He is the sound tinkerer of the German hip-hop group Die Fantastischen Vier, the Fantastic Four in English, – always present, and always in the background, for the last 25 years. Without Andy Ypsilon, Germany’s most successful rap band may not have survived as long as it has. It has just released its latest album, “Rekord.”
The way he introduces himself says it all. “I’m Andy,” says Andy Ypsilon, standing in a basement hallway, between two steel cabinets. Then he adds: “Maybe you were looking for Thomas?” Well, no, not today.
It’s still dark in the studio, at 11 a.m. Mr. Ypsilon has just arrived. He’s under a great deal of stress at the moment, with the anniversary album about to be released, and with preparations underway for the band’s anniversary tour. The light show alone is a massive undertaking.
Die Fantastischen Vier are Germany’s best known and most successful rap group, despite critics’ disputing whether they are even rappers, questioning their authenticity or membership of the country’s rap scene.
Andy’s real name is Andreas Rieke, just as fellow band member Smudo is actually called Michael Bernd Schmidt. They met when they were 15, under decidedly unhip circumstances, at least from a rapper’s point of view: Their mothers were friends. Michael and Andreas spent their afternoons in front of the computer, trying their hand at programming games. They weren’t the most popular kids in school, says Mr. Ypsilon today. He is so caught up in his story that he hasn’t even lit the cigarette he rolled earlier.
A homemade wooden box as old as the band itself is on the floor next to his chair. It contains soldered printed circuit boards, “my first beatbox,” as he calls it. It’s the machine that sets the beat. There can be no rhyme without rhythm, he says. To produce sound, he connected the box to his computer at the time, a C64. The now-yellowed device, along with its diskette drive, is still standing in the studio today. “Afterwards, I’ll show you how it worked at the time,” he says. He called the homemade device the “Bronxbox,” a word that invoked American big-city ghettoes, where hip-hop was born in the 1970s – a foreign world for teenage buddies Andy and Michael.
The song that put the band on the map in 1992 was “Die Da?!” It was the story of two men who had just fallen in love, and who tell each other about the object of their desires, without realizing at first that they are both being used by the same woman. It was Germany’s first major hip hop hit.
The song was completely intentional, says Mr. Ypsilon, a planned hit. In the early 1990s, German radio stations only played English-language songs, but rap was not part of the mix. They wanted to create a song that no radio station could turn down, a song about love, but a humorous song at the same time. They wanted a simple story, so that fans could whistle along and repeat the lyrics, and they wanted a song with a closing gag.
They performed in English at first, until they realized that Americans thought it was funny when young Germans with an accent tried to rap in English.
Perhaps Mr. Ypsilon might have become a techno DJ. He and Smudo owe their success as rap artists to the many GIs stationed in the Stuttgart region. They danced to hip-hop music in their clubs, the “Maddox” in Stuttgart, the “Peppermint” in Böblingen, and a club simply called “Club,” in Leonberg. Andy and Smudo partied along with them. “Those beats really turned me on,” says Mr. Ypsilon.
They soon got to know Thomas Dürr, a hairdresser, and Michael Beck, a part-time DJ, and the four men decided to form a rap band. They performed in English at first, until they realized that Americans thought it was funny when young Germans with an accent tried to rap in English. It led to their decision to perform exclusively in German from then on. But it took them a while to recognize when a rhyme was funny and when it was just embarrassing.
They performed for the first time as Die Fantastischen Vier on July 7, 1989, to a group of 40 friends in a former kindergarten, on a stage made of stacked wooden pallets. Because the others were faster rappers and Andy was a technology buff, they decided on a new division of labor: Andy Ypsilon became the sound engineer and producer, while the other three performed the show. He became the man in the background. Weren’t his fellow band members being ungrateful?
What do you mean? He asks. He points out that he’s the only member of the group who can go out in public without constantly being approached by fans.
Sure, says Mr. Ypsilon, the life of a pop star appealed to me at first – the compliments, the admiration, the women. In fact, he says, women were one of the key motivations for the four men to become performers, just as it is for many if not most male rock bands, DJs and even comedians. In some ways, it was just a mating ritual, a way to meet women who would normally be out of their league. But does it also work for the quiet guy in the background?
“Sure it does,” says Mr. Ypsilon. He refers to groupies as “concert acquaintances.” Of course, he adds, that was all a long time ago. Now he’s a married man who takes his sons to kindergarten in the morning. Then he heads for the studio to play around with new sounds. Over the years, those sounds have changed as much as the band’s image. After all the hype over “Die Da?!?” the Fantastic Four initially refused to conform to mainstream tastes in music. They recorded an artsy, slightly sophisticated album to “steer clear” of all constraints, says Mr. Ypsilon. After that, they were free to make the kind of music that truly interested them. They also figured out how to mass-produce original songs, which has helped the band sell six million albums. Today, in their anniversary year, says German singer-songwriter Jan Delay, Die Fantastischen Vier are the “crudest ones” of all. For rappers, that’s a compliment.
A career in pop music is always risky, he says. It can be lonely, because the people you meet inevitably project things onto you. “Unfortunately, they don’t see me but what they want to see in me.” It’s a paradox, he adds. You put yourself in the lamplight to be appreciated as a person, but then the opposite happens.
“Rekord,” their ninth studio album, released last Friday, is a celebration of their perseverance. Like the band’s previous albums, “Rekord” will be at the top of the charts next week. To be on the safe side, Smudo and Michi Beck have agreed to serve as jurors on the casting show “Voice of Germany.” But it’s no job for Andy Ypsilon, who says that he prefers to let others do the talking in interviews, and only to step in when he feels it’s necessary.
He switches on a monitor and the C64. Then he hooks up the old wooden box, the Bronxbox. You can hear the individual drums pounding away, the snare drum, the bass drum, the hi-hat. The room is filled with the booming noise of the drums. If the others were there, they would probably start rapping.
This article first appeared in Die Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org