From Iceland — Inside-Out


Published November 2, 2012


I like to think about what Iceland Airwaves means for Iceland. The first IA marked a turning point for Icelandic festivals Festivals up to that point had largely been concerned with bringing cultural edification to us country bumpkins, whether that was the Reykjavík Art Festival or the disastrous outdoor electronic festival Uxi back in ’95. Airwaves came up with this new idea of bringing the fight to the enemy by building a showcase of what Icelanders could do and inviting the world to party with us. It was a game changing idea that came around the time when Icelanders were becoming hyper self-aware of their role in the universe and of how vönderfúllí púre and vackí veee arrre. And now I look around me and it seem most of the kids at Airwaves ’12 are young enough that they grew up with full and constant access to the big bad world and are part of a culture that’s annoyingly savvy at pimpin’ and reppin itself.

And so now you guys are here, domestic and foreign, young and old, hip and cool and incontinent and from every continent, come experience this delicate nature that God saw fit to place in the hand of inbred Icelandic peasants the way a meth head leaves her baby in the care of a responsible-looking fire hydrant.

And I was interested in the hip hop night at Þýski Barinn (ze German bar) tonight because I feel that we’re bringing it back to the old days a bit. Here we have two foreign bands that sound nothing like anything going on in Iceland. There is precious little up-to-date experimental hip hop in Iceland and massive amounts of groupthink in this tiny scene. Icelandic hip hop is in need of someone coming from abroad and blowing our minds. We need those cultural learnings for make benefit Iceland. Benefit our asses!

Hip hop has been getting pretty druggy and weird over the past five years. Bleak melodies layered in echoes, underpinned by chopped and screwed drums accompanied by sarcastic boasting, endless codeine references, political ennui and gothic fiction has become pretty much standard for any up and coming artist these days (think Clams Casino). But even in these dark days a bleaker offshoot has sprouted with artists like Death Grips, SpaceGhostPurrp, Young Fathers, Lil Ugly Mane. Some of it feeling like a side route out of what Gil-Scott Heron was doing at his most intense.

Now. I would have liked to see Airwaves bring in Death Grips and put him on stage next to Björk and a couple of metal bands. That would have been intense. But we got Shabazz Palaces instead – definitely dipping into that pool of downbeat, experimental grime. And THEESatisfaction to boot which I have a harder time getting a handle on – more on them later

There was a lot of variety on display in last night’s line-up (or as much as you can expect in Iceland’s homogenous hip-hop culture).

Úlfur Úlfur kicked things off to a good start. Taking command of the stage immediately and grabbing everyone’s attention. Two preppy-looking fellas with a smooth back and forth flow but with that typical Icelandic mid-tempo, nasal, staccato, delivery. Production swings between the sombre and sincere or flagrant EDM beats. courtesy of DJ Narcoleptic that was in charge of making sure the “play” button was set to ON for most of the Icelandic bands that night. I saw fellow Icelanders cringe a little at the banter between songs delivered with thick American accents. The singer of Rökkurró came in on the third song and fucking nailed it. Their fourth song was a singalong track that wasn’t half as dramatic as it was supposed to be and resulted in some Lil Wayne style guitar solos.

On the whole a very strong beginning. I like Úlfur Úlfur. I wish they had played their best known hit (“Ég er farinn”) but the new material worked great.

Emmsjé Gauti, a friend and collaborator to Úlfur Úlfur, came next on stage. He’s not the most adventurous rapper but he is skillful, smooth, a witty lyricist and a boasts pretty charming stage prescence (however he may be off stage). The person next to me said that Gauti was sort of the Pitbull of Iceland, because he’s never without a “feat.”. He’s a guy that loves to collaborate and that’s just what he did, bringing Úlfur Úlfur back on stage for “Á meðan ég er ungur”. A melancholic pop song and one of the catchiest things to come out this year in Iceland. The chorus always reminds me of ‘Green Grass Of Tunnel‘ by múm for some reason.

