In the evening on December 6 in Kyiv HC Hall the most popular Ukrainian rapper alyona alyona performs. All tickets are sold out, there is a queue at the entrance. The hall is designed for two thousand people, but there are way more: people are standing in the aisles and on the stairs. An hour and a half after the start, Alyona says that she has prepared a surprise — the future stars of hip-hop, the band Kalush.
— Fast flow, tune, live flute. Now they will show you!
Kalush takes the stage and plays the Mountains track. It is followed by the ballad of lucky boys Do not marinate and the social track Stop cappin. Soloist Oleg Psyuk reads the text with machine-gun speed, Igor Didenchuk provides a live flute, and the third member of the group, Kilimmen, breakdances and picks up the microphone on the chorus.
— Can you feel it? — Alyona asks the audience.
The hall explodes with applause. The rappers are smiling, waving, and asking to subscribe to their YouTube channel. There are still only 35 thousand subscribers, but the first three clips received more than two million views.
Oleg Psyuk was born in 1994 in Kalush, a town in Ivano-Frankivsk oblast, home to 66 thousand people. Olegʼs father was a mechanical engineer, and his mother was a shop assistant. Oleg started writing rap in 2009. The first track was a diss on a class teacher. This was the first time when Oleg caught the hype — all his classmates became interested in his work.
Oleg rhymed lines in the yard with a "group of like-minded people" and, as it seemed to him, formed a local rap community. After the ninth grade, Oleg went to work in construction, and at the end of the summer he entered the Kalush Polytechnic College. At the same time, he worked in a confectionery factory and in a concrete plant — he made concrete rings for wells. Soon the yard gang fell apart: some of his friends went abroad to earn money, others were busy with adult life. Oleg wrote tracks and even performed as a warm-up with local rappers.
When Oleg was nineteen, he moved to Lviv for four years to study at the Faculty of Automation at the University of Forestry. The prospect of working in logging, even with automatic machines, didnʼt appeal to him, and thoughts of hip-hop did not let him go. Oleg still considers higher education useless, but he graduated. For all four years Oleg lived in a dormitory and worked as a sales agent in local companies.
Oleg says that rapper Nashiem Worryk played an important role in his career. They have known each other for a long time, and in 2014 they performed a joint track together on stage for the first time.
— I donʼt remember when I realized that I want to become a hip-hop star. Probably, I wasnʼt against it since the first track, but it became a clear goal recently. At first, I just listened to Eminem, NWA, Eazy E, Ice Cube.
Oleg received a diploma and returned to Kalush. He continued to work with Nashiem Worryk, released several singles, and then recorded his debut album Torba, where he took the pseudonym Psiuchy Syn. The album went unnoticed by the mass audience, on YouTube it has only hundreds of listens, several thousands on SoundCloud. But the rap party praised his provincial chronicles and fast-flow, a rhythmic drawing with a high tempo.
In his tracks, Oleg described life in Kalush as a reporter, uncensored and unadorned, and never romanticized drugs. According to him, young people are either leaving the provincial towns of Western Ukraine abroad in search of work or trying to dispel the boredom with banned substances. Oleg described the life story of his immediate surroundings in 10 congs. Music journalist Oleksandr Pervukhin wrote about the first track Almanac that itʼs a perfect understanding of hip-hop. "How did he stay outside the little sandbox called Ukrainian rap with such a flow and such a play on words?!" The critic wondered.
Oleg always dreamed of assembling a hip-hop band, because he knew: the best product is created only by a team. More than six months ago, Oleg called on his Facebook page: he was looking for participants who would like the format of his work. Igor Didenchuk was recommended to Oleg by a familiar musician. The boys immediately became friends.
Igor is twenty years old, he is a native of Lutsk, he is studying in Kyiv at The National Culture and Arts University at the Faculty of Music. Igor says he plays 50 instruments.
— In the first class I heard a classmate playing the flute and signed up for classes. My mom said, "Dude, if you want to do this, go to the end." So I graduated from music school, then music high school, and went to university. All my life Iʼve been learning to play percussion, keyboards, strings, folk and horns, and now Iʼm researching folklore. I travel to the villages, record songs performed by old ladies.
— Brother, will you name all the instruments you can play? — says Oleg.
— Iʼm afraid it will last until the morning, — laughs Igor.
A third member of the group, who calls himself Kilimen, was found in Kyiv. This is a tall, tight-lipped guy in a suit with a carpet ornament that resembles a tattoo. According to Oleg, Kilimen is a collective image of Ukrainian hip-hop with a post-Soviet past, a new Ukrainian superhero. He dances break, hip-hop and hopak, also he DJs, reads rap, and sings.
