Balkan Trap Music: A Look Into the Slavic Underground
Trap music has been frequently regarded in the West as something that is kitsch, or simply seen as bad party music due to its origins in underground clubs and house parties. But trap has gained a cult following because of its roots within the genre of EDM. Combined with rap elements and heavy bass, trap quickly became a well-known and well-liked genre in the West. The definition of trap can be murky at times but is frequently an EDM beat with subtle or sporadic rapping over the top of said beat. The name was born out of the idea that the “trap” was somewhere one could buy drugs in major cities. Many trap artists have gotten their start on a streaming website called SoundCloud. This platform has been increasingly popular with these underground genres, as it gives easy listening access across the globe to many amateur and unsigned artists. Some of the biggest Western trap stars of today started on SoundCloud such as, Snakehips, Lil Pump, Lil Yachty, and $uicide Boy$. This begs the question, if SoundCloud is an international streaming service available around the world, does that mean that trap is a multinational genre and not unique to the West? The answer is yes, in fact many countries around the globe have their own unique sound of trap, including Eastern Europe. While Russian trap is commonly highly regarded within the EDM community, many people seem to forget that Balkan trap even exists. The Balkans are frequently associated with the nauseating sound that is turbo-folk music, but have a blooming and booming EDM scene thanks to their proximity to Greece and due to the rise of the popularity of Balkan rap in the 90s. This paper will be analyzing how Balkan trap music has evolved since its commission, how it compares to that of Western trap music, and the political nature of this genre.
Like most trap music of the West, Balkan trap started to emerge as an underground phenomenon in the same circles as rap music back in the early 2000s. During the turn of the century, rap music began to fuse with EDM beats in Serbia, combining the rap and electronic genres, essentially creating the starting place for Balkan trap music to emerge. Rappers began switching to more of an over-produced synthesizing sound, and would rap over the beat, creating a more club-friendly aesthetic that took the Balkans by storm. It is fitting that Serbia is the birthplace of Balkan trap because it is also where the genre is currently undergoing active remastry and redefinition of what makes something “trap music.” Serbian music analysts are calling it “rap-folk” as it combines common rap beats and flows with traditional folk-ish vocals and themes within the songs. This is a case in point of how trap music evolves to whatever area of the world it is currently stationed in. Described by the Calvert Journal as “the latest example of this malleability, folk has found its way into Balkan rap as accordions and zurnas (popular wind instruments) are layered over trap beats and soulful R&B crooning is replaced with the wailing vocals that are a mainstay of traditional Balkan music” (Lazevic). While folk rap might seem to be a contained phenomenon or even the creation of a completely new genre, when analyzing the trap music of the area one can see that this is not an isolated incident. Many trap tracks from all over the Balkans utilize this type of fusion, meshing trap beats with oriental sounds, to create a unique and all around fluid listening experience. The oriental sound is not too far fetched for Balkan trap, as the themes surrounding oriental or “gypsy” music influenced by Ottoman music, are completely in line with those of Western trap music. The favorite trends of the “gypsy” music genre are, “money, cars, love and women - all signs of status for the newly rich” (Szeman). These themes are also overtly present within all iterations of trap music all over the world. These roots within the music of the Ottoman Empire give Balkan music a unique sound of wailing vocals and contemporary classic instruments. This sound has now bled into Balkan trap music, so while the core values of trap are present (EDM beat, rapping, overproduction) it has been slightly modified for a unique listening experience which is distinctive to the East.
One cannot analyze how Balkan trap is different from that of Western trap without first recognizing how incredibly similar the two are in style. For the most part, many trap artists in Eastern Europe have been inspired by and taken elements from many Western artists in recent years. The Albanian trap legend Buta is relatively new in the Albanian rap but many of his songs seem to be influenced by Western themes and Western artists. In a recent interview with Balkanist, Buta revealed that his rap influences were that of, “Lil’ Wayne, Cam’ron, Curren$y, 50 Cent, Gucci Mane, Young Jeezy, T.I.” (Ferijaz). And when it came to the question of trap inspirations he chose producers such as Lex Luger, Southside, and Zaytoven” (Ferijaz). All of whom are Western-based music producers, and who are all credited with creating and expanding the trap genre in the West. These influences are tightly in line with how Buta’s music is then produced, as he sticks to the Western “rules of trap” so to speak. The rules could be named as follows: (1) the theme of the song always falls among these three things: girls, money, or drugs, (2) the artist will consistently “flex” on the audience, normally by referencing luxury brands or how rich they are compared to the average listener, and (3) the focus of the song is always about the beat, the lyrical portion is only supplementary to the actual creation and sound of the trap beat, this is evident by the highly crafted and fine tuned beats compared to the lazy or easy nature of the lyrics. Take lyrics from one of Buta’s most popular songs “Gucci” the sound and the lyrics mirror many popular Western trap music tracks. Translating these lyrics is a trial as is common with most trap music the meaning of the lyrics do not readily carry across languages. But, the song included many Western words to which the listener can get the jist of the meaning.
