Culture

“Big in Russia” is the new “Big in Japan”

How American underground rappers are finding unexpected resonance in the Post-Soviet Bloc.
By Lawrence Neil
Culture

The brave new world of the Russian rap internet

Eastern Europe’s biggest social network is helping the rappers you’ll be listening to tomorrow blow up today.

There are certain steps that buzzing rappers take to make it big these days. They start out playing small shows on the cheap, maybe scratching their way onto a few festival sidestages. They slather the internet with free mixtapes and loosie singles that hopefully find their way onto tastemaking music sites. These hopefully evolve into more coverage on bigger sites, more music that’s still technically free but could rack up enough Spotify streams to add up to a satisfying check, and more shows for even more money. It’s a bit like rolling a boulder up a hill wearing a blindfold. You never know when or even if you’re going to reach the top, but once you do, you tend to pick up speed quickly.

The Canadian rapper Night Lovell seems to have spent the past couple of years building up to that inflection point. He’s been featured in major rap publications, performed as an opener for artists with thousands of fans, and landed an interview on No Jumper — an influential underground hip-hop podcast once referred to by the New York Times as “the Paris Review of the face-tattoo set” — which racked up a quarter million views. He’s secured a spot on marquee rap festival Rolling Loud’s lineup in May. All signs point to 2018 being Night Lovell’s breakout year.

But in the Post-Soviet Bloc, Night Lovell has been the man.

By early 2017, a then-19-year-old Lovell had toured Eastern Europe twice, including a marathon jaunt in the spring that caught him doing shows in Estonia, Latvia, Belarus, and five Russian cities: Moscow, St. Petersburg, Yekaterinburg, Samara, and Novosibirsk, where he celebrated by swinging from the balcony of a packed club.

To the casual American rap fan, Night Lovell’s Russian popularity seems beyond random. But Russia’s young rap fans have constructed their own shadow rap ecosystem, skirting many of the power brokers that guide taste and collect income for artists in the states.

If there’s a key to Lovell’s popularity, it probably has to do with his popularity on VK, Russia’s Facebook equivalent, where his follower count of 33,000 surpasses that of, say, Migos, who despite topping charts in America, only have about 30,000 fans on the site.

“It’s all about the group’s VK following, how much of their audio exists on VK. You can check the statistics about the artists, then decide if people are going to come [to their shows],” says Boris Vilkovysky, a Moscow-based blogger who started the thriving Fast Food Music platform in 2014. He adds, “An artist can be popular in the USA, but people in Russia might not be interested in them.”

This popularity asymmetry can be jarring. Take someone like J. Cole. In America, the North Carolina MC has Grammy nominations, four number-one albums, and packs venues wherever he pleases. But on VK? Nyet. Cole’s page has 11,000 followers, about the same as that of Memphis death-rapper Xavier Wulf, who tours the States in small clubs and is not signed to a major label.

If you’re reading this outside of the Eastern Bloc, chances are you’ve never heard of VK. Here’s a quick rundown: it’s the world’s tenth most popular website, the most popular in Russia (and among the top five in Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan), and, along with serving a whole bunch of other purposes, acts as a breeding ground for a new generation of Cyrillic hypebeasts who drive the popularity of left field American artists. (It’s also controlled by Putin crony Alisher Usmanov, but that’s a whole different story.) Perhaps most essential for cultural incubation and sharing, VK has seamlessly integrated video and music streaming platforms, taking full advantage of Russia’s lax copyright restrictions. VK ends up facilitating a Limewire-era free-for-all — just search for an artist or track on the site, and hundreds of songs pop up to stream for free.

“We don’t have a fixed, traditional understanding of American rap. We like to hear and see something new.”
Natalia Brindiukova

“VK is the most important social network for young people in Russia,” says Natalia Brindiukova, a 25-year-old translator from Volgograd. “It’s our source of information.” Natalia runs VK accounts for viral American rappers Lil Xan and Tekashi 6ix9ine, with whom she has no official affiliation. Each page has about 30,000 followers.

“Russian people don’t pay for music or movies, almost never,” says Brindiukova, “People cannot understand why they should pay for it if they can download it from the internet.”

“They want to follow artists they like, but want to follow them on VK – not Twitter or Instagram,” says Vilkovysky. His Fast Food Music platform trawls through American social media and flips music, photos, and translations to its 300,000 VK followers. Vilkovysky believes that Russia’s VK fan pages fall in line with hip-hop’s DIY ethos. “Smaller artists — say, Night Lovell — don’t create official pages, so fans are the only ones who can create it. Rap is the most independent genre of all time so fans do what they like, just like rappers do what they like — and I think that’s cool.”

Accordingly, VK fan accounts end up wielding tremendous power, sometimes serving as an artist’s only representation in the world’s fifth largest economy. The managers of these accounts don’t take it lightly.

“Lovell is not a project for making money,” says Alexander Kononenko, the 18-year-old from Chelyabinsk who runs Night Lovell’s page, “Lovell is a state of mind.” The page is peppered almost daily with music uploads, Russian-dubbed interviews, and Lovell-themed memes that rack up hundreds of likes and dozens of comments. When I ask if he’d ever cede control of the account to Night Lovell himself, he says he hasn’t considered it too much, but he’d be open to doing so, “If he’s a good man.”

