Jonathan Bousfield gets to grips with Split with the help of TBF, a rap group with a love-hate relationship with the city...
‘Go to the f**king Youth Centre,’ is Mladen Badinovac’s forthright reply when I ask him which part of Split I should visit if I want to understand the city and its place in Croatian culture. It takes a second or two to realise that Badinovac is being caustically ironic and earnestly informative at the same time – a combination fairly typical of TBF (The Beat Fleet), the Split-based rap collective of which he is a leading member.
The building he wants us to go and look at is the Dom Mladih (of which ‘Youth Centre’ is our best attempt at an approximate translation), an unkempt grey slab lurking coyly on an anonymous corner some 20 minutes’ walk uphill from the Old Town. Although currently occupied by the MKC art gallery and the sporadically open Kocka club, this expensive lump of concrete has never quite fulfilled the cultural promise its creators intended.
‘It was built in the late eighties when a lot of ambitious things were planned but never quite finished’ elaborates TBF’s main lyricist Saša Antić. ‘At the beginning of the 2000s, a coalition of cultural organizations was given use of the building, and it started to function. However last year Kocka (the live music venue in the building’s basement) had problems with the fire inspector and were given a list of expensive things to get sorted’.
‘The building is indicative of the city council’s indifference towards the cultural development of the city’ resumes Badinovac. ‘Throughout all these years they haven’t shown any desire or will to finish the building, never mind put it to the uses that were originally envisaged.’
The fate of the Youth Centre is an eloquent metaphor for the odd mixture of creativity, conservatism and complacency that typifies the culture of contemporary Split. It’s an ambiguous side to the city’s character that crops up again and again in the work of TBF, the rap-soul-pop-funk formation founded by Antić, Badinovac and Luka Barbić in the early 90s. Each of their five studio albums has served as a state-of-the-nation snapshot of where contemporary Croatia seems to be heading, although it’s TBF’s treatment of their home city – ranging from the remorselessly satirical to the movingly elegiac – that marks them out as Croatia’s most compelling chroniclers of the urban scene. The paradoxes of present-day Split, a Mediterranean city with a Balkan hinterland, where ancient Roman stones rub shoulders with reinforced concrete, are evoked in TBF’s albums more effectively than in any book or film.
Antić tries to explain TBF’s bitter-but-affectionate treatment of the city that spawned them: ‘It’s like when your best friend tells you to f*** off, because he loves you. It can be cruel, but behind it lies a big heart. The Split mentality is often quite irrational and local people are quite resistant to the idea of trying to explain it in a logical way. It involves a pronounced individualism, a desire to be respected, and definitely a creative spirit. However there is also an aspect that is a bit provincial, a sense of small-town conformism that doesn’t respect differences that lie outside some kind of mould, but which doesn’t say so out loud.’
TBF emerged at a time when the rock and hip hop scenes were thriving at grass roots level, but venues were few and far between. ‘I can remember going to watch bands in basements and bomb shelters’, Antić recalls. ‘Perhaps we were forced to be a bit more creative in those days precisely because of the scene’s limitations.’
‘When we were starting out Split didn’t have that critical mass of people who would be able to support and maintain cultural institutions. The difference now is that Split is a growing university town. Until a couple of years ago there were 8,000 students in Split, today there are close on 25,000. The number will probably rise to about 40,000 by the time they finish building the new campus. The kind of people who used to go to Zagreb to study – especially the ones who have an affinity for culture – are staying in Split more and more, and will certainly need some kind of space where more culture can take place.’
One seismic change that TBF have already witnessed is Split’s growing importance as a tourist destination, particularly for the young. ‘Split always had a reputation as something of a transit city’ says Badinovac, ‘but over the last few years it has succeeded in retaining people, even if only for a few days. What’s particularly important is that several hostels have opened in the city and more young people are coming than ever before.’
‘One summer we had a concert in Dubrovnik and after the soundcheck we decided to go for a wander down the main street’, Antić remembers. ‘There were so many people outside the Old Town’s main gate that it was literally impossible to move forwards or backwards – it took us 15 minutes to walk 50 metres. I don’t think that’s ever likely to happen in Split.’
For Antić the splendours of Split are not just limited to its UNESCO-protected historical core: ‘If you go from Split to Supetar and back again by ferry you get that superb panorama of Split’s tower blocks, especially the eastern suburbs like Trstenik and Split 3. As a child I travelled on that ferry quite a lot, and whenever I saw the shape of those buildings against the sky I would realise that I was coming home.’
‘Those tower-block suburbs won international prizes at the time they were built in the 70s and 80s. In the context of socialist realism when so many things were cube-shaped, these buildings stood out as something special. The architects even created gaps in the façade for seagulls.’
‘And whatever you do, don’t forget to write that Split is the most beautiful town in the world!’ Antić concludes. This elicits a chuckle from the (Rijeka-born, Zagreb-resident) Time Out photographer, who explains to me later that Split people are famous for harbouring the kind of unreserved, lifelong love for their city that goes beyond regional pride. The only surprise was that TBF left it until so late in the conversation to express the depth of their feeling.
TBF’s latest album, ‘Pistaccio Metallic’, is available now on Dallas Records.