From ‘police’ to ‘cops’ to ‘trash’ How Russian rock and hip-hop have shaped society’s relationship with law enforcement
Police officers play a prominent role in modern Russian music across genres, from Soviet chansons to present-day avant-garde pop. But who are they? Just regular guys? Reluctant cogs in a corrupt machine? Or real enemies? Artem Rondarev, a professor at the Higher School of Economics, discusses how the police have been depicted in Russian music over the years.
A warning to our Russian-speaking, more delicate readers: many of the lyrics ahead contain foul words. If this is likely to upset you, perhaps you’d prefer this diversion.
With few exceptions, society’s relationship to law enforcement, and the reflection of that relation in pop culture, is defined by hostility. It’s also typically the case that society at large and the police forces within it are made to live with one another.
In stabler times, the police are depicted with more sympathy. For example, Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about Inspector Lestrade during the Industrial Revolution, a time of optimism, progress, and liberalization of values in England. Inspector Lestrade is a fool, but he’s a benign fool, and it’s always clear he’s working in good faith. On the other hand, when a recession began in early 1970s America, along with a wave of crime in big cities and corruption among police, the nickname “pigs” gained popularity and stuck. In subcultures already critical of law enforcement, such changes in attitude were especially strong.
Soviet rock, which was often created by hippies, inherited this animosity toward the police. While hippie subcultures did suffer poor treatment by Soviet police (although not as harshly as is often portrayed), that mistreatment was rarely talked about openly. Many people still remember the lyrics of Boris Grebenshchikov — Punks love dirt, and hippies love flowers, and both of them get taken away by the cops — because it uses the word “cops,” menti, which sounds natural in everyday speech but was practically taboo in songs and literature. It’s difficult to think of any other mention of “cops” from “old” rock; nobody wanted to provoke the police unnecessarily.
However, the inescapable fact of coexistence with the cops eventually made itself known in culture. In one song, the 1980s rock star Umka croons with almost nostalgic warmth: “And you used to wake up on the bench to the voice of a cop, and in the stairwell to the voice of a tenant.” Both the cop and the tenant turn out to be strangers, something Other, but at the same time, they’re people, and not even unpleasant people.
But Soviet rock did criticize power and law enforcement agencies. Of course, that critique is hardly obvious today — it’s an Aesopian language, understandable only to those for whom it’s meant — but the Soviet authorities heard it nonetheless. There’s an even more obvious proof of the hostile relationship between Soviet rock and Soviet cops — it’s what’s called proof by contradiction. When the Soviet government disappeared, Russian rock lost its way. In his book The Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Swindle 2, the poet Ilya Kormiltsev writes that Russian rock has stopped being political, and he’s completely right. Russian rock and its descendants moved away from politics toward aestheticism, showiness, and existentialism. Just try to find anything political in the music of Ilya Lagutenko, or Zemfira, or the innumerable artists to come out of Nashe Radio (Our Radio).
The current popularity of Egor Letov’s music stems from the fact that he’s one of the few artists who continues to use Russian rock as a political tool. In the end of the 1980s, a relatively liberal time, he sang: “There’s a legion of cops for each of us.” Thirty years later, Noize MC sampled the chorus of Letov’s song on his track “Vsyo kak u lyudey” (“All as it should be”), in which he criticizes power in all forms. This demonstrates a kind of political continuity — the continuity that was broken by Russian rock as a whole.
This didn’t help rock music itself: having lost some popularity, the faces of Russian rock (primarily Yuri Shevchuk, but also Kormiltsev) proceeded to blame the public for having bad taste, and for choosing pop music over good old time-tested rock music. In other words, Russian rock ended when the cops stopped chasing the rockers.
But the relationship between music and power isn’t so simple. There’s an old genre in which the theme of “cops” plays a central role. In the “blatnie pesni” or prison songs of the 1990s, cops, bosses, and other rungs of power play the role not of social evil, but of instruments of fate. The thug has no choice; he’s destined to become a criminal from birth. The cop is destined to “accept” him, so that the thug’s life follows its traditional path, as if fulfilling a prophecy. The motif of the absence of individualism plays a central role in prison songs, which allows for a comparison between these songs and classic myths or legends. In prison songs, however paradoxically, there aren’t any bad people, only victims: victims of fate, of circumstance, and of accidents, both on the side of the criminals and on the side of their enemies. In this way, blatnie pesni are not so different from country music, in which the police aren’t criminals’ enemies, just an unavoidable fact of life and a necessary atonement for the crime committed, a kind of “little death.” Since each Russian prison song is a set of codified stories, each deprived of verisimilitude and following mythical narratives developed long ago, they’re not so interesting on their own. But it’s interesting that the theme of the police is being developed in a similar way by hip-hop.
