DJ Culture in Germany

Copyright laut.deSven Väth, Westbam, Hell, or Tanith are names which make the hearts of music fans beat faster all over the world. They come from Germany.

The DJ

Viewed historically the figure of the Disc Jockey or DJ is anything but a German invention. As an aspect and shaper of popular culture he was initially an American import. This profession came into existence in the first half of the 20th century, furthered by rapid development of new radio technology – above all in small provincial stations which couldn’t afford their own Radio Orchestra as was basically laid down by the powerful musicians unions.

In the fifties the Radio DJ experienced his triumph as a star influencing the masses and a marketing factor in the new consumer group of teenagers. At the start of the sixties DJs began for the first time to replace the dance bands that had previously been the norm in clubs. Finally, at the end of the sixties the creative choice of records became an art-form in its own right. Germany

That provided clear-cut orientation for the development of Disco and DJ culture in postwar West Germany. The first Discos came into existence in centres in the American zones of occupation and were often reserved for GIs. Forbidden visits to these musically often very progressive clubs, favouring Funk, Soul, and Rock, are today still among the highlights in the personal biographies of some long-serving DJs from Hesse and the Palatinate.

Apart from these Discos being venues for Black American popular culture, they soon also became important as the scene of psychedelic Hippy activities. Grünspan in Hamburg is seen as the first German Disco to have an official lightshow where you could lose yourself amid the thundering sounds of Jimi Hendrix and Krautrock. Little is known about the people who chose the records played at that time.

...between Service...

However German DJ culture as we know it today is closely linked with names, personalities, and identities. Two stand out amid the rise of German DJs out of the ranks of service staff to become autonomous interpreters of this activity: Westbam and Sven Väth.

Väth can be viewed as a typical child of a specifically Frankfurt style, who grew up in the atmosphere of US Army culture. Himself born to disco-owners, he grew into this metier both musically and gastronomically. Väth started as a disc jockey when that was still completely uncool and discos were still seen as places only visited by “idiots”and “mousy girls”. But at the end of the eighties Väth was on the spot when a paradigm change spread like wildfire across the world as a result of rapid development of electronic music production and the associated rise of completely new styles which transformed night life. With his mixture of well-grounded passion for entertainment and alert openness to new forms of celebration, he was able to establish himself as the most spectacular German DJ. His marathon sets from the early nineties are legendary. Väth used to exercise his skills for up to twelve hours, sparing neither himself nor his public. He may not be a technically brilliant DJ, but continues to fascinate the masses up to the present day with his sure instinct for choosing discs.

...Claims to Art...

Westbam, on the other hand, who has been active as a DJ since the start of the eighties, established access to this profession in a completely different, albeit directly American, way. Growing up in Münster, the young Maximilian Lenz was impressed by the first New York HipHop DJs who, enormously creatively, began to comprehend vinyl discs as a tool. His stage name, Westphalia Bambaataa, soon shortened too Westbam, was inspired by one of the most important characters on that scene, Africa Bambaataa. However, Westbam was also the first person – at least on a nationwide level, perceptible to the media – to transpose the figure of the DJ into a sub-cultural, basically leftist and rebellious context. Both the world of dance-oriented nightlife and the profession of DJ were thereby opened up to completely new groups of people. Westbam, who comes from a family of artists, still likes making philosophical and political statements in public up to the present day, and the book he produced with Rainald Goetz, Mix, Cuts and Scratches (Merve, Berlin 1997) became famous. The Westbam approach began to catch on in a big way at the end of the eighties when Techno conquered the music scene as a style which for the first time was deliberately shaped, aesthetically and in terms of content, in Germany rather than being an import or a third-rate German copy.

...Regional Characteristics...

Fired by the imaginative energy of Techno, the entire spectrum of DJ characters soon proliferated in the big cities alongside a wide range of musical and cultural forms: Berlin’s Tanith with his Camoulflage-Look, always ready for battle, which suited Hard Times Techno during the era of the Fall of the Wall and the Gulf War; Hooligan from the Ruhr with his specifically regional sense of what is necessary; Munich’s Hell with highly refined stagings of taste, in terms of both music and fashion; and in Frankfurt of course the clique around Väth with Marc Spoon, DJ Dag, and so on, who coupled the principles of esoteric shamanism and decadent orgies in Mediterranean fashion. All Conceivable Styles!

Parallel to the Techno DJs, who were certainly most present in terms of public awareness, German DJ culture has flourished in all conceivable styles since the early nineties: HipHop, House, Drum & Base, and above all in the realm of what is known as “Ohrensessel-Elektronik” (literally: Armchair Electronics for Ears). As a country fulfilling the cultural conditions of freedom and affluence, Germany is one of the world’s most important markets for DJ vinyl and electronic musical equipment. At the same time innumerable DJs in this country run a small to medium-sized record company of their own as a personally controlled outlet for personal ideas at the highest level, often without economic interests being involved. That in turn results in the strong presence of German Underground DJ productions on the record-players of discos across the globe.
Hans Nieswandt
has worked for more than 20 years as a DJ, music producer, and author in an alternating mix of circumstances. He has brought out many records as a solo artist and for "Projekt Whirlpool Productions". His book, Disko Ramallah, was published by Kiepenheuer & Witsch in 2006.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion

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