DE JEUGD VAN TEGENWOORDIG
Dutch Rap as more than One-Hit Wonders
By Illés Plompen
In the previous issue of Perfect Sound Forever I wrote about Spinvis' debut album, and why I think it is one of, if not the greatest Nederpop album of all time. I especially gave Spinvis credit for his abstract lyrics and down-to-earth delivery, and how they beautifully capture the essence of Dutch culture. But one 46-minute album made by some guy in his attic obviously can't sum up a whole genre of music, let alone an entire culture. A country that is so often praised for its cultural diversity and its embrace outside influences deserves more than one spokesperson in the field of pop music if you ask me. So here, I'm going to tackle another one of my the best Nederpop artists of all time: De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig.
De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig (translation: 'The Youth of Today') are a Dutch rap group, consisting of producer Bas Bron and rappers Faberyayo, Vjèze Fur and Willie Wartaal. The story of the group starts in Amsterdam in late 2004. Bas Bron had been involved in the local hip-hop scene for several years at that point, most notably as the main producer of Spaardammerbuurtkliek; a hip-hop collective consisting of Bron and a variety of local rappers including Pepijn Lanen (soon to be known as Faberyayo). One day, Bron and Lanen decided to make a song around the phrase 'watskeburt,' which had just become a popular slang term in the Amsterdam area (it derives from "wat is er gebeurd?", which roughly translates to "what happened?" or "what's up?"). To give the song some legitimacy, Bron invited rap duo Baksteen (consisting of Fur and Wartaal) to his studio to drop a verse on it, since the duo had kind of popularised the phrase within the local hip-hop scene. The four had such a great chemistry and they decided to form a new group, 'De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig.'
They released their first single, appropriately named "Watskeburt?!" on May 16, 2005 via Magnetron Music, an independent record label co-founded by Bron and partly distributed through popular Dutch hip-hop label Top Notch. Though the song initially didn't sell much, more and more radio stations picked it up in the months that followed, and by the summer of 2005, it was a huge hit. And sure, a huge hit in The Netherlands is not the same thing as a huge hit in America or even the UK, since there's a massive difference in population size and therefore the amount of money that's involved, but still... When "Watskeburt?!" came out, over here, it was a cultural phenomenon comparable to something like "Hey Ya!" or "Macarena"; a novelty song that suddenly takes the world by storm and, for a few months, and becomes this absurd, inescapable thing within pop culture. I was about six years old when "Watskeburt?!" became a hit and even I have some pretty vivid memories of hearing it through the loudspeakers at my local pool a bunch of times and shouting along to the hook while I was at summer camp.
"Watskeburt?!" was a big deal for De Jeugd. It wasn't just their first number-one song. It was literally the first song they ever wrote together. So, as you can imagine, there was a lot of speculation on where the group would go from here. While a lot of music fans and radio personalities hailed De Jeugd as The Next Big Thing, most critics were very sceptical about the group's sudden rise to fame, often painting them as a soon-to-be-forgotten one-hit wonder (or 'een eendagsvlieg' as we call it over here). And honestly, I don't blame them. Though I still thoroughly enjoy "Watskeburt"'s catchy beat and bizarre, playful lyrics (partly for nostalgic reasons, of course), the song definitively has a lot of one-hit wonder qualities: repetitive chorus, goofy title, verses that don't offer much beyond typical rap braggadocio, etc.. Plus, at the time, De Jeugd were notorious for taking the piss out of journalists by purposefully spreading false information about themselves during interviews (the most famous example of this is the completely made-up origin story that says the group met while auditioning for the Dutch version of Idols; a story quite a few websites and newspapers ignorantly published at the time).
And while the debut album, Parels Voor de Zwijnen (2005), wasn't the undeniable classic that proved all the naysayers wrong, it wasn't the total flop many critics expected either. While staying true to "Watskeburt"'s absurd lyricism and electro-inspired musical style, De Jeugd managed to deliver some solid deep cuts (particularly "Happen Naar De Baas"); a few funny skits; and, against all odds, another hit single with "Voorjekijkendoorlopen," which became an extremely popular ringtone before the song was even properly released (yes, for a brief period of time, 'ringtone sales' were considered a legitimate part of the music industry, believe it or not).
