Istanbul Calling: Hip-Hop in the Melting Pot

It could be argued that no musical culture has ever had an impact or affected influence over the world like hip-hop has. Rock and pop culture will always be synonymous, bridging the gap between entertainment and cultural fashion, but with hip-hop comes a sort of cultural ethic. Hip-hop hasn’t just reinvented and redefined the perimeters of pop culture, it’s moved beyond the small pockets of urban culture from whence it came more than 30 years ago to find life outside the cityscapes it was defined by.

In the last three decades, hip-hop in the US has been fragmented into a myriad of subgenres, its sound usually characterized geographically (East Coast, West Coast, Dirty South) or by era (Golden Age, Old-school). Not too often are Western listeners acquainted with the new dimensions hip-hop takes on once it leaves their shores, and many are even less acquainted with the fact that the music and its culture have even left their shores.

Hip-hop, in fact, has found its way to just about every conceivable place on Earth, stretching from the zenith-point of northern hemispheres such as Greenland to such unobvious travel destinations such as the Solomon Islands. Many countries have found some way to assimilate hip-hop into their subcultures, and the results are usually nothing short of remarkable even if their efforts of cultural (re)invention go unnoticed by most of the Western world. Turkey, a country that straddles a precarious line between the East and the West, has had one of the most exciting and difficult inceptions of hip-hop culture in the last 20 years of the music’s growth. Brimming with a sense of invention and a passion that runs deep and pure, Turkey has at once embraced and rejected hip-hop in a constant bid to assert an identity both separate and united from the rest of Europe, of which part of its country shares its geography.

Though hip-hop has spread throughout the country, laying down roots in cities like Izmir, Bursa and the capital, Ankara, Istanbul is where most of the action is situated. Istanbul, known as one of the world’s biggest and most dynamic cultural melting pots, is home to roughly 14 million people and most of Turkey’s rappers can be found there, where the hip-hop scene has grown considerably in the last decade or so. “We had a great movement for the last ten years,” says rapper Rahdan Vandal. “Most of the different styles were created by second generation MCs. Turkish MCs are trying to improve themselves lyrically and technically day by day. We still have some differences between American and European MCs.”

Turkish hip-hop can be unofficially divided into two separate camps: Emotional rap and Battle rap. Emotional rap pretty much entails what its label suggests; it favours a softer, more contemplative tone and in most cases, covers such topics like love and loneliness. Often, it features influences of arabesque, a Turkish music heavily informed by Arabic/Middle Eastern sounds that rose to popularity during the ’70s and has since continued to be a staple music with the Turkish public. The beats are rather uncomplicated, not especially disturbed by any sense of invention or any other element outside of hip-hop.

Emotional rap’s current champion is Sagopa Kajmer (though Kajmer’s work has also explored hip-hop of the harder, more aggressive variety, as well). He is currently one of Turkey’s most successful rappers. At times, his songs take on political themes, which is not entirely typical of the subgenre, and his views on life are often pessimistic (Kajmer refers to his style of hip-hop as “pessimistic rap”). Kajmer has taken heat from some of his contemporaries for either producing music considered by some as unprogressive and insipid, or for his political-affiliations which some in Turkey have observed lean more toward religious conservatism. Despite the controversy, Kajmer still holds his position as one of the reigning kings of Turkish hip-hop (on a mainstream level) and is one the most easily recognizable figures on the scene.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is Battle rap, a subgenre of Turkish rap (unofficially) that forgoes the contemplative nature of Emotional rap for intense rhymes and harder beats modelled after the sounds of American gangsta rap and turntablism. In this corner, you have Fuat, one of Battle rap’s more prominent figureheads, who has somewhat been positioned as Kajmer’s rival. Fuat, a German-Turk from Berlin, would begin his lessons in hip-hop, recording tracks at the start of the ’90s and exploring the various dimensions of expression that the music had to offer.

