What A Rap Subgenre Can Teach Us About Foreign Cultures
I listened to popular Trap music from Russia to South Africa for strictly educational purposes. Here's what I found.
It took me a while to work up the courage to publish this. I love music, and particularly terrible Trap, but worry that it’s somehow too vulgar or incongruent with the image people have of how I am supposed to be. But then I remembered the eternal words of some Nike marketing intern: just, like, do it, dude.
This is the first of a 2 part series. Read Part 2 here.
Trap is the new pop.
What started out as a fringe hip-hop subculture in the South has, undoubtedly, taken over the world. If you’ve listened to any radio play in the last five years, you’ve probably heard it’s stuttering kick-drums and synthesizer melodies. You know Trap has gone mainstream when Selena Gomez and Taylor Swift succumb to its alluring, netherworldly bassline and over-autotuned, catchy hooks.
Beyond the unique sound, Trap songs tend to be aggressive and self-aggrandizing in lyrical content usually extolling (or, less often, lamenting) drugs and violence.
There’s also a common visual aesthetic: a nocturnal vibe, pockmarked with bright reds and greens, matching the exotic sports cars on top of which rappers deliver their message and the neon bikinis that struggle to contain the jiggling butts therein.
The dominance of American popular culture on the global stage for the last hundred years has been such that for most Americans, the existence of foreign music (outside the odd Despacito) rarely crosses one’s mind.
But as a global tastemaker, America’s obsession with Trap has not gone unnoticed in other parts of the world. In fact, what some think of as a unique feature of American music has actually inspired the rise of major Trap stars from Ukraine to Uganda.
Since I was looking for an excuse to snorkel through the reefs of foreign Trap anyways, I figured I may as well investigate what its various forms can reveal about the local flavors that produced it.
So put on your speedos, and let’s dive in.
What Foreign Trap Has in Common
Beyond repetitive hooks, Codeine-slurred flows and an opioidic addiction to auto-tune (also just lots of opioids), I was often surprised at what features were common to practically all Trap I came across, regardless of country or continent.
These short, improvised sounds with which rappers pepper their lyrics, are stereotypically American. They are the sounds that foreign kids mimic when attempting to replicate the form of American English, without knowing it’s content: the What’s ups, the Yeahs, the Lesgedits and so on.
Interestingly, ad-libs have been imported wholesale, practically never taking on local flavors, serving as tiny bookmarks paying homage to the genre’s American roots. As such, Japanese songs talking about growing up in Japan, in the midst of Japanese culture, with verses entirely in Japanese are often sprinkled with an Americanized “Baayy-be”. Russian rappers whisper “Ice Ice Ice”, less in tribute to everyone’s favorite 90s rapper and more in reference to their diamond rings/watch/whatever item of jewelry they brought to show-and-tell. It feels like a parody of American rap but… they’re totally serious.
2. American Cultural References
Out of place too, are various items or concepts that are totally normal in the US but totally not in the countries where the rappers film the videos. Like Yellow school buses.
Or varsity basketball uniforms worn by Russian rappers pretending to be students in an American high school.
Along similar lines are references to things that don’t play much of a role in the local culture. Here’s a line from Italian Rapper Ghali’s Ninna Nanna:
“I wanted to play basketball / I'm puffing Casper / I hope they don't pass the Ghostbusters / How I miss Blockbuster”... in a country where neither Ghostbusters nor Blockbuster would be very familiar to the average citizen.
3. Dance Moves
There are the dance moves, which are carbon copies of American ones. A classic is the one that looks like you’re turning your wheel only with your (gold/diamond-covered) wrist, but your face looks like a skunk mistook your car for a threat. Also, the Trap variation of the Running Man, which looks like Mini-me running in space.
4. Complaining About Rap Dying
Pretty standard fare these days. A stereotypical example is Gemitaiz, an Italian rapper: “I must say I don't like how the rap is going lately / All these people that don't care at all about music”, which is funny coming from a movement considered by hip-hop traditionalists to be the worst thing to have happened to the genre, like ever.
And then there are the women. Both classic misogyny and scantily-clad ethnically-ambiguous women play a role in practically every country’s Trap scene though, as we will see later, in some much more than others.
Yeah, but how are they different?
We can learn much more from how they are different — both from the source (American culture) and from each other.
