This is the second stop on our tour across ’80s Europe on the hunt for early signs of rap being transferred over from America to the Old Continent. In Europe’s Nordic countries (Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Iceland), it becomes clear that our original concept of excluding certain genres because they are too close to hip-hop’s origins simply doesn’t yield enough results.
At the same time the distinction between the broad genres of pop and rock and everything else doesn’t hold up to scrutiny anyway. Jazz funk, Italo Disco, electro funk, new wave, two-tone, synth-pop, Hi-NRG, freestyle, Eurobeat, world music, etc. were all popular genres that influenced and defined the sound of pop music at some point at various places – just like hip-hop (whose musical influence began to show in the later ’80s). The fact that an emerging trend – rapping – is (strategically or haphazardly) incorporated into a genre implies that an astute mind was at work. In other words, if someone rapped on a song between 1980 and 1987 in Europe, that was automatically a pop move. In the best possible sense.
The initial idea behind this series was that rap was more likely to arrive in Europe via local pop and rock productions. But in reality funk bands and dance producers had the closest connection because the earliest rap records were either based on funk or disco. And then you had jazz musicians taking interest in rap, and you had the offshoot electro genre fascinating fans especially overseas. Swedish funk rock band K.O.D.A. only put out three singles but in 1980 it was time for “Funky Rappin”:
We’ve seen and heard just about everything, so there is nothing remarkable about the footage above. Except for the fact that four Swedish lads were Funky Rappin’ not even a year after Kurtis Blow was Christmas Rappin’ as if that itself were completely unremarkable.
Finally, outside of conventional funk bands, one would assume that experimenting with rap as a form of expression not typically used in music fell to adventurous musicians. Additionally, you’d likely be dealing with folks who follow a more mischievous impulse, rapping simply for the fun of it – or for the f**k of it. Either way you have a variety of musicians and entertainers who were maybe not qualified to rap but did it just the same.
So whatever you will find when searching for early rap adaptations qualifies as a novelty. Just like to the ears of the world “Rapper’s Delight” was a novelty. When someone raps for the first time in a native language, that’s definitely a novelty, too. And this often happened in the period we focus on here. The difference is that hip-hop in America really didn’t stop after 1979 whereas elsewhere kids who began rapping seriously in the late ’80s often weren’t aware of the previous generation’s pioneering rap artefacts. RapReviews.com plans to take a look at that era separately. Especially Sweden and Denmark’s first generation who lived and breathed hip-hop made surprising ventures into the US market.
1) Per Cussion All Stars featuring Grandmaster Funk – “Payin’ the Price!” (Sweden 1984)
If the 1980s had a – last but not least pop cultural – center of the world, it was New York City. As our first installment of ‘Early Sightings of Rap in 1980s Pop’ showed, music industry professionals like former Sex Pistols manager Malcolm McLaren or The Clash’s Mick Jones became early adopters because they stayed there frequently. Swedish multi-percussionist Per Tjernberg has shared similar impressions:
‘In the early eighties I visited New York several times. It was the beginning of the whole Hip Hop movement: “The Message” was spread by Grandmaster Flash through ghettoblasters everywhere, young kids doing break dance was the most exciting street entertainment, and graffiti was producing its first great artists. Inspired by the emergence of this great new folk art form I returned to Sweden convinced that elements from Hip Hop could successfully be combined with the music I was mostly into at the time, which was African, Afro-Cuban and Brazilian music, and Jazz orientated improvisational stuff. The rap artist seemed to me a modern extension of the West African ‘Griot’ (storyteller, social commentator, history teacher). And the beats were slamming!’
