Record Labels

Sony Germany's Urban Music Chief Stresses Need For More 'Diverse Styles of Music'

Elvir Omerbegovic
Max Sonnenschein

Elvir Omerbegovic

BERLIN — Sony Music’s acquisition in 2019 of the catalogs and future distribution for artists from Elvir Omerbegovic’s Selfmade and Division labels brought with it some big names in German-language hip-hop, including RIN, Kynda Gray and Yugo.

Selfmade Records, which Omerbegovic founded in 2005, grew into one of Europe’s most successful hip-hop labels, notching 15 top-10 albums on the German charts during its former partnership with Universal Music and Groove Attack.

Then there was Omerbegovic himself, one of the German music industry’s savviest entrepreneurs. The 42-year-old’s journey from modest beginnings as the son of Bosnian immigrant parents in social housing near Dusseldorf is well known in the German music industry.

Omerbegovic was a street basketball star — including a year playing in Kentucky — before studying political communication in Düsseldorf, with a stint at the Harvard Business School . He subsequently started performing hip-hop as Slick One. He is founder of the clothing label Pusher Apparel and the co-founder of the Suckit frozen cocktail popsicle company.

A joint venture with Universal Music followed in 2014, where he was President of Rap for UMG’s German subsidiary. Under the new linkup with Sony, Omerbegovic’s title is President of Urban Sony Music Germany.

In March this year, RIN‘s anthem "Dior 2001" reached platinum status – his most successful single with over 120 million streams. "Dior 2001" was previously released via Groove Attack, as were Eros from 2017 and the 2018 album Planet Megatron, which both went gold and are now distributed via Sony Music. (Singles reach gold status in Germany after selling 150,000 units, while counting 100,000 sold units for albums.)

Omerbegovic talked to Billboard about his move to Sony and what to expect from Germany’s hip-hop industry after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Despite everything, was the pandemic lockdown a creative period?

Spoken word social spaces like schools or other areas where young people gather have been closed. That has meant that in situations where whole families are at home together, there has been a decline in streaming volumes, especially in hip-hop. I can’t say whether it was generally a creative time, but we produced a lot of music during lockdown. We have a lot of records in the pipeline, a lot of songs coming. The artists had the disadvantage of not being able to perform live and couldn’t get the feedback from the crowd. But our artists are very creative, and they used the time to do more studio work because they had more time, and over time we are going to release this material.

How would you characterize the big differences between German hip-hop and US hip-hop?

The difference in terms of subject matter is not that big between Germany and the US. I personally feel that the quality of overall production, unfortunately, is different. There are very strong acts here in Germany, and very strong acts in the U.S., but I find the top US artists work in a more progressive way. That’s something that we here are trying to do here, to work in new musical spheres. We recently recorded a song by RIN called "Meer" and it could be a Nirvana song. I mean, he’s a rapper but it’s a completely different musical style to the usual.

Bella Lieberberg

Are you planning more of an international focus?

We want to push the boundaries. In recent years there’s been a bit of a monoculture in hip-hop and a lot of songs sound the same. They’ve streamed very well but we want to break things open, bring out new kinds of artists. We have a newcomer called Kynda Gray and there are dark metal elements in there. We have fun doing new things and in that sense the U.S. is ahead of the game. Even in mainstream in the U.S. you have artists trying completely new things, re-recording whole albums in a different way. That is missing from many of the top acts in Germany. It’s not always about staying successful it’s about keeping the music fresh.

How did the move from a smaller label to one of the world’s biggest affect your work?

For me, it made no difference whatsoever. After I started Selfmade and we later had the joint venture with Universal Music, that didn’t change anything either. The same thing today, we have a structure to work with the major label and since 2019 we’ve cooperated with Sony. I’ve known [Sony CEO] Patrick Mushatsi-Kareba and [Sony Music President for Europe] Daniel Lieberberg for a few years now and they are just as hungry as me and want to make things happen. They are music people, they understand the business, but what drives them is the music. They leave the creative side completely to us because they know we know what we want to do.

Can we expect more crossover?

I can only speak for us, but we only do crossover with our acts. We get bored if we don’t do new things. In Germany right now pop is still the biggest selling genre. We just signed, for the first time ever in my career, a singer called Schmyt. He comes out of the urban background. He can really write, he plays instruments, he can arrange, he has a huge range and with him we are trying to fuse the urban world and the pop world in an organic way.

Inclusiveness and diversity are important issues in the U.S. right now? Is this happening in Germany too?

I hope awareness is increasing. Hip-hop for years was burdened with ignorance. We released a lot of gangsta rap stuff that was pretty ignorant. I was a lot younger and sure, it was a lot of fun. I liked to provoke people. But in the meantime, I believe it’s important that this issue is recognized, that other people have the right to be part of society without being discriminated against. I listen to the songs our artists are producing now and they are all “woke” – they are young, early 20s and it’s not a problem. That’s great, something they have brought with them because they have been socialized that way and we can only welcome it.

German rap has grown rapidly in the last five years. Germany is getting a bit more international, is that a factor?

Hip-hop is big in Germany now, it makes great sales, and that is down to tools like streaming, which have allowed the younger generation to influence the market. That has positive and negative effects. On the one hand, hip-hop is much bigger, but then you have 10-year-olds suddenly acting as gatekeepers – they have time and stream a lot of music. From my perspective, we need much more diverse styles of music, not just hip-hop, but indie, rock, punk. Where are the counterculture groups that are anti-everything? Who hate everything and wants to change things? That’s what hip-hop used to be like before it became it mainstream. For every healthy ecosystem we need more than one type of tree, we need 20 healthy species to make the system thrive.

What’s the next priority as the pandemic slowly eases?

We will release a lot of new tracks, we will play as much live as possible, that’s hugely important for our artists. For example, RIN has his own festivals, we’ve had to postpone them twice already, festivals with up to 20,000 people and hopefully they will be able to take place. From the label side, we’ll see if we can do a couple of international things. We are confident that we are at the same level as our international peers when it comes to production and visualization.

Can we expect a big wave of new material?

A lot of new stuff. We did lots of videos during the lockdown, did a lot more things that we were maybe more detailed than usual. We’re really looking forward to setting that free among the people!