Try to read up on Milan-based trap collective The RRR Mob, and one point that the articles invariably make is that the foursome tells the story of young people dealing with the experience of migration and integration. Which happens to be an essential property of Western Continental European hip-hop for almost 30 years, but considering the emphasis of the coverage apparently not of the Italian scene.
This is a matter of fact Italian hip-hop as a whole indeed may not be really conscious of. From the very beginnings to virtually just yesterday one could literally count the non-white faces visible in Italian hip-hop and rap music available for purchase on one hand (plus perhaps two fingers), and four alone were involved in early outfit Radical Stuff, two of which were American. In contrast to the highly diverse domestic scenes of Germany, the Netherlands, Scandinavia or Switzerland, or the early black-blanc-beur (African-European-Arab) blueprint of French rap, generations of Italian MC’s, DJ’s and beatmakers have been almost exclusively white, from pioneers such as Ice One and Frankie Hi-NRG MC to pop stars like Fabri Fibra and Fedez.
Considering the country is the point of arrival for many immigrants from the continent across the Mediterranean and as of 2015 was officially home to 1 million African foreigners (not counting those who call Italy their native or were naturalized), the bizarre melanin deficiency of the domestic hip-hop scene across decades says a lot about Italian society as a whole, the Italian music industry in particular and ultimately Italian hip-hop itself. When I can think of three dozen German rappers with African features who went down in history while the couple that were there in the beginning in Italy only turn up after thorough research, as a longtime casual listener and neighbor of both countries I find that fundamental difference quite revealing. Only recently, with the emergence of trap-inspired acts, Italian rap music is also represented by musicians of Maghrebian and sub-Saharan heritage – most notably solo artist Ghali and the crew at hand.
In short, it was about time someone like The RRR Mob came up. Their 2017 debut “Nuevo Impero” (‘New Empire’) was in every way a sign of the transformation that has hit rap made in Italy in the last decade. To be precise, it was rap for the new generation – trap -, yet of epic proportions, chronologically considerably after the live-wire trap of Lex Luger but clearly before trap rap began to sound like music for toddlers. Basking in its own splendor, there is nothing minimal about the Mob’s music or vocals. “Nuevo Impero” is orchestrated in an opulent way, less calculated and economic than contemporary American mainstream rap and trap.
In its soulfulness, The RRR Mob evokes Bone Thugs-N-Harmony rather than Migos. And as far as rap music with a cinematic underworld scope goes, “Nuevo Impero” is kin to ATL’s “Black Mafia Life”, Face’s “The Untouchable”, Pac’s “All Eyez on Me”, Big’s “Life After Death”, Rae’s “Only Built For Cuban Linx…”, Nas’ “It Was Written”, Jay’s “Reasonable Doubt” or the aforementined Bone’s “The Art of War”. This is extravagant fare, not measured in kilos and carats but in terms of style.
“Nuevo Impero” exhibits the qualities that can make trap exciting – chiefly concerning the vocal diversity. Flows that oscillate between delirious and stone-faced, intonated end rhymes, intricately spun song lines, intensified emotions. At the same time it doesn’t reach the lyrical depths and technical heights of today’s international rap elite (which often refers to trap stylistically). The Real Recognize Real Mob came to represent, to vent how they feel.
A centerpiece of the album, “Non Ci Vedi Mai” (‘You Never See Us’) presents the fact that some members of society remain less visible than others in the public arena in the form of an emotional plea but also with a certain pride. ‘You can’t take anything from me, I’m a child of poverty’ (“Tu non puoi togliermi nulla, io sono figlio della povertà”), offers Momoney as he mentions fasting simultaneously in the context of Ramadan and not having enough to eat. Laïoung’s lamenting hook comes from deep within, even though part of its conclusion is the matter-of-fact ‘The reward of suffering will be experience’ (“La ricompensa della sofferenza sarà l’esperienza”).
“Nuevo Impero” frequently refers to the constituency the quartet hopes to represent, sometimes with neutral descriptions simply denoting kin or origin, often with a distinct ‘neri’ or ‘negri’ (figure out the difference yourself; American rap/trap’s favorite n word also makes a few appearances). “Arabi & Neri” (‘Arabs & Blacks’) carries the dedication in its title and uses the rhyme that suggests itself for the one-two punch “Altro che carabinieri / sono con arabi e neri” (extended translation: ‘If I’m not in police custody, I’m in the company of Arabs and Blacks’).
