Swiss rapper Bligg, hip-hop's resident weirdo, reinvents the genre through subversion and humour -- and an alphorn's load of smart, catchy tunes.
Cheese, chocolate, the Alps, watches, and a banking system that has protected some of the most dastardly money-launderers and politicians, Switzerland has quite an impressive list of attributes that has raised its profile around the world considerably over the century. If hip-hop has slipped through the cracks of this polymathic nation, it should be forgiven; it’s not always easy being a country of many intrigues, especially one that, over the years, has helped to define a European consciousness through its many cultural signifiers.
For all of its many disparate elements that have marked the country as a distinctive culture, Switzerland’s small but growing hip-hop culture has allotted space for a man who is at once rooted in the soil of his home country and utterly on another planet altogether; he currently resides in the interstices of public acceptance and farce. But that’s precisely where rapper Bligg thrives. Neither here nor there in the realm of hip-hop or pop music, Bligg arguably makes a strong case for the pop-cultural subversion of his music whenever he records, performs or just simply markets himself to the public at large.
Not exactly the new kid on the block when it comes to hip-hop, Bligg has already established himself as one Switzerland’s most successful and popular rappers. His first forays into hip-hop at the very tail end of the ‘90s saw the artist receive considerable attention for his no-nonsense approach to rap in the duo Bligg ‘n’Lexx alongside rapper and producer Alex Storrer (recording as Lexx). Their sole album, Nahdisnah, earned the duo enough attention and sales to lodge Bligg into the consciousness of the Swiss youth. But rather than capitalize on the album’s success, the rapper would hone his skills for a separate set of numbers he had been privately working on. Managing to rope in the talents of American West Coast hip-hop group Tha Alkaholiks (in what might have been an attempt for crossover appeal), Bligg began edging toward a certain aesthetic that called for a much harder and aggressive approach in style.
His first proper solo debut, Normal, released in 2001, featured a set of standard hip-hop grooves which capitalized on the growing trends of hip-hop culture taking place in Europe at the time. Normal’s big hit for the Swiss market, “Alles scho mal ghört”, presented the public with an official face for hip-hop; Bligg’s distinctively handsome features flashed across the screens in a bath of neon lights on MTV, giving Swiss viewers a fresh taste of digital era hip-hop. The rapper would continue to explore hip-hop laterally, pushing further for more aggression as he did nuance. The more finely-tuned follow-up, Odyssey, expanded the sonic territory to introduce a little more studio trickery into the metronomic grooves. Okey Dokey (2005) featured more of the same.
But it wasn’t until 2006, when Bligg delivered his fourth album of material, that things took a rather strange turn. Now wielding a guitar and using his pipes to not just rap but sing, Mit Liib & Seel was the breach into the utterly bizarre twilight zone that Bligg would fearlessly enter, never to return. Here, big clunky beats and the strums of rustic guitars rub against one another with an uncomfortable friction; it all threatens to collapse in a heap like some weird, sick joke. But keeping cool measure, Bligg takes the awkward rhythms, circling melodies and the astonishing power of his delivery all in stride – opening wounds, taking listeners to task, and generally having the time of his life in the process.
It shouldn’t work, this strange elemental combo of rhythm and sound; it’s like water, metal and wood grinding away in the hollows of a tin canister. And yet it does work. Mit Liib & Seel may be the album that allowed the rapper to traverse genre boundaries and radio expectations, but it also turned him into a full-fledged weirdo of hip-hop; which, in turn, made him a Swiss superstar. Take the album’s centerpiece oddity, “Dokter Dokter”, a cumbersome flow of blasting grooves which moves like a jalopy on its way to hell. Bligg manages an entirely winsome, inelegant balance of rhyme and rhythm, challenging minds and ears as much as he does syntax and groove. It aggressively shuffles clumsily, like a car with square wheels and its atmosphere of terror is strangely addictive, the knife-tipped curves and dips of his German raps applied knowingly like a weapon. Even upon repeated listens, the rhythms of the song remain ever-present and yet mysteriously elusive.
“Dokter Dokter” served as merely a sign for the progressively tweaked material Bligg would produce on future albums. Yves Spink (2007) would continue the rapper’s experiments with a much more melodic template of hip-hop, singing as much as he rapped, once again, to the strums of a guitar. In addition to an 808 machine, many of the beats came courtesy of live drums, as Bligg edged closer to a live rock band set-up. There was still something a little screwy with the rhythms on Yves Spink, as though there was some deliberate attempt to sabotage any motivation to dance along. A single was released, called “Susanne”. An homage to a TV personality on a popular Swiss TV program, “Susanne” featured a steady pulse of heavy hip-hop beats adorned with a string-section providing the high drama behind its premise of obsessive-love. Other numbers ratcheted up Bligg’s piss-taking; “Börn Baby” (a punning title pronounced as “burn baby”) was a tongue-in-cheek stab at disco-fever (complete with disco rhythms), poking fun at a long-dead lifestyle while also employing fresh designs to his now constantly morphing sound.
