Portrait

“I Don’t Write Songs in Russian but I Will Speak as I Feel Comfortable”: The Author of What’s Up Brothers? Track on Rap, War and Cancel Culture

Released in early March, What's Up Brothers? («Шо ви браття») has grown from a rap track to a wartime anthem. Its author Jockii Druce discusses with Bird in Flight how the song has changed his career and explains why Ukrainian rap cannot be performed seriously even now.

The twenty-two-year-old Jockii Druce recorded his first track while in school. Since then, he has released over two dozen tracks on SoundCloud and started getting regular gigs in small clubs.

In early March, the rapper released What’s Up Brothers?, an ironic commentary on the war that savagely slams the Russian army and asks the Ukrainians to cheer up. The track garnered over 5 million plays, becoming the first Ukrainian rap hit of the war. In his interview for Bird in Flight, the rapper spoke about passing his trial by fame, similarities between rogue songs and rap, and why not everyone should switch to Ukrainian.


There is hardly any information about you, so let’s start from the beginning. What does your stage name mean?

Druce is a short version of my name — Andrii, and Jockii (means harsh — Editor`s note) is just a rapper nickname.

Where do you live now?

I live with my parents in Pidhorodne, but one might say I grew up in Dnipro. I started studying at the city’s Gymnasium No. 3 in the 5th grade — dad drove me there every morning on his way to work. All my friends are in Dnipro.

Also, I sometimes live in Kyiv. But living there is a sport in its own right. It’s just exhausting. I like it when everything is calm and slow, and life there is too hectic for me.

What do your parents do?

My dad used to work with heating systems, and my mum teaches economics.

What do they think about your work?

Mum has always been proud of me. Having once heard our music teacher in school praise me, she took me to the music school. I learned music composition, solfeggio, choir singing, harmony, and music notation. So, I spent six years there, but I didn’t play that well — like, there was something with me having all thumbs or being ham-handed. Eventually, it just stopped making sense to me. So I thought, why the hell would I waste my time on that sh*t? And I dropped out.

Later, when I turned, like, 18, it dawned on me. Why in the hell am I not making music? So, I downloaded Fruity Loops and started making beats and rapping.

When I started to take shape as a person, my father and I started discussing one thing. He kept telling me: “You do understand that you need to put food on your table somehow. Music is just a hobby.” And it went on and on. Then I showed him how much money a track earned me. He said he was proud of me, and we have never raised the subject of bread-winning again.

How did you end up in Kyiv?

I studied politology at Shevchenko University but dropped out during my third year.

What was the reason?

You know, some say, “F**k university. This is the system that cuts your wings. Professors that achieved nothing in their lives are just messing with students there.” Well, that’s not the narrative I support. Shevchenko University is just that — a university, but I simply got bored there. I didn’t feel any community or academic spirit. Two or three people genuinely took an interest in the subjects, and others just attended the classes. And me, I just didn’t give a damn, so I couldn’t adapt to this system, and it just didn’t happen.

You recorded your first track while still at school. What was it about?

Not that it was a track. Here’s the story. My pal Zheka turned on a beat and started rapping, and I just recorded him on my iPhone, and we would then listen to it for laughs.

I understood two things then. The first was that having a workstation, synthesizer, keyboard, and mic was not necessary for making music. The second was that rapping should be done for the fun of it. I used to think that rap was about ideas, compositional vision, and hard-hitting rhymes. Now I know it’s not. Here’s a metaphor for you. As kids, we used to do all kinds of tricks with our saliva, like who gets it to hang the lowest before sucking it back, who makes the biggest bubble, and who spits the farthest. Rapping is similar but with words instead of saliva.

When did you earn your first money with those tricks?

Two years ago, after my first gig in Kyiv — it took place in a place called Ryumoshna 20 (roughly translates into English as Boozer Twenty — Ed. note) We collected UAH 500 in donations in our jar at the time and spent them on tobacco and paper.

So, now you earn your living by making music?