After listening to the album from beginning to end, I have to admit that the group's rapping abilities were still pretty mediocre on a technical level and there's not a lot of variety or deeper meaning in terms of what they're rapping about. That said, Faberyayo, Wartaal and Fur deliver their lines with energy and confidence and their respective styles complement one another really well. Faberyayo is probably the most lyrical out of the three. Sure, he's no Eminem or Immortal Technique, but his eccentric wordplay and surprisingly large vocabulary set him apart from the rest of the group (he even went on to become a somewhat critically acclaimed writer under his real name, Pepijn Lanen). Wartaal, on the other hand, has a more versatile flow and sounds like he has the most experience on the mic, while Fur is just pure charisma. Though De Jeugd are often presented as 'three frontmen and a one-man band' (aka producer Bas Bron), Fur is really the star of the group if you ask me. With his thick accent, stubble beard, goofy singing voice and background in fashion, he is the most unlikely rap star imaginable, and therefore, the very attention-grabbing one. That being said, a lot of the group's magic, especially in the earlier part of their discography, comes down to Bas Bron's production. By taking most of his inspiration from early house, techno and electro-funk instead of hip-hop music, he gives De Jeugd a retro-futuristic style that makes them sound unlike any other hip-hop act out there. This rejection of traditional hip hop influences combined with the group's very ironic look and constant mocking of 'real hip hop' (read: Illmatic-worshipping backpack rap), gives them an almost anti-hip hop image that is really interesting to me.
The follow-up, 2008's De Machine, is an improvement on every front: the rapping sounds tighter, the production feels bigger and, while most of the lyrics are still about partying and having a good time, the songs feel more focussed on a specific topic as opposed to the unrelated bragging of the debut. A shining example of this is the incredibly funky "Buma In Mijn Zak," where De Jeugd rap about lavishly spending all the royalties they received from Buma/Stemra (the organisation that handles everything concerning copyright in the Dutch entertainment industry). There's also a lot more focus on melody and sing-along choruses with songs like "Hollereer" and "Datvindjeleukhe," where De Jeugd deliver some of their catchiest hooks ever.
De Lachende Derde (2010) continued the group's streak, with numerous fan-favourites like "Tante Lien," "Get Spanish" and "Hengel At a Bitch" and of course their biggest single to date, "Sterrenstof" (arguably the greatest Nederpop song of all time). "Sterrenstof" is De Jeugd at their most sincere. It's a heartfelt, synthpop gem about the group's road to success and what a turbulent ride it's been. And sure, there's still a lot of bragging in the verses and the chorus is full of cheesy drug references, but there's also some pretty touching shit in there. Like how Wartaal's mom had him when she was extremely young, and he basically had to learn everything himself, or how Faberyayo's problems with alcohol- and drug abuse finally disappeared when he fell in love. For a group that initially made a name for itself as a wild, boastful party act, it's a pretty ballsy move to make a sweet, Beatles-esque love song like this, and it goes over really well, especially with the chorus, where Fur sings in this goofy, but extremely passionate autotuned falsetto. It shows that even when De Jeugd make a more heartfelt track, they never take themselves too seriously.
After the immense success of "Sterrenstof," De Jeugd didn't have much to prove: in five short years, the group had released three solid studio albums; a bunch of hit singles; become a universally beloved live-act (especially at festivals), and even received critical acclaim from publications that initially wrote them off as a dumb fad.
So, where did they go next? Well, they pretty much kept doing their thing. 2013's ja, nat˙˙rlijk! was another great record for De Jeugd, with festival bangers like "Gekke Boys" and "De Formule," as well as slower, more introspective songs like "Dromen van Karton." The more poppy balladry of "Manon" (2015) sadly wasn't as well-received and I'm personally not that crazy about it either, but with Luek and Different (both released in 2018) the group seems to be back on track and, even though they're all well into their thirties at this point, they show no sign of slowing down.
All in all, De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig have been one of the most interesting acts in the history of Nederpop. For a group that had a number one single right out of the gate, they've had a surprisingly solid and consistent career over the last fifteen years. Although they've never released a full-length masterpiece on par with something like Spinvis' self-titled debut, they've made a lot of fantastic songs and have been one of the very few Dutch rap acts that has managed to move beyond the blatant commercialism or way-too-obvious American influences most rap music from The Netherlands suffers from. They've created something that sounds uniquely them and simultaneously uniquely Dutch. Not bad for a one-hit wonder.
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