At first glance, ‘Serbian folk rap’ comes across as a spoof genre conjured up by David Vujanic to satirise ignorant Western perceptions of Eastern Europeans, who are often unfairly derided as a bunch of yokels. But as absurd as the term may sound, it is, in reality, an actual thing – and it’s probably the most original sound to emerge from hip-hop in years.
Essentially, Serbian folk rap does exactly what it says on the tin – it fuses very modern hip-hop beats with sounds you might typically hear emanating from a Balkan wedding. Wailing vocals, traditional instruments and choruses pulled from long-forgotten Serbian folk songs swirl together to create a combination of sounds that are as epic as they are bizarre. But for all the genre’s commonalities with folk, there is nothing quaint or folky about it. Many of the biggest Serbian folk rap hits are ruthlessly violent and make road rap look a bit moist by comparison.
That the genre is violent should hardly come as a surprise: Serbia is a nation that spent an entire decade embroiled in a brutal civil war and both the country and its people are still scarred by this collective trauma. Hints of this are reflected in folk rap, which can accurately be described as Serbia’s answer to grime, only it’s made by people who’ve experienced the tremors of countrywide armed conflict rather than the brutality of postcode wars.
A perfect example of the folk rap sound is Belgrade-based producer, singer and occasional rapper, Coby [pronounced Tsob-ee]. Arguably the scene’s biggest talent, Coby has produced tracks for a number of global stars, including French Montana and Rick Ross, but he’s also the creator of most of the recent hits in Serbian hip-hop. On “Crni Sin” (watch above), Coby opens the track by wailing out an auto tuned vocal that falls somewhere between Turkish folk and a Drake chorus. The tapping of a snare cranks up the tension while traditional chanting echoes in the background, then, as the intro reaches its crescendo, the melody of a digitally-distorted accordion drops in alongside the beat. On screen the images of a mourning mother, the oppressive hallway of a prison and the scowling faces of men drinking themselves into a threatening stupor immediately set a menacing mood so typical of folk rap and reflective of the social backdrop that inspires it.
Though Serbian-folk rap can veer into the commercial side – littered with countless Slavic Jason Derulo's whose only purpose and aspiration is to make money – artists like Coby present a rawer, darker side to the genre. Take Coby’s frequent collaborator, THCF, who – on their most famous hit, “Ideš Za Kanadu”, detail the exploits of the Zemun Clan, the most brutal of Belgrade’s mafia families back in the 1990s. The song’s title translates to “you’re off to Canada” – an innocent enough phrase, except for the fact it’s also a code used by the clan when planning assassinations. Meanwhile the lyrics retell stories of drug trafficking, murder and the utilisation of meat grinders to dispose of human bodies.
The track has over 38 million views on YouTube, a figure bettered only by “Krvavi Balkan” (translated as “Bloodied Balkans”, watch below) – another THCF x Coby song about organised crime in the region, which, like “Ideš Za Kanadu”, was commissioned by local broadcaster TV Prva for a documentary. “Krvavi Balkan”, which is on 40 million right now, comes attached to a music video featuring archive footage of drive-by shootings and re-enactments of kidnapping and torture pulled from the aforementioned doc. Yet despite their affiliations with TV, both songs are total club anthems that never fail to make crowds erupt into a maelstrom of gun fingers as they all yell along to the chorus (“bang-bang, bang-bang, you’re off to Canada!) in unison.
As you might have guessed from the above two examples, criminalistic lyrics and visuals are common across folk rap. Sure, the same could be said for any hip-hop subgenre anywhere around the world, but Serbia’s folk rappers aren’t purely imitating an American template set by the likes of Tupac and Nas. Folk rap is also a byproduct of Serbian society. Life in the country may have normalised over the last couple of decades but mobsters are still cosy with the state, politicians are spectacularly corrupt and the current government is littered with former Milosevic loyalists. For a portion of American rap fans, gangsterism is confined to a faraway ghetto somewhere; it’s an abstract phenomenon that exists on Pusha T records and news reports. In Serbia, however, it’s a fairly common feature of most people’s lived experience.
“When you listen to ‘Canada’ or ‘Kravavi Balkan’, those things still happen today. It’s not a joke. It’s not fiction. That’s our reality”, one prominent folk rapper tells me, speaking under anonymity so as not to be treated like a spokesperson for the scene. “But again, people listen to that stuff in clubs and you have to wonder why they have so many millions of views… That’s probably a matter of our collective mental state, but what do you expect when we have a war every twenty years? Those things stay with you”.
It has to be said that Belgrade isn’t the south side of Chicago. The city isn't known for it's street crime, perhaps because organised crime is so deep rooted. But every so often there’ll be a targeted, _Sopranos_-style gang slaying in broad daylight that’s quickly forgotten by mainstream media channels in what is effectively a mafia state. Serbia’s folk rappers are no gangsters, but you hardly need to lead a life of crime to rub shoulders with the Belgrade underworld. I’m a fairly unremarkable, generally law-abiding resident of this city, but I know that a single degree of separation stands between me and a number of hardened cons. Many mobsters are public figures here: you’ll see them at fancy restaurants and it’s abundantly clear who in Belgrade makes their money by nefarious means. In that sense, though the criminality in folk rap may not be autobiographical like Eazy E’s music, it is reflective of a pervasive spectre of criminality that penetrates the pores of Serbian society.
For the sake of balance, I feel compelled to point out that THCF and Coby, like other folk rap artists, have a number of pop-friendly tunes. But few of these have reached the same heights of popularity as their more sensational output, which reveals something about the national mindset. Criminality is glorified in Serbia. In 2015, Kristijan Golubovic, a prominent 1990s gangster, took part in a local reality TV series while awaiting trial for heroin trafficking. He was sentenced shortly after being eliminated from the show and released his own rap track while in prison – a song titled “Moj Czas” (watch above), which has more than a million views. The fact that figures like Kristijan are treated like celebrities and not pariahs says a lot about how criminality is often viewed in contemporary Serbia.
So how did the country get to this point? Ultimately, it stems from the economic and social chaos of the 1990s where – at hits highest point – hyperinflation reached 313 million percent. Rationing was commonplace, it was believed that politicians frequently embezzled anything they could get their hands on and the rule of law all but evaporated, allowing mobsters to operate in the open. With most of the population mired in abject poverty, criminals were the only ones to enjoy any sort of prestige; and just as Kim Kardashian is famous for being rich and glamorous, Serbia’s gangsters became symbols of aspiration by virtue of their wealth.
Although conditions in Serbia have improved since that 90s nadir, the country still has one of the lowest living standards in Europe and 85% of the population earns less than £350 a month. The educated continue to emigrate and gangsters are still some of the only people living the good life, which ensures their enduring glamorisation. This might be why THCF and Coby’s particular brand of folk rap is so popular (aside from its obvious musical qualities, of course): because it affords listeners a brief opportunity to live out their own escapist gangster fantasies.
“When people listen to rap a lot, it means that things in the country aren’t how they should be”, THCF’s Borko Vujicic once told an interviewer. “I think that those in positions of power need to seriously ask themselves why so many people are going “bang-bang” and want to send someone off to Canada – there’s a serious rage”.
Marko Šarić is a writer from Serbia. He doesn't have Twitter.