The Beautiful Now: When Zürich Stands for Hip Hop

For those of us who grew up with the first wave of commercial hip hop – way back in the late seventies and early 80s – it’s mind blowing to see that what used to be something of a fringe culture, pretty much confined to New York and LA, is currently the dominating expression of the mainstream. Whether you celebrate or bemoan this musical and cultural transmutation, it’s hard to deny it. Although I don’t necessarily vibe out to all of the new school sub-genres that hip hop has to offer these days (especially when a lot of autotune is involved), I do find the infinite strains of hip hop that have developed as a result of what is essentially an intense and ongoing international sonic dialogue, a very, very beautiful thing. 

One project which is somewhat emblematic of this global sonic discourse, and also one of its beautiful byproducts, is a production duo called The Beautiful Now. They are based in the heart of money-making Zürich, Switzerland. The music that they produce is a singular alloy that fuses the laid back end of a golden-age East Coast sound (after Dilla already did his thing) new school variations of 60s soul (if that even makes sense?) and African music with a preference for all types of Northern and West-African genres. The Beautiful Now just released their debut EP, a four song guest-studded affair entitled Moes. It features: Jneiro Jarel, Stimulus, Brandy Butler, BIGYUKI and Yamin Semali. The only criticism that comes to my mind regarding this juicy release is that the whole thing is just too damn short!

For those of you who are wondering about what it’s like to live and make music in one of the banking capitals of the world, check out our interview with the The Beautiful Now below. Introducing The Beautiful Now: Toni Schiavano and Florian Reichle.

It says in your press release that your studio is located in what used to be a nuclear fallout bunker. I’ve heard about this, that a lot of musicians in Switzerland use these spaces as studios and rehearsal rooms – what’s the story behind this?
Flo: Our studio isn’t located in one, that was meant to be a metaphor, but a lot of our friend’s studios are located in these type of spaces. They’re really affordable and you can work there without bothering anybody. Subculture is literally being pushed into the underground. These places aren’t very charming, but if you manage to capture the vibe of such a space, some strong stuff can come alive as a result.

While listening to your latest EP I caught myself thinking that it’s quite surprising that it was made in Zürich: the international cast, all the references to African music…
Toni: We understand these presumptions very well and we wanted to prove them wrong. Zurich, or Switzerland, generally, isn’t thought of as a strong hub for music. But there is a very potent music scene here, it’s just that maybe it’s not so much in our genre. The fact that we don’t live in the epicenter of Hip Hop, gives us a very unique vantage point regarding culture and music. And as Europeans, we probably would never get any attention for doing what is considered straight up rap music. If we were trying to do the same thing New York cats are already doing we wouldn’t be true to ourselves. To us, music should be an extension of who we are. We just do what we love.

How would you describe the Hip Hop scene in Zürich?
Flo: The fact that our native tongue is Swiss German, an idiom that is spoken by only around 5 million people – even Germans don’t understand us when we speak  – puts us in a strange and unique situation from the outset. The truth of the matter is that many people participate in hip hop culture, out here in Switzerland. The music even found it’s way into mainstream radio, we have number one hits etc. But at the end of the day, the scene is still very small and fragmented. But there really isn’t anything comparable to what we do.

What would you say makes the scene unique?
Toni: Middle class kids from the suburbs rapping about classic gangster topics is kind of embarrassing. Many urban phenomena don’t exist here, because we don’t have big cities. Rap traditionally needed this urban cosmos as a source of inspiration. What is very different, in general, is the fact that depending on where you live in Switzerland, you can be exposed to American, French or German rap music. This has to do with the multi-lingual culture of Switzerland, we speak different languages in different parts of the country. At our rap open mic  / jam session, which we started two years ago, people rap in French, German, Swiss German, English, Swahili etc. I would say that that’s very unique.

What do you think was the original impetus for Swiss hip hop culture? I’m asking this because in places like London and Paris, you could basically translate American hip hop culture one to one. Both in the UK and in France you had a very high Pan–African population, and you had similar political tensions, racism, problems with the police etc. – but what about Switzerland?
Toni: I guess US rap was that original impetus. In the nineties we already had festivals that included break dancing and graffiti, everything was obviously inspired by US hip hop culture. Switzerland was and still is very provincial, but we had MTV.

Being that you guys are now officially a voice in the discourse about the future of hip hop, that by virtue of releasing your music internationally – what are your hopes for the culture?
Flo: We hope that this beautiful, rich culture will keep on evolving like it did in the past decades. It led to so many amazing things. Thanks to Trap and Cloud suddenly new song tempos became acceptable or rappers started using triplets. Who would have believed that fifteen years ago, if you told them? We, as The Beautiful Now, hope to inspire people to bring their personal flavour into this culture.

You just released this beautiful EP entitled Moes, what’s next for the project?
Toni: First we’ll continue to enjoy the beautiful now, and then we will build a new studio with some friends of ours. Beginning of next year we will also release our second EP.

photo by: courtesy of the artist