“Spe di a me pi do lean (yeah)
Spe di a me pi do molly (yeah)
Spe di a me ble do Gucci (yeah)
Spe di a me ble do Bally (yeah)”
The song begins immediately with drug references, and a reference to Western high fashion house Gucci for which the song is named after. Just as most trap songs being in the West, superficial topics like drugs and money are central to many of the lyrics, pushing this genre even further into the realm of "party" music. As a result of this content and lyrical structure, Buta is extremely listenable to Western audiences and puts Albanian trap on the international market. Overall, Buta’s music remains highly Westernized and commercial in nature.
Another popular trap group catering to the West is a band based out of Zagreb called Kuku$ Klan. Their entire aesthetic is consciously based on Western tropes of the Slavic people. Decked out from head to toe in Adidas tracksuits and carrying large amounts of alcohol, Kuku$ knows how to play their way into the minds of the West. In one of their recent singles Kuku$ tackles Western stereotypes of Eastern Europe in a catchy and impossible to forget trap single called “Real $lavs.” The lyrics of this song are all in English, and the video comically has subtitles in which it states the English words but spelled out as if said with a heavy Eastern European accent. Here is the chorus of the iconic trap hit.
“Real Slavs we just having fun (Slavs)
But when it's trouble time
We don't joke around (Slavs)
Real Slavs heels on the ground squats (Slavs)
Real Slav sluts have the best butts (Slavs)
Real Slavs (Slavs)
The lyrics parody the Western conception of the Slavic people, things like the brand Adidas and Slav squats have become a Western phenomenon as the West continues to romanticize and otherize notion of the East. While the song might parody how the East is viewed in conjunction with Western ideals, the song and most of Kuku$’s songs fit tightly within the Western trap narrative. They look the part, even referencing Western trap artist Lil Pump in “Real Slavs” which is very meta considering that Goca RIP (one of the members) looks like an Eastern European carbon copy of Pump, dreads and all. By using the aesthetic and beats of Western trap Kuku$ has managed to make their music into a global meme, which in 2019 is a smart marketing target. Western people are drawn in by the humor, and stay for the quality of the music and “fire beats” while, Eastern audiences appreciate the humor and find a unifying base among the calling card of being a “real Slav.”
Balkan trap is also similar to that of Western trap by the complete political apathy of its artists and stars. Unlike its father genre of hip hop and rap, trap remains a very apolitical genre with many of the songs revolving around very superficial subject matter and not quite getting into the nitty gritty realities of modern urban life. I would like to clarify that in this sentiment political apathy and apolitical will be used synonymously, as in current scholarly literature they are regarded as synonyms in all respects. Trap music has been continuously criticised in the West for its political apathy. Especially when you have stars such as Kendrick Lamar or Frank Ocean in the traditional “rap” genre who use their platform to discuss politics and social issues. Unlike trap, its origins of hip-hop in both the East and the West were overtly political. Serbia’s biggest 2000s hip-hop star Marchello stated, “What we’re offering is an alternative to MTV and to American hip hop. Our fans are not looking for a gold chain and a gold tooth. They already have that in turbo folk, so hip hop is seen as something rebellious outside the slimy mainstream”(Sucic). This quote grossly mischaracterizes Western rap music as the music of thugs and gangsters, when in reality a lot of early rap was focused on prolific societal change. But, it is a good quote for tracing back the origins of Balkan rap music and it gives an idea of what the genre used to stand for.
