A black and white video from October shows the Russian rapper Sil-A in the studio reviewing the day’s work.
‘Spend’ features a beat from C4, the in-demand producer known for his work with the likes of Young Thug and Migos. The lyrics frame big ballin’ as some kind of ethical obligation: to not spend money is to deny money its freedom. Sil-A raps along to the camera and idly counts a stack of his own.
“An ugly duckling!” he proclaims in Russian, pulling out an unwelcome small bill. Flashing a big gold smile, he yells something that roughly translates to “fuck its mother!” He looks not unlike a young John C. Reilly.
Sil-A is one of a growing number of Russian rappers to fully embrace trap rap. He idolizes trap’s reigning godfather Gucci Mane and makes the same kind of brash, unapologetic gangster anthems – but with the pomp of Mussorgsky. His favorite album is Gucci’s Trap God 2, on which C4 produced four tracks. A subgenre of Southern hip-hop, trap has, in the last decade, come to dominate not just rap but all aspects of American music. The name refers to an age-old Atlanta slang term for a dope house, which grew to be synonymous with the Southern rap that’s native to such locales. The genre’s frequent ad libs, streamlined (and sometimes simplistic) lyrics, frantic hi-hats and distorted 808 kicks permeate all aspects of modern pop – Katy Perry’s ‘Dark Horse’ and Rihanna’s ‘Pour It Up’ undoubtedly made it to Russian clubs.
Sil-A is popular, but Russia’s most successful home-grown trap rapper is Moscow’s Yanix. Skills aside, he has the affability and charisma of Wiz Khalifa, and his 2013 album Ghetto Street Show opened up room for similar artists to move. Other notable artists in the scene include the quixotic Yung Trappa, Lottery Billz and his Young Mafia Business crew, and the dextrous Sashmir (to name a few).
Russian trap is a nebulous subset of the larger Russian rap scene, but has some ties to the trap rap establishment stateside. As well as working with C4, Sil-A has done a couple songs with respected Atlanta producers like Tarentino and KE on the Track. The rapper Blacka Mane (who spits in English with a Boris Badenov accent) is loosely affiliated with Waka Flocka Flame’s Brick Squad Mafia. And Russian beatsmith Breezey Muzik has laced the likes of Migos and Peewee Longway with tracks of his own.
Another important link is Moscow-based DJ D.A., who gained some notoriety for his homemade screwed and chopped tapes and earned a cosign from Waka Flocka’s DJ Ace, which he parlayed into some work mixing and hosting tapes for Southern rappers. In 2012, he launched his Trap House Magazine blog on VK, the Russian equivalent of Facebook which is undoubtedly the most prominent resource on trap rap for a Russian audience (i.e. in Cyrillic). D.A. methodically covers every track, tape and video from the bubbling Southern rap underground, from stars like Future to up-and-comers like Johnny Cinco, and he covers the Russian trap scene, including the Sil-A studio video above. In June 2013, D.A. released Trappin Outta Russia, a compilation of Russian trap rap. A matryoshka doll stuffed with weed graced the cover.
A foreign trap scene should surprise nobody, given the genre’s international scope. But trap’s appeal in Russia is not merely aesthetic. Although not exactly explicitly stated, trap rap can trace its roots to the Bush administration’s coddling of the super-rich and disdain for the underclass (not to mentioned the subtle racism of Republican supporters). The response was a sort of nihilistic capitalism: with the straight and narrow leading through hostile territory, dope boys doubled down on their hustle. Young Jeezy’s Thug Motivation 101 (released in 2005) and pioneering trap albums like it pared away most of the emotional complexity and difficult ethical questions of moving weight, not for lack of empathy but out of necessity.
Given the conditions that birthed trap rap in the US, Russia is natural fit for the music. After all, from tsarist regimes to corrupt communists to Putin’s military plutocracy, the country is no stranger to astronomical wealth gaps, apathetic rulers or a lack of upward mobility. Russia has the crime, isolation and lack of opportunity that created the trap in the first place. Blacka Mane used his familiarity with the American scene as a point of reference, comparing the streets of St. Petersburg as “living in Chicago or St. Louis 24/7”. Sil-A described his distant, polluted hometown of Magnitogorsk (“magnetic mountain”) as “typical for the Russian streets… guys on heroin, alcohol and police”.
“I had been trapping long before people here got to know this style of rap,” added Yanix. “I got homies in prison, I got dead homies… I’m deep in this shit.”
Trap’s rise to prominence in EDM and the global dance scene complicates any discussion of trap rap in Russia, where dance music is much more popular than hip-hop. Around 2012, some enterprising producers mixed trap beats and samples with BPM-compatible dubstep song structures, and the result – “trap EDM,” “trap dubstep,” “trapstep” or just “trap” (to the uninformed) – brought the modern hip-hop world and the EDM community together. Despite the international popularity of songs like ‘Niggas in Paris’ and ‘Mercy’, it took trap EDM to introduce trap as a discrete genre to most of the world, Russia included.
