My friends gave me some odd looks in the months leading up to Iceland Airwaves, whenever I forced them to sit through a YouTube playlist I’d made of Icelandic hip-hop. Some of the artists I’d heard or seen before—Gísli Pálmi, Shades of Reykjavik, Úlfur Úlfur… Over five years of attending Airwaves, I’d stumble into homegrown hip-hop sets more out of curiosity than real interest. I’d smirk, I’d nod my head, I’d leave— and write off the experience as a quirk of the country. Us foreigners love how quirky Iceland is, don’t we?
Not for a moment did I think there was a scene, or even any real talent. I was an asshole who wasn’t looking hard enough.
This year was different. Úlfur Úlfur’s “Brennum Allt” (a total fucking tune, right?) popped up in my feeds back in July, leading me on a quest to try and understand Iceland’s thing with hip-hop.
But why the sudden interest? Five years of hitting Airwaves means I’ve seen most of the local bands—hell, I’ve made films with a bunch of them, too, in my dual role as editor and videographer for the UK-based music site The Line of Best Fit. I wanted something new this time—a different story to take home. I followed the hip hop trail across a bunch of blogs, YouTube and some awesome Grapevine pieces (thanks, Hannah Jane Cohen, for “Seven Airwaves Rap Acts Not To Miss” in particular, which was pivotal in guiding me through the festival).
It felt two tiered: the older boys, more in thrall to gangsta posturing and an established flow gesturally and lyrically (as far as I could tell). And then a new, younger generation, much more self-aware, and a by-product of the bedroom production ethic. The melodies were fresher, the movements and symbolism seemed less ridiculous, yet they still delivered with humour, surrealism and greater levels of lyrical abstraction (so I was told). Did one set go down better than the other to the foreigners? I think so. While there wasn’t so much for us to relate to in GKR or Sturla Atlas or Reykjavíkurdætur, there was a familiarity with their delivery and their use of melodies and loops. While the older boys were in thrall to decade-old tropes, the new kids played free and loose with hip-hop’s new set of guidelines—and seemed to have a lot more fun doing so.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on why it actually worked. I didn’t understand a word of what was being said—I still don’t, aside from that Miley Cyrus reference in Reykjavíkurdætur’s “Ógeðsleg”. It was certainly a smart move to put the breakout stars of the UK Grime scene (brothers Skepta and JME) atop an all Icelandic hip-hop line-up at the Art Museum. It made us look harder and think harder about the reasons behind it.
Maybe it was also the VICE-ification of content that brought the music press to cover it too. As writers, we try and look beyond the obvious more and more. The expectation of what Iceland music is to the world (twee/mystical/nature) offers less novelty than it once did, and an article on Icelandic hip-hop sells itself. The headline—it’s instant clickbait. It’s a VICE feature waiting to happen.
I asked people around me at Airwaves what they thought: whether the language barrier was an issue, whether it mattered that they didn’t really know what was being said. The response? “They just look cool,” and “the audience here seems to get it.”
Maybe that’s all you need.
Paul Bridgewater is edits The Line Of Best Fit. He’s also a charming man.
Mischief, Mayhem & Hip-Hop With Iceland’s New Yule Lads
The Yule Lads are the thirteen Icelandic Santa Clauses who descend one-by-one on the thirteen days before Christmas to play tricks on Icelandic children. Their mother, Grýla, a mountain Ogress, eats badly-behaved children.
MEET THE NEW WAVE OF ICELANDIC HIP HOP
More than a decade has passed since Icelandic hip hop became a certifiable “thing” with the advent of pioneer superstar act XXX Rottweiler, and it’s only gotten better since. The year 2015 has brought a wide array of fresh-faced contenders into the mix, slinging their own, unique take on the genre. So put your headphones on, turn your volume—wolume—up, and get ready to meet the New Wave Of Icelandic Hip Hop (NWOIHH)!