Songs for the Road No. 18: Underground American Hip Hop Music I Discovered in Berlin

by Ekua on July 19, 2012 in Germany,songs for the road

For a long time, I’ve been intrigued by the ability for so many different kinds of music to permeate Europe years before Americans will give the same music a chance — if they ever do at all.

In high school, I entered a phase where I began to explore the possibilities of music beyond the radio right when the teen pop wave of the late 90s hit. I was baffled when I found out that acts like the Backstreet Boys were popular in Europe way before they caught on in the States.

But then when I toured Europe as a backup singer, I began to see another side to that musical acceptance. It wasn’t necessarily that Europe specifically had an affinity for cheesy pop music, it was that Europe seemed to be open to more kinds of music in general — whether it was a catchy synthetic dance tune for a night of carefree dancing or something more obscure for a different kind of mood.

I remember being at a festival in some small town in France and marveling at how wildly fans cheered for Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. This was before the Dap-Kings backed Amy Winehouse on Back to Black which subsequently gave Sharon Jones a little more attention in the States. At the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, I was surprised to see audiences attentively watching a Native American band play traditional music. I was regularly caught off guard by the openness to different kinds of music in Europe.

There are certainly cities and scenes where bands with not as much mainstream or homogenous subculture appeal can thrive in the US, but not to the same extent as Western Europe. It seems that across genres, Europeans don’t rely so heavily on so-called experts or record sales to decide what to listen to.

So while Germany may not seem like the most obvious place to discover American hip hop music, I thought it made sense that I found some new stuff to add to my music collection while I was there. I present to you two conscious MCs and one vintage hip hop act I discovered while I was in Berlin:

» Pharoahe Monch

At the hostel I stayed at in the neighborhood of Mitte, during breakfast the TV was always set to a music video station. One day, I heard a catchy hip hop song that I’d never heard before. I didn’t get a chance to write down the artist’s name, but fortunately a few breakfasts later, the song came on again and I saw the name Pharoahe Monch.

Pharoahe Monch has recorded with some bigger names in hip hop and soul like Mos Def and Jill Scott and is celebrated for his rhythmic aptitude and delivery, but never quite made it into the mainstream.

This song, Push, has all the right chords to pull at your heartstrings, horns that accent the catchy beat and drive the song forward, and the simple, yet comforting kind of words we all need to hear sometimes.

» Akua Naru

My German friend who has an admirable love for American hip hop introduced me to Akua Naru, an American rapper who’s now based in Cologne, Germany.

In case you’re wondering, Akua is a variation of my name, Ekua. Akua Naru is not her real name, but she is a Ghanaian-American from Connecticut who presumably took on her Ghanaian day name.

I’m obviously biased because of her name and heritage, but regardless, it made me happy to find a conscious and empowered female MC. The realness she exudes is so refreshing.  I really like the Ghanaian influence and scenes from Ghana in the Tales of Men video. I’m curious to see where she can take this combining of genres as her career progresses.

» Lords of the Underground

As I was walking around Mitte one day, I saw a poster for a Lords of the Underground show a couple days before I was scheduled to leave Berlin. The name sounded vaguely familiar, so I remembered it and looked it up later. What I found was an American hip hop group that had formed in the early 90s while they were furthering their education at Shaw University. They had the raw, hard-hitting sound of the golden age of hip hop that gave rise to bands like Public Enemy and the Beastie Boys.

Unfortunately, Lords of the Underground faded into relative obscurity after some hit singles from 1992-95. But you wouldn’t know that if you saw their Berlin fans.

I ended up going to their show at a Friedrichshain venue called Cassiopeia with my hip hop-loving German friend. If I could only see the crowd and not hear the music, I would think it was a punk rock concert. These people were pumped up and rowdy, but aside from the occasional threat of having pint glasses hit my head, I thoroughly enjoyed the performance.

Chief Rocka is their most popular song and it was definitely the most crowd pleasing song of the night. It had the whole audience jumping and shouting along how they, too, “walk with the funk” and “live for the funk”.

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Andi of My Beautiful Adventures July 20, 2012 at 7:04 am

Loved these videos! 🙂

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Ekua July 22, 2012 at 7:42 pm

Cool, I’m always happy to share!

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Fly Girl July 20, 2012 at 8:05 am

Oooh, you know I love this post! Germany is actually a huge hip hop hub and has thriving communities of graffiti writers, break dancers and MCs. I’m familiar with all of these except Akua. So excited to see another positive female MC. There are a few but not enough. Are you familiar with Jean Grae? She is the most skilled-female MC out there and South African by birth but based in NY.

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Ekua July 22, 2012 at 7:45 pm

Yeah, sadly I feel like the female MCs who get the most attention are those who degrade themselves and other women 🙁 I actually just heard about Jean Grae as I writing this post! She and Pharoahe Monch recently performed together in Cape Town and I came across a video of them as I was getting the videos together for this post. I’m definitely going to have to look into more of her music, thanks for the reminder!

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