Die Fantastischen Vier, pioneers in combining hip-hop with German lyrics, celebrate their 25th anniversary this year. The group from Stuttgart is one of the country's most commercially successful bands.
It all started on a homemade stage in a former kindergarten. That's where Die Fantastischen Vier had their first show on July 7, 1989, in sleepy Stuttgart.
"I can only remember it in fragments," says band member Andreas Rieke. "It was a very improvised stage with a couple of europallets stacked on top of each other. I was there with a tape deck and fired off some basic beats."
Around 50 people came to see Michael Bernd Schmidt, alias Smudo; Thomas Dürr, alias Thomas D; Michael (Michi) Beck; and Andreas Rieke, alias And.Ypsilon - who now have no trouble filling major concert halls. They've since put out four Number One albums and won five Echo Awards along with many other prizes.
This year, they've already been busy celebrating their anniversary. At the Echo Awards ceremony in March, they delivered a tongue-twisting homage to their 25 years together: in 250 seconds, they managed to pack in lines from 25 of their hits. "25" was the name of the song they released as a free download earlier in the year.
When the band was starting out, combining rap with German lyrics seemed like an utter contradiction. But as Smudo and Thomas D travelled around the US in the late 80s, they became convinced that the genre only makes sense when people understand the message behind the words. Rather than importing the English lingo, they stuck with German terms for rapping ("Sprechgesang") and scratching ("Platten kratzen").
The Fanta Vier, as fans call them, had their breakthrough with "Die da!?" three years later, in 1992. Music critics didn't know how to react. Some were shocked at the idea of rapping in German; others called their style too commercial and corny, mocking their lack of street credibility. Ultimately, though, the group can be credited with freeing rap and hip-hop from German ghetto culture.
Their enormous success also riled critics, who complained of the band commercializing hip-hop and putting out party music instead of taking a more socially critical approach. The band itself was plagued by doubts, Thomas D. later recalled. "I think all four of us experienced success as something negative. We were reduced to just one song. We were a joke you that you could play," he said.
After a phase of relative uncertainty in which the group alternated between a pointedly commercial approach and genuine hip-hop conviction, the latter ultimately won the upper hand. By the time of their 2000 concert in the highly-regarded MTV Unplugged series, they were seen by many as having legitimate artistic credibility.
Today, Die Fantastischen Vier run their own label, "Four Music," and the band and its members have become a fixed institution of the German musical landscape - which might well look very different now without their influence.
As creative role models who have repeatedly reinvented themselves, the Fanta Vier paved the way for other German-language rap stars such as Max Herre, Prinz Pi and Marteria.
The Fanta 'family'
The group's four members are now family fathers who live in different corners of Germany and pursue their own projects. But that's not to say that they have drifted apart, Thomas D. explains.
"We like to call it a family," the rapper says. "We've shared so much with one another. I spent half of my life with the Fantas, and that connects you in a really special way."
In October, Die Fantastischen Vier will release their new album, "Rekord," before they embark on a major concert tour in the winter.