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Big Up Berlin
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  • Historians have long acknowledged the central role of Jamaican toasters (rappers) in igniting the ghetto musical fires that fueled the rise of hip-hop. What goes around comes around -- the island created a whole new musical style on retooled American R&B; now they'd see their sound swiped, modified, and successfully sold worldwide. Don't hate the players, though -- both sides happily influenced each other, and over the years joined forces in North-South combos and guest shots on each others' records. As these kinds of crossovers proliferated, invariably the two scenes grew closer together, and both hip-hop and reggae fans further afield began responding in kind. Which leads to Big Up Berlin, a smashing compilation that bundles together 17 German hip-hop and dancehall artists onto one fabulous CD. Down side first: virtually all the artists rap/toast exclusively in German, a definite drawback in scenes that are so lyric-driven. But you don't need to understand the words to grasp just how influenced by their New World counterparts the Germans are, which makes this album sound far less alien than it might otherwise. Besides, catchy choruses are universal, and Das Department's anthemic shoutouts of "hip-hop" need no translation, nor does Massive T”ne's infectious "ven zie cruisen," for the delights of cruising know no borders. Who knows what Fler is rapping about, but does it matter when he's doing it over a down-and-dirty version of "Rock Me Amadeus"? And Fler isn't the only act to find inspiration closer to home, with Tone's "Reimroboter" a hip-hop homage to Kraftwerk, while Beatfabrik dig deeper into early experimental electronica and emerge with "Ihr Bitches." Conversely, jazz remains popular in Germany, and Dachstube combine a big band-styled rhythm with a jaunty honky tonk keyboard line, and then gaily rap over it on the quite inspired "Express." Curse, too, has the musical blues, building his backing around a simple but strong jazzy keyboard line, with a soulful female vocal sample tossed overhead and a sparse, syncopated rhythm pumping underneath. Of the dancehall batch, Curse is the most adventurous, with the others mostly wearing their influences on their sleeves. A few, however, give their music a unique spin. Seeed, for instance, obviously are in thrall to Sean Paul, but their predilection for brass, burping basslines, and bouncy melodies is all their own. Gentleman's love of the fire bun bobos is equally evident, but he shines on his solo shot and on the combo unity anthem "Widerstand," where he joins forces with Curse over a riddim built around a laid-back reggae guitar riff. It's the perfect set-closer for a bridge-building compilation that spans hip-hop and dancehall and Europe and the New World. The acts' names may be unfamiliar and their words incomprehensible to some, but their music is an unstoppable force with a far-reaching echo. ~ Jo-Ann Greene
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