Icelandic Rappers Stamp Their Personality Onto Hip Hop
In a crumbling old building on the outskirts of central Reykjavík, a dust-covered, semi-abandoned workspace is coming to life. In one corner, a makeup artist applies vivid lipstick to a member of feminist rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur as photographer Axel Sigurðarson steadies his stepladder on the broken tiles underfoot. Heavily-tattooed young rapper Emmsjé Gauti chats with Arnar from Úlfur Úlfur, trying on jackets from a clothes rail. Cell7, aka Ragna Kjartansdóttir, enters the room to loud cheers, and is soon taking selfies with friends in the throng.
Next to show up are Erpur Eyvindarson, aka Blaz Roca, from Iceland’s biggest rap group XXX Rottweilerhundar (known today just as XXX Rottweiler), and Sesar A, who released the first Icelandic-language hip hop album in 2001 mere days before Rottweiler’s début. The two offer booming hellos and high fives to their younger counterparts, and before long the group are posing and throwing hand gestures against the stark industrial backdrop, as the flashbulbs crack overhead. There seems to be a good spirit between the various performers as they playfully bustle for space, laughing and swapping gear and props. This assembly of big personalities, from the established old-timers to the fresh young faces, is a large chunk of Reykjavík’s thriving rap scene.
The Real Reykjavík
On a dark, wind-whipped autumn night in Reykjavík, the northernmost capital city of the world can feel like a pretty far-flung place to be a cradle for rap music. But like the rest of the Western world, hip hop influence is everywhere – the city centre is a mini-maze of tag-covered streets, lined with bars radiating hip hop, house or techno; baseball capped, longboarding tweens, teens and twenty-somethings are a common sight, rolling by in deck shoes and drop-crotch pants. And while rap might not be what first springs to mind when the outside world thinks of the twinkly, dreamy “Icelandic music” brand, Arnar from young rap-rock duo Úlfur Úlfur thinks it’s the most relevant genre of today.
“Rap is most certainly the most direct and on-point music when it comes to painting a realistic picture of what it’s like to be a young Icelander,” says Arnar. “We’re rapping about what life is really like here, what it’s like to be young in Reykjavík and trying to get it together.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Blaz Roca, a founder member of the platinum-selling Icelandic-language hip hop group XXX Rottweiler, and the self-styled ‘papa of Icelandic hip hop’. “Hip hop here definitely has a unique character,” he says. “The rappers take rap and make it their own. The kids love it, it connects, they can relate to the lyrics.”
Roots & Manoeuvres
Erpur is also something of a historian of the genre’s development in Iceland. “The first time I heard rap in Icelandic was around 1988,” he says. “The rave scene was going off, and rappers were appearing at parties. There was a kind of unnoticed buzz about it, in underground circles. At that time, the pop music was mostly for drunkfests in the countryside. But then came an urban scene, acts like Quarashi and Subterranean, who both rapped in English.”
Ragna Kjartansdóttir, who now performs as Cell7, was one of the founders of Subterranean. “I was thirteen or fourteen when I started listening to hip hop,” Ragna says. “It was maybe 1994. The only rap radio show was called Chronic. I’d wait for it to air, once a week, with my tape player ready to record it, and then listen to that for a week until the next show aired. We didn’t have no internet yet.”
Things are very different today, with the new generation of Icelandic rappers leaping at the opportunities that the internet’s connective culture provides, both to find music and to broadcast their own. Gauti Þeyr Másson, aka Emmsjé Gauti, is a young rapper who’s taken the scene by storm, using YouTube to connect to an online audience. “I never lived in a time before the internet,” he explains. “It makes it so much easier to release music and be noticed. I wouldn’t be at the same place without it. One of my biggest tracks has 200,000 views, mostly from here in Iceland. You can see in the analytics that there’s 30 people watching in Denmark, and 50 people from Ukraine or wherever.”
Another new face on the scene is rapper Gísli Pálmi, who releases videos onto YouTube as his main means of distribution. “I think that what Gísli is doing is really smart,” says Gauti, “because people like to watch their music now. He is a personality that people like, and want to see. So, a video is the best way to get out music today, if you want attention from the younger crowd.”
