Berlin Hardcore Rapping their Way out of the Ghetto

With its high unemployment and slew of social problems, the Berlin area of Wedding has the reputation of being one of the capital's toughest hoods. But thanks to the local rap music label Shokmuzik, kids are getting a chance to escape the ghetto.

By Daniel Haas and Frithjof Ohm (Photos)

Rappers Crackaveli and D-Irie on the streets of Wedding in Berlin.
Frithjof Ohm

Rappers Crackaveli and D-Irie on the streets of Wedding in Berlin.

The three men and two women who have just walked in might look like ghetto gangsters, with their sneakers, baggy T-shirts and sweatpants, but the billy clubs in their hands give them away as undercover police officers. "I want to see all your IDs," snaps one of the women.

Nearby a robbery has just taken place and the five local boys are all suspects. Big Sal is German-American, Crackaveli has Serbian parents and Emok, Biggie and Osan are born and bred Berliners from Turkish families. As one of the female police officers questions the 16-year-old Biggie, he folds his arms across his chest and calmly shakes his head. The robbery doesn't have anything to do with him, he says.

Although the school-holidays are now over, many young people in the Berlin neighborhood of Wedding hardly notice. They hardly go to school anyway. Crackaveli, for example, gave up school at 17 when he became a father and had to get a job. Or the black German D-Irie, who made his first appearance in court at 13.

Last Night a DJ Saved My Life

Today both of them have contracts as rappers at Shokmuzik, a record label based in the Berlin district of Wedding. They have just brought out their first album, "Doppeltes Risiko," or "Double Risk" in English. Already the pair is getting a fair amount of media attention: hip-hop magazines, such as "Juice" and "Backspin," have written about them and the German public TV channel ZDF is planning to film a piece about their lives.

But this success does not make them immune from the drawbacks of their lives. "I get stopped by the police all the time," complains the 23-year-old Crackaveli. "Soon I am going to start hanging my ID round my neck." Osan, who together with Biggie is an upcoming MC with Shokmuzik, jumps in: "They already had us in their sights yesterday."

The rappers from Shokmuzik are not the only ones to be watched. The whole Wedding neighborhood is constantly under observation due to the area's reputation as a hotbed for violence and crime. The unemployment rate is at 24 percent, almost 50 percent of the locals are immigrants and one in five people live on social welfare.

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The police have their eyes on the Wedding youth center in particular. The building is right next to a square, known as the Nauener, which has a reputation as a haven for drug dealers. Drontheimer Street, which was the focal point for a bloody gang war in the late 1990s, is just a few hundred meters away.

Rap Night-School

But in reality the youth center is a ray of light in what is otherwise a miserable area. Workshops and evening classes are held in the center in an effort to get the kids off the street and give them something to look forward to. Until recently the 30-year-old head of Shokmuzik, Big Sal, also gave classes in the graffiti-sprayed building. He taught here four to five hours a day, bringing in DJs, rappers and music producers.

The success was incredible. At the end there were almost too many applicants. "There were 40 or 50 kids in one room. The social workers got a real shock," says Big Sal, his eyes shining with enthusiasm. "We don't want to persuade them of anything or give them therapy. We just want to inspire them to want to do something. That way they might want to invest their next €10 in their computer, rather than buying some dope to smoke." Osan, 16, and Biggie are two kids who attended the workshops and who now rap rather than hang out on the streets. They are both proud of having taken part. "The kids come to us. They want to talk and be a part of it," says Crackaveli. "You don't get any respect here if you are just a piece of dirt."

Respect is the hard currency of the hip hop world. And in the studio a few blocks away the people who get the most respect around here are plastered on the walls: A supplicant humbly kisses the hand of Don Corleone, who sits enthroned behind his desk with his eyes half-closed; Tony Montana, alias Scarface, holds a loaded machine gun in firing position. The tiny recording studio has no windows and a plastic air-freshener in the shape of a tree fights against the bad air. Round the room are a few scuffed fake-leather armchairs which have been repaired with packing tape. This is the home of Berlin's cutting-edge rap scene. It's here that music producer Kris Ill, 24, works on the hard-core beats and rough synthesized sounds which have become Shokmuzik's trade-mark.

Big Sal, head of the label Shockmuzik. In between rapping he has also run night-school classes for kids in the area.
Frithjof Ohm

Big Sal, head of the label Shockmuzik. In between rapping he has also run night-school classes for kids in the area.