Back home in Stockholm Tjernberg (who recorded under the aptronym Per Cussion) found a Brooklyn transplant who practiced some of these hip-hop elements at a local club. Grandmaster Funk soon found himself in a studio recording vocals for two tracks (‘which was great since I had recorded the tracks without a clue as how to find a rapper in Sweden at the time’, Tjernberg recalls), of which the improvisational “Don’t Stop” (’83) became the first Swedish rap record, while the album of the same name also featured the lyrically more substantial “The Warning”. As a single, “Don’t Stop” was (according to Tjernberg’s recollections) spun by Afrika Bambaataa and entered WBLS‘ rotation.
Grandmaster Funk (or GM Funk) also joined Per Cussion and his All Stars for Tjernberg’s sophomore album “Beatwave” and its lead single “Payin’ the Price!” As on “Don’t Stop”, Tjernberg incorporated Linn Drum sounds and additionally inserted a bit of self-made scratching (with the help of an ABBA record, nonetheless) into the mix.
The collaborations (roughly six recorded songs, plus numerous live gigs) between Tjernberg’s band and Grandmaster Funk are easily among the most bonafide interpretations of first-generation New York hip-hop in Europe and deserve to be considered in a different context than this one.
2) Li Berg – “The Smørgasbord” (Sweden 1983)
Sweden’s cuisine is world renowned for two things – smörgåsbord, the lavish buffet offering hot and cold dishes – and the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef. (We wouldn’t want to forget knäckebröd and köttbullar, but for the sake of the argument…) Li Berg‘s “The Smørgasbord” combines both. To what end remains a bit of a mystery.
As the song begins, Li Berg suggests – in English – that raiding the refrigerator in the middle of the night compares to a smörgåsbord. Then a male character appears who by all indications is based on the Swedish Chef, down to the gibberish and what is actually a mock Danish (not Swedish) accent. Then Miss Berg raps again in a sensual tone about her smörgåsbord before a male voice delivers a bizarre recipe in heavily-accented English. There exists an alternative version with better understandable male English raps, but it’s still hard to tell where they were actually going with this song.
Seeing as “The Smørgasbord” uses the Danish letter ‘ø’ instead of the Swedish ‘ö’, this has to be, at least to some degree, about some Swedish/Danish neighborly rivalry and the Muppet Show’s Swedish Chef’s inadvertent role in it. Following this debut single, the singer recorded two solo albums for Mercury and then began a career as a (Swedish) cartoon voice actor for ‘Thundercats’, ‘Sailor Moon’, ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’ ‘Pokémon’ and later even ‘Wallace & Gromit’. In 1992 she briefly reconnected with rap when she sang backup on Swedish Eurodance star Dr. Alban‘s “It’s My Life”.
3) Michael Brenner – “A-kassens Bedste Kunde” (Denmark 1984)
Manufacturer TELDEC was proud to announce the ‘Første Dansksprogede Rap-Song!‘ on the cover to Michael Brenner‘s “Rap-Sodi” in 1983. The exact message of the first rap song in Danish escapes us, but one year later pop/rock musician Michael Brenner (born Morten Nilsson) raised the ante with another rap single whose b-side, “A-kassens Bedste Kunde” takes us back to ‘Early Sightings of Rap in 1980s Pop – United Kingdom’, Wham!‘s debut single to be exact, which also touts the benefits of being unemployed.
Copenhagen’s DJ Universe sums up “A-kassen’s Bedste Kunde” as follows: ‘The title translates – very roughly – as “the best costumer of the unemployment fund”. Based on Brenner and producer Jan Eliasson’s take on the “Good Times” bassline it describes the life of a young man on unemployment benefits. The lyrics are funny to me because it’s an anthem for so many people I know. In Denmark, when you become a member of the ‘A-kasse’, you are guaranteed an amount of regular income if you become unemployed. It’s meant to give you time to look for the right job, but for a lot of people it’s used as a hack to be able to maintain a laissez faire position in society while partying a lot and spending time doing what you really love.’
Another Scandinavian tune from that era that would fit the format of this article would be Swedish trombone player Nils Landgren‘s “Get Serious, Get a Job!” (’84), but there’s too much funkin’ going on and not enough rappin’, so we’ll take Michael Brenner’s “A-kassens Bedste Kunde” as a testament to the so-called Nordic model characterized by a strong social security net.
