A Viral Rap Battle Has Everyone in Russia—Including Business Journalists and Politicians—Talking

Record-breaking Russian rap battle: Oxxxymiron VS Gnoyny. Screenshot of video uploaded by versusbattleru to YouTube.

Early on Monday, August 14, readers of Vedomosti, one of Russia’s leading business publications and one of the few remaining independent media in the country, saw a headline that elicited many confused reactions from its loyal audience.

“Battle Between Oxxxymiron And Gnoyny Attracts 2.7 Million Views Overnight,” the article's headline said, looking quite out of place in a publication that normally covers initial public offerings, mergers and hostile takeovers by state-owned conglomerates.  

The event in question was an hour-long YouTube video of a highly anticipated rap battle between two prominent Russian hip-hop performers: Oxxxymiron, whose real name is Miron Fyodorov, and Gnoyny, whose artistic handle translates to “The Festering One” and who also is also known by the monicker Slava KPSS (a play on the diminutive form of popular Russian names like Vyacheslav and the Soviet-era slogan “Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union”). Both contestants exchanged colorful poetic barbs in a smoke-filled bar, with Gnoyny declared the winner by the judges.

Even for native Russian speakers, the hour-long verbal ping-pong is difficult to understand in full, as a most of it deals with obscure subculture references, as well as in-jokes and insults recognizable only to someone fully versed in contemporary Russian hip-hop. For example, around the 15:33 mark Gnoyny delivers a scathing, rhymed review of Oxxxymiron's latest full-length concept album “Gorgorod,” finally released after a four-year hiatus:

Поговорим о твоём альбоме, разберём с хладнокровием Лаврентия Берии. Ты плохо учился в своём Гриффиндоре, если русские что и умеют, так это разваливать империи! Все ждали четыре года, он как мог нагнетал интригу, и всё, что ему пришло в голову — записать аудиокнигу! Причём банальную антиутопию, такой уровень дискурса больше подходит Джамалу и Лоику! С сюжетом, что по силам каждой недалёкой педовке! Твой рэп — дешёвая литература в мягкой обложке! Это набор самых скучных клише, которые существовали в истории! Оригинальный сюжет — трагическая любовь посреди антиутопии! Блять, такого же ни у кого не было, да? Ни у Оруэлла, ни у Замятина, это попсовый мотив, который заебал уже окончательно!

Let’s talk about your album, let’s dissect it with the cold-blooded composure worthy of Lavrenty Beria [Joseph Stalin’s chief of secret police]. You were a bad student at your Gryffindor [a reference from the “Harry Potter” book series] — if Russians have ever been good at anything, it’s tearing down empires! Everyone waited for years, he was building up suspense — and the best he could come up with was an audio book! And a banal one at that, a dystopian novel, such level of discourse better befits Jamal and Loic [rival hip-hop performers]! With a plot that looks like it's been put together by a dim-witted hustler! Your rap is pulp literature at best! It’s a collection of the most tired cliches in history! Oh, it’s such an original plot, look at it — a tragic love story in a dystopian setting! Fuck me, I’m sure no one yet has come up with anything of the sort, right? Not [Russian writer Yevgeny] Zamyatin, not [English writer George] Orwell! It’s a pop motif that’s just pissing everyone the fuck off!

Soon, Vedomosti’s news brief was picked up by many other outlets, including state-owned news agencies like RIA Novosti. At the time of writing RIA Novosti dedicated at least 12 separate articles to the battle, from incremental updates on the number of YouTube views to sympathetic analysis and commentary from music experts.

As the YouTube clip of the battle was accumulating more views — almost 12 million as of August 15 — it attracted unprecedented attention from general interest Russian media, both state-owned and independent. The Interfax news agency reported that the Oxxxymiron-Gnoyny battle set an absolute record for coverage of such a niche subject: more than 800 articles in a single day across the whole spectrum of Russian news outlets.

Many on Russian social media pointed to the contrast between the “serious” nature of news outlets like specialized business publications and state newswires and the “lowly” subject of reporting. Reporters and editors argued on Twitter whether a rap battle was a topic for “proper” news outlets to cover, or whether such incremental updates were indeed newsworthy.

Will there be a news update about 5 million views? What about 6 million?

Professional reviews of the rap battle appeared in publications like Kommersant, post-Soviet Russia’s oldest business newspaper, and Republic.ru, another prominent independent business and general interest news outlet. Reviews have been mostly positive, highlighting the fact that both contestants used complex, multi-layered allusions to classic Russian poetry and the affair wasn't just an exchange of profanities between two people with bizarre nicknames, as many have complained. Yevgeniya Albats, the veteran editor of a prominent opposition magazine The New Times, complained in a Facebook post about the distasteful monickers of the contestants:

Что это за человек, который выбирает себе кликуху “Гнойный” ? И почему 7 млн интересуются высказываниями человека, который сам себя обозначил столь мерзким определением?

What kind of a person chooses ‘The Festering One’ for a nickname and why would 7 million people be interested in anything from someone with such a disgusting self-designation?

The battle even attracted some high-profile political attention. Russian opposition leader Alexey Navalny praised the battle in a blog post on his website:

Получил большое удовольствие и больше всего от мысли, что русская культура жива и развивается. […] Разве это не прекрасно? Ну да, мат. Ну да, довольно часто весьма низкопробный юмор. Тем не менее, всё равно это конкурс русских поэтов. […] В любом случае, это в сто раз больше культура, чем комедийные и песенные шоу на федеральных каналах телевидения.

I did enjoy the fact that Russian culture is alive and thriving. […] Isn’t that just beautiful? Yes, there’s a lot of profanity and below-the-belt jokes. But that’s what Russian poetry competitions look like. […] In any case, that’s 100 times more cultural than any comedy show or song contest you see on state television.

State officials also chimed in. Gennady Onischenko, formerly the head of the state consumer watchdog Rospotrebnadzor and now a parliament member for the ruling party, complained about the same aspects of the rap battle that Navalny praised. In a radio interview on August 14, Onischenko said:

Убогий язык, законы русской разговорной речи, культуры там даже и близко не ночевали.Интернет сегодня отражает ту убогость духовную, которая есть в нашем обществе, раз это находит такой широкий отклик.

[In this video clip] the speech is stilted, it has very little to do with the laws of our language and culture. Today’s internet lays bare the moral poverty in our society if [these videos] are in such demand.

Onischenko — infamous for his constant demands to ban or outlaw aspects of modern life, food products or gadgets as immoral or unwholesome — then went as far as demanding to reprimand the outlets which had reported on the battle.

Social media users quickly responded to Onischenko’s statements with ridicule:

Duma criticizes the Oxxxymiron vs Gnoyny battle. So parliament members do give a damn about laws of Russian language, but not about Russians’ wretched life.

Rap battles are an increasingly popular phenomenon on Russian YouTube, with one of the earlier battles involving Oxxymiron having so far generated an unprecedented 38 million views. Independent publication The Bell offers an explanation as to why the news was picked up by business publications: rap battles are serious business, with ad contracts from major clients like Tinkoff Bank and BMW potentially bringing in up to 5 million rubles ($83,480) to the organizers of Oxxxymiron vs Gnoyny alone.

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