A history of criminal activity has yielded some pretty unexpected results for Vardar. If his long and steady track record as a juvenile delinquent is as scandalous as he claims it to be, he should have been locked away behind bars by now.
“I was quite a troublemaker,” Vardar explains, “and I think I earned my boldness and self-confidence with it. If I tried to make a list, I wouldn’t remember most of it. When I was in primary school I set the science lab on fire. A couple of years later I burned the classroom as well. There are many times that I used fake documents for several exams and other situations. I don’t even count the cars I crashed.”
Instead of spending the rest of his youth dreaming up new scams and dodging authorities, he hooked up with some of Istanbul’s most elite music producers and a Grammy award-winning mastering engineer to produce one of the more exciting albums to come out of Turkey this year. It’s quite the career leap.
Vardar’s longstanding passion for hip-hop and rap began when he first heard the music of Eminem, who left quite an impression on the budding, hopeful rapper. From there, Vardar would twiddle knobs in home studios and record demos, trying to capture something special on tape. “I met Sinan Ceceli, Serkan Hökenek and Cüneyt Tatlıcı this way,” he says, citing three of the more notable producers and arrangers in Turkey and Switzerland, respectively. “Then it was just being in the right place at the right time, though I waited quite a lot for the right time.”
After recording an underground album in 2008 that went nowhere, the 25-year-old would spend the next few years cultivating material for his proper follow-up and commercial debut, Kötü Adam (“Bad Man”), released earlier this spring. The album, a furnace blast of unruly testosterone heat, is sated with thick, rubbery synth-basslines, plenty of hip-hop attudinizing and enough electronic squelches to gum up a car engine. All thirteen tracks are rapped in Turkish, with Vardar delivering his rhymes with whiplash acuity. At all times, he wears the influence of American hip-hop culture on his sleeve, eschewing the influences of traditional Turkish music favoured by his contemporaries (Turkish female rapper Sultana, Turkish-Swiss hip-hoppers Makale).
“I’m creating music according to my liking and influences,” he says. “I’m influenced by the American culture because I listen to American music. For me, music is not something to be explained, it’s all about action. You either enjoy listening to it or not. The explanations you make after the performance don’t mean a thing. Pop, rock, rap… it’s either good or bad. Some may deny it, but American hip-hop culture influences Turkish youth in all aspects. The ones who say ‘I’m not influenced by America but other cultures’ are wrong; most countries are also influenced by America in the first place. Everybody shapes and delivers hip-hop in their own unique way, for sure, though truly everybody listens, watches and gets inspired by American culture indirectly.”
So what exactly is the hip-hop scene in Turkey like? Vardar elaborates: “In Turkey, hip-hop is improving quite fast but it hasn’t achieved the value it deserves yet. We still don’t have really professional studios with strong equipment and music experts that run them. And people don’t accept the genre; they still think it’s just foolish music for children.”
In Vardar’s brash brand of electro-hip-hop, beats drop like blocks of cement that glow with a neon radioactivity. With songs saturated in luxuriant pop melodies that counter the sandpaper grit of his throaty raps, the artist covers topics ranging from nightlife parties to pressing issues like terrorism and child pornography. “What I write about is the things I live, events that affect me or stories in my mind. Actually I’m trying to deliver my troubles and ideas without thinking if people will like it or get a message. The ones who experience the same kinds of troubles and share the same ideals get interested.” Wild nights in Istanbul are chronicled in the house-rap tilt-a-whirl of album opener “Hayvanlar Gibi Eğlen”: (“Coke’s never good for me without whiskey,” he quips), while the blustery funk of the politically satirical “Don’t Panic” is a shit-disturbing rant on government-fuelled terrorism on either side of the globe.
“In ‘Don’t Panic’, I criticize Turkey with regards to other countries, along with American imperialism and Turkey’s current regime,” he discloses. “The song expresses that not all Muslims are terrorists and the ones who call us savages, in fact, have more barbaric issues to solve in their own cultures. On the other hand, Turkey’s regime has a tendency towards Sharia law, which I strongly disapprove of. If I talk more about these issues I could get into trouble, so please cover my eyes with black tape in these lines!” By that, Vardar refers to Turkey’s stern censorship laws, which have restricted the use of some language and subject matter in much of their pop music. Landing a distribution deal for Kötü Adam proved somewhat slippery for the rapper in his initial ventures into getting picked up by a label.
“Two recording companies turned me down because of ‘Don’t Panic’,” Vardar admits, “They said that if they released the album, the government would bug them with various inspections and try to find irregularities in their business. There doesn’t seem to be any problems with my current recording company, though I hope they’ll pardon me if I stirred things up. I knew the same would happen with them, so I didn’t provide the lyrics for ‘Don’t Panic’ deliberately. Censorship is bugging many Turkish artists, especially when releasing video clips. So they started reaching their audiences virally, via the internet. Of course we still haven’t forgotten our government’s shameful YouTube ban for years. It wasn’t like this when I was young, but nowadays freedom is evidently going downhill for all of us. Unlike some of the other countries, in Turkey it’s forbidden to use swear words openly in legal albums. Furthermore, when it comes to politics, there’s freedom of thought relatively, only if you don’t actually say what you think. There’s an indirect censorship which prevents you to say what you want.”
Politics are only just one fragment of the kaleidoscopic image that makes up Kötü Adam. Amidst the cheeky hip-hop swagger and boyishly thuggish charm, some especially tender moments surface on the album. “Şeklini Koy”, which Vardar describes as a song of self-deprecation, is a mid-tempo ballad featuring a gorgeous hook built around a lullaby motif. The urgent rap is offset by a velvety chorus provided by vocalist Caner Anar. Many tracks, however, aim for the dancefloor and substantiate Vardar’s braggadocio leanings; “Geri Vites Yok”, “Don’t Panic”, and “Sebebi Benim” feature bass-heavy, speaker-shaking grooves to give your sub-woofers a proper pounding. And some cuts, like “Siradan Adam” and “Armagan” (which works a ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll-esque ditty into its refrain) go for humour that is delivered with both a cynical sneer and a good-natured smile. The polish, gloss and glamour of the album’s production values come courtesy of Evren Göknar, the Grammy-award winning recording, mixing and mastering engineer who has become a notable name in the industry for his work with artists like Iggy Pop, N.W.A, Carole King and Tupac Shakur. Kötü Adam was sent to Göknar for mastering.
“I heard about Evren for the first time from Serkan Hökenek and checked out his work, the people he worked with,” Vardar says. “He was exactly the one I wanted to work with. I told my recording agency about him but because of the financial situation, they didn’t approve. I was determined to work with him. I investigated the situation and contacted him, and we had a deal. He’s one of the best people I’ve worked with. A true professional who creates exactly what you imagined with perfect timing.”
The album sleeve for Kötü Adam features Vardar in Mafioso-pose, gun cocked to his head and a sinister smile plastered on his face. From his temple gushes the blood and guts of the images, ideas and concepts impressed upon today’s Turkish urban youth. The gallows humour of the shot perfectly captures the rapper’s ironic sentiments of a Eurasian culture bound to their traditions and only beginning to explore the world of hip-hop.
“It’s quite hard to have Turkish audiences to listen to hip-hop,” Vardar maintains. “They are biased but when they listen to it, they actually like it. Even the ones who don’t listen to rap songs say that they hated rap before listening to my album. It seems that people are especially impressed by the sincerity and boldness of my lyrics. Actually, that’s exactly what I’m trying to achieve: creating songs that everybody can listen to. Like I said before, there are no music genres, there’s only good or bad music.”