While conducting research on Hip Hop culture and rap music in Bochum, one will inevitably get in touch with the name Meller. Manuel Meller, who raps under his surname, started with graffiti in the mid 1990s and soon turned to rap. Since then, he has been releasing his music to the public continuously: His album To The Bone was awarded the title “best indie album of the month” in December 2009 by Juice Magazine, numerous collaborations with other rappers have followed since and his latest vinyl-only album Meller On Wax Vol. 1 is already out of stock. But even without a mic in his hand, Meller stays busy: He founded two important meeting points for Bochum’s Hip Hop scene with Schuster’s Corner and the Superior Session and currently partakes in organizing workshops for kids and teenagers to get them in touch with Hip Hop culture. A long-standing actor in the scene of Bochum, Meller is almost certainly involved in anything Hip Hop in the city. While enjoying the Superior Session during the last warm and sunny days of 2016, the Bochum project group had the chance to reflect the results of the research project with Meller and discuss the status quo of Hip Hop culture and rap music in Bochum.
While conducting research for this project, we gained the impression that Hip Hop culture in the form of rap music in Bochum is foremost created in very close circles like living rooms and basements before it is eventually presented to a larger audience.
I can confirm that a lot initially happens in close circles. And if someone creates something just for himself in private that of course is part of Hip Hop culture, too. But it becomes much more relevant for the culture once it makes its way out of the living room and into a place where people from different groups meet and something new can emerge. What stays private is hard to comprehend. It becomes interesting not until it transcends the private sphere and people actually release the records they made in the living rooms of Bochum. And it actually becomes really interesting when sessions and studios emerge in old bunkers or cellars and public events come into being, where new material can be presented to people who were not originally part of the artist’s direct peer group. Then Hip Hop culture becomes a phenomenon which can not also be perceived from the inside of the culture, but from the outside as well.
Rheza stated that – in his opinion – people not releasing their recorded material is an almost typical trait of Bochum. Do you share this opinion?
Sure, that is a valid point for criticism and one could perfectly say “People just need to put their stuff out!” But on the other hand you have to note that there is no other comparable metropolitan region where the entertainment infrastructure, meaning labels and marketing, is as undeveloped as in the Ruhr Area and specifically in Bochum. That is another reason why so little gets released – a pity, in my opinion.
So Bochum lacks a proper infrastructure in this regard?
Yes, it does. I do not know why, but it was never built although some people have had the chance to do it. In Bochum, artists tend to focus on the art itself; just producing and making stuff happen. And there are very few people who try to set up events or actually market the material. This fact has an upside and a downside.
Which pros and cons do you note?
Well, the problem oftentimes is that when you try to market something, it loses its flavor. It is simple: If you want to have success on the market, you have to adapt to its conditions and rules. And in the case of rap music, these rules say that you have to produce a lot of material in a short time in order to keep listeners interested in you. The rap business is fast-paced and influenced by trends. There are approximately 40 tracks on heavy rotation on the radio, that is it and that does not leave too much space for diversity.
Because these structures do not exist in Bochum, you will find a lot of artists here doing completely autonomous interesting projects. This way, a manifold of styles can evolve. On the downside, a lot of these projects and styles eventually fall by the wayside because it would take a certain amount of professionalism to make projects reach the next level.
In 2009, you created the Superior Session, a place where people can present themselves and exchange with others. How important are these places for the local Hip Hop scene?
In my opinion, they are very important – that is why we started the Session. A lot of artists have met there during the years, some are still actively producing music together and numerous projects have emerged from it. It is an enormous pool for creativity, it attracts new people and keeps the next generation coming – which is crucial for keeping the culture alive and evolving.
You wrote your first lyrics and started rapping in 1998: That counts up to 18 active years in Bochum. Which developments in Bochum’s rap culture have you witnessed over the years?
At the end of the nineties, the big Hip Hop wave was still in full effect. German rap music sold very well and there were many jams, like for example the Too-Strong-jams, RAG, Bunkerwelt, Creutzfeld & Jakob, OnAnOn, ABS – you know, the Ruhr Area wave. During this time, the culture was busy; you could go to a huge jam every second weekend. Rap and Hip Hop still held a certain “underground” status, but attracted a lot of people anyways. It went on like this until the early 2000s and then it all fell into a hole. Nobody went to jams anymore because there were almost none. Sales in the music industry dropped immensely, thus the labels stopped investing. Logically, there were virtually no ways for new artists to get a record deal or funds to support the scene. We fell into this hole in Bochum as well and so we just spend some more years in our basements.
One of the many basements in Bochum is especially notable for its local significance: Schuster’s Corner [lit. shoemaker’s corner]
Schuster’s Corner came into being between 2000 and 2001: There was this shoemaker Chris who had his store at the corner and a rehearsal room in his basement. Initially, I was taken there by a friend and as time passed we just brought in more friends until it eventually became a gathering point for the local rap scene.
