Published January 19, 2016
In the video for “Brennum allt,” Úlfur Úlfur duo Arnar Freyr and Helgi Sæmundur roll through the suburbs of Reykjavik, spitting rapid-fire lyrics on horseback and chilling in the countryside like a champs. (Meanwhile guest emcee Kött Grá Pje chills with three oversized Saint Bernards and visits a dog show, because why not?) Coupled with the song’s opening salvo, a line that roughly translates to “I’m alone in the world,” it might be easy to assign the single a glass-half full optimism, making it a tribute to sticking it to the man, or perhaps a musical encouragement to let one’s freak flag fly.
“The [opening] lyric is one of the oldest ones on the album, written more then three years ago,” explains Arnar. “I remember the day. I got up on the wrong side of the bed, mad at everyone, myself included, disgusted with consumerism and individualism. ‘The rat race,’ if you will. Then I went to the gym to let out some steam and wrote the lyric on my phone between sets.”
It’s a matter-of-fact, slow-burning “us against them” mentality that’s carried the band along in their career so far. Although they’ve been writing together for over a decade—by their count, thirteen years on five separate projects—‘Tvær plánetur’ (released in 2015) is the duo’s first official full-length. It’s not an accident they reference the idea of meeting in orbit. To hear Arnar tell it, that’s exactly what happened.
“We don’t take ourselves too seriously but I think Úlfur Úlfur was our attempt to make serious art for the first time, rather than just ‘do something’ like the years before,” he notes of the protracted gestation time.
Nördic Deåth Röw
The album is heavy with bass and drum, featuring melodic washes of guitar and vocals. Even though they wouldn’t be completely out of place on Death Row’s roster (or at least on a Nordic arm of the iconic label), it also features rich melodies and intricate beats, as though Úlfur Úlfur are bound and determine to push the sides of the rap box out just a bit farther—or blow them out completely.
That new-school/old-school vibe, says Arnar, can be traced back to his earliest days as a hip-hop fan. Never mind the fact Iceland doesn’t exactly boast a booming gangster population—and if there’s any sort of East Coast/West Coast rivalry the players are mum on the matter. The MC’s relationship with 2Pac and Snoop Dogg began early. (“I started listening to it as a kid for the simple reason that is was the coolest thing I had ever experienced,” he notes. “It still is!”) And sure, he even identified with them back in the days when he was a burgeoning big fish in a pond of some 2,500 inhabitants, the village of Sauðárkrókur. But not exactly in the way one might expect.
“Being cool and expressing yourself is international so it never hindered me that I was just a country boy in Northern Iceland,” Arnar reveals. “My ‘difference’ was the need to make some kind of art no matter what. I wanted to write and draw, make some motherfucking music; I wanted to express myself. Sauðárkrókur is a small town and I felt there was little foundation for a guy like me. Not much support, but that just made everything I did more punk and I liked that. Punk is good. Today I still struggle with this, though, the voice within me that tells me I’m different like it’s a bad thing, that I need to grow up and start behaving. Fuck that shit! Being different, having an explicit identity, is the best thing ever and the mental struggle just makes it more satisfying.”
Pissing off conservative nationalists is always fun
Arnar makes it clear that his music isn’t born of an attempt to ape influences. He can only rep himself—as if it wasn’t 100% clear by the fact Úlfur Úlfur rap exclusively in Icelandic. He handles the obvious question (why?) with characteristic grace. After all, it might still be an important aspect to ask about, but it’s one that has to be addressed less and less these days.
“It has gradually increased, thankfully,” he says, noting that there are plenty of hip-hop acts busy reclaiming the national language. “Icelandic is stiff and most words are longer than their counterparts in English. Being able to bend the language opens new dimensions, really, and it pisses off conservative nationalists, which is always fun.”
He jokes about the “sprinkle of depression” that comes with Icelandic life, a sentiment that anyone who has survived a Nordic winter is likely to agree with. Much of the band’s music is incredibly expository regarding this topic. (“‘Tvær plánetur’ was very personal, so personal that we actually thought that it would be ‘too much,’ he notes. “But in retrospect it was one of its biggest strengths.”) But overall, Arnar describes himself as content.
A million dollars and a yacht
Really content, to be correct. He’s just finished a business degree from University of Iceland. The group has forged ahead writing new songs. (He obliquely mentions that they have “big goals for the New Year” but declines to say more on the topic.) To quote one of Úlfur Úlfur’s own heavily translated lines, “I don’t want for anything.”
“I’m a meek man, happy with what I got,” he confirms. “I feel like I’ve worked hard in the past, and being where I am today is great. Of course I want more, I’m still hungry—that is what drives me, but yeah, I don’t really lack anything even though I wouldn’t turn down a million dollars and a yacht. You know, the difference between needs and wants.”
Thoughtful? Well, of course. At that observation, Arnar veers slightly off course, lest one get the idea that Úlfur Úlfur is strictly about taking a swim in the deepest philosophical wells. He points to the hook of their tune “Tarantúlur,” as proof that he and his bandmate are more than adept at letting their hair down. After all, not everything in life has to be a metaphor.
“Wolf wolf tarantula/Flies like skimming tongues/you and I and the full moon, just lie and hugging, well-baked and soft.”
“It’s a perfect example of saying something for the simple fact that it’s cool and it rhymes,” he says of the hook (which indeed rhymes in Icelandic). “But it inevitably paints a big picture in the mind of the listener, wolves and tarantulas, somehow combined in one grotesque animal.”
At this, Arnar laughs.
“Holy shit! That’s me.”
Look! It’s The Winners Of Reykjavík Grapevine’s 2016 Music Awards
How often does an event have to be repeated to warrant tradition status? If the number is four, we present to you the on-going tradition of the Reykjavík Grapevine Music Awards! Since its first ever edition, music journalism has always been one of the cornerstones of The Reykjavík Grapevine media empire and the vibrant Icelandic music scene an endless source of inspiration, debate, and drunken dancing among our writers and staff throughout the years.
MEET THE NWOIHH!
The holidays are here. Your relatives are annoying. Gifts are expensive. We all need something to kick the edge. Why not try some fresh new Icelandic hip-hop? Yes, the world of Icelandic hip hop is rich and varied. From classics such as “Bent nálgast” (Google Translate: “Bent Access”) to the iconic “Elskum þessar mellur” (Google Translate: Love that’s girls), there’s so much here to explore, especially now that 2015 has brought a wide array of fresh-faced contenders into the mix, slinging their own, unique take on the genre. So put your headphones on, turn your volume—wolume—up, and get ready to meet the New Wave Of Icelandic Hip Hop (NWOIHH)!