There was no ESL class for Achim Schneemann, aka Maniac from Demograffics, who's due to take the stage at X Games Munich later this month. And there was little talk about "immersion programs" when he was growing up. At 7 years old, his family up and moved from the south of Germany to America's Dirty South and plunked him into a school where he didn't speak of a lick of the local language.
"It was oh so sad, going to school with no vocab," he rhymes in his song "Intrography."
But Schneemann was a quick study and picked up English with amazing speed. In fifth grade he did so well that his teachers decided he could skip the entire sixth grade. Bored by school, he discovered hip-hop and it rocked his world. The political and conscious rappers he listened to affected him profoundly; he eventually took a pass on saying the pledge of allegiance. This earned him extra scrutiny and teachers kept their eyes on him to make sure he was taking notes during class.
He kept his pen moving, but his scribbling was unrelated to the lecture and discussion. Schneemann was writing his first rhymes and preparing for local freestyle battles. His self-imposed homework? Making beats in his basement. His style was his alone.
In 2004, Schneemann dropped his first demo tape and was soon heading back to Germany. Demograffics in its first incarnation -- Schneemann and producer Dave Black -- released another record a few years later. By 2012 Black had been replaced by DJ Rufflow, and Demograffics v. 2.0 released "Cheese," which they describe as "grown-man music."
XGames.com caught up with Schneemann recently to flesh out his backstory and see what the Demograffics crew has on deck. Check out the live webcast of their performance from 10:30 a.m. to noon ET on June 28 on XGames.com.
XGames.com: You started listening to rap in middle school. Who were you listening to?
Maniac: I guess even before middle school I was listening to stuff like Skee-Lo "I Wish," where he was rapping "I wish I was a little bit taller" and the video had him trying to play basketball, and I remember thinking "Hey, I can relate to this dude." I was a short kid back then, also into basketball, and I also liked that funky type of beat he was using.
Also remember getting [the] Montell Jordan [album] on tape, "This Is How We Do It," and writing down the lyrics for 69 Boyz "Tag Team" so I could be rappin' it. In middle school I started getting into Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg and more of the mainstream type of sound I heard on the radio.
Tell us about your experience of getting into rap; did you know it was going to be a huge part of your life? Did it change the way you saw the world?
I didn't think it would be such a huge part; I just liked the music, so I started trying to make beats with this computer program that would let you loop samples, but I couldn't find no emcees to rock over these beats, so that is actually how I started writing lyrics -- sitting in high school, pretending I was taking notes.
So once the lyrical [aspect] was important to me, I started getting into conscious hip-hop and really focusing on the message. Of course hip-hop did change the way I saw the world, because emcees would speak the truth and tell about real-life experiences in their neighborhood or have political opinions unlike those you would see on TV.
You spent more than a decade in the U.S. What did you learn about hip-hop during that time?
I learned a bunch of stuff. See, I was always hangin' out with cats, like, 10 years older [than me] who were influenced by the golden era [of hip-hop] and would take me diggin' [for] records with them and teach me about the whole art of sampling. I also started attending local freestyle battles and going to cyphers and not really thinking much about it; I just felt like I had to do it.
I remember driving up to Asheville, N.C, at least once a month to see an underground rap show and there was always so much energy and positivity. I realized hip-hop is a great medium of communication, bringing all types of people of different backgrounds together.
Who were your big influences when you were coming up?
KRS-One, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Busta Rhymes, Atmosphere -- all that good stuff.
How did these artists and/or albums influence the record you made?
It's hard to exactly say how someone influenced the music, but I guess growing up listening to "BoomBap" [by] SoulJazz-influenced type of rap beats laced with lyrics with a message made me wanna take that approach to making records.
You've been working with DJ Rufflow since 2004. How did you meet?
I met Rufflow at a party; he was spinning records. I remember rocking the mic for a minute, but since he was busy with the turntables, rockin' the crowd, we didn't really talk or nothing. It wasn't 'til a little later that we actually got to meet and hang out. Not quite sure how it went down, but I saw him every now and then at events, and since I was playing the beats live off a mini-disc player for gigs I ended up asking him if he wanted to rock live shows with me.
The two of you released a limited 500-tape run of your first album, which was self-titled, in 2004. What was that record like?
Well, actually I ... released that record when I was in the States [in] 2004, shortly before I returned to Germany .... This record was really raw, with beats by homie Dave Black, who hooked me up at the time. It was that real "BoomBap," '90s type of sound and I guess the flows were nice, but what is a young'un like me gonna rap about back then? [Laughs.] I might throw it online for everyone to check it out.
You've toured with Immortal Technique and Wu-Tang's Raekwon and GZA. How did you connect with them?
We have played support for many [groups] and gone on tours with crews, but Immortal Tech and GZA in particular, we just supported a few of their tour stops. I didn't personally connect with them, but the promoters usually get in touch with me.
We have done whole support tours as well with crews such as the German rap group Blumentopf, where we went all over Germany, Austria and Switzerland. In a few weeks we get to open for KRS-One, which is one of my big influences.
Demograffics released their third album, "Cheese," last year. What's up with the title of the record?
[Laughs.] Yeah, I know, right? I was sitting there thinking, "I'm not good with album names; how I'm gonna call the album?" I didn't want nothing fancy, like a long sentence or something, and being that we [are] spreading the positive vibes while you always see pictures of these hard-looking emcees with frowns on their faces -- I usually got a smile on my face -- all love, no hate, smile, cheese. Plus the record [album graphic] itself looks like a piece of moldy cheese.
In the title song, you ask, "When did rap magazines turn into fashion weekly?" What's your take on contemporary rap?
Well, I wrote that line because it seems to be more about the style and what you [are] wearing or what you choose to be drinking than the music, and I guess in the '90s it was more about the fun of it and the lyrical skills and uniqueness of emcees, and you could just wear whatever you felt like, but it was style. Nowadays they don't let you in the club with sweatpants.
Who are you listening to these days?
[J] Dilla, Madlib, MF Doom, but not even that much hip-hop, since I'm always diggin' old records that range in all types of musical genres. Also, since most of my friends are making really dope music, I listen to them -- for example, Dexter, a producer out of Germany, or Chrizondamic, [an] emcee from Austria.
In addition to being an emcee, you also make beats. How did you get into that?
Well, I actually started out making beats if we don't count my Skee-Lo and Montell Jordan interpretations as rapping. I always liked the beats in hip-hop before realizing they were sampling old records to get that sound, so yeah, I just started looping sounds with this crappy [computer] program and went from there -- kept updating and getting new equipment ... now making beats is an everyday thing.
Any plans for a new record?
We are going to rent a house in Tuscany, Italy, in September to record a whole live-band album with our backing band, Tribes of Jizu. Other than the plan to go there and make music, there is no plan to what the album is gonna sound like or nothing, so it will be an experiment and a whole new experience for us working [as] not just the two of us, but [as] a whole band where everyone has their own influences and ideas.
Lastly, do you have any background with BMX or skateboarding?
I actually do have a skateboarding background. I was skating every day in my youth, I guess until, like, 18 or 19 years old, when I seriously got into producing music. But I am still a big extreme-sports fan and even took up BMX and Rollerblading for a while. We've done a wide range of snowboard soundtracks and also have our own Demograffics skateboards for sale.
I remember back in the day watching the "411" skate videos, and that's where I first heard hip-hop that wasn't on the radio, so there is also a connection there ... I've always thought skating and music/hip-hop fits together, and since now we are playing many events like skate contests, snowboard park openings or X Games, it's great to still be connected with the skate scene through music.