Interview with RAMIN, A&R at Groove Attack for Sido, Aggro Berlin (Top 10 GER) - May 2, 2005
Aggro hip hop is on the rise in Germany!Ramin Bozorgzadeh is A&R at Groove Attack and has signed the most popular aggro hip hop artists in Germany, Sido and Aggro Berlin, who both have Top 10 albums. Groove Attack is fronting the movement of aggro hip hop, bringing political lyrics from an underground level to national sales success.
“This hip hop phenomenon is real hip hop, coming from the streets of Germany. It carries a political statement about how it really is here, where no one in a position of responsibility is talking about social problems - problems that are comparable to those in the US; the ghettoes, the unemployment, the low incomes", says Ramin.
He has been with Groove Attack since 1997, joining a label that by its own description is hard to pigeonhole: "we don't have a certain sound, and we like it that way. We simply have to feel a track to put it out," its website says.
Indeed, the company’s profile itself proves that aggressive hip-hop is just one part of its armoury. Its artist roster also includes Phife Dawg, Van Delta, J Rawls, Lone Catalysts, Nine Yards Orchestra, Declaime, Vikter Duplaix, and Myer.
“This old-fashioned freestyle approach stems from the anything-goes party policy of the late Eighties. An era when DJs had the guts to spin hip-hop and rare groove alongside acid house or any other new club music format,” Groove Attack says.
Hip-hop on the one hand, and funk/soul/jazz-driven fusion beats between headz and drum and bass on the other is the kind of music that one can expect from Groove Attack.
Sido, says Bozorgzadeh, appeals even to people who are "not basically hip hop" people, because of his political message, and his ability to entertain. And all this to beats comparable with international productions.
"It's a big step for Sido, becoming as famous as he is now. He’s a great entertainer, and at the same time he talks about Germany the way it is, talking about differences in lifestyles, and where they come from." Sido is from Berlin, a city still very much in transition after reunification in October 1990, a place where hip-hop is a strong current in sub-culture, and where the plentiful graffiti tells its own story of alienation and creativity.
“Before Sido was signed by Aggro Berlin, he and his Partner B-Tight dropped tapes under the name Royal TS and "Die Sekte". Sidos flow, lyrics & style was always unique in Germany. He has been on all relevant stages here throughout the years before his debut album!”
Aggro Berlin, similarly, says Bozorgzadeh, are talking the language of the streets.
“I had my eyes on them, knowing how they worked and how they believe in their mission! They are so different compared to other rap crews. Their philosophy is simple as effective. Hip Hop needs MC's with personality, glaring lyrics & messages, strong beats, and the ability to build a world around them that's generating a strong impact and generates brand recognition.”
"We picked this up because it’s real; it has nothing to do with the middle-class, and nothing to do with those German artists who define themselves as pop artists, not hip-hop artists. This hard-edged foundation in reality gives them credibility”, Bozorgzadeh says.
“They describe their life as it is: aggressive but intelligent, real, street, controversial but credible. Statements that hit the base and touch the mainstream. It is so different to the irrelevant stories of backpack rappers from nice middle class neighbourhoods. The beats are also of great importance. They are unique, electroid with stripes of techno, next level shit, growing from release to release.”
Scouring the internet and the numerous German sites referring to Aggro Berlin confirms their status as icons to the “underground” in the city, and to how the “underground” perceives itself. The ground covered by Aggro Berlin is grimy with gritty reality.
On the black list
The beats on the tracks by both artists have gained them entrees into the clubs, although not all the clubs are willing: "because they're political, they're not wanted by some clubs." Not only the clubs: representatives of authority, parents included, are not comfortable with what they hear.
Asked if that is part of the appeal, the fact that the two artists are anti the system, Bozorgzadeh responds: "anything that the establishment is doing to try to push them down is having the opposite effect".
Like the US, Germany has a mechanism to protect children from, among other things, explicit lyrics. Aggro Berlin's album is on the black list, meaning that access and airplay are restricted, and it cannot be sold officially in retail chains and shops. Yet, like a spontaneous phenomenon coming from the street, there is no holding back the popularity of aggro hip-hop.
Bozorgzadeh re-emphasises: "the language is hard, but it’s the language spoken in the streets and in the ghettoes." The critical message naturally resonates in the states of the former East Germany, where unification has brought hard realities after the artificial cushioning of communism, but the appeal is not limited to a constituency of disillusioned Eastern youth.
"It’s not just an eastern phenomenon." Unemployment and social strain are biting hard in the west as well. Aggro Berlin succeed well in pushing their message and at the same time building their name recognition on a platform of concert work and high-quality music videos.
Aggro hip-hop on export
Asked whether the aggressive hip-hop success story is exportable beyond Germany, Bozorgzadeh replies: "I'm working on it". He sees a big market in the "New European" states - in former communist Eastern European countries subject to social, economic and political strains comparable to those that followed the traumas of unification in Germany - but is worried by problems of bootlegging and of finding reliable partners in this region.
There may be 50 million potential customers, but real sales mean there have to be proper distribution networks in place, so you don’t lose it all to bootleggers. He is also working on Japan, another locale of disillusioned, angry youth that well understands the soul of aggressive hip-hop, notwithstanding the language difference. Artists like Sido and Aggro Berlin, Bozorgzadeh believes, can conquer even parts of the world that are not German-speaking.
"I am really convinced in the long run about going to Japan with Aggro Berlin," he says, holding out that their strong points include their videos, their cover artworks, and their self-confidence: "they do it in their own style, not dependent on US ideals."
What Aggro Berlin does transcends national borders, he says. With hip-hop already strong in Japan, Bozorgzadeh believes it is worthwhile taking Aggro Berlin on tour there.
An important advantage for the operation is not just its identity as a label, but also the fact that it is one of the biggest vinyl distributors in the world. It is just part of its operation that it ships hip-hop around the world on a daily basis. He also underlines that aggressive hip-hop resonates because it is not a specifically male phenomenon - there are female artists who are addressing issues like chauvinism, who are using the medium to openly question their place in society and how women are treated.
This way of speaking authentically from their own perspective emerges as a common theme among aggro hip-hop artists. “They are described by the media as an underclass. At the same time, many of them are intellectual people. What registers is what the person is saying.”
For all the international ambitions, and the belief in conquering foreign markets, there remain challenges to be met at home. While Sido and Aggro Berlin have broken out of a niche and into the attention of the mainstream media, they and aggressive hip-hop are still not very welcome on the radio stations.
Yet the fact that they are getting attention from the mainstream media is evidence not only of their authenticity, but also of the fact that their success is grounded in hard work and talent. Of course, mainstream media recognition opens doors, and will do so for years to come.
Bozorgzadeh notes that the commentary made by Aggro Berlin and Sido has credibility, and has gained attention because it is intelligent. Influential German national magazine Der Spiegel has described Sido as representing the underdogs in Germany. Part of his phenomenon, too, is that he represents a modern multi-nationalism - he is half-German and half-Tunisian.
All of this, of course, is in the context of the wider profile of the label. As the company itself puts it, “it may seem a bit ‘irrational’ that a Cologne-based label with an office in New York concentrates on releasing American rap. For us, it is a just a question of what we like and what is possible.”
“The golden age of hip-hop (mid-Eighties to early Nineties) has shaped our tastes like no other era in rap and it is the so-called ‘independent’ scene that has brought back a level of energy and originality that is missing from most of today’s mainstream hip-hop.”
Interviewed by Clive Leview-Sawyer
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