Cro never leaves home without his bulky panda mask. Muso sports a sexy James Dean coif and careless cigarette. And Casper's latest single features a baptism in the American backwoods and a catchy indie riff.
No, we're not at a frat party. These guys with the short, harmless names are now dominating Germany's mainstream hip hop scene, once the sole domain of four-letter-word, in-your-momma's-face street ganstas.
Cro, Muso, Casper and co. have certainly not chased the bad boys out of town. They're much too nice to do that anyway. Instead, they're sharing the spotlight - and in many cases even the fans - with their gangsta buddies in Germany, and that in a genre that has long been practically synonymous with the "diss."
Dissing (offending someone, in case you're not up on the jargon) is nonetheless far from dead in some camps. Influential German gansta rapper Bushido and his protégé Shindy recently boosted sales and press attention by wishing death on a number of top-ranking politicians, as DW reported. But the new generation of nice-guy rappers not only neglect the diss - they're also mixing in generous portions of electronic, pop, indie and other sounds.
Is that still hip hop?
'Rap is like a chameleon'
"I understand that people say Casper isn't hip hop, but that's wrong," Hamburg-based rap insider and publicist Falk Schacht told DW. "Hip hop can be everything. It's like a chameleon. That's the reason why it can adapt to every culture in the whole world. Even if Casper is rapping on music that indie rockers play, it's still rap music to me."
As for 26-year-old Muso, whose real name is Daniel Giovanni Musumeci, he told DW that there's no box big enough for his sound: "I would say it's rap, but also spoken word. And musically it has a lot of influences, even global beats. It has a lot of electronic influences and is also organic."
Cro - a 23-year-old from Stuttgart born with the name Carlo Waibel - is the self-declared inventor of Raop, his own special mix of rap and pop and also the title of the 2012 album that launched him (well, at least his panda mask) securely onto the public's radar.
"It was very melodious. It had pop appeal," explained Sebastian Andrej Schweizer, co-founder of Chimperator, the label that rocketed Cro to the top of the German charts in 2012 and then signed Muso last summer. "At that time we said, hey, that can work on the radio even though he's a very good rapper. You can listen to it even if you're not a rap fanatic. It was the first time a rapper could go on the radio without needing a children's choir."
Wiping out the class chasm
Essentially, the development of a crossover rap scene in Germany is a natural result of what Schweizer calls a musical cycle. "There was too much coming from one direction," he said, referring to the resurgence of German-language gansta rap in the 2000s. "Then new music came along, and at the moment it's great that both types of music can exist side by side."
But let's go back in the day - years before Muso, Cro and their homies even started rhyming Lego with Eggo. In the 1980s, English-language rap and the accompanying saggy-pants, crooked-cap aesthetic was imported to Germany from the US ghettos together with the graffiti scene. Just like in LA, New York or Detroit, the music spoke first to those who felt marginalized, whether due to their economic class, their ethnic background, or both. But the scene also caught on among a slice of the middle-class, which could actually afford the saggy brand-name garb.
It wasn't until the 1990s, with groundbreakers Die Fantastischen Vier, that German hip hoppers started freeing themselves from their American idols and writing lyrics in their own language. With their hit single "Die da?!" Die Fantastischen Vier were the first German-language hip hop group to make it into the charts and bring German-language rap to the mainstream.
Distancing themselves thematically from Germany's alienated gangstas, Die Fantastischen Vier, Jan Delay and their peers had some pioneer work to do. "They were still trying to develop the language and the art of writing lyrics," explained Falk Schacht. Hip hop had firmly shifted social classes.
It wasn't until the 2000s that gangsta rappers - led by names like Kool Savas, followed later by Sido and Bushido - also deutschified their rhyme. They kept their bad-boy personas, but also drifted into the mainstream and, to a large extent, took over from the light-hearted hip hoppers of the 1990s.
It was only a matter of time until the next wave would come along, and German rappers would go beyond adapting their language to the genre and give not just the rhymes but the whole package a serious overhaul. Notable now is that the current rap scenes, gangsta versus mainstream, exist side-by-side with neither group threatening to pull out their sawed-off shotgun.
Swapping the diss for clever marketing
Sebastian Andrej Schweizer, co-founder of Chimperator, says he personally listens to both kinds of rap - and quite a lot of others do, too. They have nothing to do with social class, he commented, and one group doesn't earn more money than the other.
The musical cycle Schweizer mentions is no coincidence; since the beginning of time, every generation responds in a reactionary way to the one before them. Today's young generation, says Falk Schacht, looks at gangsta rap a bit like a spectacle, because their parents didn't like it. "But they also want their own representative - like Casper."
Or Cro, Muso, and others like Marteria and Die Orsons. For these guys, the question of which language to write in was never posed. Muso explains that rapping in German can affect the entire aesthetic.
"In English, it's a lot more about the attitude, the swag, the gut feeling," explained Muso. "In Germany, we come from the thinkers and poets - for us it's not so much about the swag, but more about texts and the meaning. In German, it's always more difficult to do something that has attitude or is cool without people asking, 'Hey, where's the diss in the text?'"
There's that missing diss again. And while we're at it, they're also missing intimidating prefixes like MC and Big. But while these young crossover rappers shrugged off the residual American influence of their predecessors, they are adopting a technique that's still fairly uncommon on the German music scene but widespread in the US: free downloads.
Chimperator grasped early on that there is little money to be made with recordings. The fact that Cro's music, for example, is light-hearted isn't new, said Schweizer, "But the way he deals with music and publishes it is new - that there are free downloads, entire albums and mixed tapes."
A mixed tape? Digital - obviously not the kind you constantly had to put back together with a pencil. Free music means people will click before they actually know the songs, rather than having to think about whether the EP fits in their monthly allowance.
They'll download, listen and absorb. Then they'll buy the concert ticket, the t-shirt - and even the tote bag. And gang-banger Bushido has yet to bring out the tote bags.