Russia's Hard Bass Scene is Completely Insane
A look into the bizarre world of flash-mob "pump dancing."
What essentially started as a Russian take on hard house has spread across the world through social media and developed into a form of viral protest. Local hard bass crews organize flash mobs called "mass attacks," where packs of masked youths "pump dance" aggressively in public while confused passerbys pick up pace and try their best to avoid eye contact. The whole ritual is filmed and uploaded onto YouTube, where—rather than curl up and die under a barrage of keyboard warrior hate—it’s managed to inspire new hard bass crews that have sprouted westward across the continent.
Originating in Saint Petersburg in the early 2000s, hard bass is like every other variety of generic dance music popular with young Europeans who dress exclusively in budget sportswear: 150-160 BPM, four-to-the-floor beats, and cheesy ‘90s synths. This is basically Russian donk. The only real difference is that instead of hearing a Boltonion drawl chewing on a Greggs cheese-and-onion slice tell you to “put a donk on in it,” you occasionally get a Russian MC spitting something in Cyrillic that I've been too terrified to stick into Google translate.
Championed by home-grown producers like DJ Snat, Sonic Mine, and XS Project, local record label Jutonish was your one-stop shop for all your hard bass needs. By all accounts, hard bass wouldn’t take off outside of Saint Petersburg for the next few years, and even Muscovites seemed to prefer listening to the sound of rusting Soviet machinery grind into disrepair over the St. Pete’s sound, but eventually, hard bass’ mundanity would be what propelled it into the international consciousness.
The fact that you could drop a hard bass track at a gabba night in Holland, or a poky rave in Spain, meant that there was a lot of cross-pollination between the scenes, with European DJs playing at hard bass parties in Russia and vice-versa. This is how Dr. Poky, the main face at Sound Makers records, stepped out from a sea of gurning faces and became the hard bass messiah, preaching the pump bass gospel via a grassroots Facebook marketing campaign. Originally from Russia’s eastern steppes, Dr. Poky first moved to Madrid, where he made a name for himself as DJ in the local "poky" scene, before eventually settling in France. It was on a fateful trip to Russia that he first encountered the infamous hard bass "pumping dancers."
“When I DJed in Russia in 2009, I saw some video on the web of two or three guys dancing in the street to hard bass as a joke,” Dr. Poky told me over Skype, “They put the video on the internet, on a program called VKontakte.” If you’re unfamiliar with bootleg social media platforms, VKontakte is Russia’s answer to Facebook, with a 195 million profile-strong following, largely based in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova and Kazakhstan. Hard bass now had an audience, and as we’ve seen in the aftermath of "Gangnam Style" and Soulja Boy, with enough cheap laughs and a viral video, you too can leave your grubby mark on the globally connected loins of modern popular culture.
By 2010 copycat videos began appearing in Belarus, Ukraine, and across Russia. Pumping dancers were pump-dancing in classrooms, in shopping malls, on public transportation, on football pitches, and even on the steps of the National Academic Bolshoi Opera and Ballet Theatre in Minsk. Groups could be as small as three or four dudes (and it’s pretty much always dudes) or as big as several dozen, but the general objective is to get as many people as possible pump-dancing at an inventive location that no one has ever tried before, or somewhere where you make the biggest nuisance out of yourself—and if you don’t get it on video, it didn’t happen.
Just in case you’re having difficulty visualizing pump dancing, let me break it down for you: imagine a bunch of hunched-over dudes treading grapes, arms bent at the elbow, hands formed into beach bum "hang loose" gestures, casually flailing their forearms up and down. That’s pump dancing.
Straight from the off, a few common threads started emerging; the pumping dancers were always big on reppin’ either their country or their native city, and most of the videos were filmed at distinctive local landmarks likely to feature in regional tourism board brochures. “It’s about showing the city where you live, the main attractions, to show it’s real. This is my city and I love it—we dance to hard bass here too,” reveals Dr. Poky.
Another commonality was an overarching sense of masculine aggression, and budget sportswear. Mass attacks look like fight scenes from hooligan flicks like The Football Factory. In one Ukrainian video, two groups of hooded youths approach each other in a city underpass, hands raised overhead and chanting as if there’s a bunch of obscenely overpaid athletes kicking a ball around nearby. After a brief pause, they charge at their counterparts in a move that reminds me of a wall of death that I saw at an Agnostic Front show when I was 15, before breaking into fits of pump-dancing upon impact. It’s like watching a musical adaptation of the 2011 London summer riots composed by Blackout Crew.
