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'Black Tape': The unwritten history of German hip hop

Mikko Stübner-Lankuttis / egDecember 2, 2015

The history of hip hop in the US is well documented, but not in Germany. A new documentary fills the gap and shows how rap became popular through US soldiers based in Germany. Discover 10 German pioneering acts.

Making-of of film "Blacktape" - Copyright: Camino Filmverleih
Image: Camino Filmverleih

In the late 1970s, hip hop battles were held in the Bronx to curb gang violence. These pioneers of hip hop decided to fight with words instead of weapons: Rap was born.

In the early 80s, hip hop culture started conquering the world. It took nearly a decade for Germany to develop its own independent scene. Now German rap is widespread. This year alone, 17 albums have reached the top of the charts. Most of these rappers are so young that they weren't even born when it all started - but not all of them are interested in finding out the origins of their own music: German hip hop used to be a countercultural movement rebelling against social and political injustices.

Road trip through German music history

Originally from Boston, Sékou Neblett came to Freiburg in 1993 to study linguistics. Along with the rapper Max Herre from Stuttgart he was part of the socially conscious hip hop group Freundeskreis (meaning "Circle of Friends"). Over 20 years later, the US rapper has directed a film which pays tribute to German hip hop culture, "Black Tape." He spent four years working on this unusual documentary film, which blurs reality and fiction and opens in Germany on December 3.

In the film, he goes on a quest with two music journalists who've been part of the scene for many years: Falk Schacht and Marcus Staiger.

Based on the content of a black music cassette, they try to track down the mysterious Tigon, who could potentially be the first German to have given a public concert, in barracks of the US army in Heidelberg in 1986.

Searching for the roots

This quest symbolizes the filmmaker's search for the origins of German hip hop: "Every culture needs to reflect on itself at some point. We've had hip hop in Germany for about 30 years already, but the heroes in the scene are not as celebrated as artists in the US or England. "

The documentary meets several well known rappers from different generations, including Thomas D. from Die Fantastischen Vier, Samy Deluxe and Haftbefehl. Through short interviews, they share their views on hip hop, while the search for Tigon continues. It turns out to be difficult to find him, because there are hardly any films documenting the German scene in the 80s.

Semi-documentary films from the US hip hop scene, such as "Wild Style" and "Beat Street," contributed to sparking the movement in Germany. Break dance, graffiti and rap music thrilled the youth from urban regions. From Berlin to Bamberg, teenagers living in cities with US bases could experience hip hop culture first hand. Deep bass resonated in GI clubs, where African American soldiers would dance in colorful sportswear.

German, the taboo language

Tigon is said to have rapped in this context in 1986 - and it triggered a small cultural revolution. Until then, the German language was not considered cool enough for rap. "I found it fascinating to discover how the German language became taboo after World War II, because it was the 'perpetrator's language.' Everyone wanted to keep their distance from these people who had done such horrible things, so even the language was under attack. This of course affected pop culture, too."

Film "Black Tape" Still, Copyright: Camino Filmverleih
The music specialists in the film are also musiciansImage: Camino Filmverleih

The American presence in Germany allowed rap to find its way in the country's culture. In 1986, a band formed in Stuttgart which would later become known as Die Fantastischen Vier (named after Marvel's "Fantastic Four"). They produced the first German rap hits. Their aesthetic was inspired by the US, but they found their own narrative language.

In 1992, the rapper Smudo declared in an MTV interview: "The German language is rap-able." Many have brilliantly demonstrated this fact since.