Balkan folk music is amazingly malleable. It’s a genre that’s constantly morphing and evolving, taking on new forms to reflect wider cultural trends. In 1990s Serbia, the starogradski folk of my grandparents’ day was paired with synthesisers and dance music to create the garish oddity that is turbofolk. Singers such as Jelena Karleuša have made careers from adapting Western pop templates to local tastes with a folkish twist. In the 1980s, at the height of the Yu-rock era, Bijelo Dugme reformatted age-old gypsy folk songs for modern audiences and used traditional instruments for rock anthems.
In 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. Yet this bizarre fusion of sounds is no niche interest: folk rap hits gather tens of millions of views on YouTube and the genre is the hottest music trend in the region right now.
“Folk communicates with people on an emotional level,” says Relja “Reksona” Milanković, the head of Belgrade-based Bassivity records and one half of V.I.P., Serbia’s venerated rap group. “As much as we try to escape our lowbrow past, it’s something that hides inside all of us.”
Belgrade duo Elitni Odredi were the first group to crossbreed folk music with hip-hop as folk rap began to emerge in the early years of this decade. They formed in the mid-2000s and quickly became known for cringe-worthy melodic rap that catered primarily to an audience of teenage girls. Their sound was heavily commercialised and many of their earlier hits took their cues from dance music cheesemongers like David Guetta. By adding folkish vocals, melodies and instruments to their tracks, Elitni Odredi suddenly had a wider appeal. Eventually, their tracks began to get plays in elite clubs where people go to drink champagne in cordoned-off VIP areas, which are the only establishments that pay substantial booking fees. Plays eventually grew into gigs at venues typically reserved for folk stars. This is how the local music economy works in Serbia: folk is the only genre that can draw in masses of punters to drive substantial alcohol revenue. People who know them say that when Elitni Odredi realised this, they began to veer towards a folk-inspired sound.
Folk rap comes in a variety of flavours across the Balkans: from the commercial earworms of MC Stojan and Rasta to the gangsta folk of THC La Familija and Coby, the genre is also wildly popular in Bosnia, where Sarajevo’s Jala Brat and Buba Corelli have a genuine claim to being the biggest rappers in the Balkans.
This bizarre fusion of sounds is no niche interest: folk rap hits gather tens of millions of views on YouTube and the genre is the hottest music trend in the region right now
Its rise has been defined by new forms of online music consumption. In 2011, a couple of film graduates from Belgrade’s University of Dramatic Arts launched iDJVideos — a monetised YouTube channel that produces films and releases music videos for local artists, then gives them a percentage of the profit the videos generate. The music that appears on iDJ’s channel isn’t available anywhere else, meaning iDJ has grown into a media behemoth with over two million subscribers and 2.4 billion views.
iDJ and Elitni Odredi fed each other’s success and created a formula that both rappers and established folk stars have been quick to follow. Not only did folk rap make Balkan hip-hop commercially viable, it has allowed folk singers to tap a younger audience raised on both local and Western pop culture, spawning a number of crossover hits. A good example of this is Samo Jako, which features Elitni Odredi’s Relja Popović and Stoja, a 45-year-old folk music titan, and has 37 million views on YouTube. Tracks like Samo Jako and Ego (with Serbia’s Justin Bieber, Milan Stanković) appear to be the new template for Serbian pop music.
Coby, a producer, singer and occasional rapper who’s widely regarded as folk rap’s biggest talent, explains the genre in mythological terms. “I have a theory that [folk] is a remnant from some ancient times — look, Amanet, a Turkish word,” he says, pointing to the track playing on his computer. “Something gets triggered in your subconscious somewhere as soon as you hear a fucking zurna or trill. You can’t run away from that, it’s in your DNA.” He’s not wrong: as a young cosmopolitan, I hardly count myself as a folk fan, but when I hear Bijelo Dugme’s Djurdjevdan or a Halid Beslić tune, I feel an undeniable rumbling in my genetic code that compels me to bellow along at the top of my lungs.
Balkan folk music drips with melancholy and most songs fixate on the agony of heartbreak — and folk rap is no different. Only now the heartache is accompanied by the daily agonies of life, giving it a dose of social realism that’s common to hip-hop. Like their Western counterparts, folk rappers often sing about clubs and booze, but this isn’t the celebratory hedonism of street hustlers living the American dream: it’s a futile attempt to escape internal anguish.
Balkan folk music drips with melancholy and most songs fixate on the agony of heartbreak — and folk rap is no different
On Budala, THC La Familija rap: “I carry chains like Saint Peter, I see misfortune coming from a kilometre away / The wind swept away all my dreams, life hits me right in the epicentre / The days are grey, no, the days are black / But I don’t give a fuck because the club is shaking / Call up the dealer and order a round / Our Balkan blood makes us a bit wild.”
Borko Vujičić of THC La Familija goes so far as to draw parallels between rapping and Serbia’s epic poetry traditions, which, in his view, make folk rap a byproduct of its surroundings: “Our people have a long history of expressing themselves directly through lyrics,” he tells me, referencing the gusle – a stringed instrument used in Serbian epic poetry. “But those songs aren’t poetry — no, they’re songs that speak of war [and] occurrences in society at the time.”
Folk rappers, in this telling, are the gusle players of the modern day, using song to explain the present. That might be a bit of a stretch, but what is clear is that rappers and hip-hop producers in the Balkans have found their own voice. Folk rap marks the coming-of-age of Balkan hip-hop: the moment it finally became a distinct entity and not just another American export.