Recently Spotify has upped its game. Considerably. You can now listen to curated playlists like Pop goes Classical and Chillwave Workout. I’d been listening to Adult Contemporary all day on Sunday and was looking forward to trying out the International Hip Hop playlist while cooking, being a bit of a connoisseur. Three massively disappointing songs later, Drake came on and it was over. Rather than a playlist with hip hop from around the world, it was just...indie hip hop without the indie spin. It was grossly underwhelming. I could do way better, I thought. Ha.
I give you today a musical assemblage—it’s biased, microscale and focused entirely on my own tastes, but ultimately tells us something about what we as listeners can discern from different approaches to the common experience of hip hop. How can a universal medium express similar thoughts and emote to us in languages we cannot understand? Is shared experience that powerful a force? How can we stand to listen to something that doesn’t immediately unfold to us? I think it’s almost like meeting a person, learning new things about them over the span of years. Every time you listen you pick something else out, feel something stark and new. Without further ado, I present an odd assortment of summarily awesome things. I hope your cooking adventures and morning commutes improve as much as mine have!
The fifteen years of research that went into this began in French class, whittling away the morning hours before school learning awful conjugations and watching movies about dead farm fowl (“le coc est mort, le coc est mort…”). Enter Manau’s La Tribu de Dana, a song with such genius that they got sued for stealing the melody line from someone else (video of this harp-playing dude here). Breton/French rap fusion? Bring it.
Much of this list comes from an appreciation for the genre shared with my dear friend Hilary. “Hey, check out this awesome German rap song” – “Holy crap, this is awesome. I should learn German. Want to learn Russian?” “Sure!” (Today Hilary has learned impeccable German and my Russian could about get me to a sandwich shop at the airport before asking if anyone speaks English). She’s added about half of these songs over the years. Where to start? How about Cro, with the dynamic song pair Erinnerung and Traum, back to back as the pinnacle of an otherwise standard (albeit German) rap album. They’re jam songs and have the tendency to make you want to sing random German words at the wall (fair warning). But more importantly, you should go listen to Peter Fox, who is atrociously not on Spotify. His album Stadtaffe (city monkey) is a thorough work of art, and the songs Fieber and Haus Am See are well worth the listen, and are probably better than anything you'll actually find here (See? I even provided links. What, am I supposed to put up pictures instead?). Peter Fox also frontlines a band called Seeed (why not have too many vowels?), with jam songs Ding (for an infidelity theme) and Aufstehen (because who wouldn’t want to see Cee Lo Green rapping over a German song?). Ignore my playlist and go watch these songs. (Ok, you can keep reading too…)
You will find this playlist has some linguistic biases—this is natural: I never learned Armenian and couldn’t tell you how I feel about their counterculture, nor should I. But German, French or Italian? I have a lot to say. Fabri Fibra is every country’s ugly pitbull, looks like a movie extra, and likes to rap in a coarse Italian bunny suit (don’t click this link). He suffers in solo projects, but does well with collaborations (sort of like Kanye West or post 2002 Eminem)(ouch). Nationalistic smash hit In Italia is a brutal and entertaining look at what it means to be Italian (but really it’s all about Gianna Nannini’s chilling voice: “you were born here, will die here, all this in the country of half truths”), and Idee Stupide, a thematically indiscernible but nonetheless pleasant song has a strong style of its own that is a refreshing break from English songs of a similar ilk. Really it’s about Fabri Fibra’s song Speak English, in which he stuns everyone (me?) in the middle of indicting the English-speaking world on their linguistic imperialism to make watchers of his music video “enjoy the silence” with nearly a minute of seagulls and water just for the sake of doing it.
Where there’s an ugly rapper, there’s a cute little brother, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t tell you to listen to Nesli, Fabri Fibra’s artistic and party-going smaller self. Awful in combo, Nesli differentiates himself by successfully singing and managing some works of pure poetic brilliance like La Fine (look up the translation if you like it—it’s a powerful engagement of time and loss) and Ti Sposero. Dance anthem Non Tornero is positively ratchet, but Spotify doesn’t reach everywhere so I’m stuck leaving you listening to Ancora in Piedi.
I think all the Italians I know would revoke my last name if I weren’t to point to a critically acclaimed artist, so I’ve included Caparezza’s Il Secondo Secondo Me to give you a taste of respectable music. And then there’s Jovanotti, who has a special place in my heart. I was first exposed to his music watching him stand on a raft in the middle of the Mediterranean and talk about how his home was home for the whales and the sea gods (yup), and then I went to Italy and cried my heart out to Tutto L’Amore Che Ho ("All the love I have"—listen below and feel something). I’ve added L’Ombelico Del Mondo (umbilical to the world) and Quando Saro Vecchio, a song about aging and dying with grace that gets me every time.
Turning for a moment from Western Europe, I’ve included Bezubaan (sorry Hitesh) but no Honey Singh (sorry Aamir), though to be fair he makes a cameo on Mast Kalandar that I can’t ignore, so there you are Aamir, you can rest happily. A good primer on Desi Hip Hop is a track put together by Manj Musik that I absolutely cannot stand for its egregiously bad English chorus, but if it’s your thing then you should check out this video (there’s fire—there’s always fire). Singh wannabe song Baaki Batein Peene Baad made the list for being an absolute anthem despite being a lyrical goose egg, and I’ve included Musical Doctorz’ Jaguar for stylistic diversity and a smooth flow.
