“Good morning, my precious little Estonian on the other side of the speaker”: Ethnolinguistic Nationalism and Estonian Hip-Hop “Good morning, my precious little Estonian on the other side of the speaker”: Ethnolinguistic Nationalism and Estonian Hip-Hop

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

 

One night during while doing fieldwork in Tallinn in August 2012, I was walking home and passed a group of teenagers hanging out on a street corner. They all had bottles of alcoholic beverages in their hands – either vodka, whiskey, beer, or hard cider – and all of the sudden one of them yelled to somebody distant: “Yo, dude, join us! We have bought tons of booze, so we are good to go until the morning.” As the invited person walked closer toward the group, everybody jokingly broke into rapping the main line from the Estonian hip-hop duo Öökülm’s single “Viskit” (“Whiskey”): “Me joome viskit, viskit, viskit, kuni pole enam muretseda miskit” (“We are drinking whiskey, whiskey, whiskey until we won’t worry about anything anymore”) and burst into loud laughter afterwards. After getting home, I googled “alcohol youth Estonia” and came across various writings by Lauri Beekmann, a local anti-alcohol activist and the executive director of the Estonian Temperance Union. In one of his essays, Beekmann states:

Since I don’t drink alcohol at all, the majority of people think I am an extremist person. Since I often participate in public debates discussing drinking and sobriety, I have been even described as a dangerous radical activist who wants to take control over other people’s lives and be in charge of what should and what should not be done by anyone… Not drinking is perceived as a deviance in our society… Let me zoom out one level: Not consuming a certain product is perceived as a deviance in our society. (Beekmann 2010)

 

Öökülm’s “Whiskey” as a soundtrack for these teenagers’ night of drinking and Beekmann’s observations about being viewed as an anomaly in Estonia for not drinking any alcohol are linked to the same sociocultural phenomenon in Estonia – consuming alcohol. Significantly, both forms of expression communicating either the excitement or dismissal of drinking alcohol are non-local and only recently imported: hip-hop and activism about alcoholism as a public health issue, respectively. It is through these artistic practices and social/medical/public health discourses adopted from the U.S. and Western Europe in the early 1990s that the issue of drinking and normalcy is negotiated in post-Soviet Estonia.

            In this paper, I track the production and reception stories of Öökülm’s 2007 single “Whiskey” in order to unpack specifically Estonian perspectives on alcohol consumption and music’s role in shaping and reflecting these perspectives. Looking at humor and its use and circulation are highly productive in such an attempt. As Jerry Palmer points out, “what people laugh at, how and when they laugh is absolutely central to their culture” (1993: 2-3, cited in Kärjä 2011: 89). As described in the ethnographic vignette above, the group of young Estonians, for instance, laughed right after rendering a rap chorus that depicts drinking whiskey – a lot of it – as a way to free oneself from quotidian worries. In other words, humor and laughter can provide “relief from tension, anxiety, or fear” (Palmer 1993: 62, cited in Kärjä 2011: 88). It can also trivialize pressing social problems, as Alejandro Madrid describes (2012). In his account of an EDM track based on samples from a telephone conversation between two corrupt public figures, Madrid cites a Mexican writer who asserts that the use of humor in this EDM production “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” (2012: 72).

In Madrid’s case, joking about corruption trivializes its acuteness. Returning to Estonia and Öökülm’s “Whiskey,” understanding how joking and humor functions locally in terms of how people relate to alcohol and drinking becomes crucial. Alexei Yurchak notes that humor in various Soviet and post-Soviet contexts has enabled people to not “accept any boundary between seriousness and humor, support and opposition, sense and nonsense” (2006: 243). Yurchak links the consistent ambiguity in certain humorous forms to wider modes of communication in society. Looking at the humor embedded in Öökülm’s “Whiskey” that helps sustain certain “drinking” jokes among young people in post-Soviet Estonia offers a vivid example of the “refusal of explicitness” about which Yurchak writes.

           

“It’s just cool”: The Production of “Whiskey”

In the unexpectedly varied and vital Estonian hip-hop scene, social issues and social critique have consistently been peripheral to the boasting, hyper-masculinist rhyming by exclusively male artists. Current Estonian hip-hop is predominated by racial stereotypes, ethnolinguistic nationalism, party tracks, and homemade, DIY, genre-blurring beats. The same is the case with Öökülm, a hip-hop group formed in 2006 by MC Lord, a rapper widely praised for his witty rhymes and the flow that “has everything a flow needs to have – it just works” (conversation with MC Wordwisdom, November 2011), and MC Melkker, a beatmaker, [1] producer, and DJ whose beats are “a mixture of diverse styles such as baile funk, grime, techno, house deep, and hip-hop” (jajah konkistadores [n.d.]). MC Lord and DJ Melkker of Öökülm [2] are both originally from Rakvere, a small town approximately 70 miles from the capital Tallinn. Melkker still lives there, and Lord moved to Tartu some years ago to attend university there. The duo released its first album “Välk selgest taevast” (“Lightning from Clear Sky”) in 2007, which included “Whiskey”.

