The Evolution of Swedish Hip-Hop

april 24, 2011  |  Hiphop, Musik, Samhälle

Published on in April 2011

How Swedish hip-hop went from a peripheral subculture to a multi-faceted, cutting-edge music genre

Swedish hip-hop artists can have a good laugh over the rumored demise of the genre, spread by the media following the mainstream breakthrough of rap in the late 1990s. The scene has never been as thriving and multi-faceted as it is now in the spring of 2011, with entire book soundtracks taking on a hip-hop flavor (like futuristic dystopia ”Svenneskräp” with Ken as the audio book narrator). As the social gap between rich and poor grows in Sweden, hip-hop is becoming increasingly relevant for those people who feel excluded from Swedish society.

”The worse people feel, the more they need to express themselves. Some do that with knives, while others write songs,” says Timbuktu, one of Sweden’s biggest rap stars.

Fortunately, the rhythms and rhymes are flowing for the moment. Music journalist Ametist Azordegan, one of Swedish hip-hop’s foremost advocates and the presenter of Sveriges Radio’s program ”En kärleksattack på svensk hip-hop” (A love affair with Swedish hip-hop), thinks that the market is saturated, at least in terms of rappers.

”It was as though a dam burst in 2009.  My show airs once a week and I don’t have time to play all the new music. We have never had a year with as many releases as 2010.”

So hip-hop is just as big in Sweden as it is in most other countries. But does hip-hop fulfill a different purpose in Sweden than in the USA? What is unique about Swedish hip-hop?

In order to understand this, we have to rewind the tape back to the prologue year, 1979.  This was the year the song ”Record Pool Rap” went from advertising jingle to first Swedish rap single, and hip-hop culture started to emerge in SVT documentaries, films such as ”Flashdance” and Mats Nileskär’s radio show ”Soul Corner” (the predecessor to P3 Soul).

As with all subcultures, only a handful of people were “in-the-know”, taking the lead until the phenomenon exploded in Kungsträdgården park in the summer of 1983, with break-dancing and graffiti in the limelight.

The scene included Quincy Jones’ son QD3, Dele ”Rock Ski” Shekoni, and his break-dancing crew IC Rockers, filmmaker Tarik Saleh, and Cherno Jah, brother of singers Titiyo and Neneh Cherry.

Although it started in this central park, the vibe spread across the entire city. I was just seven years old, but I remember how a few fifteen-year-olds in Vasa park tried in vain to teach me how to break-dance.

I have an even stronger memory of how I felt when I first heard Break Machine’s ”Street Dance” in the spring of 1984 – suddenly every other song on the radio seemed completely uninteresting. I had my first ever injury when I actually crashed into the radiator dancing to hip-hop. I was bleeding so much that the taxi refused to take me to the hospital, and I realized there must be something special about this music that could make you lose your sense of time and space.

As producer Gordon Cyrus points out in Fredrik Strage’s classic hip-hop book, Microfonkåt (Turned on by the Microphone), many people from the generation that hung out in Kungsträdgården park had dark-skinned dads who had come from USA, the West Indies or Africa in the 1960s and 70s, and then separated from their Swedish mothers. For them, hip-hop was about finding male role models who looked like them.

This was also the case for Timbuktu, who believes that young people in the affluent neighborhood of Limhamn in Malmö have more in common with the Swedish pop singer Håkan Hellström than second-generation immigrant girls in the neighboring, troubled area of Kroksbäck, who identify with Beyoncé or Lil Wayne.

”I felt a connection with the people I saw in the music videos and on the album covers,” he recalls. “Everyone wants to be around people who are like them.”
The energy in Kungsträdgården park didn’t only attract like-minded hip-hop fans, but also bored and socially excluded ”kickers”, who were more interested in kicking people than in break-dancing.

This period was portrayed in the 1987 cult film ”Stockholmsnatt” (Stockholm Night), where the park’s foremost Bruce Lee-wannabe Paolo Roberto (aka ”The King of Kungsan”) – today a cookbook author and TV star – started his career, along with many others. In August 1987, tensions exploded into riots between police and youth gangs. Around 1000 kickers, hip-hop fans and punks smashed windows, threw fire bombs and overturned cars. One hundred and fifty people were arrested.