“It started in 1988 in Turkey, in my home town Şile,” Fuat explains, “A friend of mine came from Munich with vinyl and tapes (Ice T, Run DMC, etc.) and infected me with hip-hop. After the Berlin wall came down, I moved back to Berlin and developed my knowledge of rap there. I learned everything about it in Berlin.” Fuat’s history of his hip-hop learning curve pretty much tells the story of where Turkish hip-hop really began; it ironically found its legs in Germany, flourishing in small pockets among the contingent of Turkish immigrants who had discovered and accepted the music for the extraordinary interactive tool that it could be.

Cartel could be argued as Turkish hip-hop’s first commercial act to affect some influence over the hip-hop scene in both Turkey and Germany alike. Cartel gained notoriety first on the margins of Germany’s pop scene. The band’s sound caught the attention of the German music press, which found their brand of ethnically-infused hip-hop with party atmospherics to be an exotic antidote to the usual fare of German pop dominating the airwaves. In fact, Cartel would be partly responsible for laying down the seeds for a future generation of rappers to emerge out of Istanbul a decade later.

Other bands like Makale, Turkish rappers from Switzerland who would gain popularity in Germany as well, picked up the torch and further developed the sounds Cartel previously explored, capitalizing on the traditional Turkish ethnic elements. “We use a lot of Turkish music instruments and we have many oriental influences in our music,” says rapper Casus, one-third of Makale. “We come from a music culture that embraces a big part of the world, so we use these instruments that we really feel. As for the lyrics, I have rapped in German for some projects but that’s not my intensity. I feel the Turkish language a lot more and, for me, Turkish has a deepness that I can put into my lyrics. Makale is a Turkish rap crew that lives in Basel, Switzerland, but we’ve never had any problems in this case (communicating with those who don’t speak Turkish) – you can still feel the music without understanding the lyrics.”

Both Cartel and Makale experienced a good deal of success in the very small pockets of audiences who were tuned into hip-hop in Turkey. Suddenly, the idea of this far-away foreign music seemed more than just a concept in sound. And by the time Fuat left Berlin for Istanbul, where he took up permanent residency, the deal was sealed. “If there are quality MCs in Turkish rap, this is because of one man: Fuat”, says fellow rapper Saian. “All dope MCs respect him as a master; if you talk with one of the top MCs in Turkey, he is going to say the same things about him. Fuat is a legend for Turkish hip-hop. What MC Solaar is for French rap or Rakim is for US rap, Fuat is ours.”

Da Poet, who comes from the Battle rap offshoot of Turkish hip-hop, is one of Turkey’s most celebrated and respected rappers. The young rapper grew up with hip-hop culture shaping and defining his formative childhood years, winning battle MC competitions before moving on to cutting records as early as 16 years old. His brand of hip-hop is as forward-thinking and cutting-edge as it is rooted in the nostalgia of old-school rap and turntablism.

“I discovered hip-hop when I was in secondary school,” Da Poet says. “My cousins, who live in Germany, brought some cassettes which contained old-school rap and reggae on it. Afterwards, me and my friends spent a lot of time doing graffiti and listening to this music, trying to meet as many people as possible at hip-hop parties. It was a new exciting movement for a young student in Turkey and it helped to give us an identity. Our graffiti crew improved daily and then sometime later I started rapping and producing beats. I eventually dropped graffiti and rap became my main priority and it still is today.”

After a series of indie-albums that favoured the hard-hitting beats inspired by such hip-hop acts like Wu-Tang Clan and Nas, Da Poet shifted his focus, both musically and lyrically, on his most mature and stylistically developed effort, 2011’s Poetika. The album still featured the heavy, bare-boned, robust beats that the rapper is known for, but this time they were saturated in a moody, noirish atmosphere that pointed toward more varied influences outside the hip-hop spectrum – namely, dubstep and IDM.

