Angus Batey reports on hip-hop influenced Hungarians

Hungarian hip-hop has been going strong since 1984, and its musicians are keen to be recognised globally. The problem: they're just not Hungarian enough. Angus Batey reports

The crowd in the Budapest cinema are watching both the screen and the stage in front of it. A flickering montage of leafless tree branches, broken windows and cold, grey skies is being given an intricate live accompaniment. Two musicians stand silhouetted by a single red spotlight, grinding out a crisp, slouching buzz of snare drum snaps, bass and static from their set-up of bass guitar and laptop.

A slim young woman with short blonde hair steps carefully on to the stage. Her half-whispered lyrics add another layer of mystique and menace: fragmentary verbal images, sung in an evocatively distant English, deepen the sense of icy unease at this music's brittle heart.

Realistic Crew's music isn't typical of Budapest's underground hip-hop scene. In a city where most rap acts adhere to the primacy of sampled beats and rhymes, their sound sits somewhere between leftfield electronic jazz and the dubwise accessibility of Massive Attack and Portishead. But their attempts to get their music heard outside their own country is one that musicians throughout Hungary will recognise.

The group's debut album, Overcome, is released this week in the UK. The band have a distinctive sound, a smart live show, and music that should prove accessible and intriguing to western listeners. Everything - band name, album and song titles, lyrics, even the convention of placing members' surnames after their first names, rather than the Hungarian way round - is in English. But Realistic Crew have yet to find a British booking agent, and are finding gigs and radio play outside Hungary tricky to come by. Their very Anglicisation means they are deemed not Hungarian enough for the rest of the world.

"People in other countries keep telling us that we should do stuff in Hungarian," sighs Csaba Kalotás, bass player and co-composer of the group's music. "It's really strange to me," says Dalma Berger, the singer, after a gig. "My lyrics are important for me, and I want people to understand. If I write in Hungarian, only Hungarians can understand. Why would this music be more interesting if we sing in Hungarian than in English?"

Hungary is at the heart of Europe, but linguistically, it is an island nation. Aside from a distant kinship with Finnish and Estonian, Hungarian has no relatives. Further isolated for most of the late 20th 0century by its communist rulers, Hungarian culture has developed alone - and its pop music has provided an often proud parallel to trends in the west.

During the 1960s and70s, artists released records on the state-run label and became huge stars in their sequestered nation, but today's Hungarian bands are part of a global market. There are around 10 million people in Hungary, and another 2 or 3 million ethnic Hungarians in adjacent nations. For any cultural product in which language is crucial - lyric-heavy hip-hop is one - the potential market is tiny. Online file-sharing is commonplace here, and with recent figures suggesting that only 2% of Hungary's credit and debit card users are willing to use their cards online - just over 100,000 in total - it will be some time before Apple bothers to launch a Hungarian iTunes store. Hungarian musicians, in effect, cannot sell their music.

"This is Hungary - we don't have stars," Frigyes Machán says with a rueful smile. A programmer at the Budapest station Radio Cafe, Machán also runs, "as a hobby", Mamazone - a combined publishing company, booking agency and label - which releases compilations of Hungarian underground music. "To get a gold record in Hungary you only need to sell about 7,500 copies," he says. "For a label, there's no sense in releasing an album. They're just promotional tools."

"We once did a gig with 1,000 people there, all shouting the lyrics," says Ferenc K´o´házy, a member of the hip-hop band Suhancos. "Nobody believes that we aren't making any money, but we are in debt."

The morning after Realistic Crew's gig, K´o´házy and his Suhancos partner, Balázs Szabó, are sitting in a bright, Vespa-themed cafe in the centre of Budapest. Suhancos offer a very different take on Hungarian hip-hop from Realistic Crew, K´o´házy's raps meshing with Szabó's acoustic guitar in a style based heavily on traditional folk music. Tracks from their debut album, Üzenetrögzít´o´, have, the pair believe, found their way into around 200,000 homes, via MySpace, YouTube clips and illegal downloads - but as yet the record has sold barely 500 copies.

"I won't sing in English, because it's not my language," says Szabó."But, of course, I'd like to play a big concert somewhere, and somehow let everyone know what the lyrics mean."

Suhancos are following a venerable tradition. In the 1960s and 70s, Illés, regarded as Hungary's Beatles, helped forge a unique sound by incorporating the country's folk music into their take on psychedelic pop. Hungary's slightly relaxed brand of communism allowed some unexpected doors to open.

"Communism meant censorship of music, along with everything," explains Kanada Kaosz, a collector and DJ on the community radio station, Tilos. "But in the 70s, jazz was the connection to other countries. The musicians could travel to gigs and festivals - it was allowed because the music had no vocals. The musicians they met would give them new things to listen to."

The job of curating Hungary's hidden musical heritage has fallen to collectors. Kaosz's tiny flat in Buda, on the west bank of the Danube, is crammed with books and records from all over Hungary. He believes hip-hop entered the country by the same state-sanctioned pathways.

"The first Hungarian hip-hop record was by Miki Feny´o´, and it came out in 1984," Kaosz explains. "He's a really cheesy guy. He was in the group Hungária, who made psychedelic music in the 60s and 70s, and he was the first person to sing in Hungarian about weed. He must have gone to America, saw the hip-hop scene and copied it." To emphasise how bizarre this was, Kaosz suggests imagining that the first British rap record had been made by Cliff Richard.

On the other side of the river, in Pest, a female-fronted indie rock band is playing a raucous and seriously oversubscribed gig. Beyond the crowds of T-shirted teens, past the bar and up a staircase, a security door opens into the Tilos studios. One of the most important figures in 70s Hungarian music, saxophonist and bandleader Istvan Bergendy, has dropped in for an interview; in the studio's small reception area, Kaosz's DJ partner, Suhaid, explains what makes the records of that era stand out.

"Drums," he says simply. "The recording process was different to other countries, especially the US, because the equipment was different. The drums sound crispier, somehow."

The primacy of the drum in Hungarian rock, funk and jazz has not gone unnoticed. Western collectors and producers have added Budapest to their crate-digging expeditions, visiting to play club dates and hitting the record shops before flying back home. Brighton's DJ Format is a frequent visitor, and the London-based Russian DJ and producer, Vadim, has sampled a record by 70s Hungarian star Sarolta Zalatnay, herself the subject of a best-of CD released by Andy Votel's Finders Keepers label last year.

"Now, the producers here are starting to find the Hungarian stuff to sample," enthuses Kaosz, as he describes how things seem to have turned full circle. "If you listen now to Hungarian hip-hop records, there are many that only use Hungarian samples. I think now we are getting back to the same level Hungarian music was on all those years ago."

Identity is about much more than language. As Realistic Crew's Dalma Berger notes, Björk and Robyn are not told they should sing in Icelandic or Swedish in the west; to those who grew up listening illicitly to faint radio signals sneaking in from the west, English may seem simply the right language. And, as RC's co-founder, producer and programmer Krisztian Vranick, argues, their music is every bit as Hungarian as that of their Magyar contemporaries, because it reflects its origins.

"I think Budapest is really dark, and life here is really heavy," he sums up, describing a psychogeography of the city at odds with its vibrant, party-hearty image. "We were born under communism, and since then the atmosphere of life has changed all the time. We have a totally different value system to our parents, but really, nothing has changed. So when we're making music, like everybody in Budapest, we're a little bit melancholic and sad: I think people here move slowly and with heavy hearts. And I think that's all in the music."

· Realistic Crew's album, Overcome, is out now. Hungarian music on the web: Realistic Crew, Suhanos, Tilos, Mamazone


Angus Batey

The GuardianTramp

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