The life of Italian rappers beyond hip-hop

The life of Italian rappers beyond hip-hop


There is not much we can do about it, rap music has been mainstream in Italy for quite a few years. This is likely to sound like a given to you, but for an old-school cat like me, this fact still sounds astounding. Mainstream…

All that glitters is not gold. I mean, how many of the people I see in videos with hundreds of thousands of views are effectively making a living off rap or music in general? Not considering the big names [Maraccash, Fabri Fibra, Emis Killa to name a few), we surely have an army of rising artists who are still making their own way in the limbo of a tangible popularity not too often correlated with economic return, either expected or even necessary.

Well, we decided to give a call to some of those who spin around, some more some less, this limbo. Very interesting artists, some are very reknown to most of the Italian rap/hip-hop amateurs and some others that, if we were on the stock exchange, we could give a double plus (++) on their ratings, race horses to keep an eye on and to bet upon if you want to make a hit.

GHALI

Ghali is a very interesting talent who has been around for a while, with Troupe d’Elite first and then solo. An only child from Tunisian parents, 100% Milanese, he had quite a rumbling school career.

“For a couple tags in the toilets, in middle school and because I was a little lively, profs sent me to a professional school for slackers. I spent two years there but it did not work out, I was not excited at all, and in the end I moved and that was it.” We do agree upon the fact that the school system is sometimes not very useful if not counterproductive for good intellectual growth. His mother, who lives with him, supports him, and you can really feel it in his tracks where his attachment and respect to her are evident.

Luckily for Ghali, which by the way is his real name, he has managed to pick up the right inputs to grow intellectually from rap. Starting at 11 years-old – by his own admission after the movie 8 Mile which has indeed brought a lot of of the latest MC generation close to hip-hop – in his neighborhood playground first and then with a crew of filipinos, he developed further his passion for hip-hop

His first recordings were made in his room with a microphone of a webcam and Acid Pro, a timid EP of 8 tracks ripped on a CD and handed out around the neighborhood. It’s the clear demonstration that you can if you have the will. Successively, he trims out his style listening to Joe Cassano, Inoki and Uomini di Mare, MC whose lyrics and verbals are at the core of his music, a metrical finesse you can really tell from Ghali’s style. Indeed, his talent in metrics is surely a good revenge on his professors who once labeled him superficially.

He has been making rap music professionally for a year or so but already at the age of 16, with Troupe d’Elite, he signed for Tanta Roba/Sony, but for a series of undefined causes the album never got published and the group dissolved, leaving him sour and with the feeling that rap could only be a passion.

Now he occasionally works out of his music and sends some resumes around but it is relevant to say that from 2015 he has started again as manager of himself, starting from the very beginning to collect important consensus, social media views and bookings. There is some economic return but really it is still a long shaft until financial stability, his next and surely attainable objective. You just have to listen and watch Sempre Me (Always me). Even the captions alone are a total win.

JESTO

Still in Milano, I gave a call to a Roman who now turned Milanese: Justin Yamanouchi, aka Jesto.

He confirms that the artistic situation is quite fertile despite his moving being absolutely casual. He can currently afford to live off rap alone, thanks to his background as advertiser for important brands, a job that taught him the importance and the strategies to pinpoint and develop a product and its features at best, in this case, himself.

From this new modus operandi comes “Supershallo”, not a simple mixtape but a world where you can enter and live the true peculiarity of Jesto, a rapper who defines himself as “an anomaly of Italian rap”, especially in Rome, with a very ‘90s oriented scene, following the Roman pioneers, true influencers according to him yet too heavy of a boundary artistically.

Afterwards, discovering Fibra on “950” by Fritz Da Cat opened him a whole new dimension of composition. Winning the Tecniche Perfette (or Tecniche, a prominent battle rap event aimed at promoting – as stated – the culture of hip hop versus media exploitation) and numerous other freestyle battles gave him the credibility and respect that his “different” style, to the Roman standards did not let him attain, until he published his first album on Piotta’s label (La Grande Onda).

Jesto’s character in rap has the capacity of never setting any boundaries and rather to experiment all nuances, switching seamlessly from lazy tracks to heavier ones. Now he lives off of this between lives and merchandising.

Off to a totally random thing, he told me about his early days with Saga whom he considers one of the best freestylers ever and does not hide that he would love to venture with him on a project like “Xtreme Shallo” that he has just closed with Cane Secco.

He does not really listen to Italian rap, if not to keep himself updated on his competitors. Speaking of foreign-made hip-hop, he went from classic East Coast approaches, Gangstarr, to 50 Cent, onto his true love Lil’ Wayne, before he became common in Italy, and South.

Trap is really where he moves best: “I have been working at 73BPM for 6 or 7 years.” The release of his official LP is for 2016. The concept is ready and he will record the tracks while on tour, between dates.

Does he live off rap? Absolutely yes. He’s Supershallo.

MISTA TOLU

I move geographically, virtually off to London, where these days we can find Tommy Juti aka Mista Tolu, a character with a very engaging smile. He is on vacation and he uses the situation to enlarge his network.

Tolu, or Tommy Kuti [his real name is Touloupe Olabode Kuti], is of Nigerian origins, he has been living in Italy ever since he was a child and graduated in England in Communications Science. A real world citizen.

He got close to rap listening to 50 Cent and G-Unit, and it’s crazy how in the small town where he lived, Castiglione dello Stiviere, when he was young there was not a soul who had an idea of what rap was, and this gave him the illusion of being the first one who rapped in Italian. Naturally, it did not take long for him to understand it was not really like that, listening to the first big names of hip-hop, from Bassi Maestro to Fabri Fibra.

