It’s a nice thing to be able to walk through the streets of a Turkish neighborhood and not have people stare at you all the time or mob you for autographs. David Bowie must have felt this way in Berlin in the seventies, alone and anonymous for a change – a bit like Ceza, (pronounced “Jeza”, and meaning “punishment”), the Turkish rap star, who is walking up Adalbert Straße in Berlin, Kreuzberg, with fellow hip-hop artist Killa Hakan, at whose pad he is crashing on Naunyn Straße.

Back in Istanbul, Ceza plays to audiences of up to 20,000. He has recorded with well-known Turkish pop and arabesk stars like Sezen Aksu, Müslüm Gürses, Yildiz Tilbe and Candan Ercetin, not to mention Lenny Kravitz and German rap stars like Sido and Alpa Gun. In Turkey he is a household name, renowned for his rapid-fire “flexing” style, hero to Turkish hip-hop youth. It doesn’t bother Ceza that when he plays here in Kreuzberg, only a couple hundred people show up to his concerts. He is free and incognito – in Kreuzberg, a district, which for Turks in Turkey is the spiritual home of Turkish rap music.

“The second biggest Turkish hip-hop city after Istanbul is Berlin,” says Ceza. “I’ve been living in Kreuzberg for two years and actually it’s the first place that I’ve officially registered as a resident apart from Istanbul. It’s the first time that I’m living anywhere outside my hometown. It’s a place where I feel free. In Istanbul it’s more difficult for me to eat outside, to go shopping, just walk around the city, because people always stare at me. In Kreuzberg this obviously isn’t the case. It’s an environment I quite like. I’ve also got great opportunities to work here. Mainly, though, I’m just relaxing, taking time off from Turkey.“

Here is where it all began, in Kreuzberg in the ‘80s, “way back in West-Berlin,” as the Iggy Pop song goes. The Wall was still up. Turks lived in dilapidated apartment buildings with faulty plumbing and outdoor toilets, left behind by Germans who had fled to the new clean and efficient satellite cities of Märkische Viertel and Gropius Stadt. The shops were few and far between. Some punks squatted in run-down buildings and American soldiers drove jeeps around near the Wall with machine gunners at the turrets. Now and then a tour-bus came down Oranien Straße with rubber-necking German tourists eager to see the way the punks and kanaken lived. The punks threw old shoes. The Turks waved.

At the time, Berlin was full of immigrant gangs. Taking their name from SO36, the post-code of this part of Berlin Kreuzberg situated around Kottbusser Tor and Oranien Straße, the 36 Boys were Berlin’s most famous street gang. They were active from the mid-eighties to mid-nineties, existing alongside other immigrant gangs, adopting as their models the L.A. ghetto gangs Crips and Bloods. The gangs had names like Fighters, Warriors, Giants, Black Panthers, Simseklers, Spinner, Berlin Raiders, Vikings, East Side Lobos, Los Diablos and Barbaren.

The 36 Boys fought pitched battles against neo-Nazis, defending their turf from other rival Berlin gangs. Today the 36 Boys are local celebrities and kiez (neighborhood) heroes. Gang member Killa Hakan is a popular rapper both here and in Turkey, whose Turkish language rap song “Fight Kulüb” has gotten 67 million clicks and counting on YouTube. Founder Muci Tosun is a world champion professional boxer. Neco Çelik is a renowned Turkish theater and film director – dubbed by The Frankfurter Allgemeine  “the Spike Lee of Kreuzberg” – and Tim Raue, the only German member of the gang, is a star chef with four swank restaurants in Berlin and two Michelen stars.

Kreuzberg 36 was also the turf of Islamic Force, the legendary early West Berlin Turkish rap group, whose song “My Melodie”, came as a revelation to a generation of young immigrant hip-hop youth. When they heard it in the disco, the arabesk Ibrahim Tatlises sample, followed by “Kick the melody, kick, kick the melody…”, all the Turks flipped out, took each other by the hand and danced halay.

Outsiders saw the name as antagonistic and a provocation, but actually Islamic Force had nothing to do with Islam. On the cover of their album Mesaj, was a quote from a poem by the Anatolian poet Yunus Emre: “Our name is modesty. Our enemy is hate. We don’t hate anyone. For us the whole world is one.” Ultimately, they switched their name to Kan-AK so as not to offend any conservative Muslims – or be mistaken for radical islamists.

