In Norway, Hip-Hop Duo Karpe Charts Local Path to Stardom

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A 30-minute track flashes unsigned act’s quest for independence and control.

OSLO — In their native Norwegian, Karpe is known for challenging global music norms. In February the hip-hop duo released their latest album, SAS PLUS/SAS PUSSY, as one uninterrupted 29 minute and 47-second-long track.

The next day it went to number one on Spotify in Norway.

With 285,320 streams in a single day, the album more than doubled Ariana Grande's "7 Rings" single (length: 2:58), which logged 101,757 streams in second place.

While little-known outside of Scandina, Karpe has dominated the Norwegian music scene the past decade with its melodious hip-hop laced with often-political lyrics. The duo — Magdi Ytreeide Abdelmaguid, an Egyptian-Norwegian and practicing Muslim, and Chirag Rashmikant Pantel, an Indian-Norwegian and a Hindu — was the first hip-hop act to win a Norwegian Grammy (Spellemannsprisen) in 2010. They regularly sell out the country's largest venues and were Spotify's sixth most-streamed artist in Norway in 2018.

The single-track gambit was just one example of how local language hip-hop acts in Europe are employing sometimes risky marketing strategies in their quest to dominate their countries' music charts while maintaining independence and control. 

"When you release a lot of short tracks, you have no control over how they are listened to," says Magdi. "They will be added to different playlists, your song might be played right after David Guetta, and maybe that's not the experience you wanted to create."

But duo concedes they could be limiting their own earnings. "We also realized it could give us a tenth of the money we could earn if we split it into 10 tracks," says Chirag.

A number of new hip-hop artists have emerged in Norway in recent years, many signing with the independent label Nora Collective. "The traditional labels don't offer the tailor-made opportunities that I believe artists deserve," says Chirag.

Karpe has been unsigned since 2014, when it left Stockholm-based Cosmos Music, one of the largest indie labels in Scandina. The duo settled a bitter dispute over money this summer and won back the rights to three albums and an EP.

The group's company, Karpe Diem AS, however, reported a 76% fall in income from last year, from 23.6 million NOK ($2.5 million) to 5.7 million NOK ($620,000), and their 2018 financial results showed a 1.9 million NOK ($200,000) loss. The day Billboard met with Karpe, the Norwegian media was reporting on the duo's financial struggles.

"The media reports we are either making a ton of money, or that there's a collapse, but it's not that dramatic," says Magdi. "What I like about being independent is that it doesn't matter where we are making a profit. If it's from merch or shows or whatever, it doesn't matter to me. We put our profits into our next projects."

When Karpe started rapping in 2000, it stood out in the mostly white Norwegian hip-hop scene. Chirag's parents are from India, while Magdi grew up with a father from Egypt and a mother from Norway.

The duo's immigrant backgrounds have shaped their music, which often focuses on coping with racism. So have the many languages they have been surrounded by. "Norwegian was the fifth language my dad had to learn," says Chirag.

Karpe raps in Norwegian, but use expressions and words from Arabic, Hindi, Swahili, English and French. "Ten years ago, we really wanted the average Norwegian guy to get us," says Chirag. "Now we play more freely with language and expressions."

Will they ever try rapping fully in English or go global? "Our shows and sound are of high international standards, sometimes better," says Magdi. "We want to be the best…but we will stick to Norwegian, that's our language."