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Postmodern Village
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The State of Russian Rap
By Hillary Hardcore (Feat. Kitty Katja of the Volga Vulgars)

Your royal hip-hopness is dating herself here a bit -- but hey, I'm still younger than Jay-Z and Dr. Dre. It was back in the very early '90s when I first met Katja, then a foreign exchange student at my high school. It was the golden age of gangsta rap and I was in heaven. The beats were dope, the rhymes were hard and everything was the shit. 2pac was still alive and everything was good in the hood (well, not really -- things actually were downright awful in the hood, but it made for some damn fine music).

Katja still reps Novgorod, a historic Russian city on the Volga river, and when she first came to the US, she already had seen some dramatic changes as her country was switching from communism to capitalism. She was hungry for all things Western since they had been forbidden for so long, so I enjoyed introducing her to the hip-hop world. I always had a thing for balalaikas -- don't know why -- so we had quite the cultural exchange.

At the time, since I was just a self-centered badass teenager, I refused to listen that didn't come from Compton. I didn't care about the other coast's rap, much less other countries. Now though, I find it fascinating and oddly disappointing.

I am utterly thrilled about one thing though: that I kept up my friendship with Katja. The internet came at just the right time and we shifted to e-mails from postcards for correspondence as soon as we could. We share our homemade tracks back and forth, collaborating all the time. She's now Kitty Katja and records with the Volga Vulgars. Since I dig a lot of Russian hip-hop, although my understanding of the language is minimal, I thought some additional explanation from Kitty Katja would be helpful. This joint project has been mixed from our continuing conversations about hip-hop in our lengthy IM convos. Imagine us passing a mic back 'n' forth, just like Run and Darryl (RIP, Jam Master Jay).

HH: One thing I've noticed about some world hip-hop -- not all, of course -- is how it rips off our rap music. Is that just a necessary evil?

KK: Like any art, there are good acts and bad. The good ones, like Detsl, try and do something new. The bad do nothing new. There is a underground Drago mixtape circulating just using 50 Cent, Jay-Z and other full background tracks.

HH: How half-assed. The Neptunes must be pissed.

KK: Exactly!

HH: Of course, no one (except in the hip-hop blogs) says anything when Jay-Z uses the same samples as other rap groups, rips off the same chorus from another rap groups, etc. It's not as if, we'll say, plagiarism, is new.

KK: Of course not. Lawyers would argue sampling is stealing or cheating too.

HH: Yeah, although it's creating something new. It's a battle I think hip-hop has never fully answered since it often uses pieces of other works. How different does something have to be before it's "new"?

KK: There's a question that's often been asked in court, I think. With international hip-hop taking off, that brings a whole level of legal complications with that question.

HH: No wonder Dre's not doing nothing. Let Kayne, Swizz Beatz and Scott Storch deal with this shit.

KK: So do you have an idea why hip-hop is so hot in Russia right now?

HH: Because you still want to be like us?

KK: That's so 1980s. It's because we have PLENTY of our own gangsters now, so we need the right music. You had your gangster rap in your gangster golden age. We have ours.

HH: I can often sense the rage in Russian hip-hop, though I can rarely pick much out of it. (We have to start back up those Russian lessons.) There's very little gangsta rap in the US anymore. There's Shyne and C-Murder who are real thugs. The Game's trying really hard to be the second coming of NWA, but he raps more about how great he is than anything else, which gets old fast. Ice Cube's now doing movies with CGI raccoons and kids. He's gone from "Boyz in the Hood" to "Are We Done Yet?". Both he and Ice-T released albums last year, but the radio statios and general public would rather listen to the new hotness, like TI and Young Jeezy ("yeeeaaaaaaaaah"). I just miss the days when it had a political point. You know, the Public Enemy days -- not these Flavor Flav reality TV show days. American hip-hop now is so focused on Grey Goose, cash and bitches.

KK: Why do you insist on degrading women by using that name?

HH: I don't do it all the time, but that's what they rap about. It's a certain kind of woman. Come visit and I'll introduce you to a few of them. You're not a bitch. I could give you a few lessons though -- I'm one.

KK: Hillary!

HH: You got that track made with the balalaika loops yet? That's going to be the shit.

KK: We like things a little harder in Russia right now. We listen to a lot of gangster rap. We do not want our folk in our rap just as you do not want hymns in your rap, except for that travesty song Kayne West did to sell to the very Christian kids. You need to lay off that art school East coast rap. It is poisoning your mind.

HH: Nice to see a Russian joking about poisoning.

KK: Hillary!

And really, it was nice because it means Katja isn't censored . . . yet. The continual censorship under Putin scares Katja, although she doesn't say so, and is an undercurrent of Russian rap. Just as the golden age of gangsta rap was fed up with Republican rule (blamed for the crack epidemic, the Persian Gulf War and ongoing institutionalized racism, the pinnacle of which was the beating of Reginald Denny and the resulting Los Angeles riots), the reign of Putin has inspired some fantastic Russian hip-hop.