A very cool interview with Tobias Rapp (author of Lost and Sound: Techno and the Easyjetset; we covered the chapter on Berghain here) on Resident Advisor today. Rapp tells about his experiences of moving to Berlin in 1990, discovering the nascent techno scene and living there in the early 90′s, the time of UFO, E-werk and Tresor. Some excerpts:
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Read the whole thing here.