The late 1980s brought a split between graffiti artists and other hip-hop fans. This era also saw the release of the first rap song in Swedish, MC Tim’s ”Jag är def” (I am def), which gave Swedish rap a bad reputation for a long time, and was probably part of the reason why the trio Just D was never accepted as a real hip-hop band by the subculture’s more dedicated fans.

Instead, it was record label Timebomb that had more credibility, with its English-speaking acts like Sons of Soul (ADL, Swingfly) and the Infinite Mass EP ”Da Black Mass” in 1993, inspiring artists like Petter, Eye N’I and Feven and igniting the hip-hop flames that would engulf Sweden five years later.

”Everyone was in some way on the fringe of Infinite Mass. They were the first ones of that generation to land a record deal and show that it was possible. Still, our big idols were the Timebomb Gang and Sons of Soul. Without them, our generation would never have been able to do what we did,” says Henrik ”Eye N’ I” Blomqvist, who is currently one half of the headstrong duo PH3 and producer of ”En kärleksattack på svensk hip-hop”.

Another important precursor to the coming explosion was the Latin Kings, who with their 1994 debut ”Välkommen till förorten” (Welcome to the suburbs) made rapping in Swedish respectable – despite the halting rhymes and off-key singing. With their single ”Pass micken” (Pass the mic) from 1997 album I skuggan av betongen (In the Shadow of the Concrete), they heralded the darker tones that would dominate the late 1990s. But the leader of this new wave was not Dogge or Ayo, another Swedish language rapper.

No, it was Petter Alexis from the Södermalm neighborhood, whose crew Natural Bond (Pee-Wee, Thomas Rusiak, DJ Sleepy, DJ Taro) rose from the entourage of the mid-90s hip-hop act Sherlock. Why? Of course it is easy to speculate that his ethnicity and well-known Södermalm persona helped considering the fact that mass audiences in Europe and the US are often more receptive to new subcultures when they are introduced by a white, or at least light-skinned, artist (Elvis, Bob Marley, Eminem). Yet, the debut also distinguished itself from the competition with its top quality production and pop-like refrains.

With his status as Swedish hip-hop’s original pioneer, Petter can pretty much do whatever he wants and still maintain his credibility. For example, he can take part in an entire season of ”Så mycket bättre” (So much better) – a family-friendly, Saturday evening music show, which most rap fans wouldn’t be caught dead watching. Ametist Azordegan even thinks that Petter’s contribution to the program constituted yet another milestone for Swedish hip-hop.

”It has allowed rap to enter the innermost spaces of the Swedish psyche and helped people to see it as an art form that can be just as complicated as opera,” she says.

Petter’s success with his 1998 debut ”Mitt sjätte sinne” (My sixth sense) didn’t just pave the way for Natural Bond companions Eye N’ I and Thomas Rusiak, nor Ken, Blues and Ayo, but also for a pair of new female rappers. For a while, the two stars Feven and Melinda Wrede shone bright in parallel, which hadn’t happened since the Leila K and Neneh Cherry era of 1989/90.

There was the charmingly bored rap trio Midi, Maxi and Efti, who streaked by in 1991, but they were one group and not three individual artists. In the past ten years, we have never seen more than one female star at a time, whether their names were Ayesha or Mapei.

According to Timbuktu, Mapei and veteran ADL are the two greatest traditional MCs ever to come out of Sweden. The type that can go up on stage at any time and both entertain and impress everyone in the audience.

”Just like Lauryn Hill, Mapei wasn’t a female MC, but just an MC. When she arrived at a party hosted by Q-Tip in New York, he immediately announced, ‘Mapei’s in the house’ and several well-known rappers came forward to greet her,” he remembers.

For a while, Mapei had almost messianic status and many hip-hop artists, not least female ones, still mourn her mysterious disappearance from the scene. This clearly illustrates the need for more role models – and new gender roles. Ametist Azordegan, who is flooded with new Swedish hip-hop each week, sees a clear difference in self-confidence.

