Even though the term ‘hip-hop’ is comfortably defined these days and people around the world are trying their best to live up to its definition, it is still hard to find a common denominator for global hip-hop. The Japanese crate digger, the French rap star, the Brazilian breakdancer, the Northern Californian turntablist, the Scandinavian graf writer, the modern day Senegalese griot, they may not have as much in common as the ‘hip-hop is a culture’ talk might make you believe. Still, many of those who engage in activities that are typically considered hip-hop, are networking across the globe as we speak, bringing nations together. Compared to their rapping colleagues, DJ’s, graf writers and b-boys have been connecting on a global level for a long time. When it came to MC’s, the language barrier often stood in the way of a possible exchange on an artistic level. It took the pioneering spirit of a few heads in Japan, Scandinavia, Italy and France to get producers and rappers from different continents to work together.
By 2003, the number of bi-continental collaborations has exploded. You would think it’s only a matter of time that foreign rappers pass the novelty status and make a legitimate impact on the US market. One possible candidate for such a crossover are Sweden’s Looptroop. At present, they are Europe’s most visible hip-hop crew, touring extensively and establishing a fanbase all over the continent. The key to their success is that they rap in English. To most Europeans outside of Scandinavia, Swedish might as well be Martian, but we’re all used to hearing raps in English. Add the fact that children are learning the language at school earlier than ever before, and you have solid prospects for a European crew that has settled with what not long ago was considered helplessly old school: not rapping in your own language.
Another crew that fits this description are The Narcissists (formerly The Narcs), who in many respects have more in common with Looptroop than just their native country Sweden. “Planet Euthanasia” may not be full of socio-critical commentary, but they do take a decisive stance, mainly on the title track, a cynical tour around a world where “it’s easier to live by the looks than intelligence,” with stops at child abuse (“parents love their children and show interest / half of the Earth’s population is the result of incest”), Dubya (“it takes half a nation of millions to choose a president / half a nation of fools plus one to choose an incompetent”) and mothers that have “an abortion instead of a boy or girl.” This pessimistic view is balanced on “Wonder Full” where a great number of what-if questions are being asked, the answers to which creating a utopia that seems far from the ‘Planet Euthanasia’ we’re inhabiting now. But The Narcissisists clearly spend more time hoping for the best than fearing for the worst. On “A Good Day”, they each outline what they consider a good day. Rapper Bucc puts on his superhero costume (“took a huge step for humanity on another planet / and came up with a cure for AIDS and cancer while I was at it”), while his partner in rhyme Ebomb spends a lazy summer day so good that not even getting robbed at the end of it changes anything about his perception that it was a good day.
One thing that becomes immediately apparent when listening to this album is that The Narcissists make sure they come up with concepts instead of just simple songs. “3rd Person Insight” contains some intricate storytelling in the third person, just to zoom in and reveal that the rappers are really talking about themselves. “Irony” works by example, as The Narcs describe dozens of ironic situations such as “getting fired and wanting to die / but finding out that without a job you got a life.” The one hip-hop fans should especially take to heart is this one:
“It’s an underground kid that makes two hip-hop investments
He goes to your shows but he’s on the guestlist
He respects the starving artist and old school heads
It’s your biggest fan getting your albums bootlegged”
The intellectually most intriguing concept on this album is “A.K.A. 47”. Here, The Narcs and guest rapper VG Skillz define themselves in relation to various objects (“to Moonshine beats I’m vocal / but to the world I’m local”) and attributes (“to wack I’m opposite”). All three engage in some solid wordplay that makes you wonder why most US rappers ignore the possibilities their language has to offer:
“To fly kids known as gravity, to battles know as victory
to crimes known as guilty, to lines known as poetry
to rhymes known as plenty, to quantity known as quality”
But by the time they dedicate a whole song to things they are ‘tired’ of and name it “Narcolepsy” you get the feeling that the whole ‘concept’ thing can be overdone. In this event, you’ll be glad that The Narcissists also cover tried and tested topics. Song titles such as “Our Peeps Comes First”, “Graffwriters” and “Fanatik RIP” are pretty much self-explanatory. Worthwhile are especially the latter two, “Graffwriters” riding a hard but melodic bassline sample experts should be well familiar with, while The Narcs put their passion for graffiti on wax: “I got my pants full of different caps to make the lines skinny or fat / The Narcs bombin’ the city blending graffiti with rap.”
One of the highlights of “Planet Euthanasia” has to be “Fanatik RIP”, a eulogy for DJ Fanatik of the Swedish DJ crew Scratchaholics. Producer Moonshine is never in short of what he considers the perfect beat for individual songs, but the shining beauty of “Fanatik RIP” exemplifies his beatmaking skill best. Another song that reaches the deeper regions of your soul is “Moments” featuring the distinctive poetics of Canadian Buck 65. Ushered in by bitter-sweet horn segments and gently pushed forward by a caring bassline, this is one track that begs to be heard by people overseas. Perhaps, the same can even be said for the again superbly arranged “Stockholm”, which isn’t exactly eligible to serve as an official tourist guide, but introduces you well to the city’s apparently wild night life.
Stockholm may be their homebase, but The Narcissists are a thoroughly international hip-hop crew, and they rightfully have international ambitions. Moonshine’s beats don’t cover any new musical ground, but besides being expertedly crafted, they all feature that certain hip-hop quality that is achieved through sampling. Add DJ A-Wax into the mix who laces several tracks with dope scratches, and you got the complete package.
The views may be more mixed when it comes to the rapping. On the surface, Bucc’s and Ebomb’s flows come fat and they speak of experience. As a duo, they interact with each other, making it seem logical that they rap together. Bucc’s delivery can pack a mean punch, yet occasionally comes across a tad bit too aggressive. Ebomb seems younger in many ways (especially the voice), but they compliment each other pretty well. One flaw that becomes apparent (in some songs more than in others) is that their flows are not totally airtight. Whenever the extensively featured Houston guest rapper VG Skillz makes one of his apperances, you can hear the difference between – as Oakland rapper Goldy once put it – a rapper that flows +real tight+ and one that flows +kinda tight+. Clear communication is also jeopardized by the use of multisyllable rhyming. Without there being an accent of any kind, for the casual listener, Bucc’s and Ebomb’s flows are still hard to follow from time to time.
The Narcissists are best advised to perfect the delivery of their rhymes, mostly because they have so much to work with already. Bucc and Ebomb both have a tight-knit relationship with the English language, as they prove on “Served” where they blow up wordplay to comical proportions (“this will become a sure shot like a beach photo,” “got suckers pissed like happy hour bars urinals,” “better come clean like alcoholics to AA meetings” etc.), earning themselves the right to quote the legendary D.O.C.: “I am not illiterate / no, not even a little bit.”