Reggaetown: 24 Hours in Hamburg

Martin Sukale, chief engineer and owner of Ameise Records sitting outside the Ameise pressing plant in Blankensee, Hamburg

It’s 14:00 on Friday afternoon, and most of the traffic is headed the other direction as the Irieland crew – Jah Seal, Aldubb, Mr Glue and Pierre-Antoine Foulquier – arrives from the motorway into Hamburg. We follow the Reeperbahn towards the harbour, and down past the fish market. Pierre is the gourmet of the group and he’s on the lookout for some good street food to get us started. “Later we have to have a fischbrötchen with white wine,” says Pierre. We nod in agreement. We’re already hungry, but there’s something more pressing to do. We’re vinyl addicts on the way to a record factory.

Ameise Records, which describes itself as the smallest pressing plant in the world, is in Blankensee, ten kilometers west of Hamburg, and as we drive past the massed cranes of the deepwater port on the river Elbe, and out into the countryside, past many impressive villas looking out over the river, we are reminded of the merchant history and wealth of Hamburg, which has been for long stretches an independent city state, and one of the major European ports. Today, much of the trade into northern Germany still arrives through Hamburg. We arrive at the address on Sibbertstrasse in Blankensee, a long low building with no sign of life. There’s no sign of the Ameise office, and we walk around into the back yard, where there is music coming out of a small concrete building. There’s a ‘Wood Workshop’ sign over the open door, but just inside the door are boxes of records, and in the back, a single green pressing machine is in action. Ameise founder Martin Sukale greets us, and we sit outside in a pleasant corner of the yard for kaffee and kuchen.

“It started with dub, otherwise we would not have gotten addicted to vinyl,” he explains. More than ten years earlier, unable to find certain dub tunes on vinyl, he decided to look for a dub cutting machine, and got drawn into the world of vinyl pressing. “When Sony and Phillips pushed the CD on the market, they were kind of aggressive and wanted to take over the market.” There are stories, he says, that many vinyl plants were deliberately closed and locked up, and that many vinyl presses simply vanished. Something like that happened at Interpress in Frankfurt, they closed down in the middle of the eighties. Most of the European plants were using Swedish pressing machines. The Swedish machines are small, they could fit a lot of them in one room, each machine producing a seven-inch every 18 seconds.

A friend of mine, a Swiss vinyl guru, he called me, he had discovered this place with machines sitting around unused, and he said, we have to get down there next week to get a machine. There was a lot of people driving down there, from the hip-hop scene, from the rave and techno scene, to get a machine. We got one machine. Later when other plants were closing, in New York, in England, and all over Europe, every few months we drove to these places to get some more equipment. Now we have three machines, but just one is running right now.

We print only only seven-inch records, and only for small labels, we are the ones who talk to the small labels, private collectors, one-man bands, they can call us directly and we will say okay, let’s see what we can do. Other plants, if you call them looking for 100 records of your old demos, they will say they can’t do it, or it is too much money. Vinyl is somehow still the medium for interesting new independent music production. There’s not many 10,000 vinyl runs anymore, those days are gone, so the infrastructure has gone for some people, but you can sell 500 copies directly through mail order, Discogs, eBay. It’s an opportunity for smaller label to get out a seven inch. It’s relatively easy to sell 300 records through shows and the internet. People from all over the world come to us looking for records, because in Europe, most countries only have one, or even no pressing plants. Look at Norway, which has a big musical output but has no pressing plant.” We make a note to look at Norway, and hit the road back into Hamburg.

It’s 18:00 as we drive back into the Sternschanze kiez, find a parking place and set out on foot, looking for some fischbrotchen. We walk around for half an hour but it seems we’re not in the right area – there’s just a lot of chic galleries and boutiques. It’s getting cold and dark, and then the rain starts to fall, and we’re still dressed for a sunny Berlin morning. By now we’re walking past a string of pizza restaurants and come to the last place on the street, another pizza place. We eat pizza and it’s top notch. Karsten Frehe welcomes us to his place north of Sternschanze and we sit in the kitchen and talk while listening to some Hamburg productions. “I used to have the Irie Ites radio show in Kasse, and I came into Hamburg and started Irie Ites online magazine. Since I was a writer for Riddim magazine, I started writing about Hamburg for them, and started supporting the Hamburg scene,” says Karsten. “Hamburg, from my point of view, was a pioneer city concerning dub and German-made roots. After that it spread to other German cities like Berlin and Koln.”

“I wasn’t here when it started, that was Pensi basically, and Olli from Silly Walks, and everyone else was quite fascinated by what they did. Di Iries split up after their second album, that had been Pensi, Daddy Teacher from the UK and Gentleman. Then the Sound Navigator project, people like Gentleman came in and recorded on that, also Iration Steppas and the Disciples. Ire HiFi has been releasing great singles, it was a soundsystem first, and then a label, releasing once in a while because it always takes Pensi a while to release stuff, but whenever he releases a single, it’s a classic from the start. Karsten is keen for us to talk to Nicolai from Echo Beach, and Pensi. Nicolai promises to try and find time. Pensi, marvelously, doesn’t have a phone. We head back to Marktstrasse, to meet Julian from I-Livity Soundsystem. It’s 22:00.

Julian Livity runs the I-Livity Sound, and got involved in sound system business in 1994. “We had a big scene here in the early to mid-90s, sounds like Shantytown, Ire HiFi, and the Sound Navigator project, and a lot of sounds that don’t exist anymore. I have to mention Jah B, who was really like a Rasta elder and mentor for all of us here, with sound system. It was sessions in Rote Flora, that was where I got in touch with sound system. It’s not easy to find a venue where you can really play out a soundsystem. Rote Flora is the only place really that is special, where you can bring the sound. We are a big crew. The last years the crew grew, a lot of people help. I work a lot with Ras Seven, he’s a member of the crew, then there’s Mighty Howard, and then there’s people who carry the boxes. The Rote Flora is twenty years old now, it was a squatted building and community centre, actually a political left centre. You can go there and organize a party, but you have to do the organization yourself, do the door and the bar – but nobody gets paid. No-one is really allowed to earn money there!

