Americans associate Swedish music with pop - from ABBA to the Shout Out Louds. What might be less expected is that at the same time ABBA taught Americans how to disco dance, Americans were instructing Swedes how to rap. The Swedes really liked it, so much that today, Swedish hip hop is a phenomenon fully integrated with the culture at large. There is a lot of good rap coming out of Sweden, worth keeping your eyes on, even if you don't understand the language.
Swedish hip hop - not the two most compatible terms, you may think, but in fact it is a thriving cultural scene. I can't prove this in terms of record sales or numbers of fans, as everyone knows that no one sells records anymore. And Sweden is also a small country, inhabited by about as many people as New York City, so a headcount would not be impressive. But trust me, as a consumer of this culture, I know that hip hop is enormous in Sweden.
There are a couple of superstars in Swedish hip hop, rappers that sell CDs and appear on television: Timbuktu and Petter are the two most famous names. But of course the best and most interesting stuff appears under the radar. Some of the towering giants of Swedish hip hop have long ago quit trying to sell records or appeal broadly. Far from defeated, they continue to release fantastic material from the obscurity out of which they sprung.
One my favorite rappers is Organismen (a moniker, which means The Organism, used by 33-year old Johan Hellqvist.) He emerged in the early days of Swedish hip hop, around 1998, as a fierce and technical battle-rapper. Today his style is more low-key, self assured, and introspective. Organismen is a large and remarkable figure, tall, tattooed and sporting a beard sans mustache, like a heavyweight Abraham Lincoln. He is pleasant to speak to, but intimidating, radiating the authority of a man who has built his own small empire from scratch.
After a couple of years of releasing homemade cassettes and appearing on a 12" with the group MBMA (Mobbade Barn Med Automatvapen, or Bullied Kids With Assault Rifles), he released his first solo album, Bakom Kulisserna (Behind the Curtains), in 2001, which sold 5,000 copies. That's when the hip hop scene was in its heydays, the era which surely will be regarded in the future as the golden one. There seemed to be no end to the talent and creativity coming out of Swedish rap, but a few years later the scene had the air knocked out of it. As a trend, hip hop was less hot, and music piracy started to take its toll. Many artists dropped out. Organismen's second album, Petar Pa Doda Saker Med Pinnar (Poking at Dead Stuff with Sticks), which came out in 2004, sold only 1,700 copies, despite being promoted with extensive touring.
Having broken with his record company shortly after his second album released, Organismen now operates as a fully independent artist, releasing most of his music for free, touring and selling merchandise for sustenance. His best music has come out since then: the mix tapes Garotta di Anjovis and Versioner, volumes 1 and 2, and Om Gud Vill och Vadret Tillater (God Willing and Weather Permitting), Organismen's third full-length album and magnum opus of sorts.
This fall, Organismen's fourth, yet-to-be-named album will drop. In the meantime, he has been putting out a string of singles, which are available on Spotify. Below we've included some Organismen tracks that you can hopefully enjoy for the beats and flow, even if you don't understand the words.
"Om Gud Vill och Vadret Tillater," from the album by the same name (2009)
This is the opening track from Organismen's third album, Om Gud Vill och Vadret Tillater. The slow and suggestive beat is supplied by Organismen's loyal producer, DJ Large. It is sort of a statement of purpose, outlining the terms on which the album is presented: "In the company of good friends, nothing businesslike / Music for body and soul, without a profit motive."
"Slar Ner Dem i Skorna," from the mix tape Garotta di Anjovis (2005)
"Slar Ner Dem i Skorna" (literally, "Beating Them Down Into Their Shoes") is a track from the 2005 mix tape Garotta di Anjovis. It shows Organismen at 24 years old, spitting battle rhymes ("You wanted silicone breasts, guys with six-packs / All you got was saggy tits, men with hard liquor").
"Rokringar," single, with Roffe Ruff, Oris and Ison, produced by Tommy Black (2012)
"Rokringar" (Smoke rings) is a song about not having time for grown-up bullshit like bills and acquaintances. Organismen's verse is the last one, and he has some clever lines about chilling ("Not lifting a finger, like a broken arm").
Look out for the next installment of our guide to Swedish hip hop, which will feature Naaak, the Swede with the smoothest flow and the most passionate love for beer, bourbon and weed.