After the successful showing of Mochilla’s latest documentary bonanza – “Timeless” – at this year’s South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Beats and Breath features this exclusive interview with Mochilla’s Brian Cross aka B+ and Eric Coleman during their recent trip to Beirut and Amman.
BEIRUT/AMMAN – People that know hip-hop imagery know the name B+ aka Brian Cross. By all accounts, the Los Angeles-based Irish photographer has shot the biggest album and magazine covers in the music business. DJ Shadow’s debut album, Endtroducing, is the B+ album cover that has perhaps the most resonance with the uninitiated, but as one British writer notes (K-per), “while the name B+ may not ring a bell straight away, chances are you’re familiar with the man’s work, and probably own some of it.”
Cross’ partner-in-crime is Eric Coleman, himself a highly-published photographer who’s talent with a camera has earned him accolades in the record industry (Stones Throw, Warner Bros Music, JazzySport Japan, etc), and with magazines like Fader and ReUp.
In 1997, B+ and Coleman formed the production company Mochilla “near the pyramids outside Mexico City” and have since gone on to produce music videos for the likes of artists like DJ Shadow, as well as their crowning documentary achievements – “Keepintime: Talking Drums and Whispering Vinyl” and the Sundance film festival hit, “Brasilintime: Batucada com Discos.”
Their shooting philosophy (paraphrased):
“If it ain’t small enough to pack in a backpack, then we can’t use it!”
And it’s this philosophy that bore out the company’s namesake – Mochilla – the Spanish word for backpack.
I caught up with Mochilla in Jordan after they showcased their DJ skills at two club dates in Beirut and Amman along with The Human Writes Project (HWP) featuring Omar Offendum (The NOMADS), Ragtop (The Philistines) and Mark Gonzales (HBO Def Poetry Jam) also on tour in mid-January.
BEATS AND BREATH (B&B): You’ve met a lot of the core elements of the hip-hop culture in Beirut and Amman, and you know compared to the long history of development that has occurred with hip-hop in the US, how do you place the Arab movement based on what little you’ve experienced here?
B+: It’s super limited for us – but on one level it seems to us that the Arab hip-hop movement is fledgling. But on another level, it’s not a blank slate either.
I was talking to Nasser (Kalaji of Immortal Entertainment) about the fact that the influence of the Arab world is largely unwritten – and you know hip-hop culture is certainly a culture that has been influenced by the Arab world and by the Islamic world.
I saw one of Laith’s (Majali) photographs where it said on one homie’s t-shirt that “Hip-hop is not dead – it’s alive in Palestine” – or something to that effect. And it totally made sense. It made sense that it would be here. It made sense that the cats that we saw were as good as they were. Even through adverse situations or conditions that people are making really interesting and powerful art!
B&B: Let’s talk about the cultural connections. Mochilla’s been to Brasil, Columbia and even Ethiopia. Mochilla – you guys have talked about the musical heritage affecting hip-hop…and based on this trip you made some allusions to the Arabic influences you’ve experienced.
B+: The Brazil connection – it’s more obvious I mean in the northeast there’s this form of singing called coco and it’s also called embolada and it’s this kind of challenge singing where two people play the pandero or in this part of the world it’s called the frame drum (tambourine) and they rap against each other. It’s existed in the north of Brazil since – well since there has been a north of Brazil – since the 1500’s they have this kind of music and culture.
And when you look into the origin of this music it came through Arab culture into Lisbon. So it’s an old world form of music or culture that is a “proto hip-hop” if you will; that’s super interesting to me because it so radically predates anything we can think of.
And it speaks to a Diasporic cultural link that has more sophisticated and interesting ways than we generally give it credit for. Beside the other side of it, which is that, Islam has had an absolutely massive effect on hip-hop.
To come to an Islamic country or to a region where Islam has played such an important role on the culture also is another way of starting to think about how much influence there is and how closely tied these cultures are (hip-hop and Islam) and how there are these tram lines of influence from the Middle East to North America that we don’t recognize because sadly – the people that write the history are not really interesting in these kinds of connections.
