German rap at the turn of the millennium
January 28, 2021
Much like New York in the ’80s, Los Angeles in the ’90s, and Atlanta in the ’10s, in the year 2000 German hip hop had a center of gravity, and it was in Hamburg. Like many musical scenes, it was fairly insular - participants commonly appeared on each other’s records, and key releases came out on a handful of labels (both indie and major) - and like many such shifts in gravity, it both built upon and rejected the music that had preceded it.
As for how “underground” this scene was, it’s a bit difficult to nail down in hindsight. Certainly some Hamburg rappers managed to start long and successful careers during this era, breaking into German pop culture at large, while others put out a few releases and preemptively called it quits - others still kept at it, struggling to replicate their initial success as the scene started to fade in the early 00s.
As a teenager learning German in New Jersey at the time, I was lucky to have a close family friend of the same age in Germany, but also lucky enough to have access to the internet - and the filesharing networks of questionable legality that dotted this period of the internet’s cultural development. This review isn’t meant to be comprehensive in any way - as a non-native, I’m certainly missing a lot of important context (there’s probably a whole separate piece to be written about the impact that the US military’s long-term presence in Germany had on the rap scene), and aspects like the Turkish hip hop scene are completely unknown to me - but here are some memories of the rappers and records that helped me learn German.
Release titles appear In Bold, with song titles “In Bolded Quotes”. English translations appear in italics.
Due to a combination of global licensing issues and the “streaming gap” (German musicians in the early 00s didn’t worry much about their music being available outside of the German-speaking world, and they certainly didn’t sign any licensing terms for streaming), a lot of music from this era is just as difficult to access in the US as it was when I was downloading it from eDonkey2000 two decades ago. Thankfully, much of it survives on YouTube, dodging a takedown notice as long as it can.
The 90s: Rap Takes Germany
Stuttgart pop-rappers Die Fantastischen Vier (The Fantastic Four) had been among the first to rap in German, initially on their 1991 debut album Jetzt geht’s ab (Now It’s Heating Up / Going Off), and breaking through with their 1992 mega-hit “Die da?!” (Her?!)
Their style was initially humorous (perhaps overly so), eventually more introspective, and distinctly German throughout (supposedly, a trip to LA in the late 80s had disabused them of the notion that they as middle-class white Europeans had anything in common with American rap culture).
Fanta 4, as they were commonly known, were far from the only Germans issuing their own take on rap in the 90s, though.
Advanced Chemistry, who hailed from Heidelberg and whose members were all second-generation Germans, were heavily influenced by the political elements of acts like Public Enemy. Their 1992 song “Fremd in eigenen Land” (Foreign In Your Own Country) discussed the oppression they endured:
Das Problem sind die Ideen im System
(Ein echter Deutscher muss auch richtig deutsch aussehen)
Blaue Augen, blondes Haar, keine Gefahr
Gab’s da nicht ‘ne Zeit wo’s schon mal so war?
“Gehst du mal später zurück in deine Heimat?”
Wohin? nach Heidelberg? wo ich ein Heim hab?
“Nein du weisst, was ich mein…”
The problem is the ideas in the system
(A real German also has to really look German)
Blue eyes, blond hair, no danger
Wasn’t it already like that once?
“Will you eventually go back home?”
Where to? Heidelberg, where my home is?
“No, you know what I mean…”
Cora E, meanwhile, discussed middle-class problems (which were, perhaps, considered more broadly relatable) on her single “Schlüsselkind” (Latchkey Kid):
Ich komm’ aus einer Mittelschicht, die gibt’s in Deutschland sicherlich
Oben waren wir nicht und unten nicht
Meine Eltern waren geschieden, da war ich gerade sieben
Gerichte ham entschieden, dass zwei Kinder bei der Mutter blieben
So waren wir zu dritt, zogen aus aus dem großen Haus auf Sylt
Doch die kleine Wohnung war mir recht, denn kein Vater brüllte mehr
I come from a middle class that I’m sure Germany has
We weren’t upper- or lower-
My parents got divorced, when I was seven
The court decided, the two kids stay with the mom
So the three of us moved out of the big house in Sylt
But the little apartment worked for me, no father yelling any more
And throughout the rest of Germany, there were plenty of rap groups starting (Munich’s Blumentopf (Flowerpot) released their first album on Die Fantastischen Vier’s label in 1997 and had a successful two-decade-long career) or indeed, starting and ending (Hamburg’s Fischmob released their first single in 1994, called it quits by 1998, and would best be recognized outside Germany by their founding member DJ Koze, who went on to a long and successful career as a Kompakt-affiliated tech-house prankster).