4) Per-Erik Hallin – “The Glorious Outfit” (Sweden 1985)
This temporary rapper played with Elvis Presley roughly a decade before he came up with this curiously intriguing tune. A pianist who also voiced Donald Duck in Swedish, Per-Erik Hallin penned these elaborate rhymes that put him in the role of a sales assistant at a clothing store. They have all sizes, suit all tastes, and the items don’t cost a dime. It’s a miracle, so much so that the Christian metaphor behind “The Glorious Outfit” can’t be ignored. It turns more verbatim with each verse as the words Maker and Lord appear, but Hallin eventually brings the song back down to earth by admitting that his wonderful shop somehow doesn’t attract that many customers:
“Now this whole thing is a giant giveaway
of all that things that you need today
We got everything for people on the move
But a lotta people walk in the same old route
And it’s a tragic fact but it’s all too clear
Cause that may be why hardly anybody’s here”
5) Murray Head – “One Night in Bangkok” (Sweden/United Kingdom 1984)
Musicals were huge in the ’80s. Even the checkerboard came to decorate West End and Broadway stages. To raise money for their musical ‘Chess’, Tim Rice and ABBA’s Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus released a concept album two years before the actual stage production. “One Night in Bangkok”, a signature ’80s hit on a level with “Eye of the Tiger” or “Everybody Wants to Rule the World”, promoted the Cold War showdown set in the world of professional chess in the international charts. The singing came courtesy of Swede Anders Glenmark, but the smug newscaster commentary delivered unmistakably in a rap timing belonged to British actor/singer Murray Head, who had previous musical/soundtrack experience with ‘Hair’ and ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’. Acting, singing, rapping (as far as we’re concerned) – all performing arts.
6) STOP – “Kool Katt” (Sweden 1983)
Some credit “Kool Katt” with being the first record to feature a rap in Swedish. That’s always worthy of acknowledgement. Especially when other sources fail to do so and pinpoint the first rap released in Swedish at the very end of the decade. That is exactly the type of short-sighted historical narrative we’re out to debunk here.
Despite being a very short-lived funk/boogie band, STOP made it happen, with help from members of pop group Freestyle, including Gigi Hamilton, a singer who seems to be fairly famous around those parts. If I’m not completely mistaken, she can also be heard on an electric boogie version of STOP’s second – exclusively English – single “Don’t Stop (Doing What Your Doing) (’84) credited to C.C.C. (Cool Clan Connection), which seems to have been made for a breakdance-themed TV special called ‘Freak Out’ as part of the music program ‘Bagen’. The C.C.C. version of “Don’t Stop” is more sexually charged than the original, Ms Hamilton rapping, “My name is Gigi and I want you to see / No woman in the world can ( *bleep* ) like me”. This followed by male rhymes that go something like this: “I can funk you hard, I can funk you slow / So come on girls, after the show / Get down on your knees and give it to me”.
Since we are discussing the influence of rap on the existing European music scene, seeing as how “Kool Katt” also features a steamy exchange between a man and a woman, we should note that when it comes to erotic overtones and sexually explicit lyrics, the inspiration weren’t necessarily rap but funk and disco records.
7) Mr. Bradish – “Bureaucratic Boogie” (Sweden 1984)
This constellation is similar to the one that kicked this list off. Like Grandmaster Funk, Mr. Bradish was an American who landed in Sweden and wound up performing raps with a funk band. That is one very basic way that rap as a vocal style could travel from one place to another. That doesn’t mean these people were already rapping back home, but we can assume they were somewhat more in touch with this specific form of expression than Europeans. Not even necessarily through rap as in hip-hop but some familiarity with beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, spoken word performers like Gil Scott-Heron or, in this case, the Clinton/Collins P-Funk approach to ‘rapping’.