The legendary Rote Flora is on Schulterblatt 71, 20357 Hamburg. Call ahead on
+49 40 4395413. www.rote-flora.de/

 

“So… Well, let’s go there,” he suggests. Some time after midnight, we reach Rote Flora, in the centre of town. Mighty Howard is waiting near the door. Rebel Youth Sound, who run the Dubcafe night, are promoting the show, and tonight it’s a showcase with UK artist Solo Banton promoting his new album ‘Talk like Rasta’. The atmosphere is friendly, the light agreeably low. Every inch of the place is covered in grafitti. We gather in one of the side rooms where the bar is set up. “Now that I’m here, I remember this place,” says Aldubb. He points into the corner of the room. “It must have been 1996. I remember sitting on that couch there, in a session, that’s when dub music really hit me. I went to the Selekta Shop the next day looking for dub music.” Then we notice that Pensi has arrived into the circle. He recognizes me from many years earlier at the Rote Flora. He’s one of the originators of the reggae scene in Hamburg, forming Ire HiFi in 1989, which has since released a string of sought-after tunes, including ‘Push Hard’, with Pensi on the vocals. He’s been at the heart of several Hamburg initiatives, from Di Iries and Sound Navigator to the Silly Walks movement.

Right now, he explains, he’s moving studio. “I’m tired of the digital production now, so I’m going back to the analogue sound.” He picks up a pair of imaginary drumsticks, and taps his foot. “One, two, three, four,” he counts, and conducts the drumsticks through a roll. “You can’t beat that,” he says, smiling. The sound is from Shantytown, good and heavy. It seems to be a place where people come to talk, and everywhere around, there’s lots of groups huddled in intense conversation. As the evening draws to a close, I make some mental notes on what I’ve heard during the day. Is it really true, I wonder, that many of Europe’s vinyl pressing plants ended up in the bottom of a lake?

It’s Saturday morning and we’ve heard that breakfast at Fritz Bauch is unbeatable, according to one of our guides, but when we arrive at ten in the morning, it’s still closed. Instead we eat breakfast at the busy and cosy Sternschanze Hostel, and then head back into the maze of streets that makes up the Schanzenviertel. Ingo Schepper has been running Selekta Shop, devoted to reggae and vinyl, since 1995. One room has a clothing collection, with lots of mod style shirts and jackets, where the first tattooed and stylishly-dressed customers and examining the tailored shirts. The main room is full of vinyl singles and LPs, with a lot of rare and collectors tunes, along with lots of early ska and rocksteady music, and also a full selection of Hamburg reggae. “I started this shop because Hamburg needed a record shop, deserved it,” says Schepper. “There was no place to go to celebrate reggae in the daytime. I ran a club in 1991, not legal, but really big, and there we started the first soundsystem event, called Zwinger, and that started with Pensi and Ire HiFi.

I used to do a regular auction on a Wednesday in a gallery, where I set up a soundsystem. I had stock, I had gone to New York to meet Coxsone Dodd, that was the start of a very good business relationship, so I was selling Studio One stock. Then I met a guy Hans Peters, who was the number one guy for reggae classics in Hamburg, and I got the idea to start a record shop, so we started the shop together. We had a good relationship with Coxsone. We did some very nice dubplates, some that he mixed by himself for us, he mixed it personally for us. First dubplate we ever did, Coxsone mixed it for me personally, spent three days on it! That was a really great time.” Along with the shop, Schepper promotes dances in Hamburg. “The ‘Palm Dancehall’, we’ve been running that for 12 or 13 years, once a month, we’re taking a summer break over the summer now. One Thursday a month, we have Selekta night which is old school, sometimes with special guests like Clive Chin and the Soul Jazz people”. He also releases music on the Love Tank label including ‘Tribute to Coxsone Dodd’.

 

He has seen a lot of changes in the business. “The first big change over the years was the internet, before that you had to travel to Kingston, London or New York to get the right stuff. The internet gave you a view on everything. People used to come from the countryside to the shop, they would come at the weekend and travel to Hamburg to the record shop. That doesn’t happen so much now.” He touches on another point that hardly seems believeable to people outside the music business, but echoes a point made earlier by Martin at Ameise. “German industry fucked up the whole German reggae infrastructure,” he says. “It was the independent businesses that supported German reggae at the start, helped German artists to get started. But it was not possible for me to buy records from Gentleman or Seeed, it was not possible for me to get it. There were many reggae shops but the industry gave the music over to the big discounters, Saturn and MediaMarkt. I don’t know if they realised what they did but the smaller shops like mine can’t get the records. Even Patrice, who is buying music here, we can’t buy his records. I asked his manager, she said order it, no problem. But when I called her again, she said she couldn’t make it possible. So you have Oohrbooten, who make an album ‘Babylon by Boat’, which is a song against the big discounters, but only the big discounters are selling their album. If Gentleman comes out with a new release, I have to send people to the Saturn shop to buy it.” He shakes his head. Ingo Schepper doesn’t look like a man who holds a grudge though.

Schabi’s Fischimbiss, Schulterblatt 60

It’s 14:00 and almost time to head back to Berlin but we’ll have to leave Pierre behind unless we track down a fischbrötchen. On Schulterblatt, we find Schabi’s Fisch Imbiss and we stand on the street munching happily on our sandwiches. Karsten is pleased and then the rain starts to fall again. “Now this is the Hamburg I remember,” says Aldubb.

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