European Hip-Hop Travelogue Vol. 3: Sweden
As World Hip Hop Market continues to expand its coverage of the amazing hip-hop movements springing up around the world, we occasionally get the opportunity to feature a more in-depth look at specific hip-hop scenes from writers with unique access to what are essentially insular movements that make up the conscious hip-hop massive.
In keeping with this tradition, writer Andrew Bridge is currently touring Europe in an effort to help make connections with the best of European hip-hop, and is partnering with World Hip Hop Market to bring a very personal first-person account of his own experiences with these various scenes.
This third entry is Andrew’s pit-stop between Denmark and London – in which the Swedish town of Umea and the capital Stockholm became entry points to experiencing what is arguably the hub of the Scandinavian hip-hop scene.
By Andrew Bridge
Sunday, September 9th:
After a picture-perfect week of work and play in Copenhagen the time had come for me to hit the old’ dusty trail along my tour de Europe – next stop, Sweden. Fortunately, I opted out of purchasing my train ticket to Stockholm in advance. In hindsight it seems I was a bit overambitious in my thoughts of catching the 11:00 AM train on the morning I was scheduled to leave, and thanks to the Lithuanian crew (see my Denmark entry at this link), I awoke from a drunken slumber at half past noon -head bumping from the smorgasbord of booze and bass from the underground electro party the night before.
Always looking for a silver lining to these things, I realized that oversleeping allowed me to ever so slowly nurse myself back to some sort of health. It also allowed me to chill with my gracious hosts for the day as opposed to rushing out the door first thing in the morning (“Slow and steady wins the race,” said the tortoise).
My plan would have me crashing for the night in Stockholm before jetting directly up north (way north) to the university town of Umea, where the Random Bastards crew is based. Hip-hop had spread to the boondocks of Sweden’s ‘Dirty North,’ as heads called it, and pre-trip conversations with CEO and founder of the Random Bastards movement, Erik Hörstedt, hinted that Umea’s scene was “cooking,” and that I wouldn’t be disappointed.
Tuesday September 11th
The first day of the trip went as scheduled, and I made my north to Umea, a beautiful university town that gave me flashbacks to my college days. With the students having arrived a week previous to my visit, the town’s energy was alive and definitely a place I envisioned making some intriguing sound waves.
In keeping with my budget travellers sensibilities, I hooked up with the social networking site Couchsurfers.org. This was my first experience utilizing the site to ‘couch surf’ (although I have had success doing so in the past on my own accord). I got the hookup too, big time, and my own room came equipped with a television! Up to that point on my trip, I hadn’t watched one second of television – a feat I was quite content with to be honest. However, one couldn’t deny the relaxation benefits that came with a soft bed and a television set to help an hyperactive body shut down – at least for a bit. (Alpha waves!)
I managed to schedule a meet my first day in Umea with Erik of Random Bastards -who is also a member of the rap duo Trainspotters (at their library café.)
Trainspotter’s music video ‘Dirty North’:
I remember thinking how fortunate I had been on my European hip-hop walk-about – being connected to all these artists via World Hip Hop Market’s founder and intrepid leader Greg Schick, and the likes of IBMC’s founder Chris Peters (note: IBMC is a network of international hip hop producers and MCs). Thankfully both Greg and Chris had taken it upon themselves to assist in my navigation through the European underground hip-hop scene. Without all these global hip-hop connoisseurs working their connections, doubtful my experience would have been as intriguing. (So a very BIG and deserving shout out to all of these hip-hop guardians!)
And Erik Hörstedt was one of those amazing hook-ups – and a direct connection to the Swedish underground. When I met Erik, however, I got the impression that dude was a member in a Grateful Dead cover band, not a member of a renowned rap duo and seminal head in the scene -yet another testament to hip-hop’s innate ability to transcend borders, and cultures resonating with people from all walks of life.
After initial introductions we trekked over to the Random Bastards offices, no more than a five-minute walk from the café.
To put it in Erik’s words, Random Bastards was “a creative collective” of like-minded individuals who produced snowboard/skateboarding films, music, videos, and events, while at the same time running their own outlet store. Actually, the RB crew was set to premier their newest snowboarding film at the end of October – called ‘Blue Balls.’ (‘Blue Balls’ Official Trailer)
According to official history, Random Bastards had been around for nearly a decade, and originally formed itself out of a selection of groups who were collaborating together to produce music. Eventually they morphed into the Random Bastards movement. Musically speaking, RB included Erik’s duo Trainspotters, female MC Cleo, and the producer going by the name of Academics – with more folks in the RB extended family.
