Czech Republic Represent
This small ex-bloc country has been supporting the four pillars of hip-hop for decades.
It’s nothing new to say this. People have been bemoaning the death of “the real” hip-hop almost since Run DMC first went gold. But what happens when the culture is transplanted in Central Europe, which has no connections to hip-hop’s native history to begin with? What happens when hip-hop takes root far from the forces that have transformed American hip-hop into the slick creature it is today?
There are few direct cultural simmilarities between the culture that gave rise to American hip-hop and Eastern Europe. Sometimes people try to draw conclusions based on the similarities between panelaky [Soviet-era housing complexes] and American projects, or between the status of African-Americans and Czech Roma, but these theories don’t really hold up. The post-1989 growth of Czech hip-hop is more an underground movement fueled by dissatisfaction with the sterile, repetitive and synthetic drug culture of techno than it is an authentic expression of a repressed people. Even though much of the Czech hip-hop scene appreciates the old school, and faithfully scorns flashy contemporary western hip-hop, still it can’t be argued that Czech hip-hop today represents the same kind of organic feeling that pushed up the first buds in New York City over 20 years ago.
But hip-hop culture does have deep roots in Prague, deeper than those found in Middle America, where hip-hop was brought solely via MTV. Praguers have been practicing three of the four elements of hip-hop culture since the early 1980’s, these being breakdancing, spraying, and rapping (the fourth, DJing, wasn’t possible due to lack of technology.) The grandfather of Czech breakdancing, Petr Jezek, even has the rare distinction of having officially performed for two different Czech Presidents – both before and after 1989.
Czech hip-hop developed in Prague from a mixture of native and foreign elements. More than a recent spin off of modern US hip-hop, Czech hip-hop culture has a style unique and legitimate in its own right. Graffiti was the first expression of hip-hop in this country, starting in the early 80’s with a talented group of young Prague artists. The early practitioners in the capital were so good that Prague was at one time considered third in the world for graffiti art – ranked only after New York and Berlin. It was these early graffiti artists that first started to freestyle rap in Czech and breakdance. In the mid 80’s a group called Manžele (Husbands) began playing illegally around town with a sound directly influenced by samizdat copies of US hip-hop records.
As influential as graffiti was in the early development of Czech hip-hop, it has since lost much of its former glory. Most top artists have retired from the scene, and as graffiti became more popular, the novelty of the urban artwork also wore off for the municiple authorities, who have gone on the attack against Prague bombers. In recent years laws have been passed that provided harsh punishments for those caught spray painting, thus curbing the interest of artists and drastically reducing the amount of time they have to produce a piece.
What the original graffiti artists planted in the Czech Republic has since flowered into the broad spectrum of hip-hop expression. The diversity and talent in contemporary Czech hip-hop is showcased at the monthly Hip-Hop Foundation shows at Akropolis, sponsored by Bbarák, the Czech Republics monthly hip-hop magazine. The latest Foundation show had exhibitions of graffiti, rap, freestyle, turntablism, beat-boxing, breakdancing and even hack-sack breakdance. The most popular of these are the freestyle/rap, beat-box and break dancing shows. Groups such as Peneri Strycka Homeboye (“Poor Uncle Homeboy”), KO-Kru, and Indy & Wich break it down regularly for estatic young Czech crowds sporting baggy jeans, hoodies, and sweat bands with Carhart, Fubu and other big name hip-hop labels. The scene is largely concentrated around Prague clubs such as 007 and Wakata and the monthly Hip-Hop Foundation events at Akropolis.
Some aspects of Czech hip-hop remain less developed in comparison to the west. Hip-hop turntablism, for example, which is infinitely more complex than spinning house or techno, still lags behind largely due to technical reasons; it’s only recently that turn-tables have been available in the Czech Republic and the economy strong enough for kids to afford them. Other forms like breakdancing, beatboxing and freestyle rap, however, are already world class. Jesus, a popular Czech beat boxer, is also a three-time world Electro-boogie dance champion.
While Czech hip-hop is of course conceived from western hip-hop, it is not a copy for one big reason: Language. For the most part, Czechs simply do not understand the lyrics sung by foreign groups. English hip-hop, hard enough to discern for the native speaker, is usually impossible for Czechs to follow. David Maryško, the co-founder and co-owner of Bbarak magazine, says that often the lyrics in US hip-hop these days aren’t worth understanding anyway. “Most kids can’t speak or understand the lyrics even if they study English in school. They don’t care about the message – just the sound. But I think that if people actually listened to what a lot of big name US rapppers were saying now they wouldn’t buy the records. Americans understand the words and still buy all this nonsense with bullshit beats. I can’t believe what makes millions [in the US market]. Jigga or Ja Rule aren’t even worth understanding.”
But Czech heads still love foreign hip-hop groups – Wu Tang Clan is the most popular – and when a US act plays Prague or Brno, they turn out in force.
The language barrier, together with culture and economics, has resulted in Czech hip-hop developing a different soul. In such a small country, there are no major labels that carry Czech hip-hop and no music television with global reach. If someone picks up a mic here in Prague, they never do it for the hope of getting rich. The lyrics speak to what people here care about. You will almost never hear a Czech rap about guns, money, cars or “bitches.” The references to drugs are kept simple, with only the occasional mention of weed. The lyrics also tend to be constructive and relevant. They talk about fighting the resurgence of fascism and neo-nazis in the Czech Republic, hanging out with friends and life where they grew up. The scene is also so small that it resembles a big family. The production of an album is a huge effort due to the lack of funds, and once completed the people who buy copies of the CD usually know the group personally.
“We don’t really have any commercially successful groups in this country,” says Maryško. There are some wannabe hip-hop acts that make it into Bravo [a Czech teen magazine], but they get no attention in the real scene here. I don’t really expect any commercial return in Czech hip-hop to happen in the near future.”
Maryško describes Czech hip-hop culture as blending old school values with new school sounds. “Because we don’t have the business element to [deal with], we still feel this music in our hearts,” he says. “We trust in hip-hop and not the money. That’s the difference.”
Where to hear it...
- For information on upcoming hip-hop shows in Prague, visit www.bbarak.cz
- Hip-Hop Foundation Number 7 happens at Akropolis on the 19th of April, and Roxy features local MC’s and DJ’s on the 23rd.
- For a sample of Eastern European hip-hop, track down the Prague-based label Terrorist compilation East Side Unia, which features post-bloc rappers Peneri Strycka Homeboye (CZ) Trosky (SK), Fisz (PL), Azido Urai (HU), and K.A.R.T.E.L. (HU). For information on the disc, visit www.tamizadat.org/RPM.
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