‘More junkies than gangsters’ – Czech rap scene explored in new film

'Česká RAPublika', photo: Tomáš Třeštík

Česká RAPublika is a new documentary following the lives of some of the best-known names in Czech rap. Over the last three years, director Pavel Abrahám has followed the movements of artists Hugo Toxx, Orion and James Cole, creating a portrait of the three rappers, and the Czech rap scene, as an end result. The film has been praised for its humour, which is not at the expense of its central characters. Director Pavel Abrahám says that following these rappers’ lives was in itself extremely enjoyable:

“Yes, it was, it was. Because the main characters are always very funny. I really like the things they say, I like the gestures they use, so they always surprised me. They were always full of life – sometimes they were a bit too wild. Of course, it was really enjoyable.”

And how did you chose the characters for your film, are they, for you, people that really define the Czech rap scene?

“I mean, the three main characters, I chose them for I think three main reasons: I really wanted to make a film which was really full of life, and so I needed some characters who, when they were in front of the camera, really acted we say in Czech ‘bezprostredne’ – they interacted directly with the camera. So that was the first reason. The second was that I know these three characters; we met a really long time ago. It is specific to Czech rap that those who are now really famous rappers were previously graffiti painters. And years ago we used to paint graffiti together for many years. So I know them personally very well, and have done for a long time, so it was easier for me to direct them. And the third thing is that I really like what they make, I really like their rap – for me this is the best example of Czech rap, and I like it.”

Pavel Abrahám with Hana Hegerová,  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
… Which is my next question. You have spent a lot of time in the Czech rap community shooting this film. From what you have seen, how would you say the Czech rap scene compares to the American rap scene, the British rap scene, or the French rap scene?

“You know, for example, French or Polish rap is a lot more socially-oriented, and a lot more political. Sometimes very naively so. But it is a lot braver. Rappers always talk about how life is completely hard and what the social situation in the suburbs is. But Czech rap is completely different in its topics. For example, Supercrooo make these hyper-real pop-culture comics. They always react to really contemporary bits of pop culture, and they always mix a very poetic sort of cocktail from this. So for them rap is more an occasion to express something funny, or something poetic than some sort of ideas or their own ideology.”

'Česká RAPublika',  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
One of the stars of the film was Supercrooo member James Cole. He’s just released an album with one of the film’s other main characters, Orion. You are just listening to a snippet of it right now, in the form of the song ‘Hvezdna Star’. When I met James Cole in a rather noisy café recently, I asked him where the influences upon Czech rap came from:

“I still think the major influence comes from America, when it comes to following trends and stuff. In America three or four years ago, there was this crunk fever, with Little John and others, and a lot of people have followed that trend here. So I think America is still the major influence on rap here. But you know, there are only a few artists, and we each have our own style. Of course, my first tape was Ice-T, we all grew up on American rap. You know, the whole world in the last few decades grew up on American culture whatever that may be. People in Britain are still influenced by America, people in Europe, people in Asia.”

'Česká RAPublika',  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
Okay, but to put it a bit differently, what is it that makes Czech rap special? What differentiates Czech rap from American rap or French rap etc?

“The setting is different, you know, the people in America come from New York, LA, Huston, Atlanta, or some other big city. They come from ghettos; they are people from suburbs or poor neighbourhoods. It is a different setting. Here we are not too gangster, we are more like junkies. Of course, there are gangsters here, but we don’t like to talk about it too much. We are different, we like to talk about enjoying life, about the simple things in life, like you know, the most important things, like love and so on. You could call this a cliché, but you know the rap here is different – I don’t want to say this but, it is more philosophical.”

So Abrahám and James Cole agree that Czech rap doesn’t deal with social issues as much as its foreign counterparts, but does that mean it is willfully vapid, and all about the bling?

'Česká RAPublika',  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
“Nah, it ain’t. The only guy who is really into the bling and cars is from Slovakia and his name is Rytmus. He is like the only guy who got caught up in this money and guns and cars stuff. But there are others surrounding him – his crew, his yes-men. His yes-men do that also.

“You know, most of these rappers in America, these African American rappers, they are like really dumb. They are really playing into the government thing. They are trying to act all anti-government, but at the same time they just follow the recipe. They are just big, materialistic guys who do nothing but support the industry and are in the place where the government wants them. So this whole bling and house and car stuff, it is good as a side-effect of your success, why not buy a house? Why not talk about it if you like from time to time? But to base your career on your possessions, that is something extremely silly to me.”

'Česká RAPublika',  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
In one of the film’s odder chapters, the profiled rappers team up with Czech singing legend Hana Hegerová to record their own version of the national anthem. The film’s director spent years looking at the phenomenon of Czech rap, and the special nature of rap in this country – but I put it to him that one of the accusations most frequently leveled at Czech hip-hop in general is that it is derivative, and that its final sound is a bit like American rap, but less good. Pavel Abrahám defends the cause:

“No, no, no, I don’t believe this. I don’t think that Czech rappers are copying American rap, certainly not. I think that the influence going through Czech rap right now is the Czech 1980s. For example, the new album from Orion and James Cole, called Orikoule, which was released this Monday, it’s completely influenced by the Czech ‘80s. It’s really a disco album. And it is really European in its conception. There is no American influence, even the booklet and everything – I think they are really proud of making European music, not American.”

'Česká RAPublika',  photo: Tomáš Třeštík
During the making of this film when you were in such close proximity to these rappers, did it change the way you felt about this music and change the way that you understood Czech rap?

“I think that during the shooting of this film, and during the development of this film, which lasted three years, I really recognised that James Cole is, for me, a really big poet. I really like his poetry and he is an intelligent, smart guy, who makes some really funny things. So I think that maybe it could be good to continue working with him, maybe shooting another film about him.”

So that may not be the last we see of James Cole on our screens, and it certainly isn’t the last we hear of him. His new album Orikoule was out on Monday and has been receiving rave reviews.