            Significantly, Öökülm did not produce a video to go along with the single, which catches one’s attention with humorous wordplay and effective delivery, choice of samples, distorted sound effects, and cheery four-on-the-floor beats, but it nevertheless went viral on YouTube and various file sharing sites. Immediately after its release, “Whiskey” was being employed as a soundtrack for numerous slide shows on YouTube of young people bragging about their wild partying and alcohol consumption. Furthermore, it became the ultimate binge-drinking party anthem in clubs and house parties.

“Whiskey” humorously retells the story of a destitute alcoholic – vernacularly dubbed “Siberian money boss” and “the guy with money” – as he told it in an impromptu interview for a notorious local reality TV show “Politseikroonika” (“Police Chronicle”). [3] “Whiskey” extensively samples excerpts from this TV appearance. The track starts off with a sound bite from the TV show in which the host ironically introduces the upcoming interview by saying: “"Now we will take you to a place where some people are deluded into thinking they have a lot of money.” At the very end of the brief intro, the interviewee’s drunk-sounding voice is sampled (“Attention please, I came back from Siberia”), accompanied by a distorted short excerpt from the opening theme music of the TV show and by a booming four-on-the-floor dance beat. After that, MC Lord takes over by adopting the persona of the whiskey drinker and retells his story. [4] More excerpts from the interview in the reality TV show in addition to sampled glass clinks find their way into Melkker’s beats throughout the track.

[AUDIO EXAMPLE]

 

“We are drinking whiskey, whiskey, whiskey”: The Reception of “Whiskey”

 

Like in my opening ethnographic vignette about a group of partying teenagers, rapping “Whiskey’s” chorus has been integrated into Estonian youth’s partying since 2007. In addition, a large number of young people also employ this track to accompany their slide shows of party photos and upload them to YouTube in order to brag about their networking skills with over 18-year-olds [5] to gain access to and afterwards consume a lot of alcohol. Two slide shows of photos in particular, posted by users skorpion1200 [6] and truskakas [7] , display intergenerational celebrations with family members and friends in which hard liquor such as vodka and passing out from overdrinking is always present. These slide shows offer vivid examples of young teenagers’ practice of circulating their binge-drinking party photos that forms an important part of young Estonians’ “digital self-reproduction and self-dissemination projects” made possible by wide access to high-speed internet (cf. Sontag 2004).

            The leading figures in the local hip-hop scene paid special attention to “Whiskey” as well, one reason for that was certainly the nation-wide popularity of the track – something an Estonian-language hip-hop track rarely receives. Tommyboy, a prominent rapper and producer who has been a member of the hip-hop scene in Estonia since the mid-1990s, proclaimed the track “a phenomenon of its own” for its “piercing social critique” (Tommyboy 2008). Kozy, a rapper and widely respected radio host promoting local and global hip-hops in national broadcasting company, mentioned “Whiskey” as the first thing in his overview of 2007 greatest hits and described it as “a track that does not need any further comments – definitely the best track of 2007” (Kozy 2008). Tommyboy’s and Kozy’s readings of “Whiskey” are quite telling in terms of what they think hip-hop is about and how it should be interpreted. Both of the artists, both of whom could be called the “founding fathers” of Estonian rap, are over ten years older than Melkker and Lord and grew up listening to and being heavily influenced by U.S. “old school” and conscious hip-hop by artists such as Run-DMC, Public Enemy, Ice T, KRS One, Gang Starr, and others (email communication with Kozy, September 2011). For Kozy and Tommyboy, the non-semantic sound of Lord’s urgent-sounding flow as well as Melkker’s beats in “Whiskey” and their longer engagement with hip-hop histories, both locally and globally, link this track to socially conscious forms of rap for them.

