In mid-March every year, more than 1,800 musical acts convene in Austin, Texas for the biggest music industry festival in the world. An Arab rap super group hit the stage at South by Southwest this year – the first of its kind. Made up of veteran rappers Omar Offendum, Ragtop and The Narcicyst, there’s a buzz as to what these 3 Arab brothers are going to do next as they stake claim in the highly ADD world of hip-hop.
By Jackson Allers
TEXAS – From Houston our posse came up Interstate 10 West then rode northwest on Highway 71 on our way to Austin as a late winter storm hung the last vestiges of dormancy and the first sign of spring and new possibilities on our dusty hats.
We made our way through Sealy, Glidden, La Grange, Smithville and Bastrop and arrived to Austin the day before the festivities kicked off. A crush of artists were running all over the Austin Convention Center in downtown – the headquarters for South by Southwest.
Kids in hip-hop chic. Tattooed freaks. Americana, Woody Guthrie-wannabe hipsters, and some Japanese punks were all wondering around getting artists bracelets and drinking Texas’ finest – Shiner Bock Beer.
Major hip-hop heads were there – Jean Gray, Nas, Talib Kweli, Bahamadia, as well as Israeli-born, Detroit-based female rapper Invincible, the Mochilla crew, peeps from the Stonesthrow label, and certainly The Paranoids – a bunch of Arabs about to get their rap swerve on.
By their own accounts, The Paranoids had smuggled “their unique blend of culture, beats and lyrics to secret audiences from the Middle East to North America and beyond.”
The group, originally called The Arab Summit, had to be re-branded for South by Southwest because the four member group had been whittled down to three – divide and conquer. As one press statement read, “The hip-hop trio can’t go anywhere without security tailing. Their phones are tapped, their digital identities compromised, and they walk the shadows between here and there, past and present, consciousness and dreaming…they are The Paranoids.”
When they finally got up to perform, they had put their time in – participating in a protest against the Israeli Consulates official “unofficial” event in central downtown earlier in the day, and showing some love to the Canadian music showcase ’cause Narcy be a Canadian!
Besides the usual cast of Arab rap fans at the International hip-hop showcase, the surprise of the event came as the legendary Houston-based rapper Bun B showed up to give some love to Norwegian MC LidoLido and then stuck around to see The Paranoids.
“These boys were talented,” Bun told me – or something to that effect.
Of course how could anything go wrong when Eric Coleman – one half of the Mochilla production crew – held down the one’s and two’s – one paranoid minority (black) on the paranoid Arab rapper set – sweet!
I interviewed The Paranoids at two key locations in Austin – Waterloo Records and Nice Kicks – the dopest sneaker store in Austin and a necessary stop for ever-fashion conscious Iraqi MC, Narcy.
In fact that’s where our conversation begins – at Nice Kicks:
BEATS AND BREATH: The relation between brand names, capitalism and hip-hop…what do you think about Arabs just wholesellin’ the whole brand name process? In other words, without questioning it, to be wearing these brand names means your hip-hop?
RAGTOP: Why limit it to just Arabs?
BEATS AND BREATH: I know but that’s what we’re talking about here.
RAGTOP: Well. Jay Z has a great line about after his father disappeared that he was upset that his shoes didn’t match his gear or that his shirt didn’t match his clothes. It meant like not having those nice clothes or that nice gear emphasized his own poverty and his own struggle, which his heroes that he related to – and he soon became one of those heroes – would start talking about this better life – it was almost like a dig at how bad his life was.
I feel like it’s natural then to move towards that and play that game of being accepted and to be considered part of the hip-hop community. But that’s not always how it was and it’s not necessarily the right thing to do.
BEATS AND BREATH: Let’s be honest though. In the Arab world a lot of these kids are having to go out of the way to wear these clothes, and it’s clear when they travel and have experiences with other rappers outside of the Arab hip-hop situation, they do have this bond. They might start talking about the new kicks – “Did you see the new Air Jordans?” – it’s hard in the hip-hop world to have the right boundaries are drawn where fashion is concerned.