Despite the outward individuality and activeness of its artists, hip-hop has an overwhelming number of recurring themes. Before trusting a rapper, check his claims against a list of common myths. Given that both hip-hop and prison songs are “deviant,” “criminal” forms, it’s unsurprising that Russian rap has taken its themes from prison music. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the police loved listening to hip-hop; for them, it was just another variety of their beloved prison music. And prison music has to be given credit for its aesthetic insight.
Because policemen in prison songs generally aren’t bad, just down on their luck, in the music of the 2000s (and in tracks that still reference them now), these songs treat police officers as completely tolerable. In Kasta’s song “Hound,” the cop is a sad guy who stops the main characters of the song to ask them to tow his car, barely holding back tears. In AK-47 and Noggano’s song “Russian Paradise,” the cops try to catch Noggano day and night, but he’s not afraid and just keeps smoking Parliament Lights. In the song “Flowers in a Vase'' by Krovostok, veterans of the darkly parodic hip-hop of the 2000s, the police are the most innocent thing that can happen to a person. The cops just sit in their trucks while the main character tortures his victims for money. “Krovostok'' clearly captures the “innocence” of law enforcement agencies; they have to resort to not-so-legal methods because they work among a public that has placed itself outside of human laws. This lawlessness is another motif of prison songs, and it’s a motif that clearly wasn’t created by the police.
This same relationship is summed up in Bad Balance’s track “Cops,” from the fittingly-named album “Crime of the 90s.” In the song, the cops arrive at the scene of the crime and at first harass everyone and create total chaos. But then, after smoking for a bit with the local addicts, they make a note in their write-up: “shot six hundred aliens,” and then go up in smoke themselves. The voice of the police on the recording is done by Professor Lebedinskii, who at one time also created a crossover of the prison music aesthetic, the sentimentality of Soviet songs, and banter played over “screaming” vocals and chanson intonation. In general, for early post-Soviet music, the cops of the 1990s weren’t such bad people; they were just worn down by life and prepared to undergo humiliation because they understood that, in society, they were among their own.
For a long time (practically until the 2010s), the relationships between subcultures, musicians, and the police were practically interdependent. Even in the most radical pop songs, it was implied that cops are people, whether a necessary evil, regular citizens spoiled by power, or just ordinary guys like anybody else. Even in the worst of cases, they were treated like a drunk neighbor — annoying, inescapable, but not someone who deserves to be killed. This “household” attitude toward the police is illustrated brilliantly in the song “No pasaran” by AK-47 and Noggano, which sets up a stark contrast over the course of three verses between “trash” (musora) and “cops” (menty). Both words are slang terms for police officers in Russian, but each has its own connotation. In AK-47 and Noggano’s version, the latter is a decent person with a gun, while the former is a corrupt scoundrel who doesn’t let anyone live peacefully because he can’t just be cool.
For Russian pop music in general and hip-hop in particular, there are no written laws. All the rules that the main players follow amount to “common sense,” and disobeying them is called “mayhem.” This, paradoxically, is what connects them to the cops. None of them follow the laws, everyone does what they want; in other words, an old Russian idyll is fulfilled: “nobody is pure.” Everyone is understanding, everyone is constantly rotating, and everyone is human.
For this sympathetic view of the police to end, the cops needed to be dehumanized, to stop being seen as neighbors. In its more extreme forms, hip-hop has aspired to do exactly this. It’s difficult to say whether this new way of relating to the police is connected with current circumstances, or whether it’s just a trope inherited from African-American hip-hop artists of the 1980s and 1990s, especially gangster rap.
In 1992, Ice-T, who was at the time both a famous gangster rapper and the vocalist of a metal band, recorded the song “Cop Killer” as his last project. The song created a huge scandal in the United States — the band was forced to take the song off of their album as they came under attack by politicians — but most interesting of all was that everyone referred to it as a rap song. Objectively, it has nothing in common with hip-hop.