 

Listening to “Whiskey”

On the one hand, it would be possible to align the close listening of “Whiskey” with Alejandro Madrid’s ideas about trivialization. The humorous take on the poverty-stricken alcoholic’s interview, one could argue, trivializes alcoholism that is the most pressing social and health issue in contemporary Estonia. [8] On the other hand, however, the avoidance of words such as “alcoholism” and “an alcoholic” in local vernacular and public discourse – instead “drinking” and “a drunk” are used – and a deeply ingrained notion of “drinking a lot every day does not mean it is a drinking problem” in Estonia makes it essential to deal first and foremost with ethnographic realities and how “Whiskey” exposes, reproduces, and constructs these realities. “Whiskey” presents a complex example of a musical intensification of public health problem, but looking at this case through an activist perspective and applying foreign ethical and medical norms in the analysis silences the local discourse on alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency.

            Additionally, “Whiskey,” with its cheery four-on-the-floor EDM beats and upbeat delivery style, necessitates thinking critically about the very meaning and working of hip-hop in Estonia. The inclusion of and humorous take on social marginality from a position of (relative) power in “Whiskey” and its reception as a “crazy party hit” and “national hit” (“Def Räädu ja Öökülma Viskit eri” 2008) certainly challenges the prevalent U.S. narrative of hip-hop as a historically resistant form of expression. But as Tricia Rose notes, it is vital not to reject “those practices that ruin our quest for untainted politically progressive cultural expression” (1994: 24). In his study of the Havana hip-hop scene, Geoffrey Baker criticizes the scholarly agendas that dominate the academic study of popular musics and tend to give greater priority to resistant, niche musical forms than to more widely consumed dance tracks (2011: 20). While studying popular musics, it is critical to follow the object of study’s lead, even if it diverges from the prevailing “resistance” narrative or might go against scholars’ ethical stances.

            I emailed DJ Melkker and MC Lord of Öökülm in January 2012 asking to say more about the inspiration behind “Whiskey.” In unpacking DJ Melkker’s and MC Lord’s responses to my email, it is necessary to follow Yurchak’s call for non-binary accounts of post-Soviet discourse (2006) as well as Peter Sloterdijk’s notion of “enlightened false consciousness” (1993). Yurchak, in his account of post-Soviet humor, demonstrates how, when asked to explain jokes or some other aspect of their life, people “avoid any explicit analysis or explanation of what went on and for what reason” and how this attitude in fact persists in the post-Soviet world (2006: 244-245). Sloterdijk argues that the success of a specific set of beliefs is based on people’s “enlightened false consciousness” (as opposed to Marxian “false consciousness,” in other words, people know very well what they are doing and what consequences it might have, but still, they are doing it). Sloterdijk claims that Western subjects pretend not to recognize this paradox since they “know that the ideology of the consumer society is unavoidable, even though they also know perfectly well that this ideology misrepresents social reality” (1993, cited in Yurchak 2006: 16-17; my italics).

In his email response, DJ Melkker explained how it is possible to interpret “Whiskey” very differently:

Some think it is about promoting alcohol and an ethically dubious lifestyle. Some think it mocks those kinds of people, like the legendary guy with money who are deluded into thinking they have lots of money. Just like the X-Files slogan says: “The truth is out there.” So, this is also how I will answer: the truth is somewhere out there. For me this track does not address any issue or have any specific meaning. It is just cool. (email communication, January 2012)

 

MC Lord of Öökülm in his reply offered an insight into his rhymes in “Whiskey” and their cultural repercussions:

Well, most of all it is a party track and a hilarious one. In addition to using quotes by the “guy with money,” I added some neologisms such as “asocial minister” and “shit sector” [“pasasektor” in Estonian, rhymes with “Gaza sector”] that have been circulating in the public and social media and youth vernacular ever since. And of course, it was a brilliant marketing strategy in          order to introduce our music to the masses – these TV programs [Police Chronicle] by Peeter Võsa are extremely popular in Estonia. (email communication, February 2012)

                       

TV shows with record-breaking viewership by Peeter Võsa, the host of “Police Chronicle,” are about the criminal side of Estonian society where Võsa accompanies police on raids. In other words, it is a reality show about Võsa himself and his ability to humorously comment on law-breaking citizens and then interview them. In the episode featuring “Siberian money boss,” it was a neighbor who called the police to check out the destitute whiskey drinker. [9] Although in the episode Võsa does ask a permission to enter his apartment, it is clear that the involvement in the show is hardly desired by the whiskey drinker or his two drunken friends. Due to such insensitive maneuvers to get the juiciest footage for his show, Võsa has stirred up public debates about ethics and social problems ever since he launched his career in television. Media critic Margus Mihkels points out how the “People who watch this program […] expect to enjoy some black humor - the comments by the host Peeter Võsa are, however, inappropriately farcical and ironic” (2000). Despite (or perhaps because of) some critical debates on the ethics of filming drunk people who are clearly unfit to consent to being filmed, people kept watching the “guy with money” clip on YouTube. In it, Võsa, at times grinning at the camera, lets his drunk interviewee ramble at length about how much money he earns in an oil company in Siberia although judging by the apartment the interview takes place he lives well below the poverty line.

