Germany, 1994. The first album by infamous rap duo Rödelheim Hartreim Projekt (RHP in short) had just come out and it was challenging the status quo of German rap music at the time. Hip Hop culture as a whole and rap music in particular had made the jump across the atlantic just a couple years prior but was already breaking into mainstream consciousness.
Moses Pelham, mastermind behind RHP and founder of record label 3P (short for ‘Pelham Power Productions’) remembers that “nothing much” had happened in German rap at that point. “Before our first album dropped, there had been like, what, eight other records out?” Moses tells me. “But after the success [of the second album of Stuttgart-based crew ‘Die Fantastischen Vier’], more and more records were released. The major labels wanted in on the money.”
Frankfurt vs. Everybody
Stuttgart, together with the more northern German city of Hamburg, would prove to be the leading cities of rap in Germany for years to come. But there was a part of the scene that wasn’t too happy about that. One other city in particular would lead the charge against what was then seen as “the establishment”. Frankfurt, smack in the middle of Germany, was not having it. With a rougher sound and edgier lyrics, Frankfurt city rappers were out to change the perception of hip hop music in Germany and RHP did it by openly disrespecting their peers on wax.
“I’m better than that dude, and I’ll show you.”
“I just looked at it as competition,” Moses explains. “It had that battle component which is just a part of rap music. For me, it just like… look, I’m better than that dude, so I’ll show you.” And he showed it in a way that should get the author of this piece, who was 10 years old when RHP’s first album ‘Direkt aus Rödelheim’ came out, into trouble. It was the first and only record my parents would ever confiscate — for the lyrics, which my legal guardians deemed too aggressive, too confrontative, and too spiked with swear words. Needless to say this only sparked my interest even more.
From the Bronx to the World Stage
Fast forward to 2020. Rap music has arguably become the biggest force in the music industry today. The subcultural movement that developed in the Bronx in the 1970s made its way to the big stages in a matter of just a couple decades. It’s fair to say that rap music, after techno, was the last big wave of innovation in music and there’s nothing on the horizon that’s even coming close. It made a permanent impression on fashion, dance, other music genres, everyday language, art and pop culture at large.
But the genre is problematic, too. On the one hand, it’s predestined to be misunderstood and misinterpreted by default. On the other hand, there are aspects that are, without a doubt, to be seen critical in various ways. It’s no surprise that a culture that developed as an alternative to the ongoing gang violence in the South Bronx of the late 1970s came with a street slang that wasn’t following the rules of political correctness. After all, the concept of going against other rappers and crews in a ‘battle’, one-upping one another, was designed to replace actual, physical turf wars. The tone was, quite naturally, rather rough and so was the lingo of this new style of music.
“Developed as alternative to ongoing gang violence, rap wasn’t made for political correctness.”
So it’s no wonder that to this day, rap music is under constant surveillance. A seemingly imperative machismo, rhymed threats of violence and strong, often sexually charged language are driving factors of the way lyrics are perceived and while a lot of it is discussed without looking at the context or the heritage of the genre and in complete ignorance of the inherent competitive factor, there is no denying that rap music, in parts, has its very real set of problems.
Some of those problems are sexist and homophobic tendencies, the glorification of drug abuse and an understanding of masculinity that can only be described as toxic. On the other hand, rap music undoubtedly played an enormous role in giving a voice to the voiceless and empowered those without power. Looking at his group’s d’oeuvre (as well as the work of many other very conscious rappers and groups), you can only agree with Public Enemy’s Chuck D, who famously said that “rap music is the CNN of the ghetto”. It’s just that with ongoing mainstream success and an enormous amount of records out today, sometimes you have to search for that aspect of the culture a little. For this article, we’re doing exactly that… not quite in the Bronx, though.
Bringing the Roughness to Germany
We meet another rapper from Frankfurt. The name: Vega (and no, the moniker is not a hint towards his dietary choices). With a back catalog of several successful top five albums, it’s fair to say that Vega represents the latest wave of successful rap artists from his hometown. Born 1985, the artist, common name André Witter, was even younger than the author when the first RHP album dropped, but he, too, was deeply impressed.
“I think that was the start of street rap in Germany, the start of a rougher tone of voice in German. It’s interesting how so many people from that time say that these early Rödelheim Records were super rough, but when you listen back to it now, it’s actually quite melodic and playful, too.”
“There must be something in the water here. Frankfurt is very special.”
The packaging, as Vega points out, helped: “The attitude, the way they dressed in bomber jackets and baseball hats… and their videos were off the hook, even for today’s standards.”
