Killa Kalles and Oliver Räke standing outside the enrance to the Icklack centre. The walls are covered in graffiti.

Hip-Hop Hooray with Christian Calles and Oliver Räke


Düsseldorf’s Finest − exploring the city’s hip-hop and graffiti culture

Anyone interested in hip-hop and graffiti should head to Düsseldorf: the city is known as one of the key places where the two subcultures emerged in Germany. An excellent way to get to know the subject better is to take the hip-hop tour, a special, multimedia guided tour that includes historical photos and samples of music. Two pioneers of the Düsseldorf scene are also part of the tour between the legendary Kiefernstrasse and the WP8 art association. They are graffiti artist Oliver ‘Magic’ Räke and hip-hop artist Dr Christian Calles, aka Killa Calles. At each stop, they talk first hand about the origins of hip-hop culture in Düsseldorf, Germany and Europe, providing personal insights and throwing in the odd anecdote. Here, they gave us a taste of the tour in an interview.

Oliver Räke and Killa Calles leaning against a corner of the Icklack youth centre. The walls are covered in graffiti.
Oliver Räke (right) and Killa Calles in front of the Icklack youth centre.

Oliver and Christian, we’re at the Icklack youth centre today, one of the most important places in the history of hip-hop and graffiti in Düsseldorf. What connects you personally to this special topic?
Oliver Räke: I’m one of the first generation of graffiti artists in Düsseldorf – still actively creating art – and helped to establish graffiti culture in Germany. It began back in 1983/1984, when I was growing up in the district of Derendorf. I left my mark on the train station there with my Welcome to Magic City picture, which was visible for many years. It was inspired by a Run DMC concert in Düsseldorf, I painted it to welcome the concert-goers.

Christian, you go back a long way in Düsseldorf’s hip-hop scene and were also known as a rapper throughout Germany. How did that come about?
Christian: A documentary about the hip-hop band Fresh Familee from nearby Ratingen was quite pivotal for me. Back then, we only really knew of hip-hop and rap from the US. As a teenager, I was fascinated by the New York roughness and the style, as well as the basketball and breakdancing. Fresh Familee was a kind of eyeopener, it showed me that rap could work in German too. At some point, the rapper Nimzwai and I recorded the track ‘Düsseldorf’s Finest’. When they showed our video on VIVA, we were suddenly famous across Germany and made a record.

Killa Kalles is wearing a blue Adidas tracksuit top and a Kangol bucket hat.
Photo: Visit Düsseldorf

It was here that you found your way to rap and hip-hop.
Christian: I was part of the Icklack Squad, comprising several bands, individual rappers, DJs and musicians. We did lots of gigs, recorded our own tapes that were sold throughout Germany and, as mentioned, even made it onto a TV music channel. In those days we tried to put our own structures in place and even to achieve an international reach through my show on community radio, for example, and via the website, which was also set up through Icklack.
Oliver: You have to remember that the scene in Germany in the 1990s was a lot more homogeneous than it is today, also in terms of style. Back then we worked on a common understanding of hip-hop. The scene was a community that met regularly to dance, rap and spray.

What’s it like for you, as pioneers, to see hip-hop and graffiti in the mainstream now?
Oliver: Funnily enough it seems to be a particular quality that hip-hop has, that it can be mainstream and underground at the same time. Hip-hop and graffiti are all about joining in, they don’t work when they’re just passively consumed. If you want to be a hip-hopper, you’ve got to go all in, as a rapper, a graffiti artist, a dancer, you can’t just stand back and watch. That means that newcomers wanting to get into the scene will find that it takes them underground first of all. A decent graffiti artist has to have been chased by the police at least once before they can hope to appear in a gallery. A good picture will always have an exciting story behind it.

Spraying was your way in to your current job.
Oliver: That’s right. I worked as an artist for the hip-hop scene and designed things like the logo for, album sleeves and flyers for events. We didn’t earn much in those days but that’s what we did back then, people produced and marketed their own stuff, sold records from the back of their cars. That’s what made the scene so strong.