But while Per Tjernberg lost contact with Grandmaster Funk and tried to at least preserve his name in reissue liner notes, David Bradish still works as a vocalist and has detailed his career online. The short of it is that he fled San Francisco after he was shot in the head in a drug business dispute. He arrived in Sweden in ’79 and having some experience with playing in bands, he found himself playing congas for funk/disco outfit Sad Motion. Four years later Sad Motion member Tomas Blank produced the single “Bureaucratic Boogie” b/w “I Wonder What the Hell I’m Gonna Do” billed to Mr. Bradish. He brought both songs into a new band project called Fred’s Laundry, who inporporated them into their repertoire and eventually made David Bradish their lead singer until they disbanded in ’87 after a strong run with plenty of live gigs. He still lives in Sweden and like other musicians on this short list has done voiceover work.
Even though in retrospective David Bradish explicitly praises the aforementioned Swedish Model (‘It was here I first heard about a 5 week paid vacation. Nothing like that has ever existed in the States, and it was here I first found a whole country that actually cared about people’s lives and welfare more than just making a buck’, he remembers), the songs on his ’84 single are generally at odds with the constraints of living in modern society. “I Wonder What the Hell I’m Gonna Do” describes the nerve-wracking impatience when an expected check just doesn’t arrive and “Bureaucratic Boogie” laments the trials and tribulations of being subject to excessive bureaucracy:
“If you get to plead your case
bring a bucket for your tears
Have you seen an office worker?
Just a head without the ears
By the time you get the answer
all your problems seem the norm
‘So sorry we can’t help you
You forgot to sign the form’…”
8) Kim Helweg – “Satanic Boogie” (Denmark 1983)
We can’t tell you much about this one, but it’s just too good to pass by. Danish verses, English chorus exclaiming with passion, “Satanic Boogie, let’s do the dance of hell!” Whodini‘s “The Haunted House of Rock” dates from the same year, but “Satanic Boogie” seems to be a creation all of its own. Kim Helweg was the composer, the singer/rapper was Allan Mortensen and the female background was provided by Gitte Naur, who herself tried her hands at rapping in Danish a couple years later on “Trafikfunk” (’85).
Since this post is short on Finnish contributions, let me on this unholy occasion mention Emilia‘s “Satan in Love” (’81), a remake of an Italo Disco tune by La Bellini from ’78.
9) Ute Til Lunch – “Ute Til Lunsj” (Norway 1987)
Advertising is traditionally seen more critical in Europe than in the States. (But they’ll still take the money.) In 1987 musicians Lars Kilevold and Torstein Bieler recorded “Ute Til Lunsj” (‘Out to Lunch’) under the mandate of a PR company to test the guidelines of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation in regards to covert advertising. It also happened to be the first recorded rap in Norwegian. If you know the brands they inserted into the song you can pick them out even if you don’t understand the rest: Peppes Pizza, Manpower, DnC (Den Norske Creditbank), or Tiedemanns (tobacco). As expected, “Ute Til Lunsj” was banned from radio but still some 15’000 copies were sold and the song rose to number 14 in the singles charts.
Speaking of marketing raps, Paul ‘Tubbs’ Williams, bassist with Brit funk band Light of the World and founding member of later Talkin’ Loud flagship Incognito, worked in Finland in the early ’80s where he not only played in the band Buffalo Soldier but also put out a single in ’84 containing “The Roland Rap”, a promotion for electronic instruments manufacturer Roland, and on the b-side “Silvernight”, a commercial for a Helsinki club of the same name featuring raps by two siblings who deejayed there. In Norway, advertisers created “CrispoRap” (’83), part jingle for a chocolate bar brand, part verbatim cover version of “The Message”. Three years later a major dairy cooperative distributed the same instrumental on a flexi disc for a rap competition where you could win a Hitachi 3D boom box. In the ’80s folks learned relatively quickly that rap could help sell products.