Rap & Rímur
But Iceland has a vocal tradition that reaches back many years before YouTube, or MTV for that matter. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s a competitive poetry style that dates all the way to the island’s early settlers. Just as in the Bronx housing projects where hip hop was born, early Icelanders endured gruelling poverty, with no access to musical instruments until much later. Their creativity spilled out via the means at hand: in the case of early hip hop, even poor homes had their voices and a record player that could be used to forge beats—in dirt-poor early Iceland, people only had their voices. Everyman poets of the time would engage in an improvised battle of wits and rhymes that bears a striking similarity to rap battling, with the victor attaining material or social superiority.
“Iceland has a poetic culture,” Erpur says. “Ever since the Sagas we read lots of books and poetry, so the poetic tradition has a lot to do with what we are doing now. Lots of rappers don’t even think about it, but personally I would explain it like this. When I talk about my favourite rappers I also talk about my favourite poets.”
This connection means people that don’t necessarily like hip hop can still connect to Erpur’s work. “I cherish that connection,” he says. “I’m really into language, I take it seriously and feel very proud of it. It’s the main thing that makes us Icelandic. Not race or religion—it’s the language. I feel proud of using this language.”
And figures from different areas of the arts connect to modern Icelandic rap accordingly. “When I use the Icelandic language, people notice,” Erpur says. “People like Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson—he’s a musician that was involved with Killing Joke back in the ‘80s, and also Björk and lots of the ‘80s new wave and punk bands. He’s the front person of the pagan movement here in Iceland. We made a track together where I did the rapping, he made the beats, and Steindór Andersen, who has been touring the world with Sigur Rós, was doing Icelandic rímur. Now me and Hilmar Örn are working on new stuff of me rapping the texts of the sagas.”
Even the younger rappers on the scene feel this connection, having been taught the Icelandic rímur—chanted traditional Icelandic rhymes—as kids. “Before I started rapping when I was four or five years old, my granddad was always teaching me the rímur,” says Gauti. “I was actually studying at school how they work, and they have the same basic roots as hip hop. The first line rhymes with the third line. They have these rules and all these different kinds of rímur. And what we do, the flow, we’re just making new rules that people will copy after us, or we have copied from other people. Rhyming is embedded in Icelandic culture and history.”
The first iteration of the Icelandic rap movement back in the mid 1990s was almost exclusively in the English language. But When XXX Rottweiler came out with an Icelandic-language rap record that became a runaway success, they changed the direction of the whole scene.
“We pioneered rapping in the Icelandic language,” Erpur says. “Me, Sesar A and XXX Rottweiler were the ones who did that. It was tough to take the steering wheel of the scene and to take it there, but after the Sesar A and Rottweiler albums, everyone started doing it. It was a revolution of hip hop in Iceland. It got a mainstream following. And after that, hip hop in Iceland was 99% Icelandic.”
This informed the work of the next generation, including Emmsjé Gauti. “When Rottweiler released their album in 2001 I was like, 12 years old,” Gauti says. “After that, people had the courage to do it themselves. I was writing in English, I didn’t think of writing in Icelandic before that.”
But rapping in Icelandic presents a unique set of challenges, with a very different rhythm and flow to modern English. “Icelandic is such a stiff language,” Icelandic rapper Gísli Pálmi said, when we interviewed him last November. “It’s an old-school way of speaking. We don’t have a lot of words for things. In English there are ten words for one thing, here in Iceland it’s just one word, and it’s probably a really bad one. That makes it hard to rhyme, there are so many different syllables and it’s hard to get to the point. You might need an action word to complete the sentence that’ll throw off the flow. I like that though, when you do it right, it’s raw.”
With the wide vocabulary and lyrical agility required for rapping, MCs gravitate towards the language in which they feel most comfortable, with some landing in English, and others Icelandic. “We learned this from experience,” Erpur says. “You have to be really, really good with words to rap—you can’t compete with someone in English if it’s their mother tongue. The vocabulary, flow, skills… me and Sesar A were thinking primarily in Icelandic, and so we rapped in Icelandic.”
And adapting Icelandic to rap has led to interesting new usages for one of the world’s oldest languages. “I was talking to an Icelandic language teacher about how kids do it today,” says Egill Ólafur Thorarensen, aka Egill Tiny, of Quarashi. “She embraces how the kids bend the language, as if they were using ebonics. People are adapting the language, bending it, breaking the rules, and that’s cool. Language evolves, rap evolves, and with the young crowd today, rap has evolved in a very good way in Iceland.”
