I’m Todd L. Burns, and welcome to Music Journalism Insider, a newsletter about music journalism. If you’re not familiar with the newsletter already, click here to find out more.
Earlier this year, Julian Brimmers pitched me on an oral history of Juice Magazine. Full disclosure: Julian is an old friend of mine from Red Bull Music Academy, an enterprise that was filled with folks from Juice. The reason Juice became such an important conveyor belt to RBMA was simple: It was Germany’s pre-eminent hip-hop publication, filled with great writers and sharp editors. The two editors that helmed the Juice ship during what was arguably its golden era were Davide Bortot and Stephan Szillus. In their chat with Julian, they talk extensively about the magazine and the German hip-hop scene.
How did you get where you are today?
Davide Bortot: It started when my go-to record store guy in Munich asked me if I can write about music. Up until then it had never even crossed my mind. I tried it out for various publications of Piranha Media, who also published Juice. That was in 2000. Three years later, Chris Maruhn, who ran Juice back then, stepped down for personal reasons. And somehow, 23-year-old me got asked to be the new Editor-in-Chief. I was still studying at the time and got a salary of 400€ per month. I had never envisioned turning my hobby into an actual profession. From 2003 until late 2007, I was the editor of Juice, then Stephan took over. After that I moved on to work with Red Bull Music Academy from 2008 - 2013 and then I co-founded my own agency in Berlin, A Color Bright.
Stephan Szillus: I studied law but I always wanted to become a journalist. Back then if you wanted to be a journalist, I was told, you should study something useful. Not comms or publishing. Law seemed to be a good foundation to work in political journalism. During my studies I wanted to gain work experience and since I've always been interested in sub cultures—not just hip-hop but everything that was hot in the 90s—I tried writing about that.
I was living in Hamburg at the time where [rap magazines] Backspin and Wicked were both based. Backspin were the cool guys, Wicked were... not. Obviously, I chose the uncool lot and they welcomed me with open arms. After finishing my studies I started writing for other publications like Musikexpress, Spiegel Online, Spex etc. And in 2004, I published my first feature in Juice.
In 2007 Davide asked me if I wanted to take over his role as editor. At the time, I was unhappily working as a lawyer in Hamburg and gladly accepted his offer. After six years of running Juice, I became a self-employed project manager, music manager, label co-founder, music publisher, and consultant for brands and labels... all those freelancer jobs the music industry has on offer. Since 2016 I've been working for Spotify, where I am currently a staffer of the music culture & editorial team.
Davide, can you give us a brief breakdown of the era leading up to your time at Juice?
Davide Bortot: The magazine got developed and conceived in 1997 and in 1998 the first issue hit the shops. The great commercial breakthrough of German rap was 1999 but around 1997/98, the genre really started to make its mark on an industry level. Juice Mag was launched for those exact reasons: you could feel that there’s something slowly bubbling up—so why is there no great magazine for it? From ’99 until 2002, German rap had reached its first commercial peak. You could argue that those years are the financial golden era of Juice, just in terms of sales and ad clients.
When and how did you take over the editorial reigns?
Davide Bortot: In 2003, which was the start of a long commercial downfall [laughs]. Financially, neither mine nor Stephan's time as editor can be regarded as the golden era of Juice. However, I wouldn’t be mad if people saw the beginning of my time there until the end of Stephan’s run as a golden era in terms of content and style.
Stephan Szillus: As someone who had experienced Juice as a reader long before I became one of their authors, I can definitely say that the magazine changed a lot, content-wise, when Davide took over. It became more diverse and more professional. It no longer was a too big and glossy fanzine, but instead offered real journalism, like the magazines that I grew up with. Not that I hadn't taken Juice seriously before, but in terms of quality and writing, it made an enormous leap under Davide.
Davide Bortot: Text quality is the key word here. The guys who ran Juice before had all been vital parts of the scene but they weren't necessarily writers. Sven ‘Katmando’ Christ, who initiated the magazine, wanted to a) undogmatically portray German hip-hop in all its facets and b) treat German rap musicians, b-boys and graffiti artists like stars. He wanted it to be staged glossier and larger than it actually was at the time. It was his way of accelerating the scene's growth and ultimately helping its protagonists gain more acceptance and independence in the long run.
Who were your competitors?
Davide Bortot: Mostly you had Backspin in Hamburg, which was clearly a fanzine made by the scene for the scene. Juice was an attempt to build a bigger stage—but the quality of writing wasn't top priority yet. For me, writing has always been my main focus. I read music mags from all over the world and I wanted to transfer this standard onto our own scene, with a mix of naiveté and a very personal and narrow approach. What Stephan described as a process of professionalization definitely didn’t come from professional experience. It was a result of my own limited access to music journalism on a global scale.