There were also plenty of pop-rappers (e.g. Tic Tac Toe, Sabrina Setlur / Schwester S, etc.) that leaned much more into pop and saw attendant chart success, though much less staying power. But while the initial breakthrough of Die Fantastischen Vier’s accessible sound had enabled this explosion, the Vier themselves struggled to replicate the commercial success of their initial releases.
Which all brings us to 1999, when they were finally able to top the album charts with their release of 4:99, and in doing so proved themselves as fully embraced by the broader culture (an MTV Unplugged album followed the next year, and all of their studio albums since have peaked at #1 or #2 on German, and often Austrian and Swiss, charts). This success also, however, marked them as now elder statesmen of a scene that they had helped create, but which had grown beyond them.
Meanwhile, In Hamburg
At the same time, in Germany’s port city, a group called Fettes Brot (Fat Bread) was on a path not too far from Fanta 4’s. Founded in 1992, their breakthrough came with the 1995 single “Nordisch by Nature” (Northern By Nature), an ostensible one hit wonder novelty focused on North German life, including a variety of dialects:
Their second album, Außen Top Hits, innen Geschmack (Top Hits Outside, Flavor Inside) (a play on a popular commercial slogan at the time) was led by the single “Jein” (Yes and No), which was equally destined for the mid-90s equivalent of meme status, and spent 37 weeks in the German charts:
Fettes Brot went on to have a long and successful career, reinventing themselves several times (as a pop band, as a punk band, as a novelty band, the list goes on) - RateYourMusic user GhostAreGone makes a more accurate assessment than I could of what you get with Fettes Brot, especially their 90s era:
“Jein” and “Hallo Hip Hop” are just pure fun to listen to and in case you don’t know what Fettes Brot is about, I’ll tell you: They make fun oriented Hip Hop like Die Fantastischen Vier, but they have better rhyming skills and their lyrics are very clever, the way they often rhyme words or play with words makes me wonder how they did it from time to time because I think German isn’t as easy to rhyme as English is and still Schiffmeister, König Boris and Doktor Renz do a great job finding rhyme schemes that work really well and make it a lot of fun to listen to.
And there’s nothing wrong with that! But for the purposes of this piece, the guest list on Außen Top Hits… is more informative, with features from members of Beginner and Fünf Sterne Deluxe (who also appear on the full 9-minute-long album version of Nordisch by Nature), as well as Eins Zwo - all fellow Hamburgers who were central in the more underground elements of the city’s rap scene.
Beginner (originally known as Absolute Beginner), a group helmed by rappers Eißfeldt (also known as Jan Delay) and Denyo, had been releasing music since 1993, without much commercial success until the 1998 release of their album Bambule (a term for a type of prison protest) and its lead single “Liebes Lied” (Favorite Song / Love Song):
The followup single, “Füchse” (Fox), likely introduced most listeners to Samy Deluxe, who would go on to become one of Germany’s most successful rappers (see below):
Ferris MC, who always seemed to shine more on features than on his solo work, also notably appears on “Nie Nett” (Never Nice):
I rock the house, roll a spliff,
Gegenmittel gegen mich gibt’s nich’
gib mir ‘n Beat, mein Kopf is’ voll “pures Gift”
sind die Augen rot, mach’ ich blau bis ich schwarz seh’
Lifestyle: kamikaze, bei mir ‘ne Dauerphase
I rock the house, roll a spliff,
There’s no antidote to me
Give me a beat, my head is full of “pure poison”
(a reference to Dynamite Deluxe’s track of the same name - see below)
my eyes are red, play hooky ‘til I get depressed
(idiomatically, “make blue” = play hooky, “see black” = get depressed)
Lifestyle: kamikaze, a long phase for me
Eißfeldt’s influence on the Hamburg scene cannot be overstated. Eimsbush, which he founded in 1997 as a tape label, would end up putting out over 100 releases, including albums from Samy Deluxe (and his first group, Dynamite Deluxe, as well as his later supergroup with Afrob, ASD).