Kiefernstrasse, Düsseldorf
Kiefernstrasse is part of the hip-hop tour. (Photo: Visit Düsseldorf)

And now, forty years later, there’s even a hip-hop tour through Düsseldorf that you’re involved in. Which stops are your favourites?
Christian: The Icklack is definitely up there for me because it was like a home from home, a living room where I hung out and rapped during a very exciting time.
Oliver: It has to be Kiefernstrasse. It’s just amazing how atmospheric the street is, and such a stark contrast to the polished Königsallee, for example. The train lines were really important to us because they took us through the Ruhr area to – and past – the graffiti.

Are there other important places that are perhaps not part of the tour?
Oliver: Absolutely. Pretty Portal, for example, a gallery that was one of the first to launch a graffiti programme and now has a strong focus on street art. And then there’s the places that contain urban art such as the underpasses at Bilk train station and Oberbilker Allee.

An illustrated book opened on a double spread showing an underpass full of graffiti.
Photo: Visit Düsseldorf

We’ve been focusing on Düsseldorf’s hip-hop and graffiti culture, but what do you think of Düsseldorf overall as a city of art and culture? Where do you draw inspiration when it comes to music or art?
Oliver: Schleuse 2 at Bilker Bunker, definitely. There’s a very good programme there with electronic music, sometimes also hip-hop. Salon des Amateurs is also legendary of course. I like Kunsthalle art gallery, the K20 and the K21, the Philara collection, and Hetjens Ceramics Museum too – a world-class museum for anyone interested in the subject. Hood Projects gallery on Hüttenstrasse also has an exciting post-vandalism programme.
Christian: Schleuse 2 also gets my vote. I love going to private street art viewings too, where I frequently get asked to DJ. Hood Company in Oberbilk is great, it’s a shop specialising in spray paint that also hosts exhibitions and is where the community meets.

What are your favourite places in Düsseldorf?
Oliver: For a breath of fresh air and the wide open space, I like to go down to the Rhine. And at night I like to cruise around the city on my bike.
Christian: I used to like going to the Kassette bar and am looking forward to trying out its successor, Die Fliese. Via Apia next door does great pizza. I thought the Boombox events that took place at different locations last summer were brilliant, and Park Life. I like the KIT events, where you can just sit on the grass outside and listen to the DJs. And the Büdchentag community festival, of course, which sees lots of local people put on great events.

A portable sound system.
Photo: Visit Düsseldorf

One last question: Why Düsseldorf? What keeps you in your home city?
Oliver:FWell, I’m a Rhineland boy through and through – I love Düsseldorf! I moved elsewhere for a while, twice in fact, but I always enjoyed coming back.
Christian: Düsseldorf is home for me. The city has everything I could ask for and is just beautiful!

Dr Christian Calles aka Killa Calles

In real life, the rapper Dr Christian Calles, aka Killa Calles, has a doctorate in biology and works in the Coordination Centre for Clinical Trials at Düsseldorf University Hospital. But you may also come across him DJing or occasionally holding free hip-hop workshops for children and young people in squares around the city. In the 1990s, the video of his track Düsseldorf’s Finest ran on VIVA and was well known throughout Germany.

Oliver ‘Magic’ Räke

The graffiti artist Oliver ‘Magic’ Räke works as a graphic designer, illustrator and freelance artist. He is a pioneer of the European graffiti scene and has been practising his art in Düsseldorf since 1983. You can currently see street art by Oliver Räke in Düsseldorf’s public spaces , such as the underpasses at Bilk train station and at Oberbilker Allee near Hüttenstrasse.

Interview: Katja Vaders
Photos, Freizeitstätte Icklack: Kristina Fendesack

A group on the hip-hop tour.
The hip-hop tour takes you right across Düsseldorf. (Photo: Visit Düsseldorf)
Our tip: Hip-hop tour with Killa Calles & Oliver Räke

The Sound of Düsseldorf
The hip-hop tour – want to know what Kiefernstrasse and hip-hop have to do with one another in Düsseldorf? What role street rap played for the city? Which international hip-hop stars were already in Düsseldorf?  Killa Calles and Oliver ‘Magic’ Räke join music journalists Dr Michael Wenzel and Sven-André Dreyer on a tour of the city, taking in the places where hip-hop history was written in Düsseldorf. Personal stories and anecdotes are accompanied by Düsseldorf’s own hip-hop beats. 

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