I remember, my first Juice had Busta Rhymes on the cover. This already felt much more like a The Source for the German market.
Davide Bortot: Exactly. When I interviewed Sven ‘Katmando’ Christ for the book I wrote with Jan Wehn [Könnt Ihr Uns Hören?], he told me that he simply copied everything he knew from The Source. Just without the sex stuff because he knew that wouldn’t work in Germany.
Stephan Szillus: Whereas Wicked wanted to be The Source WITH the sex stuff [laughs]. Their editor greenlit a photo series that he actually shot himself with part-time models from the neighborhood.
Between the three of us there are no previous rap careers to uncover, right? Stephan?
Stephan Szillus: Me, rapping? No. I wrote some wack graffiti but other than that I’ve never been active in any field.
Explicitly not having any musical ambitions used to be a badge of honor for rap journalists back then, no?
Davide Bortot: Absolutely.
Stephan Szillus: Very important. That was the first question I asked aspiring freelancers: do you make music yourself? If yes, you're out.
Davide Bortot: That's a real paradigm shift. It used to be a reason to get you denied. Nowadays you have many authors who are also active rap musicians. And that's how it used to be before my time, too. Stephan and I did the opposite—we were looking for writers, authors, journalists. Today, everyone is so multi-disciplinary that hosting events, creating YouTube content and rapping while also writing about music is the new norm. But we were actively seeking out noteworthy writers who have style, original thoughts and an analytical digging-approach to the whole thing.
How many female authors did Juice have during both of your tenures?
Davide Bortot: Very few. And to make it worse: it wasn't even an issue. We did not think one second about whether supporting and developing female authors could be important. We didn't discuss ONCE if we should put even the NAME of a female artist on our stupid cover. It simply wasn't on our radar. It’s obviously a huge achievement and sign of progress that these things get thoroughly debated today.
Stephan Szillus: I agree. In retrospect it’s been one of the biggest mistakes for me personally and for our staff as a whole that we didn't support women as authors, artists, and as equally important protagonists of this culture. We showed extreme hubris. Any attempts to make it an issue were consistently pushed aside. This is something I deeply regret and that caused me a lot of headaches in the past years. We didn't even realize how excluding our circle had become. Not just towards women but towards anyone who, in our minds, couldn't hang with our extremely narrow nerd cosmos.
Davide, when you took over the magazine, did you put together your own editorial staff?
Davide Bortot: Not really. My editorial board consisted of Marc Leopoldseder, our copy-editor-turned-author, Joe Sircar, and Markus Werner, a Juice OG. He was more of a metal head, which is interesting because all of Munich's graffiti scene, who had a massive influence on Juice, were metal and hardcore fans. For them, everything after Wu-Tang was shit. The Puff Daddy-fication was the final straw, but even Nas had been too soft for those guys.
That's the point—I think that your personal taste at the time had already been much more diverse and, I guess, jiggy than what Juice represented before you were in charge.
Davide Bortot: Up until that point, most people’s understanding of hip-hop was built on a specific jam culture. On the one hand you had people who pledged allegiance to the holy trinity of rap, graffiti and breakdance. And then you had the music fans who treated rap music like any dancehall, house or drum’n’bass record. I'm obviously a disciple of the latter school of thought. Before I started at Juice, I hadn't listened to any more rap than I was listening to other styles of music. Potentially less. Naturally, I interpreted Juice more as a rap magazine than a hip-hop culture magazine. I simply hadn't experienced this whole hip-hop jam brainwash. I was once at a hip-hop jam and left after 10 minutes. In hindsight, I massively appreciate the whole genesis narrative of hip-hop—self-empowerment through park jams and graffiti and such. It just wasn't my personal entry point to the culture.
Stephan Szillus: This connects me and Davide to a degree. My approach was always through music. The rapper’s voice was another instrument, their message, to me, was secondary. I'm a 90s child, so while Davide was on the court, I was at the skate park, listening to Public Enemy and Slayer. That was totally normal for me. My idols were writers like Markus ‘Habba’ Hablizel who could write about hip-hop and R&B just as intelligently as about an obscure New York noise band.
Davide Bortot: Habba definitely was a big influence, as were Torsten Schmidt, Hans Nieswandt, Holger Klein, Oliver von Felbert. None of these guys were active on the hip-hop scene, but rather DJ-types. And when I started at Juice, club music and hip-hop were two different worlds—which for any English-speaking reader must seem absurd. I always saw clubbing and hip-hop as part of the same cosmos. To me, Mos Def and Mary J Blige had much more in common than Mos Def and, say, Aesop Rock.