B&B: So this trip was an exploratory trip for Mochilla. How do you view the local hip-hop culture in terms of your obvious experience with hip-hop’s past?
B+: I think people here have similar misgivings about what hip-hop is really. Hip-hop is one of those weird things where you know, the further away you get from the people that are actually involved in creating the music, you know, the easier it is to forget what the fuck it is about in the first place.
You just sort of get the mainstream version of the music. You lose a lot of the sophistication of the music. It becomes real brash and can be you know – commercial or commodified Rap music. And people end up thinking that’s it!
They miss the beauty of it – the discovery of it – the taking of old things and making them new – the sense of community that comes out of it – the fun and the body experience of listening to pounding music over a few hours and how it can actually transform a space or any group of people. And so you lose that and you get this dull commercial music that doesn’t mean shit.
COLEMAN: The one thing I can say about Rap – the one thing I never understood about Rap radio was like…I listen to a song and say to my self, ‘Hey I heard this song like two weeks ago but it had a completely different artist on it.’
We were in Brazil and they were yelling during one of our DJ sets – “Ja Rule! Ja Rule!” I was like out of all the people you want to hear – him? But it’s these things that make it over – versus Mos Def, Talib Kweli or any of those other underground or conscious hip-hop acts.
My own opinion: I mean, when people not used to hearing real hip-hop actually do hear it – let’s say those only exposed to mainstream rap – it changes them. They’re shocked and I know it changes something inside of them.
B&B: You must be conscious of the fact that you’re having an impact on the way the story is told about hip-hop?
B+: Fully! I mean you’re right. But that’s what we do. We tell stories. To gauge it or to be overly concerned with that is not really the point.
I mean how important is our documentary Brasilintime compared to the movie City of God or how important is it compared to any other documentary film about Brazilian music. Perhaps City of God is a bad comparison – and most likely you haven’t seen a documentary about Brazilian music. But for me, to do good shit and do things that not everybody are thinking about right now – that’s the point.
COLEMAN: We don’t do it saying, ‘Man this is really going to affect people!’ I mean we do it and hope that it will affect people.
B&B: It’s more then about your own personal journey with the process and the music?
B+: I don’t know that it’s entirely personal either. I mean, these days, we’re a business too – Mochilla – even if not terribly successfully.
But we’re doing things that make sense right now – and you know – making a contribution. You know: contributing always! Competing never! It’s the old Horace Tapscott adage (Horace Tapscott – community activist and the patriarch of the LA jazz scene for decades until his death in 1999).
That’s the way we do it.
B&B: Is money a scarcity then in this thing that you do?
COLEMAN: VTech, the company that has been funding our recent documentary projects like Timeless, that’s only been in the last 12 months. (The Timeless series showcases three distinct musical offerings: the Suite for Ma Dukes orchestra which is the orchestral interpretations of the deceased hip-hop producer J.Dilla, arrangements with Ethiopian musician Mulatu Astatke, and Brazilian arranger Arthur Verocai.)
B+: Yeah. So we were doing this on our own for 10 years now.
COLEMAN: We’re not doing this to get paid. We hope to get paid. But at the end of the day we’re not trying to get rich – it’s not about the finances. It’s about the love for the music and the traditions that matter to us.
B+: I mean, everybody says that, but (laughing)…we are REALLY that! (Mochilla starts laughing their asses off at this point!) I see people saying that – but it’s clear they’re not all that. I’m like, ‘Shut up. Look at how ya’ll roll.’ But in our case – come look at our bank accounts.
COLEMAN: And it’s not like we’re on some anti-money shit! But when it’s cultural there seems to be less dollars. We actually heard that recently when we met in Amman with the Khoury Brothers. (The Khoury Bros are a trio of Jordanian brothers that play classical oriental music. Currently living in France, they’ve been there for 2 years and do a lot of fusion projects and have been touring Europe recently.)
B+: Yeah, they said, ‘What we do is cultural and there’s no money in cultural things. There’s money in entertainment.’ I don’t think that’s completely true, but in terms of the big big money – that doesn’t exist in culturally based endeavours. And what we do is cultural.