Krútt and hip-hop are the two biggest waves in Icelandic music over the previous two decades. We decided to pit the key players from both genres against each other in combat. Will it be a FIGHT TO THE DEATH? Or will they just be really nice to each other? There’s only one way to find out…
Let’s start with krútt. Do you know what it is?
Alvia Islandia: It’s music with like a quiet guitar and soft voice that lingers in your head all smooth and soothing. It doesn’t harass you, just slides into the ear. But it can have more energy too. Like FM Belfast is just a big krútt party. A late night krútt party! A party of krútt.
Do you ever listen to it?
AI: I listened to it growing up. Now it’s like, if krútt music comes up, I don’t turn it off. It’s just got a different vibe, and some people get hyped up by that intensity, but it doesn’t really work for me. When I listen to music, it’s to get my mojo onto some level, to get into the groove, and krútt doesn’t really take my energy there. I listen to music to get away from that quiet place to get higher, like chewing-gum music, know what I mean? But it is good music with really good production, well made, and I do like listening to it if it is on. My friend in Copenhagen loved sóley so much and freaked out when she found out she was from Iceland. And my friend was from Australia. That music hits people.
Tell us about the Icelandic hip-hop scene.
AI: It’s small but it’s big, if that makes sense. Every weekend there’s a new solid up-and-coming artist and everyone has their own style.
What’s your style?
AI: My last album was ‘Bubblegum Bitch’ and my next album is ‘Elegant Hoe’ and that’s my music. It’s poppin’, bassy, dreamy, and vivid, with a slow hype. It works for both driving in the car, feeling cool, and also getting everyone hyped in a concert. I want my music to slide in and be soothing, not harassing, so I guess that’s like krútt people. There you are. That’s where the krútt is.
What does krútt mean? Did you listen to it?
Vigdís Howser: It means “cute,” but it was a name businessy people invented for artsy people. They would never call themselves krútt. Maybe later, but not then. I listed to a lot of it and went to all the concerts: Björk, Sigur rós, múm, everyone. It was so intense. Like, “We’re running through the forest! Running in the dirt!” and then there are big drums and 10,000 didgeridoos. It takes itself very seriously, maybe too seriously.
What does krútt sound like?
VH: I think they found a lot of inspiration from being on this isolated island before it was popular and there were people here. When I was younger listening to them, I thought all of their inspiration came from elves and nature, but now I think it was also drugs. That’s like the hip-hop scene too [laughs]. I used to fantasize or idolize the fact that they were in nature and feeling all these ideas and then I met one of the members and he was just really high and I was like, you just trashed my childhood.
Tell us about the hip-hop scene.
VH: Well, if I listened to every man making hip-hop here right now, I would never get out of the house. I mean, everyone who has Auto-Tune can make an album now. But I’m happy for them, they are hardworking. I’m not their momma though, so it’s not my status to be proud of them. Uh, there’s Gísli Pálmi, GKR, all them dudes, Alvia, Marteinn, a tonne of people.
Is there any krútt in your sound?
VH: Oh yeah, the album I’m recording now is definitely a mixture of krútt and hip-hop. I love the intensity and psychedelic sound of krútt, it’s really inspirational. Also, I am using a little bit of Auto-Tune even though I just thrashed Auto-Tune a few seconds ago.
Where did krútt come from? Did you like it?
Gísli Pálmi: Well, Björk is involved in it. Krútt people liked Björk’s thing and I think they saw how Björk was doing and wanted that. Björk was krútt sometimes, but she’s not really put in that box, even though other people who were in any way like her are called krútt. I listened to Sigur rós growing up. They have good production. They are not only krútt, but they are certainly eligible for that category. I guess as an artist I was inspired by them when I was more, I guess, mature or conservative? I was at one point a mature and conservative artist, but I am not anymore. But yeah, I’d say I was krútt. I would define myself as like deep krútt or post-krútt. I am not joking.
Tell us about hip-hop.
GP: Right now? Icelandic hip-hop, the scene, is big but it’s like a playground. It’s moving but hopefully it develops into something that is strong enough to be more, to stand on its own, to stand for something more. Everyone is doing hip-hop now. Everyone’s a rapper, but it’s always been like that. A1 since day 1, you know? Krútt artists too. They were A1 since day 1.
Who would you say is in the scene now?
GP: Sturla Atlas is the big one right now. Aron Can too. And then there’s the usuals, Emmsje Gauti, Úlfur Úlfur. Gauti did a lot this year and Alvia is doing her thing now.
Is krútt an offensive term?
Árni Vil: I don’t think anyone wants to be called krútt. It’s like, you’d rather be sexy than adorable, right? But people used to argue about it, and at one point, [Icelandic art and design guru] Goddur was like, “I’m not going to say anything, but just look at these pictures.” And then he did a slideshow with múm and Sigur rós and everyone was in nature with knitted caps. They looked adorable. But you know, no one likes being boxed into a term. No one decided, “Hey, let’s sit down and be adorable.” They are just making art, you know. Someone else decided it.