The group was named Kalush in honor of Oleg Psyukʼs hometown. At first, Oleg lived in Kalush, discussed all ideas with other band members over the phone, and came to Kyiv only for rehearsals. But a month ago he eventually moved to the capital. He rents a room, works as an assistant manager and rehearses with a band three times a week at the rehearsal base, for which he pays 150 hryvnias per hour. Igor also rents a room, works part-time in the Berehynia Ukrainian Folklore Theater, where he plays the flute in the orchestra.
Oleg Psyuk came up with a hit formula: a phrase in a chorus that is easy to remember, and an honest personal story. When he started the band, he had 30 demo songs in the archive. Of these, only Donʼt Marinate and Stop Capping have become full-fledged tracks so far. The clip for the Donʼt Marinate single was shot on the streets of Kalush by clipmaker Delta Arthur, known for his clips for alyona alyona, and for the fact that he once smoked a joint on the balcony of the Mykolayiv City Council. The filming was made at Kalush membersʼ own expense.
Oleg writes so-called "conscious" hip-hop. Kalush abandons stereotypical rap bravado about girls, expensive cars, and crime. At the heart of Oleg Psyukʼs texts is his own story: drugs, hard work, and boredom in a small town. He himself was able to break with the troubled past, he doesnʼt drink, doesnʼt use psychoactive substances and goes in for sports. Oleg says that he deliberately formed a clear position: even for money, Kalush will not advertise alcohol, cigarettes, furs and meat products, because the group opposes any kind of violence and destruction.
— Our mission is to influence the younger generation and ward them off drugs. I know what Iʼm talking about. In the province, substance use begins at school. Those who sell it have no means to live. Those who buy it have nothing to live for.
After the second single Stop Capping Kalush, the American hip-hop label Def Jam, which is part of the Universal Music Group — one of the three biggest music corporations in the world, turned its attention on Kalush. The label was founded in the mid-80ʼs by sound producer Rick Rubin and Russell Simmons of Run DMC band. This is the first time in the history of Ukrainian hip-hop that a local artist has signed a contract with the Def Jam label. Now it will promote and distribute Kalushʼs music on all streaming platforms.
— We sent some of our tracks to the Def Jam A&R department, and they liked it. You can subscribe to a music label only if this department notices you, there are no other ways, — says Psiuk.
Music experts believe that Kalush has every chance to gain a foothold in the market. Andriy Nedashkivsky, editor of the rap portal The Flow, says that itʼs interesting to watch the guys, because this is a team full of contradictions: there shouldnʼt be such group. "The famous in narrow circles Psyuchy Syn, a character who used to make a depressing product and didnʼt want to please the general public, now gets along with the forehead, whose skin is decorated with a carpet pattern instead of a tattoo. They are trying to fuse trap with Ukrainian ethnicity, and folk dances — with a breakdance.
However, even a contract with Def Jam doesnʼt guarantee their success, as the success of an individual group often depends on the state of the music scene as a whole. Music critic Oleksandr Varenytsia explains that despite the second renaissance of hip-hop, it is still a set of individual names, each of which makes itself, and there is no monolithic hip-hop scene in Ukraine. The main division line is the language in which rap is read.
Varenytsia says that today inside the rap scene there is a discussion about what Ukrainian rap is. Is it exclusively rap in Ukrainian or can it include rap by Ukrainian artists in Russian? At the same time, the capital of Ukrainian hip-hop is Kharkiv, so Ukrainian rap in Russian has always been perceived as normal. Ukraine does not have its own major media about rap (rap.ua restarted in the spring of 2019 and is only gaining momentum) and, perhaps, there is no truly mass audience for such music. To be noticed, the Ukrainian artist needs the publications in the Russian The Flow outlet and the support of the hip-hop public of the Russian social network VKontakte, which is blocked in Ukraine.
— Read what you want. The main thing is not to sell yourself to big producers from Moscow. Then you are accepted! This has always been the case, — explains Varenytsia. — But now itʼs different. Reading in Russian brings rather bad reputation, regardless of the personal and civic position of the artist.
Varenytsia believes that as long as the trend is to "Ukrainize" culture and quotas on radio will last, Ukrainian rap will remain in the same position of uncertainty. "Marketing, labels, sponsors — everything will be on pause."
Translated from Ukrainian by Anton Semyzhenko.