What's The Good Word
HVAÐ ERTU AÐ TALA UM?* Everybody wants to know, GKR. The whole fucking world.
Okay maybe not the whole world…yet. But it is obvious that the word is out (in whatever language that word might be). This year’s kick-off “Nonference,” a series of industry talks held during the day in Harpa’s media center, revolved around the topic of “Rap and Hip-Hop—Local Trends and International Appeal.”
The industry side of the panel included Frankie Dunn (i-D), Leigh Lust (Pledge Music), Robert Meijerink (Eurosonic Noorderslag) and Liz Stokes (Record of the Day). Representing the Icelandic rap scene were Salka Valsdóttir (Reykjavíkurdætur / Cyber) and GKR.
So, what are they talking about, and what are others saying? Does rapping in Icelandic make a difference when trying to export into a global music market, especially within a genre where cleverness and wordplay are most highly revered?
Short answer: no.
Frankie Dunn of i-D believes that the exposure and distribution of Icelandic rap is best left to develop organically. “Keep rapping in Icelandic,” she tells the artists, “that is part of the quirk, the hook.” Leigh Lust quickly agrees. Leigh is the Vice President for global music distribution platform Pledge Music, and has attended every Iceland Airwaves festival since its conception in 1999 (except for two). “This is the year of Icelandic hip-hop,” he says assertively. “Before it was limited to maybe one i-D sponsored stage, and a couple of independent acts. Maybe. This year there are simultaneous stages every night, hip-hop is dominating this festival.” His point is that hip-hop is hitting a peak stride, both here and abroad. “It’s just about finding that one thing that makes everybody’s eyes pop—that makes people ask ‘where is the next one?”
It’s already happened in Icelandic rock, Leigh recollects. After Sigur Rós opened international eyes, Of Monsters and Men slid into view, and Kaleo has been signed by Atlantic records. It’s not a longshot to believe that Icelandic hip-hop could be next on the export list; it just needs someone to grab the handle and open the door.
Besides timing and distribution, the production value has grown tremendously since the first wave of Icelandic rap in the early 2000s and today. “That last song you played last night,” Leigh says to GKR (referring to the crowd-favorite “Tala Um”), “I saw no boundaries with it. The lyrics were so enthusiastic and so hooky that you wanted to sing along like you know the lyrics.” “We all sing ‘the Macarena’ and nobody knows what the hell it means,” Liz Stokes adds.
That said, lyricism should not be taken for granted. While the world market may be gearing up to accept Icelandic rap as is, a bit of the soul, the kick, the wit gets lost without lyrics. GKR recalls submitting lyrics to Isaiah Rashad and Kendrick Lamar during an online submission: “IR didn’t get why they didn’t rhyme,” he says, “but it was a translation. Sometimes if you can’t understand the lyrics then you miss all the punch lines,” he says.
Quick lyricism is inherent to rap and hip-hop. Manipulating language is part of the fun, part of the craft, part of the creation. When done right a rapper can make you think twice or three times about what you just heard, which is key to the original goals of rap, to make people think twice. Then again, some things are fine lost in translation as long as you play it off. People will still nod their heads and raise their hands in praise, isn’t that right, DOOM? (Catch a throatful/ from the fire vocaled/ ash and molten glass like Eyjafjall….wait what?)
*Translation: what are you talking about?
Originally published in The Reykjavík Grapevine Airwaves Edition, 2017.