By Jackson Allers (originally published in UMen Magazine)
BEIRUT – Hicham Ibrahim, aka DJ Sotusura, is solid – holding down the hip-hop massive in Amman almost single-handedly, he doesn’t exude the stress you’d expect for someone so damn busy. But don’t let his nonchalance fool you.
What I mean to say is that this wiry Palestinian, born in Paris with Jordanian and French nationality, has learned to handle pressure the old fashioned way – by persevering through life’s hard knocks.
As he tells me on a balcony overlooking the Beirut port in early October, “I was a serious baller (basketball) at one point in my life – coming out of high school in Jordan. Then I left Amman in 1998 to go to school in Los Angeles. Really what I was doing was hustlin’, listening to hip-hop and collecting records AND playin’ ball at UCLA’s (University of California Los Angeles) outdoor courts and on the beaches of Santa Monica. Classes were just a formality.”
In a somewhat nostalgic way he tells me, dragging on a cigarette, “But all that ended when I messed up my ankle in 2000 during a game in LA.”
It was that fateful event that ruined Hicham Ibrahim’s basketball career and blessed us hip-hop heads with DJ Sotusura.
When I met Sotusura in Amman in the smoke filled room of a friends’ house party in early 2009, he was candid and approachable. We talked hip-hop to the wee hours of the morn – discussing groups of a by-gone era like Black Moon and the Boot Camp Clik, Goodie Mob, EPMD, Nas – all standard bearers of early 90’s NYC hip-hop flavor.
Truth is that from the moment I met him and listened to his radio show on Urban FM 102.5 FM in Amman, I never really doubted that I’d be watching this 29-year old make some moves with his DJ skills – if for no other reason because his taste in music was impeccable. (And so was his fashion sense. Sotusura’s Ecko Unltd clothing store in Sweifieh Al Wikalat Street features the freshest Ecko Ltd, and Marc Ecko Cut & Sew duds in the entire region.)
I caught up with Sotusura during a Ghetto Superstarz show in Beirut at the club Basement in early October to get his impressions on the future of hip-hop in the Arab world and whether there will be that next generation of turntablists in the Middle East.
U-MEN: Tell me about the hip-hop scene in Amman.
DJ SOTUSURA: It’s still a pretty underdeveloped scene in Amman. The breakdancing scene in Amman is very good. From what I’ve heard from world recognized breakdancers that come here is that Jordan has the second best b-boy scene in the Middle East.
But there are a lot of new MC’s comin’ up. The problem or the way I see it is that they need a lot of guidance. But I am probably a bit harsh on the Arabic MCs – that’s just how I see it.
Even in the entire Middle East, I feel there’s only really one Arabic MC that actually raps in Arabic that I really feel and whose music I could listen to daily and that’s Boicott from Ramallah Underground (West Bank). He’s really, in my opinion, the dopest MC in Arabic.
UMEN: That’s not to say there aren’t other amazing Arab MC’s that rap in Arabic – like Salah Edin from Holland.
SOTUSURA: No doubt. Salah is very good. But his Arabic is more Mughrabi (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) – his accent is more for that audience. What I mean really is the Middle East when I talk about the best Arabic MC. Like Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt…etc. The Middle East.
UMEN: Are there any hip-hop DJ’s in Amman?
SOTUSURA: Specific hip-hop DJ’s in Amman, not really. You got DJ Shadia, but she’s not really live – she’s more of a radio DJ. I mean – no one is really using turntables. Even in the electronic music scene they’re using CD decks. Locally, I can’t think of any other Jordanian DJ’s but me and Shadia into hip-hop.
UMEN: There’s no doubt that of the 4 pillars of hip-hop culture (Deejaying, Emceeing, Graffiti writing, Breakdancing) that DJ’s in the Arab world are a scarcity. Real DJs. You even have way more MC’s than DJ’s and they’re often having to rock CD’s to perform versus having a DJ backing them at a show. Name some DJ’s in the Arabic world that have international skills.
SOTUSURA: I have three in mind. One is Samrah Ma7in from Qatar. He’s got skills. He plays nice beats and plays a lot of club gigs throughout Qatar and the Gulf. Then there’s Flash B in Dubai who is originally from Jordan. He’s a fly DJ and a good producer actually. He just started messing with the MPC (sample machine) like 6 months ago and he’s already crafting beautiful beats.
Then you got of course, DJ Lethal Skillz. I feel like he’s kind of the pioneer for deejaying in the Middle East ’cause he’s not just a DJ – he’s a real turntablist (someone that can actually use turntables like instruments). We got very few of those, and he’s really a good turntablist. He’s on point and he practices a lot and there’s no doubt that he could compete internationally. Although that’s not what he’s about right now. He’s not just a DJ that rocks a club.
UMEN: Now, let’s be clear, we’re talking the DJ’s that actually live in the Middle East?
SOTUSURA: Yeah. As soon as we go outside the Middle East, we got a bunch we could talk about. We got Fred Wreck – who is the main cat who is a great DJ that has turned his skills into being one of the worlds leading producers.
UMEN: And what about MCs outside of the Middle East?
SOTUSURA: That list is also long. You’ve got Omar Offendum from The N.O.M.A.D.S. – he’s Syrian-American. Then there’s Ragtop from The Philistines – he’s Palestinian-American. Then The Narcycist from Euphrates – he’s Iraqi-Canadian. So there’s people. They’re all inspirations to us. It’s good when we see them. For me, when I see them rolling through the Middle East and I see there focus – they’re all very focused even though they’re a minority wherever they live at and where they’re working (USA, Canada), it motivates me to do stuff. I think that if they’re doing that over there then why can’t we all make it happen here – and then combine them with us so we have a complete picture.
