Rap and Rechtschreibung: Five times rappers nailed German grammar

On the 20th anniversary of the Rechtschreibreform, controversial German rapper and philologist Lady Bitch Ray has launched a passionate defence of correct German. But she is not the only hip-hop artist who can teach us a thing or two about German grammar.

Rap and Rechtschreibung: Five times rappers nailed German grammar
Lady Bitch Ray is a stickler for grammar. Photo: DPA

The Rechtschreibreform, the last major update to the official rules and regulations of the German language, is 20 years old today, having come into force on the 1st August 1998.

For philologist Dr. Reyhan Sahin, otherwise known as the unapologetically pornographic rap artist Lady Bitch Ray, this is a cause for celebration. The linguistic expert has admitted that, when it comes to grammar, she does not suffer fools lightly.

“What I really don’t like are people who don’t make an effort when it comes to spelling and gender in their lyrics,” the 38-year-old told RND this week. “E-mails, too, are now more like letters to me, and should be written correctly.”

Judging by her lyrics, there are quite a lot of things that Lady Bitch Ray really doesn’t like, but more on that later.

For now, her admirable plea for more grammatical accuracy has inspired us, and so in our own tribute to both rap and the Rechtschreibreform, we thought we’d dig out five occasions on which German hip-hop really nailed it grammatically.

Marteria – Neue Nikes, 2010

“Ich hab dem Teufel meine Seele verkauft/Gegen ein paar neue Nikes eingetauscht”

Marteria may have leaned somewhat heavily on a certain Mr S. Dogg when it comes to the beat on “Neue Nikes”, but what he lacks in originality, he makes up for in spades with grammatical accuracy. “I (nominative) sold my soul (accusative) to the devil (dative)” is his powerful and literate opening gambit in what is actually quite a funny ditty about consumer culture.

Käpt’n Peng – Sie mögen sich, 2014

“Er mag sie und sie mag ihn/Sie mag ihn und er mag sie/Er mag sie und sie mag ihn/Sie mögen sich.”

Käpt’n Peng’s tragicomic ballad traces the story of a couple who decided to transform themselves into foxes (and what happened thereafter). The chorus is not only a delightfully irritating earworm. In its simplicity, it’s also a good exercise in working out how pronouns differ between the accusative and nominative cases.

Seeed – Dickes B, 2001

“Coolnessmäßig platzt die Stadt aus allen Nähten/aber wo sind jetzt die Typen, die auch ernsthaft antreten”

Strictly speaking, Seeed are more reggae than rap, but Peter Fox knows how to rhyme at speed, and in Berlinerisch to boot. In the band’s classic ode to “Mama Berlin”, Fox expertly demonstrates the genius of the suffix “-mäßig”. Stick it on the end of any noun, and save yourself the trouble of more cumbersome phrases meaning “with regards to”.  After all, “Was Coolness angeht” or “Mit Bezug auf das Coolness” ” doesn’t quite have the same ring to it.

Prinz Pi – Kompass ohne Norden, 2013

“Die Ersten sind gescheitert, die Ersten was geworden/Die Ersten wurden Eltern, die Ersten sind gestorben/Bob Dylan gab mir einst einen Kompass ohne Norden”

Prinz Pi’s 2013 song “Kompass ohne Norden” is a pretty straightforward ode to the passing of time, full of bittersweet, nostalgia-drenched pathos. From a grammatical point of view, its refrain teaches us the useful lesson that you can hang two different past participles, even if they are in separate clauses, to the same auxiliary verb. Because both “werden” and “scheitern” take “sein” in the perfect tense, the artist formerly known as “Prinz Porno” doesn’t need to use the word “sind” twice in that first line.  

