From Iceland — The First Legend: From Subterranean Origins, Cell7 Is Back

The First Legend: From Subterranean Origins, Cell7 Is Back

Published April 30, 2019

The First Legend: From Subterranean Origins, Cell7 Is Back
Hannah Jane Cohen
Photo by
Julie Rowland

Cell7’s release concert is packed. The energy flows through the crowd, building them up with each verse until brutally releasing them once the song ends. Like a puppet master, she commands the room effortlessly.

“The energy was fire,” Ragna Kjartansdóttir—Cell7 herself—says of the concert afterwards. But for her, this is just one notable performance. The first legend, the original rap star—you could call Cell7 or a lot of things—she is a professional and an Icelandic icon. There is truly no one who knows the rap scene better or who has endured like she has.

She was there in the beginning, and here she remains.

The beginning

When we meet a few days later, nostalgia takes over Ragna’s face. Her eyes mist up as a small smile tugs at her lips. Taking a sip of coffee, she pauses, lingering in a past long-gone. The artist is recalling the early days of the Icelandic rap scene, back when she entered it more than 20 years ago.

“My music surprises people. People that don’t generally like rap music tend to like my music.”

“There was one weekly radio show called ‘The Kronik,’” she says. “The DJ’s mother was a stewardess, so she always had the freshest vinyl from New York. You’d tune in weekly to hear the show and record it on a cassette tape and listen to it over and over.” She laughs, diving into stories of how people would just call in to freestyle and hang out with the hosts. The show is still on today, she explains, but it’s not the same.

To be fair, not much is the same from the early days of Icelandic rap. The genre has exploded into the mainstream in recent years, and boom bap has been long forgotten in favour of trap. Albums have migrated from vinyl to SoundCloud, and most of the original artists have grown up, moved on and retired.

But Ragna never left. She got her start in 1996 as part of one of the first Icelandic rap groups, Subterranean, and in March 2019, released her second solo album, ‘Is Anybody Listening?’

It’s an apt title. Ragna is so humble that she often questions if people in the scene are still paying attention to her. That said, the response to the album—from glowing reviews to a packed release concert—has proven that, contrary to her worries, they never stopped.

A chance meeting

Ragna’s rap career as Cell7 started with a chance meeting with brothers Magnús Jónsson and Karl Davíðsson at an open-mic night. They urged her to meet up with them and to make some music—something she had never done before. “It just fell in my lap,” she explains. “I listened to a lot of rap and hip hop. I was consumed by it, but I never thought of myself as an artist.”

“We were the underdogs. We weren’t backed by any label.”

It was the harsh modus operandi of the genre that initially converted her to the church of hip hop. “The whole vibe. The positive vibe. The nitty-gritty vibe,” she muses. “The attitude and hard beats were something that you didn’t hear anywhere else.” Artists like A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, Common, and Das EFX were particularly formative for the then-emerging rapper. “You can find everything under the moon in regards to rap,” she adds, raising her eyebrows.

Ragna took Magnús and Karl up on their invitation and, along with Frew Elfineh, formed the group Subterranean. Ragna laughs as she remembers their first collaborative effort. “It was actually in Icelandic,” she says. This is in contrast to their other works, which are all in English. “It was about us missing the bus or something. Very childish!”

At that time, the rap scene was the opposite of what it is today. Built around credibility, you had to prove yourself as a true fan before you were let in. “It was a closed group. You had to know your shit to be legit,” Ragna explains. “Everyone was watching each other. Who is that? Does he know the songs? Then you’d spot people that weren’t really into it.” That said, she underscores that once you had proved yourself, it became an accepting and friendly environment. Like all subcultures, they only had each other.

Pure magnetizm

In 1997, Subterranean dropped their first album, ‘Central Magnetizm.’ Full of bare bones drums, vinyl scratches, bounce, boom bap and pure East Coast old school vibes, the effort is a booming tribute to the golden age of hip hop, Icelandic style. It has since become a collectors piece amongst Icelandic hip-hop heads.

After the release of ‘Central Magnetizm,’ Subterranean resonated among Icelanders, and were awarded a level of fame they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. “We opened up for the Fugees, for De La Soul,” says Ragna. “Subterranean was not only a band—they’re people’s connection to that era. Icelanders remember us, and that’s also why people are so fond of the idea of Subterranean.”