But hip-hop is the undisputed leader of stigmatized genres of music. What would seem like theatrical deviations in other genres is the norm for hip-hop, at least from the perspective of its artists. Initially, this was due to the fact that White Americans saw Black Americans as outsiders. It’s also partially the work of journalists, who contributed to the moral panic around hip-hop. Either way, the “society attributes everything evil to hip-hop, and hip-hop artists happily deliver” approach is baked into the structure and ideology of rap music, and is adapted, often uncritically, by other cultures in which hip-hop is becoming more popular.
This is what has happened in Russia. The dehumanization of the police was only a matter of time. Hip-hop always survives by constructing adversaries, and for African Americans, there’s no shortage of adversaries in the past or the present. This is why Russian hip-hop lived for so long in the symbolic space of fictional “thug” relationships; it didn’t have a good enemy. But now the enemy has appeared.
Of course, this enemy isn’t always the police. For example, for the rapper Husky, the enemy is the environment he grew up in, the concrete-panelled Soviet-built apartment. For Oxxxymiron, the enemy is his own past, or more accurately, the weakness of his comfortable upbringing as a rap origin story, which explains his tendency to spin ordinary events as mini-tragedies. The enemy can be an alcoholic, a drug addict, or the person who gets everyone hooked on these substances, like in the case of Garry Topor. For Misha Mavashi, it’s the people who are destroying the country. It can be battle rappers, like in the case of DEEP-EX-SENSE and Billy Milligan. Or it can be everybody, like in the music of Tony Rout. This is the most difficult trick of all: designating everyone enemies, and then refraining from singling out someone in particular and ruining the coherence of the whole framework.
The task of finding an enemy that finally reflects and gives meaning to hip hop — a worthy enemy, beyond amorphous thugs, grifters, and life circumstances — is, of course, bigger and wider than finding an enemy in the police. But the beauty of the police as a solution is that no searching had to be done because the police were already seen negatively; they just had to be perceived as real enemies, and not as the clowns who take bribes at work but turn into beloved husbands and fathers at home.
If we make a timeline, the shift can be traced to 2010, when the band “Psyche” gave a performance of their song “Kill the Cop.” This is similar to the story of Ice-T and the development of gangster rap in America. Characteristically, the song is old, and the band had played it in concerts for a long time without any major consequences. But in 2010, a court added it to Russia’s list of extremist songs. Now, anyone who plays the song can expect consequences; the lead singer of the band Deathsquad, Alexey Morozov, was fined for playing the song at a concert in the fall of 2019. It stands to reason that other people and bands have played songs with equally radical lyrics, but the story of “Psyche” is the most significant because it was then that the system decided that it would no longer ignore its critics. The system decided that it’s above the people. In response, its representatives — the cops — were quickly dehumanized.
How does this work? When Dino MC47 asks the listener “Who’s above you — the thugs or the trash [i.e. the police]?” as part of his project “Somali in the Snow,” it’s clear that the shift in Russian hip-hop’s attitude toward law enforcement is permanent. The police have been moved from the world of normal people, where they existed as a kind of mythological antithesis to the “thugs” of prison music, and turned into their allies and rivals. Between the “thugs” and the “trash,” there’s no longer any difference; not an ideological one, not an institutional one. It’s just two death squads with different forms and different field commanders. It’s no longer possible to negotiate on the spot with the “trash” — they’re an out-of-control, autonomous evil. Even more striking is the metamorphosis; before this project, Dino MC47 made “dance rap,” singing songs about relationships, and loyalist hip-hop. Listening to him outside of the “Somali” project frequently leads to disappointment, and it’s a political disappointment.
There’s a telling moment in Shortparis’s song “Scary.” The final verse of the song is an interpretation of Egor Letov’s famous lyric, “we’re ice under the mayor’s feet.” If Letov’s “ice” will make the mayor slip and fall, Shortparis says “ice won’t save you,” and the mayor will come anyway, like an unavoidable evil — so everyone might as well dance. The phrase “that’s why it’s scary” sums up this whole hopeless passage, which is markedly different from Letov’s optimism.
Finally, in the recent song “This Will Pass” by Pornofilmy, what will pass includes “interrogation,” “cops’ laughter,” and “riot police who mutilate women.” This refers not just to confrontation in the street between interconnected elements of society, but total separation between them due to the current state of politics. It’s no longer possible to befriend the police, or even to perceive them as an authority that’s necessary for society — they need to “pass,” like everything evil, in order for people to resume normal life. Because of this song, Pornofilmy was accused of political agitation, and of repeating punk cliches. But in practice, they did what few dare to do in times of political and aesthetic depression: remind us that a future is possible.
Translation by Sam Breazeale