Global PostMOSCOW, Russia — When Vladimir Putin took to the stage on a hip-hop TV show a year ago, it appeared yet another cringe-worthy attempt by the image-obsessed prime minister to appear “down with the kids.” But it can also be read as tacit recognition of the music’s growing socio-political significance.

Hip-hop artists have established a foothold in Russian popular consciousness, and few are as thought provoking as the rapper Noize MC, whose live gigs and rebellious YouTube hits are finally being noticed in all the right places — which in Russia can spell trouble.

Back in August, the group’s frontman, Ivan Alekseyev, served a 10-day prison sentence in Volgograd, about 550 miles south of Moscow; he was arrested after a show on July 31. Shortly afterward, I caught up with the rapper at the capital’s bustling Kazansky train station, where his group was on its way to a festival.

“I made a few statements addressed to the police — they were rude to us and I answered on the mic,” Alekseyev explained. According to reports, officers broke up the band’s usual concert routine by telling its drummer to stop collecting coins in his cap.

“I’m proud to say this is the first city where these beautiful animals with red cockades have said we are begging during the song ‘Money to the Hat,’” Alekseyev told the crowd. Then the group performed ‘Smoke the Bamboo,’ a vicious missive on police brutality and corruption. Its chorus: “Citizen, stop, stop! Turn out your pockets; slap, slap! / Now your kidneys, kick, kick! Well now get out, mate!”

Later that night, Alekseyev was in custody. Two days later, a judge found him guilty of disorderly conduct.

The incident garnered particular attention in Russia’s flourishing blogosphere. A rapped apology to the Volgograd police emerged on local TV and the internet, going on to become the chorus of a new song called ‘10 Days in Paradise.’ Alekseyev claims he was tricked into recording the verse, which sarcastically describes the police as “great guys” with principles.

The artist is no stranger to controversy. He earned national notoriety earlier this year with the release of ‘Mercedes S666,’ which tells the damning mock-first-person tale of Anatoly Barkov, a Lukoil vice president. The executive’s chauffer-driven Merc, complete with a small blue light that allows him to cut through traffic, crashed head-on with another car, killing a renowned gynecologist and her daughter-in-law.

Police reports exonerated Barkov, and blamed the other car for causing the accident, but the family of the deceased and eyewitnesses have disputed this official version. An investigation is ongoing — partially due to public pressure generated by Alekseyev’s handywork.

So, with his anti-establishment resume further polished by the Volgograd events, does Noize MC think doing jail time has added to his old-school hip-hop credentials?

“I don’t think that should be among the criteria for a rapper’s authenticity,” he said, pausing for thought. “I’ve always been against romanticizing criminal aspects of life… I hope I was a real rapper before then, during it and will continue to be afterwards.

“On the other hand, lots of people say I’m not genuine because we play distorted guitars, it’s very noisy and many rappers don’t like that. Therefore I don’t really know how to answer this; it’s probably a question that should not be addressed to me.”
Noize MC
At this point, Alekseyev’s manager abruptly stopped the interview, handing him a battered iPhone. Bad news: the festival gig, their first since his incarceration, has been canceled.

“It’s either punishment, or because they’re worried about something,” said guitarist Max Kramar.

“The organizers didn’t talk detail — they just said someone upstairs had given instructions,” added publicist Alexander Berger after another long call.

The MC decides to head home to his wife and newborn baby boy; his band change their tickets to travel ahead to their next performance.

“Once again we have received new understanding about free speech in this country — you can get it in the neck for statements like the ones I’ve made,” Alekseyev said. “Our nominally democratic society is moving towards vertical power; they are tightening the screws and making life less free.”

In late-1980s Russia, rock emerged as the voice of a disenchanted generation. Artists like Victor Tsoi, who led the hugely popular band Kino, Boris Grebenshikov and others captured the public mood and desire for change. Could Russian rap make a similar impact?

“There is nothing else at the moment which singularly expresses our current social questions — the difference between social and personal issues, human rights and the right of people to have their own opinion, free from stereotypes and preconceived ideas,” said Alekseyev, who talks “in a language people can understand” with his lyrics. His latest CD, sarcastically titled The Last Album, contains tracks such as ‘Build Destroy,’ in which he poses angry questions about untruthful media, high unemployment and a degrading nation.

Prolific broadcaster and music mogul Mikhail Kozyrev agreed that rap could play a role in fomenting discontent with the system, but said Noize MC’s effort is just “a drop in the ocean.”

“Unfortunately, I think the pillows of comfort have been stuffed with so many feathers and have been so comfortable for the past 10 years that no rapper will ever be heard through them,” he said. “The masses’ minds have been stuffed with the idea that the ‘90s were violent times of disorder and disarray, and today’s regime came to make sense, to establish order and to make Russia a so-called civilised country.”

Politics aside, Kozyrev said the depth of talent simply isn’t there: “Although Noize MC is by far the cleverest, most provocative artist in Russia right now, most hip-hop you see these days is so toothless. I wish it wouldn’t be like that, and, if I ever see somebody different, I put them on air.”

Published @ Global Post, 11/11/10 – click here for original.