Looking back at that time in her career brings up mixed emotions in Ragna. The level of fame Subterranean achieved was something she had never anticipated, and maybe, she thinks, she won’t top as Cell7 solo. “We were the underdogs. We weren’t backed by any label,” she explains. “It’s twisted, though, because as an adult I know the measurement of success is not the same.” She pauses to unpack her thoughts. “It’s not fair to have the same measurement of success as a musician now that I did as a teenager who came up with one of the first hip-hop acts here. We can’t measure ourselves to those standards. Things are different.”

A feature?

Ragna’s modesty is ever-present, bordering on self-deprecation. She smiles at the attention Subterranean received, but she quickly underscores it with the admission, “We never played abroad, though,” as if that, for an Icelandic rap group in 1997, was expected.

Perhaps her intense humility is due to the fact that the changes in the rap community have been so profound, even alienating, to her. What was once a subculture is now mainstream, and what Ragna originally knew as rap music in the Subterranean era has changed drastically. In fact, she says that she doesn’t easily connect to many of the modern hip hop styles.

Rap music, Ragna emphasises, used to focus primarily on lyrics. “You could nod your head to something with meaning,” she explains. Nowadays, she emphasises, it’s more about emotions. “It’s a lot about feelings, a vibe. It’s a whole genre bursting with artists who have their emotions on their sleeve.” Ragna doesn’t relate, but she admits it might be an age thing. “I’m older and they’re young,” she laughs. “They’re going through things, like young people do.”

Ragna’s modesty is so great that at one point, she casually asks, “So a feature in the Grapevine, is that a page or what?” The idea of Cell7 being the focus of the issue, much less the cover star, had never even occurred to her.

The original

But it’s Ragna’s divergence from mainstream Icelandic rap that has given her a widespread and devout audience. Her name demands a level of respect that perhaps no other Icelandic rapper’s can. She’s the original. “I think my music surprises people,” she says. “People that don’t generally like rap music tend to like my music.”

After Subterranean’s breakup around 2000, Ragna moved to New York City to study audio recording. She spent her time soaking up New York hip hop culture and took a break from making music. After moving back to Iceland, she had a son and spent her time focusing on her audio engineering career. It was only when a friend suggested she apply for a government arts grant to record her solo album that Ragna began to dream up new music.

Ragna was doubtful that anyone would want to fund an album by a female rapper, but, to her surprise, she ended up receiving four grants. “This was shocking to me,” she explains. “It was shocking that there was support for this.”

After reuniting with her producer from Subterranean, they hurried back into the studio and released ‘Cellf’ in 2013.

Dance to love to power

Recording a solo album granted Ragna the freedom to be versatile and musically diverse. “On that album, there was everything from party dance hall to love songs to songs about empowerment,” she says, smiling brightly. “It was everything I liked. When I was in the mood, I made this song, then another, and I just hoped at the end of the day it’d be an album.” 

And an album it was. ‘Cellf’ was well-received by fans and critics in Iceland and beyond, proving once and for all that Ragna was no one-trick pony. On each track, her battle rap attitude melded seamlessly with the more modern beats, blending into something resembling a melange of Diplo and classic hip-hop, fronted by a badass MC. There was nothing else like it in Iceland—or anywhere else.

The rebirth

At that time, the Icelandic rap renaissance had begun. Artists like Emmsjé Gauti, Úlfur Úlfur and Gísli Pálmi had started dropping their first hits in Icelandic—tracks that would eventually become the formative notes of the modern Icelandic rap scene. While Ragna’s album came out around the same time, she bucked the trend du jour and decided to write all of her songs in English.

She bursts out laughing when asked about this. “The only subject I’ve ever failed in my life was Icelandic, and even then the teacher was a friend of a friend,” she says. “But also, hip hop and rap have always been in English for me. It’s like opera and Italian. It’s just right.”

“Hip-hop and rap are the most popular genres right now, and I’m still not a part of the mainstream.”

