We are in the throes of Arab hip-hop’s most significant contributions to the larger world hip-hop massive (Diaspora). Arab hip-hop crews the world over are feelin’ it. Like sharks attracted to blood, Lebanese, Moroccan, Palestinian, and (fill-in-the-blank) Arab MC’s are schoolin’ up to take a bite out of the Arabic hip-hop phenomenon. Lebanese-Syrian MC Eslam Jawaad is one of the leaders of this new school.
By JACKSON ALLERS
BEIRUT/LONDON – Eslam Jawaad (real name Wissam Khodur), the 32-year old ex-Lebanese mafia affiliate and father of three isn’t some fresh-faced, knuckleheaded-hobby-rapper talking about what it means to “stay true to the hip-hop game” while barely scrapping by eating $2 dollar slices of pizza (or manaeesh as it were) and begging for metro fare – all the while espousing the tenets of the “revolution.”
“If you want to do this rap thing out of pure the love for the (hip-hop recording) game. Then do it and I’ll support you all the way,” he tells me in a phone call from his home in London – where he’s been based since late 2003.
“I’m not doing it out of the pure love for the game anymore. I’m no longer a young buck. And I’ve been in the game for so long that this is all I know how to do. If I have to raise my family and still be a revolutionary, I need money. Simple as.” The man has a family to feed.
Nearly 4-years in the making, Eslam’s debut album ‘Mammoth Tusk’ hit stores in this summer in the UK (no stats on album sales at print time).
Pairing down some 80-recorded tracks to 15, ‘Mammoth Tusk’ reads like a who’s who of rap royalty, in part because of his affiliation to Wu-Tang Clan [legendary NY-based hip-hop group] family member – the Dutch-Moroccan rapper/producer and manager Cilvaringz, who Eslam hooked up with in 2003 after Cilvaringz heard his demo in the UK.
Along with Cilvaringz, the Wu Tang Clan’s RZA [the Wu Tang Clan’s mastermind] lends production help on the track ‘So Real’ featuring Palestinian R&B singer/MC Shadia Mansour (also out of the UK).
Original Native Tongues (a collective of late 1980s and early 1990s hip-hop artists) member, De La Soul (left) join Eslam on a classic hip hop track ‘Rewind DJ,’ and in a skit on the track ‘It wasn’t me…’, US-based white-boy rapper Eminem’s radio DJs Lord Sear and Rude Jude of Sirius/Shade45 satellite radio jokingly accused Eslam of blowing up the World Trade’s on 9-11 during a live interview.
But the title song (and album namesake), ‘The Mammoth Tusk’ produced by Dr. Dre’s right hand man Focus, is the track that provides the most fodder for gossip.
“The track tells the tale of a failed business deal between the Syrian and Lebanese mobs over a Siberian mammoth tusk.”
“I was expecting to make a lot of money from the deal ($1.6 million), and when that money didn’t come through, it made me realize that the (mob) life wasn’t for me…I wasn’t willing to go all the way with the shit.”
Lucky for Arab hip-hop heads that the old-guard Lebanese mobsters weren’t prepared to let some young upstart cash in on such payola.
BEATS AND BREATH caught up with Eslam in May, only a month after recording sessions with Damon Albarn, frontman for Blur and the virtual group Gorillaz. [Albarn also lends his production skills to ‘Mammoth Tusk’ on the track ‘Alarm Chord’ which has that eerie Gorillaz hallmark sound all over it.]
Eslam Jawaad (left) during a show with the Damon Albarn (Blur, Gorillaz) fronted group “The Good, the Bad & the Queen” – which features musical legends – Tony Allen (pictured lower left), Fela Kuti’s musical director and the leader and drummer of the Africa 70′; Paul Simonon, bassist from The Clash (pictured, right), and Simon Tong from the Verve on guitar.
BEATS AND BREATH: Let’s talk about ‘Mammoth Tusk.’ You’re getting much press for this story that led to the naming of this album.
ESLAM JAWAAD: “Well. Where do I begin? It’s a story from when I was working with the Lebanese mob. As you can tell, it involves the sale of a Siberian mammoth tusk that the Russian mob sold to a businessman in Dubai.”
“He was looking to sell it to a Syrian group that approached me to see if I could hustle it off to the Lebanese mob.”
“I eventually got cut out of the deal which took me a few months to set up. My mistake was that I tried to make the deal go down in Lebanon when I should’ve let it go down in Syria.”
“The bottom line is that these guys were gangsters and they were not about to let some kid walk away with like $1.6 million.”
B&B: An article in The Independent (“Preaching to the Unconverted” March, 27) suggests it was this botched deal that convinced you to move to the UK to do your music full-time. Is that accurate? Where was the music when you were working with the mob?
EJ: “My music was there all along. It predated any involvement with the mob. I think my involvement in the mob came from my involvement with music. It’s not the other way around, but the Independent article seems to suggest the opposite – that the mob thing didn’t work out so I turned to music instead.”
“I think the type of music that I was listening to encouraged my fascination with mob culture. It was the mid-90s and it was like everybody was listening and romanticizing mob culture.”