Between the two poles of Emotional and Battle rap exists an interstitial area where a few Turkish rappers find themselves in. Such is the case with Vardar, a relatively new rapper on the Turkish hip-hop scene. Vardar’s music presents somewhat of an anomaly in Turkish rap. His neon-pop-splashed hip-hop attacks the genre from a completely different angle than the music of his contemporaries. Having released a low-key underground indie-album in 2008, Vardar’s proper commercial follow-up, 2012’s Kötü Adam, adopted an inverse approach to making hip-hop, working his way in from the outside and employing producers not normally associated with hip-hop to make a hip-hop album. The resulting effort was a lively mix of hook-laden pop and cool, glossy electronica appropriating block-party hip-hop beats.

“I don’t have any friends who listen to hip-hop,” Vardar says, “so I try to make my music appealing to everyone, not only the hip-hop crowd. Actually it’s harder to do because neither hip-hop listeners nor the others accept me completely. Secondly, nobody I work with is normally involved in hip-hop. They are all great musicians but as they are not rappers, the music they produce has their own sounds and influences, as well.” Apart from his sound, Vardar has also taken strides to disassociate himself from the rest of the Turkish hip-hop scene by not styling himself in the usual hip-hop-affiliated wear favoured by his fellow rappers. “I have problems with authority and I don’t want to be a part of any group,” he explains. “I had to wear a tie while I was in school, though I tried not to as much as I could. If wearing loose and large clothing is the uniform of hip-hop, I’m showing my middle finger to hip-hop school’s headmaster.”

Fecr-i Ati, another noteworthy contender in Turkey’s hip-hop realm, has also set himself apart from the two polarizing subgenres of Emotional and Battle rap, ironically, by experimenting with both.

His music is characterized by the influences of his classical Turkish music training, which heavily informs his R&B-based beats. Fecr-i Ati, who has studied and plays such classical Turkish instruments like the bağlama guitar and the darabuka (hand drum), pulls from both poles of Emotional and Battle rap, fusing the soft and hard elements of either subgenre to create a seamless stretch of accessible hip-hop within the wide perimeters of pop music. While he hasn’t gained the notoriety of some of his far more prolific contemporaries, Fecr-i Ati’s music demonstrates his panache and skill for exploring hip-hop’s machismo through the use of softer, more meditative elements of traditional ethnic music.

One of the bigger challenges facing Turkish hip-hop is simply the lack of funds to produce solid, quality albums. In the early years of Turkish hip-hop, many studios were run by in-house producers who had experience in producing Turkish pop music, but little to no knowledge of what hip-hop even was. Having an in-house producer in Turkey cut a hip-hop record in the early years of the scene was like having someone who normally produced records by Nana Mouskouri trying to cut a Wu-Tang Clan album. “About seventy percent of Turkish hip-hop is produced by in-house producers,” says rapper Ados, “We don’t get any support from the labels and that is the main reason behind in-house production on hip-hop albums. So we have to create opportunities by ourselves.”

Ados, yet another rapper to come out of the growing scene, has made his mark with some rather unusual albums that bear his distinctive stamp as a vocalist in Turkish hip-hop. Ados’ raps have a certain musical tonality, which he multi-tracks into a rousing chorus of strangely brusque, Motown-esque battle cries. His music has caught on with Turkish audiences in a big way. But like his contemporaries, Ados’ troubles come down to working on a minimum budget with little or no label support. “Most of us are students in university; we don’t have time to work and make money,” he says, “Also, the taxation on everything that goes into making an album is really high in Turkey. That’s why for all the equipment we purchase, we have to save up to three times the money than the artists over in the States do.”

Technology like MPC samplers (a drum machine popularly used in hip-hop music) has become essential in allowing a Turkish hip-hop artist to develop a personal sound and style, affording him or her some control over shaping an identity in the hip-hop community. In this way, an artist is now liberated from the constraints of a less-than-knowledgeable in-house producer and is free to explore the many musical influences overseas that were either oblivious to record companies in Turkey or just plain misunderstood. Hip-hop production crews like PMC and Batarya have essentially become the nucleus of the movement, providing the funding, production and facilities for rappers who are trying to make it in an industry and country which has pretty much shunned hip-hop. “Batarya is a group of Turkish rappers who have production capabilities,” says Leşker Asakir, a member of Batarya, “Each member of Batarya has skills in production. Our every project is produced and handled by ourselves — beats, lyrics, recording, mixing, mastering, video clips, publishing and distributing. All of this is made without having a recording label or a producer (outside of ourselves).”

