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Triin Vallaste
Brown University
December 2012

 

"We can drink ourselves to death but I'm a guy with money and I will take that risk": Hip-Hop, Reality TV, and Alcohol in Estonia

 

Estonian hip-hop duo Öökülm's single "Whiskey," with its humorous wordplay, distorted sound effects, and cheery four-on-the-floor beats, tells the story of a destitute alcoholic and relies on samples excerpted from the alcoholic's notorious reality TV appearance. The single went viral and became the ultimate binge-drinking party anthem among Estonian youth. Although "Whiskey" tests the limits of what hip-hop means in Estonia, a leading figure in the hip-hop community proclaimed it "the dopest" rap track of 2007 because of its "piercing social critique."

 

Öökülm's production articulates, perhaps unwittingly, pressing Estonian social concerns: 1) ethical questions in the Estonian media regarding the filming of drunk people who are unfit to give consent, and 2) the Estonian state prioritizing tax revenue over Estonian citizens' health, since government regulations keep the cost of alcohol low while levels of alcoholism remain high. However, when I asked DJ Melkker, the producer of "Whiskey," about his sampling practice as a social critique, he responded, "This track has no specific meaning or aim—it's just cool."

 

DJ Melkker's response is a reminder, to use Tricia Rose's words, how vital it is not to reject "those practices that ruin our quest for untainted politically progressive cultural expression." Engaging with the commodification of social marginality, alcoholism, and reality television spectatorship in tracks like "Whiskey" necessitates dealing first and foremost with ethnographic realities, perhaps at the expense of finding an empowering, progressive politics in hip-hop. I trace the production and reception stories of Öökülm's "Whiskey" in order to unpack specifically Estonian perspectives on alcohol consumption and music's role in shaping and reflecting these perspectives.

 

 

 

 

Interviews, email communication:

 

Kozy. September 2011. Email exchanges.

 

MC Wordwisdom. November 18, 2011. Conversation. Tartu, Estonia.

 

MC Lord. November 19, 2011. Interview. Tartu, Estonia.


DJ Melkker. November 21, 2011. Interview. Rakvere, Estonia.

 

MC Lord. February 2012. Email exchanges.

 

DJ Melkker. January-February 2012. Email exchanges.

 

 

Bibliography:

 

[No author]. 2007. "Baltic neighbours face alcohol crisis." BBC News, August 22. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/europe/6957153.stm

 

This article provides me with a helpful statistical overview of alcohol consumption and dependency in Estonia.

 

 

Volcic, Zala and Karmen Erjavec. 2011. "Fame on the Farm: Class and Celebrity on Slovene Reality TV." Reality Television and Class. Ed. by Helen Wood and Beverley Skeggs. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

 

Volcic and Erjavec discuss the Slovene reality show "The Farm" and point out the challenges in transferring a certain Anglocentric models and approaches to reality TV to the post-socialist Slovenian context. The new forms of neoliberal "self-made man," celebrated by younger audience members, deny acknowledging the reality of deepening class inequality in Slovenia since "class issues are associated with the old system from which most Slovenes want to distance themselves" (85).

The section in which the authors analyze how it is not socially proper to talk about inequality in Slovenian society provides a striking parallel with my case study. The situation of a group of people in Estonia, very often from impoverished rural areas, who literally drink themselves to death, is silently normalized and the discussions are non-existent about the historical, socioeconomic, and political reasons that have led to this situation.

 

 

Annist, Aet. 2011. Otsides kogukonda sotsialismijärgses keskuskülas: Arenguantropoloogiline uurimus [In Search of Community in a Large Post-Socialist Village. A Study in the Anthropology of Development.] Tallinn: TLÜ Kirjastus.

 

Annist's ethnography of two rural communities in the southeast part of Estonia attempts to unpack the village life and its everyday at the beginning of the twenty-first century by analyzing the transitional 1990s that brought along major changes such as the restitution of private property and stratification of the society based on socioeconomic means. The inequality that emerged from these changes has left several villagers impoverished and desparate which has, in turn, led to various substance addictions, alcoholism being the most common.

The forms of inequality have also caused people to start avoiding interacting with each other, which, however, proves difficult in and counterproductive for a tight-knit community of villagers. Since the communication has decreased, the social and health issues such as chain-smoking and alcoholism will not be addressed.

