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Hip Hop Is Today's Punk

May 19, 2006

Gerald Mandl and Florian Zwietnig have made a name for themselves as Mediengruppe Telekommander. DW-WORLD.DE spoke to them about their newly released second album, "Näher am Menschen," and the changing music industry.

The hip-hop duo aims to make "honest" musicImage: presse / lars borges

DW.WORLD.DE: What's the story behind your name?

Gerald Mandl: We got the name from Italy. Telecommando means remote control, and we thought it would be great for an electronic project. At some point, it occurred to us to expand the name to Mediengruppe (media group) Telekommander, since it's not only the music that's important to us, but also the graphic design, the Web site, etc.

The new album sounds a bit cleaner, better produced.

Mandl: This time we focussed quite heavily on the music production. We worked with live drums, recorded the drums, cut them and interwove them with the electronic sounds and generally wanted to have more depth and dynamic in it. The first album was totally loud and always on the edge. The new one is much more dynamic.

The first album sounds rawer and that was an identifying feature. Not that the protest element isn't in the new album, but it sounds more polished.

Florian Zwietnig: Yes, that's how we wanted it. We wanted to develop further musically and not stand still on that point. We didn't want to make a second record that sounded exactly like the first, but instead to go a step further musically and textually. It was a logical step in the development that we brought out more sound-wise.

With you two, you can't tell where the critical attitude ends and the joke begins. Do you do that on purpose?

Zwietnig: It's very important to us not to become a classic punk band with our content. The last thing we wanted was to shout whatever well-known slogans that are clearly directly against something. That people say: We are here and over there is something we're criticizing. It has to always be done with a certain wink and a certain irony so that you see yourself as a part of the whole and don't take yourself so seriously. Punk often takes itself too seriously.

I haven't noticed a punk style of protest in your music, but rather a much more amusing way to criticize that's more likely to come from hip hop.

Mandl: It's today's punk.

Zwietnig: We listen to a lot of hip hop, and then this special mixture emerged. But in any case, we try not to take ourselves too seriously.

Is "underground" still a concept today?

Zwietnig: To be honest, it's ever more difficult to label it that way. Of course there are scenes that play out in a way that would now be called underground. Things that happen entirely off the beaten track. Bands that are never reviewed anywhere, but that everyone knows who belongs to that scene. But that is an infinitesimally small portion.

Then is underground merely the preliminary phase before getting a record contract?

Der österreichische Sänger Falco
Austrian singer and pop musician Falco: innovative in the German-singing worldImage: AP

Mandl: No, there's still something that goes on parallel to the commercial market. There are lots of fanzines, fan magazines for the different musical areas, where records are also discussed. To me it's more of a co-existence.

Zwietnig: Today "indie" is just a music style. But you can't forget that this picture is heavily affected by America. Many of these so-called indie companies -- which really were small companies for the Americans -- are bigger than many a media company in Germany ever was. And everything that we used to pick up on as underground and indie was already so commercial and big that it only seemed indie to us, because compared to Tina Turner, or Mariah Carey today, it was underground. But in reality it was similarly commercial as everything else -- otherwise we wouldn't even have picked up on it in Germany.

Isn't it a sad paradox that today we can easily get music from throughout the world at the same time as the underground scene disappears?

Zwietnig: I really don't know why that's happening. It is a structural change and it will only be be apparent in a few years what will come of it. The big record labels are not what they once were. They are decaying too, having to let personnel go, are dwindling quite heavily. And it's still open what the structure will emerge next. Perhaps a new underground will come out of the Internet, so that bands become famous through Web sites like MySpace, without ever having recorded anything.

Your breakthrough came in 2004, when your first big hit was played on German music video channel VIVA, which no longer exists. Do you think that could happen today?

Mandl: There's no channel that would play our video anymore. In Austria, there are a few broadcasters that could still play our videos, but otherwise it wouldn't be possible anymore.

Zwietnig: It seems that the broadcasters work better with cell phone ring tones than just with music. You probably can't yet say what effect that has on the music industry. I don't actively buy very much music these days, but when I look back I remember that I used to buy things after I became aware of them through MTV. If you consider that the broadcast time that is purely for music videos, and especially German music videos, is only a tiny percentage -- one band at the most is featured per month and that certainly won't be the Mediengruppe.

What do you think of German hip hop, which is visible everywhere these days?

Mandl: We found the beginnings of German-language hip hop, above all that of it from Hamburg, really witty and innovative, linguistically innovative. The hip hop now going on, is musically OK, but the content -- and the way it's presented -- is simply badly copied from American ghetto rap. When people know think they have to act tough and that there are tough parts of town I don't like it.

Zwietnig: There is no such thing as German hip hop, just German-language hip hop. And there people try to come relatively close to the model from America in terms of technical production. There is no creative impulse to make something of one's own. Falco is a very good example for the first step in German hip hop and something absolutely innovative.

One of your fans said you sound like Berlin. What does Berlin sound like?

Mandl: Dirty.

Zwietnig: I think that what connects the rest of Germany to the Berlin music style is a sort of electronic music with people singing to it. Like Peaches or Chicks On Speed. And the bizarre thing about it is they don't even come from Berlin. That's the image that is projected, even if there are thousands of other bands in Berlin.

Rodrigo Abdelmalack interviewed Mediengruppe Telekommander (ncy)