My role, if you could call it that, was a belligerent, drunk American film director on the set of a Russian TV commercial that involved women gyrating around a white Rolls-Royce. It consisted entirely of yelling variations on “I can’t work like this.” (In a sense, this was remarkably on-brand). Since dialogue in a foreign language didn’t affect the movie’s rating, I took the chance to rewrite my lines as an endless stream of obscenity. For inspiration, I studied J.K. Simmons's amazing monologue in the “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen” episode of Party Down — “I will rip off your dick and fuck your dog with it. (pause) To death.”
Also in the scene was the Hoodyakovs’ best friend Timati, Russia’s most commercially successful rapper. (The white Rolls-Royce behind the writhing women was his; its well-being concerned him greatly throughout the shoot). Timati was as cuddly as a tattooed teddy bear, a so-so rhymer, and a devoted fan of the Putin administration, a fact that popped up in his lyrics with increasing urgency. Born into brand new money as Timur Yunusov, Timati was part Jewish, part Tatar. In Russia, this combination was enough to make him “black,” a self-chosen designation he made the centerpiece of his Black Star empire, which has at various points encompassed a record label, a line of impressively derivative clothes, a barbershop, a burger franchise, an online gaming company, a soccer team, and a mobile carrier service. His biggest claim to fame outside Russia was a European dance hit called “Welcome to St. Tropez,” a greeting Timati was fully authorized to dispense: his father had a villa there.
In the interminable waiting periods that comprise 95 percent of every film shoot, Timati and I made small talk, most of which he insisted on keeping in English, and exchanged phone numbers. Then it was my turn to go before the camera and spew profanity, and amid my jitters I all but forgot about this encounter. A couple of weeks later, my phone rang in the middle of an editors’ meeting. It was Timati. He phoned to say that he had written a song called “GQ.”
At first, I thought this was a prank. It wasn’t. Jay-Z’s “Tom Ford” had just come out, ushering in a very brief era of “brand rap.” In his search for a name that would denote the same kind of sophistication to the Russian ear, Timati explained, he hit upon the title of my magazine. Now he wanted my opinion on the song. My opinion, at the moment, was roughly along the lines of Holy shit.
That night, my friend Andrew Ryvkin and I went to Timati’s studio on Leninsky Prospect to preview the track. We anticipated clouds of pot smoke, someone asleep in a corner, buxom women lolling about – you know, a rap studio. Timati’s lair turned out to be nothing of the sort. If not for a couple of massive security guys out front, it would have looked like a dentist's office. Timati, like the Hoodyakovs, was drug- and alcohol-free and demanded the same from his colleagues and hangers-on. Andrew and I sank into a leather couch and listened to a rough mix of the song. It was a brass-driven stomp, catchy as all hell. Each hook had twelve iterations of the word GQ. In fact, the word was the hook.
Real gentlemen, always fresh
GQ, GQ, GQ
Intellect attracts cash
GQ, GQ, GQ
The aroma makes the girls moan
GQ, GQ, GQ
Gonna make it all the way on my own
GQ, GQ, GQ
I composed myself and took the news back to Condé Nast. Now the company had to choose one of the three possible reactions: we could haughtily ignore the song; actively fight its release on trademark grounds; or just ride this tiger, see where it takes us, and pretend this was the plan all along. I lobbied hard for option #3. Didn’t we want a new audience for the magazine? Well, there it was, on a platter. An admittedly weird platter, but still.
Another week later, I was swinging a golf club at the camera for the song’s video, directed by — who else — Pavel Hoodyakov. Around me, dancing and vamping in black tie in front of the giant black letters G and Q, was a who’s who of the Putinist elite: Enrique Iglesias-like crooner Emin Agalarov, mega-restaurateur Arkady Novikov, TV host Garik Martirosyan, standup comedian Vladimir Vinokur (“he has Putin on speed dial!” admiringly whispered Hoody into my ear), media magnate Sergei Kozhevnikov, and movie star, producer, director, and entrepreneur Fedor Bondarchuk. Women in Gatsby-style flapper costumes licked GQ-shaped pieces of ice. Confetti rained. Timati did donuts on a tiny red motorbike. There was a pony. It had taken me less than two years to get here from covering the anti-Putin protests at Sakharov Square.