• U.S.

Rap Around the Globe

6 minute read
Jay Cocks

IN ITALY, ONE SINGER CALLS IT “REDIScovering the tribal rhythms of our ancestors.” In Brazil, another calls it “the ideological music of the street.” In Russia, yet another performer says it is simply “a new feeling, a new experience.” In France, they say le rap. In any language, it is a certifiable, global rhythm revolution.

Rap, which began as a fierce and proudly insular music of the American black underclass, is now possibly the most successful American export this side of the microchip, permeating, virtually dominating, worldwide youth culture. It is both a recreational vehicle and a form of social commentary: you can dance to it (one Mexican rap hit has a salsa kick) and think it over too (a German piece rails against neo-Nazi goons and a complacent, fat-cat government). The language may differ from place to place, even when it’s English, but the music is everywhere — in the air, on the streets, in the racks.

And on the backs. Rap is also a worldwide fashion commodity. Local variations of the basic American street outfit — baggy pants, pricey sneakers, hooded sweatshirts, flashes of jewelry — turn up everywhere, from dance clubs to fashion layouts. Yves Saint Laurent produces golden belt buckles with his logo writ large, Public Enemy-style, and Karl Lagerfeld loads his Chanel models with enough baubles to sink M.C. Hammer into the ground like a stake. Spike’s Joint in Tokyo (yes, that Spike) supplies Japanese trendies with film-related merchandise, from team jackets ($794) to the official Malcolm X baseball cap ($39) — the one indispensable part of any streetwise uniform, a kind of overseas emblem for the whole rap army.

Although Paris is still slave to what French rapper MC Solaar calls “the cult of the sneaker,” other rap accoutrements like gold jewelry are giving way to a more Afrocentric accent, notably batik fabrics and African coats of arms of the sort worn in America by Queen Latifah. The burgeoning dictionary of Franglais, moreover, includes not only le rap but a distinctively Gallic version of the standard salutation, “What’s up?” Szup? is what American ears & hear, though in Paris it sounds more like an appetizer course: “Soup?” The genre has spawned one break-out hit, Auteuil Neuilly Passy, in which a trio called Les Inconnus (the Unknowns) ridicules the well-to-do who live in those three ritzy parts of Paris. MC Solaar, who was born in Chad, easily concedes that “Parisian rap is pretty much a U.S. branch office. We copy everything, don’t we? We don’t even take a step back.”

In Japan, by contrast, fans step forward and jump in. Whether performed in Japanese or in phonetic English, rap has become a point of generational challenge. “My parents say no more disco, but I must go to the disco,” says Haruyo Kobayashi, 17. “When I listen to rap music I feel excited, and when I’m dancing, I feel free.”

Kobayashi can pick up on the latest sounds and steps, but learning attitude is a little trickier. Keichiro Suzuki is already a master. Says the truck driver, 20, who sports a snowy pair of Air Jordans: “I like black people and their music because they’re cool.” When Suzuki dances, he can also toss his dreadlocks, a style in which rap-blitzed kids can invest seven hours and from $324 to $1,215 at a hair salon. So kakko-ii, or cool, is it to be black that a lively business is booming in tanning salons with names like “Neo-Blackers” and mail-order skin-darkeners like “African Special” ($315 a one-month supply).

None of these perfervid cultural make-overs, however, has driven the music itself to any heights of personal expression. “Chemical material don’t you shudder?/ Something awful is happening we don’t suspect” is one kick-butt refrain from Takagi Kan’s Hip Hip Fork. “We can’t control MSG/ Our tongue has become paralyzed.” Takagi declares that his song is mainly “about MSG companies trying to make a lot of money in Asia,” though there seems little risk that he will get boiled as Ice T did in America over his Cop Killer track.

In Italy rap is more strongly rooted in ideology. Rappers use local dialects in their music and form free-flowing social groups called posses. Forte Prenestino, a former military installation outside Rome, has become a flourishing social center where audiences and performers can mix. And what is their rap? “We express the same message,” one posse member told an Italian magazine. “The disease of Italian society.”

The social centers in Italy are linked by a computer network that dispenses information about meeting places, concerts and technical matters concerning | instruments. “At first the groups represented the embryo of a new form of protest,” explains music critic Alberto Dentice. “But slowly they became technologically organized. Rap brought out the rhythm that is inside everyone. It’s homemade music within everyone’s reach.”

That reach may, in some countries, extend too far. In Brazil, where the more laid-back, samba-tinged rap of Rio is dueling for prominence with the harder- edged street anthems of Sao Paulo, hypercharged groups like Sons of the Ghetto decry the injustices of the social system. The most popular song is the work of an 18-year-old middle-class kid who calls himself Gabriel the Thinker. Only days after its release, the piece was the most requested number on a local radio station. Last month the government forced the station to take it off the air. Gabriel’s rap is called I’m Happy (I Killed the President), a fantasy in which he describes how he assassinated former President Fernando Collor with a bullet through the eye. They don’t cook with MSG in Rio.

It is the beat that prevails in Russia too, and the beat that unites. “Even if you don’t understand the lyrics, you feel the energy,” says Ivan Salmaxov, 22, who organizes “rave parties” in Moscow, where rappers from as far away as Minsk and St. Petersburg can dance, check out homegrown talent like MC Pavlov and listen to such heated songs as Bad Balance’s Children of Satan, about growing street violence. Says Bad Balance lead singer Chill Will: “People like rap because they can dance and listen to new information at the same time.”

Yet, for all its staying power, there are signs that rap’s primacy may already be getting its first serious challenge. The early warnings are flashing in England, which is second only to the U.S. as a hothouse for the care and nurturing of pop culture. Remember this name, and don’t get it confused with Ravi Shankar’s greatest hits: ragga. It sounds like reggae on mega-vitamins, bulked-up and bass-pummeled, and it has its origins both in the Caribbean and in an aggressive black awareness. The music is punchy, insinuating and prime for export. Those dreadlocks in Tokyo may stay stylish a while longer.

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