10) The Leather Nun – “Cool Shoes” (Sweden 1987)
At a time when sex has long been separated from rock music it doesn’t hurt to remember that the two were once promised to each other. Swedish band The Leather Nun arguably went to some extremes to prove that point, employing strippers and showing adult films on stage, or with filthy ditties such as “F.F.A.” Having formed in the late ’70s and gone through everything from industrial to post-punk, garage, goth and pop-rock (says Wikipedia), they almost had to at some point give rap a go. “Cool Shoes” is relatively charming, wearing out the old cliché that women will almost surely notice a man’s shoes. Told as a simple narrative that follows the woman and the object of attraction (the shoes) from the bar to the bed, “Cool Shoes” may help persuade you that maybe indeed shoes make the man. Plus, even in 1987 you’d be hard-pressed to find rap imagery more in tune with parental sex education than “She was a flower and I’m a bee”.
11) Mr. Walker and the Walkmen – “This Is Your Walkman Talking” (Norway 1985)
Two reasons for this particular pick. One is that this song actually enjoyed some domestic success, entering Norway’s top ten in ’85. After all, part of pop music’s validation is that it aspires – and hopefully achieves – to become popular. The other reason is that we are witness to a song concept that someone, in this case Steinar Fjeld, who also wrote the aforementioned “CrispoRap”, thought was sort of imaginative. In “This Is Your Walkman Talking” a man crosses paths with a “fancy lady” who he finds is absorbed by the music she’s listening to on her walkman (an early mobile music player, in case you wonder). To get through to her after she ignores him, he contacts a buddy who is an electronics wiz who provides him with a gadget that enables him to quite literally get into her head via her walkman. Today’s walkman is the smartphone, and it has, for better and definitely for worse, become much easier for men to come into a woman’s view with technology. But the hint that guys in 2021 and 1985 should be able to take is that whether she wears earplugs or headphones, blocking out obtrusive guys like you might be one of the reasons she has them on. But hey, ‘Mr. Walker‘ wasn’t the first or the last to blurt out foolish things under the influence of rap…
12) General Njassa and His Lost Division – “I’m Young, Beautiful and Natural” (Finland 1983)
In some way, this is exactly what you expect to find when you wonder how musicians in more peripheral areas approached rap when it was all fresh and new. “Africa is bigger than Texas”, this tune claims at one point. Can’t argue with that.
We ran some of the Finnish information regarding the artist through the translator and this is what we found. By all indications General Njassa wasn’t a real general but a young man who had joined a thriving milieu of artists and adepts, even participating in the documentary ‘Helsinki Twilight 1984’, a look at the emerging indie scene and the respective subcultures in Finland’s capital. He was involved in a couple of punk rock records in 1983 and by whatever quirk of fate managed to put out this impromptu electro rap on French label Barclay, a fact that led to appearances on French TV (Sidney‘s seminal show ‘H.I.P.H.O.P.’) and a club tour in France, where he seemed to be able to pass as American…
In 1985 Njassa began to work in radio, recalling his mission at Radio City at the time as follows: “I had a personal goal that every time something new came along, I would play it before it became popular. By the time it became a hit, it was dead to me”. We don’t know if Njassa ahered to this philosophy for the many years he has been on the air since then, but if he has at least partially, he deserves our respect.
13) – 20) Further Early Rap Spottings in Pop Music of the Nordic Countries:
The Supereffect – “The Effect Rap” (Sweden 1983)
Skwoto – “Skwoto Rap” (Denmark 1983)
UPS – “Gi’ Os En Takt” (Denmark 1984)
Choice of Collage – “Raptime” (Norway 1984)
1st Avenue – “Rap Road” (Denmark 1984)
Sticky Stuff – “Jump With the Monkey” (Sweden 1984)
Peter Garden – “Bolle-Rapp” (Norway 1985)
Henning Sommerro – “Lovtale Yver Culturen” (Norway 1986)