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Photography: Pavlo Marienko

Producer Alex Yatsun is at home in his apartment in Kharkiv, in the northeast of Ukraine. His camera is off for the duration of our call, but he describes his immediate environment with what I detect is characteristic understatement. “It’s a bit rainy outside – a little bit of melancholic vibes. That’s OK, I guess. If you could say that it can be OK in such a harsh environment.”

Sitting less than 30 miles from the Russian border, Kharkiv was one of the first major Ukrainian cities to be attacked during the start of the invasion in early 2022, though the Ukrainian army eventually pushed the Russian forces back following months of bombardment. The relentless bombing campaign led to the deaths of at least 606 civilians between 24 February and 28 April, while a further 1248 were injured, according to figures from Amnesty International (June, 2022).

“Back in April last year, it was pretty harsh here,” he goes on, using that word again. “I used to live in the northernmost neighbourhood of Kharkiv, called Saltivka, which was about ten kilometres away from the Russian forces when they occupied the villages. So they had the chance to shell the city every hour or so,” he explains. Since then, the intensity of the war in his immediate vicinity has eased, though restrictions remain – such as an 11 p.m. curfew. Yatsun, who is 24, is currently unable to leave the country and faces possible mobilisation into the Ukrainian military when he turns 25. But he seems unfazed by this, seeing it as part of the ordinary grimness of everyday life. “I don’t just have to think about the bombs falling on my head – I also have to think about paying my rent, living day-to-day life,” he says wearily.

Yatsun is better known to a growing community of fans and producers as DJ Sacred. Long before the Russian invasion began in February, 2022, Sacred was pioneering and disseminating – via Soundcloud –  a new strain of instrumental rap suffused with a teeth-grinding sense of dread that now feels especially apt. Inspired by Memphis rap, dungeon synth and a sense of ambient anguish, dungeon rap, as it’s now known, is distinguished by its grainy, almost decaying sounds, unpolished production and a preoccupation with a world governed by malevolent forces, evidenced by track names like Don’t Let This Be Your Death Wish and Blood Feast (both recorded under another of Yatsun’s guises, DJ Armok). For Yatsun, dungeon rap is a response to – and retreat from – reality; or, as he puts it: “This is music that entombs you in the underground.”

Yatsun is very much the motor behind the movement. He first began uploading his instrumentals to Soundcloud in the mid-2010s. Tracks like White Sorcery and Roll the Dice, released in 2019, again under the name DJ Armok, were embraced by an extremely online audience to whom dungeon rap’s crushing disillusionment and fatalistic worldview resonated. That same year, the release of Dungeon Rap: The Introduction brought the sound to a wider audience. The album was the first proper document of the subgenre, although it should be noted that it featured just two artists in total: alongside DJ Armok, there are tracks from Pillbox, another of his aliases, and fellow Ukrainian producer DJ Bishop.

In June this year, a second volume dropped. Dungeon Rap: The Evolution builds out the sound’s universe and illustrates how quickly it has spread. Alongside Ukrainian artists such as DJ Mistah Evil are producers from Austria (Dismemberment), Finland (DJ Gravelord) and the UK (Dominus Soul). At nearly an hour and a half long, it’s an epic, bleak and at times challenging listen, reflecting a civilisation on the brink of ruin – its tracklist filled with statements of doom such as Corpse, Through Your Bones, Dead Shores and My Silence. The latter juxtaposes the synth line from The Cure’s All Cats Are Grey against buzzing industrial noises and barely discernible hip-hop samples to summon an entropic, disintegrating world, which feels all the more prescient in the context of the invasion of Ukraine.


Unpicking the roots of dungeon rap takes a bit of doing, partly because many of its artists shun visibility and operate under multiple aliases. Generally speaking, Soundcloud and the Temple Drive record label that Yatsun created in 2020 have acted as a hub and meeting place for the genre. While the label’s Soundcloud has fewer than 200 followers (Sacred’s is approaching 15,000) it’s nonetheless the home of dungeon rap’s most coherent community. Artists on the label have followed Yatsun’s lead in releasing music under different names, a savvy commercial decision that Yatsun made early on. “I came to the conclusion that if I’m going to make something a subgenre, I wouldn’t be able to pull that off just by using one alias. So I tried to create it artificially.” It was a shrewd approach: he was approached by Manchester’s Natural Sciences record label in 2018 about releasing some tracks. These formed the basis for Dungeon Rap: The Introduction.