Rap music has always been prolific when it comes to attempting to make communities aware of the corruption and dissolution going on around them. These issue linkages are universal as corruption is not unique to one area of the world, “hip-hop artists offer incisive critriques of dominant culture and engage with local issues of ethnicity and power” (Terkourafi 3). Take the popular 90s and early 2000s rap group Beogradski Sindikat, their songs centered around fighting injustice and making the people aware of what is going on in their society. Beogradski Sindikat’s first song was actually a criticism against Slobodan Milosevic, the former President of Yugoslavia. Many of their songs were war cries to the public asking them to rise up and fight for what society needed. Consider their 2006 hit “They Are”
“They’re the system, they give us instruction
Dogma, terror, establishment, corruption
Mafia, mercenaries, state institution
Judges, magistrates, we’re the revolution”
This song was a call to arms for citizens to get angry about their situation and about their quality of living. So if this is what early hip hop music was like, how is its hypothetical “child” of trap music so desperately apolitical?
The simple answer to this question is that apathy is created over time. The reason that hip hop was so political back in the early 2000’s was due to the fact that many of these Balkan countries were still reeling from the disintegration of Yugoslavia, and many had just emerged the other side of fighting wars. The overall climate of the area was one of anger, despair, and fear. These things create the perfect environment for musicians to be critical of the government, and to take a stand on politics and on political issues going on around the world. In today’s world musicians have the ability to be slightly more apolitical due to the current climate being less toxic and less dangerous for many groups. The result of this is more music geared towards escapism and simple pleasures of life. In peacetime people do not always want to be reminded of their hardships and of the horrors that lurk in the shadows of their communities. This leads to music like trap being set over a heavy EDM beat which one can feel in their soul, and lyrics do not evoke any true emotion other than the fervent urge to party.
While trap music has been frequently regarded in the traditional media as a kitsch genre of the West reserved solely for partying teens and wannabe gangsters, it actually has a very solid base around the world. In the Balkans trap music is becoming increasingly popular among young adults and is even surpassing its predecessor, hip hop, in terms of popularity. While the sound of Balkan trap has its roots deep into an oriental sound, the trap genre remains relatively consistent between the East and the West. Many Balkan artists grew up taking inspiration from these Western artists, and it shows in their music production. Despite coming from a relatively politically unstable part of the world, Balkan trap remains almost entirely apolitical, as many of the current stars choose to remain light hearted and keep politics out of their music. While Balkan trap might seem like an exotic, distant, or extremely different music style, it is actually a very Westernized genre with many elements unique to the Balkans such as an oriental sound. Balkan trap is a fantastic genre of music that many people from the West would enjoy and appreciate if they have any love for current Western trap stylings. In the words of Hiljson Mandela from Kuku$ Klan in their hit song Real Slavs, “Lil Yachty? Lil Pump? Man, fuck that shit. I’m a Lil Slav.”
“An interview with Buta, King of Albanian Trap” July 10, 2019 by Adem Ferizaj - Balkanist http://balkanist.net/an-interview-with-buta-the-albanian-king-of-trap/
Balkan beats: introducing folk rap, the hybrid music craze sweeping Serbia and beyond by Danilo Lazevic May 9th, 2018 Calvert Journal https://www.calvertjournal.com/articles/show/9932/balkan-beats-folk-rap
“Balkan Rappers Speak out on Peace and Justice” by Daria Sito-Sucic January 20, 2007 Reuters https://uk.reuters.com/article/lifestyle-life-balkans-hiphop-dc/balkan-rappers-speak-out-on-peace-and-justice-idUKL2329247820061124
“Gucci” (2017) lyrics by Buta
“Real Slavs” (2019) lyrics by Kukus
Szeman, Ioana. “‘Gypsy Music’ and Deejays: Orientalism, Balkanism, and Romani Musicians.” TDR (1988-), vol. 53, no. 3, 2009, pp. 98–116. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25599496.
Terkourafi, Marina. The Languages of Global Hip Hop. Continuum, 2012.
“They Are” (2006) by Beogradski Sindikat
“Real Slavs” by Kuku$ Klan https://youtu.be/GIgcVg-_cw4
Header image - "Adidas Slav Squat Recreation" https://www.pinterest.com/pin/549791066995075271/?lp=true