"We're the band that comes from nowhere but listens to the whole world and then produces a record," says Solvi Blondal, the songwriter/producer behind Iceland's Quarashi (pronounced "kwa-ra'-she"). "We're not from America, we're not from Europe, we're from Reykjavik, a small city in the North Atlantic. It's probably a good anthropology study: the rappers from Iceland." But Quarashi is not only geographically unique, the group's music is an eclectic blend of rap, punk, and hard rock that displays an incredibly wide array of influences. "Our goal is to mix hip-hop and industrial, but always with a live feel," says Solvi. "To make people think this is a live band, though most of it is programmed and sequenced."
Quarashi is: Solvi (sewl'-vee), age 26, the band's producer and drummer; Hossi (huh'-see) Olafsson, 23, the lead voice, whether rapping or singing; Steini (stain'-ee) Fjelsted (fyel'-stead), 25, rapper; and Omar Swarez, 26, also a rapper. Solvi and Omar met as children. Solvi met Steini after being ordered by a judge to perform community service at a Reykjavik skate park. Steini is a former Icelandic skating champion as well as one of the country's leading graffiti artists. Quarashi, a term meaning "supernatural" which Steini read in a book, was a nickname given to Steini by a friend and soon became his tag name when he lived in Arizona, appearing on walls and streets all over Reykjavik. When it came time to find a name for their new band,Quarashi seemed the perfect choice.
Quarashi was originally formed by Solvi and Hossi in 1996. After playing together in a local punk rock band called 2001 they both felt a need for greater experimentation and developed a preference for studio production over band rehearsal-style songwriting. Solvi produced a demo track, Hossi laid down the rhymes, and the pair's first single, "Switchstance," sold out all 500 copies in a week. Their full-length debut CD was recorded in October of 1997 and sold over 6,000 copies, going on to be certified as gold in Iceland. That same year Quarashi opened for both the Fugees and the Prodigy and Solvi was then tapped to remix the Prodigy's song "Diesel Power".
1999 saw Quarashi's follow-up CD, Xeneizes, sell another 6,000 copies and earn them their second consecutive gold record. At that point they started work on Jinx and finally got a chance to take their live show to America. At the New York City club Brownie's, Quarashi's high voltage attack blew up a stage monitor and turned a peaceful record company showcase into a near riot. That's when they knew they were ready for the big time.
On Jinx the beats range from straight-up hip-hop to murky industrial, sometimes provided by a drum machine, other times by a live drummer. Turntable scratches give way to fat bass lines and screeching guitars. Background vocals blend with the flows of two or three rappers at a time. Horns, voices, and piano rolls are sampled and distorted. The state of the art production is as impressive as anything coming from either side of the Atlantic. "The original point of the band was mixing British break beats and American hip-hop together," says Hossi. "It's as if Chemical Brothers and the Prodigy rumbled with Cypress Hill and Public Enemy."
Quarashi chose "Stick Em Up," the first single from Jinx, strictly on the basis of its overwhelming sonic force. Overlapping guitar tracks duel with crashing cymbals and a pounding bass line. The band's three rappers--Hossi, Steini, and Omar Swarez--add rapid fire verses as well as the chorus. "As soon as we played the song we realized how amazingly 'Stick Em Up' has a way of producing power and getting people excited," says Solvi. "Wake up in the morning and put on 'Stick Em Up' and you're on your feet in no time."
Another important song on Jinx is "Tarfur," the first rap song ever written and recorded in Icelandic. "Tarfur" starts out as a percussion-heavy funk track reminiscent of the Meters, but once the rhyme kicks in you realize that this is something completely unique. "We started off rapping in English because all our influences were from America," says Hossi. "There wasn't any model for rapping in Icelandic so we had to figure it out ourselves." "Tarfur" takes the concept of "the funky bilingual" and raises it to a whole new level.
One of the last songs on Jinx is "Dive In," a techno ballad where Quarashi displays even more stylistic versatility. To a mellow ethereal backing track spiced up by scratching and keyboards, Hossi puts aside his rhyme skills for singing: "Someday I will dive right in/someday I will take a spin/someday I will make it right/someday I will stop the fight/It has been thought/and I found a God that can teach." "Dive In" is at once both haunting and hopeful, a hint at Quarashi's future possible direction.
"We realize that bringing hip-hop to the U.S. is like selling ice to people from Greenland," says Solvi, "but we don't limit ourselves to any one style. We just want to play rock 'n' roll or rap and play it the way we feel. Bjork and Sigur Ros and all these great Icelandic musicians are very up-front about being Icelandic and have very strong Icelandic characteristics, but that's not the case with us. I still think we share the same energy though." And that energy displays itself in whatever style Quarashi chooses: from crunchy metal guitar licks to hip-hop bass lines to the excitement of three rappers trading verses, there's an undeniable power to their music. One listen to Jinx will prove that to anyone, no matter what country you're from.