Even as the more high-profile events during the – assumed – 50th anniversary of hip-hop in 2023 largely celebrated recorded music (which didn’t enter the picture until 43 years ago), it should be clear to anyone that the history of hip-hop amounts to more than a greatest hits revue.

One approach to understand hip-hop is to grasp the entry-level access it offers. Now people may argue, and we’re circling back to the ‘recorded music’ part of hip-hop again here, that MC’s should probably understand each other when they engage with one another. To what degree that matters to you individually depends on how you weigh the verbal aspect of rap and hip-hop music and what you can take from all the rest that makes a tune. Fact is that multilingual rap records have existed since the early ’80s. What’s more, people who were not bilingual went out and made songs together on which they didn’t understand each other or which they knew part of the audience would not fully comprehend in terms of what is being said.

It takes some getting accustomed to, but a rap record that speaks different languages is manageable. If you need loftier conceptions to convince you, Fokis and Retrogott declare hip-hop a ‘universal dialect’, an apparent oxymoron that may be not so contradictory to anyone who has realized the wealth of local ‘dialects’ of hip-hop and how far they can travel.

Released in March 2023, “Universal Dialect” is a joint effort by German beatmaker/rapper Retrogott (alias Kurt Hustle), an indie rap icon domestically best known for schooling competition with highbrow yet plain-spoken put-downs since the early 2000s, and Fokis, a New York allrounder, who has been on the grind for just as long. Both artists already have international collaborations under their belt, so this project is a continuation of their individual work.

“Universal Dialect” is off to a good start with the title track (never mind the opening KRS-One lecture). An assortment of soulful noises bubbles underneath as Fokis walks us through how hip-hop culture fascinated him, taking us from one element to the next:

“Motivated with ambition, never scared to fail
Move with raw energy, like a train on a third rail
Can’t move like a snail if you wanna leave a mark
Ghetto Picasso, displayin’ all kind of art
Burners, throwups, and various handstyles
A canvas in motion, I swear this thing is wild
It took me overseas, yeah, I crossed many lands
Made some new friends, some I consider fam
Put bread in my hand, but money isn’t everything
The experience is more, wouldn’t change it for anything
Rhythm, style, slang, yeah, all these things
Make up this beautiful culture that is king
Since its inception it has reigned supreme
One hook can make the entire globe sing”

His German partner takes a more cerebral approach lyrically (“Elektrische Kreise ziehen dialektische Kreise / eine Lebensweise macht uns zu Brüdern und Schwestern im Geiste”), before they share an English hook together that won’t be heard around the world, but the effort should be honored. Other choruses will appeal to traditionalists, such as Retrogott’s one-two punch of rap samples on “Go to Work” or Fokis’ old school harmonizing on “Another Level”.

Musically, “Universal Dialect” typically drifts from what you could call retro boom bap to neo boom bap. Some beats sound as if they were culled from the ’90s East Coast vaults, some have that slightly more modern touch to them that beatmakers in the past ten years or so have come up with. Either way the headnod factor is almost always there, from the filtered horns on “Time Will Tell” to the early ’90s swing of “Make it Count”. A couple of tracks shake things up. “Another Level” is some lowkey b-boy ish, something that Oh No might cook up. “Keep Hope Alive” bathes Fokis’ sober reflections on surviving the struggle in a fitting melancholic mood. Coincidentally or not, both these have to be considered album highlights.

As Retrogott eventually falls back from rapping, guests fill in that you wouldn’t call unexpected. Sadat X and Edo.G regularly lend their unmistakable voices to records abroad and don’t disappoint here. A couple of German vets drop by as well, there’s a trilingual track featuring what appears to be a lineup of three MC’s from Switzerland (appropriately titled “Swiss Army Knife”), and on “I’m Feeling Like…” Fokis brings together Austrian mainstay Flip and Mexico’s Logan Hate.

But perhaps the sense of how much there is to hip-hop being a universal language with a myriad of dialects is best conveyed by two tracks that follow back to back. “Thankful” sees Fokis sharing his hardships next to German rapper Drive-By musing about mastering hip-hop music in a wheelchair. And on “Solutions” he’s joined by South Carolina artist P.Watts as they demonstrate how pointless it is to complain all the time. That is quite a range.

Fokis is keen to impart lessons on the listener, at least on this project. The subject matter on “Universal Dialect” is realistic throughout, presented from a philosophical everyman perspective. Compared to flashier artists, the recipe for the longevity of Fokis, Retrogott and their collaborators is literally written into the music, whether it’s motivation (“Go to Work”), or being at peace with yourself and proud of your achievements even though others may be more successful (“I’m Feeling Like…”).

While Retrogott’s acerbic criticism of the human hamster wheel will be lost on the non-German-speaking audience, it’s just one element of “Universal Dialect”. This New York-Cologne connection works for the same reason so many indie projects all over the globe work. Retrogott and Fokis know what they do and they know why they do it. The music is their simultaneous translator, and there’s really no reason why it shouldn’t work for you and me as well.

Retrogott x Fokis :: Universal Dialect
6.5Overall Score