In late October, the Brooklyn-based live hip-hop outfit Chen Lo and the Liberation Family – known now as The Lo Frequency -came to Beirut for a two-month residency in order to establish a Hip-Hop Academy and to perform with local talent (MCs, DJs, and producers). The US embassy initiative was not exactly what they expected. Beats and Breath linked up with the Lo Frequency in Brooklyn to discuss what ultimately became a two-month blessing for the Arab hip-hop movement.
BEIRUT – I first heard about Chen Lo and the Liberation Family in early 2010 after musical contacts of mine in the United States told me to be on the look out for a hip-hop band on a US State Department world tour co-sponsored by Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The tour, called the Rhythm Road Tour, was due to stop in Beirut in the spring, and the Liberation Family was one of ten bands touring regions of the world “under the auspices of cultural exchange and diplomacy.”
My friends said if I was in Beirut in April, I needed to check them out.
As fate would have it, I was out of Lebanon during their Beirut tour stop, but by all local accounts, and despite a poorly attended, poorly promoted show, Chen Lo and The Liberation Family was the best hip-hop show Beirut had seen in 2010.
Six months later, the Liberation Family, was back in Beirut prepared to conduct a Hip-Hop Academy with US embassy support. Or so I was told.
What actually occurred was a little bit of a cultural soap opera with “dastardly” characters from both the local club scene and the US embassy performing a “vanishing act” when the band, an expanded 6-piece group now called The Lo Frequency, arrived in Beirut in late October from Brooklyn, New York.
Left with only a housing stipend, airfare and a paired-down version of the original Hip-Hop Academy proposal, group founder, rapper Chen Lo said the band’s “cultural refugee” status in Beirut was a blessing in disguise. “To be honest. Not only did it force us to pull our resources together in a short period of time, but also it gave us the freedom to shape our experience with minimal interference from the US embassy,” Lo said.
Lo, a well-established hip-hop lyricist who has performed with hip-hop heavyweights like Nas and KRS-ONE, singer Erykah Badu and with legendary Last Poets member, Abiodun Oyewole, was joined in Beirut by Ken White, a jazz drummer and percussionist with influences as far ranging as Indian classical music to West African drumming.
White said, “While the embassy seemed content to settle for the bare minimum of conditions…Broadly speaking, I think we were successful in doing much of what we set out to do. We put on a showcase event at Beirut’s City Theater (Masrah al Medina) that highlighted some of the best talent the Lebanese hip hop scene has to offer.”
The musical director of The Lo Frequency, White and Lo formed the original Liberation Family in 2007, two years after meeting at New York University. Now the band includes DJ Scandales, a Queens, New York-native and veteran turntablist who gets down with many of New York’s hip-hop royalty, and one of the few women bass players holding it down on the New York hip-hop scene, BAASIK. Rounding out the group are North Carolina native soul singer Shannon Grier (Editor’s note: crazy vocal skills) and guitar phenomenon Hakhi Alakhun – a musician that gives me faith in my long jaded view of the guitar.
Beats and Breath caught up with Chen Lo, White and DJ Scandales just days after their return to the United States in early December to find out what went down in Beirut and to talk more generally about what they thought of the development of the Arab hip-hop scene – having seen hip-hop in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.
NOTE: Since this interview, a lot has happened to the Lo Frequency and in the Arab world. The Arab Awakenings took root and continue throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Lo Frequency continued building their musical repertoire, and in April, the Fam raised $7,800 in 30 days to pay for the costs of recording, mixing, mastering and packaging an EP of their music to be called The Export. And they shot a music video which will be included in a forthcoming post – directed and produced by Merass Sadek.
BEATS AND BREATH: Why did you decide on a residency in Beirut – I mean compared to all of the other cities that were part of the first tour you did?
CHEN LO: We had a chance to rock in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. There were some strong scenes in other places we visited, some stronger than others (like the scene in Morocco). But Beirut was the place that felt like the powerhouse of the developing scenes. There was some very advanced talent here. Also, the environment, more than many others, was fertile soil for a major movement. Artists were tapping into the history of the place as well as plugging into the cosmopolitan and vastly international city that is Beirut. We just felt nature could take care of the rest.
KEN WHITE: I’d say what ultimately drew us back more than anything else was the particular personal connections we made with members of the scene. For instance, almost immediately, we had a real friend in John Nasr (aka Johnny Damascus) from (Lebanon’s live hip-hop band) Fareeq El Atrash (Forward Music Label). Turntablist DJ Lethal Skillz was a great contact point, a real professional who offered great potentials for further collaboration.
As well, for me Beirut represents a crossroads culture- a culture with a recent history of traumatic events that’s caused social upheaval…and subsequently there’s a desire to rebuild and redefine itself. You combine this with its central proximity to cultural hubs like Europe and North Africa, and add to that its center stage position in world politics – it makes Beirut fertile ground for cultural mingling, collision and creation. So when we came on our first trip to Beirut, we found a lot of like-minded people rooted in the history and the essence of hip-hop trying to build a scene and a community.
