Lithuanian hip-hop organized by the Vilnius collective Renegades of Bump. Not surprisingly, therefore, a little background is required as to what happened in the previous recording! In May 2010, when the first Renegades of Bump CD appeared, we had the following introductory comments to offer. We began by explaining the project's name.
In the early 1980s, a electro/funk single was released by Afrika Bambaataa (and colleagues) called "Renegades of Funk." Thanks to the bold production work of Arthur Baker, it would go on to become not only a major dancefloor hit, but also an enduring social statement. The track, in short, suggests a direct connection between civic art and social change.
Originally designed to improve awareness of gang-related problems on the streets of the Bronx, both "Renegades of Funk" and later work by Bambaataa would soon be elevated to a grander stage and bigger social issues. His music and managerial know-how were once used, for example, to fill London's Wembley Stadium - at the time of Nelson Mandela's release from prison.
The same relationship between dancefloor hedonism and social reform was drawn even more clearly when "Renegades" was covered in 2000 by Rage Against the Machine. The band, in order to both vivify and canonize the original's message, made a now-famous video from countless spliced images of Black and Hispanic celebrities, almost all of whom played some role in the Civil Rights movement - artistically or otherwise.
These same musical and sociopolitical intentions were taken by a gaggle of DJs/beatmakers in Lithuania, who referred to themselves - as mentioned - as "Renegades of Bump" (RoB). They soon published an impressive compilation CD, “Ritmo Kovos 1" (Beat Battle #1). Drawing directly on their American influences, the organizers of RoB used a Bambaataa line as their rallying call from the outset: "No matter how hard you try, you can't stop this now."
It's unclear to whom those confrontational words were directed at home in Lithuania, but a sense of purpose was obvious: "It's all about the new age... it's all about the new way of bumping."
A community founded in Lithuania, yet existing anywhere that independent music is valued
We now have the second Ritmo Kovos compilation - and a very different line-up. Despite all the new faces, though, these participants of 2011 still (or already!) maintain a united front as "a community of alternative musicians and art supporters. This is a community founded in Lithuania - yet it exists anywhere that the idea of independent music is valued. We exist in order to promote fine sounds and visual ideas..."
Scant emphasis here is placed upon language, and indeed an extended tour of all web resources used by these musicians would still reveal little in the way of text. Other sounds are used to reach the public.
Take, by way of example, Fingalick (aka Tomas Narkevičius) from Vilnius. In defining his own output, he offers the following pithy statement, using metaphors of fluidity and motion, rather than any fixed or dogmatic contentions. He employs no more than a handful of impressionistic terms to advocate a state that's far from speech. "I can make it pour. [The] musician of a new generation." This relationship between novelty and tight-lipped vagaries is expanded upon by several colleagues.
One of Narkevičius' collaborators from the same city, Linas Maknys, advocates precisely this escape from inflexible, binding dictates even with his stage name: Format None.
In the same spirit of happy abstractions or obscurantism, even, Maknys takes a step back from the peopled realms in which language might play a meaningful role. We slowly begin to sense that a skeptical attitude towards speech reflects a similar attitude towards society.
One online venue documents the lineup of Maknys' creative team as nothing more than... "me. By myself." His musical influences are then recorded as "everybody and nobody." Stylistic leanings are equally vague and non-commital: his small discography and the aesthetic thereof are described as "sometimes hard and sometimes easy. Sometimes slow and sometimes fast." That deliberate imprecision is designed to usher in a certain pleasure - emphasized for us by a smiley face! Vagueness is happiness. The ability to keep society and its restrictive, wordy norms at arm's length is cause for celebration.
Sometimes it takes a special effort to safeguard one's privacy.
Another of the Ritmo Kovos 2 participants, Napo (Leonas Rėčkus) makes this flight from specificity clearest of all, perhaps. He throws together a series of brief quotes, all of which - in kaleidoscopic fashion - hope to evoke a positive, yet unspecific impression. Fragments aspire to a general whole. Rėčkus quotes narratives of grand heroism (The Terminator and The Godfather) together with those of self-deprecation (The Simpsons). They pull in opposite directions: which is more important, though - grandeur or mockery?
