|Berlin in the '90s: An interview with Tobias Rapp
The author of Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjetset explains how the city came to be such an important hub for the genre.
For Berlin, the destruction of the wall was a bit like the big bang: a single explosive event that had immeasurable influence on everything that came after. In its wake, an utterly unique scenario took shape—desolate streets, warehouse parties, squatters and the feeling that the city and everyone in it was working with a clean slate. "The atmosphere was burning," as Dimitri Hegemann of Tresor said in RA's recent film, Real Scenes: Berlin. Most of the city's unique personality today, not least its techno scene, was born in this moment of upheaval.
Tobias Rapp was among the many young Germans who moved to Berlin just after the Wall came down, and who moved directly into a squat. He grew up in tandem with the city, from his early days raving in its virtually lawless clubs, to his eventual post as Der Spiegel's pop culture editor, and he saw how the techno scene changed with it. It's a story he tells in his book, Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the EasyJetset, and one he recounted on the back deck of RA's Berlin office earlier this summer. In this personal and analytical account, Rapp recalls the unchecked freedom of early '90s Berlin, and sheds light on how this atmosphere gave birth to what is now the city's "folk music."
How did you find your squat?
When I moved to Berlin in 1990, there were lots and lots of different squatted houses. Almost 30 or 40 percent of the city was vacant because the East German government wanted to empty out the old buildings to set up new beautiful communist houses. It didn't come that way, so there were lots of empty houses back then. We didn't want to be too far away from West Berlin, because there were no telephones in the East and we wanted to be close to a telephone cell. So we ended up finding a place in the Friedrichshain neighborhood.
In squatted houses back then, you had two possibilities. One possibility was the left-wing-ultra-punk, who made the house really represent what they were, what they thought, to be against the system—all that kind of stuff. But the other thing was that in the early '90s there was a shortage of living space in West Berlin. There weren't enough apartments, so after the Wall came down lots of people in the Western part of the city thought, "Hey, we don't have apartments, so we will move to the East since there are so many vacant apartments." That was much more our agenda: just to have a place to live, to experiment and to do what we want to do.
So a lot of the squatters didn't have that much of an alternative lifestyle aside from the fact that they were squatting?
In East Berlin in 1990, you didn't have "normal" in that sense, because the city wasn't normal. You had 30 percent empty apartments, you had in East Germany a population that was celebrating freedom and was happy that the GDR days were over, but also didn't know what was coming. So squatters like us represented freedom, but we were also scary and unusual. There hadn't been squatters in East Germany. It was an unusual sight, and an unusual attitude to just move into a house and say, "That's our house." Nobody in the GDR did stuff like that. So what is "normal" in that sense? It's normal to be a squatter when you have 130 squatted houses in a city.
The Summer of Squatting—the real heyday of squatting, ended in November of 1990 when the city started to kick out people—but the attitude of squatting remained. The whole history of techno in Berlin in the '90s was really affected by this attitude that people learned in the summer of 1990. This attitude of, "You can take houses and do with them what you want to." We kicked out walls, we threw stones out of the window, we tried stuff like having huge kitchens—like a whole apartment was a kitchen—the stuff like most of the people who live in communes do. But what was important for the techno scene was this attitude that you explore spaces and think about spaces in terms of possibilities. That's where the Berlin techno scene got its attitude from.
Most of the clubs back then were just clubs for the weekend or for a couple of weeks and—maximum—for a couple of months. It was very transient. Also, the scene itself was very much word of mouth like, "Where is the party, where is it going to be?" Part of the experience was to explore the city, running through this empty city looking for a party. The inner city of Berlin, where the big stores are were empty and during the daytime there was nobody and during the nighttime there were all of these little groups looking for parties. It was really an amazing situation.
You didn't grow up in Berlin?
