Rough Guide to German Hip Hop
German hip hop may not be a major player on the international scene, but it deserves to get some attention, IMO – if not always for its musical innovation then for its political content. I’m no connoisseur so am using hip hop as a pretty loose term - forgive me.
Hip hop first entered West Germany partly thanks to U.S. soldiers and their G.I. clubs (there are still US troops in Germany today – a hangover from WW2) and partly through hip hop films from the States such as Beat Street (1984). In East Germany, the genre was apparently promoted as proof of the negative effects of capitalism, as rappers called out poor living conditions in the Bronx, corrupt institutions, and social injustice. Experiences
of racism resonated with the many Germans of immigrant backgrounds like the members of Advanced Chemistry and Fresh Familee. These groups also used hip hop to voice their experiences of discrimination – a tradition which continues today and is central to the work of contemporary artists such as Lady Bitch Ray. The tracks I’ve chosen are all distinctly German, as opposed to some early German hip hop which really feel like copycats and often contains a disorientatingly large proportion of English words.
Fremd im eigenen Land - Advanced Chemistry (1992)
Founded in 1987, Advanced Chemistry were pioneers of German hip hop. This track is about being an official German citizen but still not feeling accepted by German society: “Kein Ausländer und doch ein Fremder” (I’m not a foreigner, yet I am a stranger). Although we give Germany a lot of kudos for acknowledging the atrocities of the Third Reich, their colonial past is nowhere near as well accounted for and racism continues to be a huge problem, partly due to the lack of open discussion or awareness, and resulting insidiousness. This track is a staple of old school German hip hop and inevitably its message is still relevant for a lot of young Germans today.
Sexy Kanake - Fresh Familee (1994)
The K-word in this title was originally a racist insult used against people with Mediterranean or Arab appearances (Fresh Familee have Turkish, Moroccan and Macedonian roots), but like some racial slurs in other languages it has been reclaimed, and this song is a big celebration of being “dark skinned” (“dunkelhäutig”). FYI sexy means sexy, which is useful for translating Berlin’s tagline, coined by the mayor in 2003: “arm, aber sexy” (poor but sexy). This hip hop trio was around from 1988 to 1998 and they were one of the first groups to rap in German.
Sonntag – Fettes Brot (1996)
Fettes Brot have been making music for so long that they get called the dinosaurs of Hamburg hip hop. The name Fettes Brot technically means “fat bread” but in slang that’s “sweet hash” B) This is a nice laid back choon called Sunday. A blessed day taken very seriously in Germany: all shops are shut, and you’re not allowed to drill, mow your lawn or recycle glass bottles. Nothing to do except consume some fettes Brot, really.
Get Up – DJ Thomilla, Afrob (2000)
This samples Gwen McCrae’s 1981 track Funky Sensation. It was common to use anglophone samples in early German hip hop because English was seen as the true language of the genre and because the German language was tainted internationally by the Nazi period. Gradually artists began to use their mother tongue, however, as they reached the limits of self-expression in English and committed to communicating socially engaged messages to their fans. Afrob explained in an interview that hearing Public Enemy at the age of 13 and being the only black person in Stuttgart, it “was more than just music”, “for the first time I heard someone say ‘dude, it’s okay to be black.”
Dickes B – Seeed, Black Kappa (2001)
This track, from reggae group Seeed’s first album New Dubby Conquerors (name inspired by Bob Marley), is a tribute to their home city Berlin (that’s the B in the name). “Dick” means big, so you can add that to poor and sexy. There are an increasing number of anglicisms in German so you may catch words at the end of lines such as “record store” and “der Riddim is hardcore” (and Black Kappa’s rap is English/creole). The chorus goes “Big B, home on the Spree, in summer you do well, in winter you hurt”… It may not flow as smoothly in English, but it is at least factually accurate as it does get pretty chilly in the winter.
Party der Versager – Moop Mama (2013)
Combining traditional South German brass band with rap, Moop Mama have a unique sound. A 10-person set-up, they have been around since 2009 and came to fame through their short, flash-mob-style performances in public spaces, which often led to confrontations with the police for disturbance (maybe they did it on a Sunday). This song is about partying despite being a "Very
Unimportant Person” who cannot afford to go to bars and instead buys beer from petrol stations using “Pfand” money (vouchers earnt by recycling glass bottles which people therefore salvage from the streets). It has a cinematic music video which fits with the line “nichts kann so absurd sein wie die Realität” (nothing can be as absurd as reality). The chorus goes “one step forward, two steps back, stomach out, chest in”, subverting two normally encouraging sayings, and the song ends with the Beastie Boys-inspired: “you’ve got to fight for your right to versaaaagen” (fail).
The band is also sometimes political. For example, Meermenschen is a moving song about the refugee crisis and they also played at a Fridays for Future demonstration in 2019.
Quotentürke – Eko Fresh (2013)
He would like to become the German Puff Daddy
21 years on, this track still echoes the sentiment of Fremd im eigenen Land... Eko Fresh was
born in Cologne in 1983, but raps: "Ganz egal, wie sehr ich mich ändere, ich bleib' immer dieser sheiß Ausländer" (However much I change myself I'll always be a fucking foreigner). Eko Fresh is of Turkish and Kurdish descent and this song is about being used as a token foreigner. Fresh has said that he would like to become the German Puff Daddy and, like Daddy, he is also an actor - best known for the film 'Drei Türken und ein Baby' (Three Turks and a Baby) in which his heritage is obviously a significant part of his character. Frustratingly, although the message of this song is that there is enough room in the arts for a range of German-Turkish artists, Fresh emphasises just how big this room is by insultingly comparing it to a female body part of Lady Bitch Ray's (I'll leave it to your imagination). Kinda puts a dampner on the solidarity TBH.
Bitchanel – Lady Bitch Ray (2018)
A hero of mine, Reyhan Şahin (Lady Bitch Ray) has in fact graduated: she now calls herself Doctor Bitch Ray, having published her thesis on the meaning of the Muslim headscarf in 2012. The daughter of 'Gastarbeiter' (literally “guest workers”: predominantly Turkish workers invited to Germany between 1953 and 1973 to help rebuild after the war), Şahin speaks out against patriarchy in the white German mainstream, within Islam, in the music industry and in academia (where, by the way, despite rap’s bad rep for denigrating the ladies, Şahin claims things are actually worse and slower to change at that). Her polarising sexualised, expletive-heavy, Turkish-influenced, female-centric music and videos have had a traceable impact on the current generation of female German rappers.
The music video for Bitchanel opens with Şahin sitting atop a camel. It then cuts to her in a car park, holding a goat on a lead while wearing thigh-high white boots. She raps: “schwarze Witwen sind selbstbestimmt” (widows in black think for themselves) – a nod to the German government’s burqa bans. Scenes of her thrusting on a car bonnet are spliced with clips of belly dancing; the makam scale is used alongside typical electronic hip hop rhythms; and Şahin jumbles Turkish and German words indiscriminately. Before the chorus she sings: “Oh mein Gott, bin ich sexy?!” (OMG, am I sexy?!) It's a rhetorical question.
If you're a music fan and would like to put together your own rough guide to a genre, city, country or artist, please get in touch to contribute to this series: firstname.lastname@example.org. The collection will be put together and published in a print zine by the end of the academic year.