How did hip-hop become one of the most popular musical genres in Iceland? Who are the biggest artists on the Icelandic hip-hop scene, and how long has the genre been around? What’s the future for hip-hop in Iceland? Read on the discover all you need to know about Hip Hop in Iceland.
Dismissing Iceland as a centre point for hip-hop? That would be a mistake, but hardly one you could be blamed for. From an outsiders’ perspective, this musical style conjures to mind images of swinging gold chains, boomboxes and booty, roach clips and Louis Farrakhan, baseball caps and caps, quite literally, popped in the ass.
Yes, for all intent and purposes, it would seem that hip-hop is unnaturally foreign to the Icelandic national identity… at least once.
Of course, it’s difficult to imagine quite how Hip Hop and Rap music have made such an impact on the Icelandic cultural scene. Perhaps it comes down to the 101 identities of Reykjavík locals, a desire to branch out from the celebration of rural identity, instead focusing a national spotlight on the creative efforts of Iceland’s urban side?
Perhaps its the American influence that still permeates many aspects of Icelandic culture; a love of fast food, flashy cars and individual expression? Perhaps its an attempt to stand up on the world cultural stage, disavowing the likes of Björk and Sigur Rós for a new, more rebellious sound? More likely than not, it is a culmination of all these reasons and more.
Hip-hop in Iceland can be broken down into a number of subcultures itself—i.e. music, rap battles, street art and graffiti, breakdancing—and yet, for this article, I have chosen to focus on some of the biggest name currently on stage.
Unfortunately, there is simply not enough room for everyone making music here, but I highly advise submerging yourself in the Icelandic hip-hop scene to discover a wealth of other, worthy artists.
Icelandic Hip Hop exists in a strange purgatory, enduring alongside the colossal industry of US Hip Hop without ever managing to quite break through (with the exception of a few notable artists, such as Gísli Pálmi). The local hip-hop scene is, without doubt, beyond popular domestically, but the culture is inclusive, Iceland-oriented and wary of outsiders.
This is clear in the country’s creative output; vocals are shot aggressively in the mother tongue by rappers adorned in 66° North jackets and beanies; vape pens are sucked like a Snoop joint, sunglasses are worn despite overcast skies and threats are verbalised that, despite their passion, have little bearing in reality.
In other words, we’re talking hip-hop under a different mask, and I’m not talking MF Doom here…
In truth, getting to grips with Icelandic Hip Hop is getting to grips with an entirely new musical form, one that relishes in psychedelic minimalism, trip-hop beats, chillwave and individual expression.
Understanding the inner-core of the genre, in many respects, relies on an intimate knowledge of the Icelandic language, otherwise a significant half of the art form—the, for lack of a better phrase, spitting of bars—falls on deaf ears.
This wasn't always the case, with the first generation of Icelandic rappers and hip-hop groups only using the English language. Examples of such groups are Subterranean, Team 13 (later Twisted Minds), Bounce Brothers, Hip Hop Elements (later Kritikal Mazz) and the Multifunctionals—the latter was, in fact, responsible for one Icelandic track, "Numer 1".
But, wherever hip-hop culture gains a foot a hold, the genre is quickly adopted, interpreted and modified to fit the national sensibilities of said location. Each country has its own style, lexicon and idols, preferences and taboos. Iceland is no exception to this rule, having gone through a number of phases since its introduction to the country.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the Icelandic Hip Hop scene is the prevalence of female artists. Acts such as Cyber and Daughters of Reykjavík have led the movement in more ways than one, establishing not only a new and inspiring form of music but a vision, novelty and identity to match.
Quarashi means “Supernatural” in Arabic and is, perhaps, the best way of describing Quarashi’s breakthrough as Iceland’s forefathers of the rap genre. That’s not due to a lack of talent or skill, understand, but only in regards to how Icelandic society would come to accept it. From the get-go, there was always a question as to how successful such an enterprise would be.
