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GoetheInstitute

22/08/2005

The avant-garde of hard

Berlin rappers shock with obscene and gruesome lyrics. How dangerous is Hauptstadt Rap?

It was a spooky moment when Berlin’s hardest rappers were allowed onto public service television. A spectre flitting across the screen at a late hour when the little ones were already in bed, between the latest unemployment figures and the devastation caused by Hurricane Dennis. A subject to be treated with an editorial barge-pole. The producers spent a long time discussing whether they wanted run the story at all, but you can't simply draw a veil of silence over something so loud. What followed was a ninety-second clip showing a man covered in tattoos cruising Berlin in a luxury limousine, or on stage yelling obscenities to screams of delight from his teenage audience. Once the fuss was over, the stony expression of "heute-journal" presenter Claus Kleber relaxed a little and he broke into a little rap of his own telling the moral of the story. "Bushido finds it all quite funny" – pause – "he’s so busy counting up his money."



Bushido

The man in question was sitting at home on his enormous porn couch (8,000 euros) in front of his super plasma television (5,000 euros) – and really was splitting his sides. Bushido, the "King of Kingz", rapper from Berlin-Tempelhof, Arab father, German mother, infamous for his corrupting explicit lyrics, live on ZDF – and then the TV man hits the nail on the head. Bushido would love to shake his hand and say: cool show, dude. To make him notice what everyone notices when they meet him. That Anis Mohammed Yussuf Ferchichi, to give Bushido his proper name, is a pleasant and well-educated person to talk to, as long as he is treated with respect. He certainly feels under no compulsion to play the character he embodies in his latest hit – "Carlo Cokxxx Nutten 2", a word warrior from Berlin's underworld with enormous qualities as a sexual athlete and drug dealer – round the clock. Although there is always a touch of terror to him. "I play with it, with the shock effect too." After all, the hardness of the rhymes is the Berlin trademark. And Bushido has a bad reputation to uphold.

The scandal effect is the most precious capital currently circulating in Germany’s new metropolis of rap. For a long time it seemed there was nothing going on, the rap scene pottered around out of sight. Music-TV audiences looked to Stuttgart and Hamburg, where grammar school boys set the tone. The only sign of life underground was a few graffiti-sprayed tube trains and poorly produced tapes. Then Sido appeared, the man in the mask, inviting us to take a stroll through Berlin's Märkisches Viertel district, where welfare recipients live in 16-storey blocks. Dealers, layabouts and pitbull owners flitted through the video for his rapped sociological study "Mein Block" and it seemed as if the door had opened on an underworld haunted by figures with names like King Orgasmus One, Prinz Porno or Der Soziopathe. Rappers who nobody had ever paid heed to – and who would have remained unknown had they not suddenly turned into enormous media blow-ups peering round the nursery door saying boo!



Fler

In the meantime a complex – and for some parties profitable – convergence of interests has arisen. Teenagers from good homes get a creepy kick hearing about dodgy dealings and bizarre sexual practices from real men from the real inner city estates, while more or less competent authorities furrow their brows. When was the last time that happened? This music is not casted. It polarizes, complete with bans and debates about brutalisation. Camera teams turn up to poke around in Berlin’s darker corners looking for even harder stuff, and the elite of bad boy rap keeps on provoking the mainstream. When Fler, the youngest of the bad boys, announced a "German New Wave" (video) in Gothic type embellished with an imperial eagle and the whole scene came under suspicion of being the fifth column of the extreme right, observers even started coming from abroad to see for themselves what is going on in the old Cold War outpost. A reporter from the New York Times is coming to see Bushido. "It’s a big deal," says Bushido, stroking his stubbly chin. He absolutely has to go to the barber's tomorrow morning.

The first finding in our search for a milieu is that the care home kids and migrants’ sons who make up the hard core of Berlin’s hip hop scene greatly enjoy the interest shown by the mainstream. They never had that much attention in their whole lives. They've learned fast, and exploit their talents to the full when the delegations of politicians and reporters turn up. As far as the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons is concerned – it should just keep on banning, nothing could be better for business. Aggro Berlin, the independent record label that has made hard its trademark, has had two gold discs in the past year. Bushido, the golden boy of an ailing music business, cruises the hood in a 7-series BMW. The next step is to polish the image without getting any scratches. Sometimes the heroes of hard rap already seem like actors in a reality soap: Sido the funny one, Bushido the cheeky gentleman, Fler the nasty German. Which brings us to our second finding: bad boy rap is a world of role play and astounding transformations. One moment our protagonist is disappearing into his alter ego. The next he is suddenly the nice boy from next door again.