I am, after What’s Up Brothers? went viral. I set up streaming on Spotify and Apple Music. It earned me $2.5k over the first month. I took only a dozen thousand hryvnias for myself, sent forty thousand to the guys on the front, and donated thirty thousand to Kyiv Angels. Now I make about $2–3k a month. And then again, I don’t live from that but donate it to the army and volunteers.

Your website states that you don’t do charity concerts and festivals. Why?

There is a difference between the events organized by fellas with dozens of years of experience and noobs that used to sell pot just a week ago. I encountered the latter more frequently. Organizers like these want to do something good but have no idea how. They contact me as an author of “that one track” without any understanding of what I do. They think I’m some kind of TikTok clown.

And what’s wrong with festivals?

There is a notion of “wholesale culture”. It’s like when somebody tries to do a DJ set, photo exhibition, and performance at the same time. And you get there, and don’t hear, see, or understand sh*t there. People just smoke and chat. I don’t enjoy this format.

I’d rather take a basement gig with 80 people genuinely interested in me in the audience than perform for five hundred randos who saw me on TikTok once. I want the audience to come to see me.

How many people are working with you?

Everything I release, I produce alone. I used to handle everything at my concerts alone, too, like putting on the music, mixing the vocals and music, and balancing the mic and music track volume. I ran from the computer to the stage, finished rapping, and then ran back to put on the next one and return to the stage. It was stupid.

Now I work with khlebes on almost all my gigs. He is my partner, back MC, and fallback. He feels my music, and I trust him.

Perhaps, we will get a drummer somewhere down the line. So far, though, the gigs with a drummer were total bullsh*t, except for the last time.

How much time did it take to create What’s Up Brothers?

I wrote it over two days when the war broke out, and it took another week to produce. Then I showed it to my mum. She listened through it and then asked me to put it on once more. And then she went, “That’s dope. You should release it.”

What did you feel when it got viral?

What do you mean by “What did you feel”? I don’t feel every like with my soul.

Three years ago, I produced a track titled How Cossacks F**ked Your Mouth (Як козаки твого рота ї**ли). It took the student crowd by storm and got viral among them. I had been more or less thinking and conscious ape by that time, so I didn’t let it go into my head. I mean, I was ready for the success of What’s Up Brothers?, and nothing new happened for me after its release.

You know, music is like fishing: one day, you catch a pike, and the next one, all you get is a broken condom. The thing is that people go fishing not for the catch but for the process. For me, the catch is the fact that I produced the track. Likes are secondary.

You know, music is like fishing: one day, you catch a pike, and the next one, all you get is a broken condom.

In one of your interviews, you said, “rap is bullsh*t for f**k tards”. What did you mean by that?

As I’ve already said, rap is about having fun. Only culturally ignorant people perceive it as a serious form of artistic self-expression.

Hip-hop emerged and was shaped entirely in the USA. Ukrainian rap is “import replacement”. We have seen enough cool Afro-Americans on the TV to decide, hey, we can do it, too.

Do you mean that serious Ukrainian rap is impossible?

It is possible, but it’ll be utter bullsh*t.

Rap is as much a manifestation of pop music as rock, rogue songs, and techno. You can produce rap tracks on your computer — it’s not as structurally complex as other pop music. It’s music for the masses, which people can enjoy while having a beer after a hard day.

The more complex your rap gets, the bigger f**king idiot you are. The point of rap is that it grooves — it grabs you and doesn’t let go. If you want to convey complex abstractions or overturn Ukrainians’ consciousness, you’re up for a big disappointment.

What Ukrainian rapper grooves the best?

Dgyrick. He used to make total bangers.

Still, I’m more fond of electronic, experimental, and post-internet music. There was this band once — WWWINGS. Those were three guys from Ukraine, Georgia, and Russia. They have never met in real life and just made their music online, sending files to one another. I think our consciousness is yet to reach the level required to appreciate WWWINGS. They took Europe and USA by storm but had little to no exposure in Ukraine.

John Object and Tofudj are rad guys, too. Overall, AWRWSW of WWWINGS and John Object are two of the most talented composers and producers I personally know.