“Culture of the Godfather and Scarface. Everybody loved them, you know what I mean? Youth culture and music then, it developed around mob affiliating or wanting to be mob affiliated.”
“I just really ‘was’ mob affiliated.”
Eslam Jawaad’s video from his single ‘Pivot Widdot’ featuring the Lebanese-based female MC Malikah
B&B: You’re representing the Arab hip-hop Diaspora. Why the UK and not Lebanon?
EJ: “Very simply, when I was in the Beirut at the time, the industry was showing no love to what we were doing.”
“Despite my hustling for 3 years out of university trying to do the rap thing in Lebanon, I realized it wasn’t going to happen. I had a couple of contacts in the UK and decided to try my hand at it.”
“I was lucky enough to have met UK acts (Asian Dub Foundation, Visionary Underground and UK Apache) who liked what I was doing, and supported me early on in my move.”
“And it continued when I met guys like Cilvaringz, and Damon (Albarn).”
B&B: So there were barriers in Lebanon?
EJ: “With Lebanon specifically, I think it’s a lot more exclusive that other Arab countries.”
“If you lived abroad somehow you’re considered cooler than the folks trying to do it locally. Sadly a lot of the homegrown kids propped up the idea.”
B&B: But what do you think when young rappers play the hater role – talking trash about those making a living at hip-hop as opposed to those who are “doing it for the love of the game?”
EJ: “I say get off your fucking high-horse already. I don’t care how YOU do it!”
“If you can make money by yelling ‘Fuck the government!’ or ‘Sell drugs’ – then I say do it! What matters is what you’re doing in your life. I don’t care what you’re doing as long as you have good quality.”
“I for one have never sold out the message, I just present it in a commercial way. But the message is inherent in my album. Still, it ain’t the hardcore presentation I used to have.”
“Now I package my singles with more of the club vibe in mind. There’s no rules! Anyway! Who the hell says you’re a ‘real hip-hop artist’ if you do this or that?”
“I can guarantee any artist that is listened to, respected, loved, etc – no matter how hard core or revolutionary – they all make money. That’s how you get heard!”
“Take (New York City/New Jersey-based rapper) Immortal Technique for example. He’s helping with hospitals in Iraq and Afghanistan, and is feeding something like 20,000 kids in Africa.”
“Good on him! That’s what you gotta do, make money so you can do that!”
“Take Ziad Rahbani (son to legendary Lebanese diva Fairouz). He’s all about the message – all about the Arab cause. But how intelligent is his presentation? He’s not goin’ out wildin’ and saying ‘Fuck the government!’ But he IS saying that, if you’re listening. AND he’s making money.”
B&B: Will there be that breakout pan-Arab hip-hop album that will be listened to throughout the Arab world?
EJ: “Currently there’s two movements, which go hand and hand really. There’s the ARAP movement (started in 2004) that I think was the first pan-Arab, multi-national hip-hop movement representing Arab hip-hop specifically because it consisted of Moroccans, Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians. (Salah Edin, Palestine, Cilvaringz, Eslam Jawaad, and Mohalim)
Now there’s the Arab League with a lot of people crossing over between the two groups. They are also pan-Arab, and have recently put out a track. [MC.Amin (Egypt), Arabian Knightz (Egypt), Wighit Nazar, The PharoZ, Malikah (Lebanon), Shadia Mansour (Palestine/UK), www.fredwreck.com/ “>Fredwreck (Palestine/USA), Solo Ltd.]
(NOTE: Eslam is affiliated with both groups, but primarily reps it for 3rap)
“But Salah Edin (pictured © Laith Majali), the Dutch-Moroccan MC has just released his third album (produced by Cilvaringz and released on Wu Tang Clan International label and distributed by Universal Music).”
“I think it’s the first proper Arab hip-hop album. From beginning to end – the production, musically. I mean, the ideas and the little sounds that you add here and there. It’s just professionally at the best quality you can get, and the message is on point.”
“It’s up there with all of the top American hip-hop you can think of. You know what I mean?”
“His flow on top of that. My only observation is that Salah’s accent is Moroccan and that limits his Arab audience. But I’ve spoken about this to him.”
B&B: You’ve listened to your album a million times, so I ask, what are your stand out tracks on ‘Mammoth Tusk?’
EJ: Phonetically, I love ‘Criminuhl.’ I also really love ‘Babba’s Shotgun’ (about resisting the French colonial police back in his grandfather’s days as a Lebanese revolutionary.)
Then there’s ‘Heave Ho’ which is actually about the second coming of Christ. I don’t know if most people is picking up on that.
B&B: Do you see yourself moving towards to the more Damon Albarn, Gorillaz-vibe or more the ARAP, Cilvaringz sound?
EJ: “Well, ARAP for sure. But, I love what’s goin’ on with Damon. I don’t like being boxed in or defined by any one movement though, or one sound.”
“I’m working on an album with a Palestinian electronic music producer in the UK, Darwish, and it’s not hip-hop.”
“I’m also doing stuff with some of these hip white boy bands like Get Cape, Wear Cape, Fly – Baby Shambles – Reverend and the Makers, Magic Numbers, and Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers.”
“But I’m excited to see what happens with ‘Mammoth Tusk.’ It’s been such a long process.”