For example Robert Davis, alias B-Tight. The cover of his CD "Der Neger (in mir)" (The Negro (in me)) shows a muscle-packed gun-toting ghetto gangsta, while the person who opens the door to his nicely furnished flat in Wedding district is a rather slender young man with glasses and the fluffy beginnings of a beard. "Artistic freedom", says B-Tight, son of a German mother and an Afro-American father – you have to be allowed to exaggerate a bit. He leads the way to his "ghetto room" where Tony D is playing a 3-D shooting game. Tony D is half Lebanese, and has run into trouble with the law a couple of times. "The usual stuff", nothing really serious. He is currently resting a foot injury, but that doesn't stop him from working on his reputation as the "Damager" who wipes the floor with his rivals.



Sido

"Fucking" comes up repeatedly, tirelessly, in the hard rap lyrics. "Fuck you", "Fuck you too", "Now I’m really going to fuck you over". A practice that is not restricted to personal rivalries. One gang fucks the other, Wedding district fucks Lichtenberg, Lichtenberg fucks Schöneberg, Schöneberg fucks Tempelhof, Berlin fucks all the rest, the extreme fuck is the shot in the head: bang, bang you’re dead. Nothing unusual in Hauptstadt Rap, say Tony and B-Tight, for them the fun is in the pose, variation and escalation. Exaggeration comes naturally if you have to stand up for yourself on the streets, appealing to authorities is "gay". That is something most Berlin rappers have in common – another finding. They have grown up in a milieu where conflicts are regulated without bringing in outsiders. In case of doubt the one with the bigger mouth – or the scarier cousin – gains the upper hand.

The threat that this grassroots culture represents for the majority is less in the obscene language than in the worry that the values of the future are being generated here. Who knows what will be coming next, after the latest round of cuts in unemployment benefits. The struggle for status and employment has sucked in the middle classes too, and in Eastern Germany whole regions are going to the dogs. Even kids from respectable homes have come to realize that all the talk of upswing, full employment and rewarding hard work again is itself nothing but a morale-boosting rap, so why not go straight to where they openly follow the law of the jungle? Bushido invites me to come to his local dive, one of those overlit Arab cafés where men brood over water pipes and card games and the TV in the corner is never turned off. Between them they have eight hundred years of jail, Bushido says. Of course there's no way to check. But bad boy rap conjures up a magical world of clans and tribes. A world where male bonding gives succour, where only one rule applies with respect to the rest of the world: take what you can get.

"Things are gonna get worse," says Specter, "soon there'll be guns." It sounds as if he's often said it. Specter, real name Eric Remberg, is the driving force behind Aggro Berlin. It's an open secret in the rap scene that Remberg – a former art student – had a hand in forming some of the fearsome Aggro characters. Now he's sitting in the conference room of his business empire in Kreuzberg conjuring up visions of American conditions. Welfare state? What a joke! You just have to look around a bit: everywhere disintegration, people struggling to survive, violent teenagers – "these people aren’t capable of being part of society." Germany is a land of dreamers and the ghetto is already reality, says Specter, and with perfect timing Fler turns up. Fler complains about the unfair treatment he gets in the media, but he knows every headline by heart: more enemies means more honour. Will this article portray him as a right-wing extremist again, he asks, and shows off his muscular forearms. No, he is told, but as someone who plays with fear. Fler leans back in satisfaction and turns back into Patrick Decker, the bullied care home boy. It is good when others are scared, in his world fear means respect.



B-Tight

It doesn't help that even those on the ground, working in schools, are flummoxed by the fascination of the bad boys. Rapper Gauner, for example, can "certainly imagine" that in the long term blasting young minds with swear words might have "a shitty effect." On the other hand puberty is a time for experimentation, and things often get exaggerated in the media. Gauner takes the state-funded HipHop-Mobil round Berlin's schoolyards. He starts with half an hour of conventional teaching about the history of hip hop, as the whole culture was once called, then the students are supposed to experience a little personal success with lyrics they write themselves – a mobile creative workshop in the social democratic mould. But Gauner, a man with long dreads, does not see himself as a teacher, and certainly not a social worker. For one thing he knows that with adolescents in difficult transitional periods, dissing their idols will only achieve the opposite. But he also feels himself part of the scene, a long-time hip hopper who brings out his own records. Unfortunately, he says, some of the ideals have got lost in the interim.

Gauner has watched the heroes come and go first hand. Ten or fifteen years ago the community jammed in dingy cellars and adhered to the political ideals of the old school – solidarity, artistry, fair competition. For Gauner the so-called freestyle battles were an enjoyable culture of conflict where one rapper poked fun at another using carefully crafted words, without wanting to take him out. "You know Savas, you know Sido, you know Bushido?" the schoolkids ask today, and copy – as the practised ear spots immediately – the rude verses of the new kings of the schoolyard. Rapper Gauner does not think that violence has really increased, still less Nazi trends, but he does worry about "this ghetto identification". Portraying your own situation to be worse than it actually is, the importance of cars, cash and chicks, the top dog show. That used to be different, he says, but to find out you would have to conduct systematic interviews and take a scientific approach. Until that happens Berlin hard rap will remain a reclusive beast.