My man Iluha Brand is a digger — he searches for good music for sets. It’s an art in its own right. He finds things I’ve never heard of. Iluha also runs his own telegram channel — it’s called Recommendations. This is where I listen to all those things because I don’t have time to look them up myself.

What do you think about the Ukrainian music created during the war?

Oh, the Red Viburnum in the Meadow is just a remix — the song was written well before the war, so it doesn’t count.

Good Evening, We Are From Ukraine sounds more like music for clubs with cocktails and hookahs. I don’t have even a bit of negativity toward the people writing this kind of music — tastes differ, after all. I don’t enjoy it, whether American or Ukrainian. Personally, if you listen to music for the sole reason it is Ukrainian, you are cutting it too much slack. And what if I don’t like it? Why should I f**k my ears?

If you listen to music for the sole reason it is Ukrainian, you are cutting it too much slack.

What about our pop music? Say, Alyona Alyona?

I saw her a couple of times. She is rad. You do understand, though, that she’s a produced project, right? She is produced. She spits those tracks out like it’s nothing. Her first tracks were fresh and exciting. And then she slipped into run-of-the-mill stuff with all that tried and true approach.

What about Kurgan & Agregat?

Those dudes are fun, their early tracks are. The later stuff, produced on a more professional level, though — nah, not my thing. I have nothing against them, and I don’t know them personally. However, I can’t stand their music. As I’ve said, rap is great as long as it’s all about having fun. And when it becomes a business, it’s kind of meh. In Ukraine, we are yet to learn to make commercial rap the way it should be done.

Kalush?

I won’t say bad things about the artist who’s more popular than me. I don’t want to look like a pug barking at the elephant. All I say is that the music Kalush makes is not the kind I’d listen to. But I don’t know them personally — they could be cool guys.

In your interview for The Guardian, you said you used to enjoy Russian artists. Who exactly?

Russians have been known to have a powerful electronic scene. They have guys like Moa Pillar and buttechno. There also was this Ushko singer — she’s friggin’ good — and many others. But I don’t care about them now. There is no way I would support them, because they live in Russia and pay their taxes there.

On the other hand, changing one’s opinion about their work because of war would be hypocritical. Nobody forced me to listen to it — I did it on my own accord. Saying that all Russian artists are a bunch of motherf**kers — that’s not my thing. I mean, there are many motherf**kers among them, but claiming that all of them are would be totalitarian logic.

Is that to say that good Russians exist?

I don’t divide people into good and bad. People are shaped by those around them. If you are born in a pig barn, taught to eat whatever you find on the ground and sleep in the dirt, you do that all your life. Russian propaganda is really powerful, and it works like clockwork. There is no sense trying to beat it — that’s what I rap about in What’s Up Brothers?

Should Russian culture be canceled, then?

Canceling doesn’t work. Just look at what bands and artists the Ukrainians listen to, and you’ll get it. Ukrainian teenagers give zero f**ks: they keep listening to Russian singers, just as they used to. My younger brother doesn’t take much interest in what the soldiers in Bakhmut are going through. He plays games and watches YouTube, and Russian bloggers prevail there. I’m trying to say it’s not political views that determine the music people listen to but their feelings.

Overall, canceling is the product of the liberal Twitter crowd. The problem with liberal discourse is that it doesn’t work. LGBT is much too underrepresented in Ukraine. Those trying to change something about it are approaching it childishly — they lack serious effort. What precisely did this movement achieve, and what rights did it defend?

Canceling doesn’t work. It’s not political views that determine the music people listen to but their feelings.

Recently, Zelenskyi said he was looking for ways of civil partnership for LGBT.

Yes, he did. But were there any achievements on that front before? That’s a question yet unanswered.

The same thing is about canceling. Tell me, who have we canceled in Ukraine? In the West, R. Kelly was canceled for being a rapist. However, whether one is a rapist should be decided in court, not on Twitter.

I believe in certain measures our authorities can take to support Ukrainian music, like closing the Ukrainian segment of Spotify for certain Russian artists. I have nothing against it, but I feel our fight is not on Spotify or iTunes.

You used to prefer the Russian language. When did you switch to Ukrainian?

