A day with Elvir Omerbegovic

He runs ‘Selfmade Records’, the most successful German hip hop label of the last ten years where rappers like Kollegah, Genetikk, Casper or the 257ers are or were under contract.  With his new label ‘Division’, he is responsible for RIN who represents a new generation of German hip hop artists. He is also the ‘President of Rap’ at Universal Music Germany, his fashion label ‘Pusher Apparel’ is selling like hotcakes and he has a private collection of sneakers and sweatpants. What drives somebody like Elvir Omerbegovic? THE DORF met the 37 year old at his office in Düsseldorf.

*** Hier geht es zu deutschen Version des Beitrags / Click here for the German version of the article ***

“It is important to me that somehow something clicks  when listening to an artist  the first time. It is almost like falling in love.”

THE DORF You grew up in a socially disadvantaged area in Mettmann, is it ok to describe it like this? ELVIR OMERBEGOVIC grew up on a council estate in Mettmann. In Mettmann, there were three so called ‘ghettos’ — that means: all social housing, high percentage of foreigners, high unemployment — the usual factors.

TD Would you say that it had an impact on you, if so, how? Retrospectively, that isn’t so easy to say. There is only the one, subjectively perceived childhood. There was quite a lot of violence. I know a few people who grew up with me, some of whom went to prison for serious crimes. I witnessed stabbings and family tragedies, the flat beneath ours was once set on fire, for example. Later I went to grammar school in a ‘rich’ neighbourhood. There I realised that a different life is possible, less stressful and more positive. It was nice to see and offered new perspectives to me. It can make a child very anxious when parents lose their job. This contributed to me thinking: If I get the opportunity, I’ll work hard enough to make sure it doesn’t happen to me. I also got into sports early on — it was a good way to stay away from the troubles on the streets.

TD How did you get into hip hop? I think I started listening to hip hop when I was 13 or 14 years old. Before that, I listened more to metal and punk, Slayer or the Ramones, also due to the influence of my older sister. Then came a Guns n’ Roses phase. Rock. Metallica, also harder stuff. And then came rap. ‘Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers)’ was next to Notorious BIGs ‘Ready to Die’ one of the records that had the greatest impact on me. Also, I listened to N.W.A and other Westcoast-artists a lot. However, the Wu Tang Clan was the first rap crew of which I was truly a fan. Funnily, in 2013 we recorded two songs with the clan members, with RZA and Method Man. They were almost all in our studio and office. In the evening, we somehow ended up at the Rudas club. I stayed in touch with GZA for a while because we got on really well. It was quite funny, even if by then they were (and still are) mainly cult figures.

TD What was the first record you bought? I think it was Guns n’ Roses ‘Appetite for Destruction’ or something from the Ramones. Other than that, I was rather recording songs from Yo MTV Raps on VHS and then taped them. I didn’t have the money to buy records all the time. Back then, there was a lot of good music, also because it was more difficult to get a record deal. Today, everybody has the opportunity to publish music. Qualitatively speaking, there is a lot of rubbish out there. I try to stay away from that, even though there is a lot of money in it.

TD And when did you discover German hip hop? That was a lot later. German hip hop was never really my thing because I was listening to more hardcore stuff. Until then, in terms of German hip hop I had only seen Fünf Sterne Deluxe and Bo on TV and that was definitely too shallow for my taste. In comparison to US rap, this was simply boring. Then I met Creutzfeld & Jakob personally and was surprised how good their music was. That was a turning point for me, when I thought: It is possible to make good hip hop and rap in German. From then on, I accompanied them often. It was a bit the pendant to the East-Coast hip hop that I liked. I met Bushido via them who visited me at home with Philipp at some point. That was before we founded the label, so roughly in 2003. He had just published ‘Vom Bordstein bis zur Skyline’ at Aggro Berlin. The record was very good and the visuals were amazing.

TD What do you focus on more in German hip hop: on lyrics and flow or on beats and production? Could you determine what is more important for you? This is in a process of change at the moment. My acts vary hugely in that respect. In the past, it was a lot more important to me that an artist had an incredible ability to rhyme technically. Like Kollegah, with double meanings etc — real rhyme art. With Favorite it was the same. Then I pushed the technical rap. Even though in the ‘Berlin Phase’ it wasn’t all that important, it was all slightly more rough. It was more about funny or shocking content. Lyrically, I’d say, we were driving a Ferrari. This had a big influence on the scene and young emerging artists. As a result, it all became more technical. Nowadays, I enjoy not focusing on each word so much anymore but on offering a new kind of surface for projection. I like that the scene has more of a focus on atmosphere and music now. After 13 years, it did get a bit boring to always listen to technical rap. I think it is great that teenagers, the new generation, are shown it is ok to have emotions. It is ok to be sad. It is ok, even beautiful, to be in love. These emotional components were turned off for a long time. With RIN we have 50% of female listeners, that is more than double of what we had in the past. It is fun to listen to these raw emotions. But both have equal rights to exist.