 

 

Baker, Geoffrey. 2011. Buena Vista in the Club: Rap, Reggaetón, and Revolution in Havana. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

 

Baker tells the story of the Havana hip-hop scene from the late 1980s to the present and highlights the contradictions and changes of the status of rap in Cuba. Baker's important contribution to the growing body of literature on Cuban rap also investigates "why there has been such an explosion of interest in Cuban hip-hop, what forms the resulting documents have taken, and how they have been impacted their object of study" (19).

Baker passionately criticizes the scholarly agendas that dominate the academic study of popular music, which tend to give greater priority to resistant. Niche musical forms than to more widely consumed dance tracks. For my purposes here, Baker's account helps me go beyond a canonic idea of rap as a resistant form of expression and open up for more varied approaches to rap in Estonia.

 

 

Belugina, Jana. 2008. "Estonia's battle with alcoholism." The Baltic Times, October 29. Available at: http://www.baltictimes.com/news/articles/21670/

 

Another informative newspaper article about the alcohol-related issues in Estonia.

 

 

Clifford, James. 1986. "Introduction: Partial Truths." Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. Ed. by James Clifford and George E. Marcus. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press.

 

Clifford's account of the anthropological fieldwork throughout the twentieth century reveals how the "partial truths" are always dependent on the interpersonal and intercultural (mis)communication and fieldworkers' experiential capacities. The "crisis of representation" that shattered anthropologists' belief about their discipline as a science has constructed more critical and reflexive modes of ethnography that would produce a text that could represent more perspectives and experiences as just the ethnographers.

For my essay, the most relevant Clifford's point is the one about "the ethnographic ear" (12). Rather than being visible and/or textualized in one way or another, a large amount of issues relevant are communicated through various sounds. Therefore, while it would be rather straight-forward to analyze my case study via the reality TV show and what has been written about it in print media, it is crucial to develop and maintain an "ethnographic ear" to make fullest sense of how people colloquially talk and music (from Small-ian musicking) about the "Siberian moneyboss." 

 

 

Jacobs, Timothy. 2006. "Drinking Habits Take Toll in Baltics." The Washington Post, April 22. Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/04/22/AR2006042201581_pf.html.

 

An account for the U.S. readership about the acuteness of alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency in the Baltic states.

 

 

Heath, Dwight B., ed. International Handbook on Alcohol and Culture. Westport, CT and London: Greenwood Press.

 

An edited volume surveying alcohol consumption and its cultural connotation in numerous countries across the world.

 

 

Kaio, Heidit. 2012. "Maris Jesse: 'Eestis puudub alkoholismiravi!'" [Maris Jesse: Alcoholism Treatment is Non-Existent in Estonia!]. Eesti Ekspress, June 27. Available at: http://www.ekspress.ee/news/paevauudised/eestiuudised/maris-jesse-eestis-puudub-alkoholismiravi.d?id=64601854

 

An interview with Maris Jesse, the director of the Estonian National Institute for Health Development.

 

 

Lagerspetz, Mikko; Krista Loogma; Pille Kaselo. 1998. "Waiting for the Citizen: The Views of Estonian Influential Groups on Social Problems." Journalists, Administrators and Business People on Social Problems: A Study Around the Baltic Sea. Ed. by Sari Hanhinen and Jukka Törrönen. [N.p.]: Nordic Council for Alcohol and Drug Research.

 

A sociological study among Estonian journalists, state officials, and business people in order to determine what various politically and socially influential groups regard as social problems in Estonia. All groups brought out alcoholism as the most pressing problem.

 

 

Madrid, Alejandro L. 2012. "Music, Media Spectacle, and the Idea of Democracy: The Case of DJ Kermit's 'Góber'." Media, Sound, & Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ed. by Alejandra Bronfman & Andrew Grant Wood. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press.

 

Madrid tells the story of DJ Kermit in Mexico City who produced an EDM track based on samples taken from a telephone conversation, made public via national media, between two influential Mexican political and business figures. The conversation confirmed these men's involvement to international child pornography and prostitution networks. Within a week, DJ Kermit's track entered the top ten list of most discotheques, clubs, radio stations, and music critics in central Mexico. Madrid cites a Mexican writer who asserts how DJ Kermit's parodist track "trivializes major problems…and strengthens the dehumanization, the lack of compassion… Eventually everything becomes a joke, a gag, it is normalized, it is disqualified, it dissolves in the lack of desire to transform ourselves" (72). This observation serves as my main argument for my case study as well: I argue that Öökülm's "Whiskey" coats the issue of alcoholism with a think layer of humor and therefore prevents a more serious approach to the medicalization and pathologization of alcoholism in Estonian society.