A Cyrillic Valentine’s meme posted on the Night Lovell VK fan page maintained by Alexander Kononenko

A Cyrillic Valentine’s meme posted on the Night Lovell VK fan page maintained by Alexander Kononenko

Brindiukova, the translator and administrator of Lil Xan’s and 6ix9ine’s accounts, argues that the cultural and language barriers make the job of a well-run fan account even more vital. “[Since] many people don’t know English, they can’t verify if information is true or not,” she tells me. “Thus, it is important to treat your page as a job.”

“These fan account kids are the ones who are gonna transform into legitimate modern hip-hop curators and tastemakers,” says Adam Grandmaison, host of the No Jumper podcast. “At some point that kid is gonna get sick of having just a fan page and is going to try to start rapping, start a brand, something.” Sure enough, Boris Vilkovysky, the 20-something Muscovite who started Fast Food Music from his laptop, says he plans to use his audience to start booking shows himself.

Enterprising American artists have just started to seek out VK as a legitimate platform. Atlantic-signed Lil Skies selfie-videoed an introduction to his official VK page, and the Buffalo rapper Bill $aber signed up with a personal page.

“I searched my name one day and saw that I had a VK fan page that was doing better numbers than my Facebook,” says $aber via Twitter DM. “I made [a personal page] with the hopes that the Russian fanbase would appreciate it, and they were excited.” He frequently interacts with his VK fanbase, and has dropped hints that he’ll be touring in Russia soon.

Buffalo rapper Bill $aber posts a Russian meme of himself on his VK page.

Buffalo rapper Bill $aber posts a Russian meme of himself on his VK page.

There’s a deep, unexpected resonance between this new brand of American internet rappers and a strata of Russian youth, almost an internet-addled update of a phenomenon that occurred in the 1980s. As the documentarian Adam Curtis wrote a few years ago, Soviet youth in the 80s found themselves drawn to the DNA of a New York punk scene that rebuffed western capitalism to help cope with the corrupted version of state communism they’d grown up with.

“The mood of the generation who had turned away from politics and ideology now became much harder, cynical and skeptical,” Curtis writes, “A new avant-garde underground grew up in Leningrad and Moscow who turned to culture, above all music, as a way of expressing the absurdity of their society, something that they believed politics was incapable of doing.”

Alexander Kononenko, Night Lovell’s teenage VK account manager, echos this sense of alienation today. “I do not watch news, I do not read newspapers,” he says. “It seems to me that we are far from all these political games.”

Улыбаюсь в России MOSCOW TONIGHT @ GOROD

A post shared by Ghostemane (@ghostemane) on

Grandmaison, who visited Russia during his days as a member of the BMX scene, says, “There’s a certain negativity that you can find in a lot of these dudes’ music that probably appeals to Russians’ bleak outlook. The thing I was struck by when I went to Russia was here’s this gigantic country where a lot of people in the metropolitan areas want to get the fuck out.”

“An artist like Ghostemane probably has a lot more in common with a typical Russian fan [than] 50 Cent,” he adds, referring to the face-tattooed Floridian who was in metal bands before turning to rapping.

With rap’s relatively shallow roots in Russia, there are lower barriers to entry for atypical, genre-bucking artists, especially if their aesthetic resonates with some political or social identity. “We don’t have a fixed, traditional understanding of American rap, like American people have,” Brindiukova says, “We like to hear and see something new.”

The St. Petersburg-based Booking Machine concert promoter has stepped up to capitalize on this desire for “something new.” Co-helmed by the Russian-born, Oxford-educated battle rapper Oxxxymiron, Booking Machine has recently cornered the Eastern European market in touring stars of the gritty subgenre, booking across the continent and dozens of Russian cities – though it’s a recent shift for them as well. Booking Machine began as a metal and industrial promoter and, like these genres themselves, have evolved relatively smoothly along the narrowing gradient from aggressive forms of rock to rap. They’ve doubled down on this niche, booking tours for artists such as the aforementioned Ghostemane and Night Lovell, as well as Bones, a Michigan fast-rapper whose style is rooted in Detroit’s post-industrial malaise, and the New Orleans hell-rappers $uicideboy$.

DeadBoyTour:St.Petersburg VideoBy @adetue

A post shared by BONES (@teamseshbones) on

For Brindiukova, who previously listened mostly to rock before gravitating towards this new brand of rap, this assessment rings deeply true on many fronts.

“Everyone who has eyes — they want to leave,” she says, noting that a lack of upward mobility and a stigma around mental health weighs heavily among her peer group. “People like negativity [in these artists] because you’re always thinking about how to find a job, how to find money, who to be in life, how to find a way out of this, and then you return home, play Night Lovell or Lil Peep, and hear this deep sound that helps you to forget about real life, but at the same time, reflect on your problems.”

Unauthorized social media accounts, a deep Russian obsession with the American underbelly, a couple of money-minded entrepreneurs making some scratch, and a sinister, bass-heavy soundtrack to it all? In today’s political moment, it’s easy to assume some label-subverting, culture-hacking conspiracy connects these unforeseen bedfellows. But the truth is simpler, bittersweet, and all-too familiar: disaffected young people with internet connections, finding resonance and community across language and borders any way they know how.

Correction: After this story was published, Booking Machine reached out to clarify that they are a St. Petersburg-based concert promoter. An earlier version of this story misidentified Booking Machine as a Moscow-based concert promoter and label.

Lawrence Neil is a writer living in Cleveland.
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