With a population of only 330,000, Iceland has long punched above its weight when it comes to music, exporting globally successful acts like Sigur Rós and Björk. But you probably won’t have heard much about its fertile hip-hop scene, where the raps might be in Icelandic but everyone speaks the international language of turnt. Andrew Friedman meets the country’s biggest rap stars to discover a scene on the brink of exploding, Eyjafjallajökull style.
Iceland is in the middle of a hip-hop boom. In the last five years or so, rap has grown from a small but substantial sub-genre to a major factor in the tiny country’s outsized music scene. And, unlike a similar explosion in Icelandic hip-hop around 2001 which faded in a few years, this new wave feels more permanent.
No longer just a local scene in Reykjavik, rappers like Úlfur Úlfur, Emmsjé Gauti and Gísli Pálmi are some of the most popular artists in Iceland. They play shows across the country, get steady radio play, and hold down significant chunks of the country’s many music festivals. Right now, Gauti and Aron Can’s ‘Silfurskotta’ sits atop the Iceland Spotify chart, right above Drake’s ‘One Dance’.
It’s hard to speak for the breadth of the entire genre, but contemporary Icelandic hip-hop often recalls the more psychedelic material by Drake, A$AP Rocky and Young Thug. Tempos are slow, hi-hats are frantic and drums are satisfyingly crisp over synth pads lingering in the background. It’s a clean sound that’s best contextualized by 2012’s influential cloud rap movement; GKR’s breakout single ‘Morgunmater’ even boasts an N64-ish beat from cloud-inspired New York producer Purpdogg, who’s best known for producing Drake and Soulja Boy’s ‘We Made It’.
The juxtaposition of big, pretty backgrounds with smaller, more frantic features upfront almost mimics the look of Iceland itself: epic geography dotted with small clusters of civilization. It’s not surprising to see Icelandic scenes in many of the artists’ videos.
Icelandic hip-hop also lays bare the futility of distinguishing between most contemporary rap and R&B, as practically everyone splits their time between Auto-Tuned crooning and technical rapping, with some artists falling entirely on one side or the other. This has a lot to do with modern rap’s vague boundaries, but Iceland’s tiny pool of musicians also makes a genre crossover an inevitability. The immensely popular duo Úlfur Úlfur, for example, started as a side project of a rock band. Rapper Atlas’s production is handled by his long-time friend Logi Pedro of the pop group Retro Stefson, while the 16-deep feminist rap collective Reykjavíkurdætur shares members with successful reggae group AmabAdamA.
“We’ve grown from rapping a lot to [making] R&B,” says Sturla Atlas, whose ‘San Francisco’ was a radio staple for much of 2015. “Our most popular songs are genuine pop songs.”
The recent story of Icelandic hip-hop begins with Gísli Pálmi. Rarely seen without sunglasses, and just as rarely seen with a shirt, Gísli is the Icelandic artist whose brand most easily translates as “international rap star”. His tracks are heavy on cash talk, hard partying, and casual threats, and his self-titled 2015 debut was, according to a Reykjavik music store owner, the most anticipated release since Sigur Ros’s 2013 album Kveikur. When Rae Sremmurd played a one-off show in Reykjavik last year, he was the obvious choice to open. (He also knocked out Bam Margera, but that is really neither here nor there.)
Gísli’s 2011 track ‘Set Mig I Gang’, and specifically its video, more or less kicked off today’s Icelandic rap resurgence. This seems crazy in retrospect, because the clip is not much more than Gísli, shirtless and tatted up, threatening the listener with a power drill in Icelandic. A black Range Rover is parked behind him on a manicured lawn which could be somebody’s suburban backyard. It’s charmingly low-budget, just the average DIY local rap video from that era.
But ‘Set Mig I Gang’ (which loosely translates to ‘Set Me Off’) shocked Icelandic rap into the 2010s. “He just had so much offensive swag going on,” remembers fellow rapper and frequent Gísli collaborator Emmsjé Gauti. “People got so mad.” Before Gísli, the country’s hip-hop sensibilities were (like much of Europe) disproportionately influenced by East Coast puritanism. Rick Ross, Gucci Mane and Waka Flocka may have been the hottest shit out at the time, but the idea of emulating them perplexed Icelanders. Gísli showed it was possible. “He opened up doors for artists to be more like they want to be,” says GKR. “It was a turning point [away from] the whole boom-bap era.”