In this series, I will compare six Trap cultures: Italian, Israeli, Ukrainian, Russian, South African and Japanese. I wanted to avoid countries which have such diverse Trap scenes and styles that it’d be hard to draw cultural patterns, like France and South Korea. I wanted some cultures whose language I understood and some which I do not. Otherwise, I just kinda browsed around and let YouTube be my steward (risky, I know).
Today we’ll look at Italian and Israeli Trap, and next week we’ll look at the rest.
Like it’s proto-genre, Trap is built on the musical history of black America — in its sampling, its melodies and its themes. But some of the most beautiful songs foreign Trap has to offer infuse this uniquely American foundation with local flavors of musical tradition.
Italy is a great example. The country considers music a pillar of its cultural identity, having birthed much of modern classical music, including the symphony and the concerto. It also has a rich tradition of male crooners, folk singers called cantautori who riff mostly about love, for woman and country.
We see this tradition reflected in its most popular Trap hits. Italian Trap tends to rely more heavily on raw classical instruments, like the trumpets and pianos in Gemitaiz’s Fuori or the guitar in Sfera Ebbasti’s Tran Tran, than American Trap.
They also fuse Trap hooks with raspy but auto-tuned folk-pop verses, reminiscent of the country pop crooning tradition of the 70s and 80s. This is quite unusual in the Trap world. Compare, for instance, Venerus’ hook in Senza Di Me:
with Adriano Celentano’s 1980s chart-topper Il Tempo Se Ne Va:
It’s like emotional pop-folk Italian set to a Southern Trap beat. How cool that music can do that?
And although the sounds are clearly Trap-influenced, the lyrics are very Italian. It’s carnal without being misogynistic. How Italian, for instance, is Gemitaiz’ line “we don’t fuck with life / we make love to it”?
It frequently talks about love and romance in the way R&B singers might, not Trap artists. “Do not cry, I’m sending you kisses / Excuse me, but I can’t reach you” (Senza De Mi) — that kind of thing. Or Ghali singing: “Holding her from behind and sniffing the smell / while she cooks something / Tasty, drinking red wine”.
Unique cultural issues come up often, too. There’s now a whole generation of kids born to African immigrants who braved the waters between the continents to build a better life for themselves in Europe. These kids, like Ghali, a Tunisian-Italian, are stuck between their African roots and Italian upbringing.
Italian Trap reveals this subculture. There are political messages in support of immigrants (“Newspapers overdo it, they talk about foreigners like they’re aliens / with no passport, looking for money”) in Cara Italia, an open letter to the country. Struggles with identity too — Ghali singing “When they tell me ‘go back home’ / I reply, ‘I’m already here’” or Izi, an Algerian-Italian, asserting that “Every accent has its place” in Chic. It’s a kind of open-arm nationalism that immigrant rappers hope to promote through their music.
An interesting quirk of this subculture is that it has its own version of Spanglish, an Arabic-Italian medley that gives the rappers more rhyming and stylistic flexibility while bridging the gap between the cultures, like in this vibey tune called Wily Wily:
There’s some lesson here, probably, about cultural diversity and beautiful art but I’ll let you figure it out.
Of all the music videos I watched, Italian ones were the least showy, on average. Cars appear frequently… but they’re almost never the Bentleys or the Escalades we’ve come to expect. In fact, they’re quite the opposite, tending toward small or old European cars, like the old Alfa Romeos and Volkswagens in Gemitaiz’ videos or tiny Fiats in Ghali’s.
The still above is from the song Ricchi Dentro meaning Rich Inside which, incidentally, is the general pattern of content over form that I observed in a lot of Italian rap.
Another point in case is the frequent reference to mopeds, perhaps the least manly or glamorous means of transportation. Especially when there are two guys on it.
This is classic localization of Trap, which can teach us two types of truths. One type is superficial and objective, like the fact that mopeds are a big part of Italian everyday existence in a way they aren’t anywhere in the US. Another truth is both more profound and more subjective, about how, in this instance, Italian macho identity is not dependent on material goods (like the cost of your car or watch) in the way it is in the US.
Smoking cigarettes is another great example. I can’t consciously recall a single American Trap video that has a rapper smoking a cigarette. But in Italian rap they are everywhere, including on the back seat of a moped. Again, we learn both about Italian culture at a surface level — that smoking is still popular — and can make inferences at a deeper level, like that social trends are slower to change there than they may be elsewhere.