Eimsbush also released a number of Eißfeldt’s explorations in other genres, like the reggae album Searching For The Jan Soul Rebels (recorded under the Jan Delay name) and Atarihuana, his collaborative instrumental album (with Dynamite Deluxe producer Tropf) as La Boom, which honestly holds up pretty okay as a document of the big beat / electronica era but also includes an inscrutable remix of the Cheers theme song:
Samy Deluxe / Dynamite Deluxe / ASD
I don’t know why German hip hop in this era was so group-heavy - perhaps still playing catch-up with the US scene a bit, which had generally started to move away from groups and DJ / MC pairings, and towards more of a solo star-centric model - but it was. Even one of Hamburg’s strongest rappers, who ended up having a long and active career, had to start off in Dynamite Deluxe - an MC / DJ duo of Samy Deluxe & DJ Dynamite, who put out the album Dynamite Soundsystem.
“Pures Gift” (Pure Poison)
Among the most obvious differences between the more underground Hamburg scene and their poppier predecessors was that the new school of rappers were significantly more open about their love for cannabis:
“Grüne Brille” (Green Glasses)
Samy went solo in 2001, releasing a self-titled album on Eimsbush:
“Samy Deluxe 2001”
He also went on to co-found (with Afrob) the supergroup ASD and release Wer Hätte Das Gedacht? (Who Would Have Thought?) in 2003 - as an example of how German and US rap had begun to interact more, the late J Dilla is among the producers (“Komm Schon”).
“Hey Du (Nimm Dir Zeit)” (Hey You (Take Your Time))
Eins Zwo (One Two), a pairing of rapper Dendemann and DJ / producer Rabauke (who had previously been Fettes Brot’s tour DJ), only put out 1 EP and 2 albums, but they’re among the high points of this era, if not the pinnacles. Dendemann’s raspy tone, relaxed flow, and storytelling skills (with a healthy dose of self-deprecation) paired perfectly with Rabauke’s productions, which evolved over time from fairly standard (but well executed) post-Golden Age beats to incorporate more interesting drum programming and use of space on their final full-length effort. After Eins Zwo called it quits, Dendemann would go on to a moderately successful solo career, including a 2-year stint as, to make a tortured comparison, the Paul Shaffer to Germany’s Jon Stewart.
Their debut EP, Sport, set the scene well with an unfussy but well-constructed collection of tracks, including “Flaschenpost”, which features Dende’s laid back flow trading back and forth with a variety of vocal samples provided by Rabauke from the hip hop that had inspired them - both American and German:
“Flaschenpost” (Message In A Bottle)
Gefährliches Halbwissen (A Little Knowledge Is A Dangerous Thing lit: Dangerous Superficial Knowledge)
On their full length debut, Eins Zwo expanded the palette a bit, but Dende is still at his best reminiscing about being a teenage hip hop obsessive and trying to get girls, as he does in “Hand aufs Herz” (Hand On Heart):
Though as you’ll hear on some of the posse cuts below, he was just as gifted as more of a battle-style rapper (though still he can’t help himself from talking about how things used to be):
“Mitarbeiter des Monats (Employee Of The Month)
“Bombe” (Bomb) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LIyD6UxbFJ4
Zwei (YouTube playlist)
Nico Suave first piqued interest when he effortlessly traded lines with Dendemann on Eins Zwo’s “Sternzeichen Krebs” (Star Sign: Cancer):
He further proved himself to be up there with Dendemann for existential story-style raps, putting out Suave in 2001 before getting caught in label hell. The lead single, “Vergesslich” (Forgetful), performed well, but the deeper cuts on the album provide a better view of Suave’s range and narrative style:
“Lauf der Dinge” (The Way Things Go)
Was soll ich erzählen aus meinem bisherigen Leben? Bin aufgewachsen in ‘ner nicht ganz so schwierigen Gegend
Meine Heimat eine Kleinstadt nah dem Ruhrgebiet. Es war nicht einfach, ich musste sehen, dass ich die Kurve krieg’
Täglich in der Stadt abgehangen, war hin und weg. Es ging um Rap, Drogen erfüllten den Sinn und Zweck
Statt uns weiter zu bilden, kifften wir leider und chillten. Während andere paukten, feilten wir an weiteren Silben
What should I say about my life so far? I grew up in a not so tough area.
My home, a little town near the Ruhr area. It wasn’t easy, I had to try to get my shit together.
