My introduction to Romanian hip-hop came on a flight from Dortmund to Bucharest from a lanky German computer technician. He told me that if I didn’t rush through immigration and get to the baggage claim immediately, gypsies would steal everything I owned. "Are you serious?" I said, genuinely concerned for one shirt in particular that said “Coolio Europe,” and featured a picture of the 90s Nickelodeon rapper framed by European flags. “Yeah. You’ll see little kids just grab bags right off the conveyor belt. Of course, the bags will probably be like half an hour late anyway. This airport is horrible.” “How do people let that happen?” I asked. He looked at me with the kind of honesty that you see in actors who practice their cynical snarl in the mirror every night, “Welcome to Romania.".
My rebuttal was nonverbal. I started flipping through my thick Rough Guides Romania to see if I had missed the passage warning me about the gypsy airport thieves. Gloomy Gus must have recognized the fear that he had just muscled into my psyche, so he initiated a reintroduction. His name was Radu Bogdan, and was a gregarious Romanian ex-pat who now lived and worked as an IT consultant in western Germany. I quickly realized that he was actually a much more pleasant person than his cup-half-empty, filled-with-sulfuric-acid, and splintered-from-a-bar-fight-introduction indicated. He just really disliked the current state of his Romania homeland, a sentiment that he tries to make blatantly clear as 1/3 of Romanian hip-hop trio CaneCorso.
With the exception of Will Smith’s family-friendly rap and Skee-Lo’s Charlie Brownish self-deprecation, hip-hop is a genre that’s fueled mostly by aggressive negative energy. Generally the point of contempt revolves around the "The Man" and his oppressive, state-championship football-ring-bearing backhand. However, the American version of grumble-heavy hip-hop seems trite compared to a country where upon arrival, all of your belongings may be stolen by 6-year-olds. In 1989, while America was swapping YO! MTV RAPS! trading cards, Romania was writhing in pediatric-AIDS-ridden poverty and attending celebratory banquets for Nicolae Ceausescu, who they’d revolt against and murder that Christmas.
Radu was eager to tell me that the country has been unsuccessfully trying to get its act together ever since, and he thinks that hip-hop could make a big difference in this process. I agree with him. Well, except for the "make a difference" part, although I do think it's a nice sentiment.
After writing and performing for seven years, CaneCorso, consisting of himself (AlterEgO), MC Sauce, and Colorado, released their first album Poetic. I think it’s pretty good, so I rang up Radu and rehashed our airplane conversation. I was happy to hear that he’s still a brooding IT consultant in his day-to-day life.
Vice: So when did you start getting into rap?
Radu: For me it was about sixth grade, so I guess about twelve years ago. It’s about the same time period for all of Romania though. There were just one or two bands until about ’97-98 and they weren’t even very advertised. That was the boomtime in Romania.
Who pulled you into hip-hop?
It was a combination of Tupac, Cyprus hill, and a Romanian band called BUG Mafia--Boys Underground Mafia.
Is Boys Underground Mafia still around? Do they still make music?
Yeah, they have never really grown up. They still make the same type of music in 2010 that they did in 1998.
Do you think that’s a good thing or a bad thing?
It’s a very bad thing.
Gotcha. How did they start?
They were essentially just taking lyrics from American hip-hop bands, translating it into Romanian, then throwing it over a shitty backbeat and calling it rap music.
So they were literally just translating Tupac into Romanian and calling it their own?
No. They weren’t necessarily just taking all of the lyrics and transposing it, but they were saying the same thing using the same style. You know--“Hey you, you’re in my neighborhood. We’re having guns, bitches, cars, selling drugs, making money, blah blah blah blah.” It’s nothing new.
That’s weird because when I was in Romania, I didn’t really see any sort of gangster culture. Even in Bucharest, which seems like it should have a lot more gangster-type stuff going on.