The group was founded by Sölvi Blöndal and Ómar Örn Hauksson after the pair met at the University of Iceland in the early 1990s (—supposedly, the first words spoken between them was an inquiry as to where find marijuana).
Both began working together in the punk rock band, 2001, though it was Sölvi who quickly found a preference for studio-based recording rather than live rehearsals. Soon, he would be joined by Ómar and the famous Icelandic skateboarder and graffiti artist, Steinar Orri Fjeldsted, intent on creating rap music, a genre which, at that time, held little stead in Iceland.
It is interesting to note the parallels between Quarashi and two early pioneers of hip-hop, Beastie Boys and Rage Against The Machine. All of the respective artists came from a punk rock background particularly, but later found great success after switching to this new style of music—it has been said that punk rock and hip-hop share many elements, ranging from the importance of the artist and their image, as well as the rebellious spirit that feeds it.
Quarashi chose to rap in English using American accent; music academics in Iceland widely consider this to have been the first step in Iceland's adoption of the genre, with the latter steps—1. rapping in Icelandic about Icelandic culture and 2. integrating Icelandic poetry and music into the genre—coming in later as the genre began to change.
From 1996 to 2005, Quarashi released five albums, one of which was on the US label, Sony. Despite their success, the group split in 2005, claiming that "selling Icelandic hip-hop to Americans is like selling American fish to Icelanders".
Many observers of musical trends in Iceland believe that Quarashi having to subjugate their musical output to the sensitivities of the American hip-hop was one of the main propellants in making Icelandic rappers rap in their own language. Quarashi only ever released one track in Icelandic.
Strangely enough, however, the band still maintains a loyal fanbase in Iceland—no surprises there, then—and Japan. The band reformed for festivals in 2011 and 2014, and as of 2018, have plans to release an upcoming album under the original lineup.
Alongside Quarashi, the members of XXX Rottweiler Hundar are considered the granddaddies of Icelandic Hip Hop, being the first group to bring out hip-hop music in the country. The group consisted of Erpur Eyvindarson aka; Blaz Roca, Ágúst Bent, aka; Bent and Lúðvík Páll Lúðvíksson aka; Lúlli.
The group’s first album, XXX Rottweiler Hundar (2001), hit at Christmas and was among the first Icelandic rap releases. The album went on to sell over 10,000 copies (an excellent record at that time), despite the fact that some tracks were considered too controversial for radio play.
With that being said, it was the political commentary of many of the band members, particularly Erpur Eyvindarson, that struck a chord with many early Icelandic hip-hop fans.
Blaz Roca and Sesar A (brothers Erpur and Eyjólfur Eyvindarson) were also the first rappers to use their native tongue, starting off a gold rush in the Icelandic music scene. After releasing their debut in 2001, a further 13 Icelandic rap albums would be released that year, dramatically demonstrating its rise in popularity.
Blazroca’s 2011 solo album Kópa Cabana featured the XXX Rottweiler track ‘Reykjavík – Belfast’ and was described by Sindri Eldon (Bjork's son) as “dedicated to Kópavogur, Iceland’s own white-trash, suburban, dystopian nightmare. Truth be told, there simply isn’t a dull moment to be found. This album is an out-of-control road trip through one man’s psychotropically destroyed cerebral cortex”.
Móri, real name Magnús Ómarsson, first made a name for himself in 2002 with the single ‘Atvinnukrimmi’ (“Professional Criminal”).
Releasing his debut album the same year, Iceland Review wrote of him, “In his mother tongue he raps darkly about drug-dealing, violence and doing time, and you get the impression he’s lived it all. So there we have Iceland’s first gangsta-rapper”
Móri’s album release saw him, for a time, as the main contender to Iceland’s star rapper, Erpur Eyvindarson aka; Blaz Roca, part of the rap group, XXX Rottweiler, alongside Ágúst Bent, aka; Bent and Lúðvík Páll Lúðvíksson aka; Lúlli. This culminated in a 2010 radio appearance together where the pair discussed who had been a bigger influence on the Icelandic rap scene.