TD With RIN it is now similar to how it was with Kollegah, Casper or 257ers at the beginning, it is new and in Germany listeners are not always ready for something different, right? Not everybody has to be excited by our music. They don’t have to like what we do. We don’t have to please everybody. On the contrary. We make ourselves happy. I am not keen on ‘let’s find the common ground’ in my life. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to consume it. If you try to make everybody happy, you end up with Helene Fischer. My mum listens to Helene Fischer. I was with my mum at the Helene Fischer concert. It was really tough for me to endure that. We had our own suite, courtesy by the organiser. My mum hated that of course because she wasn’t close to the stage (laughs). Well, I was parking at the VIP parking lot and some fans somehow thought I was Florian Silbereisen (laughs). That was horrible. But hey, purely on a technical level, the performance and show were great. I cannot listen to that music for more than 3 minutes though. Never mind, mum was happy!

TD How many people are working at Selfmade Records? The core team consists of four people. And then there is staff from Universal Music in Berlin, e. g. in distribution and other areas. Usually more than 20 people contribute to a project. But we make the records together with the artists and all the important decisions are made independently.

TD Division is a new label, with which you released RIN as well. Why did you found it? I did that because there currently is a generational shift happening in the hip hop business. Selfmade Records has its own fan base just like Def Jam in the States. Selfmade is its own brand. I wanted to avoid for RIN to be immediately associated with that and create a new playing field.

TD What exactly is your job at Universal as ‘President of Rap’? Universal and I have a joint venture. Aside from that, I am a consultant and my advice is sought for larger deals — with acts not related to Universal.

TD Don’t you get in each other’s way sometimes? In those cases, the faster one wins (laughs). However, it is often the case that I pick up the acts much earlier. For example, Kollegah didn’t have a record released yet, Casper had, I think, a mixtape out, and RIN also didn’t have an album released yet.

TD How do you come across those people? Do friends pass tapes on to you or is stuff send to you? That varies greatly. It is an advantage that our history speaks for itself. Young talents know our work of recent years and were fans themselves.

TD How do you recognise a talent? That is difficult to say. There isn’t a set of rules. It comes down to instinct. It is important to me that somehow something clicks when listening  to an artist the first time. It is almost like falling in love. Theoretically, you meet many potential partner and there are a lot of rational reasons why a partner would be great. But you either feel it, or you don’t. This is more or less how I sign acts. With the added advantage of being able to work on their careers as well. Regular A & Rs  (Artists & Repertoire, the editorial part of a record  label, note from the editors) at large record labels aren’t usually able to do that.

TD What book is on your bedside table at the moment? SAPIENS: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HUMAN KIND BY YUVAL NOAH HARARI.

TD How about some female talent? I would really like to work with a female artist. However, so far I haven’t come across a female rapper that has had this particular effect on me. She would have to impress just like a male artist has to. Then I would be up for it for sure. Nowadays, we could also work with crossover acts not only straight rap.

No other German hip hop label has produced as many gold and platinum artists. This may be due to the fact that I didn’t have any money and simply couldn’t afford to fail.

TD Was any of your artists ever a flop? No. Sure, there are differences in record sales. We are a record label that has an unusually high success rate. No other German hip hop label has produced as many gold and platinum artists. This may be due to the fact that I didn’t have any money and simply couldn’t afford to fail. That’s how it was: It simply had to work so we could finance the next record. For a number of years, we operated that way, from record to record.

TD What do you listen to in your own time? I actually listen to everything. A good song  is a good song. I listen to very little electronic music. I don’t really get house, it is too soulless for my taste and I don’t take drugs. When working, I probably listen mostly to the Spotify playlist ‘Calm Vibes’. I also like to go to the opera. Metallica and Drake were the last non-work related gigs I went to.

TD How would you describe your personal style? Casual urban. I mostly wear sweats and sneakers. Almost always. Also because I exercise a lot. People look at me funnily, a number of times I was asked whether I was a footballer (not sure whether I should take that as a compliment). I don’t like to pretend, I go like this to clubs and to business meetings.

SW When I was in New York, I was at a fancy sneaker store, they had the most expensive sneakers I had ever seen. They were these from’ Back to the Future’, the self-tying ones, they cost 15 000 Dollar! Yes, you mean ‘Flight Club’ at Union Square or Stadium Goods in Soho. These are reseller stores. My shoe size is 13- that is a German 48. When you are looking for something particular, that can be a challenge. I recently bought the Adidas Futurecraft 4D Runner for 2000 Euro. Currently, there are only 9 sample pairs in the world. Well, they will probably become cheaper whenever they are on the market. But so far it is not clear when that will happen.

TD How many sneakers do you have at home and what is your favourite one? I own more than 100 pairs. Most of them are Adidas Ultraboost 1.0. They have the best collaborations and design, many are by now super rare. Worldwide, there are 700 pairs and in my size probably only 200. It is nerdy, because nobody on the street would get it and in the end, it’s only for yourself. However, it is definitely culture.  Adidas disrupts the sneaker market with its technical innovations in particular. I am slightly frustrated because with this knowledge, I should have invested in the Adidas stock. It increased by 30 % last year. I only had the perspective of a fan and didn’t see beyond that.

TD What is currently on your playlist / your record player? For the last two days, i’ve kept listening to Sheck Wes again & again.

Thank you!

Text: Barbara Russ
Sabrina Weniger
© THE DORF 2018

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