Every day hanging in the city, back and forth. Rap and drugs gave me meaning and purpose.
Instead of trying to grow, we just got high and chilled. While others were studying, we honed our syllables.
It’s extremely German to have a song about being a mailman before you were able to rap full time, but it’s also great and kind of profoundly depressing:
“Briefträger-Styles” (Mailman Styles)
Omis luden mich ein in ihren Wohnbereich
Wollten nochmal jugendlich sein, das hat mir schon gereicht
Es hieß: Fühl’ dich wie zu Hause! Da ich Trinkgeld brauchte
Kam sie mir gelegen, die Zigaretten-Pinkelpause
Die eine fragte mich: Was machst’n sonst eigentlich?
In der Freizeit schreibe ich, wenn ich Zeit hab’, zeig’ ich mich
Ich wusste, dass sie’s schwer versteht trotz Hörgerät
Ich sagte: Ich muss gehen, den Bus nehmen, hier noch Ihr Paket!
Grandmas would invite me into their living room
Wanting to be young again, I’m done with it
Like “make yourself at home!” OK, I need the tip
And the break - time to have a smoke and use the can
The one asked me: what else do you actually do?
In my free time I write, I play shows when I have the time
I knew she could barely hear me, even with the hearing aid
I said “I gotta go, I gotta make the bus, here’s your package!”
But that’s certainly not to say that he was only a storyteller:
“Für Dich” (For You)
Suave (YouTube playlist)
Technically he was from Minden (about halfway between Hamburg and Essen) and didn’t interface much with the Hamburg scene, but Curse (born Michael Kurth) cannot be omitted. One of the most technically gifted rappers of this era, Curse was a student of rap, as demonstrated by his take on Biggie’s 10 Crack Commandments:
“10 Rap Gesetze” (10 Rap Commandments)
And was just as comfortable with boasting about the story of an elaborate heist:
Hier steht Michael, für Fakten vertuschen wie Faber Kastell
Mein Kartell konfisziert Bargeld, alles geschah schnell
Here stands Michael, concealing the facts like Faber Kastell
My cartel confiscates cash, it all happened fast
As he was getting despondent:
“Wahre Liebe” (True Love)
Glaubt ihr an die wahre liebe?
Glaubt ihr wirklich daß die Menschen dablieben wenn die Fassade fiele?
Also, glaubt ihr an die Wahre Liebe? He?
Ich tu’s erst wenn ich schließlich in Gottes armen liege
Do you believe in true love?
Do you really think that people would stay when the facade falls?
So do you believe in true love?
I won’t until I finally lie in god’s arms
Finally, the best posse cuts
Beginner “K2” feat. Falk, Samy Deluxe, Ferris MC, Dendemann, Illo, Das Bo
Relegated to the B side of “Füchse” for some reason, a non-album posse cut with appearances from a murderer’s row of Hamburg talent at the time, taking shots in a now long-faded beef involving a Tiger Beat-esque magazine that ran a rap contest.
Deichkind “T2wei” feat. Nico Suave & Dendemann
Until 2011, Germany still had mandatory conscription (or alternative civil service). This is a song about getting out of it.
Eins Zwo “Wort Drauf” (Word Up) feat. Samy Deluxe & Falk
Everybody’s great on this, but Samy really shines.
Samy Deluxe “Session” feat. Dendemann, Illo, Nico Suave
Samy returns the favor, hosting Dendemann (Eins Zwo), Nico Suave, and Illo - a perpetual orbiter of the Hamburg scene who never really broke through on his own.
Sleepwalker “Vorsprechtermin” (Audition) feat. Nico Suave, Eißfeldt, Moqui Marbles, City Nord
Sleepwalker is a Hamburg producer who pulled out his address book one day and curated an honestly incredible double-disc compilation of this scene, with appearances not only from the usual suspects but also artists like Phantom Black, an ex-GI from North Carolina who had been stationed in Germany and ended up moving there. On “Vorsprechtermin”, a variety of Hamburgers try (lyrically) to cajole and threaten Sleepwalker into putting them on his album.
DJ Tomekk “Ich Lebe Für Hip Hop” (I Live For Hip Hop) feat. Curse, GZA, Stieber Twins, Prodigal Sunn
Yes, you get to see GZA speak (or at least lipsync) German.