Trainspotter’s music video ‘Fan First’
As founder/CEO of the RB movement, Erik personified the need for modern day entrepreneurs to be multidisciplinarians with their craft. Through his digital media/filming/editing skills, his talent on the mic, and his various appearances in RB skate/snowboarding films, Eric had become a huge part of the collectives’ business end. There was never really a down day for him – with emails to answer, products to promote, footage to edit, and shows to book – it was the “rap lifestyle,” according to Erik.
One subject that came up in conversation with him was the fact that he liked to interact with writers that came out to report what it was that these Random Bastards were up to. It was imperative to him that he allowed visiting writers, such as myself, a chance to genuinely enjoy themselves. His hope was that this would influence the progression of the writing and enable them to “put some soul into the pieces, while having a great time.”
As a fledgling writer, I appreciated his thoughts on this subject. It made for pleasantly casual interaction where friendships could be built as opposed to a formal “business” arrangement dictating the interaction and inevitably drawing out a sense of alienation or distance with the exchange.
After squatting the Random Bastard office for a New York minute (Note: in Swedish offices -at least in Umea – everyone takes off their shoes, I’m serious), we made our way over to the RB outlet store. It wasn’t a boutique shop, rather it was a rented out basement with loads of second hand snowboards, winter gear, and merchandise. It had character compared to all the glitz and glamour one might find in a Juicy couture space – or wherever the hell the average person shops these days – something I admit not having any frame of reference for.
After having a tour of the business, we met up for some drinks that night at one of the more poppin’ bars in town – Scharinska – which also doubled as the spot Trainspotters, and others from the Random Bastards’ crew hosted their club-night – Goodfellas – on a semi regular basis. Most notably, they booked the growing behemoth of a dubstep producer, Flux Pavilion a couple years back, just before he blew up on the scene stateside. But Scharinska also boasted a rich history, having played host to Miles Davis, among many other American musical giants.
Although it was a down night (being Tuesday and all) it was still nice to chat it up with some of the locals, and the DJ towards the end of the night was bumping some classic hip-hop tracks -Souls of Mischief “’93 Till Infinity” and more.
Everyone kicking it at Scharinska that night knew most of the lyrics to the tracks being played.(They knew their stuff up there in the ‘Dirty North’)
While I planned on heading back to Stockholm on early Wednesday morning, my hosts told me CLEO was performing her live show in two days time – which provided all of the proper temptation for staying in Umea a little while longer.
Wednesday September 12th
Waking up at my host’s house on Wednesday – I realized I had slept past noon for the first time in – well I couldn’t even remember when.
Shortly after waking up I met up with Erik at his place; we chilled for a hot minute, recalled bits from the night before, and then quickly made our way to one of the two studios the Random Bastards produces music at – waiting for my chance to meet up with Nathalie a.k.a. CLEO.
CLEO Music video ‘Say I don’t’:
The nice thing about Umea, like most college towns, was the convenience of the city layout. You could easily make your way from one side of town to the other on bike in about 20 to 30 minutes – or less. And the studio – like everything else – seemed right next to Erik’s pad.
When we walked into the studio – which was fronted by a huge graffiti mural that read“Hip Hop Don’t Stop” – Erik and Nathalie continued to talk business about her Thursday night performance, and they slipped me a copy of a Swedish magazine that featured articles about Sweden’s graffiti scene. It was a perfect intro to a scene that I hadn’t had the opportunity to check out – a marked contrast to my immediate exposure to the graffiti scene’s in Iceland and Copenhagen.
I came to find out that Umea was known to have some of Sweden’s most notorious train taggers (not strictly speaking “legal,” and often times quite dangerous). Specifically, ‘Bro Crew’ (featured in the magazine I was reading) were considered the Kings of train writing in the city, something both Erik and Nathalie agreed on.
The government, or powers that be, despised this form of urban culture jamming, and repainted the trains constantly -demonizing the art as vandalism (personal opinion: let the art be seen!).
Meanwhile, as Erik and Nathalie continued to hype up her – Cleo’s – upcoming show I realized there was no way I could leave without seeing her perform. And of course they provided a hard sell with added incentives mixed to the process: they were going to allow me to photograph her on stage.