On recommendation from Soyeon I’ve listened to some KPop and, though I could have put a lot more effort into it (sorry), the unequivocally awesome Overdose made the list, and I would listen to it again and again. Someday I’ll choreograph something to it for demo team (bonus points for demo team members who made it this far into the article. You’ll get a solo :P). I’ve added Santana’s Migra for its energy, and I’ve added Juanes’ La Camisa Negra because it belongs with these songs. It’s not strictly hip hop, but it’s my playlist and I think you should know it. Complain later. For more fun, check out the ridiculously cheerful Bonito, another song that doesn’t belong on this playlist, but that is worth listening to, that made me happy when I was exploring (this section belongs entirely to Hilary). Logically, here's a Peter Fox video to keep things in the hip hop genre.
My old friend Taran gave me Kolaveri Di (Ha, oops.) and Amplifier by Imran Khan, but more importantly he pointed me toward Sexion D’Assaut, a controversial and wholly dank French rap ensemble. In true American fashion, its members have been in and out of jail, have shamed themselves publically for their questionably old-fashioned views, and are, of course, brilliant musicians. Driven by the musical mastermind Maitre Gims, a man possessed with a godly voice and a rap flow to make Biggie blush, they’ve put out a recent (I'm old, so maybe not) album called Apogee (climax—pun intended) with tracks like Ma Direction (quit school, don’t care—j’suis Maitre Gims), Wati House and Panama Allons Danser (for a song that dubs itself—it’s not a dubstep remix, it’s just the end of the song; leave it to Europe). Side songs include the wildy popular Desole and Ma Melodie by Dry, ft. Maitre Gims himself. More importantly, Taran led me to Stromae (verlan for maestro—go look up verlan if you don’t know what it is; it’s a linguistic treasure :P) with socially progressive songs and videos like Papaoutai, Formidable and Tous Le Memes. I’ve also included less well-known tracks Batard and Allors on Danse (because Kanye West had to make my playlist somehow—sorry Drake). Stromae is a solid artist and should be critically-acclaimed for some time to come.
Onward. What playlist is complete without slushy consonants and the occasional plosive? Zulu frontrunner Zola put out an Oscar-winning film called Tsotsi with an incredible soundtrack narrating life of a Johannesburg gang and the social tumult in modern-day South Africa. I’ve included songs Mdlwembe (“problem child”), Ehala, Sgubhu Sam and Matofotofo (the last two by other artists)(Matofotofo has the same trumpet line as John Legend and Estelle’s song Wait a Minute, which is awesome but came several years later; stealing a trumpet line from South Africa? Smooth. Or maybe everybody stole from an earlier song; #winning). Avoid Afrikaaner group Die Antwoord like the plague (don’t click this link. Really don’t)—they’re brilliant, but some music is just too weird. Instead enjoy Le1f’s Wut, a decidedly refreshing song with a music video starring a very gay Pikachu. Quality stuff (and open for critical discussion).
A word or two needs to be said about Bushido. Yes, Bushido, the German/Turkish rap headache with an Eminem complex. He started in the truly awful ensemble Aggro Berlin with co-star Fler, and put out some ear-rending songs like Neue Deutsche Welle (cars, chains, and a living falcon) and the destructively bad Deutscha Bad Boy (if you click the link, you’ll laugh and cry and refuse to listen to anything else I post). On to Sonny Black, Bushido’s Slim Shady alter ego, and then to angsty rejection of his immigrant background—all the makings of a great rapper. I’ve included the hit songs Schmetterling (a surprisingly enjoyable song called “you are my butterfly”) and Lose Yourself, ahem, I mean Alles Wird Gut, Bushido’s (again surprisingly successful) attempt at a chillingly motivational hit. The translations in the music video... well... it sounds a lot better in German. What can I say.
Let’s instead transition to Fettes Brot, Hamburg’s “hip hop dinosaur,” who has been putting out songs since I got interested in building with blocks and legos. Their music is hit or miss, but they’ve spanned the decades and have songs in every manifestation of hip hop’s evolution (See Am Tagen Wie Diesen for German jogging and casual tanks). I’ve included my first love affair with a German song, Emanuela, that I got to know at the dances at, you guessed it, German camp. Circa-2010 hit song Ich Lass Dich Nicht Los is a surprisingly moody indictment of old people on the internet and makes you feel all sorts of interesting things about love, loss and longing, most of all leaving you not wanting to be a lonely dude in a chat room (do those still exist? Sorry 2001!).
And back to Manau, my grade-school French infatuation and first exposure to songs in other languages that weren’t about brushing your teeth, counting chickens and civic duty. La Poupée has a wickedly contemplative beat that you could read philosophy books to, and should be a slow outro to any playlist on international songs. I included the Street’s English-language but decidedly non-American arrhythmic hit, Let’s Push Things Forward, the closest I’ll get to that deplorable Spotify playlist on International Rap. Et voila! We’ve come full circle, are still talking about Spotify, the internet, and some snarky use of the word ‘indictment’ – shows up a lot in talking about hip hop. Thanks for reading, go do your own research, and tell me what I missed. Hope you have as much fun as I did, and the backstory always makes it richer. Thanks again to fellow enthusiasts who helped me build the list over time. I give you my musical anthology.