Almost Like Real Gangstas. This time, German rap is coming from the streets. By Scott Roxborough
A new generation of German hip-hoppers is doing what the first generation failed to do - adding a touch of the ghetto to German pop culture.
On my block," spouts Berlin rapper Sido in his new hit song Mein Block, the "air is thick - the buildings are high/few trees - people on drugs/this is where dreams die." "You grow up on hash and concrete," sings Frankfurt hip-hop star Azad on a recent single. "Pigs patrol the street like military." Sido and Azad aren't describing the Bronx or South Central Los Angeles, but Märkisches Viertel in Berlin and downtown Frankfurt/Main. Their images of crime and police brutality, drug abuse and casual violence is not the way most Germans think about their own country, but their mix of crude German and English slang rapped over a pounding beat is climbing the charts. A whole generation of German rap stars with tags like Sido and Azad, Kool Savas, Bushido and B-Tight are dressing ghetto, talking trash and keeping it real. Call it German Gangsta Rap. Visit any German high school and it is clear German kids also want to walk the walk and talk the talk of U.S. hip-hop.
No one plays baseball here, but baseball caps - pulled down low, twisted sideways or back-to-front - are everywhere. Baggy jeans hang on hips as do jogging pants in gang colors - even though there are rarely real gangs to go with them. Reebok running shoes are standard. Not because of the brand's Made-in-Germany seal of quality, but because the sneakers have been a mark of hip-hop cool since New York rappers Run-DMC donned top-to-bottom Reebok style back in the 1980s. In school hallways, kids rap a mix of English words with German grammar - "Ich bin on fire" and "Ich kille." German rap music is nothing new. Like rock 'n' roll, it was first introduced to German kids by American G.I.s. In the mid-1980s, U.S. military personnel brought tapes of Grand Master Flash and Run-DMC with them on their German tours of duty. Soon, underground hip-hop clubs sprang up in cities near U.S. army bases in Frankfurt, Stuttgart, Munich and Berlin. German kids also started to rap - in English at first and then, slowly, in their own language. But instead of singing of pimps and hoes, German rappers - most of them white kids from well-off middle class families - sang about love and loss and having a good time on a Friday night.
Groups like Die Fantastischen Vier (The Fantastic Four), Massive Töne (Massive Sounds), Blumentopf (Flower Pot) and Fettes Brot (Greasy Bread) were all very tame.
Die Fantastischen Vier topped the charts with Sie ist weg (girl dumps boy) and Ein Tag am Meer (a day at the seashore), Fettes Brot with Nordish by Nature (a hymn to Hamburg, fried fish and Flensburg beer) and a tongue-in-cheek German-language cover of Steve Miller's Gangster Of Love. "It was the nice German middle-class kids who started rapping, imitating what they saw on MTV or heard in the underground clubs," said Markus Hablizel, a journalist for German music magazine Spex. "They were the ones who could afford to spend their allowance on CDs or music equipment. They didn't have rough lives and they didn't rap rough." This stands in stark contrast to the way rap was transplanted in other European countries. In France, the children of African and Arab immigrants in the Banlieue housing projects around Paris and Marseille seized on hip-hop as a way of expressing their unique cultural identity.
Musicians like MC Solaar, NTM and I AM rapped in verland and argot - French immigrant slang - giving a voice to first-generation immigrants in Le Grande Nation. Across the channel, Caribbean and Jamaican communities in London and Birmingham gave rise to home-grown rappers including Mark Morrison and Pato Banton, who mixed Afro-Caribbean beats with a no-holds-barred depiction of English ghetto life. That tradition continues with current U.K. acts like Dizzee Rascal and So Solid Crew. "It was different in Germany because we don't have a colonial past," explained Hablizel. "We have immigrant communities, but they aren't as large or as well established as those in France or the United Kingdom. It has taken a lot longer for gangster rap to go mainstream."