”Guys send unfinished songs to me, call up and try to rap on the telephone, or tell me how they are JUST ABOUT to do a song, while girls with two fully mixed songs will first set up a website, then write a press release, then wonder if they’re good enough. Simply put, guys fire all their shots and hope that they hit something, while girls take aim and plan their shots,” she says.

Female rappers are under threat of extinction in Sweden. Which also explains why the media are all over the few that turn up, until they are saddled with impossible expectations.

In other respects, the media has always had a complicated relationship with Swedish hip-hop. While the ’98 wave of rap was at its peak, the press rated its strength, relevance and hipness, but the moment interest started to wane, it was suddenly declared dead.

The tone became increasingly disparaging and fewer artists were able to breach the barriers of the media’s culture editors, if they weren’t political, female or controversial.

”The fact that a hip-hop record couldn’t be nominated as album of the year, when there are tons of other sounds out there, says a lot about the media climate. Regardless of how big hip-hop gets, it will always be seen as exotic in rock-loving Sweden,” establishes Eye N’ I.

Ironically, life in the media shadow has helped Swedish hip-hop to silently grow and develop into groundbreaking Nordic digital-funk hybrids, such as skweee.

”Sweden is in a good position as well, since we are so small. Hip-hop is not as established here as it is in France, for example. It has shorter roots, and that makes it more flexible and less respectful, more open to other influences,” says Ametist Azordegan.

The dominant influence since 2007 has been electronic music. A trend that was launched by Adam Tensta and names like Maskinen and Lazee, as well as the Eurodisco brothers everyone loves to hate, Lorentz and M. Sakarias. It’s a new direction that is reminiscent of hip-hop’s original ability to cross musical borders. And it is probably more in line with the musical preferences of certain downtown newspaper editors.

”Electro’s impact on Swedish hip-hop is reminiscent of the early 1980s in the US, when hip-hop was more all-embracing and started to hit the post-punk clubs and art house audiences. There is a little bit of that vibe in today’s hipster thing, where genres start to loosen up, people rap to unexpected beats, and the image of what a hip-hop artist should look like keeps changing,” says Eye N’ I.

Undeniably. Alexis Weak filled an entire ICA grocery store, including the shopping carts, with art school students for his video ”Inne på klubben” (Inside the club), and Adam Tensta is just as likely to appear in a knitted sweater before a string quartet at the Stockholm Concert Hall as rocking a Swedish folk costume as an anti-racist statement.

So far, electro-rap has not received any more publicity than previous forms. Maybe it might help if the rappers fought more with each other – the media always loves a conflict. But journalists have very little to dig up – the solidarity between Swedish hip-hop artists is striking – and goes beyond career-boosting featurings.

”The friendly, unifying vibe comes straight down the line from the ‘98 generation,” says Eye N’I.  We stuck together to strengthen the subculture. I can imagine that there’s a lot of squabbling within the different crews about who should be up next, but from the outside it looks like one big family.”

It’s a family with a growing number of black sheep. Someone has to step up to replace bad-boy godfather Ken Ring, who started spending more and more time coaching his soccer team C.R.A.C.K. United in Kenya. Who belongs to this group is often a matter of perspective. The police have several times stopped concerts with the up-and-coming hiphop/reggae act Labyrint, especially when award-winning conscious rapper Carlito or gangster rap act Kartellen have been part of the show.

The duo Stockholmssyndromet has a different approach.  They don’t understand the point of being a ”raptivist”, spitting out rhymes under the heading ”schmutzrap” (dirty rap) about girls who give good head, take it up the butt and have killer thighs.

Their style takes hip-hop both forwards and backwards with the combination of a sometimes medieval view of women and innovative beats, created by Skizz (aka Funkenteller) from the lauded hip-hop duo Up Hygh. Nevertheless they are one of the most promising acts to appear in the last two years, along with Mohammed Ali.

An equally important producer is Markus ”Mackan” Price from the Safe House Staff collective (formerly Basutbudet and Fattaru), who have also brought new life to Swedish hip-hop by introducing genres like ghettotech and skweee – not to mention pretty unsubtle pick-up lines like ”Is there room for a nigger?”