From the get-go, the meeting did not go well; not only did Móri arrive with a concealed stun-gun and a leashed rottweiler, but as tensions gathered, Móri took to chasing Blaz Roca around the studio with a knife (—thankfully, Blaz Roca managed to deflect any injury using a mop, proving with some finality that Icelandic rap feuds don’t quite stand up to their American counterparts).
Predictably, Móri was arrested and his career took something of a downturn. In 2013, he appeared in court charged with assault and forcing another to fear for their life, with the prosecutors aiming at ISK 100,000 fine. Móri only had to pay half of that, and since then has kept somewhat quiet, focusing his attention on other creative avenues.
It would be wrong to suggest that Gísli Pálmi Sigurðsson is universally loved; his lyrics often focus on a tempestuous lifestyle of casual drug use, casual sex, casual attitude… whilst these themes are nothing new in the world of hip-hop, Gísli Pálmi has still managed to fight his way to the top of the Icelandic Rap Pantheon.
Youtube would become Gísli’s major creative outlet for the years to come, steadily building him a loyal fanbase across the country. Gísli Pálmi released his self-titled debut album in 2015.
Reykjavíkurdætur is a rap collective of 19 female artists, many of whom are solo artists, or working separately within the wider group. Firmly a "collective", rather than a band, Reykjavíkurdætur relies on mutual support and individual expression; live shows see the girls taking turns rapping over one another's instrumentals, cutting in short segments of coordinated stage presence in order to compliment each act.
When Reykjavíkurdætur ("the Daughters of Reykjavík") are all together, crowds should prepare themselves for some truly daring bars; sex, slut-shaming, politics, abuse, feminism, body positivity, falling in love...
There is no subject matter that Reykjavíkurdætur shys away from, making them, arguably, the most captivating group on the Icelandic hip-hop scene.
The group size changes fairly regularly, which did pose a problem initially whilst touring. Salka Valsdóttir, just one of the many 'fem-cees' in Reykjavíkurdætur, told NBHAP magazine,
"We’re nineteen in the collective, but we’re always nine on tour now. It used to be that bookers were trying to book us, and they would ask ‘how many people will it be?’ And we would go ‘ah, it varies a lot’, which doesn’t cut it So now we have a rule of always touring with nine people, even if more people are available. We rotate."
Thankfully, Reykjavíkurdætur has the skills, size and experience to lead female voices in Icelandic hip-hop. The collective began in 2013 after an all-girl rap night was organised and hosted in the city by Blær Jóhannsdóttir and Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir.
Despite the fact it was only a 50-seat venue, more than 200 people turned out to watch the show. Reykjavíkurdætur continues to host nights such as this, providing a safe space for women to hone their skills in the hip-hop arena.
Not that this was always the intention. Initially, Reykjavíkurdætur began as a means of hanging out, having fun and trying something new. Yet, as their popularity and fame increased with each performance, Reykjavíkurdætur's members began to be seen as ambassadors for Icelandic feminism.
This led to a wealth of politically dominated tracks that put Reykjavíkurdætur on the map, but, in some respects, pigeonholed them as ideologically motivated. As is often the case with new enterprises—especially those captained by strong women—, the group was met with an over-the-top level of criticism that verged on the ludicrous. From the outset, it was an ambition of Reykjavíkurdætur to combat such prejudice and ignorance.
Over the last year, the group has branched out into writing on a wide range of subjects, acknowledging that women in Icelandic hip-hop are free to explore realms and ideas beyond what is expected of them.
The group primarily raps in the Icelandic language, with some exceptions such as the track "Feminism". Their first album, "RVK DTR" was paid for through crowdfunding from loyal fans, with the track "Drusla" ("Slut") becoming an unofficial anthem of the Icelandic SlutWalk, a protest criticising the practice of slut-shaming and victim-shaming.
