Arab hip-hop’s Don of the Bass – exclusive interview with Johnny Damascus of Fareeq al Atrash

I interviewed John Imad Nasr aka Johnny Damascus -co-founder of Lebanon’s live hip-hop crew Fareeq al Atrash – one month after the release of their self-titled debut album on the Forward Music label last July, 2010.  This abreviated interview appeared in the Jordan-based men’s magazine UMen, and is being re-published after the debut of the Merass Sadek-directed music video featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center hip-hop ambassador’s The Lo Frequency family with members of Fareeq al Atrash after a one-month workshop with The Lo and Lebanon’s hip-hop community last November in Beirut.

Mad respect to John for the time. Beats and Breath will soon release the writer’s edit of  The National article on Fareeq al Atrash’s debut album with interviews with the rest of the band in the weeks to follow.

In his Beirut studio – Johnny Nasr on his Fender (lens: Tanya Traboulsi)

BEIRUT – Johnny D has to be about the most humble figure in the Lebanese hip-hop scene. He’s a veteran of the 961 old-school and one of the architects of the burgeoning new Arab hip-hop sound. And…I’ve never seen John front; dude’s never been anything but kind and welcoming to both fans and critics.

John has witnessed hip-hop scenes come and go over the last 10 years in Beirut, and perhaps it is because of this transience that John has no delusions about Rap 3rabi and its place in the minds of the masses. In a sense Lebanese hip-hop and Johnny D have grown up together, and he’s taken the knocks and bruises and come out better for it.

That’s what makes the debut album of Fareeq al Atrash so special. Up until now, there’s been no real permanence to speak of musically. No real sense of history or continuity with the hip-hop scene here. With the exception of a few heads, Johnny D is showing the youngsters coming up that there is at least one musical forbearer.

The original version of Fareeq al Atrash – “the band name being a pun on famed Arabic singer Fareed Al Atrache” – was a purely funk-driven jam band that had its heyday between 2002 and 2004. Although it was a hint at what was to come, the band – and Johnny – went through some serious soul-searching after the death of percussionist, beat-maker and group co-founder Issam Raad in 2004.

A few months before the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war, inspiration struck when Johnny D met local MC, Edouard Abbas aka (El) Edd – who I called the MF DOOM of the Arab world in a November 2007 magazine article. The two struck up an instant friendship and spent the war building the foundations, both lyrically and musically, for Fareeq al Atrash’s current sound.

Now the group includes the band’s original guitarist Ghassan Khayyat aka Goo, two of the scenes strongest lyrical rap talents, Edd and Nasser Shorbaji aka Chyno – and Lebanon’s most gifted beatboxer Fayez Zouheiry aka FZ.

Of course, the unspoken story of Fareeq al Atrash’s debut album release is the backing of Forward Music, the Beirut-based label that features the visionary efforts of co-founder Ghazi Abdel Baki who is more well known for producing musicians like Charbel Rouhana (Oud) and Suffi singer Mustafa Said in what one local critic called “diverse, layered, genre-fusing world music.” (Baki also composed and arranged the horn section on Farreeq al Atrash’s debut album.)

Talking with Johnny D at his apartment in Beirut, he told me that Fareeq al Atrash was respecting Arabic and hip-hop musical traditions by signing with Forward Music.

Fareeq al Atrash in studio (left to right: Edd, Goo, Johnny D, Chyno, FZ) [lens: Tanya Traboulsi)

BEATS AND BREATH: Let’s talk about something that is key for the growth of any music genre or scene – entrepreneurial risk-taking – I’m talking about label support. There’s your label Forward Music – and another one called Eka3 Records – that represents at least two risk takers. There’s certainly not an Arab hip-hop label. So tell me about Forward?

JONNY D: Let me just mention a record label that is now defunct but that did a lot of good work over the years.

B&B: Incognito?

JOHNNY D: Yeah, Incognito. They did a lot of good work over the years.

B&B: But Incognito was not a real label in the sense that they didn’t give their artists much backing or promotion, they produced, recorded and manufactured limited copies, but it was up to the artist to promote themselves. That’s not a real label.

JONNY D: Sure. It was run out of a CD shop. But the thing with Forward – to put it into context – they are celebrating their 10 year anniversary. In the Arab world, that’s impressive in and of itself.

Everybody at Forward is pretty much veterans from the music scene during the Civil War here and beyond. One of their musicians – Charbel Rouhana –  is like an idol to me. When I was 15 (now 30 years old) I went to one of his concerts just randomly and I was blown away.

His bass player, Aboud Saadi, who I think is one of the founders of Forward Music – he still works closely with them. Wow. For me to be part of a continuity with that musical history, I really felt like it was important for me to get signed with them.

B&B: Well that’s really rare. You don’t hear musicians talking about a label like this.

JOHNNY D: No you don’t. There not your typical kind of label. They really do embody a spirit of independence in a place where it’s hard to navigate. And they’re really trailblazers and go for the gusto. They really couldn’t give a shit for what’s established.

When Ghazi (Abdel Baki) started Forward Music, he’s said it was his mission to get Arabic music or even the pop music phenomenon out of the corn-ball phase that it was in at the time (and is still in to today). He wanted to make authentic, beautiful Arabic music again with totally organic instruments – and with classical arrangements.

