Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets – Pt. 1

 

Jazeera Airways magazine cover for the Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets show in January 08

In honor of this legendary night of hip-hop in Beirut in January 2008 – Immortal Entertainment, Phonosapien Productionz and Beats and Breath Productions brings you the Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets Redux @ Basement on Sunday, January 10!

Send an email to me for more information on the January 10 show: jacksonallers@gmail.com

In a basement in downtown Beirut, Jackson Allers gets the lowdown on the Lebanese hip-hop underground.

BEIRUT CITY (January 2008) – I check I have the right address. Could Black and White, a swanky venue in the upmarket district of Monot, really be the epicentre of Beirut’s nascent hip-hop movement? Zipping my jacket open, exhaling the last bit of cold-weather condensation from my mouth, I make my way down the stairs and catch the muffled thud of a major sound-system.

A nod to the bouncer, the obligatory body-search and then full immersion into a dungeon filled with dozens of heads bobbing in unison to old-school jams from the golden era of rap, the early 1990s, when hip-hop effortlessly combined political intent with truly innovative musical arrangements.

For a second I think I’m somewhere else. Was this Lebanon or Fort Greene, Brooklyn? After 15 years of covering and promoting hiphop in the United States, I found the unpretentious, fashionable street vibe of Black and White awfully familiar.

MC Siska from the oldest Lebanese hip-hop crew - Kita' Beirut

“Yo Jacks, wassup? kifak?” MC Siska of the veteran hip-hop group Kitaa Beirut gives me a big hug and the mandatory handshake, a slide across the palm leading to a meeting of closed fists. “Word ya khayi (brother), you ready to mash it up tonight?” I inquire.

He nods and smiles, “You know how we do,” his woven hat and full beard making him look much older than his 24 years.

Over in the corner, surrounded by an entourage of hipsters who look like they’ve been plucked straight from the pages of Fader or XXL, is Malikah, one of the newest kids on the block and a finalist in MTV Arabia’s answer to American Idol, Hip Hop Na (Our Hip Hop). Also known as MC Lix, her reputation as a powerful live performer is on the up and many are in the club solely to see her perform. “I hope to set the bar for up-and-coming female rappers in the Arab world – like a role model,” she once told me. “Maybe I can even have my own production studio to help them grow.” Confidence is a good thing and Malikah has it in spades.

“How ya doin’ Beirut City, Lebanon,” yells DJ Lethal Skillz, the reigning king of the city’s hip-hop scene and the man anchoring the production on this night. “Let me know you’re feelin’ this!” Hands shoot up on the packed dance floor as Dr. Dre’s anthem Let Me Ride is cranked up. With his trademark dark-tinted goggles and oversized silver timepiece on his wrist, Skillz mixes his way through an anthology of hip-hop – and the crowd’s loving it.

DJ Lethal Skillz workin' the decks on that legendary evening © Tanya Traboulsi

Over fifteen years, Lethal Skillz has become Lebanon’s number one practitioner of turntablism – playing Technics SL-1200 record decks instead of traditional instruments. He has invested thousands of dollars in a professional studio where he can work with Lebanon’s rap talent – a collective that’s become known as the 961 Underground Family. They performed in Poland in the autumn of 2007 for the first time under the 961 moniker, thrilling the eastern European audiences with a rare blast of home-grown Arabic hip-hop.

As I’m drawn towards the stage, I greet two visiting MCs from Los Angeles: “Wassup Omar? Hey Ragtop! Wassup you two?” Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American rapper from the group The N.O.M.A.D.S, and Ragtop, a Palestinian-American from The Philistines, are here for the week as guests of the 961 Underground Family. “Man, performing in Beirut with Skillz and crew – it feels like history in the making,” Offendum tells me.

“Mic check. One two, one two.” A voice from the stage informs us that the show is about to get started. The subsequent live performance flows from Mic Mssadah (Rusty Mic), a track featuring Siska and RGB, to Ragtop and Omar Offendum’s heavily sampled Arabic melodies on Teezie and Nimroud (Stubborn). Their stage presence is immense and their deliveries are flawless.

Next up is Malikah, whose electrifying set peaks with Tafrikah (Discrimination), with its highly charged lyrics about the West’s narrow-minded perception of Arabs. Afterwards, the MCs freestyle until 3am, when the turntables stop spinning and a small contingent of us go back to Lethal Skillz’s Red Leb Studios to keep the party alive.

Unlike the States, where the East, West, and Central Coast scenes vie for legitimacy, Lebanon’s hip-hop movement works from the same lyric sheet. Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Syrians, Armenians and Africans all join the cypher. Given what Lebanon’s going through, I couldn’t help but feel that hiphop has a unifying power.

“There’s no room for beef (rivalries) in a country as small as Lebanon,” Lethal Skillz tells me. “Especially when we’re struggling to create a market here. Sticking together is the only way we can grow this movement and show both Arabs and non-Arabs that we’re legit.”

The 961 Underground Family consists of members from all sides of the political divide. They may not always agree when it comes to politics, but they’ve come to rely on each other for encouragement, support and inspiration. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Ragtop from the Philistines (left) and Omar Offendum from The N.O.M.A.D.S. will perform again at Basement with Mark Gonzales on January 10

Levant Hip-Hop Essentials:

1.) Radio in Beirut – NO GOOD HIP-HOP RADIO IN LEBANON but peep DJ Sotusura’s show URBAN BEATS online at 102.5 Beat FM in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday’s from 9pm – 11pm (Jordan time +2 GMT)
2.) The Essential Albums – Eslam Jawaad’s solo debut album ‘Mammoth Tusk’, DJ Lethal Skillz’ ‘New World Disorder,’ and The Naricyst’s debut solo effort ‘Phatwa’

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