            At first I was puzzled that DJ Melkker and MC Lord, even after wider public debate about the ethical dimension of Peeter Võsa’s style of interviewing, would not reflect on their production as potentially problematic and ethically questionable in their responses to me. After a while, however, the fact that Melkker, an active member in film- and video-production circles in Estonia, decided not to shoot a video for “Whiskey” became a crucial entry point for my close listening. In other words, I realized that it is the non-semantic sound of “Whiskey” with no visual cues that offers a more productive insight into “Whiskey” than Melkker’s and Lord’s verbal commentaries. Öökülm’s attitude in “Whiskey” is difficult to discuss within dichotomies, such as “mocking/admiring” or “humorous/social critique,” and I would suggest that it is all of those things. “Whiskey” represents the ultimate ambiguity in terms of being a track full of insulting jokes about “the guy with money” and pure admiration of his honesty during the interview and his “old-school” way of drinking. MC Lord in his reply to me stressed the fact that using “the guy with money” was hugely advantageous both economically and for creating a larger fan base for Öökülm’s music. In that sense he subscribes to what Sloterdijk describes as the unavoidable omnipresence of consumer society (1993). Lord’s rhymes about partying “to the right beat” and being “an old-school wild ghetto party animal,” however, also reveal a kind of nostalgic respect for “the guy with money” and I would argue for the older Soviet generation as a whole, who in some younger people’s opinion knew and still know how to party properly. At the same time, fascination with certain symbols from the Soviet era indicates an obvious cluelessness about what some of these symbols meant and mean (cf. Yurchak 1999). For instance, “the guy with money” in his interview and Lord in his rhymes repeatedly mentions Siberia and “coming back from Siberia” but it seems that Lord uses this word completely free of any historical or ideological meaning. In fact, Siberia has been and still is a highly emotional and charged term for older Estonian generations, for whom Siberia exclusively relates to the Soviet occupation as well as death and labor camps in Siberia to which thousands of Estonians were displaced during and after World War II. Therefore, “Whiskey” offers insight into how young Estonians long for the “good, old Soviet times” that they actually never experienced and should not be able to be nostalgic about. On the different level, Lord’s references to partying “to the right beat” and being “an old-school wild ghetto party animal” as well as Melkker’s extensive sampling and the use of “old school” DJ techniques such as scratching call attention to certain nostalgia within the local hip-hop scene for “old school” aesthetics. The kind of nostalgia is definitely obvious in how some leading hip-hop figures such as Tommyboy and Kozy listen and comment on the track.

 

Conclusion

By way of conclusion, I would like to return to my point about the necessity to deal first and foremost with ethnographic realities in one’s research, perhaps at the expense of finding an empowering, progressive politics in any given form of expression. It seems ethical for scholars to pursue activist research, which however might significantly undermine their ability to collaborate respectfully with those they study. On the other hand, if scholars are committed to mediate their field partners’ perspectives, they might be compromising their own values in the same instance. When in my research I daily come across comments such as “’The Siberian moneyboss is himself fully responsible for choosing this kind of a lifestyle,” it feels difficult not to enter into debates with the commentator about the cultural, political, and ethical histories of such statements. It is crucial, however, to develop and maintain an “ethnographic ear,” as posited by James Clifford (1986), to make fullest sense of these situations.

When I started this research project, I constantly wondered how it is at all possible that people would not discuss the highly charged nature of “the guy with money” phenomenon. Then again, I realized how deeply ingrained the notion of “drinking a lot and drinking every day but it is not a drinking problem” is in Estonian society and how my six years of residing in the U.S. have reformulated my own perspectives on alcohol consumption and dependency. This in turn raised larger questions about the goals of ethnomusicological research. In other words, what is the ultimate goal of an ethnomusicologist while working with a community of people whose ethical choices and beliefs are hard to accept? Is it possible to work with them without feeling the constant urge to “educate” them and make them “understand” how terrible, for instance, alcoholism is and, moreover, how counterproductive the humor in connection with alcohol consumption can be? In moving closer to finding answers to these questions, I have tried throughout this paper to follow analytical paths that avoid resistance and activist narrative while dealing with the production and reception of Öökülm’s “Whiskey” in order to unpack specifically Estonian perspectives on drinking and humor, and how a piece of music is employed in these perspectives.

 



Endnotes:

 

[2] The group’s name could literally be translated as “Night Frost.”

