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‘I WOULDN’T CALL IT POLITICAL’

Just when you thought there couldn’t be another, there’s a new Austrian music export on the scene. In the footsteps of Bilderbuch, Wanda, Yung Hurn and Voodoo Jürgens, the rapper Jugo Ürdens is now seizing the microphone. We discuss political rap and Balkan melancholy with the newcomer.

If there’s one place left in Vienna where the entire city still gathers across the boundaries of gender, age, class, profession and ethnicity, it’s the Turkish restaurant ‘Kent’. The background noise is deafening, the food mouth-watering. You can see Croatian families eating lunch, Turkish couples on their first date or Austrian construction workers getting their sustenance. And, now and then, the Vienna-based rapper Jugo Ürdens – a Macedonian-born business school dropout in his early twenties. Now Austria’s latest hip hop export. Although there’s an ulterior meaning to Jugo Ürdens’ name, with ‘Jugo’ being short for the former Yugoslavia in German, he doesn’t want to rub it in people’s faces. In all actuality, he wishes the topic didn’t even exist. So that he could rap about things that are truly important instead of ‘politics and shit’. Like personal stories that others can identify with, for example.

Jugo, the rapper Kendrick Lamar recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his album ‘Damn’, becoming the first hip hop act to do so. Does hip hop have to be socially critical?
It doesn’t have to be. If rap is the antithesis to politics then that’s good. Of course what Kendrick’s doing is good, but there’s also political rap which is completely terrible. I’m personally pretty low-key when it comes to this. I have one track that’s political, ‘Österreicher’ (Austrian), and that’s enough for me.

Your music is often considered cloud rap, but you reject this label. Why?
I personally wouldn’t go along with the label 100 percent, but there’s definitely overlap in terms of sound. In general, I don’t understand why everything always needs to have a category.

Your single ‘Schwarzes Gold’ (Black Gold) is about cola. Is this to distance yourself from drug consumption in the rap world?
To be honest, the song was just for fun. Though I have to say I’m pretty clean when I’m out and about. Anyway, I don’t like the song at all any more. I uploaded a video for it once but I’ve taken it down since then.

Do you often stop liking your songs once they’ve been published?
Don’t even ask, it happens all the time.

The cover of your first EP has a painting of a garlic bulb. What’s that all about?
My parents used to be total hipsters back in the day. Went to galleries and that all the time. Back then they bought this painting by a female artist; it must have been in the nineties. Afterwards we moved what felt like 40 different times and the painting always came with us. At some point it ended up in the cellar and, when I moved out, I took it with me and hung it up at my new place. I find it pretty nice. A slice of home.

You come from Macedonia and spent your early childhood there. Did that influence you musically?
I began to think about my roots properly when I was 16. I came to Vienna when I was seven but always went back down south for the summer. Eventually I had to deal with the question: where do I really come from? I listened to lots of music and sampled a lot of old Macedonian music. I wanted to recycle it somehow.

Tell me, what’s special about Macedonian music?
There’s a lot of emotion and a lot of pain. Even if you understand what they’re singing about. It’s often about war and similar things. Goran Bregović, for example, left a huge impression. He used to go to gypsy villages and work with their songs and record them. Now he plays them once a year to a packed out concert hall. Or Zdravko Čolić, he’s a Bosnian Serb pop star. And in the sixties or seventies there was Nina Spirova who made soul music.

Is that the music your parents listened to?
Yeah. They didn’t just listen to popular stuff, there was a lot of rock in there too. There was a big rock era in Yugoslavia. It was highly political. One person in the band Riblja Čorba would always be in jail for standing up to the regime. People listened to that often back then and now it’s somehow kept going. In my song ‘Yugo’, I sample a really melancholy, old Yugoslavian song. The singer almost cries.

In ‘Österreicher’ you rap about how hard it is to get an Austrian passport. Do you feel Austrian?
Yes definitely. Vienna is my home. I still don’t have a passport. But I’m also not really behind the idea myself.

In 1992, the German hip hop group Advanced Chemistry spoke about citizenship in their music. Each of the members was of immigrant background and rapped: ‘Not recognised, foreign in our own country. Not from another country but still a foreigner.’ That was a very politically charged era full of arguments about ‘the boat being full’. Then came Die Fantastischen Vier (The Fantastic Four), who saw rap as pure entertainment for themselves. Where would you rate yourself amongst this?
I think I’m somewhere in between. My music is definitely also reflective and not just for party. I wouldn’t call it political, though, because I want to tell stories that are more personal. Not try to explain larger things I don’t understand. In general, I find that German hip hop at the moment is mostly party music.

In the Austrian music landscape, there seems to be a new need for local vernacular and some sort of identification with the idea of home or reflection on what it is – Wanda, Granada, Voodoo Jürgens, 5/8erl in Ehr’n. What do you think?
Yeah for sure, there’s also Crack Ignaz, the rapper crew from Linz, the Salzburgers. People aren’t embarrassed any more to be from Austria. As a whole I think that’s pretty good. It only becomes a problem when you don’t pay attention to who’s using the music and what for. And Granada, for example, they’ve made completely different music for ages now. Then Wanda came along and suddenly they changed their image, becoming more Viennese, repping the immigrant neighbourhood. That’s a load of crap to me. It’s so transparent.

So how is it that you got started in hip hop and when did you start listening to it? What did you listen to?
It was German rap. Sido etc. I didn’t think the street rap scene was so great back then. In 2010, Nate57, a street rapper from Hamburg, dropped a mixtape. I was a huge fan of it, it clicked with me and then I started to listen to more and more street rap. These people spoke about a different world; so intense, so unreal. I thought it was awesome.

And when did you start writing lyrics yourself?
I think I was fifteen and was writing my girlfriend a poem for her birthday, something awful. At some stage she gave me a keyboard. Then I began playing it a little bit, making some beats. That’s how it went on until I was also writing rap lyrics. These days, though, I have more fun producing. Producing is something you can do instinctively, unlike lyrics where you have to think hard, put in a lot of work. When you produce a beat, you hear it at the end of the day and it’s great.

Jugo Ürdens – where does your artist name come from?
My mate used to always call me this, he came up with it when we were drunk. Eventually it became my Facebook name and I had Udo Jürgens as my profile picture and bio – so it was all complete non-sense. It’s also a bit stupid because I’m setting myself up in this Yugoslavian foreigner position, but I’m slowly trying to change that. Whatever I do in the future will keep moving away from that.

Did you have a typical migrant childhood, if you could call it that?
Sort of. My parents are academics and wanted me to make something out of myself. I went to an academic high school in Vienna’s city centre. There were a lot of migrants in my class, but there were Austrians there too. We lived further out near the Balkan district and Manner confectionery factory where we played football in the park.

What does your family think about your music?
They like it these days. Of course they’d prefer me to study. But for now I’m just chasing my dream; I can always go to uni afterwards.

You’ve already been to uni before, haven’t you?
Yes, I studied business. I didn’t have much of an idea what I wanted to do. I hated it so much, it was a catastrophe. The smaller the groups got, the more I hated it. On the first day I came too early, wearing a tracksuit. I had an old, clapped out laptop and no money to buy a new one. The others slowly came in in their blue suits and Timberlands. Afterwards they drove their BMWs home. I mean, it’s nice to have money, but what they had wasn’t nice at all.