Members of the group are as follows—*inhales deeply—Anna Tara Andrésdóttir, Ásthildur Sigurðardóttir, Bergþóra Einarsdóttir, Guðbjörg Ríkey Thoroddsen Hauksdóttir, Jóhanna Rakel Jónasdóttir, Katrín Helga Andrésdóttir, Kolfinna Nikulásdóttir, Salka Sól Eyfeld, Salka Valsdóttir, Sigurlaug Sara Gunnarsdóttir, Solveig Pálsdóttir, Steiney Skúladóttir, Steinunn Jónsdóttir, Sunna Ben, Tinna Sverrisdóttir, Valdís Steinarsdóttir, Vigdís Ósk Howser Harðardóttir, Þórdís Björk Þorfinnsdóttir and Þuríður Blær Jóhannsdóttir.
Cyber is the joint project of Bleach Pistol/Sick Roma (Salka Valsdóttir) and JuniorCheese/YNG NICK (Jóhanna Rakel); originally formed as disco/metal band, the band later changed direction, focusing on producing a radically new form of anarchist hip-hop.
According to Salka, “Jóhanna was going to play the keyboards and growl and I was going to play the drums and sing,” says Salka. “But we created one song and figured out it wasn’t really going anywhere.”
Despite changes in the lineup over the years, Cyber is well-integrated with members of the rap-collective, Reykjavíkurdætur, with the duo acting as a standalone project.
The instrumentals used by Cyber are stranger than that of Reykjavíkurdætur, but the fashion, the music and the statements are just as a vibrant; there's no telling how Cyber will appear on any given night—full-body fishnets? Leather chokers? Dad jumpers?
Whatever the case, Cyber promises to unite its audience through unpredictability, making them all the more fascinating. It's almost as though you're being commanded to look away from them as they swag their stuff across the stage... and yet, it somehow feels impossible.
The band released the track 'Hæpið' and 'Fiðringur' with Reykjavíkurdætur, earning them some separate recognition. This was later enforced with the release of their 7-track E.P "Crap", as well as a debut performance at Sónar Musical Festival 2017.
It proved that one half of the duo, Arnar Freyr Frostason, was one of the country’s fastest and most technical rappers, whilst his producer, Helgi Sæmundur Guðmundsson, was capable of creating instrumentals worthy of the Number 1.
Úlfur Úlfur's follow up album, “Tvær plánetur” (“Two Planets”), was released in 2015, boasting a more mature approach to composition, production and melody. "Tvær plánetur" was considered favourably curious, with critics praising its literary value, inspiring cover art and strange blend of partying and melancholy.
Quickly, the album became the Gold Star of Icelandic hip-hop, in many ways rebooting raps' current popularity in the country. Most noticeably, it was the independent attitude, the "them against us" mentality, that shone through in the album, providing a good indicator as to the duo's ambition and drive.
In 2015, Arnar told the Reykjavík Grapevine, "We don’t take ourselves too seriously but I think Úlfur Úlfur was our attempt to make serious art for the first time, rather than just ‘do something’ like the years before.”
Their latest 2017 release is “Hefnið okkar” (“Avenge Us”), a more introspective collection of tracks reflecting on their lives and struggles as musicians. The most notable tracks on the album are Bróðir (“Brother”), the atmospheric (and somewhat depressing) Mávar (“Seagulls”) and Barn (“Child”), a whimsical and relaxed approach to the taboos of hip-hop culture.
Regardless of the album's overall ambience, Úlfur Úlfur manages a delicate balance between new and old school sounds, utilising heavy drum bass, melodic guitars and gritty vocals.
Gauti Þeyr Másson, aka; Emmsjé Gauti is one of the Icelandic music scene's most recognisable faces, responsible for some the last decade's most popular tracks, whether they be a solo effort or a collaboration. Emmsjé Gauti has collaborated with a plethora of local artists, including Úlfur Úlfur, Friðrik Dór, 7Berg and Blaz Roca.
Emmsjé Gauti began his musical career in 2002, rapping alongside the groups 32c and Skábræður—this is particularly impressive considering Emmsjé was only born in 1989, demonstrating the type of acceptance widely shown amongst Icelandic musicians.
In 2010, after nearly a decade honing his craft, Emmsjé went solo, going on to release two albums, “Bara ég”, in 2011, and “Þeyr”, in 2013.
"Þeyr" was a heavier, more gloomy album than his first, truly showcasing Emmsjé Gauti's continued growth in the rap scene. This album was followed by a number of tracks that, quite literally, changed the hip-hop game in Iceland.
Tracks such as “Strákarnir”, “Silfurskotta” and “Reykjavík” have all proven to be enormous hits domestically, earning a great deal of radio play and pushing Emmsjé ever further up the pantheon of Icelandic musicians.
Emmsjé Gauti has become known for its eclectic and energetic live shows—guests are never exactly sure what's going to be in store, be it an injection of electro-pop or some Fred Durst pseudo-rapping. In truth, an Emmsjé Gauti concert is something that has to be experienced firsthand—there are no words to describe the sheer level of enthusiasm pouring from this performer.
Ragna Kjartansdottir first cut her teeth in the rap world as one of the original members of the first Icelandic hip-hop, Subterranean, all before she'd reached the age of 18.
During this time, the young Icelandic-Filipino rapper opened for such international hip-hop acts as De La Soul and The Fugees. She was also nominated "Best Female Artist"—a first for Icelandic hip-hop—, and Subterranean was collectively voted the most promising Icelandic band that year.
After leaving the group, she moved to New York City where she studied Sound Engineering, as well as interning at Chung King Studios in Manhattan, most famous for its work with such artists as Beastie Boys and Talib Kweli.
Now well practised in the technicalities of sound engineering, she returned to Iceland to pursue a profession in production. It would be nearly a fifteen-year hiatus from producing original tracks.
And yet, Ragna still felt the urge to create her own music, and so in 2013, decided to release her first solo record as Cell7. The album was titled "CELLF", released November 2017, with the input of two of Iceland's best-known producers, Earmax and Introbeats. The album was met with outstanding reviews from the critics, making it onto many "Best Albums" lists of that year.
Summer will see Ragna releasing a new album, promising a revitalised approach to the hip-hop genre which, hopefully, will showcase just how far this artist has come since her early days in Subterranean.
Of the Icelandic hip-hop scene, and her place in it, Ragna told The Reykjavík Grapevine, "If we think of hip-hop in terms of record releases, the genre is one of the smallest ones in Iceland. Yet, Icelandic hip-hop musicians are very visible online; they upload videos and songs that are getting thousands of hits and views.
To be honest I don’t know where I fit into it and it has never been a great concern of mine. But I guess being a female MC rapping in English kind of sets me apart from most Icelandic hip-hop artists as the majority rap in Icelandic."
Alvia Islandia created her first single at 16 years after leaving home to pursue her dreams of working as a musician. With that being said, over the last few years, Alvia’s interests have extended well beyond mere melody making, branching out into drawing, graffiti and fashion.
Alvia Islandia's music spans a range of genres; bass-driven, with electronically charged rap flows and lyrics touching on everything from pornstars to wildcats to shades of the moon. One of Alvia's biggest influences is the Icelandic music goddess, Bjork.
In Alvia's own words, this is "Tantric Rap" at its finest, a shining example of the psychedelic elements so strong in Icelandic hip hop. Alvia Islandia takes it a step further, however, integrating neon imagery and bubblegum-chic in a way that even surpasses the likes of M.I.A.
Her first album "Bubblegum Bitch" came in June 2016 in collaboration with Hermann Bridde of Shades of Reykjavík studios. The album won the Kraum Prize and was nominated for the Icelandic Music Prize in 2016, with contributions made by fellow artists BangrBoy and EmmiBeats.
The album title is a reference to Alvia's habit onstage of throwing out Hubba Bubba gum to the audience; those who blow large bubbles are considered the Gum Gum Clan. Of course, "BubbleGum Bitch" also refers to someone who's willing to lead another person on romantically, only to leave them heartbroken and alone—
—I can't help but think that aspect of her identity makes her all the more alluring as a musician, but perhaps that just me...