Plotting the musical reference points is, thankfully, slightly easier. For Yatsun, there were two major influences. One of these is dungeon synth, an esoteric and largely instrumental genre which emerged out of the ambient compositions made by the side projects of black metal bands from Scandinavia and central Europe. Steeped in the aesthetics of medieval fantasy lore, dungeon synth often shares aesthetic themes with soundtracks from early role-playing games (RPGs).

“I think that we are standing at the end of history. We are now realising that we are being stripped of the future we were promised in childhood”

This made sense to Yatsun. His way of seeing the creative process is “purely dialectical, in the sense that we have this conflict between the outside world, of the material reality that surrounds us, and our internal world”. Delving into fantasy – his alias, DJ Armok, is a reference to the God of Blood in the RPG Dwarf Fortress – was a natural step for him. “Why do I like fantasy worlds? Probably because of escapism. It’s a coping mechanism to battle this reality that surrounds all of us.”

The other genre that had an impact on Yatsun was the hip-hop scene in Memphis, Tennessee. A precursor to trap, which would later explode out of Atlanta, the Memphis rap that emerged in the early to mid 90s, led by groups such as Three 6 Mafia, DJ Squeeky and Children of the Corn, was characterised by grimy, lo-fi production, a practice of constantly resampling the same records, and a fixation with Memphis street life often expressed through references to horror films. Yatsun was introduced to Memphis rap as a teenager by his brother Misha, who makes music under the name Roland Jones. “It’s something that he found on music blogs. It was different from what I’d heard before.”

The sense of community that Yatsun began to find through music offered respite from experiences of depression and alienation that had affected him since his teens. “I fell in love with this music because I spent my childhood separated from my family. They had a lot of problems to deal with, so I had to look out for myself.” While still at school, a sense of disillusionment with the world around him began to grow. He would often spend time living at his grandma’s house, away from his parents, who were looking after his newborn sisters. “They weren’t paying too much attention to my life, or how I was raised,” he says, though he stresses that he maintains a positive relationship with his family.


While dungeon rap’s outsider ethos resonates with a small but dedicated following in several European regions, finding a homegrown audience has been more difficult. In his listener statistics, Ukraine remains fairly low down the list, while, ironically, in Russia he initially found a more receptive audience. “I did a lot of concerts in Russia, but now I regret that I went there. I guess it’s obvious why,” he says bluntly.

Though Ukraine’s vibrant music scene has managed to survive the ravages of war, with a major festival, Brudnyi Pes, as well as the much-loved party, Strichka, both returning to Kyiv this year, it’s clear that dungeon rap remains an enigma to many. Elsewhere, though, the sound is catching on. Yatsun embarked on a DJ Sacred charity tour in March, stopping off in Hamburg, Paris and Trnava, in Slovakia,  in order to raise money for Medicine for Kharkiv, a charity he volunteers for which provides medication for those in need in the city. It was a huge success. “The tour went great. It was such a pleasure to see and speak with different people. It was also important for me to speak about current issues and events that affect us in Ukraine – some people are just not informed on that matter.”

Most of his domestic shows also benefit charitable causes. “I donate almost all of my earnings to charity. People who run those projects, most of them I know personally and some of them are my actual friends. Doing something for the common good became an obligation among young people, especially in artistic circles.” Unfortunately, this has not always been reciprocated by those in power. Though his tour was initially supported by the Ukrainian Ministry of Culture, he has subsequently faced backlash. “Now, we face harsher restrictions,” he says, before touching on the stringent conditions on touring abroad. “Maybe they’re scared that we’re going to leave the country and stay in Europe. But that’s not the case for people who have already been there and back.”

“I don't just have to think about the bombs falling on my head – I also have to think about paying my rent, living day-to-day life”

Yatsun not only faces all the difficulties that come with making a living as an artist, but here they’re compounded by living through a major conflict. I tentatively ask him about his hopes for the future. His reply is stark. “I must say, I don’t have any hope, regarding not just Ukraine, but the whole world – speaking of climate change, inequality.” He goes on: “I think that we are standing at the end of history. We are now realising that we are being stripped of the future we were promised in childhood. It feels like we are just stagnating.”

Understood in this context, the sombre sounds reverberating throughout Dungeon Rap: The Evolution make perfect sense. Yet despite his pessimistic assessment, there is some hope – if not for Yatsun, then for the listeners who tune into his music and share the sentiment. When an artist chooses to pursue art, even in the bleakest of circumstances, there is something at work – a belief that making music is an essential part of the process of building an alternative world.

Dungeon Rap: The Evolution is out now via Natural Sciences