Islamic Force frontman Boe B, weaned on hip-hop films Beat Streetand Wild Style, hung out at the Naunyn Ritze, Germany’s most famous youth club, on Naunyn Straße, rapped in English, spreading the word of American old-school hip hop in the community. He was Kreuzberg’s hip-hop guru, a mouthpiece and a proponent, whose enthusiasm for hip-hop was infectious. 36 Boy Killa Hakan, in jail for armed robbery, heard his song, ‘My Melodie’ in the clink. It changed his life and convinced him to hew out a career for himself as a rapper.

“It was through Boe B that I got into music,” says Killa Hakan. “He discovered me. Before that I was 36 hardcore. Still am. I was in a gang then, had no interest in music. I had a lot of problems because of misunderstandings: you and us, Turks vs Germans, blah-blah, this kanaken shit. Always problems, and gangs and then, of course, I was in prison. Boe B was the only guy who said to me, ‘hey, don’t waste your life.’ When I got out, I devoted myself to hip-hop.”

If Islamic Force’s “My Melodie”, was the first Turkish rap song that made use of an Oriental sample, German Turkish-Cuban-German rap collective, Cartel came out with a song that pushed the envelope even further.

Cartel was an alliance of three crews – From Kiel: Da Crime Posse, Berlin: Erci E and Nuremberg: Karakan. Their 1994 song “Cartel”, heavily Oriental, featuring folksy saz playing, was the first rap song in Turkish ever. It went to the top of the charts in Turkey, knocking Michael Jackson from the number one slot and selling 300,000 records there. In the summer of 1994 it was all you could hear on the beaches of Antalya and Bodrum. Their concert in an Istanbul football stadium was sold out. Cartel became the first Turkish pop group whose video was shown on MTV.

Cartel’s sound was danceable and at the same time dark and doom-laden. Their hit song had an arabesk sample. The lyrics told dramatized versions of the lives of immigrants in Germany: street gangs, drug deals, car thefts. Cartel became “the voice of a generation of Turks,” wrote Der Spiegel. Coming after the deadly xenophobic arson attacks of Mölln and Solingen, Cartel was a beacon of hope to a déclassé segment of society that refused to be put down, that suddenly felt the need to flex its muscles, push the door open and demand to be recognized. There was some criticism, that it flirted with Turkish nationalism, and indeed, Cartel spawned a generation of chauvinistic Turkish rap groups with names like Vatan, “Fatherland”.

Aziza A, a Turkish singer living in Kreuzberg, was the first female rapper to put out a German-Turkish record. Called the “Oriental Hip-Hop Queen”, she has sold more records in Turkey than in Germany, bringing together jazz, house, arabesk and drum ‘n’ bass. She recalls how it was in Turkey on the eve of Cartel’s hit.

“When they were getting into hip-hop at the end of the eighties in Istanbul kids had trouble getting clothes, records and cassettes because the music wasn’t accessible there. Rarely there was something on the radio. Everything had to be improvised. It’s true that Turkish rap originated here in Germany and flourished in Turkey. The kids said, ‘they’re doing it there. We can do it, too.’ In the time being rap in Turkey has become familiar. Everyone knows rap. Everyone knows what hip-hop is. In the street- wear, in the clothing, in everything hip-hop is in it. It’s totally self-evident. In the past if you asked someone on the street what hip-hop was, they would say, ‘Lollipop? Bonbon? No idea.’”

When Cartel came out with its eponymous hit “suddenly hip-hop shot to the surface,” says Aziza A. “Through Cartel everyone knew what rap was. Even housewives sung the song while cleaning. Because it had a real catchy hook.”

In 2011 Cartel, now in their forties, released a second CD, reworking the old songs put to new beats. Speaking from his Berlin studio, near Bahnhof Zoo, Erci E says:

“Our success was definitely not planned and took us completely by surprise. In Turkey we went platinum. Suddenly we were superstars in a country which we only knew from vacations. All of it was much bigger than we ever conceived. It really blew us away.”

Today, says Erci, the rage that fueled Cartel is gone. “This one newspaper headline in Turkey I found really good and suitable somehow: ‘The Anger of Turks in Germany is over’. Or something to that effect. And that’s exactly what we perceive.”

“Me personally, I’m not really interested in rap anymore,” says Erci. “Not because I’ve changed my mind; it’s because rap today has nothing what I found good about the genre in the beginning. I thought it was good that it didn’t pay any attention to the mainstream; that you could tell the truth; have funky grooves and a cool message. It was a sensation. Now what’s left is sex, drugs and violence and money. I’m not interested in that shit anymore.”