Lady Bitch Ray – Ich hasse dich, 2006

“Sarah Connor, du Kaugummi kauende Schl**pe”

To finish things off, a real zinger from Lady Bitch Ray herself. Linguist or otherwise, Ms Sahin’s lyrics are not known for their poetry so much as for their aggressive vulgarity. The above is the opening line of her 2006 song “Ich hasse dich” (I hate you), and while it is undoubtedly an unkind appraisal of poor old Sarah Connor, it is also a fine example of the German tendency to seamlessly create phrasal adjectives using present participles.

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Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop

Spanish rapper C. Tangana was taking a big risk when he started mixing old-fashioned influences like flamenco and bossa nova into his hip-hop -- but it's this eclectic sound that has turned him into a phenomenon on both sides of the Atlantic.

Meet the Spanish rapper bringing flamenco and bossa nova into hip-hop
Spanish rapper Anton Alvarez known as 'C. Tangana' poses in Madrid on April 29, 2021. Photo: Javier Soriano/AFP

The 30-year-old has emerged as one of the world’s biggest Spanish-language stars since his third album “El Madrileno” — the Madrilenian — came out in February. That ranks him alongside his superstar ex-girlfriend Rosalia, the Grammy-winning Catalan singer with whom he has co-written several hits.

C. Tangana, whose real name is Anton Alvarez Alfaro, has come a long way since a decade ago when he became known as a voice of disillusioned Spanish youth in the wake of the financial crisis.These days his rap is infused with everything from reggaeton and rumba to deeply traditional styles from Spain and Latin America, with a voice often digitised by autotune.

“It’s incredible that just when my music is at its most popular is exactly when I’m doing something a bit more complex, more experimental and less
trendy,” he told AFP in an interview.

And he is unashamed to be appealing to a wider audience than previously: his dream is now to make music “that a young person can enjoy in a club or someone older can enjoy at home while cooking”.

‘People are tired’

The rapper, who sports a severe semi-shaved haircut and a pencil moustache, has worked with Spanish flamenco greats including Nino De Elche, Antonio Carmona, Kiko Veneno, La Hungara and the Gipsy Kings.

In April he brought some of them together for a performance on NPR’s popular “Tiny Desk Concert” series, which has already drawn nearly six million
views on YouTube.

Shifting away from trap, one of rap’s most popular sub-genres, and venturing into a more traditional repertoire was a dangerous move — especially for someone with a young fanbase to whom rumba, bossa nova and bolero sound old-fashioned.

“I think people are tired. They’ve had enough of the predominant aesthetic values that have previously defined pop and urban music,” he said.

Parts of his latest album were recorded in Latin America with Cuban guitarist Eliades Ochoa of Buena Vista Social Club, Uruguayan
singer-songwriter Jorge Drexler, Mexican folk artist Ed Maverick and Brazil’s Toquinho, one of the bossa nova greats.

“What struck me most everywhere I went was the sense of tradition and the way people experienced the most popular music, and I don’t mean pop,” he said.

A new direction

C. Tangana started out in 2006 rapping under the name Crema. When the global economic crisis swept Spain a few years later, hard-hitting trap was
the perfect way to voice the angst of his generation. But after more than a decade of rapping, things changed.

“When I was heading for my 30s, I hit this crisis, I was a bit fed up with what I was doing… and decided to give voice to all these influences that I
never dared express as a rapper,” he said.

The shift began in 2018 with “Un veneno” (“A poison”) which came out a year after his big hit “Mala mujer” (“Bad woman”).

And there was a return to the sounds of his childhood when he used to listen to Spanish folk songs at home, raised by a mother who worked in
education and a journalist father who liked to play the guitar. The Latin American influences came later.

“It started when I was a teenager with reggaeton and with bachata which were played in the first clubs I went to, which were mostly Latin,” he said.

Studying philosophy at the time, he wrote his first raps between stints working in call centres or fast-food restaurants.

As to what comes next, he doesn’t know. But one thing he hopes to do is collaborate with Natalia Lafourcade, a Mexican singer who dabbles in folk, rock and pop — another jack of all musical trades.