10 giugno 2022
by Gabriele Fazio

Neapolitan rap manifesto


“Ce truov int o' rione/nun me sent bbuon mammà/ch' me succer/e' frat mi so fummn ancor/e dint e fras nost/a rivoluzione/chist è o' sole nuovo/o'ssaje ca è mal ammor”: with these few lines, we receive in a flash a clear, sharp, almost visionary image, because ‘Int'o Rione’, one of the most intense songs by Co'Sang, was released in 2005, when everything that would happen in Italian music industry in the following fifteen years was neither foreseen nor foreseeable.

A song that, unbeknown to it, became a cultural manifesto, which encompasses everything, the view from the bottom, from the neighborhoods, romanticism, the epic of the street, fear, awareness and then the revelation: “In our words the revolution, this is a new sun”; a light that is released from the darkest of illuminated places, where the last of a city that pulsates with beauty—a city inconceivable from a certain point of view, certainly unique in its own dynamics—holed themselves up to give life to an alternative vision of society, of history, of existence, a place apart, another place, probably the only place in Italy where it was possible to create everything.

Six of the ten singles most listened to in 2021 are rap; and the 2022 figures that will arrive in a few months should confirm this trend, there are few doubts about it

The numbers tell us that rap is the new pop, according to FIMI, the Italian Music Industry Federation, the highest authority when it comes to certifying the numbers in Italian music: seven of the ten best-selling albums in 2021 in Italy are rap. But, in reality, it would be enough just to lick your index finger and hold it pointed upwards, smell the air, notice that the classic, melodic pop of Italian tradition has long since hoisted the white flag, has quickly bowed to this trend, making it almost mandatory—if you intend to make it on the market, even for the canonical quarter of an hour, even if you are a singer with a long career and prestigious reputation—to add something ‘street’ to your music. After the indie revolution of the 2010s, which moved the center of gravity of Italian music to Rome, rap enables Milan to regain the title of music industry capital, the city where everything happens, home of the biggest players of the market, the music streaming platforms, radio stations, labels, parties, red carpets, the coolest backstage events where you meet the right people; the place to get noticed so you can make it or so you can post on Instagram to show you have made it, which, in most cases, when it comes down to it, is the end goal. In short, almost everything happens in Milan, and that's where you are forced to go, especially if things take the right turn

And then there is Naples, which is a completely different story, which upholds a completely different relationship with music; in fact, in the capital of the Campania region, music is not a discipline to be applied, it is not just entertainment, it is not just culture, it is not just language, it is not just tradition, it is not just business: it is all these things together. Whereas Milan is where music arrives, and is then transformed into a market, glamor and bling, popularity, followers, glossy covers and, in practice, recording albums, Naples is instead where music is born. 

In Naples, music is in the blood and in the air: it is a chemical and physical conformation, a form of speech therapy, an intonation that goes beyond the inflections of dialect; something that gives us the impression of going beyond human will, something innate; something that exists and cannot be eradicated

Some have the lights of showbiz, some the crisp mountain air, some the strong island wind, some have the food; of course, some have frenetic mobility, some the sacred art of political intrigue, some great paintings, wonderful monuments, great authors, some legendary footballers, some the snow-capped mountains, some romantic winding rivers... Naples has music. Something so deeply rooted that it even changes the very meaning of the word music, which narrows to the point of taking on the connotations of the word anima [soul],;something that exists, that without would be like missing a limb, but whose material, commercial aspects, so, the charts, record sales, even live performances, are completely secondary, a pleonastic consequence: if they happen, good, if they don’t happen, it’s good all the same.

These aspects exist, of course, but they are not as important as the narration itself, as the age-old need of the city to tell its story through song. There is not a single other place in Italy that, musically speaking, adopts the self-celebration used in Naples; how many cars drive through the streets of Milan playing songs in local dialect, turned up so loud that the windows shake? How many young people wait at the subway station in Rome with headphones on, listening to street music in Roman dialect? This sort of thing probably just doesn't happen, and not because there is any less tradition, but because tradition is just tradition and it’s been packed away in the loft—by good reason or not, understandably or not—to gather dust like clothes that don’t fit any more.

