Published December 12, 2017
Today, Icelandic rap is primarily done in the mother tongue and the genres biggest hits since the turn of the century have virtually all been in Icelandic. While this is undoubtedly commendable, it does make it difficult for foreign audiences to understand the lyrics. But in the early days of hip hop pioneering things were different, as back then it was the lingua franca that ruled the day.
Among the first movers of the now vibrant scene was the band Subterranean–with dope flows, rocking beats and everything in English.
Founded in 1997, the group made was comprised of Ragna Kjartansdottir aka CELL7, the brothers Magnús Jónsson aka Gnúsi Yones aka Magse aka Nagmús, Karl Davíðsson aka Kalli Youze and Frew Elfineh aka Frew Taha aka Black Fist. They caught instant attention on the Icelandic music scene, winning most promising band at the Icelandic Music Awards just a year after its formation.
The Subterranean magnetism
In 1998, the band released the much lauded album ‘Central Magnetizm’. It became an instant classic and quickly sold out. And as one critic wrote following its release: “the sound of the album is to-the-point, the productions highly structured and the lyrics made with precision.” Since then it has remained as a real collector’s gem–out of reach for musical laymen like myself. This is why it’s commendable that the record label Alda has released the album on a digital platform, making it possible to enjoy it without making hundred trips to Lucky Records.
There is also a rather funny story behind the making of the album. Mulling over making the album for some time they had a hard time finding time to get into the studio. But then their song “Crazy” ended up on the soundtrack for the movie “Blossi”–which might be the worst film in Icelandic history–and after that there was no turning back.
First lady of Icelandic hip hop
One of the more positive developments to happen in the traditionally male dominated rap game is the emergence of an increasing number of female rappers. Some of the more prominent names in the contemporary Icelandic hip hop world are female–including the ensemble Reykjavíkurdætur, the group Cyber and solo artists such as Countess Malaise and Alvia Islandia. But another thing that sets Subterranean apart from the ‘90s is that one of the stars of the group is CELL7 with her rapid flows with shades of The Lady of Rage. But she is just one among the talented MCs that lend their talent to ‘Central Magnetizm’.
Bringing 1998 back
The album is a pure bread ‘90s wonder full of bare bones drums, vinyl scratching, repetitive beats and “bounce”. For those of us who look longingly back to the days of De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest and that East Coast jive ‘Central Magnetizm’ represents Iceland’s take on that golden age of hip hop.
It is also definitely recommended to check out CELL7’s solo stuff as well as most things touched by Gnúsi Yones.
Every fan of hip hop, whether Icelandic or not, should rejoice that Subterranean has reemerged from the underground and are now available digitally. ‘Central Magnetizm’ is one of those landmark records in Icelandic music history, but what is remarkable about it is that almost 20 years later it doesn’t feel dated but instead just as fresh as it did back in the day. However, it definitely doesn’t hurt if you are one for ’90s nostalgia or just miss being a teenager. It’s definitely worth checking out, just start with “My Style is Phreaky” and take it from there.