A lot of time has passed and Mista Tolu has grown a lot artistically. He now actively manages the project “Manca Melanina”, a record label he founded with Yank and Diss 2 Peace (then Blackson joined) bringing together several artists who in common have both talent and having extra-Italian origins.

This job takes almost the entirety of Tolu’s time and lets him live although he does not hide of helping himself, when needed, to his parents’ food parlor. Family support is generally very common: a suffering indifference that becomes resignation the moment when parents understand their child is doing something good, you can see it in this video of “Faccio Rap” [I do rap]… you tell me.

One last thing about his favorite Italian rappers: “Above all I really like Marracash, because I think he is one of the few bringing on the true essence of hip-hop, a reflection on the society that surrounds you, in the good and in the evil. He does concretely talk of something.”

JOHNNY MARSIGLIA

I fly back to Italy, exactly to Varese, to hear from another MC who really appreciates Marracash, just like Tolu. I call him when he’s in the car with a friend.

Johnny, born Giovanni, was born in Palermo from a Cape Verde mother and Italian father, but he “naturalized” Cabo Verdian. His father, in fact, developed a great love for this culture and right in some of the Cabo Verdian events he organized, he had the opportunity to meet with some of the most important DJs who introduced him to American hip-hop artists. It was love at first listen.

Just as with Ghali, I give him props for the unexpected fortune of having a name (in this case, a last name) ready to be used as a stage name. Naturally, at the very beginning he was not spared from the eternal dilemma of young rappers: to find a great name of effect, too often with no effect at all. He starts rapping with the monicker of Johnny Killa and participates to Tecniche Perfette, collecting a lot a of consensus until when, geniously, he switches to his last name and closes the circle.

To score the heist and leave nothing undone, he moved to Varese and parallely carries an artistic life and daily jobs, surely hard (he worked as a baggage handler at the airport, as a construction worker, etc.), but that let him concentrate on rap.

The toil and persistence, and naturally his talent, give their own results: he can now afford to concentrate 100% on his artistic work. We are still far from the luxuries of the “big names” but surely Johnny has some points that he can live off easily. For 2016, we are waiting some new high level material, just like Fantastica Illusione.

ABE KAYN

One who has to work to provide for his rapping career is Mame Abdou Gueye aka Abe Kayn. I called him when he was eating crackers and roasted chicken, right after eating some burgers.

He’s 23 and originally from Senegal. He lived in La Spezia and Pisa before sailing to Milano, Abe left his family home at the age of 19 and contemporarily starts making rap. Initially inspired by Eminem and 50 Cent, he nowadays listens to French hip-hop, Booba and Kaaris in primis, and loves Fabri Fibra among the Italians.

For now, rap is just a passion to nurture by working, in his case, as a sales assistant in a large fashion store in Downtown Milano. His objective is naturally to make it become his primary source of living.

He has planned new singles for the upcoming months waiting for his solo LP next year. In the meanwhile watch and listen to Vola Basso.

TAIYO “HIST” YAMANOUCHI

griot-mag-life-of-italians-rapper-beyond-hip-hop-tayio hyst yamanouchi

© Gianluca Crivellin

Let’s close in style, personally speaking, still in Milan with a Roman who has been living here for 5 years: Taiyo Yamanouchi aka Hyst, whom I have known for quite a few years.

He informs me of the release of his boom “Fare il Rap” (To make rap). Very paedagogic in the substance but very easy in the form, it is a collection of experiences that can give serious and serene basis to whoever wants to approach the apparently easy world of MCing. Surely, Hyst is the only one who has the skills and the shoulders to bring on such a harsh topic in an environment filled with loudmouths and relentless critics with an easy trigger finger.

He graduated from the artistic high school Caravillani and approached rap gradually. By his own definition, in his early high school years he was “a dark kid with long hair, an early Brandon Lee’s Crow.”

There were quite a few writers in his school, among the most famous names in Rome, with whom he bonded and painted and who introduced him to Italian and Roman rap. Following them in their nighttime shenanigans he was always the “black sheep” both in clothing and musical tastes.

The kind of hip-hop, Italian radios played those years was either really light, a la Jovanotti, or American mainstream like LL Cool J and Run DMC, characters who felt closer to African American culture rather than belonging to a more ample culture such as hip-hop. Public Enemy made him understand the potential in communication beyond the expression. This made him write his lyrics, in English.

His first encounters with Italian rap, given his age, were with the pioneers of Italian hip-hop like Colle Der Fomento or even FDC (Facce da Culo, better not to translate it…), mainly live, back when there was not really much on tape.

Taiyo prefers artists who are not only talented but also “bold”. From the last American generation, he names Kendrick Lamar over all. From the Italian scene, his choice falls on artists he works with, admiring their boldness in the contents: Ghemon, Mecna and Kiave (the last one defined as “an Italian mix between Krs-One and Public Enemy”).

He admits that sometimes there are some singles that hit him like “L’istante prima” by Santiago, and he also admires the constance and the evolution towards simplification of Kaos, specifying that his simplification only involves the way he transmits the concepts as those are still pretty bold.

He easily admits that he cannot just live off rap music, this is why his sincere opinion is that to do it he should recur to compromise that are at the very base of the rap-business-game and that, luckily, he can afford not to follow.

Taiyo’s head sits firmly on his shoulders: he has a career as an actor, presenter, model, writer and storyboard writer. Yet, one last thing for us, he’s trying to make the last leap, closing the circle of his 360 degree art: becoming a real director. Listen to “Adesso Parlo”.

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