One of the musicians under investigation today has already been known to us for a while: Skajite Michilu, who's originally from the very distant Sakha (Yakutia) Republic. Situated north of Mongolia and roughly 3,000 miles from Moscow, Yakutia is still associated by many people with stereotypical narratives of political exile and various other geographic "challenges," almost all of which concern an unmanageable distance. Perhaps for these same reasons, our musician has himself moved to St. Petersburg, from where he now publishes a wonderful new EP with the simple title of "Gardens."
The cover art works directly against any sense of horticultural containment; a faded distant horizon speaks instead of a sprawling wilderness. A resulting sense of fragility informs this EP's glitchy instrumentals. They evoke an air of fleeting construction in a hostile context. Loud sounds and power chords are nowhere to be seen! In fact in a recent post by Skajite Michilu, that impression of delicate, oft-challenged evolution was directly discussed... within an unforgiving city. Beside the depressing image of a tree stump in an urban courtyard, he published the following text in Russian. Shelter from universal cruelty is apparently rare.
The willow stood barren among its green brethren. That's my story about a brave tree...
"This willow was cut down - as the result of a sad story. Once upon a time, in December, it was minus fifty degrees outside. Somebody wasn't paying attention and a water pipe, running beneath a nearby building, burst. Hot water began rushing out and the tree decided summer had come: it sprouted green leaves. In the middle of winter. When summer did eventually come, the tree was chopped down. It stood barren among its green brethren. That's my story about a brave tree."
Somehow a muscular, bronze rhino against dilapidated brickwork sets the tone.
Bravery, in other words, is interpreted as expressiveness against overwhelming odds. A statement of intent or self-realization is made - at the wrong time and in the wrong place - but such is the nature of courage. It takes no great effort to draw parallels between the fate of that willow tree and the tricky career of a Russian electronic musician, several thousand miles from home. Both in the aesthetic of Skajite Michilu and his allegorical sketches we see the ongoing disparity between small-scale enterprise and a larger, patently antagonistic habitus.
On one of his Russian networking profiles, Michil (such is his Christian name) lists two major influences as "sobriety" and a constant recourse to a stash of "hashberry." Retreat from the world is made quietly, but often. The same juxtaposition between level-headed enterprise and escapism appears elsewhere, for example in online profiles where Michil documents his major hobbies as "cooking"... and "self-destruction."
Any ability to flee once and for all into the noiseless shelter of some metaphorical garden appears faint. One cannot hide from quotidian hassles forever. On one site Michil offers a sobering motto or worldview: "Enjoy your problems... you may never have them again." Things could be worse.
Enjoy your problems... you may never have them again
Commenting upon the resulting sounds of compassion and solace, one Russian reviewer has captured a few of Michil's summertime thoughts on how to avoid modern anxiety. "This artist believes that relatively static forms of music can seriously influence one's rational thought - if you choose the right components. When you listen really closely to sounds that initially seem identical, new images and impressions actually come into being. Skajite Michilu wants to lead his listeners to a state of gentle hypnosis."
That validation of softness in a tough world lies front and center in the understated catalog of Moscow's Mellowdrumma, a duo consisting of "Gretsky" (Mayk Lartey) and "Skazanny" (Mikhail Neupokoev). They have recently published a twelve-track album of unhurried instrumental hip-hop. Since primetime media has little time for understatement and restraint, the LP's success is probably going to be contingent upon the kindness of friends. "Hey guys, let's all re-post this announcement! Let's help as many people hear the album as possible. We'd like folks to find something interesting and special [in our compositions]... Sign up for our news and tell all your friends!"
In the same way, rather than resort to loud PR, Lartey and Neupokoev look for good cheer and encouragement among acquaintances. The first comments with regard to one recent recording included a polite request for "more variety" in the tracks. A few days later, somebody else asked for "more of an underground sound. Things need to be rougher!" Already it seemed that any kind of social engagement - in search of reassuring concord - was going to be mildly problematic. Skajite Michilu shows little faith in civic spheres; Mellowdrumma may trust that same domain, but its members are not proving to be unified in their outlook.
More calls appeared for "greater 'drive'" and even "some desperate[!] songs," reflective of overt "hate" or abject "stubbornness." And yet, despite that widespread call to see social pressures reflected in songwriting, Gretsky and Skazanny insist - respectfully! - that soft, meditative compositions make much more sense.
Solace and comfort remain prime concerns.
That's something we also see with Max Senin (aka Blockbaybeats), originally from Hrodna, Belarus. Now resident in Israel for five years, he is currently going through military service - yet somehow managing to write music at the same time. "I've been trying my hand as a beatmaker since the end of 2011- and have been working with jazz motifs. Since that time, I've also been trying to generate as much goodness as possible - both within hip-hop and for my audience, too." That's hardly a classic, confrontational stance from the dusty archives of US hip-hop. One might even recall more recent, confident claims from Jay-Z, such as: "Hip-hop has done more than any leader, politician, or anyone to improve race relations."
The desire here is radically different - and quieter.
I've been trying to generate as much goodness as possible - both within hip-hop and for my audience, too
Kindness trumps anything resembling arrogance."I'm always glad to cooperate [with other artists]," Senin says. It's a friendly, forgiving stance that has gone down well on Soundcloud. "I really love your [jazzy and lounge] samples. F***ing amazing!"; "I'd love to use this beat. Can you make it any longer?" An immediate smiley face implies particular gratitude for the sounds of amity - and sadness when they fade away.
Even Senin's emphases that are visible on social networking sites remain both adult and sympathetic. He stresses "personal development" as his most important priority, whilst valuing "intellect and creativity" in others. This use of hip-hop for soothing, rather than challenging or outraging one's audience, also transpires this week from the Ukrainian city of Simferopol. Here we find the producer known either as Stek or Beatlow; the related values of hedonism and escapism emerge loud and clear. A quick beer gets the ball rolling.
The value of this Crimean music is to overlook or evade the surrounding world. Not as Skajite Michilu, in terms of studied meditation, but as pure pleasure - in order to counter commonplace dolor. "Get your bodies going to the sounds of Crimean hip-hop!" Inviting local colleagues to display their talents, Stek then adds: "Come and show your originality, hammer out some beats, and don't leave any chance for a tie-break!" Conflict in daily life becomes instead kindly competition, all in the name of commonality and "goodness," as we hear from Blockbaybeats.
Again, much is dependent upon the support of friends: "Take a listen, download this, get to grips with it - and let us know what you think! Tell your friends and share the tracks... because our goal is to dispatch all this as widely as possible!" Without the support of one's nearest and dearest, the distant, daunting horizons of Skajite Michilu's aesthetic would reemerge. Friends are a priceless buffer.
In Simferopol all our grandfathers and grandmothers keep old record collections - up in the mountains
What's especially interesting is the "family" origin of these funky, jazzy samples on the sunny Crimean coastline. "In Simferopol all our grandfathers and grandmothers keep antique record collections - up in the mountains. If you care about those recordings - and want to see them serve a good cause, then give your relatives a good shaking and bring the vinyl here! I'll put them to good use! It doesn't matter what's on the records, any old 33s or 45s will do. Thanks in advance!"
As one young man moves from Yakutia to St. Petersburg, or from Hrodna to Israel, it's not surprising that a desire for peace and quiet would emerge. If one can claim that canonical hip-hop is driven by territorial pride, then for these artists, often far from home, a new sense of belonging is built from scratch. With the help of friends and colleagues, a delicate alternative is built to the rough and tumble of daily experience. From the consoling comfort of an aging, well-worn sofa.