‘We speak of chains and sneakers’

The battle inside Russia’s rap scene

By Kara Fox, CNN
With Victoria Butenko, for CNN

MOSCOW — On the eve of Russia’s presidential election, thousands of Muscovites are gyrating in a packed concert hall; hands raised high, heads nodding to the beat.

They’ve come to see hip-hop quartet Kasta, who’ve hit the stage with an explosive set spanning a 20-plus-year catalogue. They drop the 2017 anthem “Skrepy” — a term President Vladimir Putin’s used in a speech about a large safety pin that could hold the nation together. The crowd knows the track well.

“We want bad roads, we want to be oppressed by others
We want to live not sensibly, but in debts, just to make an example
To our sworn enemies, to give them a slap
They build intrigues for everyone, but for us most of all”

Kasta performs "Skrepy" live in Moscow.

The following evening, at a victory rally for Putin in Manezhnaya Square, rapper Timati takes the stage for a one-song appearance before a crowd of 35,000.

He performs a love song, “Road to the Airport,” dedicated to the 8 million young people who voted for the first time. The song’s lyrics — “Is this love or just sex?” — speak to a romantic relationship that might have run its course.

Kasta members (from left): Hamil with MC and producer Vladi; Zmey; Shim; Hamil.

In the song’s video, Timati plays a man who leaves one girlfriend for another, giving her a diamond-encrusted ring before the pair drives off to an LA sunset in a white Rolls-Royce.

The two performances illustrate the deepening rift in the genre. Russian rap has always required a certain amount of reading between the lines, but old-school rappers say newer generations of artists are absorbed by flashy lifestyles.

A young concertgoer films the Kasta show on her phone.

Around 2,500 Kasta fans spanning all ages attended the Moscow gig.

In a basement recording studio in central Moscow, Ptaha, real name David Nuriev, is laying down bars about keeping it real.

Ptaha isn’t just an old-school hip-hop puritan lamenting the loss of the golden age of Russian rap — a genre that first found its footing after the Iron Curtain fell in 1991.

He says many of Russia’s newer rappers have forgone an interest in societal issues; they’re either too busy navel-gazing at a superficial reality that’s been packaged to them as Russia 2.0, or they’re afraid to speak out.

And it’s changing Russia’s rap landscape.

“They are so apolitical it gets to the point where they couldn’t care less. They are afraid to say anything in case this might be misinterpreted, misevaluated, misunderstood.”

Ptaha, 36, says he wants his music to bring awareness to problems he sees in society, but he does not support Putin or the opposition.

Although Russian rap emerged nearly a decade after it had taken off in America, it’s since become mainstream, having evolved from its US roots. From mid-2013 to 2017, the number of Russians listening to rap music doubled, with the genre now one of the most popular for under 30-year-olds, according to Russia’s Yandex Music. The big stars sell out stadiums in minutes and rap battles go viral within days.

Some of Russia’s most established rappers such as Kasta, Noize MC or Oxxxymiron have been widely praised for their intricate use of the Russian language — their tongue-twisting lyrics a Rubik’s Cube of euphemisms for listeners to unpack.

Last summer, one hyped battle video between Oxxxymiron and his opponent Slava KPSS accumulated 15 million views in three days, even causing a brief political fracas, with Russia’s main opposition leader Alexei Navalny celebrating the battle on Facebook as "postmodern poetry,” while a ruling-party parliamentarian used derogatory slang equating the rappers to low-class criminals. To date, it’s had 32.5 million views.

But Ptaha says those rappers are an anomaly and that the rap scene is dominated by newcomers who lack depth — their tunes a reflection of a society suffering from collective amnesia about the past.

Stereotypical tropes of cash, money and misogyny sell, but Ptaha says they sidestep the ugly parts of Russian society.

“We speak of chains and sneakers. We don’t talk about major things rap was meant for. We don’t speak about important things, about changes in our lives, which is getting worse while we are silent. At some point you’ll understand that you’ve got sneakers, golden chains and armed people around you, but you’ve simply become a target to be robbed and killed and there’s nothing you can do about it any more.”

“We are losing the components for which we loved rap to begin with,” he says.

Ptaha raps about achieving your goals regardless of what other people think.

In the mid-’90s, Russia’s rap scene mirrored the cultural changes of the post-Soviet era. Pioneering artists like Kasta used the medium to talk freely about a newly opened world, one where free sex, consumerism and partying were topics to explore. But they also rapped about society’s woes — an explosion of easily available drugs, the rise of neo-fascist gangs and an economy in ruins.

Ptaha experienced that turbulent time. As a teenager who fled war in his native Azerbaijan, he suffered homelessness, battled in frequent street wars and witnessed ordered murders go uninvestigated.