Once again, my lack of planning proved beneficial to my travels, so I quickly found the cheapest flight down to Stockholm for a re-routed Friday morning arrival. (Ah spontaneity, you never get old do you?)
Erik and I continued to meander around town on Wednesday afternoon, low-riding like OGs (irony here), and meeting up with various friends of his – many involved in Umea’s hip-hop scene From an apparel shop owner who Erik explained had supported the Random Bastards movement for years, to Marc, the mastermind behind all of Random Bastards graphic artwork – posters, album covers, and t-shirts mostly – and the man behind all of the merchandise that comes with having a record label, film production, and events production company.
Eventually we rode over to another studio, and posted up there for the rest of the night with a handful of producers and MCs who had gathered for a quick recording session. It was at the studio that I really got to see what Sweden brought to the table artistically.
Of particular note was the fact that the studio was funded by the University, and everyone who utilized the space described it as a ‘study group,’ which meant that not a single dime had been taken out of the pockets of those using it. Academics (the man behind Trainspotters’ music), actually got paid to look after the studio, while producing their music.
Producer Erik Friman, a.k.a. ‘Man Gaga,’ as he recently named himself, let his beat play as he wrote lyrics to record on top of the beat, and to be honest – it was a tight. After about five minutes of essential silence from everyone writing their bars, I was challenged to try and write my own 16 bars by the rest of the crew. When in Rome, right?
Keep in mind, although I consider myself to be a devoted hip-hop head, I had never written so much as one rhyme. Yes, I could recite verses of other artists I’d memorized over the years, and I had a semi-decent sense of rhythm from playing instruments, but writing a verse was an entirely different story.
Not being one to shy away from a challenge, I plunged right in with the only requirement of our verse being that we had to include the word ‘funk’ somewhere in the verse. At least that gaves me something to base my rhymes off of. Surprisingly, came up with 16 bars in a fairly short amount of time, and after practicing under my breathe for a while was ready to enter the booth.
My first attempt was a complete and utter flop. I fumbled over my words horribly, lost track of the beat, it was like something circa Dave Chappelle’s “Turn my Headphones up!” skit from the (much acclaimed) Chappelle Show. But I wasn’t about to stop; it’s actually damn good fun trying to record a verse.
I got it on my second take, and everyone in the studio was shocked this was my first time on the mic. I guess I had flow, or maybe they were being nice – I chalked it up to them humoring me. The real gift, of course, was hearing the others rap in Swedish – a language that seemed nicely suited for rhyming.
In all there were about 8 of us in the studio, and everyone spit their own verses. Erik’s verse was dope -as expected – and Academics also got in the booth. In the end, a cat named Johan Pierre aka Xavier came in to the studio with his English-language rhyme styling. The Swedish heads I had been hanging with hyped this kid up plenty!
For good reason I came to learn. His verse was top notch and after he put it down he and I got to talking about what the hell I was doing in Sweden and what he was up to with his own music.
Turns out that Xavier works closely with That Moose Productions, a start-up record label/production company, and he’d be performing alongside Cleo, and Erik for a performance the following night (Thursday).
As my second European studio session came to a close, I got somewhat inspired to try and see what it was I could produce with some time. Give me a year, I thought, and I’d be seeing MC Bridge’s premier EP flying of the shelves. A man can dream right?
Thursday September 13th
After a nice relaxing day of roaming around Umea and straight chilling at my host’s flat, the night had finally arrived. Everyone told me that Cleo’s performances were always off the chain, specifically because she plays with a full live band behind her. For me, nothing beats having a live band backing up an MC, no matter how talented the DJ may be. The energy captured from the pure sound of horns, keys, drums and guitars simply cannot be duplicated, in my humble opinion.
Of course the energy backstage was frenetic and I was stoked because I – as promised- was given license to roam freely to photograph the night; I was certainly amped up to see what kind of images I’d be able to capture.
At about 11:30 pm Cleo finally took the stage. Trust me when I say, it was more than worth the wait. I would describe her as a fierce even electric performer, whose energy was infectious the second the first beat dropped on stage. She put her heart and soul into every aspect of her performance. As for the band, yeah, they were dope. The saxophonist (an instrument I have been dying to learn) was on point, and her backup singer Kristen Ampara was the perfect compliment to Cleo’s ‘in your face’ style.