OMAR OFFENDUM: I think I come from a place where I try to be as honest about my experience as possible. And the fact is I am torn about it. I recognize that a lot of the clothes I wear are made in parts of the world where people are given like five cents a day to make these clothes.
I’ve even said that in songs: “How can you not trip/when you think about the flip/ All them shiny ass kicks/could affect some cleft lips.”
At the same time I don’t blame kids in the Middle East who around them they don’t necessarily have many examples of hip-hop and so they want to do something different for themselves. In their own right, they’re trying to be original and they’re trying to be unique and change the game.
They don’t want to wear the tight pants and the pointy shoes that all these other dudes are wearing and grease up their hair like these other dudes are doing. They feel like they want to stand apart from that.
RAGTOP: The reason you even talk about emulation as being a problem in the first place is that it’s symptomatic of a larger thing. If your copying a rappers style, are you also copying his misogyny? Are you also copying his homophobia? Are you also copying his drug dealing life? Depending on who people are listening to of course. So that’s why it’s a touchy issue.
OMAR: Plus we have to be realistic that you have different experiences across the Middle East itself. You have children growing up in the Gulf that have a very different experience than children growing up in Beirut, Damascus and Jordan.
THE NARCICYST: I think it’s all about – with all of these brands as well – it’s all about what you rock it with. The problem with the Middle-East I think with hip-hop fashion and hip-hop in general is that it’s not old enough to have an experienced individuality to it. You know what I mean?
There is a lot of emulation. I used to rock baggy clothes in the early 1990s in the Gulf. I had local dudes come up to me (Narcy speaking with an Arabic-English accent) – “You know this is gay?” And I’m like, “What are you talking about?” And it’s just ’cause it’s different. But it’s slowly getting accepted.
I think fashion is important man. It’s reflection of individuality.
BEATS AND BREATH: Going back to the Arab world. If you go to the (Beirut Palestinian refugee camp) Chatilla, then you’ll see the dopest Chinese knock-offs of Adidas or Nikes or whatever – so it ironically is not out of their price range. They’re able to find fake Zoo York hats in Chatilla. What do you think?
RAGTOP: There’s a term called “ghetto fabulous” that was coined to describe the very phenomenon of people striving to do things outside their own means and that’s fucked up.
BEATS AND BREATH: That’s what I’m saying though. These goods aren’t beyond their means. So it’s really just ghetto. It’s ghetto fabulous because these goods represent a type of fashion that think they need to rock but it’s not really the phenomenon where you’ve got like a pair of $200 Air Jordan’s that you can get killed over.
After a long discussion about the unexpected appearance of the Houston rap legend Bun B at their South by Southwest performance…
BEATS AND BREATH: You all had acapella moments so he got to hear what ya’ll really sounded like. And he got to hear your messages and Bun B is about the message. But I wonder how you guys chose the songs you were gonna perform?
NARCY: We have a lot of collabo joints off the Arab Summit tracks. We’ve also worked on a lot of individual collabo’s between two us. So we just jumped on.
RAGTOP: It’s about the tone of a particular performance. We knew it was late at night in a club environment to a crowd wasn’t necessarily there for content. All of our songs have content but we wanted musically to be on more of a party tip.
Then the day after we went to a local bookstore. It was an audience that really wanted to hear what we have to say. We did songs we didn’t perform at SXSW to cater to that audience.
BEATS AND BREATH: But you had the conversation about these decisions before hand?
OMAR: For sure we had the conversation with each other and thankfully we have a diversity of material to be able to allow for us to walk into these different places and relate to the crowd.
NARCY: Most of us MCs – speaking for us for example – a lot of what we rap about is about what we’re dealing with, whether it be direct or indirect we’re trying to get some things off our chest to understand it for ourselves first.
So a lot it tends to be a question. It’s about honing your skills and tightening up your words and your delivery. I used to rhyme at a pace with too many words in a bar. And as I’m getting older I’m realizing – take a couple of words here, make this a little more simple.
You write for yourself in the beginning but then you start realizing there’s an audience.
RAGTOP: The live interaction with the audience is so gratifying. Initially it’s just great to hear yourself on the record and be like, ‘Oh yeah.’ Eventually you realize it’s all about the live show and you want to see in their faces when they understand you!