B&B: This second tour of duty in Beirut was meant to be with US embassy support – but that wasn’t what panned out in the end. What happened?
CHEN LO: We received a message (last May) that a major venue in Beirut wanted to do a collaborative performance experiment with us. Through a little cost sharing with the US Embassy in Beirut, it was proposed that they (the venue) would bring us (the Lo Frequency), house us, pay us a fee and deal with our incidental expenses.
We decided to enhance this proposal by structuring a Hip Hop Academy, followed by a showcase performance at the venue and even unique musical fusions with some of the world class musicians that worked there (at the venue). Of course the US embassy jumped all over the idea.
To say the least – when we got here we realized the venue had other things in mind and nothing worked out with them. Unfortunately (and fortunately) their final offer was not in our best interest at all and in the end they contributed absolutely NO resources to the process – which left us out here on our own.
The US embassy supported us in endeavors that were in their best interest like English speaking Access classes in a few areas around Lebanon like Tripoli and portions of the Hip Hop Academy ended up getting funded but in a severely stripped down form.
Still, in regards to really tapping the scene and moving forward, we had to hustle on our own accords. To be honest, it was the best thing that could have happened. Not only did it force us to pull our resources together in a short period, but also it gave us the freedom to shape our experience with minimal interference from the US embassy.
DJ SCANDALES: I can say that I saw Ken And Chen put In over 6 months of work with phone calls at like 4 in the morning…we were in Vietnam (on our world tour) last May when we started planning for our trip to Beirut.
Our (the groups) goal was to enhance, create and record with this hip-hop Academy – and a lot of effort went into this to assure its success — only to be undermined by our own embassy. I mean our schedule was reduced from 2 months to like 2 weeks in total, and much of it was put together the day of our meeting with the Embassy after we actually arrived in Beirut. We pretty much were newborn babies dropped off on someone’s doorstep with a note attached. Except the note had no explanation just a closing greeting of “Thanks!” But we’ve had 15-years of real world experience with in the music industry – we bounced back.
KEN: What surprised us was the amount to which we needed to rely on our local partners and our own dedication and drive to get anything meaningful done. It seemed as though the embassy agenda did not extend as far as we thought and as far as our intentions were taking us. The bare minimum seemed to be sufficient for them. It was truly our local partners in and around the hip-hop scene in Beirut that made the experience pretty monumental. In the end it worked out for the best.
B&B: What do you think about the hip-hop scene in the Arab world. Is there really a scene to speak of? Is it regional? Is it pan-Arab? What’s your assessment?
KEN: It’s hard for me to say whether there is a strong unified Pan-Arab hip-hop movement…yet. I feel it developing though.
CHEN LO: I’d say there definitely is a scene in the Arab World. In my experience over the past year, it seems like hip-hop in all of its various manifestations and angles is flourishing at a greater rate outside of the US. The Arab world is a part of that growth for sure.
DJ SCAN: For me, during our tour we saw major differences from the more seasoned Moroccan scene to the much newer Syrian hip-hop scene,
CHEN: Yeah, I think there are some regional differences, but I think it is Pan-Arab. I haven’t seen hip-hop all over the Arab World, but we’ve encountered a lot of it. North Africa, if you include it in the Arab world, has two very strong and established scenes in Algeria and Morocco. In many other places, including Lebanon, things are developing at a very rapid pace.
DJ SCAN: But what makes the Arab hip-hop scene so fresh is that it is still in its early growth stage and is untainted by Corporations dictating the direction of the music and culture.
KEN: True but there has been a lot of divide and conquer throughout the Arab world by colonial powers. People are also very entrenched in their politics. As a result, the major cross-national hip-hop scenes I see are centered on political movements like the Palestinian cause.
What I find most interesting about hip-hop in the Arab world is the commonality in the way in which most artists say they came to hip-hop. Almost across the board, artists saw hip-hop as the tool that spoke to them the most to express what they experience around them everyday. And in a climate, where proper outlets to do that are essential, it reminds me much more of the conditions in which hip-hop began in the South Bronx. As more and more artists gain popularity and begin to collaborate across national borders, they’ll find common ground and common cause in the culture of hip-hop.
B&B: Now that you guys are back in the US have you experienced any culture shock after being in Lebanon for two months?
CHEN: Being back in the US, culture shock is definitely in effect. We’re plotting on our next overseas endeavors in 2011 and working on an album. These are exciting times for us. We want to keep collaborating with artists all over the globe and making a living doing our passion. We have to get it while it’s good and make it better. KEN: It was definitely disorienting for me and still i haven’t really settled back at all. I’m still trying to get over missing all of our new friends. Our experience in Beirut was really a beginning – a launching pad to not only come back to Lebanon but tap into similar movements all over the world.