Since the Bolsheviks ousted Russian aristocrats from their Country estates to the townhouses of London in the early 20th Century, the ties between the motherland and our capital have been extensive and complex. Much has been made of this phenomenon, most recently in the Russian-language comedy series Londongrad, which follows the antics of a group of eccentric Russian expats through the city. Less is known, however, of a recent cultural exchange inspired by a blossoming, and somewhat unexpected, Russian grime scene.
At the forefront of the movement is Miron Fyodorov, stage name Oxxxymiron, a St Petersburg born, Slough raised, Oxford graduate whose style has been largely inspired by his undefinable national identity. Unlike most of the grime artists in Russia, Fyodorov spent 4 years living in a bedsit in Canning Town — so his interest in Grime is more straightforward than some of his contemporaries — but despite a perfect command of English he chooses to rap in his mother tongue. His academic focus at Oxford was pre-Chaucerian English and a knowledge of linguistics is evident in his music. One particularly entertaining example is his 2011 single Russki Cockney which introduces a Russian listener to the essentials of London slang; including ‘innit’, ‘sket’ and ‘council estate nutter’ — but as one of Russia’s top rappers, Oxxxymiron is not to be mocked. His latest album, Gorgorod released on free download in November of last year, had to be taken offline after a day and sold on ITunes due to the huge level of demand.
His rap battle with Riga-based Johnnyboy kick started the latest season of VERSUS which is the highest tier of Russian rap battle leagues — another phenomenon sweeping the nation — and received a million views in the first day. Much of his success can be traced online: the Russian Grime scene is characterised by the use of forums and social media platforms such as VKontakte and Twitter — most of the artists are unavailable on Spotify or ITunes. There’s a DIY aesthetic associated with these performers, particularly those which are lesser known, whether by necessity or design it recalls the early steps of British grime and garage. This music video by Redo, for instance shows him walking around Moscow looking menacingly into the fuzzy lo fi camera. In a twist of events it also recalls the old, but gold, music video for Mr Malloy’s Budu Pogybat Molodym.
Redo is certainly another one to watch. He’s earnt his colours in (rap) battle and though his back catalogue is thus far pretty limited he is responsible for one half of a sick Grime clash with Petersburg rapper Obladaet — most famous for his reworking of Drake’s 0 to 100; a cheeky track which eradicates any trace of Drake in favour of Obladaet’s fast paced Russian flow and features a black and white, somewhat threatening video of the artist wandering through an urban wasteland. Obladaet also has the distinction of a shout out from ya boi Skepta, who once tweeted: ‘This guy is on a Russian grime ting. Straight up’ — something which for me — quite bizarrely — seemed to legitimise the whole movement.
Listening to this music from my desk in North London, I find myself somewhat fraught with confusion and uncertainty. It’s hard to understand how a British grime flow is understood by the non-native speaker let alone culturally embraced. It’s also a very specific and insular genre — work from artists that originate from any further than the M25 are frequently overlooked. As is so often the case with Russian culture, we are met with a pleasing dissonance between the familiar and the alien. Listening to a grime inspired track with a fluent Russian flow that includes London-centric references and vocabulary is a brain melting experience. But a great one.
There are countless examples of artists and fans appropriating London slang to lend them some kind of ‘grimey vibe’ and this can have some pretty funny consequences for the British listener but the hilarity is mingled with genuine pride. It occurred to me that the love we have of Russian culture — the art, literature and cinema of the New East — is reciprocated.
This track is a fab example of cultural exchange: not necessarily seamless but not jarring either. It’s a collaboration between Obladaet — whose verse is entirely in Russian — Moscow based rapper I1 — who employs his characteristic mishmash of Russian and accented English — and Footsie of Newham Generals fame — who is actually from Newham. It’s nice to see these rappers getting acknowledged outside of Russia, it seems as though music of any genre written in a language that isn’t English gets largely overlooked by the British mainstream. And that’s a shame.
What is rather crudely striking about this Russian Grime crowd — especially to one so familiar with Western hip hop — is the overwhelming whiteness of it. Presumably this is a question of demography rather than exclusion because afro-Russians make up a tiny 0.03 % of the population. Accusations of cultural appropriation are inevitable and wholly justified. What makes the movement so fascinating though, is that it constitutes not just a cultural exchange but a tribute to the multiculturalism which makes our own capital so inspiring. For a country often characterised by the Western media as separate and isolationist, this can only be a good thing.
If you’re interested in listening to some of the artists mentioned in this article — and others of a similar ilk — Petersburg producer Vinnie Grapes mixed a pretty fab showcase that’s available on his soundcloud:
Its 15 minutes of pure grimey goodness.