It was the year 2013. The Turkish rapper Alpa Gun, author of one hit single, who had had his near-brush with fame but who was now, by all accounts, a has-been in the rap business, was thinking of ending it all right there and then in a drastic and bloody fashion. He stood by the window of his apartment, looking down on the pavement below and tried to summon up  the last bit of courage to perform his final irreversible act.

Alpa Gun (40) had been, at the height of his career, one of Berlin’s best rappers. He had been a local superstar and hero of west Berlin’s immigrant youth; respected by his hip-hop peers, with street cred galore. He had grown up in the Schöneberg “ghetto”, a grey and gritty immigrant neighborhood centered around Steinmetz Straße, Bülow and Pallas, where he had been a small time weed “ticker” – a dealer – before turning to rap music. 

At some point he had made the acquaintance of Deutschrap star Sido. The two struck up a rapport,  and Alpa rode Sido’s coattails to fame, initially as Sido’s personal chauffer and then as his backing rapper, and finally as rap star in his own right. He had a hit that everyone talked about – “Ausländer” – which had garnered the attention of MTV in Bravo magazine. But the media quickly turned its back on Alpa. He was too real, too much the genuine article – and too much of the unrepentant kanake. Somehow the Breitling watch, the “fat Benz” he always rapped about eluded him.  Berlin, it seemed, wasn’t ready for the kanak superstar with the heart of gold.

***

I first got to know Alpa in 2008 while boxing in a gym in Schöneberg. The guy that headed the gym was a Black Sea Turk named Izzet who trained a group of kids from the hood. He had won an “integration prize” from the city of Berlin for keeping his kids off the street and away from a life of crime (later, I would notice the kids used to rap Alpa’s texts in the locker room after training).

My entrée to the gym was a Serbian thug named Sasha, who they called “der schöner Sasha” – “handsome Sasha”, “pretty boy Sasha”. Sasha was a Serbian small-time gangster, hustler, con-artist and with a dubious history of fist fights and knife fights behind him, who was or wasn’t in Arkan’s volunteer guard, a paratrooper, a casino owner and jewelery thief, Porsche driver, jail bird, Casanova, Serb patriot etc. etc. etc.

Sasha’s business was “import-export” and he dealt with just about everything under the sun that could turn a quick and easy buck. He was also a some-time hired gorilla of a local red-light prince, the owner of a Charlottenburg strip club where Sasha manned the door, keeping the Albanian mafia at bay, and preventing them from muscling in on the women.

Well, Sasha needed a place to train and somehow he decided that Izzet’s boxing gym on Potsdamer Straße, was the place to hone his boxing skills and  pump  a bit of iron.

“Don’t ever say that Sasha never turned you on to anything good,” said Sasha, after he gave me this insider tip. “In years to come you will thank me for introducing you to Izzet’s gym.”

Because Sasha was the kind of guy he was, a blow-hard and a bully and essentially unreliable and untrustworthy, I was always trying to ditch him, and every time he felt that I was giving him the cold shoulder he would enumerate all of the favors that he had done me, real or imagined.

Sasha was two-faced. On the one hand he would suck up to Izzet and say, “I was in Istanbul maybe fifty times, you know. I was always very impressed by the way you guys did business. You learn how to do it from the time you are kids. We Kanaken have to stick together. The Germans have forgotten how to do business. Look at all the bakeries in Berlin, the green grocers, the Spätis. None of them are German anymore. They are all Kanaken. We’re taking over.“

A minute later, when Izzet was out of earshot, he’d turn around and say something like, “These Turks look worse than gorillas. U pičku materinu. What a people! Every day I thank God I am a Slav and not a Muslim bastard.”

At the same time while I was boxing at Easy’s gym, I was surfing through You tube, trying to find out more about the Berlin rap scene. It was then that I came across Alpa Gun’s hit song, “Ausländer”.

This was the song that had made Alpa a minor star in Berlin’s rap scene. In the clip Alpa stands in the center of a boxing ring – which I recognized from Izzet’s – surrounded by his posse of fifty or so Schöneberg homies, who cheer him on as he raps about that it is like to me an Ausländer in Germany.

I was born here and will grow old here,” he raps in German. “I am a Turk with unbefristete Aufenthalt. Don’t give me looks because of my black hair. I haven’t had it easy in my 26 years, and our parents, Johnny, needed money, worked hard and built a new life for themselves. My father was hassled as though he was a terrorist. And that’s why I live in the ghetto, where Turks, Kurds and Russians live, where people have to fight for their dough…” etc. etc. 

The song was real, sincere, had attitude and came exactly at the right time. You could easily see how it could become a hit.