No, I grew up in Bremen, a big city in the northern part of Germany, a harbor city. I moved to Berlin in the summer of 1990 after I finished school. I hated Berlin when I was in school. All of the cool kids talked about their friends in Kreuzberg and wanting to go there, but in my mind, Kreuzberg was '80s Kreuzberg; a Kreuzberg of May riots and Einstürzende Neubauten and living in the shadow of the Wall.
When I finished school in the spring of 1990, our school had a finishing school trip to Berlin. I had no idea what to expect or what would come out of it. I went straight to East Berlin, passing through the West. I really fell in love with the Eastern part of the city. From the first moment I thought, "This city is so great. I love it. It's interesting, it's open, and it has so many possibilities." It looked so different from anything I had ever seen. So I thought when school was over I'd come to Berlin and squat in a house.
People didn't talk that much about Berlin in the '80s. As a kid in West Germany, it wasn't that interesting. It was just a big city in Germany. I had dreams of big cities like Paris or London or New york, but not Berlin. I think in retrospect that it must have been an interesting time, the '80s in Berlin, but also very claustrophobic. I don't see much appeal in the culture that remains from that time or much interesting stuff in what West Berlin produced in the '80s. I think the falling down of the Wall was the best that could have happened to West Berlin. This island, this village in the shadow of the wall—it had to disappear.
I think you can see this easily in just the names of the clubs. They all referenced outer space. UFO was the first techno club. The first big club from the UFO people was called Planet. These names showed the fantasies of escapism. People wanted to leave, wanted to be someplace else. When the Wall came down and the first techno clubs in the East opened up, they had different names. They named themselves after the buildings they moved into: Tresor, E-Werk. Frisseur was a hairdresser, Electro was an electronics store. People were so happy to relate a place and have a positive relationship to a place. Bar 25 was the same thing. It's not this darkness where you find pleasure in wanting to escape. It was a pleasure in the '90s in where you were, because Berlin was the most awesome thing you could imagine.
"It didn't look that different from Detroit.
The difference was that it wasn't
dangerous. It just looked dangerous."
Why do you think Berlin was full of so many creative people in the '80s?
Well, in West Germany you had this situation where you had to go into the military after school. But because West Berlin was controlled by the allied forces, there was no need for this. So if you were clever, you finished school in West Germany and just left your hometown and went to West Berlin. That created a situation where you had all these people here who had problems with authorities; who didn't want anyone to shout at them. All of these anarchists, left wingers, dope smokers. All these people came to Berlin because they were looking for something else. This had a huge impact on the atmosphere of the Western half of the city. Thousands of people would move to Berlin every year. Add that up over 30 years, and that's a lot of dope smokers.
When I finished school, I thought I would do it like my older friends. I would change my address and wouldn't go to the military. But I was one year too late. I moved to this squat in Berlin and thought, "I'm done, they won't get me." But I couldn't change my address because I was in a squatted house, and so I got this letter from the authorities at my registered house in Bremen. I thought it was impossible, but that I had to try to change it to my squatted house in Berlin.
So I went to this East German office where you get your registration and I said, "I wanted to get my address registered." And she said, "Where are you living?" And I said, "Um, this squat?" And she said, "Yeah, here is the paper, just put in squat. We have lots of you guys down there." It was 1991. It was a sign of how strange it was back then: Lots of these East German bureaucrats had these new West German bosses that they hated. So the policemen didn't tell their bosses what was going on, and we did what we wanted.
What did the city look like back then?
The city looked really different to how it looks now. You had WW II remnants everywhere, because the East didn't clean up the city. You had broken buildings, walls with bullet holes, and you didn't have that many cars because the East Germans just started to buy cars and the density of the population wasn't that high. It was very gray and it smelled of coal because of these GDR cars that had this different motor. I really see how the Detroit guys felt at home in Berlin, because it didn't look that different from Detroit. It was a very run-down city: the difference was that it wasn't dangerous—it was safe, it just looked dangerous. If you were unlucky, you might get beat up by Nazis, but that wasn't a regular thing that was happening.