Stephan Szillus: That's where our differences start.
Davide Bortot: I guess the big differences between Stephan's taste and my taste in music are his appreciation of dissonance, aggression and harshness, and the joy of kitsch, warmth and tacky melancholia on my end.
So at 23, how did you adapt to your new role of EIC at Europe's biggest hip-hop magazine? What was your vision for Juice?
Davide Bortot: I can't even say, to be honest. I naively went ahead with my own personal tastes and idols in mind. Magazine-wise, our biggest influence was EgoTrip. They were the blueprint for what we wanted to be in terms of tonality and attitude. Formally, we first tried to be The Source and then XXL.
What EgoTrip changed for rap writing was the introduction of a certain cool and highly informed arrogance. Funny but hyper-confident, and fully aware that they excluded people who were not willing to go deep into the matter. While, in Germany, Spex always had this academic, pop-theoretical nimbus.
Davide Bortot: Absolutely. For me it was important to not comply with this very German journalism school, high-brow middle class style of writing about pop. Psychologically that may have to do with the fact that I never felt accepted by those bubbles. This might stem from my immigrant background, but the elitism displayed by the established German media landscape at the time was something we didn't want anything to do with. So we established our own brand of elitism. However, the question whether some people might not understand us was less relevant than whether the right people would think it's cool. That might be the core sentence to the understanding of Juice.
Stephan Szillus: Like Skeme says to his mom in the kitchen in Stylewars—this is not for you or for the rest. It's for other hip-hop nerds. When you get older and more open-minded you of course start thinking it might make sense to be more accessible in your formulations.
Stephan, when did you start writing for Juice?
Stephan Szillus: My first text got published in 2004. An interview with Promoe from Looptroop, thank you Davide [laughs]. I was a huge fan of Juice, so I emailed Davide and quickly got a response. He dug my review of the new Missy Elliott album in Musikexpress and welcomed me on board. After the Promoe interview went well and got printed, I was confident enough to tell him what I would actually like to write about.
Davide Bortot: My first ever interview was with a German rap band called ABS. One of the rappers later became the only guy to ever diss me on a rap record.
Stephan Szillus: I have more diss tracks against me than Davide. Three or four, I think.
Let’s talk a bit about your different approaches to editing, Davide as an editor you were…
Davide Bortot: ... bad. [laughs]
Davide Bortot: Because my personal taste also guided my editing. I wasn't very good at giving constructive feedback and sometimes simply re-wrote other people’s stuff. That's the biggest regret of my career, that I didn't establish a level of dialogue and actively helped writers to get better.
Did you have any problems continuing the stylistic standards you had set for yourselves? It's not like quality rap writers grow on trees in Germany.
Davide Bortot: That was another huge problem, how do we get cool new authors? At the time it felt like there were none out there, but looking back I think we did find a bunch. Stephan found much more though.
Stephan Szillus: In my time, Alex Engelen is the first name that comes to mind. An extremely critical, analytical mind and overall great human being. He was very important for the editorial team in the early Berlin era. From a writing perspective, I'd have to say Jan Wehn, Ndilyo Nimindé, yourself... and a lot of others, just too many to mention here. I'm also extremely proud of the interns we picked: Sascha Ehlert, Carlos Steurer, Franzi Finkenstein, Max Schmutzer, Anthony Obst. They all went on to do great things for us and elsewhere.
Davide, during your time the music industry changed dramatically. How did that development affect your decision to leave after five years at the helm of Juice?
Davide Bortot: I started exactly at the end of the golden era of the music industry. But I was still privileged enough to fly to Barbados to listen to the Missy Elliott album, then to Jamaica to interview her. And I flew out to New York a lot, which was absolutely insane for me. I come from a home where travelling is not a thing. We never went on vacation, other than visiting family in Italy. So this job was my only way to eventually explore New York, the city of my dreams. I ended up going 30 times or so, while still getting paid 400€ a month. Being able to travel was a dream come true.
The fact that I stopped working for Juice full-time was no consequence of the decline of the music industry but of frustration and boredom with rap in general and German rap in particular. In 2006/2007 everything started to repeat itself, there were no new impulses. The digital era completely took over, which caused bad vibes in the whole scene and industry. My decision was not informed by commercial circumstances but by the general atmosphere in German hip-hop and media. Plus, some personal reasons, of course.
