50 Years of Hip Hop: From The Bronx to Berlin

Berlin-based DJ and educator Gizem Adiyaman breaks down the evolution of the genre in Germany

BY Gouri Sharma AND Gizem Adiyaman in Interviews , Music | 14 SEP 23

It's been 50 years since a DJ named Kool Herc scratched hip hop into existence at a house party in the Bronx. The anniversary was marked by hip hop fans around the world when it fell on August 11; the global celebrations last month highlighting the ways that hip hop has been adopted – and translated – in many countries, including Germany. While Berlin is typically associated with the thumping sound of techno, hip hop is as richly embedded in the city’s cultural past as in its vibrant musical present.

‘Berlin and hip hop have a long history,’ says Gizem Adiyaman, a Berlin-based DJ and political educator who launched Hoe__mies, an inclusive club night centering female and LGBTQ artists with fellow DJ Lucia Lucian five years ago. ‘If you want to be successful in German rap, at some point you have to move here because the studios, producers, the scene, it’s all here,’ she remarked over lunch on a hot day in the city just after the anniversary. ‘German hip hop is now one of the most commercially successful music genres in the country, and Berlin is its hub.’

Gizem Adiyaman
Gizem Adiyaman. Courtesy: the artist; photo: Clara Tatjana

Arriving in the country during the time of German division – in which the US, France and the UK maintained large military presences in West Germany, with the Soviet Union-backed German Democratic Republic ruling the East – Adiyaman says the first hip hop groups emerged in southwestern cities such as Heidelberg after the genre was introduced by soldiers stationed in the nearby Campbell Barracks, headquarters of the United States Army in Europe. The culture spread from there. ‘American soldiers would breakdance at West Berlin clubs,’ she says, ‘and expose young Berliners, including my dad, to hip hop’s broader culture.’

The 1980s and '90s saw young Turkish-German men living in Kreuzberg, a poor and neglected part of West Berlin, embrace the form as a way of chronicling their daily reality of oppression and racism. ‘This generation were the children of immigrant guest workers from places like Turkey and Italy, who felt alienated in white German society,’ says Adiyaman, whose grandparents were among the first generation of guest workers from Turkey to settle in West Berlin. ‘It was very normal back then for people to be asked where they were from, followed by “when are you leaving?”’

Killa hakan
Killa Hakan via Instagram

Pioneering rappers from that time included Killa Hakan, whose songs appealed to disenfranchised youth in the diaspora, ‘creating a sense of community amongst these young people,’ according to Adiyaman. ‘Of course, the mainstream media didn’t like it.’ Rapping in both German and Turkish, these artists also played a crucial role in taking hip hop into Turkey.

Meanwhile, over in the socialist east, media outlets and local radio DJs facilitated the dissemination of hip hop, influencing artists like the short-lived Electric Beat Crew who had first encountered hip hop through a West German TV channel.

In the post-reunification years, gangsta rap became an increasingly popular subgenre, championed by former Berlin-based independent label Aggro Records. One of their biggest signees, the eternally controversial Bushido, drew inspiration from US artists like 50 Cent, and blazed a trail for Berlin hip hop’s more hard-hitting sound. Other subcultures associated with the genre, such as graffiti, breakbeat and emceeing, also grew as the genre did. While the scene has traditionally been perceived as male-dominated, Adiyaman, whose masters thesis discussed pioneering women in German hip hop, points out that strong female representation has long existed, referencing acts like Sxtn, two women of colour from Berlin who mocked the male gaze, breaking new ground when they debuted in 2014.

Stxtn performing at Spektrum Festival 2016. Courtesy: Politikwerft Designagentur

Recently, further commercialization of the genre has pushed hip hop into the mainstream charts, and Adiyaman says it's more common these days to hear younger Germans listening to German rap, compared to her generation. She points out that hip hop artists in Germany, like those in other countries, draw on universal experiences, such as racism, and recontextualize them within a German setting. ‘In recent years more rappers have been drawing on the inspiration of the earlier pioneers and using German and their native tongues to speak out against the political status quo. One example is the revolutionary Haftbefehl, who raps in Kurdish and German. It’s great to see native languages being reclaimed in this way.’

Jeleel at Splash Festival 2023
Jeleel performs at Splash!, the largest hip hop and rap festival in Germany, June 2023. Courtesy: Splash!; photo:Timmy.Ty

Despite the evolution of hip hop over the past 50 years, Adiyaman says there is still more progress to be made around safety in the scene, as well as in women and queer representation, both as artists and as producers. She’s confident the scene will keep evolving. ‘When it comes to flow and beats, German rap still takes a lot of inspiration from the US, France, The Netherlands and the UK, so it's really hard to put your finger on what the German rap sound is. In many ways, Berlin is still finding its hip hop identity.’

The next Hoe__mies club night takes place 2 October at Fitzroy, Berlin

Main image courtesy: Splash!; photo:  the largest hip hop and rap festival in Germany, June 2023. Courtesy: Splash!; photo: Kanneknipst

Gouri Sharma is a freelance journalist and writer based in Berlin contributing to international media outlets such as Al Jazeera, South China Morning Post and MIT Tech Review. With roots in Lahore, Punjab, Kenya, London and now Berlin, Gouri's main areas of interest include culture, migration, history, race and gender.

Gizem Adiyaman is a Berlin-based DJ, political educator and co-founded of Hoe__mies, an inclusive club night centering female and LGBTQ artists.