Da Poet, who is also a member of Turkish hip-hop production crew PMC, signed on to a record company in Turkey for Poetika, but expresses the frustrations that arise with major-label contracts, particularly when it comes to distribution: “My label didn’t have an offer with foreign sites, selling my CDs. Also, for whatever reason, there were problems and my label cancelled my digital distributions,” he explains. “Record-labels are totally fucked up in Turkey. I made a lot of mistakes when releasing Poetika, but in the future when I finish work on my next album, I won’t.” The hold of Turkish record companies over hip-hop artists, however, is still strong as it provides artists with some visibility that the underground scene may not be able to afford its artists. “We still need these labels,” Da Poet elaborates. “It’s kind of expensive to start your own company and difficult. The internet, however, is helping to eradicate the old-fashioned ways of music labels – which is a big hope for future artists.”

“You have to write in the language that you dream in.”

For Turkish female rappers, there is the added challenge of being taken seriously – not that the challenge is exclusive to female rappers in Turkey; that type of subjugation is fairly universal in hip-hop. But there is something to be said about a rather insular movement in Turkey that has neither the label support nor the rest of the world looking in on the scene with keen interest that makes the struggles for Turkish female rappers all the more despairing. Ayben, Derya, Kolera, Mirza and Aziza A are some of the more prominent female rappers in Turkish hip-hop. Sultana is possibly the only female rapper from Turkey to have had her music travel over to American and European shores, recording her album in New York, landing a European distribution deal and appearing on albums by North American acts.

Sultana’s breezy mix of sassy pop, traditional Turkish sounds and throbbing, sensual hip-hop rhythms is given a touch of continental cool. Her songs betray a sense of both innocent girlish glee and a confident womanly poise. The added benefit of her fashion model looks helped the rapper get a foot in the door of the European market of which her debut album, Çerkez Kızı, was released to critical acclaim. “My experience recording the album in the US was wonderful,” Sultana says, “Everyone I worked with was talented; they were amazing producers and musicians and they were all motivating. I moved to New York for a dream of making music, recording my album. When I rapped in Turkish, people would be surprised because back then in the US there were very few female rappers and I was rapping in another language.”

While Çerkez Kızı didn’t take the world by storm, Sultana did have the honour of being the first Turkish rapper to officially cross over into both the North American and European market. Back home, however, the reception was a little less than warm. Sultana would find, to her dismay, that not only had some quarters of the Turkish press and much of the hip-hop community written her album off, but that her first single, “Kuşu Kalkmaz”, was met with so much contempt that radio and TV had banned it altogether. The song explored gender issues and the resulting double standards in Turkish society.

“Kuşu Kalkmaz” in English roughly translates as “Bird Can’t Fly”, a euphemism for male impotence. Sultana clarifies: “Kuşu Kalkmaz” is not about male impotence. The song is about marriage. I have been talking about this song for so long that I don’t want to talk about it anymore! In “Kuşu Kalkmaz”, I was questioning a male in his behaviour and wanted to bring a voice for the suppressed women, who were beaten or cheated on, in a male-dominant society. It backfired. And also apparently women in Turkey didn’t want a voice on such subjects. It was very disappointing for me to see that. When I came [back home to Turkey] from New York with my first album, they were a bit shocked that a girl had made such record and I had some reactions. It is sad to say that back then I didn’t feel welcomed by the Turkish hip-hop community.”

Zeval, another Turkish female rapper who is up and coming concurs with Sultana’s viewpoint on the gender issues prevalent in Turkish hip-hop. “It’s very hard to be a female MC in Turkey because people don’t care about your music — they just focus on your femininity. I’m eighteen years old and I have been trying to produce something for the last five years. If you are a woman living in a male-dominated country, you need to work harder in order to get success. And when it continues like this (for Turkish female rappers), we get more tired as a result. But we don’t ever think to give up. Men stick together in the Turkish hip-hop community — but women don’t! Actually, there are many female MCs in Turkey. But unfortunately, they don’t support one another.”

