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An Interview with Jan Delay: “I Am Up for Rock”

Jan DelayCopyright: Anastasia Tsayder/Goethe-Institut
He is the chief stylist among friends of rap – in a tailored suit with tie and hat (Photo: Anastasia Tsayder/Goethe-Institut)

23 January 2013

“We can bet – in twenty years, I’ll turn your Bielefeld into Manhattan!” He unabashedly bats our ears with his rhymes. And Jan Delay says what he thinks. In the interview he talks about platitudes, electrifying rock and greetings from Moscow.

It is a Friday evening in a chic hotel in Düsseldorf. Jan Delay just received the Necktie Man of the Year 2012 award. He deposits his new trophy in his hotel room and sits down on the sofa. He is wearing jeans, shirt and a cap.

Congratulations, Mr Delay! But, you’re not wearing a tie or a suit ...

Delay: Thank you. I told the people at the German Fashion Institute right away that I wouldn’t be coming in a suit. I think it’s great that they awarded me with the Tie, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to carry the whole rigmarole onto the plane with me. In a sort of laudation, I was just told that the award stands more for fashion consciousness.

You criticize the people in Germany in your lyrics. Are we Germans really so uptight?

I never said that.


Jan Delay, Kartoffeln (Potatoes)

But, you write “The groove is march, and we don’t have a stick, but a forest in the arse, potatoes!”

Ah, you mean, “Inhibited.” For me, “uptight” has a more sexual meaning. Twenty years ago, they were all very inhibited – because there were not enough influences in Germany from the outside. There was no Internet; you couldn’t push a button and invite any subculture into your own home. If you were interested in fashion and hip-hop, you had to travel to London, Amsterdam or Paris. The music that was being played on German radio stations was to the most part platitudes, flowery pop without any rough edges. If you grew up with that it’s hard to learn how to dance, cook good food or make good films. I think the ten or twenty hip-hoppers there were then per city were the pioneers.

So, hip-hop contributed to making us less inhibited?

Hip-hop has done a lot. But, it’s just one example of all subcultures: they help us get the sticks out of our arses.

You rap and rhyme in German. Why, if you could conquer more charts in English?

Jan Delay: “It’s important to me to get politically involved” (Photo: Mathias Bothor)
Lyrics are very important to me and I have to be able to use the language confidently. In hip-hop it’s a matter of rhymes never heard before, of plays on words and sometimes a few good, heavy lines. I sit at my lyrics for a really long time and think that they are the reason for most of my success. In English I would probably not reach anyone.

In September, you and your band Disko No. 1 held a concert in Moscow for the Year of Germany in Russia. How’d it go?

It was great. I had no idea; I expected the worst.

Why?

If you’ve never been to Russia and only know the filtered stories, you imagine bad things. I didn’t know what would await me there. Because of my lyrics. I’m no Helene Fischer, who does her entertainment thing, which Putin must really like. I was sceptical. And then I was extremely positively surprised.

In what way?

Since it was a free concert and took place in Gorky Park, lots of people showed up who otherwise probably would not have come. When I got on stage, I asked, “Who here can speak German?” About 80 percent of the audience held their hands up. I asked, “Who is from Germany?” Only 20 percent kept their hands up. I think more than half of the audience were Russians who spoke German. Russians, I didn’t realize, have a great affinity with the German language, with films, music and culture from Germany. After the concert some people came to me and said, “Hey, Soul Kitchen by Fatih Akin is my favourite film.” I asked them, puzzled, “Where did you see the film?” “It was in cinemas here.” Man, I thought, that’s a film from Hamburg; it wasn’t even shown in every cinema in Germany. That really impressed me.


Jan Delay & Disko No. 1 in Moscow (in German)

Did the audience in Moscow sing along?

Since we didn’t perform until after dark, I couldn’t see whether they sang along to all of my lyrics. But, after the concert I was told that for Russia, they were positively ecstatic; Russians are usually more reserved. So, I think there are one or two people there who listen to my music.

Shortly after your concert, the trial began in Moscow against the three singers of the punk rock band Pussy Riot. Two of them were sentenced to two years in a penal camp. Can music and the fine arts have any impact in an authoritarian country?

I was not in Russia long enough to judge that. But, the response that the case of Pussy Riot elicited in the world shows me that music and art do have effects. The people in the Moscow arts scene impressed me: since they do not agree with Putin, they are far more political than here in Europe. Every Monday after work they go to a demonstration. And they don’t let themselves be discouraged and keep going. I would run away. Except, maybe I’d be so tied to my language that I would stay.

You are active for literacy, basic education and climate protection. You were one of the protesters at the G8 summit in Heiligendamm. Is it part of your job to be politically active?

Not at all. Music is still art and doesn’t necessarily need to be mixed with politics. That’s up to anyone who has anything to do with popular culture to decide for themselves. It’s important to me to get politically involved, because the people I looked up to when I was coming up were.


Jan Delay, He wanted to go to London (Udo Lindenberg Cover)

Who were your idols?

Public Enemy. I could name lots more that no one’s heard of. And Udo Lindenberg, too. He protested against Pershing rockets, was part of the Band for Africa in the 1980s and his lyrics were political. That was a jump-start.

After hip-hop, rap, soul, funk and reggae albums, you’re now working on a rock album. What makes you want to play in the rock genre?

I feel like it! Besides hip-hop, I’ve always listened to everything – but I did it undercover. When something really got me enthusiastic, I wanted to do it myself. That’s the way it was at the beginning with hip-hop, and then with reggae, soul and funk. In my school band, I played drums on songs by AC/DC, Guns ‘N’ Roses and Rage Against the Machine. When lots of really wicked rock music came out starting about 2002/2003, I wanted to make a record. I’ve been trying things out for two years and noticed that my funk band also really enjoys playing rock.

Will it just be an excursion in rock or do your fans need to prepare themselves for a brand new Jan Delay?

I think it will just be one record, because we are already putting more work just into the demos than we ever have before. It used to be lots more Jan Delay than funk or reggae. This time, I want lots of Jan Delay and lots of rock. When some rock guys hear it, I want them to raise their eyebrows and say, “Wow, rad, he can do that, too.”


Jan Delay @ Rock in the Pott 2012 (in German)

Daniela Gollob held the interview.

Jan Delay, 36, whose real name is Jan Philipp Eissfeldt, became famous as a member of the group Beginner. He is a musician, DJ and producer. His last two albums Mercedes Dance and Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Soul landed at the top of the German charts. In September 2012, the hip-hopper and his band Disko No. 1 travelled to Moscow with many other bands and street artists to present contemporary German culture at the Year of Germany in Russia. Under the motto “Germany and Russia – shaping the future together” Germany will present itself all over Russia for one year with projects from politics, business, the arts, education and science.
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