A very big difference from Berlin in the early '90s to Berlin now was that Berlin back then was a male city. You didn't have as many girls and women in the streets as you have now. Now, when I look at the streets of Berlin, it's filled with girls and women and the city has a huge attraction for people interested in fashion. That wasn't the case in the early '90s. Everybody was just wearing military pants and bomber jackets and had short hair. Also, in the clubs, it was very German and very male. There would normally be like one girl and eight guys. Techno in the early '90s was very male dominated, which also had to do with the run down appeal of the city. It wasn't that appealing to women I think. There weren't that many women moving to East Berlin because they thought it was interesting—very different to today.
Do you remember when you first went to Tresor?
I was a philosophy student back then, in 1991, and I was heavily interested in music, but not that much into techno. My friends started being interested in techno and they took me to Tresor, and it was really like, "oh that's something new." It was like hour zero. The big "boom boom boom" was really wiping out the past. I thought, "OK, now we start again." I think lots of people who were in Berlin at that time and went to Tresor—and clubs like Tresor—had similar experiences. They had a similar feeling that this was our hour zero. We can start from here; this is something new. It mirrored this new beginning the city was having at the time. We didn't conceptualize it like that back then, of course. It was just an interesting new music. When you're in the situation you don't think that much about things like "What am I in the context of the city?" But looking back, it truly had a direct connection with the new start the city was taking.
Who were the people that were going out to these parties back then?
I think three groups constituted the techno scene in Berlin back then. You had the urban explorers: People like me that went to the East to squat houses and explore situations. Then you had the huge group of East Germans who simply wanted to celebrate freedom. And then you had the gay community. All of these three groups met in the clubs, and it's still like that today. There are not that many urban explorers anymore. Let's call them "the creative class" today. But every club has to rely on these three groups or it's not going to work out.
There is a fourth group now, too, which is tourists. That's what constitutes techno in Berlin. The creative guys always think about the East Germans like the New Yorkers think about the bridge and tunnel crowd: the ones you don't want to have anything to do with. The East Germans think that the creatives are wack, and don't listen to proper techno, so they don't want to have anything to do with us. Animosity is around, but if you want to have a great party, you have to have all these four groups around because everyone brings something the other one doesn't have.
So it's a different chemistry now than what was happening in the '90s.
Yes. But most importantly, you have to understand that in the '90s, techno was very small in the beginning, it exploded and then it became this movement that dragged one million people for the Love Parade into the city, and then it collapsed from more or less one day to another. It was like a textbook [example of a] subculture that goes mainstream and dies out. That was the '90s.
It is very much different in the '00s. It's not "charts music" anymore. It's music that's underground, music that found its place in a niche—a comfortable niche. I also think it's a growing niche, but it's not at all music that has this mainstream impact that it had in the '90s. It's a scene that also lost the desire to get mainstream impact.
Apart from Paul Kalkbrenner, most of the DJs don't have the will or the desire or the wish to chart a hit. What for? You live brilliantly as a DJ playing the club circuit, you don't need to sell out, and the problems that come with selling out. What I really find interesting about techno culture is that it is the first subculture that really organized beyond national borders. These borders are not important any more. It's a culture that, when you can speak English, you can be a part of it. It's a culture where it's the most normal thing in the world when a DJ gets a booking in another European DJ's city. For a Berlin DJ in the '90s, that was unusual. If you played in London that was the biggest deal you could think of. Nobody got gigs there, and we were very much looking up to London. London was another world, and we were just here in small Berlin. London was big.
Why do you think techno was the common thread in the '90s among those groups that you mentioned?
The real roots of Berlin techno
All German DJs around my age, everybody between 35 and 45, all started with Depeche Mode. It's incredible how important Depeche Mode was for the German techno scene. It's interesting because the historical writing of techno is different. It is much more nerdy. "OK, there is Stockhausen and Can and musique concrete." That's a conceptual kind of history writing, but if you look at the basis of people who make music, you never come with a conceptual history. No seven year old listens to Stockhausen. A 12 year old listens to Depeche Mode. That is the sort of thing that creates your musical reflexes or instincts or whatever.
