Meet GKR, the Kid About to Put Icelandic Hip-Hop on the Map
words by Cameron Toman
GKR has a special kind of enthusiasm about him. It’s the infectious kind—the sort that leaves you feeling full of life, recharged with positivity after a single brief encounter with his music. Even over the phone, GKR comes across as a passionate youth—genuinely filled to the brim with a fiery determination. He’s not so much interested in becoming rich and famous as he is in being able to make a living from doing what he loves. Sounds a bit like any starry-eyed millennial, but this young lad isn’t only equipped with admirable life mottos. He’s also a really talented rapper: For a ’94 boy, he already has an impressive catalog of collaborations behind him with names like Purpdogg, and his sound is as diverse and colorful as his visuals.
GKR’s work has a unique quality that can be directly linked to his place of birth. Iceland is one of the more mysterious Nordic countries, one that people view as almost fairy tale-esque, a place most imagine as a romanticized version of Mother Nature’s magic. The stunning, tiny island stands out because of its striking allure. It’s the same striking allure that coexists within GKR and made me call him up for a chat early last week.
Noisey: I came across your stuff in i-D’s article ‘seven Icelandic hip hop acts you should get to know’. How did that come about?
GKR: You know, they didn’t even talk to me—I just saw that I was tagged in this article about Icelandic hip-hop. Then I saw I was in there and was like, “fuck yeah!” Even now, it’s super dope to me that someone like you is reaching out because one of my goals is to reach people in other countries with Icelandic rap.
With the way hip-hop is going now, everything is so repetitive it’s actually refreshing to hear someone rap well in a foreign language.
Yeah, I get that. Young Thug is basically rapping in another language, and Keith Ape is rapping in Japanese [Ed. note: Keith Ape is Korean, although his most popular song is partly in Japanese] and English, so it’s making it easier for me to give my music to people all over.
Was it a difficult decision to choose to rap in your mother tongue?
I think I might switch to English one day. Maybe not, but we’ll see. Sure, I’m constantly working on my music and getting better and better—but if I’m a bit negative or realistic, it feels as though I’m trapped in Iceland because of my language.
You seem to genuinely be having a lot of fun with your music, though—that’s what stands out. You don’t take things too seriously. Why is that important to you?
The thing I hate about this music stuff is the other side—the business side of things. All of this “don’t talk to me unless you’re talking money” crap— I really fucking hate it. Of course we’re trying to get paid, but in the past people have promised they’d do something for me—then they’d take my money but never do anything about it. That’s just being mean, and it can make music lose its fun. Also, I hate the idea that people look down on me because I’m from Iceland.
Do you really feel that where you’re from negatively affects people’s perceptions of you? People are generally fascinated by Iceland.
Yes, quite a lot. You know, if my music was in English I would be getting way more attention. I don’t feel like I want to stop rapping in Icelandic, but I feel like eventually I will have to. My idea is to push this as far as I can, so that music will reach people in other countries and make them relate to me even though they don’t understand.
Does Reykjavik have a hip-hop scene you can thrive in, though?
It’s pretty alive, you know. There are constantly live hip-hop/rap shows. A crazy thing happened earlier this year, actually. I was at a dope hip-hop club called Prikið in Reykjavik and Skepta was there. One of my songs came on and Skepta and his boys were all dancing to it. He told me it’s a really nice track… and then it dropped and they all went crazy. It was such an amazing thing to see them enjoying my track—and it was really inspiring to see people like that turning it up to Icelandic rap.
Do you turn it up live as well, then?
I love performing; I’m super energetic and hyper. The main thing is that I want people to have fun and forget their worries. The crowds are really cool, most of the time. However, Iceland is like this: If you see an artist you don’t know and the majority of the crowd doesn’t know him either, the crowd won’t have the confidence to show that they like him. They won’t dance or anything. They have to get accepted by the rest of the audience first.
Have you ever experienced that?
Yeah, I had a concert where I was warming up for Úlfur Úlfur. They are much bigger than me, as of now, and the crowd didn’t know who I was—so they didn’t dance at all. They just stood there. I told them: You can dance and it won’t hurt, you know. Of course, when I went off and Úlfur Úlfur came on everybody came to the front and started to dance.
Do you feel it’s difficult to be accepted, even at home in Iceland?
Yes, it is. I’m pretty good at being accepted for my music, but it’s hard: If you make one wrong move everyone will know about it because it’s such a small circle in Iceland.
Your video for “Morgunmatur” was really impressive—it was very finely executed and the visuals were super on point. What was the process behind it?
Thank you, man, that means a lot. I put a lot of work into that: I directed it and edited it. I actually wrote the song two years ago: The title translates to ‘breakfast,’ and the idea of the visual is based on the lyrics. It’s about waking up, feeling really tired and not wanting to go to school. Point is, instead of waking up and feeling down, you should just wake up, eat your fucking breakfast and make the day yours.
I also thought a lot about the colors in the song; when I listened to the notes of the song, I could see a lot of yellow. So, I played a lot with the colors, too. The video was actually shot by the father of my little sister. He’s a cinematographer and amazing at what he does—he’s shot for Damien Rice before, stuff like that. We shot it in just one day before he had to fly to another country to film, so we were really lucky.
I saw that “Morgunmatur” was produced by Purpdogg. How do you establish relationships with American artists like that?
Oh, it’s so crazy how this stuff works. At first, Purpdogg and I were good Internet friends—I was introduced to him in 2013 through Soundcloud. We started talking a lot and he’d always give me discounts—he even gave me one beat for free, the one behind “Morgunmatur.” All of a sudden, he unfollowed me on Twitter, and it’s like he doesn’t know me. Since “Morgunmatur” is one of his favorite beats, when I released it I sent him an email explaining the video was out and told him it wasn’t cool that he unfollowed me. He just replied to me like I was just some fan boy. At that point, you just have to say to yourself, “Ok, well, I don’t need him anyway.”
Something similar happened with J Gramm, who produced “Upperechelon” for Travis Scott; we were good Internet friends as well. He was telling me some really personal things about his life and then all of a sudden it’s like “I don’t know you”. I hate that. It kind of scares me. You know, all these guys aren’t even that important. I have so much belief in myself and I am sure that all these guys who try to fuck me around will eventually see me become something.
What are your thoughts on Yung Lean? I can see some similarities: You’re both young, blond, and making cool music.
It’s so funny—so many people in Iceland compare me to Yung Lean, and I really don’t agree. I understand that there are some similarities between us, but we’re completely different when it comes down to the music. But I have a lot of respect for that guy and what the Sad Boys crew does. It is so easy to say things like, “man, that guy can’t rap, blah blah blah,” but you can’t fault what they’ve achieved. They’re doing what they love, making money and traveling the world. I have nothing but respect for people who are doing what they love to do.
Is it just music for you now or are you working too?
I got accepted into the university to study visual arts, but I declined the offer because I want to focus on the music. I also have a day job, though: I work from 1-5 Monday-Friday at an after school centre for children with mental disabilities. It’s a really nice job; I have fun with the kids. And as soon as I finish I head straight to the studio. Basically, I’m focusing on making money and putting it into my music.
Since you’re so dedicated to your career, do you ever think about where you’d like to be based out of eventually—away from Iceland, even?
Man, I don’t really care where I’d be. I just want a great studio set up. Somewhere quiet. The most important thing to me is to be able to travel whenever I want and go to different studios and work with many different people. I don’t really care so much about the fame. I mean, I’d love to be recognized for my music, but most importantly I want to be able to make a living from my music.