Nu-Dub Allstars: Low-End Fiends
Berlin's nu-dub scene: Its lineage can be hard to trace, but it involves members of groups The Tape, Al Haca, Tolcha, and Jahcoozi, as well as sometime collaborators like Stereotype, Modeselektor, Data MC, and DJ Maxximus. A tight-knit gang, these musicians ride the rough edges where hip-hop, glitch, dub, electro, and pop intersect, making waves in Europe and beyond. Their sound has grown throughout '05 and '06, with the release of The Tape's Autoreverse and Jahcoozi's Pure Bred Mongrel (both on Berlin's Kitty-Yo) and Stereotyp vs. Al Haca's Phase Three (on Vienna's Klein label). While new records are shopped around for 2007, XLR8R snagged a chat with The Tape/Al Haca MC RQM, Shir Khan (DJ, Meta-polyp label owner, and Tolcha producer), Jahcoozi bassist Oren Gerlitz, and Jahcoozi vocalist Sasha Perera.
XLR8R: What brought you to the city and what made you stay here?
Oren: I came randomly, just wanting to move out of Tel Aviv, wanting to be in an environment that would let me experiment more musically... I met Sasha in the first week here, and Robert [Koch, The Tape and Jahcoozi's producer] the second month.
Sasha: I was running away from London. I'd actually studied German Politics in school and the only thing I took from that was being able to speak German. But basically I was really into partying at the time, around 2001, and Berlin was the city with capital letters saying 'RAVE.' When I got here' saw everyone was making music anyway and it was really easy to try stuff out here and not be self-conscious about it. Studio space is cheap and it's not like London where time is money and it better be a good song otherwise it's not even worth recording it. I had never even tried much as a vocalist 'til I got here.
RQM: A girl kidnapped me from New York and brought me here... and I really loved the Jazzanova remixes–those kind of shuffling, quick, four-bar changes–and I thought it would be a cool thing to do hip-hop over. All the beats in the States were really backwards back then, just MPC loops and heavy snares in everything; for someone to have 200 snares in a track and just shift up the changes in the beat every four bars was amazing to me. So I went to the Sonar Kollektiv offices with some shitty demo I had and Christian [Schwanz from Al Haca] was there, rolling up weed at 12 o'clock. He came over to my house, we swapped CDs, and that's how it started. From that, Stereotyp and everything else followed, and then I lived underneath Oren 'cause my girl threw me out of her house!
And since that time you've all been working together in different combinations?
RQM: For sure! This is like family: We eat together, we do laundry together... we try and survive winter depressions in Berlin together. Six months out of the year it's always dark. During the summer no one wants to do anything but during the winter you just sit over a beat, fixing little details; everybody's producing, and that's why everything sounds the way it does. Everything's tweaked out and dark and cool.
What's the musical thread that holds the family together?
RQM: Bass. Details in productions. More bounce.
Oren: Bass-heavy music, centered on the dancefloor. There's a little dub in it and a little influence from grime but it's all more mixed. The beats come out of two-step or hip-hop, and even maybe techno–because it's Berlin, that feel comes through as well. All together, it makes something that could be described as blip-hop or...
Oren: ...tech ragga, bleep ragga.
RQM: One thing I've learned going between Vienna [where Christian of Al Haca and Stereotyp live] and here is that the music made in Berlin is cooler in temperature. It's the same sounds they make in Vienna but it's more cold, techno-y, darker. In Vienna, it's warmer somehow. Even if it's just a grizzly bassline, it's more analog, more round, less techno...
What about dub and reggae? Jahcoozi, there's clearly a pun in there, and there's definitely a thriving reggae/dancehall scene in Berlin. Do you guys interact with that?
Sasha: Well, the problem with a lot of the dancehall scene is that they play really poppy stuff here. If you go to see Such-a-Sound and the Yaam club, it's all kind of... nice; maybe not dark enough for me. It's like a hit machine–if you go regularly, you'll hear the same tracks over and over again.
RQM: Al Haca faced so many problems with this because we came from soundsystem culture. After the record came out, a lot of the bookings were at dancehall events and dudes would just run up and say, "Can you play Sizzla?" Even if we were playing our style of dancehall, even with Sizzla over the top of these digital beats, they wouldn't have it.
Shir Khan: This is why I completely escaped from the hip-hop/dancehall/reggae scene as a DJ. If you wanted to play upfront hip-hop or electronica, you had to play it at an electro or techno party. We're in between, so even if some of the music we do is dancefloor-intended, some isn't. It's not that easy to spread the sound here in Berlin, even if it is a Berlin sound.
Everyone I talk to has a story about how Berlin is not the way it used to be, that you can't do the things here that you once could. Are you guys still excited about being here?
RQM: I came quite late, four years ago, so I didn't feel this big change. I missed this whole idea of people just being able to break into [abandoned] apartments and just take [them] over, and I think if I came from those times I'd be like, 'Hell yeah, this sucks.' But I'm just happy to see the music scene grow and how all these projects that are around me are developing.
Sasha: I guess if you're looking for some wonderland, some unique artist haven, you're gonna be disappointed. But I still think you do a lot better to make music here then you do in a lot of other cities... Your money just goes further. You can work in a bar three days a week and still not die.
Shir Khan: I'm the only person here who was born in Berlin and to me it's not depressing or repressive. After the Wall came down every week there was this underground, illegal cellar club that was really interesting for me. I mean' was 13 years old, so it was also my first time going out. Now it's definitely getting a little more chic but still there's so much stuff happening. And, always, the people who are coming here are quite enthusiastic; they come and they want to do something. So I don't think it's dying; it's a natural process. Everything's getting commercialized but Berlin is so big that there will always be certain niches for underground art–it's the best city for this in the world.