What do you think of Icelandic hip-hop?
AV: It has never been so big in Iceland. Never. It’s also really sincere now. Rappers are talking about their emotions. I mean, Emmsje Gauti has lines about caressing someone’s back. He’s a total krútt. Emmsjé Gauti is the torchbearer of krútt. Gísli Pálmi is not krútt. But maybe when he started he was. To be honest, when he started I was just fascinated by him. It was so different, and I didn’t know if it was awesome or awful or if I loved it or if I hated it, but I watched him over and over. He was just in front of his car being totally gangster listing stuff he liked, like jet planes, or leopards, or drugs. It was so random to me, but it was great. It had a realness and a sincerity about it. He was like an indigo child. To be honest, all these rappers are so sincere. I would call this the sincere generation. I think I was part of the sarcastic generation and maybe that’s why when we were being sincere it came off as adorable.
Who do you associate with it?
AV: Úlfur Úlfur, Emmsjé Gauti, Gísli Pálmi, GKR, Reykjavíkurdætur, Shades of Reykjavík.
Anything other thoughts?
AV: Actually I got a tattoo last night inspired by Gísli Pálmi. It’s a “Ró” (the nut on the bolt), you know, like Roro. Roro! I am roro now.
What is the krútt sound?
sóley: Hm, well there’s always stuff like weird keyboards and the glockenspiel, but it’s more of the vibe around the music. The lyrics and how you sing it: it’s breathy and introverted. Krútt music is all different but it has a “We are very shy,” attitude. That is the krútt thing. I don’t think I would have been put in any other movement. I was really inspired by it.
Tell us about hip-hop.
S: I love the scene! I am such a big fan. I love the beats. It’s all so cool and I’m like damn, I should do this, I’m not that cool [laughs]. No, but I love the DIY culture of it all. Everyone is just doing stuff by themselves and releasing it by themselves like fuck the system. They aren’t like, “Well, we don’t have a label so we can’t make this perfect album.” They are just like, “Hey, I made a song, I am going to put it on SoundCloud.” I love it. At least in the past, rap was always about manly stuff, but Icelandic hip-hop is kind of turning to love songs. Like you know, awww, I love her, but she’s not here. And they all sing with this sweet voice like Aron Can. It’s definitely krútt.
Who are some standouts?
S: Actually, my daughter is three years old and her favourite band last year was Vaginaboys. She loved them so much she would cry if she didn’t hear it in the car. She also likes GKR’s “Morgunmatur.” She learned all the lyrics, which was amazing. I like GKR a lot too. Reykjavíkurdaetur are also great and they are very important. It’s insane how much hate they get for what they do though, but I mean, they push things and sing about their anger. I never do that, I don’t know why, but I think it’s so important. We should all use our voices.
What do you think of Icelandic hip-hop?
Kristín Anna: Actually, I dreamt about Gísli Pálmi the other day. Ragnar Kjartansson was sitting with him trying to teach him an open G chord on guitar—an older wise man teaching a young one, “This could one day be of use to you.” Gísli Pálmi is all humble and sweet but he doesn’t really care about the chord, and I’m telling him: “I totally understand you. I was like this when I was younger. I didn’t want any outside influences.” At that time, I thought it would stain my authenticity, but I’ve outgrown that now. I’ll go see hip-hop here live ‘cause I like dancing to it. When I saw Reykjavíkurdætur, I could hear everything they were saying and I cried from laughter. If I had seen anything like that from girls when I was young, I never would have been such a wimp maybe. But I saw the 101 Boys the other day at an art piece and they were just like playing video games there, but snacking and stuff. It was authentic. Maybe that’s what I was telling Gísli Pálmi in the dream. I think he probably doesn’t care about the acoustic guitar very much, but like… embrace your surroundings. Embrace your complexity. If you’re going to play a role, make sure it won’t kill you. Make the role yours, live it. I woke up from the dream really caring about him. But really, in my dream, he is me.
How has music changed since then?
KA: When I was performing fifteen years ago, I never saw videos of my performances. The self-consciousness is just on a different level nowadays, so for this generation it’s very easy to put on a character, to be like, “This is my performance character.” It gives you freedom. But for múm, we were making our own separate world. Like, let’s go to this lighthouse together with no phone signal and we can live there and be in this space together making music with anyone. I mean, even making online profiles for your music, we never did that, so there were no conscious games. Alvia is a different generation. She’s got the power of knowing who she is and who Alvia is, and her personality and how she performs, and it’s kind of related to making online profiles where you have to edit and curate yourself. It’s changed everything.
BIFF, BAM, POW
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, a group of Icelandic artists came out of the woodwork and took over. You’ve probably heard of them. In fact, they might even be the reason you’re in Iceland. Sigur rós, múm, Ólöf Arnalds, sóley—these bands achieved international success, captivating audiences with their imagination and eccentricity. They popularised, or perhaps even created, the reputation of Iceland as a land of unbridled creativity—complete with waterfalls and knitted sweaters.
