“Mongolia was a communist state until the mid ‘90s. When people gained access to hip-hop through radio and TV, rap became a powerful tool for freedom of expression.”
Words by April Clare Welsh
April Clare Welsh is a Lisbon-based journalist who covers music, culture, tech, activism and the environment for Dazed, FACT, Resident Advisor, The Guardian, Vice and many more.
Creativity can blossom in the most unexpected places. When Mongolian hip-hop producer Bodikhuu was working as a crane operator in Ulaanbaatar during the summer of 2014, he would take his laptop and mini speakers along with him to work and make beats from the top of the machine, breathing in the “mesmerising” early morning beauty of the city slowly stirring from its overnight slumber.
These moments of quiet afforded him the space he needed to “compose more emotionally”, while Ulaanbaatar’s windswept panorama of high-rise buildings and rolling green hillsides gave him a double-shot of creative energy. “I couldn’t do any music after work as the shift would end really late and I’d be exhausted,” he recalls over a video call (via a translator) from the capital. “But on the crane, there was this time to just sit still and not do anything.”
Bodikhuu grew up in the remote Uvs province of western Mongolia, located about 1,600km from Ulaanbaatar and home to the country’s biggest lake, Lake Uvs. Here among the vast rugged steppes, music is the glue that binds people together, with traditional folk providing the soundtrack to social gatherings and festivals and giving the region its own cultural DNA. Already well-versed in the musical traditions of his community, as Bodikhuu transitioned into adolescence he became acquainted with the cosmopolitan pop sounds of 90s Mongolia, acquiring cassettes from his city-dwelling cousin that introduced him to the likes of ‘90s Mongolian boyband favourites Camerton.
However, it was the discovery of ‘00s Mongolian hip-hop originators Ice Top and the jazz-rap of Guru and DJ Premier that unlocked a fascination with sampling which would go on to shape his entire music-making output. In 2015, Bodikhuu pooled everything he had learned to date into his debut album, Welcome to Ulaanbaatar–a lo-fi union of vintage, fiddle-strewn Mongolian classics from the ‘60s and ‘70s and dusty instrumental MPC-led hip-hop. The LP put him on the map as a beatmaker whose rich soundscapes told a thousand stories.
Bodikhuu has since released a string of fantasy sonic travelogues inspired by cities. 2019’s Rio/Bodianova was reportedly the first Mongolian hip-hop record to be issued on vinyl while the recently released Japanese city pop-splattered Tokyo came out this month on US label Mississippi records. He has picked up a peer group along the way that includes manager, fellow hip-hop enthusiast and English translator Telmen.G.
Bodikhuu and his crew of hip-hop heads primarily lend their focus to the old-school crackle of boom-bap but elsewhere in Ulaanbaatar, homegrown heroes like rappers Big Gee, Ginjin, Rokit, Mrs M, Saffron Bane, and Maberrant and producers like Lil Thug-Eare pushing a vibrant and diverse hip-hop aesthetic that absorbs contemporary Western elements like trap, pop and R&B while sometimes incorporating traditional Mongolian instruments.
“Since I’ve started composing music, hip-hop culture here has been evolving gradually,” offers Bodikhuu, referencing Ulanabattar’s network of peripatetic venues that feed its ever-growing appetite for hip-hop. “We had this place that was like our den but the venue unfortunately has collapsed and they are building a new thing there now,” explains Telmen.G. “Now we nomadically move around the city playing gigs at different venues.”
“There are only three million people living in Mongolia so everyone knows each other very well, especially in the hip-hop arena,” he adds.
“Back in 2019, our event was the highlight of the city in the summer,” he continues. Ulaanbaatar may be the coldest capital city on Earth, but the summers are pleasantly warm and perfect for socialising. “The cool thing about here is that you can feel the summer breeze. You can inhale that air fully, lots of oxygen into your lungs,” he gushes.
Since the arrival of hip-hop in Mongolia in the ‘90s and the formation of country’s first self-styled rap group, Khar Sarnai, in 1992, Mongolian rappers have often used their platforms to rap candidly about social and political inequalities. Big Gee harnesses the power and popularity of rap as a tool for speaking out about the realities of life in Ulaanbaatar, one of the most polluted capitals in the world and a country in which 27.8% of people live below the poverty line. Having grown up in one of Ulaanbaatar’s ger districts—informal settlements on the outskirts of the city—he has become a vital voice in Mongolian hip-hop; a tattooed yet relatable MC who has broken through to the mainstream and is now a familiar face on Mongolian television.
Elsewhere, bilingual multi-hyphenate singer and rapper Mrs M first garnered attention in 2016 for her breakout hit ‘Bang’, a breath of fresh air in a male-dominated landscape. She’s known for her devotion to Erykah Badu and for bringing her smooth flow to soul, trap and R&B-influenced numbers that sometimes take the form of potent messages about female empowerment (‘Boroo’) and self-worth.
“Mongolia was a communist state for decades until the mid ‘90s when it became a democracy. When people gained access to hip-hop through radio and TV, rap became a powerful tool for freedom of expression,” offers Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar photographer Alex de Mora on the development of the cultural phenomenon in Mongolia.
In 2019, de Mora travelled to Ulaanbaatar with the initial aim of exploring Mongolia’s unique perspective on hip-hop culture. However, the project soon transitioned into “a wider outlook on Ulaanbaatar including identity, politics, environmental and social issues”.
De Mora’s book and short film Straight Outta Ulaanbaatar is a striking visual document of the Mongolian hip-hop scene, offering a snapshot of the city's best-loved crews, artists, and B-boys, as well as featuring a record store owner and a tattooist. “We met a fairly wide cross section of rappers from different generations and with different levels of success, to try and gain an even perspective on the scene,” he explains. “As perhaps Mongolia’s most successful rapper, Big Gee was a key character and helped us meet a lot of other artists in Ulaanbaatar.”
He continues: “I also wanted to document the younger generation of rappers, including Mabberant, Mrs M, Wolfizm and others. At the other end of the spectrum we met some members of Ice Top who were one of the original Mongolian rap groups.”
De Mora says he noticed some of the older rappers returning to lyrical themes about social injustice, politics, and the quality of life in Mongolia. “However, some of the younger rappers that I met seemed to be more carefree in their reasons for making music and wanted to use it as an outlet to escape their daily lives,” he suggests.
For Bodikhuu, this need for escape is felt palpably in his transportative sonic collages while he compares hip-hop to a lifeline. Ultimately, the scene is still growing, but both Bodikhuu and Telmen.G have great plans for Ulaanbaatar’s hip-hop future, including the establishment of a specialist record store: “Our intention is to make this happen in the future – a place for real hip-hop heads to go.”