I recorded my first Ukrainian track two years ago.

As for switching in my everyday life, a person is not a computer, where you just change the UI language. I was born and raised in a Russian-speaking family, I was baptized with the Gospel in Old Russian, and I was taught to cross myself a certain way — I can’t just switch at the click of a finger. I don’t write my songs in Russian, and I don’t speak Russian during interviews — this is my own choice. But in my everyday life, I will speak as I feel comfortable. I don’t have any kind of barrier in this regard. I still speak Russian with my friends. I speak Ukrainian with some, but they are not exactly good at it.

Why?

I grew up in a rural town, and I speak a specific kind of Ukrainian, which is in part mixed with Russian. I feel comfortable this way. And then there are some who try switching to Ukrainian but turn it into a ridiculous competition. Like, you know, when two Ukrainians are trying to prove to each other who of them is Ukrainian the most.

As I see it, the language issue is very much a part of the Russian narrative. I have never heard of anyone getting beaten up over speaking Russian. And I also feel the Ukrainian literary language has been stupidly academized at some point. In our family, for instance, we say yes as “da” (the way it is said in Russian — TN) and not “tak” (the Ukrainian for “yes” — TN). I mean, it’s not the Ukrainian language at its purest but not Russian, either.

This is what they call “surzhyk”.

Calling it “surzhyk” is the most horrible kind of fascism. Surzhyk is a mix of grains fed to pigs because nothing will ever grow from it. Calling this our language is imposing the inferiority complex on ourselves. Like, if you use surzhyk, you are an illiterate scum. This is an externally imposed sh*t!

Did you know there would be war?

I’ve always thought that there is someone to benefit from all this stuff that happens. For that reason, I’ve never thought about the war as a possible timeline.

I have a track in Russian, it’s titled Conscription Notice has Arrived (Вот и повесточка). In it, I spoke about that sh*t when the governments play chess between themselves and don’t give a f**k about the regular people. I did realize there were scumbags among both Ukrainian and Russian officials. The only thing that differs is the degree of control they have. I didn’t believe it was my war. When the Maidan happened, I was only fifteen. I didn’t follow politics — I was playing DotA.

What do you think now?

Now that people are dying in thousands, it’s impossible to think that it’s all just a lie.

You have mentioned your track titled How Cossacks F**ked Your Mouth about Cossacks raping a Russian woman. Don’t you think it’s a bit too much, even now?

Here we go — let’s cancel Jockii Druce!

No, it has nothing about me raping a Russian woman. If someone understands it that way, it’s all the funnier, though.

Recently, Lermontov’s cadet-period poem has been discussed on the internet. In it, he writes about Russian soldiers raping a woman. The subject is quite close to that of your track. Is that a coincidence?

I’ve never heard about that poem.

The subject of women getting raped by soldiers is nothing new, though. It has been out there since as early as people started fighting in wars. This is the phenomenon we can reflect on. Anyway, I don’t think my track can stop or, on the contrary, encourage rape.

Your track Let’s Have Breakfast (Будем снідать) has the phrase, “Honestly, I didn’t believe in Ukraine before. I thought only ruins could be there, nothing more.” Did you really believe it?

Yes.

And do you now?

I didn’t think we could achieve anything — not with the state machinery we have. I didn’t believe that medics would get decent compensation and cops would become proper police. Neither do I see that now.

In the same track I say: “But now I realize that we are miles ahead.” We are a bit farther to the West than Russia, and we love our freedom. One can’t make us eat from the shovel as if we were pigs. Everybody can rest assured that we can build our country ourselves. How we go about it is a whole different matter, though. The Ukrainian nation has not yet taken shape, but the process is well underway.

We have taken the path of digital technology. Diia and foreign passports are just the beginning. We can do much more, like, moving our entire tax system into some kind of online service or making courts fully transparent. In brief, we have lots of ideas that our people have not heard of and are not interested in because all they need is to eat, drink, go to work, and sleep. If you give people access to information — not TikTok and Instagram ads but the ideas that push the world forward now — you can achieve anything.


Photo: Yana Franz, exclusively for Bird in Flight

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