In stark contrast to the problematic travails of mainstream hip hop, Iceland is often named as one of the world’s most progressive cultures when it comes to gay rights and gender equality. Icelandic rap has sometimes found itself pulled between these opposing poles, reaching a flashpoint when Blaz Roca and Emmsjé Gauti released a track called “Elskum þessar mellur”, or “We Love The Sluts.”
“It was really good for me to work with Blaz Roca,” says Gauti. “When the guy that actually brought you into the game wants to make a song with you, it’s a certain honour. The track we did was controversial, it was about slut-shaming. We went a little bit too far somewhere in the lyrics. I don’t take that song back, though. We were saying, if people are gonna call girls who sleep with a lot of guys sluts, it is not a shame to be a slut, we are sluts ourselves. That was the main thing behind it. But people got mad.”
The ensuing dialogue helped shape Gauti’s attitudes and opened his eyes to what feminism means. “I was approached by a friend of mine who got really mad about the song,” says Gauti. “And I just didn’t understand why. I always used to say, I’m not a feminist, I just believe in equal rights. And now I know that’s basically what feminism is, and I can say I’m a proud feminist. You can always look at your opinions and clear out your mind more and more—I am still learning new things that I am wrong about, like this.”
Erpur thinks the controversial content of his music comes more from risqué humour than offensive attitudes. “I’m a feminist,” states Erpur, “but at the same time, I talk lots of shit. I make metaphors that some people find offensive and sexist. We say lots of shit in hip hop, and find controversial jokes funny, but there’s nobody I know that’s actually against women or gay people.”
“I understand the message that Gauti and Erpur wanted to convey in the song,” says Anna Tara Andrésdóttir, of feminist rap collective Reykjavikurdætur. “That is definitely one way of speaking about it. The language got criticism – people thought using the word “mella” might have the exact opposite effect of what they were trying to convey. But I’m glad that their thoughts, and the criticism, are out there—I think the whole conversation encourages people to think for themselves. In fact, I’m excited to see what feminist issue they will rap about next.”
Hip hop was born in the US, a country currently in the throes of revolution of consciousness regarding race and appropriation; that is, the strip-mining of black culture for white people, as seen in earlier decades via the repackaging of blues and rock ‘n’ roll by mainstream artists like Elvis.
But Iceland is a completely different context; a small island nation whose late-blooming, insular culture must feed on external influence, or become stagnant. “I think it’s stupid to say you can’t do something just because you don’t have the roots in it,” says Gauti. “Human beings come from the same place in the beginning, so we all have the same roots. We come from different cultures of course but it’s more relevant to ask ‘are you doing it well, and do you have passion?’, instead of saying ‘you can’t do this because you weren’t born there.’ That’s just prejudice.”
And as rap and hip hop become a global culture, people from around the world are using it as a vessel to convey their own lives and stories, Iceland included. “The original form is, of course, from the USA,” Egill says, “so we’re always going to be inspired by foreign hip hop. But Icelandic rappers have their own sense of style, and they talk about things where they’re from. It’s not just a copy-paste of something else. It’s a way to express yourself. Rap is something people have stumbled across, but there’s something universal in it that translates to all of us.”
“Rap has grown into so many different places and genres now,” ponders Ragna Cell7. “People can’t judge us because of where we’re from. It’s irritating to have people judge you just because you live on a remote island. It’s hard to be critiqued based on that. We’re just doing what we love. Doing our own thing, right here. And that’s unique.”
My Name Is…
Emmsjé Gauti is a fresh MC who burst onto the scene via a controversial collaboration with Blaz Roca in 2010.
Arnar Freyr Frostason
Half of Úlfur Úlfur, a popular rap duo.
A member of Quarashi, Iceland’s biggest English-language rap crew.
Erpur, aka Blaz Roca, is a founding member of XXX Rottweiler, and the self-styled ‘papa of Icelandic hip hop.’
A member of Subterranean at the age of sixteen, Ragna now performs under her Cell7 moniker.
Anna Tara & Katrin Helga Andrésdóttir
Two sister-members of large feminist rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur, or “Daughters of Reykjavík,” and Hljómsveitt.
Sesar A released the first Icelandic-language rap album in 2001, just days before XXX Rottweiler’s debut.