As I continue to take a look back at the dissertation I wrote a few years ago on the developement and impact of hip-hop in Europe, I now move onto my second country, Italy. In the last post I looked into Francophone Rap, a budding hip-hop scene in France, which produced artists such as MC Solaar and IAM, and the film ‘La Haine’. Not too far away though in the Southern regions of Europe, an entirely different hip-hop scene was beginning to emerge, one that would have a big political impact.
Rap Italiano grew out of the many centri sociali (social centres) across the country. These self-managed social centres appeared all over Italy during the 1980s, as a result of the recession, and the resignation of the 1970s left-wing militant students and youth that were dissatisfied with authority. These young adults squatted abandoned buildings, renovated them, and turned them into underground drop-in centres, youth clubs, drug rehabilitation sites, recording studios, art galleries and cinemas. These refurbished buildings became semi-legal, unconventional, independently run activity centres. Examples include the Officina 99 in Naples, Forte Prenestino in Rome, Macchia Nera in Pisa, and the Leoncavallo in Milan.
The social centres were often located in the outer suburbs of larger cities, and became a social hub for political activists, and a retreat for disgruntled youths; as a result the centres became a breeding ground for Italian political music. At first it was rock and punk that dominated the sounds and the image of the social centres, but as hip-hop began to sweep across the nation during the mid to late 1980s, it soon turned to rapping, breaking, baggy pants, hats and graffiti laden walls.
Many of these social centres still exist to this day, now serving similar or different purposes, such as music and nightclub venues, festival locations, and even in the case of Forte Prenestino, a wine bar. They were crucial in the developement of hip-hop in Italy, and many of the key artists that we will discuss in this post emerged out of these centres.
Like in France, the earliest Italian rap was for the most part a direct emulation of what was happening in America. Early experiments with the musical idioms from artists such as Raptus, Radical Stuff and Camelz Finezza Click did little to inspire the Italian public. It offered nothing to the political movement, nor the social stance associated with hip-hop, and therefore Italian rappers failed to connect with an audience. It was not until they made use of the Italian language, local dialects, and started to rap about issues closer to home, such as political corruption, the mafia, and the Lega Nord (Northern League), that the genre really took off and became recognisably embedded in larger social struggles. It offered an immediate connection with the world of social opposition, it was democratic and cheap to produce, and became a vehicle through which the decadence of the new elite could be labelled and challenged by the Italian people.
Out of the social centres, hip-hop groups began forming up and down the country. Posses such as Devastatin’ Posse, 99 Posse, Nuovi Briganti, Almamegretta, Isola Posse All Stars and Sud Sound System, all gained substantial followings. Posse was a word used in American hip-hop to describe a group of artists; its literal definition is a group of men summoned by a sheriff to enforce the law. Italian groups took on this meaning as a call to arms against an increasingly visibly corrupt Christian Democrat Government, and to name yourself a posse was seen to align yourself with this political stance.
One of the most unique aspects of the posses was their use of local dialects, and their incorporation of folkloric traditions into the hip-hop sound. For example, Almamegretta, whose name means migrant soul in Neapolitan dialect, used music traditions from their home in Naples. Drawing from a rich history of musical styles they infused string guitars, known as mandolins, and the theatrical elements of classical music that Naples is known for. The use of local dialects by the posses was something of a cultural vanguard, with only 23 per cent of Italians continuing to speak regional dialects at the time, according to a survey by a RAI International program Italian News in 1997. Hip-hop revived the use of dialects in Italian music and put a spotlight on local oral traditions, such as ottava rima, a rhyming stanza consisting of three alternate rhymes and one double rhyme.
One of the seminal moments in Italian hip-hop was the release of the track ‘Fight da Faida’ in 1992 by Frankie Hi-NRG. His anti-Government anthem was a massive hit and propelled Italian rap into the mainstream light. The lyrics are stark and pull no punches: the Italian people are described as ‘cannon fodder’ caught in a war between ‘the mafia and camorra / Sodom and Gomorrah’. The main power of the track is its emphasis on institutional infection – ‘today Vito Corleone is much closer, he’s sitting in Parliament’. Its backing track was heavily indebted to the Beastie Boys and Cypress Hill, and it became the voice of a generation of Italians fed up with corrupt Government officials, and a country ruled by the mafia. The chorus ‘Fight da Faida’, which roughly translates as ‘fight the corruption’ or ‘fight the feud’ (with corruption, injustice, criminality and for the victims of such acts as an anthem to stand back up), was heard up and down the country, from clubs in Milan, to social centres in Palermo.
The song wasn’t without its critics though, especially within the Italian hip-hop scene. Some suggested that he had exploited the growth of Italian rap, and was speaking from a place where he didn’t really know what was happening. Nonetheless, he did shine a light on the scene, and the ensuing criticism showed that Rap Italiano had gone from an initial phase of imitating outside models into an acculturation of rap, which created its own distinctive and diverse musical culture with its own boasts, taunts, tensions and ideological conflicts.
It would be amiss to have a post on the origins of Italian hip-hop without mentioning Jovanotti, by far the most successful artist to come out of this scene. Emerging in the late 1980s he cemented himself into the mainstream, and as an Italian superstar, throughout the 90s with his ‘Lorenzo’ album series. His smooth and poetic style of rapping connected with a wide range of different people, finding his own voice within hip-hop and offering up something different to what the posses were creating.
He successfuly introduced the consciousness of an American music subculture to the country’s masses, and opened up a new musical space which would see the birth of many MCs in years to come. Artists such as Articolo 31 from Milan, and Fabri Fibra from Marche, would follow him years later to mainstream success.
Rap Italiano had smoothly gone from the social centres to the pop charts, and had developed into a powerful medium to inact social and political change. It is seen as one of the main catalysts in the upsurge of political demonstrations against the Christian Democrat Government in the early 1990s, and then the Berlusconi Government of 1994. From the militant style of posses such as 99 Posse and Possessione, to the poetic style of artists like Jovanotti and Articolo 31, it had grown and matured, capable of being not just a manifestation of anger and anxiety, but a rich and complex musical proposition, at once totally modern and linked to the real roots of Italian popular music. It is music that is international by vocation, but Italian in spirit, with lyrics that often succeed in describing reality in a creative way.
Thank you for reading. Next time I’ll discuss the fragmented hip-hop scene that developed in Germany, from nationalist movements to Turkish rebellion.