It seems that the Hip Hop scene of Bochum has declined in number since then. Can you give an explanation?
That is a valid question – but maybe the question is more: What exactly has declined? In 2016, there a exceedingly more listeners of rap music than at the end of the 1990s. Actually, the second big wave of Hip Hop is happening right now. At the end of the millenium, there was no such thing in Bochum like the Superior Session, where a respective number of MCs of every age meet regularly. But the important difference between then and now is that rap music has diversified into many different directions nowadays. Today, you have ten different genres of rap under the label Deutschrap [German rap]. Back then, there was only one genre for artists rapping in German – and that was Deutschrap. Today, you can find German gangsta rap, German street rap, German backpack rap, hipster rap – whatever, you name it. So actually, there are more consumers of rap music today. But I get the notion that most of them, especially the younger ones, consider this Oldschool Hip Hop rap somewhat strange. The underlying culture is not understood by many of those who did not grow up in the culture and went to jams but only perceived a very specific nuance of rap music through the internet.
This diversification also affects the other pillars of Hip Hop culture, for example rap music and graffiti. Why is that?
Graffiti has always been highly autonomous. In the 1980s, people listened to punk music and made graffiti. However, there has always been a strong to connection to Hip Hop. I mean, Hip Hop itself took over many elements from existing musical styles and cultures, be it rock, jazz, blues or disco and electronical music. Sampling is the instrument of Hip Hop. So diversity and a wide range of styles have been part of the culture from the very start, which is one of the reasons it attracted so many people. From a personal perspective, I would say that a huge part of rap music has alienated itself from Hip Hop culture and only follows commercial interests – and therefore does not appeal to writers anymore. Graffiti requires a lot of effort on the writer’s behalf, it tends to become quite costly because of the cans and it holds a certain risk because of its illegality. With all this in mind, would you as a writer take seriously any wannabe gangsta rapper with a big mouth and no background who is obviously in it for the money? Me neither. The negative consequences of commercialization for a culture become quite apparent in this example.
Rheza estimated the number of active members of the rap community in Bochum to be around 40. Would you second that?
That depends on the criteria: If I count in anyone who occasionally produces a beat or writes a song, the numbers will surely be higher. If I include only rappers who have released an album in the last twelve months – which is the minimum to stay relevant in the German rap business – then we are already facing difficulties.
What are the reasons for rap music being such an underground thing in Bochum?
I honestly think that people are just satisfied with what they have. They like coming to the Superior Session, chilling in the park and rapping there – and they are good with that. There are some people around with the ambition to record an album but no one has the ambition to have an album in the billboard charts. And if you do not want that in the first place, it is surely not going to happen by accident.
The focus of this project group is the local Hip Hop culture of Bochum, however it seems justified to assume a certain amount of networking between the local communities in a metropolitan region like this. What role do city limits play in the Ruhr Area? And what role does Bochum play?
In Hip Hop culture, networking has always played a vital role. This is especially true for graffiti, where area-wide collaborations are happening that do not function in other aspects of the culture. When it comes to rap music, you have to keep in mind that there is always competition between the artists. Everybody likes to raise the flag for the Ruhr Area, but a real city-spanning sense of community has always been a difficult thing to achieve. It used to be like that a little with Too Strong and RAG back in the days: One factor was obviously their success, but it was the style and subject matter of their music which connected to a lot of people across cities here. And it brought them together. Nowadays, people focus again on their own street, their own neighborhood, their own city. The scene in Bochum has always been smaller than that of Essen or Dortmund, but still a lot of stuff happened. Because Bochum is a geographical in-betweener: Heads from Witten and even some from Essen and Dortmund come to Bochum to meet here.
You are organizing workshops where you introduce kids to rapping and Hip Hop culture in general. How can this culture enhance young people’s lives?
There is nothing better than showing kids tools they can use to be creative. To me personally, creativity is one of the most important factors for personal development. And especially Hip Hop culture provides a great amount of possible creative outlets through spoken word, dance, image, sound and type. You will not possibly find a kid who does not at least like one of these things.
Do you manage to gain public support for Hip-Hop-related initiatives?
There is an increasing number of people in the municipal authorities and NGOs who are open-minded to this – the first generation of people who grew up with Hip Hop themselves or at least know it. So you occasionally have a social worker, a public official or a teacher who would say “Let’s do a Hip Hop project!” As time progresses, acceptance increases. Years ago, Hip Hop was rather ridiculed than taken seriously. Today, you can find a lot of committed and open-minded fellows, even among the elders. Unfortunately, most of the cities and communes in the Ruhr Area are broke and it gets immensely hard to maybe raise a few hundred Euros for a city-wide graffiti project. However, we still manage to build a full-blown concert hall despite bankruptcy here in Bochum…