Unlike its North-American idols, the RRR Mob doesn’t dwell on the trade or consumption of narcotics, even though they embrace some of the familiar imagery, most obviously with a song named “Bando”. More importantly, they also rely on the universal meaning hustling has taken on in 40 years of street reporting in rhyme form. Like street rap’s masterminds from the ’80s, ’90s and beyond, they emphasize going and being legit. If they also slip into mafia mannerisms (most notably on “Familia”), let’s keep in mind that they do call themselves a Mob after all.
While status symbols pop up in their accounts, they just as often get serious, relating how people like them ‘don’t get second chances’, how emprisonment is not something they’re afraid of because they’re ‘already locked up’, how they ‘do this for a family of foreign youngsters coming from broken down neighborhoods’ and ‘haven’t crossed an ocean to stay inside mouldy walls’. As always, the rhetoric has a tendency to get out of hand, as in the case of a Guantánamo comparison.
If “Nuevo Impero” was in any way new for the Italian music scene five years ago, it has roots that reach considerably deeper. The quartet shows an old-style dedication to ‘realness’ that rap music has long obsessed over. They take lyrical jabs at other rappers (which is far from common anymore). And to top it off, the project is overseen by hip-hop veteran Agostino ‘Chief’ Migliore. Some of the rhetoric is in tune with our modern times where everyone feels truly special. But more often than not they present actual arguments. They say things rappers used to say, like “Saltello con il flow, come fosse parkour / E sono fuori legge come Pac Shakur” (‘The flow bounces like I’m doing parkour / an outlaw like Tupac Shakur’).
All four members bring their distinct talents to the table. Laïoung and Momoney split production duties, rivaling each other in epic, heavy-set, synth-soul-drenched trap tunes. The former, born in Bruxelles and having lived in England and Canada, is the group’s leading man, pouring his passion into choruses, verses and tracks and putting his stamp on the commanding, celebratory “Wooh” or the determined, urgent “Via Da Qui” (‘Away From Here’). Whereas Hichy Bangz and Momoney, both soulmen at heart, trade melodic laments on “Paranoia”, a tune that goes beyond the boundaries of their genre. Meanwhile “Don’t Call Me” is truly in Bone Thugs territory, last but not least with imagery like ‘I’ve got an entire graveyard in my closet, not just a skeleton’. The tone is far from continually melodramatic, there’s also room for brusque, even vulgar language, such as when Isi Noice quips, ‘Fuck you want, fuck you looking at, fuck you say?’ (“Cazzo vuoi, cazzo guardi, cazzo dici?”)
Throughout the album, the four members of The RRR Mob go straight to the heart. Tonal emotionality and performative nonchalance make for an intriguing combination and is rarely available at such a potent dosage. The rich cultural and musical background behind this group and their record is apparent. The purpose of The RRR Mob comes to fulfillment with “Hit” featuring three guests from Moroccan city Casablanca, creating a perfect storm of Arabic, Italian and French.
To return to this review’s provocative prelude – that at least on a commercial level, Italian hip-hop, born on the political left and noted for its reverence of true school hip-hop, largely took place without people of color – when you look at the recent climate in Italian politics, where right-wing populists successfully stir up xenophobic sentiments – the RRR Mob were just what the doctor ordered. The RRR Mob represent a reality – a diverse Italian society – some refuse to accept. As one critic pointed out, “Nuovo Impero” ‘speaks to the new Italy.’
Contrary to their ambitions, it has remained the Tripla R’s only outing so far. And perhaps not unexpectedly Italian trap’s most popular faces are again of a lighter shade. Ironically, one of the globe’s most popular TikTokers, Khaby Lame, is Black and from Italy as well, known for pointing out the absurdity of viral videos and challenges. He does so without words, undoubtedly a vital part of his impact. Laïoung, Momoney, Isi Noice and Hichy Bangz have decided to open their mouths and in doing so have heralded a new era for rap in the Italian language. Perhaps their legacy will become less clear over time, but the significance of this debut is undeniable.