The label is still a world away from Godfather gangster glamour. But to make up for it, the sounds and lyrics pumping out of the ghetto-blaster are tougher than ever. In our neighborhood people get stabbed at parties," chants D-Irie in the song "Only the strong ones;" "I know you need it hard," explains Crackaveli in a song to his girlfriend. Is this then how they win the much lauded respect? Are adolescent lyrics and an aggressive attitude necessary to impress fans? "We rap about what we know about," says D-Irie, 24. He thinks it's absurd to say that his lyrics could incite violence. "When something like that happens, it is a problem of how people are brought up. I don't let it worry me."

Mind Your Language

In any case, D-Irie says, the rappers are considerate of the community they live in: When they give local concerts which are attended by Muslim families with their children, they leave out words like "slut" "whore" and "fuck." He says that the hard drugs which are sold around the Nauener square are the main problem. As well as the fact that everything starts so young for the kids in the area. "I have real problems with the fact that I was arrested at the age of 13," D-Irie says. "I was just too young. A child should be able to grow up untroubled. It messes with your head when you're just nine and already see that everything's a mess. That ain't cool."

Nevertheless there are oases of calm amid the social misery. At least for a few hours. The street party on Nauener Square, which takes place the next day, brings everyone together: Turks, Arabs, Germans, Serbs and Croats. A multicultural paradise in the middle of one of the country's most crisis ridden areas.

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A street soccer tournament is on the program, as well as performances from Biggie and Osan, while three songs by Crackavelli and D-Irie will be the party's highpoint. The organization Kiezboom is organizing the festival. Mescut Lencper, who is in charge of everything, runs around excitedly among the guests. DJ Raz-Q is spinning records on the small stage next to the fenced-in football field.

Bass sounds boom out of speakers as tall as a person, while 14 teams play for the cup under the motto "Kick Fair." The teams have names like "Cash Money Brothers," "Out Of Control" or "Wedding Style" -- names which are evidence of the neighborhood's fighting spirit and sense of humor. "Wedding Style" recently featured in a Shokmuzik video, in which the tough-looking kids hung out, complete with bull-terriers, in a back courtyard.

But today, on this sunny Saturday, they are simply the boys from next door. They're having a good time and want to stand up for their neighborhood. Wedding may well be characterized in the media as the home of underclass hard-cases with their fighting dogs but, between the kebab shops and the DJ decks, the spread of the war-zone has at least been halted for this one day.

Keeping It in the Family

Shokmuzik's recording studio, the headquarters for the Berlin's avant-garde rap scene.
Frithjof Ohm

Shokmuzik's recording studio, the headquarters for the Berlin's avant-garde rap scene.

The hip hop of the Shokkers, as Big Sal's young protégés are called here, is just the right sound for the party: The energetic, angry and often ironic music is a fitting celebration of the neighborhood's very own culture. Here, materialistic ghetto glamour has just as much of a place as harsh social criticism. "I am full of anger and dirt, so be on the alert!" chants Osan. A 50-year-old blond woman with a perm nods her head enthusiastically in time with the music. Doesn't she find the lyrics a little hard? She shrugs her shoulders and says proudly: "That's my nephew!"

So is the whole of Wedding just one big happy family brought together by rap? Of course not. Issues such as unemployment and drug-dealing are not problems which can be resolved by beats and rhymes. But for D-Irie and Crackaveli hip hop is giving them the chance of a lifetime. "Take Sido, for example," says D-Irie. "He comes from a real dump. He was sharing a one bedroom flat with a mate. Now he has made it. He is a role model."

Crackaveli drives to the hoop on the basketball court. "I don't give up until I win; I am a player and not someone for the sidelines," he says, quoting from one of his songs. He doesn't want to be supported by unemployment money and end up in government subsidized work schemes. "My mother worked herself to death," he says. "Just like my sister is doing now. She only leaves the house to go cleaning."

Big Sal has gone quiet. He looks thoughtfully at the children who are playing in the shabby setting. "Put the joint out," he growls at Crackaveli, as three small girls come to stand by the basketball net. "We are part of Shokmusik too," they say as they chew their gum. Clearly Big Sal and his gang are heroes in this neighborhood, winners in an area of town which the media and the politicians wrote off long ago. "Come back again in 15 years," sneers Crackaveli. The girls simultaneously give him the finger. Big Sal smiles. As if he wants to sum up the whole situation, a little boy on the swing shouts out: "Shokmuzik lives!"


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