There's an old joke, still told, about a Russian who goes to the doctor with a number of ailments. The doctor has a cure: "This medicine is for depression. This one for anxiety. And these will help ease feelings of isolation and poverty," he says, handing his patient several large bottles. "Thanks, doc," says the man, "but do you have anything other than vodka?"
It might be time to update Western perceptions of the former USSR. To the befuddled patient above, one particular group of creative types is offering an alternative: How about some music?
Last month, fledgling European indie label Error Broadcast released an astounding compilation called Fly Russia. Featuring 15 artists with a deep love for bassy electronics and names like Lapti, DZA, Pixelord, OL and Demokracy, the under-the-radar release paints a picture of an established community of beat producers based largely around Moscow. Error Broadcast co-owner Filippo "Flip" Aldovini, who lives in Modena, Italy, calls it "Slav soul," or "the Russian beat scene," a play on the sobriquet often applied to L.A.'s own instrumental hip-hop tribe.
"Russia only opened up to the West in the early '90s," Flip says. "Once people were freed of the shielding influence of the Communist regime, they had 30 years of culture to digest. You'll hear a lot of different styles in these songs." And he's right: Vintage synthesizer music envelops video-game glitch, ambient haze coasts over tribal percussion, slow soul twists with wobbly dubstep.
But a sudden influx of inspiration doesn't guarantee a scene. That was born in Moscow's "home parties," which are a lot like house parties, except they're the only venue these guys have.
"Their shows are completely underground and totally illegal," says Matthewdavid, who works with L.A.'s Alpha Pup Records and the famed Low End Theory club, epicenter of the local beat scene. "I would talk to Lapti around 2006, when Flying Lotus' debut, 1983, came out, and he was having actual dreams of playing Low End."
Error Broadcast's newest release is OL's Random Phrase, an EP-length collision of record fuzz, spacious synths, deep bass and burbling melody. "Internally, we've been calling it the 'Russian Shlohmo,' " says Flip, after California experimentalist Henry Laufer's nom de mixer.
Matthewdavid, however, has a less limiting descriptor: "Complete, crazy fire." Initially spurred by the Fly Russia comp, Alpha Pup has picked up digital distribution rights to Flip's entire roster, which includes artists from Romania, Switzerland and Germany. Alpha Pup boss and Low End promoter Daddy Kev says business negotiations with the Russians run up against a sizable language barrier, but adds, "Anything they asked us to do, we would help them with."
One thing about good music — it's never lost in translation.