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.