Germans often think of themselves as writers and philosophers, but I think that's wrong. I think Germans are engineers and philosophers, and I think techno is that. Techno is philosophy plus engineering, and I think that's what makes techno so attractive to Germans in a broad sense. Techno has no lyrics most of the time, which makes it a very universal language, and I think techno is a bodily music. I think it's very big with the East German hedonistic kind of drugs-and-techno crowd. That's what makes it popular with the gay crowd, and I also think that's what makes it popular for people like me. I mean, I like this bodily aspect and I like the dancing aspect. You have to understand that Berlin is a city that does not like stars, which is also a weakness in a way. Berlin doesn't produce stars—London or New York produces stars. Berlin doesn't have a celebrity system the way London or New York has a celebrity system. That's not what is interesting for Berliners. Berliners want you to be down-to-earth. That's what makes the DJ so appealing. He's not a star on a stage or rock sense, he's down-to-earth. That's a big part of this Berliner attitude. You don't want the people to fly too high, you want them by your side, in front of you. I think that's also what makes techno a very appealing music for lots of people who live here.
Why do you think that is a characteristic of Berliners?
I think a lot of people in Berlin would be happy if some world-renowned star came out of the city, but that's never going to happen because the people are always so ridiculous. Berlin is the place where the alternative culture and niche culture is great, not the official culture. Take Basic Channel or all these acts that find their freedom in anonymity; it's also a political statement. It's a statement to say, "We don't want that, it's a waste of time, we want to do our thing and be hedonistic and we want to do what we do but we don't want stars."
Maybe it's far-fetched, but in a way Germans had their perfect totalitarian celebrity system. When my parents think about pop culture they think about it as mass culture. As a threat. That's a heritage of the Nazi times. Maybe that's why there is a certain kind of mistrust in celebrity system: Germany already had a perfected system where totalitarianism had allied with power and force. We don't want that again, and we can't play with this as freely as other people.
When techno started, a lot of people thought it might have fascistic aspects: this DJ standing there, everybody dancing, looking to the DJ. A lot of people who had a sensibility for these kinds of things mistrusted techno because of this. Also because there were no lyrics, you didn't know what the message was. The message was just being there and dancing and communicating with the leader—the DJ. There was lots of distrust, but fortunately this way of thinking died out at a certain point.
The scene at E-Werk in the '90s.
Was there a moment that you can pinpoint when things changed in Berlin?
I don't really know when this '90s German adventure changed into the Berlin that we have right now, which is like an international kind of place or even "hotspot." But, I remember the moment I realized it, and that was in 2004 when I was standing in the line of a club waiting to get in. I realized, "Wow, all of these people around me speak different languages." Nobody was speaking German. People from all over the world are standing in line to get in, and I'm the only German here.
What do you think of the tourists?
Lots of people in Berlin complain about the tourists, "Ah, these tourists piss and puke in the streets, they are so loud." I don't share this sentiment at all. I think the techno tourists are a blessing for the city, and I have the feeling that people from abroad who come to Berlin to go to clubs know much more about the music than most of the Berliners, and have much more respect for the culture than the Berliners.
There are two aspects to the resentment against tourists in Berlin; one aspect is that most people who are the loudest when it comes to being against tourists are not Berliners themselves, and they overcompensate the fact that they're not born here by trying to be the uber-Berliners. The other thing is that rents have gone up—most of which has to do with foreign capital streaming into the city. People tend to think that tourists have something to do with it. They're a scapegoat in a way.
Berlin is a very poor city. People don't have much money here, and there is no financial industry here or manufacturing. All the stuff that Germany makes its wealth with is not here. It's in West Germany: we're just the capital. We just have techno and politics. So when investors come to Berlin they're very rarely from Berlin. Most investors who buy apartments are from outside the city, so lots of people who have resentments against tourists think that tourists have created a terrain where investors have sent the rents up. That's utter bullshit.