"Up till now, German rap was incredibly boring," argued Specter - that's the only name he goes by - the co-founder of the Berlin independent record label AggroBerlin, which has German hip hoppers Sido and B-Tight on its roster. "Germans just weren't courageous enough to be aggressive." "German hip-hop wants to go gangsta/The ho just don't know how," Azad raps on his latest album Der Bozz. The gangster pose of these new rap artists often borders on parody. Sido wears a Halloween-style chrome death mask on stage; Azad likes to dress in Army camouflage gear and grips bloody butcher knives. In public, their anti-social behavior seems modeled on U.S. hip-hoppers. At last summer's Stuttgart Hip Hop Open, Azad got into a fistfight with Sido after the Berlin rapper insulted Azad's "mama." But German hip-hop stops short of the extreme violence heard in songs by American rappers like Ice-T, N.W.A. or Ice Cube. There are no drive-by shootings, gang killings or calls to gun down the police. In another contrast to U.S. rappers, the violence in German hip-hop stays largely on the stage.
After his public row with Azad at the Stuttgart Hip Hop Open, Sido quickly apologized.
"I shouldn't have said those things about his mother," Sido said on German music TV channel Viva. "I'd like to tell his mother I'm sorry." Compare this to the East Coast-West Coast hip-hop war that is blamed for the shooting deaths of American rappers like Biggie Smalls, Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. Teutonic hip-hop is less political than the U.S. variety, though Azad raps about "Germany's class society" and Sido describes Berlin's housing projects as "concrete prisons." "This is coming from the 'German ghetto' if you like," says Hablizel, "but you can't really compare the 'ghettos' of Berlin and Frankfurt to those in New York or Los Angeles. It's not that bad. I think German rappers know this. When they sing about being a gangster, there is always a touch of irony, a twinkle in the eye."
Despite the theatrics, however, the "from the streets" style it isn't just an act.
"I don't know if they are really gangsters," said Hablizel, "but they definitely aren't middle-class white kids. "They come from some pretty rough areas. Märkisches Viertel in Berlin might not be South Central, but it can be pretty nasty." Most of this new generation of German rappers comes from immigrant or mixed backgrounds, similar to U.K. and French hip-hoppers. Bushido is the son of a Tunisian father and German mother; Azad is a Kurdish refugee; Sido is German-Indian; rapper Eko Fresh from Mönchengladbach is of Turkish ancestry. That cultural background informs their lyrics. Most German teachers would shudder at Bushido's crude grammar, but anyone who rides the subway in Berlin, Munich or Frankfurt will recognize the distinct cadence and flavor of his first-generation immigrant German.
Eko Fresh, who scored a summer hit in 2003 with König von Deutschland (King Of Germany), released the first-ever German-Turkish rap album in 2004 together with Turkish rapper Azra. Dünya Dönüyor, a concept album that follows the story of an ordinary Turkish boy growing up in Germany, switches between Turkish and German lyrics - often in the same song - all sung over an oriental electronic beat. "The language is rougher, more direct and closer to how a lot of kids talk," Hablizel says. "Whether or not that is an improvement on earlier German hip-hop is a matter of debate."
And as it is in the United States, aggression is a big part of German gangsta rap. Aggression is one of the foundations of our street culture," argues Specter of AggroBerlin.
"I'll burn you like napalm," screams Azad in one song. "I'm planning murder and rape... I'm a fighting dog on the mike," raps Bushido. However, what rappers of the new generation are most interested in is not politics, but music. They want to change rap. That's why more often that not their anger is directed at older rapper rivals like Blumentopf and Die Fantastischen Vier.
"If you'd rather sit at home by your pool, eat from a nicely-set dinner table/Then you'll soon realize Berlin's not for you," Sido raps on Mein Block. "This is my block, not Blumentopf's block! Yeah!" The fans are in on the joke. Many of the kids who bought Sido's debut Maske also checked out Viel, the latest best seller from Die Fantastischen Vier, and groove to Eminem, 50 Cent and Jay-Z. German kids, after all, have never had much of a problem playing mix-and-match with U.S. and German culture, or adapting U.S. imports to fit local customs. If you can mix Sauerbraten with French Fries, why not gold chains with Lederhosen?
- Scott Roxborough is a Canadian journalist living in Cologne and German bureau chief for the leading media trade daily The Hollywood Reporter.