So, why on earth does someone in that particular climate give up their lawyer job to run Juice, Stephan?
Stephan Szillus: Hm, do you wanna tell the story?
Davide Bortot: The scenario was: we were in Hamburg and—as it was custom in those days—drunk and dressed in LRG from head to toe on our way to a club. And I told Stephan that I didn't want to do it anymore and that he'd be perfect for the job. Stephan, equally drunk, said "great idea, I'm in." Surprisingly, that spirit hadn't changed two days later.
Stephan Szillus: I was still living and working in Hamburg. I was frustrated with the job at the law firm, and I was writing on the side. I realized that the world of law was not how I wanted to spend my life. So, Davide's suggestion offered an intriguing alternative. I flew to Munich to meet with Alex Lacher, the publisher, to discuss the details. To my surprise the offer was regular and reasonable. The fact that the industry was in a bad place and the magazine was free falling wasn't relevant for me. I needed a personal change and running Juice Mag was my exit into the life I meant to live: writing about music.
When did the magazine shift towards putting more German rap acts on the cover?
Davide Bortot: That’s clearly a result of Stephan's run. We barely gave out cover stories to German acts. On the one hand, because there weren't that many who would have made sense, but also because we were very strict. A German rapper I'm now friends with told me that we measured German rap by much higher standards than US or UK rap.
Stephan Szillus: When I started, 9 out 11 covers we had every year were US rap. That turned around at the end of the 00s. Readers asked us to feature more German rappers and we saw the importance of resurrecting a then apathetic scene by highlighting its few luminaries. Making them look like stars at a point where they probably weren't stars yet. That's how we did it with Marteria, Casper, and Cro. As soon as we saw someone was about to blow up, we offered a cover. For the time, that was the right move.
While Davide had to open up the musical range and writing style of the magazine, what do you think was your main challenge while running Juice?
Stephan Szillus: One main issue was, how can we as a print brand become more digital? I was the one who set up the Juice Facebook page and Twitter account. I always tried to get resources from the publisher for our website. I hired the first and only full-time video editor on our staff, Ndilyo Nimindé, who produced original content for our YouTube channel. That was an important yet difficult to realize aspect.
The other thing was... Davide said it himself: he is a great writer, while I think I'm a solid but not exceptional writer. However, I do think I'm a strong editor. I can go over a text and make it comprehensive for the reader without losing the original voice and character of the author. Maybe that's why I could give more feedback to our freelance writers, work closer with our graphics and marketing department and just keep things running.
Davide Bortot: Totally agree. That’s surely the reason why there were more exceptional new writers during Stephan's time.
What were the biggest musical landmarks during your time, Stephan?
Stephan Szillus: There's a distinction between what was important for me personally and what had an impact on a larger scale. When I started in 2007, we were still clearly impacted by Dilla’s death. For the coming two or three years, the whole Detroit underground bubble was important. At the same time, Germany had its own underground revival with Marsimoto, Huss & Hodn, Morlockk Dilemma, K.I.Z. and so on. Commercially this still wasn’t huge but creatively we lived through exciting times. Then Marteria, Casper and Cro re-built German hip-hop in the form of contemporary pop music. Simultaneously we had a new wave of gangsta rap that was musically interesting as well.
When did you realize you had to move on?
Stephan Szillus: Five years just seems to be the cycle. Davide left after five years, Chris Maruhn did a little under 5. We all started to get health issues. It's an all-consuming job. In your late 20s, early 30s, this was not a healthy lifestyle. All-nighters, lots of partying, alcohol, not enough sleep. For me, it led to a state of exhaustion. I wouldn't say burnout, because I have too much respect for the clinical diagnosis, but I know I saved myself from it by taking a break. At the same time, I grew distant from how the scene developed. The new form of gangsta rap didn't speak to me. It was the right time to change again.
Davide Bortot: The self-exploitation was real. I was much younger when I started working for Juice, so I didn't care so much. But the constant intensity, the working hours, the monthly publishing rhythm, the sheer amount of work vs your self-implemented standards... this wasn't sustainable in the long run. You can do that for three to five years before it starts to take its toll on you.
Stephan Szillus: I'd have gladly not done the last year, in hindsight.
Davide Bortot: Yeah, same. Exactly one year too many.
Stephan Szillus: But also, you don't want to leave the thing in shambles. I felt a responsibility for my staff. We had moved Juice from Munich to Berlin. All of a sudden, we were super accessible and in the midst of everything in Kreuzberg. Marc Leopoldseder was the only one from the Munich office who came with us to Berlin. For a long time, I debated with myself whether I should just throw in the towel or not.
