Culture is a strange and amorphous thing, hard to pin down, and driven, often, by the most disenfranchised in society. In particular, young people have always been the harbingers and custodians of popular music—and yes, even just writing the words, ‘popular music’ does effectively illustrate that I can sadly no longer count myself within their ranks. Unlike others however, I am happy to bow out gracefully (as best I can, without putting my back out), without resorting to the wearisome trope of berating ‘kids these days’ and asserting that ‘music was better when I was young’. Newsflash: it was not. When I was young I listened to Busted, for god’s sake.
It was with genuine interest and curiosity, then, that I arranged to meet Daniil, a 20-year-old rapper whose newest track, “Ef þeir vilja beef” just broke the Icelandic record for most streams in one day—and yet whom, prior to this occurring, I had never heard of. When I called to set up the interview, he sheepishly asked me to remind him on the day, in case he slept in. I promised I would, and he responded, “Siiiiiiick.”
In the flesh, Daniil is tall in a way that only young men manage to be tall—sort of looming, as if still getting used to their new shape—and astonishingly fair. Half Russian, but born and raised in Iceland, he speaks Russian at home with his mother, and raps in Icelandic.
“I actually started rapping in English,” he explains. “Personally I find it easier to rhyme. But I live in Iceland, and I’m releasing music here—rapping in Icelandic makes sense.”
I’m curious to whether Daniil sees significance in this, of creating art in a small, indigenous language that some regard as constantly under threat of extinction, but he dismisses the debate.
“I don’t think it matters if you make music in English or Icelandic, just do what you want. Follow your heart,” he says.
“I respect women a lot”
Nevertheless, loanwords from English feature prominently in his texts. Of course, there is the titular ‘beef’, in his latest release—that’s an argument or disagreement, for anyone who hasn’t been on the internet for the past decade. The song also begins with Daniil shouting “bitch”, in what almost feels like a pastiche of a rap song.
“I wasn’t thinking about it at all, I just said it,” Daniil explains, seemingly a little embarrassed. “It doesn’t even mean anything.”
“I think when people say words like ‘bitch’ in rap they don’t really refer to women these days. At least I don’t.” He adds: “I respect women a lot.”
Music for the TikTok generation
Although pop music success has always been driven by teens, the process of building fame had always happened in plain sight, via TV appearances and extensive radio coverage. But the mechanics of the music industry are rapidly changing, in part due to the way that music is being distributed and experienced by young consumers, predominantly via TikTok. It’s in this way that “Ef þeir vilja beef” shot to stratospheric fame—before it was even released.
The song was leaked before it was completed, something that Daniil says is commonplace: “I sent it to someone and they probably sent it to someone else and it just grows.” He explains that this practice is so standard that the record companies (he is signed to Alda Music) don’t even care. “We can tell because of my soundcloud links. If a track goes from 20 to 500 plays, it’s probably leaked.”
In addition, Danill says that TikTok has affected his music a lot: “I just posted a video of a guy dancing to the song, and it blew up. I was like, okay, sick. I didn’t try and go viral, I didn’t even use any hashtags. I just posted it. I didn’t expect it to get so many views and likes.”
He continues: “I posted another video a week later and said, if this gets 1,000 likes, I’ll drop the track in March.”
“The song was maybe only 30% done at the time,” he says with a smile. “But I got 1,000 comments in 5 hours.”
Record breaking numbers
The hype surrounding the track was clearly huge by the time it was finished and ready to release (ultimately in May, rather than March). And the resulting numbers did not disappoint.
“I was expecting a lot, maybe 20,000 streams,” Daniil admits. “I woke up 8 hours after it had been released, and it already had 20,000 plays. It just went up from there. By the end of the day it had, I think, 47,000 streams.”
“It feels great,” Daniil says with quiet pride. “It’s like, who has the biggest song in Iceland in one day? Me,” he confirms, smiling.
It certainly shot Daniil and his oeuvre firmly into the wider public consciousness. Next month he will open for UK Grime heavyweight, Skepta, and he is working on a new album to be released later this year. As a parting shot, I ask Daniil what he would say to this newly enlarged potential fan base, to encourage them to listen to his music?
He cracks a wide smile. “Just check it out,” he says. “It’s good vibes.”
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