If you want to understand what’s really happening in a city, listen to its hip hop. That has been true ever since the musical genre burst out of the Bronx in New York City in the early 1970s; and as it made its way around the world in the ‘90s and beyond, sprouting new scenes everywhere from Mongolia to Mogadishu. It’s just as true today, on the streets of Athens. In fact, hip hop provides one of the best vehicles to understand the true face of contemporary Athens: creative, multicultural and with worldwide connects.
Hip hop in Greece has followed a similar journey to scenes outside the US, in many other corners of the world, from the UK to South Africa: in the early ‘80s and ‘90s, homegrown rappers and artists tried to imitate whatever they could get their hands on from the US, with only the most accomplished being able to fuse local language and culture with foreign inspiration in an authentic and convincing way. But those early days are long gone. Today, Greek hip hop has fully matured to find its own voice and now Athens’ most successful rappers—whether they rap in Greek or English—are courting global attention.
It’s a sweltering spring night and Athens’ hip hop faithful are crowded into the basement of Faust in Psirri. After a DJ and warm up acts have got the crowd jumping, the main event kicks into gear: Negros Tou Moria takes to the stage in full traditional dress: tsarouchia shoes with woollen pom poms, leg garters known as gonatares and a fustanella, a pleated skirt-like garment worn by the country’s Presidential Guard. Seeing Negros rock the mic and rap in Greek in such idiosyncratic attire may seem strange but it all fits into the artist’s message—and the crowd are loving it.
Negros (real name Kofi Ansong) was born in Athens to Ghanaian parents and lived for years without Greek citizenship before legal changes in 2015 made it easier for second-generation Greeks like him to claim their full citizenship rights. Living without papers made life a challenge and much of his early work was about arguing for his acceptance as a Greek: his verses are coloured with deep cultural references such as rebetiko (Greece’s ‘outlaw folk music’), the Orthodox Church and ancient Greek civilisation. Negros has massively expanded his repertoire since his early output but his music remains one of the best places to educate yourself on Greek culture: his grasp of Greek language and culture is so strong that many of his references even fly above the heads of most Greeks—which is exactly the point.
“My early work was driven by the anger at Greek people not accepting me as a citizen,” Negros says. “But everything is still about showing this society what I’m about and what I want to say. I’m speaking the language of this country, I’ll teach you things you don’t know.”
After a short interval, Negros appears back on stage in a tee and his Converse—a more conventional rapper’s uniform. Near the end of his set, he’s joined by another titan of the Athens hip hop scene: Kareem Kalokoh. Unlike Negros, Kareem raps in English and alongside his collective ATH Kids has led the way in opening up Greek hip hop to the world’s ears. With their remarkable videos and eye-catching sense of style, ATH Kids have picked up coverage from Dazed, High Snobiety, Huck and others and, before Covid, were regularly travelling and performing outside of Greece.
Alongside rappers Complex Shadow and Majin Cost (who both rap in Greek), producers Dazedboi and Taj Jamal, and director Valentin Rivera, DJ Joseph Mouzakitis is one of the leading lights of the collective. He’s buzzed by the group’s own achievements but also excited by how the success of ATH Kids has inspired a whole new generation of younger Greek rappers just coming through.
“I see a lot of new kids who are bumping now and they’re mainly rapping in Greek,” Joseph explains. “They have seen that, thanks to the internet, it is possible to make it if you rap in Greek. A lot of kids say they have been inspired by us and the other elders out there. This new generation aren’t happy with existing 9-to-5 like robots. They have big dreams and are taking more time to be creative and find their place.”
But before this fresh crop of Greek rappers, there was MC Yinka. Yinka was one of the early pioneers who helped establish hip hop in Greece during the ’90s and early ’00s, alongside artists such as FF.C, Active Member, Terror X Crew and Razastarr. Yinka (real name Emmanuel Olayinka Afolayan) has been rapping since 1998, becoming one of the first major Greek artists with African roots (his parents are from Nigeria) and at 38 he’s still going strong, with his third solo album Heroes at a Clearing now complete.
“My journey in music and in hip hop have always moved along together,” explains Yinka, a multi-instrumentalist who also plays music in a number of bands, including jazz and funk. “But the base has always been hip hop. I could never have imagined things would come this far. You’ve got to be constantly evolving, setting yourself new goals, doing whatever you can to move the crowd. I’m really happy to see new kids doing their thing; the culture keeps growing.”
DJ and producer Kid Young is behind the most novel hip hop brew to have come out of Athens in years: Athliens—a hip hop sci-fi comic adventure. Young partnered up with prolific comic book artist Costas Pantoulas to bring the idea to life and the comic is accompanied by a number of EPs featuring artists including Moose, Negros Tou Moria, Daree and others. You can find the comic at stores around Athens such as Solaris, Comicon-Shop and Tilt and check out the animated tracks on YouTube.
One of the most hard-working Athenian rappers is Moose, a driving force behind the coalescence of the local hip hop scene. Released in 2019, The Kompilation is an album that brings Athens’ best hip hop artists together—regardless of what language they rap in—for the first time. It wasn’t the first time Greek rappers have collaborated, of course, but the project’s great reception has helped spark a stream of projects between different artists that has amplified everyone’s profile and raised ambitions across the board.
Moose, whose parents come from Nigeria and whose first language is English, has also been a major cheerleader for his home neighbourhood of Kipseli: a multicultural melting pot which is, arguably, the crucible of Athens hip hop right now. Moose’s track Kipseli really put the area on the map but new rappers are cropping up all the time. For Moose, it really isn’t about competition—it’s about uniting the capital’s rappers to take on the world. “Athens could be a major capital of hip hop music in Europe,” Moose says. “There’s so much to separate us, but music brought us together. If we join forces, there’s no way we’re going to lose.”
Where to listen to hip hop in Athens?
Keep your eyes peeled for live gigs that pop up in various locations across the city (Covid-permitting, of course) by following the artists mentioned above. If there’s nothing happening gig-wise, these regular club nights will offer the chance to hear the best hip hop from Athens and worldwide.
Brown Sugar Nights
Organised by Kid Young and regularly featuring ATH Kids and other local DJs and MCs, Brown Sugar Nights is the best way into the city’s booming hip hop scene. It appears at various locations around Athens every few months, so check social media for the latest party and location.
Hip hop Tuesdays is a staple at punk haven Bad Tooth in Psirri.
New Kids on the Block
Organised by Giorgos Katikos, Joseph from ATH Kids and others, this new hip hop night pops up at Block in Koukaki and/or Nea Erythraia. Check social media for the latest.