German hip hop was a poser in the 1980s and copied US artists. Leading German rap journalist Falk Schacht explains how rappers in Germany found their own voice and why rap know now boundaries.
Hip hop culture wasborn in New York in the early 70s. Rap was performed in two very distinct ways: On the one hand, there were DJs who dished out raps over disco songs for ageing audiences in Manhattan upscale clubs. Other DJs headed to poorer neighborhoods like the Bronx - which looked like a bomb site at the time - and organized non-commercial funk breaks for the kids.
The historic bit about rapping disco DJs who performed in elite clubs is often left out of the hip hop narrative. But that ignores the tension between mainstream and underground - which is exactly what has hurtled hip hop to global popularity.
Embarrassing start: German hip hop in the 80s
The antagonism between both extremes was evident in the very first rap songs. In 1980, three popular German radio hosts - Thomas Gottschalk, Frank Laufenberg and Manfred Sexauer - got together and called themselves G.L.S. United. They recorded a single dubbed "Rapper's Deutsch," which was a cover of the 1979 hip hop classic "Rapper's Delight" by Sugarhill Gang.
The trio was picking up on a long-time tradition: covering successful English-language titles to ride their wave of success.
While today's hip hop scene has made an ironic peace pact with the comical "Rapper's Deutsch," at the time the single was shunned by rap fans as the epitome of awkwardness. It embodied the flatness of post-war German humor and everything that was uncool about fastidious German pop culture.
"Rapper's Deutsch" was everything they didn't want to be.
First German rap in English
The 1980s were filled to the brim with embarrassing mainstream attempts at rap: from Peter Alexander at the soccer World Cup to boxer René Weller, who was better known for his looks than his athletic talent. Then there were TV hosts, folk pop stars and other B and C celebrities that gave German-language rap a try.
That was one of the main reasons why the underground pioneers of German rap preferred English in the early 1990s. Being cool in the German language seemed like an oxymoron.
The German rappers of the 80s did not make a concerted effort to lend hip hop a German identity. Rather, the distance the genre provided from their own language, their local music scene, and their own culture was the glue that bound the early hip hoppers together. Their goal was to be as hardcore as possible and stay as far away as they could from anything that could be considered commercial or comical.
Further proof of the tension between the mainstream and the underground was the famous conflict between the hip hop scene and the German-language group Die Fantastischen Vier (The Fantastic Four), who were accused of selling too many concert tickets and not staying authentic.
The evolution of the German 'flow'
It was over the course of the 90s that German artists first starting making a serious effort to emancipate themselves from US hip hop as well as from their German predecessors.
The German language was the key.
First of all, some serious attention needed to be paid to writing convincing German lyrics. The known textual patterns simply weren't sufficient to come out of the shadow of the light-footed, elegant rap from the US. There were no musical role models for how to give German lyrics a "flow" without sounding corny.
German hip hop was a baby that had to learn how to walk by crawling first. Which is probably why German hip hop in the 90s was the realm of kids from traditional, middle-class families - not from the ghetto.
Once the linguistic development advanced, mastering the technique became crucial to differentiating between a good and a bad rapper.
From the experienced gangsta to the nimble-tongued guy next door, a whole range of identities are represented on the German rap scene today. The styles found in US hip hop still have a huge influence on German rap, but the stories that are told - the tales that weave identities - are inherently German and don't imitate American culture like they did in the 80s and 90s.
Hip hop is a universal language
How could such a fundamental part of American pop culture like hip hop develop into something that youth from all over the world can identify with? That's just like asking how German-made vinyl technology could take on international cultural significance. It was Emil Berliner from Hanover who invented the record in the late 19th century.
The answer is that the record is a technical invention that can be used by any musician on the globe. And hip hop is a similar kind of matrix - a technique that can be adapted in New York, Berlin or any other city.
But even now, the clash between mainstream and underground still plays an important role in hip hop culture in Germany. The never-ending struggle for dominance between the genres reflects the conflict in every society between the upper and lower classes.
Hip hop mirrors our societies and their respective problems - from homophobia to sexism, and glorification of violence.
Hip hop gives the speechless a voice
Hip hop not only gives a voice to popular ideas, just like pop and folk genres also do, but it also serves as a mouthpiece for those with a smaller voice. Comedian Kaya Yanar caused a sensation when he came out with his first solo television show in 2001 because his parents were immigrants from Turkey.
The attention he got back then shows how rare it was for Germans with an immigration background to rise to fame. The list of pop stars was full of traditional German or Anglo-Saxon celebrities.
Now the German rap scene is strewn with artists with mixed backgrounds and makes a significant contribution to integration. While into the early part of the millennium, young people continued to use English slang, now hip hop culture is laced with expressions from Kurdish, Turkish, Arabic, Croatian and other languages.
Philosopher and filmmaker Hito Steyerl said, "Representation in the cultural sphere is a prerequisite for political self-representation." For the past 40 years, hip hop has been offering the cultural foundation for forming an identity - which also explains its global appeal.
As Afrika Bambaataa, one of the three grandfathers of hip hop culture put it: "Hip hop is universal."
Guest author Falk Schacht is a leading rap journalist and presenter in Germany.