A household name in his native country, Italy has in Marracash one of its biggest contenders of hip-hop.
Arriving on the scene in 2008, Milanese rapper Marracash entered the precarious world of Italian hip-hop. Up until that point, few Italian rappers ventured to further the scope of hip-hop. Arguably, Marracash built upon the indelible impression left behind by Jovanotti, Italy’s first true rapper who has since expanded his music beyond the borders of hip-hop for a truly global sound. In fact, Marracash did Italian hip-hop the service of giving the scene its first proper luminary, a representative who not only helped to shape and define the genre, but has continued to play with hip-hop’s stylistic structures.
As elusive as his persona seems, his music is very accessible, transmitting the flashy and sumptuous glamour of an untouchable star into the thundering grooves of his regal hip-hop. Indeed, if there is a clambering for Italy’s hip-hop crown, all contenders are making a swipe for it where it's currently poised -- merely inches above Marracash’s head.
Outside of Italy, little is known about the private rapper. Born as Fabio Bartolo Rizzo in Nicosia, Sicily, Marracash grew up in a working class household, later moving to a district of Milan known as Barona. As a child of ten growing up in Milan, the artist’s first dalliances with music were with the choice picks of an Italian youth during the '80s: Metallica and a then-popular Italian electro-pop/rock band called 883, a band that sometimes flirted with rap. His stage name, Marracash, was a childhood nickname given him by his peers who thought the Sicilian-born boy looked Moroccan.
The rapper’s first forays into music had him recording demos under the moniker Yuza delle Nuvole (Yuza the Clouds) before truly cutting his teeth on one of Italy’s top pioneering hip-hop acts, Club Dogo. Appearing on a mixtape in 2004 with the group, the rapper would soon form a collective with the members of Club Dogo named Dogo Gang. A sometimes frighteningly thuggish band with Mafioso pretentions, Dogo Gang persisted in the gangsta rap traditions of their American successors, with Marracash just beginning to develop his stately and roguish delivery.
Still keeping his ties with Dogo Gang with whom he would continue to work with on and off throughout his career, the rapper ventured further for a solo career, resulting in his 2008 self-titled effort. His debut announced the arrival of a new and promising talent, not only for his larger-than-life personality but also for a sound that retooled and reshaped the Italian hip-hop landscape. Marracash’s kingly rhymes found a perfect counterpoint to the seductive and exotic shuffling of the album’s Moroccan-inspired beats. Hand drums and 808 machines provided the preliminary structures for the minimal sonic textures the rapper laid atop of them. The album’s opening track and single “Tutto Questo” jittered with the trills of Moroccan frame drums; a sensual exercise in rhythm, the song opened the valve on the interesting possibilities of influences outside the perimeters of Italian hip-hop at the time.
Deeper explorations in rhythms and groove were practiced on numbers like “La Danza Delle Pioggia”, a creepy tribal stomp that took synthesized Middle Eastern strings to ominous heights. An album heavily laced with percussive fills, Marracash did not neglect the call of pop music, which is a staple of Italian radio. Finding a smooth, intermediate balance between the propulsive hip-hop beats and catchy pop hooks, the rapper managed to bridge the disparate fanbases spread across the genre map of Italian radio.
In the broadening landscape of popular music, Marracash would expand his genre-defying hip-hop on his 2010 follow-up, Fino a qui tutto bene (So Far So Good), an album suffused with the textures of electronic music. No longer inspired by the influences of Moroccan sounds, Marracash’s sophomore effort ushered his rhythms onto the dance floor where his rhymes clashed with the electro-menace of buzz-saw synths. A much stronger bid for the pop music market, Fino a qui tutto bene exceeded the success of the rapper’s debut. The album greatly benefited from its flirtations with pop and dance music; it had already yielded a collaboration with one of Italy’s top electronic acts, The Bloody Beetroots, and it landed a position of number seven on Italy’s music charts, increasing his profile considerably.
Numbers like the single “Stupido”, a house-rap lampooning of imbecilic male egos, injected a self-parodic humour into the bravado and established a balance amidst the album’s more macabre proceedings. On the apocalyptic burn of “Parole Chiave” the rapper intimated a Dante’s Inferno of national panic, the paranoia of politicized ideology taking over media and households worldwide. Edging his way into a more socially-conscious world of popular culture, Marracash found ways to discuss pressing issues that allowed him to express ideas in manners that were neither obtrusive nor slight. By now, the rapper had become a household name in his native home and Italy had in Marracash one of its biggest contenders of hip-hop.
Stretching the perimeters wider, Marracash recorded 2011’s King Del Rap (King of Rap), a smorgasbord of styles that saw a return to his Moroccan influences as well as the infusion of Mantronix-inspired hip-hop. King Del Rap carried on with the rapper’s usual smirking humour, plainly illustrated in the video for the album’s title-track, a kitschy pastiche sending up everything from The Fresh Prince to Italian B-movies and Youtube video blogs.
Screaming, raucous numbers like the title-track and hard electro-funk stompers like “Guisto un giro” rubbed up against sultrier affairs like “In Down”, a lush and airy North African hymn grounded by the Moroccan drums and reggae sway. The album’s cover depicted, perhaps somewhat ironically, the rapper perched upon a throne made of sand in an Arabian desert, staring out intently and eagle-eyed at both the scrutinizing and adoring public.
After a four year gap, which saw the artist continue work with a number of other artists for other projects, he returned in 2015 with the moodier, atmospherically-oppressive Status -- 18 numbers of heavy, tenebrous hip-hop charged with the dark currents of hellbound electronic-pop. In the smoke and mirrors of the album’s shadows, Marracash expounds upon such topics like drugs, depression and social media, his humour in such matters now much more caustic.
On the curiously-titled “Bruce Willis”, a sphinx-like meditation on music industry politics and celebrity obsession, the rapper scales down his usual bravura for an eerie, minimalist stretch of sound. Its accompanying video, a multi-hued collage of hallucinatory footage, features Marracash in tribal face-paint, ominously miming his verse over the spare burbling drum patterns. It marks an entirely unexpected and new persona for the rapper, atypical of his usual genial swagger.
Darker depths are plumbed on the electro-shocker of “Crack”, which spastically thrums with crudely cut synth-beats. Is it an admonishment to an addiction or a shameless ode to a favourite pastime? The rapper doesn’t exactly come clean. On “Sindrome depressive da social network”, one of the album’s sincere pop moments, the artist explores the issues of this generation’s disturbing obsession with social media and the resultant malaise. Couched in an amiable swing of pop hooks and strolling drum loops, Marracash delivers a message spiked with more troublesome questions than there are discernible answers.
Status’ artwork features the rapper clad in an ornate mask of gold, regally framing the contours of his face; there’s a cryptic air of sovereignty, some sense of evil seeping in at the perimeters that seems to suggest a self-appointed transition to Italy’s hip-hop throne. But it’s the stinging irony beneath such facades which divides Marracash from the slew of rappers who aspire to such pretentions. Still mindful of his work in Italian hip-hop but perhaps no longer concerned with the regiments of the hip-hop superstar, Italy’s prime rapper makes a prescient statement with his latest work, one that pushes for something beyond what had been previously offered in his repertoire.
Having the crown swiped from Marracash’s head may no longer be a concern of his; he’s happy to give it up – it’s old hat now.
Splash image: Press photo of Marracash (photographer unknown)