Why do you think techno is so big in Berlin right now?
It's a historical accident. It's lots of historical accidents. The Wall falls down, and this small scene in West Germany takes over huge empty spaces in East Berlin, so they celebrate the freedom. That's one big historical accident that nobody could have anticipated, but then lots of other things added to this situation: the cheap flights pop up in the late '90s and early '00s, the economic collapse Berlin had in the '90s. There was huge speculation that Berlin was going to be this boom town—it never was, and all those investors lost lots of money.
If the investors had gotten their way, techno never would have been this big in the '00s, and everywhere would be flourishing industry. But there is no flourishing industry in Berlin. There are just people getting wasted and dancing to techno music. All of these dreams of Berlin as an economic and financial capital never came to life, and the techno scene took advantage of it.
"If you don't have an economic
backbone like London or New York, you
can have gentrification, but it only
happens on a much smaller scale."
It seems like Berlin has an almost punk ethic to its nightlife.
If you take Studio 54, this big club in the '70s New York, the most important character in this situation is the bouncer. He's the one who lets you in or does not let you in. Most of the time he doesn't let you in. It's about fame, beauty, wealth, celebrity; all these elements are what brings you into this club, and it's the bouncer who decides whether you get in or not. That's one way of constructing a club situation.
The Berlin idea of a club situation was always different because there's no celebrity culture—there's no wealth. There's sexiness, but it's different than New York in the '70s. It's a situation where wealth, doesn't get you into a club. When you want to get into a club, you have to look like you want to party hard. You have to be different. You cannot buy your way into a club in Berlin.
Unlike New York or London, there is no cultural code in this city that is being generated by money. The cultural code is "I was there, I know this"—a subcultural code. To me, this is really appealing because I see lots of wealthy people moving into my part of the city, and I see all the expensive cars and then I think, "Yeah, but you're not getting it." The bouncer is not letting you in. That doesn't mean anything in the world where I construct meaning. Your car doesn't mean shit. I think that's a Berlin thing.
Do you think Berlin could become as expensive as London or New York?
Berlin has gentrification like any other major city in the world. Nevertheless, Berlin is never going to be like London or New York. This process is not going to happen in Berlin because there is still no financial industry. There is no industry at all, not one single stock company is in Berlin. It's all speculation money. People invest here because they think they can make money here. It's a bubble, and it's going to burst. It burst in the '90s and it will burst again. If you don't have an economic backbone like London or New York, you can have gentrification, but it only happens on a much smaller scale.
I think Berlin is going to be creative for the next 20 years. I don't see any reason why it should change. Lots of people in the creative scene have a much too small of scale when it comes to viewing the world. The world is much bigger than techno; it's industries, it's finance. That's what defines a city at the end of the day. That's what makes cities more expensive or less expensive and as long as there is no financial industry here, prices will go up—but they won't stay up.
When I walk through the streets in Mitte, the center of East Berlin, I still have the feeling that I'm on the pulse of the present. "It's happening here," is the feeling I get. It's very different than it was in the '90s, because back then you had the feeling that the city changed every three months, and you can be a part of that change and it was this adventure where you can explore things. Now, it's more about all these different people that come here. It's not that empty, but it's full of lots of people from all over the world, chasing this Berlin dream. That's what makes it really interesting for me, because I've never seen anything like that in my lifetime. It's not common for a German city to be that attractive for the rest of the world, and a very new situation to be the "hotspot." I really enjoy that. I find it really great that so many different people from different countries come here. It creates something unique.
Check out an excerpt from Rapp's book, Lost and Sound: Berlin, Techno and the Easyjetset here.
Published / Wednesday, 07 September 2011
Photo credits / Header - Frollein
Buildings - Frollein
Brandenburg Tor - Boropjs
Chopping Wall - Natalie Maynor
Tresor - Tresor
E-Werk - Ewerk