New East Digital Archive

Goodbye techno: why it’s time for Georgia’s rappers to take centre stage

Talk about contemporary Georgian music, and most people will think techno. Clubs like Bassiani and Khidi have long come to define young Georgia, and the electronic music scene has shaped Tbilisi alternative culture.

But the arrival of Gen Z has heralded a new cultural shift: the emergence of a homegrown hip-hop scene with a uniquely Georgian flavour. The country’s new MCs rap in their mother tongue and are closely linked with Tbilisi’s multi-hyphenate creative scene, releasing tracks flowing innovative beats, a streetwise edge, and surreal, experimental vibes.

Many of this new wave started as electronic DJs in Tbilisi’s avant-garde techno scene. The likes of DRO, one of the biggest MCs on the new Georgian scene, once stood behind the turntables himself. Now he raps in cooperation with electronic musicians to create a multidimensional sound, fusing different genres like classical, pop and electronica.

Other new-wave hip-hop artists, like KayaKata, have created their very own style of psychedelic electronic beats. Made up of Maxime Makhaidze (aka Luna), and Zurab Jishkariani (aka Dilla) the duo has pioneered sound with spherical synthwave and ambient vocals to give their music a sense of otherworldliness. “I’ve been experimenting with psychedelic drugs since my teenage years,” explains Makhaidze, who identifies as a “non-binary space explorer”. This mind-altering, sci-fi experience is also conveyed in the music of other up-and-coming groups like Hikari and Toyshen, who work with atmospheric synth loops. Hikari’s music is deep and moody, while Toyshen, made up of artists Cosmos and Kiddo, experiment with funk and drum and base. Such beats are combined with surreal, intuitional lyrics which often follow a stream of consciousness. “My texts are mostly trip reports, observations and prayers,” says Makhaidze.

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Like Georgia’s much-hyped streetwear scene, the new wave of Georgian hip-hop is a fusion of cutting-edge global trends, post-Soviet elements and a uniquely Georgian touch. Influences range from US musicians like Travis Scott and Kanye West, to Russian rappers like Skriptonit and Husky. The electronic beats are largely home-grown, while the tone and texts of many Georgian rappers exude a sense of the post-Soviet absurd. The 23-year-old DRO raps with sassy vibes and sarcasm about Tbilisi markets, global pop-culture icons like Coca Cola, or the regional street food staple of shawarma.

Visuals are also important. Hikari, Toyshen and Kayakata all use ethereal animations or references to martial arts, spirituality, and Japanese anime in their videos. Others, like DRO, who models for Vetements and Balenciaga, uses irony and references to 1990s consumer culture with a post-Soviet twist — much like Georgian fashion designer Demna Gvasalia. His playful low-tech videos are full of Soviet blocks, empowered women on animated tanks, and iconic American brands.

This blend of initiative yet international touchstones has allowed Georgian rappers to also reach a global, non-Georgian-speaking audience. Kayakata, for example, have garnered millions of views on YouTube and have a large fan base in the US and Asia.

But this strong connection to world trends and audiences was not always a hallmark of Georgian rap. “In the early days, Georgian hip-hop was ten years behind Western music,” says DRO.

Rap in Georgia can be traced back to the late 1980s. Around that time, the first Georgian hip-hop group, Bajoo, formed in Kutaisi. Later, artists like Shavi Princi (Black Prince), Chi and Jeronimo created their crew, The Wanted, which later became The Great Hip Hop Union. “Life was not easy in Georgia in the 90s, and especially in Kutaisi,” Jeronimo told The Calvert Journal.

During and after the break-up of the Soviet Union, poverty was widespread while the mafia controlled much of the Georgian economy. For young people growing up amid the turmoil, rap was a way to escape and authentically express emotions and ideas they otherwise could not. But to some degree they also had to adjust to their environment: “We used to assert ourselves by force and lived by the rules of the concrete jungle,” explains Jeronimo, who is often dubbed the godfather of Georgian rap. That lifestyle on the edge of the law was also reflected in rappers’ lyrics, which often circled around street life, drugs and girls. Musically, they were inspired by American rappers like Wu-Tang Clan or Cypress Hill, and their songs relied on old school boom-bap beats. A signature hit of the time was “Heroin Is Snowing”, in which the rapper Cabo talks about his friends dying from drug overdoses.

“We toned down our lyrics and adjusted to a commercial, Western style to fit radio and TV. We did not stay true to ourselves, and that damaged the reputation of Georgian hip-hop as a whole”

By the early 2000s, Georgian hip-hop had become one of the most popular music genres in the country. Rappers became increasingly commercialised, and their clips ran over and over on music television. But this success also had its downsides. “We toned down our lyrics and adjusted to a commercial, Western style to fit radio and TV. We did not stay true to ourselves, and that damaged the reputation of Georgian hip-hop as a whole,” explains Jeronimo. By the late 2000s, rap had lost much of its appeal.

In the meantime, techno was on the rise, offering an authentic alternative culture. “Before, all the cool kids wanted to be tough guys and gangsters. Now they wanted to become DJs. It was a cultural revolution,” explains DRO. Among Tbilisi’s creative scene, techno became so dominant that other music genres were soon overshadowed — at least until the second half of the 2010s. In particular, Kayakata and Makhadze’s YouTube channel LTFR, was founded in November 2014, and became a focal point of a new, young hip-hop scene.

Rapper Jeronimo. Image courtesy of the artist

Rapper Jeronimo. Image courtesy of the artist

In hindsight, artists like DRO say they always believed that hip-hop would make a comeback, in part thanks to its unique synergy with traditional Georgian culture. “Georgia has this huge culture of singing and poetry. From early religious music to our culture of toasts, storytelling has been extremely important,” he says. “At some point, we just needed something a bit more human than electronic music, something to express our thoughts.” In a way, rap came to complement electronica, as one genre naturally evolved and artists pushed boundaries. “While the techno scene introduced people to nightlife culture, hip hop adds a story to that culture that many can relate to,” explains DRO.

Unlike the gangster-influenced rap of the 90s, the new generation of MCs sing less about social issues and more about creating alternative realities. Political or patriotic rap, a genre that has been prominent in other post-Soviet countries such as Russia or Kyrgyzstan, never gained a strong foothold in Georgia. “Why talk about reality if you can create something cooler?” asks DRO.

But this does not mean that the new generation of rappers is apolitical. “Our music is also about the experience of discrimination”, says DRO, “not due to race or class, but for being different”. Georgia is still a largely conservative society with an influential Orthodox church, where religion and traditional gender roles play a prominent role. While its lyrics are rarely political, new Georgian rap is more of an indirect rebellion against conservative norms in Georgia: through complete artistic freedom, radical experimentalism and self-discovery via psychedelic escapism.

When reminiscing about the early days of Georgian rap, the likes of Jeronimo say it was hard to find people who were open to new forms of music and art. Younger rappers have also been forced to face down similar, culturally-conservative mindsets. “We were all outcasts at some point. The idea was: you look different, you think differently, so you must be gay, and you should be beaten up,” recounts DRO. Other MCs, like Kayakata’s Jishkariani, grew up experiencing police violence as a refugee from the breakaway republic of Abkhazia.

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These idealistic considerations still trump issues such as marketability. “Maybe we could earn a bit more if our lyrics were in English or Russian. But we are doing rap for fun, not for money,” says DRO. To make ends meet, practically all rappers work on other projects. Apart from modelling, DRO also produces films and runs a skate shop. Makhaidze has worked as an interior designer, animation artist and entrepreneur in mobility and fashion. His partner at Kayakata, Zurab Jishkariani, is an award-winning writer who runs a chatbot company. Others, like Hikari, run popular bars or cafes in Tbilisi.

For Makhaidze, these activities are no less important than hip-hop, and he does not want to be reduced to just a rapper. “Labels are a thing of the past. I just do different stuff and learn in the process of making,” he says. In his view, the Tbilisi underground scene is a tribe of hyper-creatives for whom rap is the latest chapter in an ever-expanding universe of music, art, fashion, food, literature, skating and animation.

It is an approach which seems to capture the spirit of Gen Z, primed to seize their own opportunities. Among them, more and more start to rap and shoot their own music videos. “If everyone wanted to be a DJ a few years ago, we are now entering a moment when everybody wants to be an MC,” says DRO.

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