Berlin Reggae: Break It Down
Reggae permeates Berlin street culture down to the subways. Platform newsstands stock Riddim, a German-founded, German-language reggae magazine, and the trains' embedded TV screens advertise local heroes Seeed (who regularly pack stadiums all over the country). African Rastamen and white women in headwraps lounge in the doorways of Rasta centers in Prenzlauer Berg and Kreuzberg, while the latest 7"s from Jamaica are organized by release date (down to the week), label, and riddim at Deeroy's Dub Store. Over at Tricky Tunes, the dub music section represents sounds from Kingston to Krakow.
Incubated in the squatter, punk, and anti-fascist scenes of the 1970s and '80s, reggae latched on to the exploding German hip-hop community in the '90s and now has a firm grasp on the country's pop culture. Berlin boasts reggae parties every night of the week, and two of the names you see most frequently on flyers are Such-A-Sound and Barney Millah. The pair hosts a monthly party at Café Moskau, a former Communist military club, and a Monday night event at Bohannon, which is an extension of Berlin's longest-running reggae party, initially started by Millah (a.k.a. Tobias Frost) at the Geburtstagsklub in 1994. Alex Such-a-Sound and Millah are basically nocturnal due to their hectic DJ schedules, so I was lucky to grab a few minutes with them during an August rainstorm.
XLR8R: When did the reggae scene in Berlin start?
Barney Millah: As far as I know, there was one soundsystem in the late '70s [and] during the 1980s, reggae really only existed in community centers. It was the '90s that really hyped up the scene.
Alex Such-a-Sound: When the Wall came down, every bar and basement changed into a club. [Those were] some crazy years. Nobody had a license, everything was illegal, but it was happening anyway. Nobody from the government cared.
BM: Even if someone cared, you just closed down and opened up in another place. You didn't need flyers; word of mouth was enough to get people to the parties. Another result of this "Wild East" time is that a lot of these party promoters got their own clubs–in the mid-'90s, reggae and dancehall came out of community centers and into clubs.
AS: Before, it was more of an insider scene; after that it was everyone.
BM: Around 1997, a lot more people jumped on the reggae train... By 2000, there was four times as much reggae in Berlin as before. So many soundsystems, so many people [whose names or faces] I didn't know, even though I worked in a reggae shop for years.
AS: Now, if you are starting a soundsystem, the hardest thing is finding a name that is not taken!
What's the ethnic mix?
BM: Officially in Berlin we have 300 Jamaicans, but you might see 50 in the clubs.
AS: Here you have a huge African community. Before, in East Germany, you called [some African countries] the "Socialist Brothers."
BM: Like Mozambique.
AS: ...they had a big student exchange with the East. So from that point you have a lot of Africans in Germany–they make up part of the audience.
BM: You have a lot of children out of relationships between these students and Germans. And [in West Germany] also from soldiers: French soldiers who were mostly [of] African heritage and British Caribbean soldiers and black Americans, a lot of them stayed here... So you have Afro-Germans.
AS: Plus a huge [non-Afro] German audience. The mix out of all of this makes the crowd you work with. The main thing that we do is [to not] play for one kind of audience. Also, we have up to 70% girls at our parties.
BM: Girls like to come to our parties and have fun. People who are indecent in these cases, we reform them or they have to leave the club. Another thing I realized [is that], for instance, in England, people are scared of Caribbean people, of gangster business. We don't have that here (knocks on wood).
Would you say it is more of a DJ scene or a band scene?
BM: DJs, definitely.
AS: [Promoters] can't afford a lot of those bands anymore. Not just fees, but also taxes and the price for the venues.
BM: The youngsters are crying out for conscious dancehall [shows], but Marcia Griffiths and Lady G and a complete band came and only 150 people showed up. That's nothing! So promoters don't make back the money. When you ask the kids, [they say] "It's too expensive." Berlin is one of the cheapest cities in the world to go out, and people say they don't want to pay more for a band.
AS: But then again, we charge eight Euros at Café Moskau–which is a lot for a club in Berlin–and we get 1000 people.
What about the sound here: roots or dancehall?
AS: It depends; it's a big menu. You can choose whatever you like. At a good night, you can hear everything: roots, dancehall, hip-hop, soca, African reggae.
BM: As a DJ, you can go from the '60s up to nowadays. You can even play dub if it fits at that certain moment.
What are the best spots for reggae?
AS: Café Moskau, Bohannon, and Yaam.
BM: The Yaam is an important spot in Berlin. It started in '94 and runs in the summertime from May to September, open-air every Sunday from 2 p.m.-10 p.m. with a market, Afro-Caribbean food, and reggae music all day. Families come with their children... It's a big gathering where people from all scenes in Berlin meet, and the music is reggae. It's opened the ears of a lot of people.
What reggae bands are coming out of Berlin?
AS: Seeed, definitely–they're the German super-band. It gives me goosebumps every time I see them.
BM: If you see them on a tour, each and every show will be different. They're real performers. Gentleman is big here, but he's from Cologne.
AS: He's the biggest single act from Germany. And you have Patrice–he's not really a dancehall or reggae artist.
BM: He works with reggae but he doesn't call himself a reggae artist. There is a group called Culture Candela. They're seven guys, all of them from a different background: a white German, three Latinos from different countries, and one Afro-German–a real mix. Their music is also mixed: you find Latin music, hip-hop, and reggae, and singing in three languages.
AS: In general, the "hip-hop over here, reggae over here" thing changed in the late '90s, completely. You always have your favorites, but there is not one hip-hop DJ who's not going to play a reggae set. I play a lot of hip-hop in my reggae sets, Barney plays soca...
BM: That's the future.
AS: That's where the fun comes in.