If it seems far-fetched that one video could have such an impact, remember that Iceland is extremely small. With a population of 323,000, the entire country would be the 97th biggest city in Europe and the 155th largest metropolitan area in the United States (just behind Lincoln, Nebraska and Spartanburg, South Carolina, for reference). That said, Iceland very much has its own culture, separate from Europe and the wider world, so it’s no small feat for one man to change an entire country’s music scene by doing trap arms on YouTube.
There’s also precedent for Gísli Pálmi’s revolution. In 2000, the rap group XXX Rottweiler won the Músíktilraunir, Iceland’s annual battle of the bands, and followed up their victory the next year with their self-titled debut album. Their success pushed rap into the Icelandic mainstream for the first time. But, as with Gísli, XXX Rottweiler’s popularity was as much about the music as it was about demonstrating that Icelanders could be a part of hip-hop culture while remaining true to themselves.
BlazRoca, the group’s charismatic and outspoken frontman, embodied this idea (“he was like Eazy-E in a wool sweater,” says Reykjavik DJ Danni Deluxe), and pushed it forward by parlaying XXX Rottweiler’s success into his TV show Íslensk Kjötsúpa (referring to a traditional Icelandic soup). The show was sort of an Icelandic version of Da Ali G Show, on which BlazRoca played a character named Johnny Naz who conducted interviews with politicians. But unlike Ali G, Johnny Naz was an over-the-top version of Blaz himself; it was more good-natured parody than satire.
XXX Rottweiler did more than demonstrate that being hip-hop and Icelandic were not mutually exclusive. They also rapped in their native language; their debut album was the first rap record entirely in Icelandic. This is notable given that practically everybody in the country is fluent in English, and Icelanders have proved themselves capable English-speaking rappers: true school acolytes Subterranean’s 1998 album Critical Magnetizm remains one of the country’s most successful domestic rap releases, while Hossi Olafsson of the internationally successful rap-rock group Quarashi delivers solid Beastie bars, and not just by the low standards of the nu-metal era.
Still, after XXX Rottweiler, Icelandic rappers all but abandoned English, and that has been the case for a decade and a half. (Suffice to say, there is a huge gap between the robotic idea of “fluency” and the comfort of expressing yourself in your native language.)
Given the tiny country’s outsized footprint on the global music scene, it’s fair to wonder if Icelandic rappers’ dedication to their native language puts a low ceiling on the scene’s potential success. After all, having British accent has been a reasonable scapegoat for grime’s failure to blow up in America. But some of the most cutting-edge rappers of the moment built their careers on semi-intelligible Auto-Tuned excursions. Not knowing exactly what Lil Wayne, Chief Keef, Young Thug and Future are saying does not preclude enjoying their music. (Consider, also, how much Thugger’s vocal excursions, canine ad libs and hallucinogenic taste in beats have in common with Icelandic alt-royalty Björk.)
For now, conquering Iceland is enough for Iceland’s rappers. Helgi of Úlfur Úlfur remembers the challenge of growing up in a small town in the northern reaches of the country, connected to the scene in far away Reykjavik only through the XXX Rottweiler messageboard. The one time the group ventured to his area, he was too young to get in to the show, but he loitered outside the venue the entire night regardless. Now Úlfur Úlfur make similar trips nearly every weekend. Their shows draw hundreds of fans, many of whom happily drove an hour or two for the experience.
As the popularity of XXX Rottweiler and Gísli Pálmi demonstrates, the success of the Icelandic hip-hop scene is rooted in its ability to be relevant on its own terms. And that is hip-hop as fuck. No genre is more concerned with terroir than rap, and some of the greatest rap songs of all time are glorious, five-minute geotags. Nothing says “I’m from Iceland” more clearly than speaking Icelandic.
Andrew Friedman is on Twitter