This music was placed under the umbrella term of “krútt,” the dictionary definition of which is “cute, adorable, cuddly, or attractively childlike.” Yes, calling music “cute” sounds derisive—and this label was considered so, at least at first—but it became the genre’s name nonetheless. Krútt music is soft, emotional, and on the surface, naïve—but with an eyebrow raised. It’s tonally advanced and escapist in nature, but also self-aware; a beautiful world created knowingly, and a counterculture that replaced the antagonism of punk with walks in the woods.
Krútt’s influence on Icelandic music cannot be overstated, and the waves of it are still rolling. Take Retro Stefson or Of Monsters and Men—you can’t deny that there’s something krútt about them. Even more recently, look at Daði Freyr, Iceland’s runner-up for this years Eurovision. While wearing a chunky sweater, he plays a keytar and sings about love. What a krútt.
But if krútt is, as Icelandic music historian Dr. Gunni described it, “comfy and most of all testosterone-free,” then it follows that hip-hop would be the anti-krútt. Masculine, sexual, and aggressive, hip-hop, even in its most low-key form, would never be called comfy (unless it’s the dazed-out-too-much-benzos-style rap that’s currently popular, but even that definitely isn’t naïve).
Hip-hop is currently dominating the Icelandic scene. Amongst teens and twenty-somethings, rap is the most popular domestically made music. It’s a common joke that every teenage boy is a rapper—a funny-because-it’s-true situation. And Icelandic rappers don’t rap about krútt things, they rap about rap things: partying, hanging out, drugs, love, sex, political anger, violence, whatever, just in Icelandic. They don’t wear wool sweaters, or if they do, it’s referential. If elves are mentioned, it’s probably about doing ketamine with them (like in the Shades of Reykjavík lyric). They don’t disavow the idealistic view of Iceland, but they rather, uh, mould it into something… rappy.
No other movements have captured Iceland better than these two in the last 20 years, so we talked to three people from each, to get their thoughts on each other. For rap: Gísli Pálmi, Alvia Islandia, and Vigdís Howser, formerly of Reykjavíkurdætur. On the krútt team: Kristín Anna, one of the founding members of múm, sóley, and Árni Vilhjalmsson, formerly of FM Belfast.
The fighters clinch
All three rappers appreciated the style and intensity of krútt music, but said they don’t listen to casually. This seems reasonable—you probably aren’t going to bump “Von” by Sigur rós while you run to the supermarket. Sóley attributed this to medium: krútt music is meant to be consumed as an album, and as an activity itself. It therefore feels jarring and melodramatic to pull out a small segment as accompaniment to something mundane.
Krútt artists appreciated the opposite. Sóley liked the DIY process of rappers, releasing one song at a time rather than a whole album. It makes it easier, she said, for anyone who wants to make rap to just start doing it, which she encourages. Krútt artists also saw an emotional intensity and sincerity in Icelandic hip-hop that none of the rappers mentioned. They liked that Emmsjé Gauti and Aron Can were writing love songs. Árni appreciated Gísli Pálmi’s “realness,” and Kristín Anna said the same of Reykjavíkurdætur.
THE RESULTS ARE IN. Kind of.
Árni went even further, calling this hip-hop generation “the generation of sincerity.” It’s a pretty unusual word to hear next to rap. C’mon, does Future really have his baby mama and his side chick kissing? It seems doubtful. That said, hip-hop does have a legacy of emotional honesty, between the shootings and hoes. Put that into a small community like Reykjavík, add social media, and you’re left with enforced sincerity. In a city of 120,000, you can’t come out with a rap song about how you do a shit-tonne of drugs and party all the time if you don’t. Everyone will know, and no one likes a liar. (The exception is rapping about money. There is no big money in rap here but everyone pretends they have stacks of it. It’s a socially acceptable delusion.)
Krútt music didn’t have this issue because it explored different topics. The music didn’t require grandiosity and self-promotion, which rap does. Social media was less all-encompassing, as Kristín Anna discussed. Before social media, there was no need to condense your whole project into 140-character thoughts and funny videos. No one made a larger-than-life persona to sell themselves. There was no medium, so there was no need. But if you want to get any attention in rap, a persona is required.
But social media and the social grapevine (not the Reykjavík Grapevine, just the “heard it through the grapevine” grapevine) enforce this in a way krútt didn’t have to deal with. Consider this abroad example: If Eminem came out with a song adamantly against domestic violence, people might side-eye a little bit. It is, as Kristín said, a different world, and it’s pretty interesting that with their older worldview, krútt artists saw a sincerity in Icelandic rap that no rappers did. Sóley raved about the message of GKR’s “Morgunmatur.” “He’s like, I’m just doing what I want, I’m rapping about breakfast and I don’t care what anyone thinks!” she laughed. “It’s just fearless—completely don’t-give-a-fuck fearless. I love it.”
In the end, the krútt kids admired the attitude and confidence of the hip-hop acts, and the rappers admired krútt’s production values and creative ambition. So ultimately, despite their differences, the two groups shared a mutual admiration—and doesn’t that seem pretty krútt?