[3] Watch the English-subtitled version of this interview here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXt4dl_4SbE.

[4] See full lyrics with English translation in Appendix.

[5] Starting at the age 18, it is legal to purchase and publicly consume alcoholic beverages in Estonia.

[8] Estonia is one of the leading countries in the European Union in terms of alcohol consumption and alcohol dependency. It is estimated that almost 10% of the population is addicted to alcohol, and treatment for alcoholism is not part of the national healthcare system (Jacobs 2006). As Maris Jesse, the director of the National Institute for Health Development put it, “the treatment for alcohol addiction is completely non-existent” (Kaio 2012). At the same time, the Estonian state receives significant tax revenue from alcoholic beverage companies.

[9] Again, the English-subtitled version of this interview can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SXt4dl_4SbE.

 

 

Appendix: Lyrics of “Viskit” (“Whiskey”) by Öökülm (2007)

Võsa: “Nüüd võtame teid viia sellisesse kohta, kus mõned inimesed arvavad enestel raha olevat”
Lord: Me joome viskit, viskit, viskit
kuni pole enam muretseda miskit
võime juua end kasti kuid siiski
olen rahapoiss ja ma võtan selle riski
me joome viskit viskit viskit
ja lõhume asju nagu Limp Bizkit
nägu krimpsus - viski oli kibe vist

a mul on pohhui, sest ma tulen Siberist

Kopp-kopp tule sisse no tere ment!
siin pole kriminaalne vaid viies element
õige biidi saatel paneme me pidu
viski voolab ojadena kahandab me ridu
mine perse ma pole parm ega geoloog
olen vana kooli karm geto peoloom
ma pole kalkar, ega narkar
olen rahaboss ja saan siberist palka
ma ei aja iba - tooge valedetektor
pistan teid nahka nagu Hannibal Lector
see on minu korter aka pasa sektor
mitu korda nädalas käib külas inspektor
olen aaaaaaaaaaaaa-sotsiaalminister
näed seal nurgas seisab viskikanister
teises käes sigarett andke tikku
mul raha liigub teeks hea paugu nikku,
sest oleme heterod ja me peod on geitud
riided me seljas on prügikastist leitud
tiksume tiksume kuni pudelid on treitud, siis
enam ei tiksu me nagu kellad patereitud
korterinaabrites ei näe ohtu me
kui tahad, siis kaeba mind kohtusse
mul advokaat on hea, sest jumal kaitseb joodikuid
viski sai otsa, ma läheks praegu poodi kuid
jalad ei kanna, nii et jääme siia ja
viskiks joome taksoviina!

Me joome viskit viskit viskit
kuni pole enam muretseda miskit
võime juua end kasti kuid siiski
olen rahapoiss ja ma võtan selle riski
me joome viskit viskit viskit
ja lõhume asju nagu Limp Bizkit
nägu krimpsus - viski oli kibe vist

a mul on pohhui, sest ma tulen Siberist

 

Male voice: Now we will take you to a place where some people are deluded into thinking they have a lot of money

Lord: We are drinking whiskey, whiskey,whiskey
Until we won’t worry about anything anymore
We can drink to death but still
I’m a money guy and I will take that risk
We are drinking whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
And smash things like Limp Bizkit
the face is scrunched up--whiskey must have been bitter

but I don’t give a shit because I came back from Siberia

Knock-knock, come on in, oh hello, a cop!
this is not a criminal but fifth element here
we party here to the right beat
whiskey flows like streams, diminishes our rows
fuck you, I’m not homeless or garbage collector
I’m an old-school wild ghetto party animal
I’m not a bum nor junkie
I’m a money boss and get paid from Siberia
I am not lying here—bring in the lie detector
I eat you up like Hannibal Lector [sic]
This is my apartment aka shit sector
Many times a week police visit me
I’m the minister of tramps
Look, in this corner stands a canister of whiskey
in the other hand a cigarette, give me light
I have money, I would like a good fuck
We are hetero and our parties are gayless
our clothes we found from garbage bins
hanging out until the bottles are empty then
no more hanging out, battery-less like watches
we don’t think neighbors are dangerous
but if they want, they can sue me
I have a good lawyer since God protects
drunks
whiskey is out, I would go to the store now but
my legs can’t carry me, so let’s stay here and
drink vodka as whiskey

We are drinking whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
Until we won’t worry about anything anymore
We can drink to death but still
I’m a money guy and I will take that risk
We are drinking whiskey, whiskey, whiskey
And smash things like Limp Bizkit
the face is scrunched up--whiskey must have been bitter

 

but I don’t give a shit because I came back from Siberia

 

 

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