(From the album cover of the Top Ten of Rabiz 4, 2003)
Once, when Umberto Eco was asked to explain “postmodernism” - one of the most used, most perplexing and interchangeable concepts of the 20th century - in a humanly-understandable language, he said, “I think of the postmodern attitude as that of a man who [...] cannot say ‘I love you madly’ [...]. He can say, ‘as they would put it, I love you madly.’”
As a specimen of the “unconscious postmodernism” of the 1990s, the Top 10 of Rabiz project can, in a strange way, be considered an approximate, but easily comprehensible similar example in the context of post-independent Armenia. That is, of course, if we acknowledge “rabiz” [modern Armenian folk-pop music] as a phenomenon that leans more towards the modern. For is it not in rabiz that the hero, the pathos, the great emotion, the great pain, the great suffering, the great narrative and the contradictory connections with archaic traditions prevail, while the Top 10 of Rabiz is nothing but a blend of “rabiz” motifs, a coil of citations, a sexual and vivid collage of iconoclasticism and anti-heroics – a revealing record of its time.
In 1998, during the rise of KVN – the Club of the Funny and the Inventive (КВН, a Russian humour TV show and competition) – and the home-video hit of Mer Baky (Our Yard) a year later, a group of young men tried to reproduce the scattered reality of the 1990s through the language of music and an experimental format. The project was based on Artur Janibekyan’s concept and was realized by Grisha Aghakhanyan, Vardan Zadoyan, Garik Martirosyan, Hayko and others. Wrapping up the project in 2005 with their fifth album, with every single release, the authors succeeded to problematize not only rabiz, but the attitudes toward rabiz as well. Top 10 of Rabiz used rabiz – very much in spite of rabiz – to weave a multilayered musical and cultural rainbow, under which whole generations have passed through.
The main hero of the Top 10 is Grisha who they describe as an “honorary king of Armenian rap, sweet-ass, cool’n and proper Armenian, tall’n handsome, soul brother” who at a young age, in contrast to his peers with dreams of becoming policemen or singers, for some unknown reason wanted to be a “mother fuckin hustler.” Grisha’s music band included someone by the name of Tsolak Klaiderman who played the keyboard, the bass guitar was just the bass guitarist, Surik Clapton was on solo guitar, Mike Tyson on the drums, master of zurna, clarinet and saxophone Bill Clinton of Washington’s Vagharshapat Restaurant, the violinist Anushavan Spivakov and, finally, the band’s leader and conductor DJ Tatchat von Karajan.
Besides Mer Baky, another point of inspiration or parallel can be found in the massively popular 1998 conceptual album The Rapsody Overture: Hip Hop Meets Classic, which combined rap by Mobb Deep, Xzibit and Warren G combined with Puccini’s, Debussy’s or Borodin’s music. And in general, the late 1990s was the age of the ‘“remix” phenomenon, which was still new but already popular compared to the “mashup'' style that would boom in the early 2000s, and was more closer to what the Top 10 was trying to do. Thus, one could confidently argue that the Top 10 of Rabiz was fully in line with the international music trends of its time.
So then, during a period when MTV and the whole Euro-American visual content was not yet digested but was more or less accessible, the “50 Years” music video became a veritable hit. What also guaranteed this success was that the public was starting to perceive the parody of Western music videos as a daring intention for showing half-naked female body parts. But even this spectacle of sexual desire had its origins in the “Glendale” phase of classical rabiz, which came to prominence thanks to Aram Asatryan’s music videos that repacked American pop culture as a form of “Armenian” exoticism.
“The album was influenced by everything that was fresh and fashionable. Elements, parts of popular songs…” recalls Vardan Zadoyan, one of the co-creators of the project. “When the material was not enough or used up, I would start to search for that year’s hits online. But I myself didn’t listen to the music which we ‘mixed.’ I wasn’t a fan. We wanted to make fun of rabiz and considered it an improper genre in terms of the formation of the younger generation’s musical tastes. But we ended up advertising it in spite of ourselves. A failed attempt – a successful project.”
