Note: The music in this podcast contains explicit language in Persian and in English.
The entry of hip-hop music and culture into Iran has always seemed like an unavoidable fusion. Hip-hop music developed in the late 1970s in New York, but by the 1980s and early 1990s the music, dancing, and culture of hip-hop was already seeping into Iran.
My own relatives often recall when wedding dance floors in the early 1990s would clear out so local dancers could perform break dance routines, or as it was known in Persian “break beraghsan.” Understandably, it took time for Iranian culture to become a producer rather than simply a consumer of hip-hop, and similarly, the hip-hop sound took time to mature beyond a novelty. At first, many experimenters and early adopters — such as Sandy — attempted to meld the genre with Iranian music with mixed results. Yet hip-hop music in Iran is a particularly impressive for the fact that what started as a novelty has led to a truly vibrant and diverse hip-hop scene.
The current heated debate about who the “Father of Persian Rap” illustrates where Iranian rap has been and is headed. Many candidates have been nominated by public opinion such as rappers Hichkas and Yas, but the most interesting seems to be pop icon Shahram Shabpareh who recently claimed that he himself invented Persian rap before it was even invented in the United States!
Although many people would like to believe hip-hop was actually invented in Iran, the actual story of the evolution of Iranian rap music is more complicated. Iranian Pop artists in the United States experimented with the style since the early 1990s but the current forerunners in the Iranian hip-hop scene trace more of their history back to the early underground Iranian hip hop scene of the early 2000s. Artists in Iran were inspired to create Iranian hip-hop after hearing American music. As a potential obstacle to the creation of this genre, the Iranian government requires musicians to obtain government permission to formally release their music, yet many types of music such as hip-hop seldom receive permission for release if at all.
This censorship was formative in Iranian hip-hop’s development. As rapper Hichkas points out in the above interview, early Iranian days rappers would record music just to distribute among friends as the sound was slowly developing. As he himself says, “the quality of rap was very low back then.” And indeed when listening to early hip-hop recordings, like this song by little known rapper Emziper, the listener can notice the low quality of the recording, the simple rhyme schemes, and the minimalist style of music production that was common in this era. Slowly the scene grew in size and developed its sound, with artists such as Yas, Zedbazi, and more releasing music with lush high quality production and complex lyrics. The sound has even found a certain global edge with many of its major players, such as producer Mahdyar Aghajani, currently living abroad yet collaborating across borders.
Hip-hop in Iran — just as in the United States — took time to be recognized by the mainstream as a legitimate musical art form. After rapper Hichkas’s music was featured in Bahman Ghobadi’s popular film No One Knows About Persian Cats in 2009, it seemed that hip-hop in Iran was finally getting the respect it deserved both domestically and internationally.
Ajam brings you a mix that attempts to capture a wide range of some of the influential voices in the current Iranian hip-hop scene. Rapper Hichkas is featured on this mix alongside producer Mahdyar Aghajani. The duo has worked together extensively, and they are part of a larger group of rappers such as Fadaei, Reveal, and Quf, who collaborate often producing a uniquely dark and hard-hitting sound. Just as hip-hop in the United States is associated with urban life and the difficulties of coping with injustice in society, Iranian hip-hop has a similarly abrasive and socially poignant edge. The music itself seems to belong to the rough streets of southern Tehran. Yet interestingly enough Aghajani and his collaborators have resided in different countries outside of Iran, such as the United Kingdom, France, and Malaysia.
As Iranian hip-hop is growing into a global phenomenon, it is also cutting across social lines within Iran. Another artist featured on this mix, Salome MC, is one of the first female Iranian rappers and has been producing music internationally since the start of her career. This mix also features an instrumental by Palestinian hip-hop collective Ramallah Underground, as a nod to the global awareness that has always seemed present in Iranian hip-hop. In 2010 this awareness manifested in the song “Long Live Palestine” that featured Iranian rappers Hichkas and Reveal alongside Palestinian rappers such as D.A.M., Shadia Mansour, and others.
While previous Ajam Mixtapes have made a bigger point of recontextualizing Iranian music or providing sounds from unique sources, this podcast may seem more restrained. The very sound of Iranian hip-hop is radical in its own right. Even when the language of choice is Persian, an astute listener can pick up uses of English and even Azeri Turkish. The beats and production work have audibly international influences, with traditional instruments like the santoor coexisting with bass-heavy hip-hop drums. Between so many styles, multiple languages, and multiple aesthetics, Iranian rap never fails to tell its own story.
1) Hichkas (Produced by Mahdyar Aghajani) – Bang (remix)
2) Salome MC – Hich Enghelabi (No Revolution)
2) Aswat Il Zaman – Ramallah Underground
4) Jadugaran – Kalame Ha
5) Yavaran Ft. Tzar Bomb – Mosem E Gol (remix)
6) Fadaei (Produced by Mahdyar Aghajani) – Hamseda
7) Murs – The Pain
8) Sogand Ft. Paya – Dore Zamin