The Rise of Russian Rap
Music is inherently intertwined with both language, and consequently, culture. It draws on the broad corpus of its chosen language and plays with the most complex of colloquialisms and so any hopeful language learner, regardless of their chosen tongue, ought to immerse themselves in to the music of their language. In this regard, Russian might seem somewhat opaque, but as the meteoric rise of Russian rap demonstrates, it is increasingly permeating into western, English-speaking markets and opening a window for western listeners into Russian culture.
For a long while Russian music, at least from the perspective of the ignorant Westerner, kept to the confines of classic Europop and the prototypical classical, with a wealth of distinguished composers; Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Shostakovich to name a few.
Though, the Russian language is no stranger to Rock too, both Russian-speaking and not. Indeed, the 1991 Metallica festival ‘Monsters of Rock’ in Moscow, is to this day one of the largest concerts to have ever taken place, with a crowd of 1.6 million… Moreover, from the many Russian speakers I have met and interrogated on their music taste (a great ‘get to know you’ tactic) I can attest that Rock, Heavy Metal and Metallica in particular seem ever present at the forefront of Russian music culture. Similarly, the St Petersburg based pop-rockers, Leningrad, have had their fair share of success and have certainly made it to the Russian classrooms of the UK, by virtue of teachers-turned-fans.
However, when it comes to rap, it’s easy to assume that Russian is somewhat behind the English speaking world, as after all, the likes of Eminem continue to place high in the Russian charts. Is there such a thing as Russian rap? Simply put; yes, and I’d confidently say that the pinnacle of the Russian rap scene would rival any of the LA based outfits. Namely, there are two русские рэперы that occupy this position at the forefront of the genre: Jah Khalib and the infamous Skryptonite (Скриптонит). Interestingly, both Khalib (real name Bakhtiyar Mammadov) and Skryptonite (Adil Zhalelov) hail from Kazakhstan, but choose to write and perform in Russian.
Both Mammadov and Zhalelov boast over 2 million followers on their personal social media accounts respectively, so it’s safe to say they aren’t lacking in popularity. Listening to their tracks only confirms this. Though Khalib, the younger of the pair is extremely distinguished in his craft and boasts a musical education from the Kazakh National Conservatory, most listeners consider Skryptonite as the greatest русский рэпер. Myself included.
Skryptonite can best be described as prolific, obsessed with the craft of music making, he has dedicated himself to it since the age of 11 and is, in this respect, resemblant of the US greats like Eminem and 2Pac. What’s more, he is one of the very few Russian-speaking rappers that have broken into the English speaking markets, primarily owing to the hit success of his songs Это любовь and Положение. The first of these, Это любовь, boasts over 31 million streams on Spotify and the latter Положение has become somewhat of a global ‘TikTok’ phenomenon, as it is one of the most recognisable soundtracks from the app. Indeed, Skryptonite has earned himself over 1.3 million monthly listeners which, for a Russian language rapper, is a feat in itself.
Finally, Skryptonite’s vast oeuvre of work is not only catchy and evidential of technically complex lyricism, but listening to his music is a great way for anyone studying Russian to bolster their more ‘colloquial’ Russian vocabulary. That is to say, the exceedingly convoluted but ever inventive system of русский мат – the incredibly versatile system of Russian insults and swearing. As any language learner should know, swearing is a fundamental component of language and is something one should strive to understand as it inexorably elicits a deeper understanding of said language. Russian is no different, and for this Skryptonite is ideal.
Listening to music in Russian will deepen your understanding of the language, whatever the genre. Russian rap will undeniably do this and the meteoric rise of Russian rap only attests to its quality. Europop and Rock may seem more intelligible on the surface, and that is probably true, but anyone who calls themselves a fan of rap and its British denominations in particular, has to try Skryptonite. His lyrics are tough, but you won’t regret it.
Patrick, currently studying at Liden and Denz, Riga.