Underground but not unappreciated
Maltese contemporary hip-hop artistes are bringing a touch of reality to the music scene. Ramona Depares traces the current landscape as it’s being developed by the new generation.
It’s as far from the festival circuit and even from the less sycophantic indie scene as you can get.
The newest generation of music in Maltese is the sound of life in the street, the no-apologies poetry of rap combined with the rawness of beatboxing, alternating with what has been described as the quasi-hypnotic vibe of hip-hop.
It is Malta’s answer to cult names like Beastie Boys and Public Enemy, brought to us in the purest form of our native language. This is not the spoken Maltese we are taught at school, but the language in its vernacular form, evolved and diluted by 21st-century influences, while still replete with the colourful turn of phrase that has been handed down from generation to generation.
In short, it is the living language that most of us speak but that doesn’t typically get set to music for posterity. Now, through an ever-growing hip-hop scene and the proliferation of Youtube and social media, it is.
The Maltese hip-hop artistes who are continuously active are still too few to constitute a fully-fledged movement, but what they lack in numbers they make up for in enthusiasm – and in a never-increasing following.
If there’s one thing these artistes have in common, it’s that for them hip-hop verses are not merely a means of entertainment but are synonymous with freedom.
Throughout the past decade, hip-hop artistes like Sixth Sinfoni and Hooligan were among the first to become household names – but the strongest mark was left by No Bling, led by frontman Jon Mallia in 2009, with the single and video Luċija u Samwel and the full-length album Stejjer mill-Bandli.
Many are attracted to hip-hop because of the element of social critique, which is popularly perceived as a trademark of the genre.
However, Mallia does not believe in the limitation of this definition; on the contrary, he says he finds hip-hop liberating precisely because it has no rules.
“We get to watch things get created from ‘nothing’, which is a prime principle of the hip-hop philosophy. Moreover, the rage against the machine sydrome is only one side to the spectrum; hip-hop doesn’t all fall under the cloak of protest songs. We make hip-hop for the sake of it and we are today’s storytellers.
“Of course, the music speaks about the things we experience but this doesn’t mean we always have a solution or we’re angry about them. It’s just the way things are.”
The group, which is expected to release a new album this summer, largely takes the credit for the contemporary re-emergence of hip-hop.
No Bling are known for tackling divisive topics like bullying and teenage violence, truancy, censorship and the like. Their lyrics opened a new avenue of creative expression that did not conform to the clichéd topics that are to be found in mainstream music charts.
“Hip-hop is brutal, but also beautifully real. Even if the reality depicted is fleeting, one writes what one feels. That is not to say that ‘counterfeit’ acts do not exist. There are acts that tailor their compositions towards marketing, but luckily we do not have that on the Maltese underground scene.”
He insists that the growth of hip-hop cannot be solely attributed to the disenfranchised youth that does not wish to endorse a mainstream ideal. Yet, this is a perception that many find difficult to relinquish, maybe also because music as a social critique has been steadily growing in popularity with Maltese bands over the last decade.
Some, like punk outfits BNI and RAS, took the serious approach. Others, like Xtruppaw, preferred to highlight the trademark foibles of our society through a more humorous turn of phrase.
Neville Borg, whose thesis ‘Going Undergound’ delved into the Maltese punk subculture from a sociological perspective, says an element of social critique has always existed in Maltese music.
“It was already present in the very earliest recordings of Maltese folk music, such as those heard in Andrew Alamango’s Lost Voices collection. Even għana (folk singing) often contained some form of critique of Malta’s class system.”
And while the present generation of hip-hop artistes does not necessarily all fit under the label of protest music, it is definitely contributing to the genre in Malta.
Borg finds a correlation between early rap/hip-hop and punk; he explains that both use music as a tool to express disenchantment with political and social institutions.
“They also achieve this by making the music more accessible tothe masses and breaking down boundaries between musicians and their audiences. They are both based upon relatively simple musicianship and instrumentation, at least in their early incarnations.”
Borg adds that a distinction needs to be made between the mainstream and the underground.
“Socially-conscious hip-hop is ever-present, but the vast majority of this is underground. Internationally successful hip-hop and rap contain precious little social critique and have been turned by the larger music labels into a best-selling genre. Much of it seems to be praising things that the earlier hip-hop artistes criticised – conspicuous consumption, greed, power and so forth.”
This commercialisation has not yet touched the Maltese scene and the verses of artistes like Gforce, Żdongraap (also known as Il-Faraun), Marmalja and Sempliċiment tat-Triq depict feelings that are as real as they come. At first glance, theirs is more a stringent attack on the way society is structured than a social commentary with a message.
To the casual listener, the redeeming element might not be immediately obvious. If there is one common element that ties them, it is the value that is placed on freedom of expression. Through their rapped lyrics they certainly stretch this freedom to its limit; no topic is sacred, no idiom too crude.
Claude Agius (who has now joined No Bling) is one half of Marmalja, a hip-hop act that is taking the scene by storm. He says that despite the aggressive tone of many of his verses, these are not to be taken at face value.
While the thoughts that give birth to the verses are genuine, the lyrics are a metaphor; maybe the only way a generation that has had to learn to live with constantly fluid boundaries can ever hope to make its voice heard by the very same ‘establishment’ it seeks to criticise.
While it’s undeniable that the elements of ‘aggression’ and ‘machoism’ tend to be a common thread, both Agius and No Bling’s Mallia agree that for many, hip-hop is considered a rite of passage, a coming of age.
This could also be a contributing factor to the reasons why the rougher hip-hop artistes tend to be more popular with teenage males.
“All teenagers go through that phase of aggression and rebellion. It happened to me too – at first you identify with the ‘macho’ element, then you outgrow it. When I trace back all the work I have done, it feels a bit like hearing my thought processes grow. Hip-hop is very raw in that sense; sometimes I listen to songs I came up with 10 years ago and realise I already had certain traits and beliefs I was not consciously aware of,” Mallia says.
Agius adds that in this regard hip-hop is no different from other genres – verses get written purely on the basis of the mood/phase the artiste happens to be going through.
“Human nature being what it is, moods and beliefs are constantly ever-changing. If you ask me right now, I do not necessarily identify with all of the verses I’ve written. People change and the words must be taken in the context of the genre and the music.”
The social issues that do get highlighted in these artistes’ verses are universal. They are the same that have inspired poets, musicians and philosophers across the world, but viewed through lenses that are coloured with the ‘Malta angle’.
At the end of the day, these artistes are doing what every bona fide musician dreams of: putting their thoughts to words and music without the doctoring that a commercial market would require of them.