Zeval’s music, as a matter of fact, presents a more masculine approach favoured by her idols MC Lyte and Lady Leshurr. Her music also exhibits sly traces of the tweaked-hip-hop dynamics found in the works of such artists like alternative R&B songstress Kissey Asplund. The rapper is still finding her sound, the strains of her various influences not yet homogenized into the whole of a singular identity. However, Zeval’s raps are performed with ease and an unwavering sense of confidence, which allows her to compete against some of the bigger boys in Turkey’s male-dominated hip-hop sphere.

Record companies and sexism are only just a few of the factors keeping Turkish hip-hop from finding its full potential and blossoming as openly as those involved in the scene would like. Many cultural factors have dampened the development of the movement and as a side effect, given the subculture an unfavourable light. Rapper Saian is a notable figure in Turkey’s hip-hop community whose music eschews swagger for a more pronounced accent on mood. His most recent work, an E.P. entitled Başıbozuk, demonstrates a sinister air of danger and intensely eerie atmospherics matched only by the terrifying force of his whiplashing rhymes. It’s also overtly political, taking aim at some of the conservative infrastructure of Turkey’s government.

“The title-track is a battle track against the existing system,” Saian explains, “In Turkey, there is a government that is Islam-based and against secularism – and also against democracy. There is censorship, but it’s invisible and not official – not only in music, but also in art, literature and media. Turkey is a republic and has a democracy, but that democracy is only on paper a lot of the times.” Certain times that censorship has found its way into the quarters of Turkey’s hip-hop community with authorities keeping a tuned ear onto any raps that might make waves politically. “The Turkish Prime Minister (Recep Tayyip Erdoğan) sued one of our popular MC friends who records under the name pit10 and, if I’m not mistaken, he was obliged to pay compensation to the Prime Minister.”

The issues of politics and rap in Turkey’s social culture detailed by Saian have also found their way into the religious sphere, much to the chagrin of many involved in hip-hop. Saian further elaborates, “Many years ago, rapper Sagopa Kajmer was rapping under the name Silahsız Kuvvet, usually protesting and opposing a number of issues concerning the government. In my opinion, once a lot of Islamic groups came into power in Turkey and an Islamic stream was on the rise in the country, Kajmer’s beliefs and music changed in a parallel way to this situation. His lyrics, music, the samples he used and also his way of dressing (including his entourage) changed to reflect government attitudes… and of course, his audiences evolved (with his new beliefs) and his fanbase increased many times more.”

Compounding these problematic issues with the development of Turkish hip-hop is yet another hindrance concerning social attitudes and family life. Being a relatively new music in Turkey, hip-hop has the unfortunate reputation as being a music culture belonging to the lower class – and certainly not one belonging to Turkish culture at all. Much of hip-hop culture is relegated to small hip-hop parties thrown by event organizers and perhaps the minimal press coverage rappers receive. Kezzo, an indie-rapper, outlines the struggles for Turkish hip-hop and its difficulty in moving forward: “In Turkey, radio and TV channels generally don’t play rap music. For this reason rap music has been subordinated. Pop, rock and arabesque music take precedent in our country. That is to say, there is little or no place for rap music here.”

Da Poet reflects on the more social aspects that affect the music. “I can’t count how many problems there are!” he says, “Your family doesn’t accept or understand what you are doing – you keep dealing with people, trying to explain to them what it is you are doing and why. In Turkey, families are very protective and they can’t understand new cultural ways a lot of the times.”