But not in Naples: in Naples, the tradition still fits perfectly, because, as part of the genetic heritage of the Neapolitan people, totally naturally, it has been transformed, structured, into something extremely present, very strongly linked to reality today. This is why Naples is home to the most solid and well-organized rap scene in Italy. Because it is the most honest.

Firstly, in terms of linguistics, grammar, phonetics, Neapolitan, much more than Italian, is much better suited to the metrics of rap, to the construction of song lyrics in bars, utilizing the truncation of the ends of words and the more effective but also more flexible use of vowels, thus expanding considerably the choice of lyrics available to the artist; imagine an Italian writer with a whole new vocabulary of words to use. Then there is also the question of subject matter, the ‘street credibility’: Naples is certainly the Italian city in which the themes that have made rap not only popular but also socially useful, historically fundamental, a good language for narrating malaise and redemption, fall and recovery, remain most vivid.

It is no exaggeration to say that rap for today's music audience—and we mean the active audience, the listeners who stream and fill concerts, a very young age bracket—has had the same impact as the Beatles for the teenagers of the 1960s.

A musical revolution, sure, but one that has also influenced and inspired aesthetics, poetics, sociality and language; and this is the case today in Italy, except that while rap in the north has begun to cozy up to the market, plasticizing considerably the narrative, which has now become credible only up to a certain point, in Naples rap is expressed with absolute authenticity.

Hip-Hop culture, of which rap is only one of the disciplines, arrived in Italy in the mid-1980s. For many young people, it offered a solution, a new and alternative mode of expression; a non-place that in a society filled with a certain false but convincing optimism, devoured by hardened Yuppies and commercial TV, welcomes the last-in-line, the marginalized, anyone who does not feel the desperate desire for ostentation. It is a niche genre: there are no records to browse in a music store, vinyls are often travel relics, they are shipped with very long delivery times, or they travel by cassette literally from hand to hand.

In Naples, among the very first to try their hand at rap were Polo, ShaOne and DJ Simi. They were part of the historic crew of writers K.T.M. and founded La Famiglia, certainly one of the first collectives on the Italian scene, but it would be practically ten years before their first record: in 1998, they released ‘41º Parallelo’ (41st parallel), a title chosen precisely in reference to the imaginary line that unites New York—considered the birthplace of rap, or rather, the place where a genre so uncomfortable compared to the musical showbiz establishment manages not only to exist but also to find commercial success, to take the kids off the streets, to enable, in perfect harmony with the infamous “American Dream”, anyone who wants to make it actually to make it—with Naples, which suddenly finds an artistic sense, a personality, almost a soul, in representing the degradation from the rubble of which rose rap in the US.

Hip-Hop culture, of which rap is only one of the disciplines, arrived in Italy in the mid-1980s. For many young people, it offered a solution, a new and alternative mode of expression

But it is clear that New York and Naples are not the same thing. So, whilst in the United States, rap became a means to achieve something, a battle in which African Americans fought for their most basic rights, in Naples it became a means of telling people about something and probably to get the feeling that that thing, having told people about it, was somehow exorcised and, somehow, existed, in an Italy, especially at that time, so good at turning a blind eye when it came to talking about certain problems in the southern end of the country. So much so, that one of the most successful songs by La Famiglia is called ‘Prrr’ and was a direct attack in the dialog, at the time decidedly more intense, between north and south, a mockery of those who don’t understand the Neapolitan dialect; therefore, what in America translates into macho ostentation, actual deadly shootings, in Naples, in pure commedia dell'arte style, becomes blowing a raspberry.

Only later, in the early 1990s, did Neapolitan rap, in reality a direct branching of the very active ragamuffin scene, take on an expressly counter-cultural and political edge with the creation of the 99 Posse—which in fact are nothing more, precisely as a “Posse”, than the direct musical expression of what happens inside the Centro Sociale Occupato Autogestito [Self-managed Social Center] ‘Officina 99’—who wrote songs such as ‘Salario garantito’ [Guaranteed Salary] ‘Regurgito antifascista’ [Anti-fascist Regurgitation], a song that marks the debut of Speaker Cenzou, fifteen years old at the time, whose debut album ‘Il bambino cattivo’ [The Bad Kid] was considered the first purely rap album in the history of Naples (released in 1996). Later, they published ‘Curre curre guaglió’ [Run, kid, run], which won the Premio Tenco for best song in dialect and was ranked by Rolling Stone magazine 49th most beautiful album in the history of Italian music.

