While most mainstream Berlin hip hop consists of posturing ‘gangsta’ rap from the likes of Bushido, there’s a surprisingly lively underground of new rappers on the block. Even more unusual for hip hop in Germany is the fact that they’re black.
Way back when in Berlin hip hop, circa-1995, jams at the Royal Bunker Café took place every Sunday in Kreuzberg and were frequented by now big-time Berlin hip hop artists like K.I.Z., Taktlo$$ and Frauenarzt. This spawned a primitive Royal Bunker record label before the more commercially successful Aggro Berlin entered the scene, signing Sido and Bushido. Several feuds between them and Turkish-German rappers Eko Fresh and Kool Savas ensued, suiting their cookie-cutter gangsta personas down to the ground. Primarily from immigrant backgrounds, Berlin’s original rappers cut their teeth venting their frustrations like their African American influences in the US. These days, they get vocal about little more than the hipster newcomers infiltrating ‘their’ city… a growing number of whom, ironically, are black rappers.
“It’s like there are two cultures here living side by side, the original scene and the people who have come over here and made it their playground or studio space,” says dreadlocked East Londoner Infinite Livez, a solo MC and DJ boasting Big Dada and Ninja Tune connections but now crafting his own special kind of experimental, electronic hip hop. He comes from a Jamaican family, and sees his role not that of hip hop purist, but rather someone who can “throw something different into the mix”. He takes more influence from Berlin’s street art than its music. “I might not find resonance with the original Berlin hip hop, but the only dig I’ve really got to make at the scene here is that Berlin’s home to many people who are into subculture as a uniform: punks, hip hoppers… It’s all a bit too literal, like they’re trying to emulate something.”
Ugandan rapper Abba Lang is deeply involved in Berlin’s hip hop subculture, yet ambivalent about it. His five-piece group Klear Kut was Uganda’s first mainstream hip hop act back in 2000; he left the country to study in Malta and he’s now a Berlin resident. “My lyrics cover everything from going out and partying to a story of a guy who story of a guy who moves from Africa to Europe full of expectations about how much better life will be here, only to find out he might well have been better off at home.” He attends events from the Don’t Let The Label Label You (DLTLLY) rap battles to The SWAG Jam at Badehaus Szimpla and hosts East-West Sessions, a bi-monthly live jam event at Panke in Wedding. Still, he remains unconvinced by German ‘gangsta’ rap. “When German guys rap about bitches and hoes, it doesn’t make sense. They’re not from the ghetto. Black music has been bastardised by white people throughout history. It happened with house and techno, it happened with soul. But believing in freedom of speech means I think everyone has the right to play the music they want.”
Not that any of the new wave of Berlin black rappers are ‘from the ghetto’. Rather, their work tends to be more thoughtful and experimental, though some have no qualms about working with the old guard.
Thunderbird Gerard, who grew up in Crestview Heights in the New York suburbs and moved to Berlin via London a few years ago, met pop-rapper Casper’s producer DJ Stickle at a party and ended up working with both of them. “Casper’s style is very different to mine, but he’s my friend and I respect his ability to reflect who he really is through his music. I also like K.I.Z.’s sense of humour. It’s not that I don’t like the gangsta or street rap stuff, I just don’t connect with it. That’s just not my life. Though I do like the one Sido track, that goes ‘Mein Block, Meine Stadt…’”
When German guys rap about bitches and hoes, it doesn’t make sense. They’re not from the ghetto.
Whether they identify with the ‘gangsta’ scene or not, black rappers in Germany sometimes find themselves pigeonholed. “Berlin is international as can be, no comments or questions about my skin colour whatsoever. However, there is a black rapper cliché of producing degrading, negative and hateful shit, so it’s hard to be an MC who tries to involve a message,” says Juju, a half-American, half-German rapper who moved to Berlin from Schweinfurt and makes old-school, 1990s-style rap a la A Tribe Called Quest. “Some people can’t distinguish between the different styles of hip hop so I’m sometimes no different from a pop rap dude for them.”
Black Cracker, an Atlanta-born New Yorker and Berliner of three years who performed at this year’s Berlin Festival, has dabbled in spoken word and jazz and worked with artists like CocoRosie; he’s much closer to the hipsters Bushido and Sido vilify than the African American rappers they fetishise. Does he think hip hop has been torn from its roots here in Germany? “I don’t feel that way whatsoever, not that I have any authority to say this anyway just because I have brown skin. I was brought up going to church, not listening to hip hop. But artists should share their actual experiences and stay true to their personal roots. What becomes complex is when a person loses their sense of dimension for the sake of gaining popularity: just be honest, be funny, be dark, whatever. I’m fortunate enough to have been given the sort of life experiences that make me feel most at home in the fringes. At least there is little competition here for me, it feels great to be seen as such a different or isolated voice.”
Stimulus is a DJ and MC as well as a vocalist in the seven-piece New York-based jazz/funk band The Real Live Show; he has been in Berlin for over two years. “The most interesting thing about being a black rapper in Berlin is that I am in the minority. Hip hop is usually characterised as an art form created and performed by mostly black artists. In the US it seems like the vast majority of hip hop artists are black; it’s stereotyped as music for black people. It’s actually much bigger than that. It’s music for everyone.” On ‘gangsta’ rap here, he feels a divide between the good and the bad. “I’m a fan of sincerity. Fake gangstas making hip hop music are my least favourite artists. People who use it to glorify violence and negativity that they have not experienced themselves are frauds in my book. Some argue that music is part of the entertainment industry and making up a gangster persona and rapping about it is no different than a movie like Scarface. It’s a valid point. But posturing is corny whatever language or country it’s in.” Staying true to who you are, whoever you are, is the main thing. “As long as you’re being yourself, you get no hate from me,” says Stimulus. “You might not get love either if I don’t like your style or sound, but I’m just one in seven billion.”
Originally published in issue #131, October 2014.