Unsurprisingly, many rappers in Turkey find that hip-hop remains on the margins of their lives. Family pressures enforce the ideas of stable career choices and, in fact, many Turkish rappers hold down steady careers. Rahdan, a physicist (who professes he is still a musician first), further explains: “Hip-hop is still not totally accepted by families here. I had given up rap music for two years from 2008-2010 because of education. Here there is an existing system that is accepted by most in which you cannot pursue a passion and study at the same time. Most of our young population cannot work or pursue their hobbies if they are studying at the same time. It’s our unwritten law. Education is kind of tiring. By the time people in hip-hop reach the age of twenty here in Turkey, they have to decide which part of their life they want to continue: go forward with hip-hop or a get a regular job.”

Saian, a naval architect and marine engineer, works in a shipyard when he’s not spitting rhymes on a mic onstage. “Rap is my hobby,” he says, “I could never be a full-time rapper. Would I like to? I don’t think so and I’m fine with that.” And when the situations for rappers in Turkey who choose hip-hop full-time become dire, they become downright dire. The Batarya production crew has struggled living close to poverty, forsaking a routine life for their love of all things hip-hop. “We had a lot of difficulties when we created the Batarya Company,” says Leşker Asakir, “We were starving, poor, lonely. After that whole process, we decided no one should have those same problems. We tried to make Batarya Company a place to produce hip-hop without having starvation, poorness and loneliness. Batarya Company was created to be a brotherhood centre for hip-hop – and it is. We learned you can’t do anything alone.”

As Turkish hip-hop struggles to find its footing, its proponents and champions continue to persist in the nearly impossible routine of trying to give the subculture its shape. The dominant American pop culture, which has been somewhat of a beacon to Turkish youth, has helped to give some sense or idea of how hip-hop can evolve. However, Turkish rappers are also very wary of allowing their own culture to be swallowed up in the tide of Western traditions. Saian points out the significance of the Turkish language when it comes to rapping, allowing a language that was never believed suited for rap to adapt to the rhythms and structures of hip-hop music. “With Turkish grammar, it’s not so easy to rap as it is with English or French. Turkish is one of the agglutinative languages, which means it’s more difficult to do rhymes,” he says. ‘I think that’s the disadvantage. But Turkish sounds good in my opinion.”

Finding ways to accommodate the different cultures of the East and the West is pretty much a given when creating hip-hop in Turkey. While many rappers are tuned into a new outlook outside of their social cultures, at the same time there is a need to keep their music rooted in the musical traditions that have become a staple of Turkish TV and radio. “You have to consider your own ethnic culture,” Leşker Asakir says. “What can you accept? What can you deny? We are trying to make our own musical culture here in Turkey. The American music culture made in America has an American cultural format — different language, different religion, different beliefs, which aren’t always suitable for the musical culture of other cultures. We are always following new trends in music. Our right speaker has been playing all kinds of musical genres but our left speaker always plays only Turkish music styles. That means we always try to find a new synthesis and the main point is to mix all kinds of music styles with the Turkish style.”

Perhaps no rapper in Turkey has perched on that difficult balance between two entirely different cultures the way Da Poet has. A mainstay and a revered figure on the Turkish hip-hop scene, Da Poet’s work has travelled outside of his home country and over to the US where it caught the attention of downtempo/Nu Jazz queen Vanessa Daou, who has since enlisted the rapper for production duties on her forthcoming album, Light, Sweet, Crude. Having worked steadily for more than a decade now in hip-hop, Da Poet’s progress and struggles are still no different from what his contemporaries are currently experiencing. His brand of hip-hop provides followers of Turkish hip-hop an impressive glimpse into the power of an East-West exchange and, more importantly, the idea that the acceptance and assimilation of a foreign culture does not necessarily negate the culture of one’s own.

This sentiment is echoed in much of Turkish hip-hop today and you can hear it in the music of many Turkish rappers who continue their struggles for social and cultural acceptance. Da Poet was once left with a few impressionable words by rapper Fuat, which could very well provide Turkey’s hip-hop culture with a most encouraging adage: “You have to write in the language that you dream in.”

Special thanks to Akif Emekli (aka, Rahdan Vandal), who was instrumental in not only providing me with translations, but also with facilitating many of these interviews. See Emekli’s Facebook page here.