[20 February 2014]
If there’s one person who could be held responsible for giving Italy a big push in the hip-hop market, it would likely be Jovanotti, a hip-hop poet/rock star whose early beginnings had him explore a wide range of music as a DJ before picking up a mic and learning to rap. Jovanotti did for Italy what no other Italian artist at the time had done: introduce the consciousness of an American music subculture to the country’s masses and open up a new musical space which would see the birth of many MCs in years to come.
Since Jovanotti cemented his status as one of Italy’s most influential hip-hop forces, many other rappers have come to fight over the crown, further substantiating hip-hop as a viable music to be taken seriously as both a culture and a market. Mondo Marcio and Marracash are but two of the very popular names in Italian rap that Italy has embraced in the last ten years or so. But far beneath the commercial market, a new crop of rappers have been gaining ground, steadily working away.
Italy’s independent hip-hop scene has so far produced some of the brightest, most interesting artists to have come up in hip-hop on European shores. Undeniably resourceful, many of Italy’s underground indie-rappers have managed to turn what would normally be definitive career-stall dead-ends into opportunities that have awarded them some notoriety and a growing fan base. Rather than spend their efforts knocking on the doors of industry men, these rappers have spread their nets wide among their peers, exchanging and exploiting the talents of one another in a bid to carve both a career and a scene altogether.
Caso Perso, a relatively new rapper from Italy and based in Perugia, takes his cues from American hip-hop culture; his debut album features bottom-heavy beats and raps delivered with an ironic smirk that at once pays homage and satirizes bling culture. Perso has been rapping for some years now, taking the stage at a few events in Italy as a teenager before taking a step further and recording demos and, eventually, an album. Perso’s debut Passo Falso was released in 2012.
Like Perso, rapper Diacca is primarily influenced by American rap but also incorporates other elements like rock and dubstep, which come courtesy of Mondo Marcio, one of Italy’s superstar rappers who produced one of the singles off the rapper’s debut, Empatia. Particularly interesting are Diacca’s music videos which showcase the artist’s developing skill in the entrepreneurial business of music-marketing. Though he has nowhere near the budget of a major-label promotional video, Diacca, along with rappers Nemi, Hiro and Caso Perso, has taken strides to express the visual elements of his music, creating an image-conscious component for the Youtube generation.
Rapper Hiro’s music, clearly influenced by the G-Street rap of early ‘90s American hip-hop, exudes an almost genial, slacker charm as he layers his mid-tempo beats with carefree rhymes. His brand of hip-hop borrows abundantly from ‘70s Italian pop, his beats often riding the flirtatious basslines of soft, disco-funk. Recently, he has explored harder electronic sounds, an influence that is catching on with other indie-rappers of Italy.
Caso Perso, looking to move beyond the borders of hip-hop and branch out has enlisted the help of a few notable producers in Italy who specialize in electronic music. “My next album will be more electronic. This is the major difference from Passo Falso, which has a more classic hip-hop sound,” Caso says. “I’m collaborating with well-known producers in my country: The Elhits. They have also worked for Marracash and Emis Killa, two Italian mainstream rappers.”
Nemi, like his contemporary, Hiro, also mines Italy’s pop past for inspiration. His usually laid-back beats are built around the soft, sensual funk of ‘70s Italo-disco pop. This machine-beat and funk synthesis is best sampled on the rapper’s leading single off his most recent EP, 11, “Quello Che Mi Resta”. The single employs all the characteristics of hip-hop sampling culture and delivers them in a most clever way; rather than let the sampled riffs simply cameo throughout, Nemi allows the beats to become fully immersed in the heavy infusion of funk. This way, the samples are not merely musical decorum but support and carry the rhythms instead.
Nemi further acknowledges a debt to ‘70s Italian pop and funk on his full-length proper debut, Eleanor Rigby (named after the Beatles song), a collection of pop songs reconfigured through the structures of hip-hop, by sound, rhythm and style. Which is not to call it pop-rap; as a producer himself, Nemi’s use of rap-based communication is never surpassed by any other influence used at his disposal. Rather, hip-hop becomes the house of which all other musical elements room in. “I just think many of us are tied to a certain way of doing rap, a classic way,” Nemi says of Italian hip-hop artists. “I use lots of samples and I rely on producers who love the art of sampling. Each cut is made in an exemplary manner, trying to modernize the techniques.”
Nemi has also expanded beyond the title of an artist to start up his own record label, So Far Away. The rapper plans to record independently and produce music (his own and others’) without the aid of a big major-label corporation. He has already signed a number of artists and his training and experience in audio engineering will surely allow him the independence to record and release material as freely as he wishes.
What each of these artists has in common is a reliance on social networking. With little support in the way of promotion, funds, musical gear and equipment, many aspiring rappers depend on social media for their contacts. Caso Perso in recording his debut acquired a bevy of collaborators through the internet, having met none of them in person at the time. “I met these guys on the web,” he says. “I contacted them because I love the music they make and they kindly agreed to cooperate. We recorded separately (because we live in different cities) and they sent me their part over the Internet.”
There are a number of factors that may hinder a rapper’s progress in Italy, especially if they are working in the underground scene. “The greatest difficulty is the money. Making music is expensive. There are a lot of expenses, not including recording costs,” says rapper Caso Perso. “Also people in Italy do not follow emerging hip-hop artists. Independent artists are not on television so their success is dismal.”
Nemi elaborates further on the point of the general public’s apathy toward hip-hop: “The problem with most hip-hop in Italy is that it’s considered a fashion trend, not a culture. In my opinion, Italy is not yet ready for rap because of a misrepresentation of this movement. All other countries, despite being influenced by America, have made hip-hop an integral part of their lives, contaminating it with their own issues and with their own way of being, with their costumes! Italy still tends to view it almost as a non-music. Few artists, including the ones in the mainstream, are appreciated by a wide audience that is formed only by young people. So I do not find myself in agreement with some of my colleagues who assert the contrary.”
Rapper Spald, whose tongue-in-cheek album Trainspalding trades on gritty hip-hop rhythms and Italo-dance samples has been toiling away for some years now making hip-hop and trying to keep ahead with the rest of Italy’s rap pack. “I think the Italian rap is boring now,” he says. “From the ‘80s to 2000, Italian rap was a fake-copy of American old-school rap. There weren’t Italian artists that had the same success of the current rappers.”
“Now there is more knowledge about the making of this thing in Italy. Many Italian artists have found a personal style. Also, the Italian language is different and it is less musical than American language. The most important difference is in the background. In Italy we have a different history and culture. The Italian music history is also different. We are influenced by 90s Italo-dance music and the lyrics of the Italian ‘cantautori’...we haven’t got the club mentality.”
Currently, each of these rappers is working at a steady pace, churning out as many works as their limited funding and resources will allow them. Nemi hopes to widen his business margin with his new label, hiring himself out as a producer in Italy and across the globe. His main resource: social media.
Spald has been currently pushing his material into dance music territory, capitalizing on the influences of Italo-dance and merging them with rap; an unnamed project is currently in the works, of which the rapper hopes to have released sometime soon. Meanwhile countless indie-rappers are busy recording, unmindful of the success of their more eminent contemporaries. Says Spald, “We’re still finding our sound, but I think we are headed the right way.”
Imran Khan is a freelance writer who lives in Canada. He earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in English and Communications at York University before studying Creative Writing at the University of Toronto for Continuing Studies. In addition to PopMatters, he has also written for such publications like Inside Entertainment, aRUDE and The Toronto Quarterly.