Vigdís Ósk Howser Harðardóttir first made a name for herself with Reykjavíkurdætur, performing with the rap-collective for three years before pursuing a solo career.
The break up was amicable, with the members remaining friends to this day, yet it was Vigdís's goal to find enough time and space to write her own tracks—one summer with Reykjavíkurdætur, she didn't even have time to hold down a job, given the fact she was touring the UK and Canada.
Having collaborated with a number of other acts since then, including the London-based outfit, Dream Wife, she is today at the forefront of Icelandic Horror Rap. She is also one of the main musical advocates pushing female empowerment, a lesson drawn from her time with Reykjavíkurdætur.
Of the period, Vigdís said, "Reykjavíkurdætur didn’t even need to do anything provocative. We just existed, and that was provocative in itself. We never had the leeway to be amateurs, we started rapping and everyone shouted how much we sucked, as if every Icelandic rapper is great from day one.
The music I made two years ago, it’s not something I’d make now. But there has to be the scope to improve and participate. Why do 16-year-old boys get more flexibility than adult women?”
Activism is close to Vigdís' heart; not only is she a feminist, but a staunch vegan and critic of government policy in Iceland. Again, comparisons can be made to Reykjavíkurdætur, who have, on a number of occasions, heralded national controversy—one example, despite being uncontroversial in almost all ways, was playing Iceland Airwaves in nude body suits.
Fever Dream's latest release will be "Nom De Guerre", an E.P that channels the group's political anger, be it the perils of the tourism, neo-nazis or slaughterhouses. In 2018, Fever Dream will be spending some time the German capital, Berlin, before returning to Iceland to play the summer festivals.
Sturla Atlas (Sigurbjörn Sturla Atlason) first stepped into the Icelandic music scene in the summer of 2015 after releasing his very first mixtape, "Love Hurts". With white blonde hair, intense blue eyes and an eye for fashion, it wouldn't be long until Sturla had a spotlight of media attention turned on him.
The mixtape was recorded at Les Fréres Stefson studios in 101 Reykjavík and consisted of seven tracks, among which are the popular songs "San Francisco", "Roll Up" and "Lotta Girls". In November of the same year, Sturla Atlas brought out another collection of "These Days"
As part of the 101 Boys, Sturla's success grew quickly; 2016 saw the young rapper and R&B singer win Newcomer of the Year at the Icelandic Music Awards, release a second mixtape, open for Justin Bieber's 'Purpose' tour and take to some of the biggest stages in Iceland and abroad.
Other members of Sturla Atlas include Logi Pedro Stefánsson, Jóhann Kristófer Stefánsson (Joey Christ) and Arnar Ingi Ingason. No other act has caused such a stir over the last couple of years, a point helped by Sturla's reputation as something of a heartthrob.
But, perhaps most acute of all, is Sturla's message in the music, a message that could be used to describe almost all the creators in the Icelandic hip-hop community. Speaking to Vice, he said,
"We just want to spread the good vibes and encourage people to do what they love and have a good time. This project is just us doing what we want, what we enjoy, and by doing that we aim to inspire other people to do the same; not to fall into a rut and work at a job you hate for the rest of your life, waiting to die."
Naturally, there is only so much space, and so much granted attention span, to include only a handful of Icelandic rappers and hip-hop artists, despite the fact that far more active on the scene.
In fact, it is an almost impossible scene to keep up to date with, given the creative enthusiasm Icelanders often show toward their art. New names, new albums, new singles are coming out each and every week, so make sure to keep an ear out!
Among some of the aspiring names of Icelandic hip-hop, I recommend that you check out some of the following artists; Geisha Cartel, $igmund, Daddykewl, Herra Hnetusmjör, Birnir, Kött Grá Pje, Valby Bræður, Aron Can, GKR, Lord Pusswhip, HRNNR & SMJÖRVI and JóiPé X Króli.
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