A success, sure; ‘Curre curre guagliò’ became an anthem with a decidedly leftist, revolutionary inclination, but it came out at a time when rap didn’t even dream of invading the territory of the mainstream; it’s enough to remember that, that year, the bestselling Italian singles were ‘Gli spari sopra’ and ‘Delusa’ by Vasco Rossi, ‘Sei un mito’ by 883, and ‘Si o no’, heroic Italian version of ‘Please, Don't Go’ by the popular presenter/singer/entertainer Fiorello; and at the hugely popular Sanremo Music Festival, the winner of the young category was a teenage girl teleported from singing with dad in the piano bars in Faenza directly to the stage of the Ariston Theater to sing about a certain “Marco” who “is gone and is never coming back”; her name was Laura Pausini and the song was titled ‘La solitudine’... not exactly exemplary of social commitment. Perhaps it is precisely not having to deal with the national-popular market that makes Neapolitan rap a fertile ground for creative freedom, developing such a colorful underground scene. 

But the essence of Neapolitan rap has much deeper roots: in fact, it is impossible to talk about rap in Naples without referring to neomelodic music, with which rap shares significant overlaps. Firstly, it came just a few years before rap, taking up, at the end of the 1970s the legacy of the Neapolitan sceneggiata [typical musical drama] pursued, among others, by Mario Merola, the last authentic expression of traditional Neapolitan song, which has roots dating back to the nineteenth century and has been outclassed by the passage of time.

And then, above all, it was also a new language for those who do not recognize Italian as their native tongue and failed to identify physiologically with the Italian music of the big networks; thus, neomelodic music became the representation in dialect of the Italian melodic pop romanticism of the time, which in Naples was transformed into something wonderfully coarse and firmly attached to its origins, so much so that it couldn’t do without the visual, cinematographic element; from this context came the meteoric rise to success of a certain scugnizzo [street kid] from San Pietro a Patierno, named Gaetano D'Angelo, but whom everyone knew as Nino

From a musical point of view, of course, we are talking about two completely different things, but rap responds to needs, exactly in the same way as neomelodic music, and has no other expectations than to give voice to those in difficulty and experiencing situations of malaise; a language so exclusive to the bottom of the pile that, over the years, the authorities have realized on multiple occasions that the lyrics of the songs hid messages for Camorra bosses in prison, which proves the extent to which, exactly like rap, it was not only music for the few but also a language for the few: a unique and practically unrepeatable code.

But the essence of Neapolitan rap has much deeper roots: in fact, it is impossible to talk about rap in Naples without referring to neomelodic music, with which rap shares significant overlaps

In reality, the factor that caused the real explosion of rap in Naples is simply historical and geographical: in the 1950s, the Americans settled in Bagnoli, about 8 km from the city center, occupying an area of 360,000 square yards where in 1939, before the war pinpointed it in the strategies of the countries involved, there used to be the Institute for the Sons of the People of Naples, a project, which proved unsuccessful, to help educate children who grew up in situations of hardship. The United States made this the site of the AFSOUTH (Allied Forces Southern Europe) strategic command, which was then decommissioned in 2012; and this meant that they were there for sixty years, bringing them into contact with the locals, which included introducing them to American music: rap in the early 1980s, of course, which in the US was already extremely popular. This is all mixed up with another particularly significant movement in the history of music in Naples, the “Neapolitan Power”, that is a local reinterpretation of the English-speaking and Mediterranean tradition, a sort of cultural hybrid of US sounds, especially funky, the connotations of world music and the solidity of the Neapolitan musical tradition. This path is similar to the US story and today makes the difference, which is increasingly clear, between rap from Naples and rap from Milan: the former the result of a cultural evolution, of something that already existed in the soul of people of Naples and just needed to be brought out; the other mimicking with varying results the mood and style of American rap, without, however, with due exceptions, absorbing its historical and deeper references. Thus, in practice, absolute legends, such as James Senese, Pino Daniele, Enzo Gragnaniello and Enzo Avitabile, have represented for Neapolitan rap what James Brown represented for rap in the US.