Yeah, it’s not around. Maybe on a different level in the suburbs with certain types of people, but in Bucharest there are only two or three types of gang neighborhoods. In Romania, there are Gypsies everywhere, and all these kids from 12 to 18 years old think they're in a gang, but they don't actually do anything that real gangs do. And of course, wherever there's a gang, other Gypsy kids will try to start their own bigger gangs.
But these gangs aren't real?
Yeah, it’s not the type of gang that you'd see in America. I just saw in a documentary how you actually have a system where people must sell things and make money to really get in the gang. Right?
I guess we have something like that. Getting away from this though, how has the Romanian hip-hop scene changed since 1997?
Well, I think we have two types of hip-hop. There’s still the hip-hop that I told you about with the same old bands and music from 1997-98. Now though, kids are starting to grow up with a different type of hip-hop--smart hip-hop. It’s elevated beyond the cars, ladies, drugs, blah blah blah. It’s more about trying to put something into the words. When you make a song, you try to put something in with the other parts so that when you listen you can take a good part out of it.
I see. Why do you think that the Romanian hip-hop scene developed in 1997, not in the early 90’s immediately after Ceausescu was ousted?
Well, I think it really started around 1994 and 1995, but it didn't get to people’s ears until 1998. That was the big boom. In Romania, they tried to do democracy different. When democracy first happened, they tried to make it seem like everyone was allowed to do whatever they wanted. But no one knew what to do, so they just did everything that the president said.
So one of my favorite hip-hop albums of all time is Eric B & Rakim’s Follow the Leader, which came out in the late 80s. Obviously Romania didn’t get it when it came out because you were still under Ceausescu, so when did 80s hip hop start hitting Romania?
You never got 80s hip-hop?
No. For us, it starts and ends with Tupac.
Well, that’s depressing. What was the music like during the Ceausescu years?
It was all like, "We are the greatest. We work a lot. We have a really great president who does great things, and everything is pink." They would organize these big grandiose demonstrations where everyone was dressed nice, clean and neat, singing this ideology shit, then we'd all go home and complain about Ceausescu.
Was there any underground music during the time?
If there was, it was so underground that I didn't even know it existed. Everything like that was super forbidden. You weren’t even allowed to visit anyone in other countries, even if it was your family.
That’s wild to think that there was a time when the only type of party music was Party music.
Yeah, there was also a folk group who played teenage music--about being in love, depressed, or whatever--but they had to follow certain rules. It was like normal pop music, but with a Communist smell.
One thing that I have noticed in Romanian art, film, etc, is how many references people make to the politics of and around 1989. Is this a pretty popular theme in Romanian hip-hop as well?
Uh, no not really. There are some songs that refer to that time period, but it’s much more concerned with the politics immediately afterward. We try to open people’s eyes to the horrible politics of today. This hip-hop really started in 2005, it’s more social, and politically based. Life is hard in Romania. Everyone is struggling and trying to make something work with their mortgages, bills to pay, and bank accounts to cover. The average retirement payment here is like 200 dollars a month, even if you’re a doctor. We try to open people’s eyes to this type of stuff. I don’t mean people 40 and above. I mean young people who we can influence in a good way.
So what is the album about?
It’s about people who would rather stay at home behind a desk, writing fucked-up comments about everything, but never doing anything about it. Complaining is Romania’s national sport--people love having the thoughts, but never doing anything about it.
Why do you think this is?
Well, during and after Ceausescu, the old guys were taught to believe and not act. It’s always that way with somebody in power, whether it’s the president or the church. In my point of view, the church is just as bad as the Communists were. They make these decisions, and the Romanian people say "That’s totally shitty. That will never work. Why would they try that here?’ Then, they do it anyway, because they’re trained this way.
So what’s the current state of affairs with Romanian politics?
I live in Germany now so I don't keep up as much as I should, but the last time I checked, they decided to take another loan from the World Bank, and they’re cutting salaries by 25 percent, and are putting more taxes in. It’s a mess. I don’t think we’re going to recover any time soon.
Bummer dude. Well good luck with your new album.
INTERVIEW BY BENJAMIN MAJOY