Maybe we can track it down in the city's north-western suburbs, where Sami "Ben" Mansour runs a brisk trade in hip hop merchandise. Hidden between allotments, factories and graffiti-filled walls we find the little shop that Mansour – a former member of the Kreuzberg street gang "36 Boys" – opened when it became clear there was money to be made from the desire to be hard. At 31 he's now almost a veteran, business is booming, and behind the counter stands his mother – a real Berliner – asking those who enter: "What can I do for you, big boy?" LED belts for just under 60 euros and rings with embossed battle names sell best, but a Prinz-Porno CD passes over the counter now and again too. The customers who get their stuff here do not look like delinquents, and when asked they turn out to be grammar school boys from Wilmersdorf and other respectable parts of town. That's normal, says Mansour. Behind the small and mini-circulation underground provocations you'll often find young men from the best homes. He recently had a cult hit with a student from a Steiner school who parodied Sido's "Mein Block" under the title "Mein Dorf" (my village). There's a good deal of evidence that those we are told need protecting are the same individuals we are being warned against.

"Hip hop is a cloak you wear," says Mansour, "What you make out of it is your own business." But not even a little godfather like him knows all his customers, because most of his sales are by mail order. It could be that the true avant-garde of hard is living out there in the sticks, in the dying villages of Brandenburg and Mecklenburg-West Pomerania, where a couple of subsidised factories have been plonked into the landscape and there's nothing much to do. Or in the big cities of the East, like Leipzig, Dresden and Halle. The wildest rumours are already doing the rounds in Berlin: of nine-year-olds from the prefab estates addicted to vodka and flashing their knives after concerts. The question is what will happen if the gangsta rap trend continues and an anonymised record industry starts signing up people who show no interest in the finer points of the verbal martial art of rap. Will we then see the first German hip hop deaths? "Difficult subject", says Mansour and scratches his head. The worst is always elsewhere.

The same evening B-Tight, the "crass Negro" and Tony D, "the Arab" meet in a studio in Neukölln district to put the finishing touches to their latest prank. Aggro's autumn campaign is coming up and their job is to push the limits of Berlin hard rap for the honour of the firm and to enhance their own reputations. Not an easy job, given that Hauptstadt Rap is running out of new ideas. "That's just the foreplay, on 08/08 Germany gets fucked!" B-Tight and Tony D yell into the mike at the tops of their voices, what follows is the familiar torrent of curses and posing, where the central theme of "fucking" is repeated to the point of mindlessness, until at last the pizza man rings with dinner. Even the hardest of the hard need to take a break sometimes.

Watching the fabrication of the provocation, one can't help wondering what would happen if it got out that the most likely solution to the hard rap puzzle is that all those swear words are about as violent as the inherent right-of-way of an S-Class Mercedes-Benz. All they actually say is "Hey, look at me." In other words this is simply a form that draws on the listener's fears and desires and consequently exerts exactly the power that is given to it by the listener. Those who refuse to believe in ghosts will see this autumn's Berlin-style rap above all as an overheated ego machine, making an awful lot of noise as it circles round and round the fact of its own success. Now it is just about being as hard as reality, not to change it but to profit from it. Until people realize this, the bad boys will have to sing their own praises to avoid being left on the shelf. "Heisse Ware" (hot property) is the next prospective hit from B-Tight and Tony D. The album they will be releasing soon bears the cheeky title "Indexgefährdet" (worth banning).

As we went to press it was still unclear whether the Federal Department for Media Harmful to Young Persons was going to take up this immoral offer, but recently Monika Griefahn joined Sido for a "crisis meeting" organized by the teenager magazine Bravo. Griefahn, chairwoman of the Bundestag Committee on Culture and the Media, went on the offensive: "Sido, you have really made something out of yourself. Why don’t you go on to make a contribution to improving our society and our language!" "I have," responded Sido, saying that he had recently spoken to a school class again "and I know for sure I made an impression on those kids." Poacher turned gamekeeper – of course that caused a lot of guffawing from the off. But the victor was clearly Sido, especially as it is safe to assume Monika Griefahn will have missed the charming comedy of the situation. So this "crisis summit" at least confirms one apparently forgotten truth. If adults don't understand it, it's probably youth culture.

*

The article originally appeared in German in Die Zeit on August 18, 2005.

Thomas Groß is a freelance author living in Berlin.

Translation: Meredith Dale.

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