It wasn’t until 2008, however, that Bligg’s transformation into hip-hop’s resident misfit was fully complete. 0816 was the album that would earn the rapper his first number one spot on the Swiss music sales chart (known as the Swiss Hitparade). It was also the album in which Bligg paid homage to his home country, interpolating traditional Swiss folk music into his hip-hop grooves. A strange, befuddling excursion into absurdist pop, 0816 was a work that was incisively artful and also somewhat Brechtian – witty and sincere while taking the piss. Swiss-folk sounds of the squeezebox accordion and the hackbrett (dulcimer) were fused together with nearly swinging hip-hop rhythms, which bared little similarities to the rhythms found on his previous albums.
For one thing, Bligg employed a far more live sound on 0816, with live drums taking the place of samples and drum loops much of the time. Also, some numbers demonstrated a nearly freakish restructuring of polka rhythms; twisted into the feverish grooves were the strains of hip-hop, which provided the overall sound with its elemental base. The result was so outlandishly bizarre, it would give even Björk pause. On the plodding oompa-loompa hip-hop of “10 Chlini Appenzeller”, the rapper manages a brilliant fusion of teeter-tottering rhythms and Appenzeller Swiss-folk. “Rosalie”, a spry mix of Alpine-folk and rap, achieves a level of eccentricity so dangerously high, it out-weirds the Icelandic quirk-queen. 0816 gave Switzerland its first proper hip-hop star and Bligg would continue his journey off the beaten alpine paths for sounds of an even more risky nature.
Bligg’s next work would hold strong and pointed references to Broadway, employing the use of full orchestras and quasi-showtune arrangements to unfold behind his raps. Bart Aber Herzlich (2010) was also a number one on the Swiss music charts and this time the rapper decked out his promotional videos and tour shows in luxurious visuals and stylish set pieces to capture the public’s imagination. After the about-face that was 0816, Bart Aber Herzlich was the next logical step. It continued the rapper’s move away from standard hip-hop rhythms to a far more hybridized mix of Swiss-folk rhythms and live rock grooves. For much of the album, the only vestige of hip-hop left was the rapping, of which Bligg delivered in a way to suggest that even his raps had been hijacked by the outlier rhythms of the Alps.
Curiouser and curiouser was the presentation of this homogenized package of alpine hip-hop, with the rapper articulating this disparate mix with the highly theatrical gestures of performance art. Like a series of elaborate puns, Bart Aber Herzlich merged high art with Brechtian humour, cocking as many eyebrows as it swayed hips. Bligg’s hip-hop of surreal drama and tongue-in-cheek Euro-chic had caught on in Switzerland in a very big way; there was no escape from this pop-infused twilight zone of Dr. Caligari affectations and hip-hop throwdowns.
Bligg introduced yet another reinvented version of himself on the album’s brassy single “Manhattan”. Its accompanying music video relayed the rapper’s image of a sharply-dressed bon vivant with even sharper dance moves performed with great cinematic flair. A striking mix of Fred Astaire tap routines and flashy Chaplin-styled visual humour, the video offered yet another refraction in the consciousness of European hip-hop culture.
In 2013 Bligg released Service Publigg, a work helmed at the vanishing point of the weird, wild wilderness he was now permanently lost in. At this point, you had to either love it or leave it. The rapper had now perfected his singular sound of an alpine folk and hip-hop synthesis, therefore authenticating a genre of Swiss hip-hop in the truest sense of the term; the Swiss-folk elements in his music had now become inextricable from the modern hip-hop grooves. Tracks on Service Publigg, like the rockabilly hip-hop swing of “Wer isch dä Mörder” and the rock-opera theatrics of “Ikarus”, are signature of a sound and style that Bligg has worked to single-handedly create.
The panache with which he continues to explore his work is done so with remarkable enthusiasm. Determined to make the synthesis of both his native Swiss culture and the culture of hip-hop work, Bligg nails down every line of his German raps with perfect cadence, never allowing the otherwise incongruent influences of Swiss-folk to trip him up. It’s a rhythmic conundrum that lends itself to chance and skill, the rapper finding a smooth, sustainable flow amidst the bristly lilt of the German language and the shuffling weirdness of a hip-hopped schottische-groove.
As always, the precarious humour which infuses Bligg’s work, the musical pratfalls that we perhaps have taken for mere slapstick, still radiate with the queries on his objective. If one were none the wiser on Bligg’s designs, there might be the irrepressible urge to laugh at the rapper’s attempt to amalgamate these two divergent genres of music – especially one which conjures up images of men playing the alphorn in lederhosen on a Swiss mountainside. Who could have thought up such a loopy idea? Of course, given the conjecture that would naturally come with such an invention, it’s easy to see how Bligg seized the opportunity to practice a subtle but noticeable subversion in his work. There may be laughter after all, but it’s certainly unclear just who’s taking the piss out of whom exactly. And if this is all just really a matter of weirdness for weirdness’ sake, then the gameplay can only get more interesting hereon in. Your move, Björk.
Splash image of Bligg from Bligg.ch