Meet Ukraine's Absurd New Rap Sensation
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because they may be the only thing Moscow and Kiev agree on.
By Dan Peleschuk
Three sketchy-looking men in baggy clothes — one masked, another wearing shades, the third in a bucket hat — saunter out from a corner of the exclusive club. Like a lit fuse, the room starts to buzz, excitement building as the crowd realizes these are the guests of honor. The opening refrain pounding from the sound system, they take the stage to cheers and a sea of cellphone screens. Then the bass drops, and the club explodes.
It’s a scene from a recent concert in Kiev by the irreverent Ukrainian rap trio Grebz (a play on the Russian word for mushrooms). But it could just as easily capture how they’ve taken Eastern Europe by storm in the year and a half since they appeared: suddenly, mysteriously and with remarkable force. Even with their surprise announcement in August that they’ll stop playing live shows by year’s end, it seems inconceivable they will just fade out.
The group’s success is all the more astonishing considering the state of the music industry in Ukraine, an ex-Soviet republic struggling to Westernize after decades of mismanagement in politics, the economy and even show business. In this poorly developed sector, most pop stars spend years trying to cultivate a following, and even then, very few can match the appeal or originality of Western acts. “On this relatively infertile soil,” says music critic Igor Panasov, “Grebz have accomplished an unbelievable breakthrough.”
Sex, partying and general skulduggery are their main themes, straddling an indecipherable boundary between badass and absurd.
That’s despite — or maybe because of — their peculiar knack for understatement. Their faces often obscured, Grebz shun the press and don’t have much of a social media presence, apart from a YouTube account where they’ve posted their slick and wildly popular music videos. Instant hits, the songs’ synth-driven beats and bouncing bass trigger an instinctual urge to head-bob. Their audacious yet straight-faced lyricism provokes laughter. For those not fluent in Russian, sex, partying and general skulduggery are their main themes, straddling an indecipherable boundary between badass and absurd. The band’s aesthetics are key. Grebz espouse a style that evokes the Eastern Europe of the 1990s, when hip Western clothes weren’t widely available and street kids wore whatever track pants and windbreakers they could get their hands on.
Earlier this year, they dropped their biggest hit yet: “The Ice Is Melting Between Us.” So far, the video has logged more than 124 million views — a massive success for any budding ensemble. Their songs blast from car stereos, at beach parties and everywhere in between. Their logo is scrawled on utility boxes dotting Kiev’s outskirts, while stickers get slapped on signposts in the city’s swankiest neighborhoods. Their lyrical one-liners (“We’re piling on the bass”) have spawned Grebz-inspired memes. Cleverly marketed on their own terms, Grebz are a bona fide musical internet sensation in a country that’s never really seen one. “It’s basically a dream team,” says a Ukrainian rapper known as Freel. “They’re very talented lyricists with the right manager.”
That manager is the group’s secret weapon. Doubling as a third member, Yuri Bardash is a former break-dancer and showbiz veteran, having shepherded one of Ukraine’s biggest acts in recent years, Quest Pistols Show, to fame. Most industry insiders cast him as the idea man behind Grebz, and it’s said that he draws on his own past to provide inspiration for the project.
Raised in the decaying industrial heartland of eastern Ukraine, Bardash is well acquainted with the wayward lives led by countless youngsters in the country’s far-flung regions. Anyone familiar with the stark reality faced by countries like Ukraine and Russia since the Soviet Union’s collapse will recognize what Grebz are going for. They’re the “boys from the block” — the massive underclass caught in the socioeconomic distress of a stalled transition from post-communism to something better. So while their style borrows heavily from American hip-hop, it’s distinctly post-Soviet.
Observers say Bardash has purposefully harnessed the power of that archetype, knowing it appeals to people with direct memories of that time as well as those drawn to a bygone, almost mythical past they’re too young to remember. “He’s the same simple guy he always was — in the way he talks, his behavior, his style, in everything,” says Mikhail Yasinsky, a prominent manager who knows Bardash personally. “He always tries to stay close to ordinary people to understand their feelings, tastes and attitudes.”
That, Yasinsky adds, is an elemental part of the group’s success. Ukraine’s music industry is stocked with deep-pocketed stars who pay to promote themselves, manufacturing demand and flooding the market with a mediocre product. But Bardash and Grebz have answered a call for fresh, thrilling pop that fans can relate to — which no doubt explains why they’ve amassed followings across multiple Russian-speaking countries, from Ukraine to Kazakhstan. The fact that they play sold-out shows throughout Russia is particularly impressive, given the ongoing conflict between Moscow and Kiev, which has otherwise cratered relations between the two.
Not everyone approves of the Grebz phenomenon, though. Panasov, music critic and chief editor of Karabas Live, an online music journal, believes the group’s exploitation of social turmoil is damaging. With much of Ukraine still mired in the postindustrial depression that keeps many impoverished and hopeless, “it just amplifies the disenfranchisement they’ve been living in for decades,” he says. “It says to them, ‘Relax, this is your life — just live it, because that’s just the way the world works.’”
The group’s future plans are, not surprisingly, unknown. At a recent concert in Odessa, Ukraine, Bardash told a stunned audience that Grebz would stop playing shows after December. In typical Grebz fashion, no further details were provided. It’s a mystery, one their fans hope will be resolved by year’s end, or not.
- Dan Peleschuk, OZY Author Contact Dan Peleschuk