HIP-HOP ACROSS BORDERS

From Humble Origins, German Rap Is Now a Dominant Commercial Force

December 12, 2019

Hip-hop has proven to be one of music’s most customizable and popular genres around the world, with both beats and bars that reflect the unique characteristics of an artist’s background. In this series, we’ll follow the genre around the world, showcasing how hip-hop has been brought to life in different regions, countries, and cultures.

In Germany, the summer of 2019 will go down in history as the tipping point for hip-hop. The genre (called “Deutschrap” at home) has been going strong since the early ’90s, but the past two years have seen it rise sharply to become a chart-dominating force, laying claim to no fewer than half of this past summer’s top 10 hits.

That newfound cultural currency isn’t limited to the charts: Spotify’s dedicated German hip-hop playlist Modus Mio has more than 1 million followers. A two-city live version of Modus Mio last year showcased the enthusiasm and camaraderie of today’s rising German rappers, with Nura (who released her colorful, confident debut solo album this year) memorably stage diving during pop-savvy headliner RIN’s set. She then collaborated onstage with both Jamaica-influenced MC Trettmann and rapper, singer, and multi-instrumentalist Bausa, whose slinky 2017 single “Was du Liebe nennst” stayed atop the German singles charts for eight straight weeks.

A second Modus Mio Live will come to Dortmund on December 14, assembling six of the top artists from the playlist: cloud-rap breakout Ufo361 (who has nearly 4 million monthly listeners), quicksilver female MC Juju, unflappable Deutschrap veteran Summer Cem, new-school gangsta rapper Azet, polished chart mainstay Apache 207, and the hard-bitten yet charismatic Kalim. The variety captured in that cross-section alone shows the healthy range of German hip-hop today.

The playlist’s success has also spawned a podcast, Vor der Mio, in which journalist and broadcaster Salwa Houmsi interviews some of Modus Mio’s most popular artists in the places where they grew up. Houmsi, a half-German, half-Syrian activist who also DJs, has interviewed Juju in Berlin-Neukӧlln, Summer Cem in Mönchengladbach, and the street rapper Olexesh in Kiev (among others) since launching the podcast in July.

The podcast’s premise is no accident: the different cities and specific neighborhoods where rappers came up are every bit as important to them as the wider cultural heritage of their families. Each urban district or regional town has its own vivid identity within German culture, and the bonds of friendship formed in those early days often stay strong across a lifetime.

Case in point: Rüsselsheim, in the country’s southwest, is a six-hour drive from Berlin yet provides a continuing source of inspiration to proud native MERO, who broke through with short social media videos before topping the German and Austrian charts with his 2018 debut single “Baller los.” “It’s always affected me a lot,” he says of his home city and, specifically, its Digger Busch district. “All [the] people I am on tour with today are from there. We grew up together as a family.” 

For Kalim, who raps often about daily life in his native patch of Hamburg, the creative impact of one’s longtime surroundings can’t be overstated. “My city influences my music very much,” he says, citing his home district as a great source of inspiration for his lyrics. “If I had grown up just one district [away], my music would not be the same today.”

When RIN, who headlined the first Modus Mio Live last year, was asked about the rap scene in his home city of Stuttgart in a 2017 interview, he said that the town’s lack of an existing scene left him and his collaborators to build their own from scratch. So even the would-be musical absences of a given place can have an empowering effect on a young or future rapper coming of age there.

That strong bond between rappers and where they come from also resonates with Germany’s large crop of artists of international origins. Turkish by heritage, MERO scored a hit this year with “Olabilir,” a track with Turkish and German lyrics. Likewise, Summer Cem’s 2018 track “Tamam Tamam” brandishes a few Turkish words in the hook.

Other artists with migrant backgrounds include German rapper Capital Bra, who pays homage to his Russian roots during the hook of the 2018 track “Berlin lebt.” There’s also Eno, a rapper of Kurdish descent, who calls back to his heritage musically on 2018’s “Cane Cane,” while Farid Bang musically embraces his Moroccan and Spanish heritage on this year’s “Maghreb Gang.”

“The German hip-hop sound that evolved over the last two years is a unique movement led by artists with [a migrant] background—similar to movements in Italy, the Netherlands, [and] France,” says Head of Music for Germany, Switzerland and Austria, Maik Pallasch. “It’s great to see the rise of all these artists, and particularly the spotlight put on the cultural variety in our society.”

Despite being from all over the world, most of today’s young German rappers perform primarily in German. “All the most-streamed hip-hop artists in Germany are rapping/singing in German,” says Maik. “It’s easier to explain yourself in your own language and transport what you mean and feel in your lyrics.” From there, they usually mix in their local dialect with choice slang terms to create songs that are bouncy melting pots for the ears.

The desire for these artists to both honor their roots and find inspiration in their current whereabouts makes sense. After all, from its birth in New York City’s Bronx four decades ago to its current mainstream clout in Germany, hip-hop has always hinged on rappers communicating who they are and where they’re from. Kalim underscores that idea by likening his work to long-lasting images, emphasizing that his creative evolution—like that of his Deutschrap peers—is by no means finished.

“The important task is to make snapshots timeless,” he says, reflecting on the working process behind his lyrical portraits of his own daily life in Germany. “That takes time, effort, and—above all—love of music. For me it’s a continuous process, and I am still evolving and learning.”

Fans around the world can check out Deutschrap on Spotify’s Modus Mio playlist.