 

 

Maxwell, Ian. 2003. Phat Beats, Dope Rhymes: Hip Hop Down Under Comin Upper. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

 

An ethnography of hip-hop scenes in Australia, which additionally engages critically with agendas and hegemonies of global hip-hop scholarship.

 

 

McLeod, Kembrew and Peter DiCola. 2011. "Introduction." Creative License: The Law and Culture of Digital Sampling. Ed. by Kembrew McLeod, Peter DiCola, Jenny Toomey, and Kristin Thomson. Durham: Duke University Press.

 

An overview of the history and legal dimensions of (digital) sampling that offers fascinating contrasts to some of the sampling practices among the Estonian hip-hop community.

 

 

Mihkels, Margus. 2000. "Verd ja vägivalda!" ["Blood and Violence, Please!"] Postimees, March 14. Available at: http://arhiiv2.postimees.ee:8080/leht/00/04/14/varia.htm

 

A media critic analyzing the reality TV show, in which the "Siberian moneyboss" was interviewed.

 

 

Rausing, Sigrid. 2004. History, Memory, and Identity in Post-Soviet Estonia: The End of a Collective Farm. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

 

Rausing's ethnography of the changing world of the Estonians who were living on a former collective farm were during the early 1990s. 


Rose, Tricia. 1994. Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press. 

 

A pioneering and canonic study of the history of hip-hop culture in the U.S.

 

 

Schloss, Joseph G. 2004. Making Beats: The Art of Sample-Based Hip-Hop. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.

 

Schloss's ethnographic account of U.S.-based hip-hop producers and their ethical and aesthetic choices in sampling provides me with examples that might coincide with the Estonian sampling practices (transnationally "universal" rules) and that might contradict my Estonian case study and prove that not all aspects of a form of expression translates easily in multidirectional transnational flows.

 

 

Tommyboy [Toomas Tilk]. 2008. "Läheb hästi, VÄGA HÄSTI!" ["It's Going Well, VERY WELL!"] Kes-Kus, 12. Available at: http://www.kes-kus.ee/index.php?kategooria=artiklid&action=loe&artikkel_id=2085

 

An overview of the Estonian hip-hop during the year 2007 ("Whiskey" was released that year), written by Tommyboy, one of the most prominent figures in the Estonian hip-hop scene.

 

 

Wyatt, Wendy N. 2012. "Exploitation: When Reality TV Becomes Degradation TV." The Ethics of Reality TV: A Philosophical Examination. Ed. by Wendy N. Wyatt and Kristie Bunton. New York and London: Continuum. 

 

Wyatt discusses whether the viewers of reality TV of exploitative nature have a moral obligation to try to stop the exploitation.

 

 

Yurchak, Alexei. 1999. "Gagarin and the Rave Kids: Transforming Power, Identity, and Aesthetics in Post-Soviet Nightlife." Consuming Russia: Popular Culture, Sex, and Society Since Gorbachev. Ed. by Adele Marie Barker. Durham and London: Duke University Press, pp. 76-109.

 

Yurchak looks at how post-Soviet youth, particularly the organizers of parties and nightlife, negotiate the disappearance of what he calls "the cultural logic of late socialism." He sees cultural production in postcommunist Russia being filled with symbols from the Soviet past but which are now ideologically meaningless to young people. Estonian youth's fascination with the "Siberian moneyboss" exhibits similar features: young people seem not to perceive meaning of the term "Siberia" that is mentioned several times in the reality TV interview with the drunk man. "Siberia" has been and still is a highly emotional and charged term for older generations for whom Siberia exclusively relates to the Soviet occupation and death and labor camps in Siberia to which thousands of Estonians were displaced during and after the World War II.

 

 

Discography:

 

Öökülm. 2007. Välk selgest taevast. [Lightning from Clear Sky]. Lejal Genes, ILLCD036.

 

Öökülm's debut album that includes "Viskit" ("Whiskey").

 

Öökülm. 2010. Head uudised. [Good News]. Lejal Genes, ILLCD051.

 

Öökülm's second album that includes "Ma kiilusin kinni" ("I Crashed"), in which MC Lord, similarly to the narrative in "Whiskey," tells a binge-drinking story of his own.