And so I asked Izzet if he had a contact for Alpa, and Izzet told me to check out a café, around the corner on Winterfeldt Straße, where Alpa could sometimes be found holding court.

***

The café had no name. It was more a clubhouse than a regular café. You went down four steps into a room with some Arabic sofas and pillows, a flat screen TV, a fruit machine, a map of Palestine, and two German girls behind the bar.

This was where Alpa and his posse hung out. They couldn’t always meet on the street corner, particularly in the winter. So this hole-in-the- wall became their meeting spot, their HQ.

I ordered a Rubinensaft and waited. In walked a kid with slicked back hair and a Bugs Bunny tie.

This, I would later learn, was Albaner Toni, heavily addicted to gambling and heavily into blow.  Back in the day when all the neighborhood boys hung out the Jugend Club and the Potse, Albaner Toni had been a great breakdancer, they said. Now he was just causing trouble. They said the man was possessed.

“Hey guys,” announced Albaner Toni upon entering the cafe. “I won five grand at the casino yesterday. Spent it all. Nothing left. Here, have a cigar. All I have left are some cigars.”

No one wanted a cigar from Albaner Toni. They didn’t want much to do with the guy. Albaner Toni was bad news, the way they saw it.

One of the girls walked by. Albaner Toni slapped her on the ass. “I feel great today,” he said.

“That’s nice, Toni,” said the girl.

“And do you know why I feel great today? Because I smoked two joints worth of red Lebanese.”

“Nice, Toni.” said the girl, and gave an exasperated sigh.

Albaner Toni sat down next to me and lit his cigar. 

“Last night I had sex with a nutte for an hour,” said Albaner Toni.

 “55 minutes licking, five minutes fucking,” said someone seated at the fruit machine.

That was the owner of the café without a name, a fat guy called King Ali, who they called “King” for short.

King was a local Palestinian, who had grown up on Steinmetz Straße nearby and now lived a couple blocks away off of Froben Straße, on Schwerin Straße. He was what they called in German a “Kiezlegende”, a neighborhood legend – for what, though, I couldn’t quite figure out. Back in the day he had rapped and breakdanced, though one would hardly have thought so if you took a look at him today. He had eight brothers, five sisters thirty cousins. His family was a force to be reckoned with in Berlin.

Ignoring the snub, Albaner Toni leaned toward me and confided:

“Sometimes King walks around the neighborhood and people say ‘hey, this guy has nothing to do’.” But they would be wrong in saying so, because when King is walking he is making para.”

King Ali was also the leader of a gang called the 30 Kingz. I recognized him from the Ausländer video. Nowadays King was what they called in German, a schlichter, a mediator, someone who intervened between warring parties, breaking up fights.

I sipped my Rubinensaft. On the TV monitor over the bar was playing the new Alpa Gun video clip, “Wir Übernehmen” – We’re Taking Over, an aggressive Schöneberg kiez anthem (“We are the kings on your streets…nothing goes past Schöneberg 30….”) filmed on the streets around Bülow Straße and Potsdamer Straße with Alpa’s partner, the Palestinian Big Baba and their Schöneberg posse, all decked out in leather jackets and dark sunglasses. For all the guys here, Alpa was their hero. He was Alpa abi – brother Alpa. He was going to the top – and he would take all of Schöneberg 30 with him.

Alpa showed up at length. He wore a black letterman jacket with leather arms, a silver chain around his neck, his head freshly polished, gleaming like an 8 ball. He ignored Albaner Toni’s greetings. Instead, turned to me and said: 

“What are you doing with this clown? Come on, let’s take a walk.” 

***

Walking to Alpa’s music studio around the corner on Schwerin Straße, we passed  Frobin Straße, where nights the transvestite hookers plied their trade. Sometimes Alpa and the boys would harass them with pyrotechnics. “Just for kicks” said Alpa. “They call the cops on us. Yeah, they are real cunts. They are packing mace, all of them. You have to watch out. A couple boys already had run-ins with them. Conflicts. Got maced. But my friend here, he has ‘Bazookas’ from Poland.  And they have eight shots, twelve shots. And they really make a noise. They fly, pssss, boom! I have it on my mobile, I’ll show you afterwards. You could say we have our fun.”

We walked on.