The new millennium, musically speaking, occurred at a time when our country was struggling with a worrying decline; new musical talent were an explosive novelty and risked massacring the music industry as we knew it, which prevented the substratum of singer-songwriters from taking the step up to national popularity in a market flooded with flash-in-the-pan kids without a surname, while the artists from the 1990s had had their day, leaving a void that was impossible to fill. At the end of the previous millennium, rap projects exploded on a national level, such as Neffa with ‘Neffa e i messaggeri della dopa’, Articolo 31 with ‘Cosi com'è’; great albums were released, such as ‘Verba Manent’ by Frankie hi-nrg and ‘Sotto Effetto stono’ by Sottotono, who also competed in Sanremo in 2001, taking rap beyond the confines of what was then conceivable, right inside Italian home of the most classic and commercial pop music. At this point, the majors realize that perhaps rap is a viable option, but the truth is that the extent of that success is not even comparable to that enjoyed by today’s big names; it's just a little big digression, but rap isn't yet for everyone. In Naples, there are the rapper Lucariello and the beatmaker Peppe 'O Red form the Clan Vesuvio, important above all for having hosted the first release of Co'Sang, crew founded by Ntò and Luchè in the Marianella district. Two albums and a big shock to the city’s music scene because they were the first, and perhaps the best, to describe street life in no uncertain terms; a narrative too strong for the mainstream of the time but which inevitably instead won over audiences in Naples, who could finally go back to relating to a record in a straightforward way; a Naples in which, at just over twenty years of age, there’s a kid who wins hands-down every freestyle competition—a kid called Clemente Maccaro but known to everyone as Clementino.

Clementino, like Luché, two rappers who have succeeded in representing something even beyond the city borders—in fact, their recently released latest albums have done very well—are true magicians of the spoken word, lyrics in bars, who have found their raison d'etre in rap. But their inspiration remains old school, inevitably tied to American sound, identifying in that alone the genre in its purest form; but the passing of the years, the total mutation of the boundaries of music in terms of production, distribution, promotion and sale, and therefore also sound, in reality has enabled only in the past few years the formation of a veritable, solid and compact Neapolitan rap scene. Mv Killa, Geolier, Nicola Siciliano, Vale Lambo, Lele Blade, Enzo Dong, CoCo, J Lord, the names have come quick and fast, as have the plays on Spotify, all ranging between 500,000 and 2.5 million streams per month on the platform, all with videoclips on YouTube that gather millions of views, citing here only those who are going so strong that they have made a name for themselves even outside Naples, among the huge fanbase, much bigger than we may think, who already love the neomelodic and who have found a new flame in Neapolitan rap.

It is no coincidence that the two scenes—modern rap and neomelodic, or at least the more nationally popular version of neomelodic music, represented by Gigi D'Alessio—come together precisely at the behest of the Neapolitan singer-songwriter, who decided in his album ‘Buongiorno’ to revisit some of his old songs, from a time when he sailed serenely through neomelodic waters, well before his rise to massive fame singing in Italian, in partnership with rap talent. He even decided to take them with him as guests on the stage of the Ariston Theater in Sanremo, with a particularly colorful performance, sure, but exciting, not memorable; because a narrative with such strong ties to the street has difficulty finding space, or rather feeling at ease, on such an important stage, at least not thrown in without warning, like telling the wrong joke to the wrong person, which is bound to cause a bit of embarrassment. On the other hand, the record is perhaps one of Gigi's most enlightened ideas; above all, historically, it represents a blessing by the undisputed king of modern Neapolitan music, the stamp of approval on the talent of these young artists with a huge following, who today have the task of telling the story of Naples.

It is clear that the success of these artists is driven by the national scene; it is clear that the way the tracks ‘sound’ is imposed by the US scene, which is always the horizon being chased, out of breath, uselessly, given that, as a horizon, the closer you get, the further it moves. But it is precisely in this context that the traits of the Neapolitan personality and the sounds of rap (but also of ‘trap’, to which Naples, and so far only Naples, has given a real dignity) are revealed in all their strength; it is as if they manage all at once to uphold the spirit of the message, the street narrative, the fulcrum around which, like it or not, rap revolves, but at the same time control its exuberance.