In between things epic and parodic we again find a certain degree of social skepticism. Mr. Rėčkus has a fondness for the sage, yet wary thoughts of Benjamin Franklin: "Three people can keep a secret... so long as two of them are dead." In other words, there's a disconnect between cinematic storytelling and the messy, often petty nature of human interaction.
Three people can keep a secret... so long as two of them are dead
These phrases and ideas all give our musicians good reason to speak less - and instead seek various harmonies elsewhere. It's a path nicely cataloged by Vilnius resident Aleksej Komarov (aka Style Mistake, shown in our second photograph above). His potted biography opens with an upbeat memory. "September, 2009: I began my path towards music. Woo-hoo!" Again we find a smiley face - especially when speaking of gentler, soulful forms of hip-hop. Mr. Kormarov's second autobiographical milepost then reads as follows: "December, 2009: Made my first drum and bass. Horrible stuff!"
This semi-serious investigation of quiet, consoling creativity, however, is moved into genuinely dramatic territory by the artist known as Highleef, whose own notes imply that he lived in London, Paris, and other locations before settling in Lithuania. All of a sudden, amid the movie quotations and other small fragments of speech, we are presented with a Rastafarian stream of consciousness.
"It takes time to grow anything, and it took the Highleef Tree time to realize why Jah put him, his multi-instrumental gift, and his voice on this planet - or in this universe." The object of that musical destiny is then sketched in the pithiest - yet grandest! - terms imaginable; Highleef writes (in capital letters) of some overarching, elusive sense of unity that informs his songwriting. He calls it THE ONENESS.
The everyday struggle of an everyday pilgrim
In various locations he, like his colleagues, undermines the fixedness of speech with the same emphasis upon vaguely perceived conviction that we see elsewhere. Belief outdoes chatter. Sometimes Highleef's musings take on a directly spiritual hue: "It's an everyday job - an everyday struggle for an everyday pilgrim - to reach The Oneness... because the universe is infinite." If we follow the path of related snippets in other locations, the tone only grows loftier: "Dream of a life, live a dream..." Surely the new Ritmo Kovos compilation as a whole is not designed to operate at this altitude?
Sure enough, for all that high-flown romance or religious abstraction, it takes no great effort to unearth some admissions from these artists that downgrade matters to a more manageable level. Talk of a universal congregation is reduced to issues of family, pure and simple. Doubts about social linkages endure, nonetheless. Leonas Rėčkus, as we've seen, draws upon The Simpsons, a cartoon that embodied or epitomized the dysfunctional nature of today's nuclear family.
Highleef, looking further back in time, tells us "I'm a big fan of some Disney films..." Disney's classic cartoons, drawn during years of worldwide geopolitical collapse, all sought refuge in a pre-modern, fundamentally rural escape to familial bliss. Disney's narratives place almost mythical faith in the homestead; Matt Groening's characters have lost that faith - once and for all. In fact Groening once said, quite famously, that the Simpsons "want desperately to be normal." Modern life, however, makes that impossible.
For all the stylistic range and references, therefore, of these musicians - from escapist, blockbuster cinema to the emancipatory promise of Rastafarianism - there's a common (and humbler!) point of departure from which their trajectories often depart. Our artists share a social outlook when it comes to the matter of familial promise - and how that's spoiled by the outside world.
As the image below of Napo (Leonas Rėčkus) implies, we're dealing with an aspect of youthful maturation that often leads to confusion.
There's a sentimental genesis to much of this music; it champions an affective engagement with the world that transpires prior to adult pragmatism (with its endless concessions to real-world necessity). That same precious, promising sentiment has little to do with discussion or debate; private emotions and heartfelt convictions certainly gain nothing from exposure to a doubting populace. Hence we have music that may be designed for public performance - yet its authors would rather not deal with those noisy, impolite spheres.
And so, according to the same rationale, for all the martial phrasing of our opening Bambaataa quote, there's an enduring sense here that any "fighting" spirit among the Renegades of Bump exists neither for personal gain nor for macho benefit. Instead there's a boyish enthusiasm celebrated in these tracks - a kind of innocent zeal that'll probably give way to adult tedium or tragedy sooner or later. Just ask Bart Simpson.
In the meanwhile, Linas Maknys listens hard for a purity of sound that's inherent to nature - before human nature introduces an element of discord.