Re-entering the scene alongside a new generation of rappers was a strange experience for Ragna, especially when meeting their fans, who skewed young. “It was weird because many didn’t know me. I’d say, ‘yeah, I was in a band in ’96,’ and they’d say ‘I was four years old in ’96,’” grins Ragna. “No wonder they didn’t know who I was! Many didn’t relate to me, but others still did.” 

Who isn’t listening?

After the hubbub surrounding ‘Cellf,’ Ragna took another break in order to have her second child. Five years later, she teamed up with producer Fonetik Simbol to make ‘Is Anybody Listening?’ After talking with Ragna long enough, the title takes on a life of its own. It’s clearly supposed to be humorous, but in light of her thoughts on the current Icelandic rap scene, you wonder just how serious she’s being.

The album represented a number of firsts for the artist, with Ragna sitting in the producer’s chair for two songs, and singing on others. “I know a lot of fantastic singers who could do it way better than me,” she explains. “But I had to trust that I was trying to portray a certain vibe that only I could do. For me, that was more important than singing perfectly.”

‘Is Anybody Listening?’ also marked an ideological departure. Sure, it resembles her other works lyrically, containing both party bangers and more serious tracks—but for the first time, Ragna felt like she was looking at rap from an adult perspective. “Rap is a battle genre. It’s an egotistical battle genre,” Ragna laughs. “But I’m trying to be grown up about it in a different way. Letting things be what I feel they should be, rather than what others think.”

Finding a group

This DGAF attitude allowed her to make something that felt wholly herself. She’s happy with the result, but the question of where she sits within the Icelandic rap scene persists. Regardless of her success, she still feels alienated from other performers.

“We as human beings are herd animals,” she explains. “We want to be part of a group. But for me as a musician, I think, where is my group? Where are my followers? Why are young people not completely connecting?”

Immediately after revealing her worries though, she sighs contentedly. “But I’m still doing my own thing, which I’m happy about. Hip hop and rap are the most popular genres right now, and I’m still not a part of the mainstream. These two elements are fighting with each other inside me.”

The album’s title comes to mind once again. It’s not only ‘is anyone listening,’ but also: ‘if you’re not listening, why not?’

The OG

Two things that are inseparable from Ragna’s career and legacy are her title as the first female rapper in Iceland, as well as being the first person of colour (POC) on the scene. She’s constantly cited as an inspiration for established artists and women just breaking in to the genre.

“Rap is a battle genre. It’s an egotistical battle genre, but I’m trying to be grown up about it in a different way.”

Interestingly enough, Ragna never considered being a woman or POC as a handicap when she began her career. In fact, she says it probably helped her. “The advantage of that was being remembered,” she explains. “A lot of people still remember me, but they don’t remember my bandmates.” That said, she admits she never wanted to be front and centre for her appearance. “It was nice, but at the same time, I really just wanted to blend in. I wanted to be one of the boys. But I come from a really tough mother and she was just like, ‘Stop whining!’”

Thinking about being a visible minority in the scene also bothers her for another reason: “It bugs the crap out of me. I don’t want any credit based on my gender. Why would you say I am your favourite female rapper?

“I don’t rap with my genitals. I get it, people are trying to be nice, but it pisses me off. You’re not doing anybody a favour. I’m the first female rapper, yes, but I’m also a legit musician amongst the others,” she says. “I think people should focus on what they like, and not why.”

She smiles. It’s clear she’s not dissing the idea of feminist, activist rap, but rather that the hip hop head wants to be remembered for her contribution to the genre, not her gender.

Battle rap forever

Regardless of her worries, Ragna is excited by the future of Icelandic rap and hip hop. She cites GDRN and Huginn as particular favourites, and commends the efforts of Emmsjé Gauti and Úlfur Úlfur as well. “Everyone is trying their hardest to do good things,” she says.

Now that ‘Is Anyone Listening?’ is out, Ragna plans on playing live more often. Her recent release concert was packed, a fact that makes her somewhat characteristically blush. Her current dream is to do what Subterranean never could—to finally play abroad.

Above all else, she humbly appreciates the level of respect she’s given as one of the creators of Icelandic hip hop. “Respect is nice, and it’s not a given. It makes you feel like you’re doing something legit. I can be judgmental and harsh sometimes,” she bursts out laughing. “But hey, I’m an old school battle rap person!”

Old habits die hard.

Check out Cell7’s newest album below:

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