Once a year, we at Grapevine honour the best and brightest of the Icelandic music scene by giving out awards to some of the artists who light up our lives on the little subarctic island. The Band To Remember award goes to pioneering hip hop outfit Subterranean. You’re invited to join us for some drinks, laughs, and super special live performances from some of the winners, at Húrra on January 5th.
In 1997, Icelandic hip hop was decidedly underground, with a number of dedicated heads waiting patiently for their weekly dose from radio DJ Robbi Chronic. The aptly named Subterranean, a group of then-17-year olds, were among the first rap acts to break through with their seminal album ‘Central Magnetizm.’
“At the time, everyone was in their own corner, sneakily listening to hip hop,” says band member Ragna Kjartansdóttir, aka Cell 7. “There was a lot of passion for the genre.” The band sprang from brothers Magnús Jónsson and Karl Davíðsson’s stay in Sweden, where they started making music with MC Frew Elfineh. When they moved back to Iceland and began hanging out with Ragna, Subterranean was born.
“Maggi encouraged me to write lyrics and all of a sudden we had a record deal with a small label and a deadline coming up,” Ragna explains. “Frew came over to record and one track was even recorded over the phone. We tried to make it work. We were young and didn’t have an overall concept for the album, just tracks that we liked and lyrics we wrote individually and recorded quickly.”
‘Central Magnetizm’ has aged well, with its sophisticated New York-influenced production and jazzy grooves underpinning the refined lyrical delivery. The album was celebrated as an instant classic from the nascent Icelandic scene and Subterranean were voted the most promising band at the Icelandic Music Awards. Standout tracks like ‘Mortal Combat’ and ‘My Style Is Phreaky’ were hits and the band went on to open for both The Fugees and De La Soul.
“I don’t think we realised then what we were going through and the opportunities we had,” Ragna says. “We were just having a good time, and this was the result. I think that may be the reason people connected to us—the fun of making music. To me it’s invaluable, knowing that we have played a small part in the history of Icelandic hip hop.”
At the same time, Quarashi was coming of age, with their brand of rock-influenced rap music. The media depicted a rivalry between the bands as this first wave of the genre came into being. “There was a little bit of a childish beef regarding what was pure breed hip hop,” says Ragna. “But in general, we had a lot of support from rap fans.”
Waves of rap
Subterranean followed the album up with two tracks on the compilation album ‘For Ya Mind’ in 1998, but then headed in different directions. Magnús has been involved with many projects since, including Amabadama, while Ragna has a new album under her Cell 7 moniker coming out in 2018.
“Hip hop has always come and gone in waves, but it never reached the heights it has now,” she says. “It’s the central pop music of our time and I love how much of it is in Icelandic. The language gets to evolve with the new generation, and middle-aged people are adopting the slang. Rap is accepted now, whereas it used to be frowned upon. For someone like me, who’s a fan of the genre, every day is a festival.”