Cartel was a constitution that empowered young people of Turkish descent and let them know that they were not alone at a time during which racist attacks in Germany had reached their apex. In Turkey, on the other hand, it was the most significant touchstone in Turkish rap’s rise to prevalence among the masses.
In this interview, we follow Kerim Yüzer aka Kabus Kerim, co-founder of Cartel, from his beginnings in music as a DJ in Nürnberg to the year 1995 when Cartel took Turkey by storm. The details of the interview will take you to the atmosphere of those days, and you’ll perhaps find yourself murmuring the lyrics, “Cartel, number one, the greatest…crazy Turk straight out of hell”, that remain fresh in our minds in spite of the time that has passed.
Interview by Sedef İlgiç and Nazlı Sağdıç Pilcz
Text by Sedef İlgiç
Edited by Nükhet Polat
Translated to English by Zeynep Beler
Nürnberg, where I had come to be with my family, was the first city that I saw in Germany. Back then, naturally, I knew nothing of Germany’s history. They were teaching us about the Nazis in school. Who were the Nazis, then? ‘They were German too.’ A couple hundred meters away from our doorstep was the square where Hitler used to address the people. The city is a working class city, it’s like the Detroit of Germany. All the factories are here; from Adidas to Bosch, Siemens, Grundig…Nürnberg was also the first place that Americans settled in Germany after WWII. It was at one of their clubs that I played for the first time.
So relays Kabus Kerim his first experience DJ’ing in Germany in ’88 or ’89, when we meet on a video call prior to organizing our Frühstück Alla Turca event together. The club had a capacity of over two thousand, he continues. Vinyl records in those years were expensive, around 45 Marks each. Kerim, then, would go into the World of Music record store and listen to records on headphones. At the same time he would go to the club, get acquainted with its record archive and the locations of records, and sometimes help DJs out. One day one of the DJs got sick and he was asked to take the stage, leading him to take over “as co-pilot of a plane about to crash” which is what happened. That first crash was hardly the end of the story.
Karakan Turns 30 This Year
Kerim wasn’t fond of the styles that sounded rougher to him, preferring the “softer” hip hop by artists such as Afrika Bambaataa. Early in ’91, his friend the Peruvian-German DJ and producer Michael Huber aka Chill Fresh, told Kerim that he liked his musical selection and wanted to introduce him to the other member of the band King Size Terror, who was also Turkish. Surprised that there was a Turk in Nürnberg who rapped, Kerim hence met Alper, otherwise known as Alpertunga Köksal who was credited as “The Incredible Al” on the record cover, and who would later be known by the moniker Alper Ağa. They formed Karakan that same year.
We listened to some records. I’d never heard anything like that in my life. Of course, we’d heard something close to rap from Barış Manço or the song Ali Desidero. But the use of Turkish words in such a hardcore manner impressed me profoundly.
“After Hip Hop Was Played At Jams, We Went to Sleep on Cushions in the Same Hall”
So began his 30-year-long musical journey with Alper, with whom he “got along well”. In the beginning, Kerim DJ’ed in the background and Alper rapped. The Karakan song “Bir Yabancının Hayatı [Life of a Foreigner]” on the King Size Terror album introduced Turkish rap to the German hip hop scene for the first time. In the words of Kerim, the song expressed the issues of the ‘90s: “Socio-cultural issues, the issues of young people, problems with family and environment, life at home, life at large…”
After the incidents at Solingen and Mölln, they released the single “Defol Dazlak [Buzz Off, Skinhead]”, recorded and distributed via their own means. The song became a veritable march for the Turkish teens in Germany.
You could buy CD’s at Turkish markets at the time. If I’m not mistaken, the single had a print run of 20.000 CD’s. We started taking the stage at hip hop jams. Sometimes we would go in exchange for just the bus fare, that’s how valuable propagating the music was to us. We performed at jams and then went to sleep on cushions in the same hall. The next day we either moved onto another venue or returned home.
Kerim describes toiling in this way for years. In fact, as studio and equipment costs were exorbitant, there were times he worked as a seasonal worker at a factory.
“Then We Released the Album in Turkey. The Rest is History”
“I decided to be on one of the songs, Alper did too, he told me to do the backing vocals…next thing we knew, we had six songs as Karakan.” After Defol Dazlak, they had also started getting proposals. One of these, from Berlin, was the most appealing, so they were off: “We had a meeting and they told us to make a record. We said, ‘We don’t have enough material for a record, we need more time. We also don’t have the financial amenities to stay in Berlin during development.’” They resolved to make a compilation album, telling the proposers that they knew Cina-i Şebeke and Asiatic Warriors. The meetings marked the beginnings of Cartel as well.
They entered the studio in the first week of ’94 as six bands, releasing the record a year later in ’95 as only three; Cina-i Şebeke, Karakan and Erci-E. “We’d become household names in the underground. The record caused quite a splash in Germany. It was featured on MTV and German news channels: ‘Check out what these Turkish bands have done.’ Then we released the album in Turkey and the rest is history.”
“The MTV Prodigy Interview: ‘We’re Currently Listening to Cartel/Karakan’s Evdeki Ses’”
They played many times in Berlin “during its best times, when people of different streaks thrived together”. SO36 on Kreuzberg, however, held a different place in their hearts. When they held their “video release party” here, there were also people from Turkey-based record company Raks present. “They said to us: ‘We’ll release this album, but it won’t sell 10,000 copies in Turkey.’ It didn’t matter to us either way, whether they released it or not. Our actual target was always Germany. We’d come out under an important label, Universal, in Germany. Once we became popular in Turkey, however, we were naturally obliged to sever ties and promote it. We had thought that we would have made waves in Germany foremost, because the hip hop-savvy culture had formed in Germany. At the time, The Prodigy wasn’t so popular. In an MTV interview, when they were asked what they were listening to the most, they replied, ‘Evdeki Ses by Karakan, Cartel’. In 2000, Der Spiegel released an album titled 50 Jahre Popmusik und Jugendkultur in Deutschland. That compilation features Evdeki Ses as well. That is to say, it’s a song that has made German music history. If we had stayed here, everything might have been different.”
“Turns out music had given us an immense power there.”
They did not stay there, however, but performed around twenty-five concerts in Turkey within a month. Kerim reacted to accusations of fascism with the words, “No, we are not fascists. We live in Germany, we have a different kind of longing.”
When asked his most unforgettable memories, he lists their Beşiktaş İnönü Stadium concert that was live broadcast on MTV News first, followed by their Diyarbakır concert. Their İnönü Stadium concert, which was its most heavily attended concert after Michael Jackson’s, was also featured in Time Magazine.
There were foreign TV channels and Rolling Stone Magazine. It was all so momentous that I said to myself, it’s just as well if I never do anything else from this day on. It wasn’t about the material gains, we had achieved something so amazing…it really was emotional and there were close to fifty thousand people present at the concert. Turns out music had given us an immense power there.
They took a step back after the tour, contemplating what to do next. “We went in the studio and made a Karakan record, which was then released in Turkey in ’97. We came out with a formidable album, but saw no returns either in the form of concerts or anything else. Although the record company did all they could, there was as yet no such interest in rap in Turkey at the time, no demand.”
Although Cartel carried on, Kabus Kerim did not participate. “I said I wouldn’t participate too, because I felt that page in history should stay unturned.” He continues to fire up the dance floors, however, through his live DJ performances.
This piece is written in the framework of #60JahreMusik project financed by Berlin Yunus Emre Institute.