“Schoneberg is cult,” said Alpa. “It has a wicked history before we were born. Before I think Potsdamer Straße was a Jewish street. It has its history. But in the new times of the Republic, we foreigners came and took this place over. Steinmetz Straße.  One of the most famous streets in Schöneberg. And a lot happens on Pallas Straße, Potsdamer Straße.  Very, very famous names. We live in a special area. And Schöneberg has many sides.  It has nice sides, like for instance Rathaus Schöneberg. There is the town hall. John F. Kennedy was there as well and said “Ick bin ein Berliner’”. Whereby we say, “Ich bin ein Ausländer”. Then it has its not so nice sides, of course.  There is Kurfürsten Straße. That’s a prostitution street. Junkies galore. And then there is a fag street: Fuger Straße, back there behind Nollendorf Platz. The rainbow flags hang in front of the shops, so that everyone sees, “here is a gay shop, here is a gay street.  We are free, we feel at home here”.  Everyone is welcome in Schöneberg. But the queers shouldn’t cross our path, man.  When they have a bad night then the transes they try to pick you up. If there are three or four of them and you are alone then they say, ‘Hey cutie. And you say, ‘Shut up you son of a whore, or daughter of a whore.’ As the case may be. And then they come and try and beat you up. You have to watch out. Hier ist Schöneberg und ich bin der grosste Zwerg.”

 ***

The studio was in the same building as King’s apartment. A dark, smoke-tinged ambience enveloped the place. Two PC consoles stood on tables on the one side, black leather sofas on the other and a terrarium with a snake in the middle. We smoked joints and Alpa told me his story. He  told me about his beginnings in Schöneberg as a two bit dope “ticker”.

“I was a small fish ticker. But I was a good ticker. I walked on snow and left no tracks, so to speak,” said Alpa. “So I  made a living as a small time dope dealer, rapping on the side in the school yard with friends. To be honest, I grew up with Arabs and other foreigners who didn’t speak my language. I spoke  a lot of German and I did my apprenticeship.  I had a lot to do with German people. I was always with them together. I worked with Germans for a long time. It is fun to speak German.  My German is not the best. It could be better. The German language is interesting and its fun to use it. I want to say something to the Germans as well. Not just the Ausländer. Because what I say is valid for my countrymen, for foreigners, but also of course for Germans, so that people won’t think, I’m one sided.  If I say it in Turkish then people think I’m saying something against them, see? But I’m for everyone.”

Alpa sparked a blunt and went on.

“Before rap was for me bullshit. I never listened to rap. I thought it was kindergarten stuff. I didn’t take it seriously. All these studio gangsters, and I’ll do this and I’ll do that. That’s why it really didn’t interest me and I didn’t take it seriously. There was this one guy, MC Bastard. Compared to him, we were street. We said: come on, get lost, knock it off already. What do you want to tell us? We knew that we could do it better than Bastard, that we had more to say. I never tried to be a rapper.  It wasn’t even in my head. I did it just a little bit on the playground.  I never thought that I had talent, that I could write all the time.  But it’s a matter of training and it’s a mental thing. If you realize you can do it and you have a lot to say, then it works.  And I realized this early on.  But it’s still a little bit difficult to believe what happened to me.”

***

Well, I wrote my piece on Alpa Gun for Exberliner. I wrote it for the Christmas edition. It was the cover story, featuring in stark black and white Alpa Gun and his colleague Big Baba, standing with crossed arms in front of Pallas, looking tough. And then underneath it read: Merry Christmas. 

The next year I headed off to Istanbul. That same year Alpa appeared in a movie with Sido called Blütbrudaz. I stayed in Istanbul for  a year. I would have stayed longer but I was homesick and nostalgic for Berlin streets, for Izzet, Sasha, Schöneberg…

When I came back I learned that Alpa had split with the boys. He had finally decided that it was time to move out of the Schöneberg ghetto and had taken an apartment in the bourgeois district of Wilmersdorf. So Alpa became a different guy, and the gang fell apart. 

But it wasn’t long until the problems started to set in. It seemed as though the fame that Alpa had been rocketed to was not as lasting as all that. Alpa was quickly ditched by Sido, and alone in the kanake style, he couldn’t make it big in  the German promi world he was too clever and real to adore, and which became the butt of the spot-on rhymes he penned. No one was interested in the kanake with the heart of gold. Coupled with this, his mother was terminally ill in Turkey. Alpa didn’t have the money to pay for the flight back to visit her. He had already sold his Breitling, the “dicke Benz”. He started to have suicidal thoughts.

And that was the phase he he found himself in now as he opened the window and stared down on the pavement below him, and  right when he was about to end it all, his cell phone rang. Alpa looked at the display. It was his mother calling from Turkey. It was as though an angel had swooped down to save him. Yes, to this day he believes it was an angel who saved him, telling him that Allah didn’t want him to go.

Alpa closed the window and stepped back into his life.