Davide Bortot: Many of the people who followed us were great writers and did a good job. But the times changed to a point where you didn't have the chance to set new impulses through a print mag. During our times, we were in the lucky position that the Juice verdict held weight. I'm not saying the generations that followed did everything right, oftentimes they did not, in my personal opinion. But after Stephan had left, times were different. Instagram and YouTube grew more and more important. Going from the blog era towards video content on the internet happened right after Stephan left.
Stephan Szillus: True, I was a blogger when I became a Juice staffer. I co-ran an early rap blog in Germany, We Know Rap. Blogs were big but people still valued the Juice cover and the mag itself as very important and something that you needed to be acknowledged by. Especially since we were now in Berlin, the pressure applied by some protagonists of the scene grew increasingly. Dealing with that pressure, maintaining an independent opinion was always stressful. The job came with a lot of negotiating, mediation, and phone calls with angry rappers and managers. Getting away from that level of conflict was why I got out of being a lawyer in the first place. I'm a harmonious person.
You mentioned Marc Leopoldseder, who was the only staff writer that remained throughout the years until Stephan left, and probably the person most people identify with Juice.
Davide Bortot: He's the biggest and most important constant in the history of Juice, for sure. He worked for Juice the longest and in his very own, crude, sometimes annoyingly passive way he coined the Juice ethos more than anyone else. Dealing with him and his passion for debate really left an impression on me. He's ready to argue for his standpoint at 4AM in the morning in the club, in the metro station or in the office. He lived that shit.
Stephan Szillus: Definitely. And you knew that whatever you delivered, it had to go over his desk first. You had to check every freelancer’s text so that Marc wouldn't get angry or frustrated. That was the main goal. He's just the most thorough copy editor I ever worked with.
In hindsight, what was the most gratifying part of the job for you?
Davide Bortot: Always the moment when new music came in. Promo CDs, listening sessions, or a Stephan Szillus 320k mp3 hook-up. Also, I have to say that the possibility of being in dialogue with people I wouldn't have met otherwise has been the most valuable lesson. Whether that was Marc Leopoldseder or Estevan Oriol or fucking Beyoncé and Kanye West, they all shared their individual life stories with me. I didn't fully understand the value of that at the time. But in retrospect—as corny as it sounds—I have to say that hip-hop journalism taught me to deeply engage with perspectives vastly different than mine.
Stephan Szillus: Juice has been a second family for a long time. And I wouldn't trade that for anything. The hip-hop scene that I grew closer to through Juice gave me a sense of community. Being respected. A lot of my personal relationships came through that. And, as Davide said, being able to travel and see the world through a culturally tinged lens. Visiting those corners of New York that no tourist ever sees. Sitting in a suburb of Prague with Common and watching him record the second verse of "Don't Break My Heart." Being witness to the creation of an artform that is more important to me than anything in this world. The idea that that was what paid your bills—it’s an astonishing thing.
With all that has changed, what advice would you give aspiring rap writers today?
Davide Bortot: Again, this sounds corny but I really mean it: Follow your own voice, taste and feeling. I know it's easier said than done. We're both from a time in which journalistic work wasn't as easily quantifiable in the form of clicks, likes and internet comments. So we did what me and my peer group thought was right. I largely did quite OK with that approach in life. Job-wise I achieved some things this way and I can lead a great life. I'm endlessly thankful for that. I don't mean to sound naive or arrogant, I'm aware of the privileges that were given to me, as well as the element of sheer luck. But I do think the idea to hold on to your vision, being stubborn, sometimes illogical, helped me in the long run. So I'd encourage everyone to follow their own inner voice.
Stephan Szillus: I think, every aspiring writer has to develop the ability to really zoom in on a subject matter; and then step back and carefully examine the bigger picture. It's good to be detail-oriented as a music journalist—go ahead and focus on a certain snare-sound for days—but don't forget to take a look at the world around it. The time of its creation. If you don't put it in context, your writing remains hollow. This holistic type of music journalism will barely pay your rent these days. But I miss people doing it out of an internal urge, without any commercial expectations.
Julian Brimmers is a writer, translator and film maker from Cologne, Germany. His writing has been published in German and English by The Paris Review, Spiegel, Zeit, The Creative Independent, BBC, Passion of the Weiss and many more. Between 2011 – 2018, he was a staff editor at Red Bull Music Academy. His feature-length documentary about iconic German rap crew RAG, WE ALMOST LOST BOCHUM, comes out in September 2020. Julian regularly contributed to Juice Magazine between 2008 and 2013.
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