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 Song Of The Year award goes to Joey Christ for “Joey Cypher.” 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 the summer of 2017, Icelanders were in a frenzy over the arrival of the Costco supermarket, lapping up the offer of bargain goods in a notoriously expensive country. At the same time, Iceland’s rap music explosion was going full tilt, with new artists coming out of the woodwork on a regular basis.
It was an opportune moment for rapper Joey Christ to introduce himself by combining the two phenomena on his debut track—an instant hit called “Joey Cypher,” which crisply distilled the zeitgeist into three short minutes.
“I like hearing that,” says Joey. “I felt that the decision to do the video in Costco was actually crucial for this release. The track had leaked previously, and people were so excited about it, but the video gave them something they weren’t expecting. Costco arriving in Iceland was a pop phenomenon. I liked putting it into context with the other pop phenomenon of Iceland—the rap scene.”
Joey cut his teeth as a part of the collective behind Sturla Atlas, working out of the infamous 101derland Studio. He often hung out with rappers Birnir, Aron Can and Herra Hnetusmjór, the trio who ended up as guest vocalists on ‘Joey Cypher.’
“We were sitting around playing some beats, and we just caught a vibe,” Joey recalls. “Herra Hnetusmjór and Birnir did their verses, and I recorded the hook and my verse. Then Aron Can wrote a verse during a class in school. He freestyles a lot, and talked about how fun it was writing out a whole verse. I like bringing people together, so it was a perfect statement for my vision in this scene at the moment.”
At first, there was confusion about Joey’s artist name, with some people mistakenly thinking he was called Joey Cypher. “A cypher is when you have a beat, and many rappers rap to it,” he laughs. “It’s an old thing in rap, like at the MTV awards and so on. People got confused, but I embraced it.”
After some English language work with Sturla Atlas, Joey took a mindful decision to rap in Icelandic on his solo project. “I like joking around,” he explains, “and I found I could more easily channel my persona in my native language than in English. But I feel like, to a certain extent, music is a universal language. I listen to a lot of Scandinavian and French hip hop, and don’t understand the words, but if there’s something that catches your attention, that can be irrelevant. If you connect with the aesthetics, attitude and vibe of a track, the language barrier is a small fence to hop over.”
When pressed to translate the lyrics, Joey furrows his brow as he thinks it through. “The first line is like… ‘I got friends who do crime, not me though, just the vibe. Just applied for a job, took a pill and smoked a joint…’” he peters out, laughing. “It sounds dumb when I translate it! It’s a basic rap song, which is the point of a cypher—letting everybody do their thing. Cyphers aren’t always released, but we couldn’t not release this one—it was just meant to be. It was a breakout record for me. I owe a lot to this track.”