It was the perfect send off for time in Umea. Never in my right mind would I have thought that a small college town 12 hours north of Stockholm by train could boast such a poppin’ music -specifically hip hop- scene.
I thought to myself – let’s see how good the southern Swedish hip-hop scene is in the country’s capital. How would it stack up the scene in the Dirty North.
Until next time Umea!
Friday September 14th
Touchdown in Stockholm! Easily it was one of the most beautiful cities I had experienced in my travels. Stockholm was built on at least five islands, and being a clear day, I was able to see the true definition of the city on my flight in -making for a picture perfect aerial view. I had a few people to contact for potential meetings so I quickly checked myself in to ‘City Backpackers’ in the hopes of having a sit-down with some people who were plugged into Stockholm’s scene.
I finally got in touch with Oskar Ekman, a high-powered live music agent for Luger Management who was considered to be one of the biggest agents for hip-hop in Sweden. A few years back, Live Nation, the behemoth of a live music booking company, bought Luger Management, a testament to the great amount of success the agency had within the Swedish music scene.
Oskar began promoting live music at the young age of 15, but mostly focused around his roots of Punk/Metal music. Presently, Oskar has, and continues to represent some of the countries biggest hip-hop acts including the likes of Loop Troop Rockers (Note: Promoe, one of the rappers in Loop Troop has not shaved in 20 years – and Aleks is a former Grammy winner for ‘best newcomer.’) On the whole, Oskar represents over 30 artists and works mostly as a booking agent.
Music Video ‘Professional Dreamers’:
Oskar explained that his job as an agent had essentially been his only true job. In the beginnings stages of his life as a promoter, he set himself apart by hosting various bands, cooking for them on tour, and generally just going the extra mile – something that immediately set him apart from the other promoters.
What Oskar loved most, he said, was the creativity behind being an agent, and “the fact that booking the right artists, at the right venue, at the right time could make or break the success of that event, and group – and there was always the need to keep it fresh, and myself hungry to stay ahead of the curve.”
Oskar’s willingness to sit down and kick it with me and recount the evolution in Swedish hip-hop, it’s history, and leading acts was invaluable.
From what I was able to gather, the Swedish scene began with a pulse because of the three Chilean brothers who emigrated to Sweden in the late 80s. These cats would go on to be known as the Salazar Brothers. According to Oskar, they brought a new style of hip-hop to the table in the early 90s and eventually came responsible for the start up of Red Line records, alongside the establishment of their group Latin Kings.
We then moved onto the subject of the up-and-comers of Sweden’s hip-hop scene. Oskar explained that I needn’t look any further than the 16-year-old Swedish/Tanzanian rapper Adam Kanyama – who Oskar is stepping in as a manager now – has officially blown up on the scene. He described Adam as the Talib Kawali of Sweden and made it known that Adam has turned down every major record label in Sweden, kids got a set of balls for a 16 year old.
Adam spitting a crazy verse on Swedish Radio, kids got skills:
Music Video ‘Golden Child’:
Another notable MC who just put out a new mix tape entitled One Way Ticket (fitting considering my travels, eh?) is Lazee, who, according to Oskar, is good enough to compete with any English speaking rapper and is considered to be amongst, if not the best English speaking MC in Sweden. According to Oskar, Sweden was primed for a new star within (global) hip-hop culture.
At the moment, many English speakers in Sweden are attempting to enter the Future rap realm with the incorporation of electronic beat production, a genre that no one can deny, at this point -something seen through Lazee’s remix of TNGHT’s Higher Ground.
One element of Sweden that I found to be extremely unique was that there were essentially no record stores in the country, especially not in the suburbs of Stockholm, which were considered to be the bad areas of the city. This enabled a music scene to develop almost purely by audience share alone -through social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, and thus characterizing how Swedish rap was developing – in ways beyond anyone’s control (read: corporate record labels).
In the end, how was my Swedish hip-hop experience?
Having been able to spend quality time with the Random Bastards crew up in the Dirty North, and having had the education of a lifetime from Oskar in Stockholm- whose expertise with all manner of trends within the industry in Sweden was more than obvious – I felt blessed to have tapped into a main vein of the Swedish hip-hop scene during my short trip. And even if I only really touched the surface, it was significant nonetheless!