Historically, the Swedish hip-hop sound has been dominated by classic New York boombap (prominent drums with a scaled-back soundscape) and flavored with everything from Latin American influences (The Latin Kings, Advance Patrol) to Arabic ones (Medina).

The Salazar Brothers, star producers and remnants of the Latin Kings, have long been vital to the Swedish hip-hop sound, its radio presence and visibility, and they still play a key role in contrast to their peers by daring to invest in new names. Thanks to them, we now enjoy rhymes from major talents like the Ayla Collective (Carlito, Stor, Mohammed Ali) and Pato Pooh.

Today, the genre covers everything from spoken word (Alexis Weak, Dida) and tropical bass (Spoek Mathambo and Gnucci Banana) to the Django Reinhart-beats (Movits!) from northern Sweden, as well as electro-rock (Adam Tensta) and gangster rap (Kartellen).

Eye’n’I confirms that many of the rules and barriers that existed when hip-hop still belonged to the underground disappeared when it became part of the mainstream. As a result, today’s young hip-hop artists have a much more open perspective than his generation.

”Back then it was about defending your subculture to the last man. That attitude is gone now. These days there’s less sampling, which I miss. Through hip-hop I discovered soul and gospel, but there is a generation gap. If you are out DJing, some people will be offended if you drop James Brown. They don’t see the line from him to Lil Wayne,” he says.

On the other hand, kids born in the 1980s and 1990s grew up with a much more global range of music in comparison to the generation before them that mostly tried to recreate an American sound.  Which means that rap songs in Swedish can integrate Portuguese, French, Farsi, Arabic and Spanish.

In terms of lyrics, the rhymes often sound possessed by Yoda – whether it be on Södermalm island in Stockholm or in the suburbs. In other words, sentences with a word order that would make most Swedish teachers cry. There is currently no Swedish equivalent to MC Solaar (the French rapper who in the early 1990s built bridges between high culture and street culture) who can dry their tears using literary references.

However, rap poets such as Alexis Weak can now be nominated as Lyricist of the Year by prestigious Swedish music magazines.

Hip-hop’s renaissance coincides with the right-wing government’s radical dismantling of the Swedish welfare state, increased socio-economic inequality and the entry of the racist Swedish Democratic Party into the Swedish parliament. From a hip-hop perspective, these major social changes have been met with two opposing reactions: partying and pot-filled nihilism, or politicization.

”Swedish political rap used to be much less explicit, but today it’s easier to see what’s wrong out there: The conservative alliance, the Swedish Democrats, the police. Our government encourages us not to think about other people, but they don’t want to accept responsibility for the social rifts. Less affluent people are not given as much consideration and young people have a burning desire to be seen and heard,” remarks Timbuktu.

Hip-hop has never been needed in Sweden as much as it is now, in its classical role as a meeting place for kids from different backgrounds, as a loudspeaker for those without a voice, and as a creative alternative to criminality and exclusion.

”The fact that the distinguished author Jonas Hassen Khemiri started as a rapper is great, I think. Hip-hop struck a chord in the hearts, minds and dreams of many young people. It somehow proves that we’ve been involved in something really big,” says Timbuktu.

Eye N’I thinks hip-hop was destined to spread across the world with its universal and limitless collage technique. He also believes Swedish hip-hop to be characterized mostly by its melancholy. However, his colleague Ametist Azordegan argues that it is the innovation started by Adam Tensta that will be its distinguishing mark.

”The electro-sound is a global trend in hip-hop, and Adam Tensta was at the forefront.

There is a great spirit of innovation and creativity here, which has started to encourage artists in the USA look to Scandinavia.”

She also believes that record companies will start to look more at how hip-hop spreads and gains visibility.

”There is no other genre that does it in quite this way. It is light years ahead of the record companies, and it will continue to bloom, flex its muscles and become more independent. Hip-hop has everything. Excellent quality, constant new material, strength and beauty.”

Nanushka Yeaman




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