UMEN: What are some of the difficulties you face as a DJ in the Arab world?
SOTUSURA: The first difficulty I can say as a DJ working in the Arab world is that the Arab world is very very electronic music oriented. You’ve got hip-hop heads in the Middle East, but it’s just that the majority listens to electronic music. Which kind of kills it a bit.
But – alhumdulillah – I feel blessed that I’ve been in Amman long enough to get work as a hip-hop DJ and I know who to talk to and who to meet to set up this kind of work here. I feel the real boost and the real blessing that I got this year is the fact that I picked up a two-hour radio show on Urban FM 102.5.
UMEN: Tell me about that. You really spin underground hip-hop without any real concern about a station play list. This is kind of unheard of anywhere much less in the Arab world – what with all the corporate direction radio takes.
SOTUSURA: How I got it – I own a hip-hop clothing store in Amman, in Soufiyeh. And there was a English cat – Rob – with Urban FM that came in to the store and I played a bunch of beats for him. He was really feeling it. But at the time he had no real power to do much for me. 6 months later, he had taken over his bosses position and decided it was time to give me a show.
UMEN: So it actually took someone with a love of hip-hop from one of these stations to actually put you on?
SOTUSURA: Exactly. And at first, I was supposed to do the show more like the radio wanted – 30 percent commercial, 30 percent classics and 30 percent underground. I kept doing that for a month – but the radio station’s feedback and my personal feedback was that people were really feeling the underground stuff. So I talked to the station management. They’re all very cool people that said – as long as the feedback is positive – do what you want to do!
So then I really just flipped it to be an underground hip-hop show. It really opened a lot of doors man. 4 months after I started the show, I picked up an internet radio show called “The Art of Rap” and it’s on a New York based internet radio site called Radio 23.
UMEN: That means you’re spinning all the latest Arabic hip-hop. Do you think the Arab hip-hop being produced these days in the Arab world and the Diaspora is international caliber?
SOTUSURA: I definitely think some of it is, but not enough to have a real market built around it. For example, in the Urban Beats sets in Amman I play some N.O.M.A.D.S. and some Philistines and this cat from Sweden called Palestine, and The Narcycist because it’s an English-only show.
As far as live performance is concerned – the cats that can rock it on the stage is rare. DAM from Lod in 48′ territories in Palestine definitely put on the best live Arabic hip-hop performance live. They’re like the godfathers of Palestinian hip-hop. They’ve got good chemistry. They do at least 30 shows a year.
UMEN: Practice makes perfect type of story?
SOTUSURA: Exactly. Like for the MC’s here in the region. You also have to give them the opportunity to perform live and see good live performance so they know what they’re up against and what it takes to be respected as professionals. Like real MCs…We need to bring more proper MC’s to the region.
If we were to bring lesser known cats like Aceyalone from LA (from LA’s Freestyle Fellowship) – you can put him anywhere – even if you’re in Japan and people are not going to understand anything, and he’s still gonna rock the crowd. And for people in Jordan, they don’t really know what it is to watch a concert like a great MC live.
They’ve seen like Suheir Hammad – a great poet from New York. There’s been a few good shows. Not enough though. If they were to get some lesser known cats like Mos Def, he probably wouldn’t attract even half the people that someone like Snoop would bring in.
I guarantee you though, if you get someone like Mos Def into Jordan, anybody in the room will have a good time. No matter if they’re five or 65. They would enjoy the hell out of it because he’s someone that thrives to do it live.
UMEN: Do you think there are entrepreneurs out there missing out on the whole hip-hop phenomenon?
SOTUSURA: Most definitely! It’s like a snowball effect man. Once it’s on a roll, you can’t stop it. And the youth is really into hip-hop in all the Arab countries. Like if there’s hip-hop in Oman, that’s an indication of things.
But, I think the wrong acts are coming across to Arabs at the moment – misrepresentations that make it more difficult for us.
Now when you get into hip-hop and you understand what it really is and what the culture’s about, then something different can happen. The boundaries of color, race, religion – much of that gets wiped away in hip-hop culture in some way. It started in the States and in the 1990’s I was living in France and it was huge. Think about Japan and other places like that. When hip-hop takes root, they start doing it their way. They take that and turn it into their hip-hop. Rapping in Japanese, French…whatever. And everywhere hip-hop goes it does that.
So it ain’t going to be no different in the Arab world. It became popular in these other places and is undeniable there. So there’s no reason it won’t happen here. It will happen no matter what. They spread their messages and develop the subjects they want to talk about in their cultures.
UMEN: Do you think it’s important for the godfathers of this hip-hop thing in the Arab world to be bustin’ their asses to be role models for these younger kids? Is that important?
SOTUSURA: It’s important for us Arabs to plant the seeds. I mean take DJ culture for example. Kids have missed the whole buying turntables and digging for records thing because of the online mp3 culture. Been now, we can bring it back and rewind the script on them a bit and introduce them to the turntables and the whole idea of getting the old Arabic pop and classic albums of their parents to use in their mixes, production, etc.
I mean why get CD’s? It means getting them into an essential part of the culture and not just buying CD decks…on the international level this is laughed at! Two months of study on CD decks doesn’t make you a DJ. Although it’s harder on turntables, it’s way more versatile and way more complete.
UMEN: There’s no real turntablism aspect with CD decks.
SOTUSURA: Yeah and that’s a good point. No international gigs will come your way if you’re rocking CD decks in hip-hop. That’s just not happenin. And these kids are lacking exposure to this fact. So I think there’s gotta be more conferences, workshops – whatever they can see so they can learn more about this DJ think and the art of deejaying.
Especially since Serrato came out – and you’re still on vinyl. I don’t really understand why anybody is rocking CD’s now.