There’s generally something more casual, more middle-class about Italian Trap videos. Mostly the bougie elements consist of Renaissance art and architecture (the OG OG bougie) that serve as the backdrop, in front of which casually dressed rappers sip on beers with friends or smoke cigarettes.
Sometimes they just look like a few casually-dressed guys who stumbled onto the set of a music video:
This doesn’t mean the videos are basic or boring. The clothes they wear are sometimes loud while remaining stylish and tasteful, often giving off old school cool vibes. And many videos are brightly colored, almost without exception, with vibrant blues and neon purples used to bring to life otherwise mundane scenes, like hanging at a fast food joint.
Italian Trap balances the casual with the tasteful, largely avoiding the flashiness of traditional Trap. Its sound plays homage to the cantanti of classic Italian music. Its lyrics confirm one’s suspicion that Italian may have been the original Romance language and deals unambiguously with sensitive political issues of identity and belonging. Taken together, this makes Italian Trap one of the more unique manifestations of the genre I’ve come across in my, err, “studies”.
Despite a much shorter history, Israeli music still feels rich, perhaps on account of the cultural hotpot it is home to. Israeli Trap is not strictly Israeli as much as it is American rap infused with Middle Eastern music (what Israelis call Mizrahi, or Eastern).
Its songs are woven with the sounds of Arabic string and wind instruments, complex rhythmic structures and tense vocal tones. And although traditional Middle Eastern music doesn’t include much harmony/chords in the Western sense, Israeli Trap marries the two.
A classic example is Stephane Legar and Itay Levi’s Maman:
Given how large politics, security and terrorism loom in Israeli consciousness, it’s not surprising to see these referenced frequently. You’ve got lines like “I come like Golani (elite military unit) and you’re Hezzbolah” (Dudu - King David), or rapper Swissa weirdly boasting of him “looking like a terrorist on LSD” (Shama) while Stephane Legar’s I’m in Dubai celebrates the historic peace treaty that for the first time allowed Israelis to travel to the UAE.
But despite these references and the constant political instability — or perhaps because of it - the country’s Trap is actually pretty lightweight and celebratory. They talk about the beauty of the Israeli melting pot (strangely enough Israel’s pop-Trap sensation is a Christian from Togo), the importance of being grateful for life’s challenges, excitement for the weekend (which in Israel is actually Thursday to Saturday, given Saturday is the Jews’ Sunday) and, of course, smoking weed, that old classic.
There’s also more humor, per sentence rapped, than in the other Trap cultures I studied. Some choice lines I loved:
“I have a Louis V wallet, but its empty; I have a Louis V wallet, but it’s falling apart” (Noroz - Louis V)
“Take you to picnic on the beach with Shawarma and wine” (Noroz - I feel great)
“I put on a my Shrek backpack, all the kids are jealous” (Young Haim - Shrek Bagpack)
Much of it is self-deprecating, like the rappers don’t take themselves or the issues they rap about too seriously, perhaps as a relief from the everyday political and military tensions Israelis live with.
Israeli Trap’s music videos are often pretty funny too. Peled raps about his lavish taste and crazy parties while smoking hookah knee deep in a kiddy pool.
Two rappers spit macho-sounding lyrics while sat in a bathtub together. And Lil Shipi recreates the famous ET going home scene using intentionally terrible CGI and, for some odd reason, Georgian subtitles.
There aren’t many shows of strength in its videos, including the gun toting that one would expect of artists who grew up in the most militarized country in the world. But that actually makes sense given how tightly regulated and carefully tracked gun-ownership is.
Otherwise, its music videos are unremarkable: mostly rappers in front of a camera, or acting out the lyrics to their songs.
Israeli Trap is clearly a product of the country’s close political and cultural ties to the US. Its sounds are broadly similar and its lyrical themes are pretty lightweight, often heavily emphasizing the artist’s impressive ability to smoke copious amounts of weed, or party.
The genre is unique, though, in its heavy reliance on humor, which Israelis will recognize as the country’s evolutionary response to existence under threat. Also of note is its intermittent infusion of Middle Eastern string-based sounds into otherwise Western Trap beats, a child of the same regional diversity which birthed Israeli culture writ large.
This is the end of Part 1. Next week I’ll continue this little exploration, looking at what we can learn about Russian, Ukrainian, South African and Japanese cultures from their Trap music.
I am also experimenting with new types of content (like this musical deep dive) so tell me what you thought of this read by choosing an option below 👇