Yet while cynics may question the concept of a distinctly Georgian hip hop, the motivation driving the phenomenon is simple: A person doesn't need much money or resources to rhyme.
"I came from the Kutaisi streets and performed on the same streets in 1990," said 35-year-old Shavi Prinsi (Black Prince), the country's undisputed eldest hip-hopper and one of its biggest stars. Kutaisi is an industrial town of about 186,000 in western Georgia that ranks as one of the country's rap centers. "All I had was a microphone and boom box."
It was after hearing Public Enemy's song "Can't Trust It" that Shavi Prinsi got hooked on hip-hop rhythm and taught himself how to dance by watching music videos. "Sure, I don't understand English well, but I can feel the music and what they are trying to say. I understand the general meaning," said Prinsi, a one-time piano and drums student whose songs generally advocate the use of marijuana and cover what he calls "everyday stuff." "People love rap because the rhythm is catchy they can dance to it."
But Georgian rappers insist their music does not just imitate the sounds born in New York's South Bronx. "Look, we've lived through communism and experienced war on our streets," commented 30-year-old Tbilisi rapper Bedina. "We are against war, against drugs. If you need bread, there are better ways of getting it than by selling drugs."
Bedina's own songs reflect his experience as a "street boy" in Georgia's turbulent 1990s, his five years in prison for weapons' possession and his life since he has been released. "Prinsi is from the sunny west side green, clean air," commented Bedina. "I'm from asphalt, the blocks."
Unlike other parts of the world where open antagonism exists between rappers, Georgian rappers say solidarity characterizes their community. Accent, tempo and phrasing of lyrics make up the only difference between rap styles in Kutaisi and Tbilisi, the country's two rap capitals, Shavi Prinsi explains. Rappers from both cities often perform together.
Bedina attributes the trait to the Georgian mentality. "We like to make friends with people," he said. By comparison with the American rap scene, he continued, "[t]here's more justice in our approach."
No rivalry over mega-sized salaries, either. Unlike the West, where stardom is reflected in the income made from record sales, Georgian rappers and musicians in general do not make a substantial income from the sale of records. Musicians are not paid royalties every time their song is played on the air. Instead, the main source of income comes from performing in concerts. Recognition comes from video clips broadcast on a local music television station, which asks viewers to SMS or call in to vote for their favorite clip.
Some clips are made on budgets as low as 100 lari (about $55). Nonetheless, despite the financial limitations, they can exhibit a high level of direction and production.
Tbilisi rapper Bedina puts it down to an evolution in the packaging of Georgian rap. "You know, in 2002, Georgian show business really developed, but rappers weren't invited to many concerts," he said. "Then we realized we should create melodic music videos with lots of dancing girls for mass consumption."
The western fashion of music business paid off. Rap's popularity instantly shot up. In 2003, Armenian DVD and CD distributor David Arutunov organized the country's first rap festival in Tbilisi. More and more young people adopted hip-hop fashion, while small groups of break dancers formed. Graffiti glorifying American rapper Tu-Pac popped up all over walls of Georgia's cities.
The popularity of home-grown rap, however, may have peaked. A lack of sponsors has kept Arutunov from organizing another festival.
Tbilisi radio station disc jockey Ramaz Khatiashvili associates the drop in popularity with Georgian's current fascination with western pop music. "Rap isn't as popular as it was a couple years ago," Khatiashvili said. "Georgians aren't listening to anything Georgian. They prefer American or English music now."
Bedina admits there has been a lack of commercial interest. "I haven't been on TV lately, maybe because television is opposed to art, or people are just tired of hearing about their problems."
However, a strong fan base persists, predominately with teenagers. On November 27, despite freezing temperatures, the Soviet-era House of Culture in Gori, a small regional center not far from the breakaway region of South Ossetia, was packed to capacity for a variety show featuring pop singers, dancers and many rappers.
So long as hip hop artists identify with those fans' needs, performers say, the future of Georgian rap is secure. Commented Bedina: "Our people relate to our texts because we sing about our common problems. We sing about the street."
Paul Rimple is a freelance writer based in Tbilisi. Sophia Mizante is a freelance photojournalist based in Tbilisi.