In all fairness, this isn’t just unique to hard bass; one of gabba’s biggest anthems is “Rotterdam Hooligan” by the Rotterdam Terror Corps that samples the impassioned chants of Feynoord fans. Pondering hard bass’ enduring popularity with football thugs, Dr. Poky explains, “It’s easy for them to bring people and make a video. It’s low-cost promotion to show how hard they are.” I’m pretty sure dancing hasn’t been used to intimidate people since the Jets and Sharks threw down in West Side Story, but whatever.
At some point in late 2010, hard bass slipped under the digital Iron Curtain and made its way onto YouTube, pump dancing into the collective global consciousness. Over the course of 2011, hard bass crews sprouted in Slovakia, Serbia, Lithuania, and the Czech Republic. In Belgrade, one mass attack attracted around 200 barely-pubescent kids, while others took place as far away as France, Spain, and even Chile.
Mass attacks were increasingly taking place outside of government buildings and, to the untrained eye, must have looked like political protests via ham-fisted line dancing. Were they trying to say something to politicians? Dr. Poky explains: “Some people make videos because they love hard bass and want share it with the world, but some other people use it to promote their own agenda. In Chile, students used it to protest against the government cutting money for education, in Serbia for example, some of them used videos to protest about Kosovo.”
The first crew to explicitly use hard bass as a political platform were Russian group Hard Bass School,” who saw themselves as an eastern bloc Minor Threat. As Dr. Poky elaborated: “You have some video on Internet with a guy smoking, then some guy comes and says ‘Why do you waste your time and money smoking or taking drugs? You should be wearing a Hard Bass School t-shirt and dancing to Hard Bass!’” Yeah, let's get high on t-shirts!
In Belgium, Jeune Nation, the Hitler Youth-esque junior wing of Francophone nationalist movement, NATION, use hard bass in their never-ending battle against Islam. With Halal dietary guidelines becoming increasingly common in supermarkets and school kitchens across Charleroi, they unceremoniously took the streets last April wearing pig masks and staged a mass attack in defense of their inalienable right to pork products. Political gains were limited, but sighs of exasperated offense were at an all time high. Over in the Czech Republic, anti-authoritarian hard bass crews are convinced that the economic crisis marks the beginning of a counter-cultural revolution, as Mord explains: “Society is staggering on the edge. Today's financial crisis is not just an economical problem; it's a crisis of culture. We believe that this crisis is a major one and that a big social shift and revolution is on the horizon. We want to contribute.”
Okay, but isn’t pump dancing a bit of a vague way to make a statement? Why don’t you make some banners and shout cute slogans like everyone else does? Crew member Mord argues, “That’s just another system-approved form of behavior. How can you protest against the system if you continue to play it's game? How you want to change rules if you behave by the rules? Look at the Occupy Wall Street movement. Where are they now? What did they actually achieve?”
But how exactly is rhythmically simulating the early stages of the wine making process a better revolutionary tactic than civil disobedience? “Think about the symbolic power! Groups of masked people making noise and dancing where they’re not supposed to is much more outrageous than ten times as many people marching with banners and yelling slogans! We are provoking people to think a little bit more about what they see around them; people are desensitized to protesting crowds, but everyone reacts to hard bass.” Though Nenad, from Serbia’s hard bass crew, added a more level-headed answer: “To us, it’s a form of socializing and entertainment and it lets us express our opinion. We won’t change anything, but at least we get to show our stance.”
And I guess that’s the real point of hard bass—it’s just kids trying to run the hormonal gauntlet of adolescence as best they can and hope it brings them some sort of purpose and belonging. When one Prague hard bass crew got together to go trash picking in a local forest, I don’t think many of them really gave a shit about the environment, or dreamt of trolling Japanese whaling vessels with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, they probably just wanted to hang out with their friends. Because, essentially, puberty sucks and not everybody gets to be prom queen, so why not indulge in hard bass?
Follow Aleks on Twitter: @slandr