Úlfur Úlfur stuck around until rapper 7berg took over and urged the crowd to light Reykjavík on fire (song “Kveikjum í Reykjavík“). True to the Pitbull comparison the two songs where he’s featuring were the strongest.

Halleluwah is the new project by two members of the now-disbanded group Quarashi (Tiny and Sölvi Blöndal) which enjoyed a lot of popularity in Iceland some years ago. I didn’t have high hopes for this project, but they surprised me with a couple of tight old school songs. Thought I heard a sample of Can’s Halleluwah (I’m guessing that’s where they got the name from) and the song K2R which is constructed around a sample of Richard Berry’s “Have Love,  Will Travel”. These are great samples but the songs are played live on stage with Sölvi being his manic pixie self on the drums and  a bass player I didn’t know. Tiny’s style is most of often compared to Eminem and there’s no denying it, but you also get bits of Kanye, Machine Gun Kelly but faster and pitched higher. K2R was the standout song and got the crowd fired up.

Then it was time for the toughest call of the night – Gísli Pálmi. I looked around and saw that a a lot of movers and shakers in the Icelandic scene had flocked to the bar. Industry types and teens. All eyes on Gísli Pálmi. And I can see why. He’s a foreigner in his homeland, he’s the only one committing to this type of slowed-down, codeine-inflected trap music in Iceland. Heavily influenced by Lil B and A$AP but seems to be doing it with such sincerity that it’s hard to ignore him. And he’s the first hip hop artist in Iceland to really take advantage of the social media/mixtape thing, releasing a relentless stream of singles on YouTube and no album in sight. Iceland’s answer to Based God had arrived and the crowd was eating it up.

Personally, I wish I could say I liked his style but I’m not sold on the guy. I don’t mind the sloppiness of it, but with the slowed-down vocals absent the sloppiness and weakness of the delivery became too much to bear. Also his shtick just feels cartoonish – if Gísli Pálmi didn’t exist then local comedian Steindi Jr. would have to invent him. And I can’t get my head past the Lil B influence – it looms too large. So, I don’t know the guy. But, hey, ignore me – everyone loved that shit last night.

Time for the two US bands, THEESatisfaction and Shabazz Palaces, two Seattle bands that have been touring together a lot lately. Both are signed to Sub Pop, a label that’s not exactly known for their hip hop credentials. And the bands are a strange fit for hip hop…outsiders in America and even further outside here in Iceland.

THEESatisfaction first songs clearly draw inspiration from the old alternative hip hop and neo soul bands like Quest and Badu, with a pinch of ESG, slam poetry and early house music. But hard to pin down…not straight up hipster retro but some kind of postmodern take on the first half of the ’90s. And there they were, dancing in sync, kufi hats, raised fists, psychedelic levels of repetition…it feels like some kind of surreal collage.

They got off to a great start but it proved to be too repetitive for the crowd and I could see people’s attention wavering three songs in. Which was a pity because the fourth song was sthe best of the night. They are really strong performers, it’s hard to believe that what I was seeing wasn’t playback. Fantastic singers both of them and nice to get some relief from the all the swag and machismo that preceded it.

But the real let down of the evening was Shabazz Palaces. Fuck me. I came in there a fan and left cursing under my breath. The mike was set too low, the balance was off, frequently off-key and the artists seemed bored. It sounded like I was listening to someone ordering a pizza over the sound of a broken fax machine. Half the room disappeared after the first song and the rest stayed behind to chat and drink.

None of this was working until THEESatisfaction joined them on stage. That’s where things finally came together, the guys got fired up, the sound improved. And even after the girls left, Shabazz seemed a lot more energetic and engaging. My recommendation would be to get THEESatisfaction on stage for the duration because they were the only thing saving this piss-poor set.

Overall a very interesting night at Þýski Barinn and very surprising to see the Icelandic bands taking the prize.

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