“Social moments appealed to me. In (US hip-hop outfit) Public Enemy I liked their fight, their protest. I liked Ice-T’s story.”

“As any child living in Russia, I was not a stranger to the gangster story… We listened to very harsh rap and tried to behave as gangsters.”

Ptaha in his studio.

Ptaha is one of few Russian rappers who’ve straddled two political systems during their lifetimes. Many younger rappers (and their audiences) have grown up in a free-market Russia.

Putin, who has dominated political life in Russia for 18 years, has been largely credited with forging a new national identity out of the ashes of Russia’s messy transition from communism to capitalism.

But along with those perceived gains, press freedoms tightened, LGBTQ rights are nearly non-existent and safeguards for women and minorities have fallen into the shadows. The state dominates the economy, and bureaucracy pervades many aspects of daily life.

Those political shifts have affected rap’s evolution as well.

In 2009, rap got Putin’s official stamp of approval following his appearance on the “Battle for Respect” TV show. After two terms as president, the then-prime minister applauded rappers for bringing societal issues to the forefront, saying that although the street rap was rough, they’d brought a certain “Russian charm” to it.

During Putin's 2012 presidential campaign, rapper Timati filmed a commercial in support of the candidate and was invited to Putin’s post-election party, where the two were photographed holding up a victory sign. Today, Timati is one of Russia’s best-known rappers, with several clothing and production companies.

Other, newer artists, like Ivan Dryomin, 20, who raps under the name Face, have used ultranationalist themes in their work. In the video for his song “I’m Dropping the West,” he rides on a large bear (a well-known Putin trope), humps the Empire State building, raps on a burning American flag and shuffles around the screen clad in Gucci clothing as Capital Hill burns in the background. In a February interview with Dazed magazine, Face said the video was meant to “exaggerate and mock Russian pseudo-patriotism.”

Management for both Timati and Face did not respond to CNN’s requests for interviews.

Andrey Nikitin, editor-in-chief of the Flow, an online publication about music, argues that rap generally hasn’t been a politicized genre in Russia and that rappers have always seized the best opportunity for themselves.

Take Timati, for example: “At certain points supporting Putin has become part of his image. But a couple of years before that, he had a track called ‘Questions’ where he critiqued him.”

“I don’t remember rappers speaking against the war (in Chechnya) or any other timely social issue. They would be just as successful making their statement in their neighbor’s kitchens — but on the other side, it’s the musing of young people who just simply don’t have mature political views.”

But Ivan Smekalin, 31, co-owner of the DiG record shop, says he recalls a time when rap was almost defined by social protest.

A young woman steps into the DiG vinyl shop in Moscow.

Ivan Smekalin sorts through old Russian hip hop albums on display.

Inside his shop in a trendy Moscow neighborhood, Smekalin plays an ‘90s record from Bad Balance, one of Russia’s hip-hop pioneers.

“You listen to the lyrics of these bands — and you can’t understand what they want to say. It’s a Russian poetic tradition — that’s why the lyrics are so difficult sometimes,” he says.

When rap moved to the mainstream in Russia there was a parallel movement to challenge those ideas, Smekalin says, but he doesn’t think it’s happening anymore.

Like Ptaka, Smekalin cites a generational divide.

Young people born into Putin’s Russia know nothing else. Life, compared to their parents’ generation, is far better.

“They just want to have money, spend money and all this consumerism stuff. They just want to have fun. Not only young rappers here but all the young people in their 20s – they just want to hang out and chill.”

DiG’s co-owners Ivan Smekalin (right) and Petr Chinavat.

A Bad Balance album from the '90s.

Those were turbulent times, he says.

“Political fiascos were rife and politics were raw — people could see these problems out in the open more easily. But now, Russian politics is different.”

People can’t see what’s happening because the propaganda has become more streamlined, Smekalin argues.

“You can think that everything is fine here — you don’t see garbage all over the street, there’s lots of cafes and parks. That is why I think lots of young people can’t catch what the government is doing — it’s polished.”

So is some of the rap.

At the Kasta concert, budding photographer Ilya Elin, a full decade younger than Smekalin, describes why the group’s old-school dedication to social lyricism is important to him. It’s shaped his worldview.

While packing up his camera equipment backstage, Elin explains that Kasta’s acerbic lyrics are an antidote to a political system that doesn’t speak to him.

Ilya Elin, 20, backstage at the Kasta concert in Moscow.

A young boy enjoys the gig from above.

Discouraged by the “inevitability” of Putin’s fourth term in office, Elin said he wouldn’t be voting the next day, going instead to photograph another band.

“There are many strange things happening in the country now and in one way or another they are disapproved by people. The best way to show that is through music, because there is very little that can be said through print media.

“Music is the loudspeaker.”

Darya Tarasova contributed to this report.

Production: Tal Yellin, Ivory Sherman and Byron Manley