“Cartel was definitely an inspiration to all of us,” says Ceza, speaking from the basement of a Turkish bar on Oranien Straße. “I was eighteen when I first heard them. And that was the point of time when I said to myself, ‘Oh, yes, that is the way to do it.’ I was writing my lyrics before that, but Cartel really gave me the push that I could do it. I can say overall that hip-hop done by Turkish immigrants in Germany definitely inspired us.”

At the moment Ceza spends his lazy days in Berlin walking through the city or riding bike, something which is impossible in Istanbul’s traffic seething streets. Mostly, however, Ceza just chills in Kreuzberg with Killa Hakan. Above all, coming to Kreuzberg has had something of pilgrimage about it: to see where it all began. And there is a “realness” about Kreuzberg and its rappers that appeals to Ceza.

“Killa had a difficult time here. He had a difficult childhood growing up in Kreuzberg. There are a lot of gangster rappers, but he is the real thing. A lot of people like to pretend and rap about gangster stories, but he lived it. Everything’s real that’s in his texts. What I’m doing is a little bit different. More political. I’ve seen a lot of kids trying to imitate that gangster style also in Turkey and most of them are just wannabes. But when I came to Kreuzberg and I saw how Killa Hakan and his friends live, I thought that he was quite authentic. He’s really OG.”

The days of gang-banging in Kreuzberg are a thing of the past, as Kreuzberg changes from neglected immigrant district to desirable szene-viertel – and clubland hotspot, replete with increasingly upscale bars, hipster cafes and start-up offices. Whereas in the past, no one wanted to know about the Turks who lived here, today they are viewed as exotic purveyors of atmosphere. Inevitably, though, the more rents go up, the more that Turks, who made this neighborhood what it is, will be pushed to the margins.

No one knows this better than the Turks themselves. As Killa Hakan says:

“We are the shops, we are the fame, we are the water, we are the earth, we are the streets. Kreuzberg is us. Kreuzberg wants us. We are the stones and the sand. We know where we come from. We knew how it was back in the day. We know how Kreuzberg got to be the place it is today. We are witnesses. Kreuzberg and us are in it together. You can’t separate us. Of course, many people have moved here and they are building things and want to do new things. Rents are going up, blah, blah. But if we are no longer here then Kreuzberg won’t be what it was. When the shops aren’t here, when our parents aren’t here. For the time being, Kreuzberg is still a small Istanbul.”

As for the 36 Boys, they are now a fashion line with a boutique tucked away in a graffiti covered alley off of Kottbusser Tor, in a neighborhood full of Turkish shops, kebab shops, betting agencies and increasingly bars and cafes catering to a hipster and tourist clientele.

Inside the shop hip-hop music pounds as Turkish kids from the kiez(neighborhood) talk animatedly amongst each other, while an elderly Turkish babaanne, her head wrapped in a colorful hijab, sits quietly knitting a scarf in a corner. Behind the counter in a shop displaying hooded sweatshirts and T-shirts bearing the 36 Boys logo, sits Sinan and Muci Tosun, the two Turkish brothers who are responsible for founding the 36 Boys, once Berlin’s most feared Turkish gang and the most famous Turkish gang in Germany, a gang with many illustrious alumni and for several years now a successful clothing line catering to Turkish youth around Berlin, Germany and the far-flung European Turkish community.

Around five years ago the 36 Boys came out with a clothing line collection in connection with a Berlin fashion school, which was presented at former 36 Boy and now star chef, Tim Raue’s chic Asian restaurant, MA. In many regards, the story of the 36 Boys is a success story of a handful of mainly Turkish immigrant youths from the street who made it in German society beating all the odds.

“We thought we could take our old gang name and turn it into hip-hop and sport clothing,” says Sinan. “In the hip hop field I know a lot of people, Muci knows a lot of people in the sports field. People said, work together. In 2005 I patented the line with my brother. We have had the shop since 2007.”

“We saw that the name 36 Boys was being used in music and so forth, but we were never getting anything out of it,” says Muci. “It wasn’t dignified how they were using the name. They wanted to use the name 36 Boys to make money. So, my brother and I said, why should they use the name we built up? We wanted to protect the name so – although the gang no longer exists – the name exists for eternity.”

Neco Çelik is an ex-36 Boy, now respected film and theater director, who still lives in Kreuzberg, on the same street he grew up on as a kid. He sees the changes that have been taking place in Kreuzberg – from working class ghetto and cradle of Turkish hip-hop to tourist hot-spot – positively.

“It’s become more cultivated,” he says. “We are not alone anymore. Now we can communicate. Before there was no communication. With whom? We didn’t speak German. Now we have high-level intellectuals as well as working-class people. Everyone comes to Kreuzberg. People who would never have dared in the past. We inspire each other mutually.”