All photos courtesy of Melbeatz
Back when Kanye West was fresh from his "College Dropout" debut, he rapped over beats made by a German producer called Melbeatz. She talks crate digging, graffiti, and why she doesn't care if people call her a bitch.
This post was originally published on Broadly Germany.
Flashback to the year 2000: Hip-hop television show Fett MTV airs a segment about German rapper Kool Savas and his influential crew, MOR. Hanging out next to all the boys is a single girl: Melbeatz, Savas's producer and girlfriend.
The sight of Melbeatz standing side by side with the best of West Berlin's underground rap community is nothing to sneeze at. Back then, hip-hop in Germany was a genre dominated by men. These days, you can still count the number of respected female rappers on one hand, like Cora E., Fiva MC, and Pyranja. But you could say that Melbeatz occupies a special place in the industry by virtue of being a producer—and not just because she's one of the few women who have made beats for Kanye West.
"I never had issues in the scene for being a woman," Melbeatz explains at her apartment near Berlin's Ostbahnhof train station. "People were more curious about the kind of beats a girl makes."
Melbeatz was born Melanie Wilhelm in West Berlin in 1977. Her early musical education involved listening to her parents' chart show compilation cassettes and playing her childhood mini keyboard; she first encountered hip-hop in 1988 thanks to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It." But her love of music really took off a few years later, when a friend's older brother gave her a mixtape featuring Grandmaster Flash and Ice-T.
When Melbeatz transferred high schools, she got even deeper into rap, as well as graffiti. Her best friend's boyfriend was a Berlin graffiti artist who called himself Stone. The two girls started spreading their tags—Mel and Danone—around Berlin. "A 13-year-old girl doesn't arouse that much suspicion, so we could tag all over the place without being bothered," Melbeatz remembers. They repeatedly bombed Berlin until everyone in the scene knew their names. Shortly afterwards, they founded their own first crew, KingSizeBandits (or KSB, for short).
Women were also a rarity in the graffiti scene of the 80s and 90s. There were only two female graffiti artists in Berlin before Mel and Danone. "There were actually a few girl crews that came after us," Melbeatz explains. "In retrospect, of course I can remember a few situations in which we had to stand up for ourselves—but that wasn't because we were women. The riff raff we used to hang out with all had a pretty raw way of talking and everyone made fun of everyone else. I'm very confident, so I didn't take any shit from anyone. If someone told me to 'Shut up!' then I would tell them, 'Shut the fuck up and get out of here!'"
Melbeatz with DJ Desue.
Where did her confidence come from? "Maybe from my childhood, which wasn't really so dope," Melbeatz says. "My father was an alcoholic back then. He's been dry for 20 years now, but he used to be really violent. I always thought it was unfair for a strong man to hit a woman who's weaker than him, which gave me a keen sense of justice early on."
In grade school, Melbeatz was already picking fights with boys who annoyed her girlfriends. "Aside from that, my parents always gave me the impression that they were really proud of me and that I was doing everything right. So during the day, they would try and right everything that went wrong at night—and it worked."
Melbeatz joined a graffiti crew called Sleepwalkers (SLW), where she met a guy named Savas Yurderi—or Kool Savas, as he's now known. Back then, Savas was rapping in English as JUKS. The pair soon became a couple. "In the initial years, I was more famous than Savas. When he was still rapping under a pseudonym, he was known as 'Mel's boyfriend,'" Melbeatz grins. Savas always took Melbeatz along when he worked with producers, so she got firsthand experience of how beats were made.
At the beginning of 1996, Melbeatz travelled to New York and met Berlin producer DJ Desue, who was also on vacation on the East Coast. They happened to be staying in the same place. Melbeatz started crate digging with DJ Desue as he looked for samples in their host's record collection. "I just chose records that I would sample if I were making music." Back in Germany, Savas brought home an Akai S900 sampler to the apartment they shared. "He explained to me how the sampler works and then I started."
Melbeatz with Kool Savas in 2001. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Her beats ended up on the albums of Berlin rap legends like Shadow and Fuat, before Melbeatz ultimately produced "Haus & Boot" for Kool Savas and "Komm Her" by Eko Fresh in 2001. That year, she also singlehandedly produced Kool Savas' legendary debut album, Der beste Tag meines Lebens ("The Best Day of My Life"). In 2004, she released an album called Rapper's Delight, bringing German musicians like Kool Savas, Azad Eizi Eiz, Curse, Tone, and Cassandra Steen together with American rap giants such as Mobb Deep, Ol' Dirty Bastard, and Tha Liks. She even gave a leg up to a then little-known Chicago producer and rapper called Kanye West, letting him rap over her beats on "Oh Oh."
Since then, Melbeatz has continued to produce hip-hop for all the German rap greats; she even began contributing to movie soundtracks for movies. "With music it was just like it was with graffiti, and I'm a bit proud of that: Both times I didn't know exactly what it was, but I had so much fun doing both, that I made a name for myself doing them."
Two years ago, she found herself at the center of a media storm when journalist Marcus Staiger claimed that the producer had gotten physical with Kool Savas. "There were definitely moments where I was screaming because he didn't do the dishes, but I never slapped him," Melbeatz says. In the aftermath, she was trolled online and called mannsweib, a slang word used against women who are seen as ball-busting bitches.
"I've experienced that a lot," she says. "As soon as I told a guy 'shut up!' I was immediately labeled mannsweib. Why is that? Just 'cause I'm responding to you on a level playing field or because I have an edge over you? It could be that it doesn't sound feminine, but that's how I grew up. I've always found that shitty. Nobody wants to be called mannsweib. People obviously get upset if you have sharp elbows, but without them you won't get anywhere."
Is that the reason there are so few women in the hip-hop scene? "I used to get this question constantly from journalists," the 39 year old laughs. "And then I would always say, 'I'm the wrong person to give you an answer to that. You have to ask the people who aren't like that and who never made it.' For me, everything was always cool. But that depends on what you're bringing. Boys really like Schwesta Ewa, because she's really tough. If you're a girl who raps out of her diary, you're not gonna have a chance."
Does that mean it only works with sharp elbows? "You can also just make music as a woman. But if you want to feel like you belong in the hip-hop scene, it's like if you want to be a truck mechanic—you really have to make an impact. You can't be afraid of breaking a nail. It sucks for the not-so-tough girls, but you can't do anything about that. All you can do is produce, produce, produce. If you really want to be part of the scene, then you'll make it at some point."
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