However, neither rabiz, nor rap was prevalent in the Top 10 of Rabiz. The title of the album was more a provocation, rather than a description of its content. Besides mixing rap and rabiz, it also blended pop, reggae and reggaeton, soul and R&B, Russian blatnoy (street) chanson, Armenian folk music, Latino, electronic music from Eurodance to acid, lyrical ballads to disco hits. It was not just the genres, but also the performers who were united in uneasy alliances. The most incompatible of artists were “forced” into the most real and magical duets: Boka and Tony Esposita, Tata Simonyan and Linda, Tupac Shakur and Tigran Jamgochyan, Spitaktsi Hayko with Sting and James Brown, Aram Asatryan with Irina Saltikova and MC Hammer. In post-blockade Armenia, where there were no music tours and mass Internet, the Top 10 turned into a space where everything was possible thanks to a boundless inclination to experiment and Vardan Zadoyan’s seductive vocals that mimed with astonishing precision the iconic voices of Shaggy, Barry White, Michael Jackson and others.
Even more interesting than the formal amalgamations, were the blends of contrapuntal subjects and cultural subtexts. For example, the hallowed phrase of the song title “I Will Go to Surb Sargis” (an important church in Yerevan) was duly followed by lines such as “What happened to that screwdriver?” or “Does this furnace heat well?” and Barry White’s love-crazed confession song “Baby, because I love you so much” is followed by an Armenian cocky reply, “Don’t call me baby, you bastard”, which immediately undercut the traditional forms of lyrical dialogues. The reversals could work in the opposite direction too, as in the coupling of “There is a baby with sexy eyes” with “You’re Armenian, I’m Armenian” (Hay es du, hay em yes).
Everything could be put into rhyme in both metaphorical and direct sense and the scant English vocabulary wasn't an obstacle: “I am alone” became “gazi balon” (gas tank), “I feel the peace” was echoed by “Privet aziz” (Hey baby), “getta motherfucker” mirrored “petutyan vijaky” (the situation of the state), or in the case of German: “sieben, acht” (seven, eight) rhymed with “hayi bakht” (Armenian fate). And in lieu of Spanish comprehension, Armenian words were interpolated with Spanish suffixes:
The classical also subjected to brazen interpretations. Case in point, the hallowed literary story of Giqor’s tragic fate is transformed into a mini-musical in the song Hambo N 5, at the end of which we bid Giqor farewell with the mocking Russian interjection “Ay-ay-ay-ay-ay-ay, Giqor died” under the fiery beats of the famous mambo tune. Of course, we can say that the rap summary of the story’s dark plot – a mix of Armenian and English, which goes, “So Bazaz took Giqor like a silly khlam [trash], Gave Hambo from his pocket two hundred dram” – is a (self) parody that is equivalent to blasphemy. However, the Aghakhanyan-Zadoyan duet’s postmodern appropriation is more a fearless attempt at reinterpreting and repositioning modern Armenian literature under the conditions of globalized culture’s unstoppable march.
Today, decades later, when we have newer and newer followers of Aghakhanyan-Zadoyan’s genre games – artists like Garik Papoyan and Aram Mp3, Garik Papoyan and Sona Rubinyan, Mika Vatinyan and Tamam Hamza (The Deenjes) or Lucia Kagramanyan on the electronic music scene – we can claim that the Top 10’s remarkable achievement has been its unique encapsulation of the era. It’s quite clear that phrases like, “Don’t call this number ever again, our phone has an answering machine” or “Uncle Armenchik, can you call Anush down? - Anush is shaving,” or descriptions like, “You’re wearing machonka [a fur-lined jacket], and norka on your head [a fur hat]” are exclusively local, social-cultural archetypes of the time. Equally contemporary are the references to the context of economic immigration. For example, the 1990s recipe for the “Armenian dream” was, “I'd win a green card with the lottery, go and live in Los Angeles, then bring over my parents, and slack in my ‘Made in Cali’ clothes.” Overall, it’s hard to find a more striking description of the 1990s than these following lines:
Nowadays, the term rabiz is no longer just a genre. It has become a form of condescending and condemning evaluation, while in The Top 10 it was an elusive title, a fake guide, a cunning deception that made it impossible to apply the term “rabiz” to the project both in terms of “genre” or “evaluation.” Through this conceptual game a new musical tradition was born, which changed the context of rabiz thanks to several of the above-mentioned artists and brought it to life as a new source for local folk or popular art. Clearly, this was a healthier and more constructive approach than the petty bourgeoisie “rejection” (or killing) of rabiz.
The Top 10 of Rabiz is the crazy child of the brave 1990s which, in the 2000s, was still trying to relive the past decade, just like all of us. Along with Mer Baky, Khatabalada and other “musts” it completes the cult bouquet, which should be uploaded for safekeeping in the digital museum of the future to the surprise of nascent cultural historians who have yet to discover how in landlocked Armenia, which is barely visible on the map, Hayk Ghevondyan from Spitak is telling his anguish to the king of pop Michael Jackson: