There are few moments in recent history that remain undocumented. No matter how niche a movement you’re searching for, it’s unlikely that a detailed account is more than a few keystrokes away. Three years ago, while bonding over old records, Kalle Kuts (AKA Karsten Grossman) and Daniel W. Best realized they’d come of age in the thick of one those rare, yet-to-be told tales: the story of how US soldiers brought American club music to Germany, and in doing so had a lasting impact on German popular culture.
Though the history of American pop musical influence on Germany begins shortly after the Second World War, the G.I. Disco story starts in the early 1980s. West Berlin was dotted with clubs that were either operated or frequented mainly by American soldiers stationed in Berlin. They were known at G.I. or ami clubs, and for young Germans who wanted a taste of American culture, they were the place to be. Musically, they were unlike anything else Berlin had to offer, stewarded by American DJs versed in the latest techniques and armed with fresh vinyl not yet available in Germany. Grossman and Best would both fall in love with what they refer to as “soulful ‘80s club music”: the synth-infused, drum machine-girded funk, soul, and disco of the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Sadly, the ami club scene is remembered mostly for one tragic event: the bombing of a club called La Belle in 1986. The attack, allegedly backed by Qaddafi’s Libya, left two American soldiers and one Turkish civilian dead, and would lead to the US bombings of Tripoli and Benghazi less than a week later.
The G.I. Disco project, which includes regular club nights, two official compilations, a host of mixtapes and a museum exhibit at Berlin’s Allied Museum, aims to tell the whole story. (Grossman and Best’s sets focus primarily on the music of the ’80s, while the exhibition goes back even further to offer a thorough, fascinating look into German attitudes towards American occupation and how it shaped German popular culture.) We spoke to Kalle Kuts about coming of age in Berlin’s ami clubs and the genesis of the G.I. Disco project.
How did you become interested in this sort of American music?
When I was five or six I started taking piano lessons. When I was playing for fun, I found some blues, boogie-woogie stuff, and learned that I really liked that kind of music. When I started listening to music in a more concentrated way – you know, the first time in your life when you’re listening to pop music radio and recording it – I found out I was really into soul, funk, all of that. When I was, I don’t know, 11, 12, something like this. Early ’80s. At that time, the only radio stations that played this music frequently in Berlin were the American Forces radio, AFN [American Forces Network], and the British radio, BFBS [British Forces Broadcasting Service]. That was the first time I came into contact with this kind of music.
You grew up in Berlin?
It was like the whole American lifestyle was represented through the soldiers in the town, and, of course, the music on the radio.
I was born and raised in West Berlin. So, for me, it was always a normal thing having the divided city, having American and British soldiers. Even before this music thing, the American soldiers had a huge influence on the lifestyle. It wasn’t like in other German cities where they had the barracks outside of town. They were present all the time. The guys, they were really cool. They had low-rider cars with the tinted windows, bumping loud hip hop. German regulations wouldn’t allow a German car like this, but they could do everything with their cars because they were Americans. It was like the whole American lifestyle was represented through the soldiers in the town, and, of course, the music on the radio. When I started going out clubbing in the early, mid-’80s, of course the G.I. clubs were the clubs with the freshest music. They were the places where I saw DJs scratching for the first time, and rapping. That’s where you heard the new music first.
Which clubs were you going to?
Of course, I was going to German clubs that changed their music programming in the middle of the ’80s. It was common sense, playing hip-hop, funk, house. But the GI club I liked most was called Chic, like Nile Rogers. This place was a small club, but it was like a piece of New York in Berlin. The DJs were really state-of-the-art, and they played the freshest sounds. They had a wall with mirrors.
And these were American DJs that were playing?
The only chance to listen to this music when it came out was going to a club, or having a hook-up to the American army so you were allowed to shop at the PX store.
Oh, yeah. Most of the Germans DJs learned from going to [GI clubs]. If you talk to electronic DJs, a lot them really got into DJing from going to those clubs. So, actually, you must picture this: those clubs were mostly frequented by black soldiers, and they’re bringing all the new dance moves from the States. Lots of white girls interested in meeting those black guys, and those black guys interested in meeting those white girls. Then Afro-Germans, there was a very small Afro-German community back then. Then there were some white boys like me who were just happy to gain admission at all, and check what the DJ was doing.
What was exciting about those clubs?
It was the music. Back then, of course, there was no Internet. You only had the chance to listen to new music on the radio. On AFN, you had soul, R&B, Top 40. They played some of the stuff, but not the really cool stuff. That meant you had to go to a club to listen to this music. The Americans, they always had the records first. Maybe some weeks later you had a chance to get them as an import at a German record store, but the only chance to listen to this music when it came out was going to a club, or having a hook-up to the American army so you were allowed to shop at the PX store.
You see a video – I mean, there weren’t many music videos back then, but you see Chaka Khan’s “I Feel For You,” with Grandmaster Flash scratching, or you see a little bit later “Paid in Full” by Eric B. and Rakim, and say “Damn, I wanna dance to this,” the only chance was to go to a G.I. club. And if you want to buy the record, you gotta wait ‘til the German stores get it and you gotta be there on time, because there are probably not many copies.
You’ve mentioned going to Chic – could you talk about some other clubs that were important at the time?
One club you for sure have to mention is La Belle. La Belle was a little bit more mainstream. La Belle had, like, red carpets. They had American DJs as well, but it was more big hit, disco-oriented. The audience was the same, but the place that really felt like a piece of New York was Chic. They had the best DJs, they played the coolest music.
Do you remember any of your favourite DJs from back then?
The guy from Chic who played the coolest records called himself DJ ET. He was an American GI. I don’t know what happened to him. The other guy was Steve Kostelac. He had a radio show on AFN called Star Patrol. That was, like, the number one disco show. Anyone you ask about those times will tell you Steve Kostelac was the shit. He had this radio show, and he DJ’d at Riverboat in West Berlin. He also DJ’d at La Belle. Steve Kostelac was probably the number one name in town. For me, personally, and the other music nerds in town, even if they didn’t know his name, it was DJ ET from Chic. There was another guy from AFN, he wasn’t a club DJ, but he called himself The Magnificent Magoo. He had this show called The Juice, and he played all that jazz-funk, slow motion soul stuff. His radio show was, like, the number one soul show in town. Those are the three guys that influenced the Berlin scene the most.
I want to talk about La Belle a bit more – the bombing seems like a hugely important event in this part of Berlin’s club history. Did the scene change after the bombing?
The La Belle bombing was like the beginning of the end.
Yeah, of course. Nobody expected something like that to happen. Of course, Americans were in conflicts all over the world, but it wasn’t like nowadays. Berlin still had this unconditional love for Americans, because they really freed us from this Nazi bullshit. They really saved the city during the blockade and everything. Especially in Berlin, everybody loved Americans.
We never pictured something like that could happen at a place like La Belle. You have to understand, most of the Americans that went there were black, and they mostly went to the army because they had no other job opportunities at home. You had some German girls, some music nerds like me. There were lots of Arabic, Turkish people there. Italians, Yugoslavians. That’s not the people [they] actually wanted to hit with such an attack. La Belle wasn’t even strictly an American club, it was run by an Italian guy.
All the clubs changed, they started having weapons checks and hiring more bouncers. The party went on, but it wasn’t the same. By 1989, the Wall came down, techno started, hip hop became huge, East Berlin was open, there was free space everywhere for illegal parties, and that cleared the whole West Berlin club scene. Not only the GI clubs, but the traditional, hip West Berlin clubs, too. They had no audience anymore. Everybody went to the East. So, the La Belle bombing was like the beginning of the end. It wasn’t just the bombing itself, though. For me, as a German kid, it had a worldwide political aspect. I can remember, I really felt afraid of something like World War III. America was bombing Libya only a few days later, you know? You know, they did the bombing, and that wasn’t cool, but now they’re bombing the whole city? I never thought that an underground club in Berlin would lead to worldwide conflict.
Do you think Berliners’ attitudes towards America started to change after this?
No, I don’t think it started then. For my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, they felt that America saved them from Russian influence, and, of course, from Nazi influence. For my generation, I was born in the early ’70s, I always felt cool with the Americans here. I was really educated politically. The German school system back then, you were really forced to learn about political systems and whatever. I knew what was going on in South America, but I was ambivalent. You had guys throwing stones at anti-US demonstrations during the daytime who were listening to AFN at night. It wasn’t as simple as pro-American or against.
Why is it important to remember this period of Berlin’s club history?
It wasn’t just a nostalgic thing to us. It really had influence on German pop music, youth culture, the whole pop culture since the ’80s, even ‘til now.
This was a natural part of my history, with music, with club culture, with DJing. That’s how I got in touch with soul, with hip hop. When we started this project, it was all about doing a party for all those people who felt like us. And we wanted to listen to those tunes, which they don’t play anymore. I did a mixtape like three-and-a-half years ago and we set up a party, and we had so much incredible feedback. Not only from people our age but also much older people that were like, “Yeah, man, I worked at the club that played that music,” and also from younger people, 23, 24 year-olds. So, we were like, it’s becoming a cultural mission. We did research, and found it hadn’t been documented. Before that, it’s all Berlin Blockade, fall of the Wall. We really felt responsible to do something because it wasn’t just a nostalgic thing to us, it really had influence on German pop music, youth culture, the whole pop culture since the ’80s, even ‘til now. Bands like Snap! or Captain Jack or even German hip-hop: It all started with this. We felt we had to do something.