The end result is wonderfully robust and dystopian: whereas, in Milan, in rap lyrics, there is competition to see who has done more, who takes more drugs, who earns the most, who beds the most women, treated as objects almost as standard (it is no coincidence that in Italian rap female voices have a great deal of difficulty in establishing themselves), in Naples the tracks tell a story; a certain type of romanticism has never been lost and when it comes to revenge, even violent, it is true revenge, from real extreme situations.

The people of Naples, who, as already mentioned, are innately musical, manage to give their creations a uniquely sophisticated edge; the sounds are almost always minimal, the poetics basic, because they can always count on the dialect to add that something extra, they don't need to do the waving, shouting, shooting in the air, to prove their credibility, because everything they say in rhyme is reflected perfectly in their eyes, in their attitude, in the interviews when they speak.

In this regard, years ago, I happened to have a chat with one of these rappers—it doesn’t matter which—when one of his albums had just been released: fantastic, a great debut album, to public acclaim, at least on the net, in our opinion even worthy of a Targa Tenco; poignant tracks, stories that remain with you, such powerful poetics, the explosive force of the streets of Naples—Secondigliano to be exact—set to music, with such an authentic idea of sound as to be almost illuminating. After listening to the record, we were ready for a decidedly intellectual interview, looking for a response to the disbelief that arises—at least in those who have a nerd-like attitude to music (guilty, your honor)—when you listen to music of this level. After the first two minutes of conversation, all the interview questions we had prepared were thrown in the trash, as we realized that the guy in question was literally unable to complete a meaningful sentence in Italian.

Please note, however, it was we who were the wrong party in the meeting. It was we who, accustomed to our leftist and bourgeois songwriting, found ourselves out of place, and expected to give an otherworldly explanation, therefore vaguely prosaic, to something that is instead ethereal, that has no formulas, an enigma without solution, i.e. music; whose language is not correct Italian but instinct, that spark that shines within only the few, and that drives them to externalize, probably too full of something that must be shared outside themselves, those waves that are then only transformed into emotions inside us. So not only did that interview go really well—as interviews always do when the questions go foraging in unknown territory and are therefore carried out with the genuine curiosity of someone who finds themselves facing something so fascinating and distant—but also that very young rapper from Naples gave us one of the most fundamental music lessons of our life as avid enthusiasts. Music in Naples—rap especially in recent years—is driven by the sole and profound artistic need for expression; in spite of streaming, radio, labels, parties, red carpets and cool backstage events where you meet the right people.

In Clementino's latest album, ‘Black Pulcinella’, released just a week ago, the rapper has included a song entitled ‘Emirates’, featuring the young rapper from Salerno, Rocco Hunt, taken under his wing at an early age; the song describes, very well, the roller coaster of emotions for those forced to leave Naples in order to make it in the world of Italian music.

Why should it be so painful for someone from Naples to make it big? That is, to leave your home city to go to Milan, the city of music, where a future of fortune awaits, far from deprivation, where there is money, where you can reap the success in which you believe by publishing the first bars on YouTube for free, crossing your fingers and hoping that what you create will have meaning for someone. Isn't that exactly the purpose? Isn't that exactly what you’re chasing?

Perhaps because when you leave Naples, in addition to the panorama, the purpose of what you are doing also changes, inevitably a part of that pure and simple soul stays at home, on the streets of the southern city; that instinct becomes intention, which is the antithesis of spontaneity, that vivid etherealness is packaged and sold. Maybe this is the reason why many of the main rappers on the Neapolitan music scene remain in Naples; they are unable to detach themselves from the city. Because it is their home, sure, but perhaps also because it is the home of their stories, of their talent, out of fear that, far from there, they will become different people, and therefore also different artists and traitors not of their colors but of their essence as men. And maybe it is this authenticity that means rap in the Neapolitan dialect work so well; because, in music, there is nothing more attractive, magnetic, charming and fascinating than the truth.

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