Nearly 30 years ago, Mongolia traded decades of communism and isolation for democracy, market freedom and a new connection with the outside world. The timing of the country’s first multiparty elections, in July 1990, meant that after years of strict music censorship, many young Mongolians also awoke to the newly accessible golden age of American hip-hop, just as gangsta rap was blowing up.
These days, young Mongolians might be split on the benefits of capitalism and the global economy, but they’re pretty united on the wisdom of hip-hop, which has taken off here with a homegrown scene that is just as likely to incorporate traditional horsehead fiddles as it is to use the kind of pop music samples prevalent in American rap.
… the ancient, partly whispered language providing an aggressive staccato and unusual rhyme structures.
Walk down the streets of the crowded, traffic-clogged capital, Ulaanbaatar, and Mongolian rap seems to be blaring out of every other car, the ancient, partly whispered language providing an aggressive staccato and unusual rhyme structures.
Gennie, who fixed heaters by day and mixed beats by night while raising a child for much of her rap career, started writing rhymes when she was just 13. “My first English teacher was Eminem,” she said. “Old people thought it was dirty music with bad words and that it would be bad for kids.”
She’s now 31, and her career has taken her on tours through Europe and to a recording session in San Francisco. Her rhymes about single mothers, poverty and alcoholism reflect the gritty side of Ulaanbaatar, where half the population lives in the ger district, a sprawling slum of yurts that sits in a perpetual cloud of coal smoke for much of the winter.
People generally come to Mongolia to experience one of the last nomadic societies on Earth, giving short shrift to the capital, where nearly half of all Mongolians live. But underneath the facade of bland, blocky buildings and impenetrable winter smog, there’s a vibrant music scene.
Mongolia has a rich musical history, and rappers like XL and Metune now incorporate folk traditions such as throat singing and two-string fiddles into their rap. At an Ulaanbaatar music studio, the two rappers watch a music video of an epic Mongolian rap battle that features Metune rapping over folk music, with shots of camels, soaring sand dunes and a stampede of stocky Mongolian horses. “It’s important to keep our traditions alive, even in modern music,” XL says.
Local rap pioneer, promoter and record digger Dlob is pushing rappers to incorporate rare sounds from Mongolia’s communist and folk past using his record shop, Dundgol Vinyl Cafe, where collectors can find everything from 1980s Def Jam records to 1970s Mongolian rock. “I wish all Mongolian kids would start digging for records and make their own beats,” he says.
During a recent instrumental hip-hop show in a modern mall overlooking the 19th-century Qing dynasty compound of the Bogd Khan, Mongolia’s lama king, promoter T. Oyuntulkhuur, known to many as Roxy from her radio DJ days, said hip-hop is a natural fit for individualistic Mongolians used to the freedom of nomadic life on the steppe.
“Just the way we think and our mentality, it goes hand in hand with hip-hop — being free, expressing yourself, not being shy,” she says.
This story was published originally in 2018.
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