When I ask Moses if he agrees that Frankfurt’s scene was responsible for bringing a more grimy, rough sound to German rap music, his answer is simple: “Definitely. Granted, we didn’t rap about selling drugs [like it’s very much on vogue today], simply because we didn’t engage in that. But yes, we definitely were different than everything else that was out there. I sometimes think there must be something in the water here. When it comes to that certain melancholy and that heaviness in the music, Frankfurt is very special.”
The younger Vega mentions German rappers Curse, Kool Savas and Absolute Beginner as early influences, but first and foremost, he looked up to rappers from his hometown: “When Azad published his album ‘Leben’, which came out through Moses Pelham’s label 3P, that took things to another level once again. It was even more street, had a lot of French influences…” and then there’s Moses himself, who “stands out” from all his other role models, as Vega puts it.
The Posterboys of Veganism in German Rap
“Moses is somebody I’ve known for a long time and who I got to know quite well over the years, but I never lost my fascination for the man. Every time we meet, he fascinates me. I’ve learned a lot from him and we’ve had so many deep, sometimes spiritual talks. We share the whole rap thing, we laugh about the same jokes, I’ve got so much to learn from him from a business perspective – and we also share our veganism.”
And there it is. These two friends, rappers and entrepreneurs, with an age difference of over 15 years, are the posterboys for veganism in German rap – and it comes as a bit of a surprise. How come that two rappers from a city well-known for establishing a rough, very street-oriented sound are on board with a notion that, at first sight, doesn’t fit into the ultra-masculinity of a lot of today’s rap music?
“It’s always been us against the establishment, from the bottom to the top.”
“I understand that it might feel like a contradiction, but I don’t think that’s actually true,” Moses tells me. “I know that me saying ‘I don’t want to be your victim’ is really easily turned into ‘you’re an offender then’. But I don’t want to be either!”
Vega agrees. “That’s the thing. I’ve always been an empathetic guy. I’m very emotional, I feel for others and I always thought it important to stand up for the least. That’s what I do in my music, too. I’ve always looked at what I do as being a voice of the forgotten, of the lower class. It’s always been us against the establishment, from the bottom to the top.”
Moses: “I understand it’s too complicated for a punchy billboard headline, but this is just how I am, there’s nothing I can do about it. I could make things way easier for me, in so many ways. But it doesn’t feel right.”
People are complex for sure, and so are their stories. Moses and André are no exception. After all, the former once infamously knocked out a well-known tv-host at an award show for making fun of him on the air, while the latter has a background as an ultra (meaning he’s part of hardcore fan culture in soccer, often associated with street fights). When asked about that part of this life, Vega tells me that yes, he was “a part of street quarrels” but that “all of that was way wilder when I was younger. Soccer is more in the background for me these days, but I had some of the best times of my life with the boys.”
What makes a Man a Man
For Vega, it all comes down to a distorted understanding of masculinity. “Of course you’re confronted with this way of thinking again and again when you’re part of a subculture that’s mainly dominated by men. I was called a pussy for being vegan before, and I was told to eat some meat in order to become tougher.”
“Just because I’m vegan doesn’t mean I can’t punch you in the face.”
But for Vega, “presence and strength and masculinity means looking out for those in need of protection. That’s what makes a man a man in my eyes. Or, as Moses once put it: Just because I’m vegan doesn’t mean I can’t still punch you in the face if you cross me.”
Vega goes on to explain that “obviously, if two groups meet on the street, we’re all there because we want to. For me, it has a bit of a sport aspect as well. It’s a form of competition, just like with rap music. Granted, it happens on an extreme physical level, but there’s a mutual agreement.
“The only thing that matters is how much worth that life has to them.”
That’s very different from animal agriculture. In this case, we’re talking about a creature that’s not in agreement. And it doesn’t matter what worth that life has to you, the only thing that matters is how much worth that life has to that creature. It’s the same for all of us.”
Our own Set of Stereotypes
My last question for Vega is about the role he thinks he plays in veganism. “It’s important that there’s this group of health-nut vegans – but it’s also important that people like us break out of these stereotypes and join in,” he tells me. “This whole thing has to open up now, that’s the next step.”
Moses, I’m sure, would agree. Before we go our ways, he quotes a poem that, as he puts it “has helped him tremendously”. It’s by Al-Ma’arri, a blind Arabian poet, born 973 near Aleppo and it goes like this:
“You are diseased in understanding and religion.
Come to me, that you may hear something of sound truth.
Do not unjustly eat fish the water has given up,
And do not desire as food the flesh of slaughtered animals,
Or the white milk of mothers who intended its pure draught
for their young, not noble ladies.
And do not grieve the unsuspecting birds by taking eggs;
for injustice is the worst of crimes.
And spare the honey which the bees get industriously
from the flowers of fragrant plants;
For they did not store it that it might belong to others,
Nor did they gather it for bounty and gifts.
I washed my hands of all this; and wish that I
Perceived my way before my hair went gray!”