It’s disturbing to see trap EDM overshadow its rap roots. Trap EDM tracks tend to do away with lyrics and in the process strip away the music’s cultural metadata. This is especially frustrating in America. At its inception, trap EDM seemed like a perfect way to bridge the racial divide between young music fans interested in both the largely black hip-hop scene and the largely white world of EDM. And while it has been such a bridge for a handful of artists, the scenes have mostly spiraled away from each other. In Russia, however, it seems trap EDM brought trap rap with it.
The dance community just called the genre “trap”, making no distinction between (or having no awareness of) its hip-hop history. A-list trap rappers like 2 Chainz and Jeezy definitely had Russian fans, but they were seen more generally as American pop music. So when trap EDM hit the Moscow clubs in 2012, new fans looking discovered trap rap in the process – rap that sounded kind of like the dance music they were getting into. Internet searches for trap returned EDM and hip-hop. And plenty of DJs mixed the rap with the EDM in their sets and online mixes. A rising tide lifted all boats.
DJ D.A. acknowledged dance music’s role in bringing trap rap to Russia, but also the confusion that ensued. “People thought that ‘EDM trap’ was the original trap music. Now when people argue about something in trap music, they hit me up and ask me for an exact answer. That means a lot to me.”
“Five years ago, I was listening to Jeezy and Kanye’s ‘Put On’ for six months. Just one song!” said St. Petersburg producer and DJ Sudden Beatz. “I didn’t realize that was trap music.”
In 2013, a team of promoters booked Trap-A-Holics, the legendary Southern mixtape DJ, and his entourage on an eight city Russian tour, sending him as far as the frozen Siberian outpost of Norilsk. Trap-A-Holics made his name curating and compiling mixtapes for trap rappers in the 2000s, laying the groundwork for the careers of Waka Flocka Flame, Gucci Mane and OJ The Juiceman. He branded his tapes with iconic drops, like a Dom Pardo “middle-aged white guy” type saying “damn son, where’d you find this?” and “real trap shit”. Trap-A-Holics’ drops have become staples for trap EDM producers, and he’s been able to parlay his historical relevance into DJ gigs for EDM crowds in the US.
But Russian fans legitimately knew him and his role. His drops were an important cosign to Russian audiences, a stamp of authenticity. Pesh Singh, Trap-A-Holics’ tour manager for the trip, recalled him playing everything from known superstars like Waka Flocka to underground artists like Atlanta’s Sy-Ari the Kid. The Russians stayed with him.
Pesh was continually amazed. “Nobody spoke English in Russia except for every Waka, Gunplay and Gucci Mane song. That was different. They knew more Gucci Mane songs than I did.”
It makes sense that despite being over a decade old, trap rap has only recently coalesced in Russia. It’s a departure from the rest of the Russian hip-hop scene, one rooted in the long history of the country’s political poetry. Under the tsars, poets recited from memory so as to avoid leaving written evidence of subversion. Communism spawned bard music, a genre of simple guitar strumming under politically charged recitations which gained footing in the 1950s. Contemporary Russian rappers use tricky, memorable wordplay and tend to have revolutionary politics. Battle rap is alive and well. And as with the larger European hip-hop scene, Russia is strongly influenced by “Golden Era” East Coast rap, along with its sense of superiority to Southern rap. Their contemporary influences tend to be the likes of Eminem or J.Cole.
However, Russian is a complicated language laden with double and triple entendres and very long words. Russian trap is not necessarily any less dense than its more traditionally minded cousin. Kiev-born rap nerd Alex Piyevsky continually cracks up as we go through Sashmir’s 2013 tape Washing Powder. When I ask, he pauses and tells me that none of the jokes translate well, relying on 100-year-old slang which has gained multiple meanings over time. A couple decades removed from the country, a lot of the jokes are lost on Alex; the juxtaposition of the word for “pimp” – once an unthinkably harsh pejorative – with a shout out to Texas legend Pimp C has him diving down a Google.ru rabbit hole. A deeper mystery is Sashmir’s frequent mentions of laundry: it might mean anything from literally laundering money to a large gathering of people. I feel like someone’s dad asking another parent what “on fleek” means.
In the last few months, Sil-A has released more music, including a video for the Tarentino-produced ‘Diamonds’, but he’s also gone underground for legal reasons (cutting what was a pleasant and informative email conversation short). Gucci Mane, meanwhile, is currently in jail and has still managed to get a full-length project out every few months during his incarceration – a fact probably not lost on Sil-A.