I think about his work with Ghada Shbeir and his work with Soumaya Baalbaki. And Forward’s incredible work with Mustafa Said, the visionary Sufi singer. All those records are bold.

It was really flattering for them to consider us as a group. We’re the first hip-hop group they’ve ever signed. Our type of music appeals to a much younger audience than they’re used to – with the exception of Ziad Sahab (a local oud virtuoso).

If authenticity is a part of what makes hip-hop what it is – as Afrika Baambata would say – then I feel like we’re part of a very authentic scene here – of musicians and of like-minded, independent free-thinking people.

B&B: Do you think you’ll end up incorporating more of the T’arab or Arab musical influences into your funk stylings?

JOHNNY D: We actually have experimented with Arab musical strains. And we’re totally open to it. But the only reason we’ve shied away from it is because we kind of fear the gimmicky sound to it. Like as soon as you put some Oud into it or some Takasin (Johnny hums the melody.) Then you’re screwed. I just turn that shit off as soon as I hear it – no offense to anybody out there doing that.

For me Track 4 – Tighla Ma’ezzita – embodies a look to what could be a future sound.

(We listen to the track.)

What you might notice from this track is in a typical 4/4 beat, but it’s syncopated in a way that denotes a dabke (dance style) beat – without suggesting to people immediately that “Oh this is Dabke,” or this is very Lebanese. Somebody from anywhere can still listen to this and be like, “This is straight up hip-hop.”

But this is probably the most “oriental” track of the album – “oriental” with quotation marks of course. It combines funk and hip-hop and a local flavor and our local language.

Fareeq al Atrash in John’s Studio. [Lens: Tanya Traboulsi

B&B: Translate the song

JOHNNY D: It means it gets dearer to me, and becomes more important to me with memory – it weighs on my mind more heavily with time.

This song I’m really proud of and it’s “Middle Eastern” enough. I’ll definitely want to include for the future, artists from Forward Music on future records. But it wasn’t in the cards for the songs we chose.

We didn’t want this album to be a gimmick, and we didn’t want to throw it in there to satisfy anybody. We stuck to pretty much what we were best at, and the inclusion of horn arrangements on our album is pretty much an update for our sound I think.

B&B: I see that you pull from all sorts of rare-groove, and jazz elements for the backbone of Fareeq’s music. You pull from guys like Roy Ayers, Miles Davis, Funkadelic…name some other artists you’re pulling from.

JOHNNY D:  Man…Fela Kuti is one of the biggest influences both in terms of the music itself and in terms of music being political activism that’s real and can make a difference. I know we haven’t made much of a difference yet, but it’s my dream to be able to be part of a movement to emancipate and empower my people here.

B&B: And with respect to your people here at some point as you gain power and influence with your music, you’re inevitably going to come up against the powers that be. Especially if your lyrics are political – as they clearly are. Are you prepared for that – and what could happen in regards to things like censorship or jail time?

JOHNNY D: I am actually worried right now because a lot of lyrics on this record are not entirely acceptable to polite society. Although it’s important to note that there is no cursing on the record. But there’s just a lot of controversy and a lot of content that could offend certain people of certain preoccupations.

So I’m still waiting to see what happens…or are they just going to ignore us?

B&B: Ignore or censor? Perhaps ignoring is the greater of the two in this case?

JOHNNY D: Well trivialization is a very powerful weapon of any establishment. And as it stands, I don’t know if we are being ignored or aren’t being noticed yet. I don’t know.

Not sure if I should say this honestly or not, but we get a lot of attention from media outlets that we openly criticize on our record. I honestly think it’s either very big of them to continue to do stories on us even though we slam them, or I’m not sure if they’ve actually noticed yet.

B&B: You’ve said Philadelphia’s rap heroes – the live hip-hop crew The Roots, consciously inspired you and that you’re trying to be an extension of the certain musical traditions.

JOHNNY D: They were pretty much THE catalyst for what got me listening to hip-hop very seriously as a genre around 1996. I was more of a jazz or funk dude who also loved hip-hop. To me that was kind of like what my elitist, hipster, bourgeois understanding of music was all about.

Hip-hop – I guess it goes without saying – is just an extension of those traditions.

B&B: That’s a clear reference that you’re trying to make?

JOHNNY D: For sure. Even in our music, we try to introduce that continuity locally to our audience. A lot of people here don’t draw that conclusion. People here don’t see this music as an expression of Black American music past. They don’t see it as an extension of the music because they might not like hip-hop or maybe they don’t relate to it. Or the media spins it in a way that gives them a bad impression or a superficial understanding of what hip-hop is in a way.

B&B: But do you think people really care about these linkages at the end of the day?

JOHNNY D: (laughing) No I don’t. I think my job is to make them care, and to make them feel that this type of music is just that — it’s music. And we’re trying to pay our dues to the culture ourselves.

However, if you listen to the first song of the record – Njoom ‘Am Te’rab – during the last 3rd of the song is basically us reinterpreting the Sugar Hill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight.’

This is where it started and it – ‘Rappers Delight’- was the first song to break radio airwaves in the United States, and we hope that this song will kind of break ground like that as well.

Album cover to Fareeq al Atrash’s self-titled debut album on Forward Music

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