In a sea of otherwise unappetizing pop-market Arabic musical fare, the alternative music scene in Lebanon has produced yet another artistic gem, this time with a collaboration that straddles the highly progressive but insular experimental works of the Beirut-based label Ruptured with the vocal skills of the poet, journalist, MC – Mazen el Sayyed aka El Rass. Beats and Breath takes an in-depth look at the rapper in an interview conducted shortly before his debut album release Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. Beats and Breath founder Jackson Allers writes:
“With the February release of his debut album, Lebanese MC, poet, journalist and musician Mazen el Sayed aka El Rass has emerged as a lyrical soothsayer for a new school of Arab hip-hop.”
(NOTE: This originally appeared in the global hip-hop news and culture website of record – World Hip Hop Market (est. 2004).)
By Jackson Allers
BEIRUT – Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden was released last February on the Beirut-based independent record label – Ruptured. Founded by Lebanese producer, music critic and DJ – Ziad Nawfal – it is a label which breaks musical boundaries as a rule, and has become renowned internationally for its high-quality production values and its championing of the independent and alternative music being created by a small niche of producers and musicians in Lebanon and the region.
With that said Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the hidden is still a unique offering on Nawfal’s label roster, and equally indicative of the unchartered musical territory that is being forged as the Arab world reels from 2 years of popular upheaval. El Rass’ production partner for Unveiling the Hidden is Jawad Nawfal aka Munma (http://soundcloud.com/munma), the brother of Ruptured’s founder Ziad. Munma’s main body of work began in the aftermath of Israel’s (2006) war on Lebanon, and 6 years on, Munma has become synonymous with Beirut’s avant-garde musical community that counts names like Neo-Futurist Lebanese composer Tarek Attoui, and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj among his ilk.
On Unveiling the Hidden Munma demonstrates his uncanny sensibility for elaborate broken beat, ambient synth musical layers (think the Anticon label, Shabazz Palaces, Aesop Rock) and traditional musical underbeds as a perfect compliment to El Rass’ provocative word play.
El Rass himself is unique within the burgeoning Lebanese hip-hop massive. Styling his lyricism in classical Arabic (Fus7a) and peppering it with words and phrases of the Beirut-street, el Sayed’s verses are perhaps the most loaded in the pantheon of established and up-and-coming Arab MC’s, requiring study from even the most erudite Arabic speakers.
It is hip-hop that appeals to thinkers, young revolutionaries, Arab hip-hop connoisseurs, journalists and perhaps ironically to the religiously inclined because the verses are so loaded with classical Arabic meaning. But I dare say it is not music for the masses. With images of turtles running on treadmills and cocaine addicted politicians given power solely by birthright, El Rass’ flow cuts directly into the political and social inequities of Beirut life, and verses like the ones from his song “Borkan Beirut/The Volcano of Beirut.” hint at what is boiling under the surface of the Beirut street:
“Beirut suppressed the seed of the revolution/
the one that sprouted/
When our spirits were foiled from (social) immobility,”
“Luxury and distress/
quality and quantity/
Prostitution and modesty:/
The science of Beirut city.”
In the 2 years I’ve come to know him, El Rass has become a beacon for change in a society that has resisted the calls for change in large part because Lebanon is made up of many dictatorships – the product of its highly sectarian society that is unmatched in the Arab world. The following is an interview I conducted for World Hip Hop Market in February prior to the release of Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. It is I feel a timeless interview that is as relevant today as it was when the interview was conducted.
BEATS AND BREATH: Referencing the ‘mutant hip-hop outfit’ Shabazz Palaces, as well as Kode9 and The SpaceApe in your press kit – these are references for a Western audience – musical references that the writer (Ruptured label head/founder Ziad Nawfal) is using to conjure up some musical connotations for new listeners presumably?
EL RASS: Definitely. For someone who listens to music and who knows music, it’s not about right or wrong. He focused on certain dimensions of resemblance, and he made these connections. I personally wouldn’t see these – y3ni – in my auditive experience, Kode9 and Shabazz are not references for me – are not real influences for me.
BEATS AND BREATH: But we’re clear here – he’s not saying influences. He’s saying references.
EL RASS: Of course. That’s why I am saying this. I saw what was written before it went out to the public and I agreed to keep it in because he has the right to express how he sees things with this album. And at the same time it is smart and could be a reference for a certain audience. Thus, it might be meaningful for them.
BEATS AND BREATH: If you were going to make your own comparisons or things that you could draw from – it might be difficult because there isn’t really a precedent for your album.
EL RASS: Look. In my intention is that there shouldn’t be anything that resembles this. My intention is that I want something unique. Which is not something I can affirm – that I succeeded in doing. But this is what I’m hoping for. And I’m quite satisfied with what I did. It definitely did something new, and what is really interesting for me and for the process – it was a priority for me, the process – was not to be doing some European or American style in Arabic. It’s not the point. The point is to consider ourselves as universal individuals that used all their background and all of what they know how to do in order to express themselves and be creative – without any kind of cultural repetition.
BEATS AND BREATH: Which is actually what the hip-hop movement was doing when it first started. They had other precedents that they could draw on, but let’s say that the people that were doing it first in the late 1970s and early 1980′s (before it was called hip-hop) – from Kool Herc on…the idea was that these guys had Gil Scot-Heron and the Watts Prophets and the Last Poets and all of these amazing Black griots and revolutionaries before them – they weren’t referring to them when they were trying to make their music. They were trying to do their own thing. Not that the traditions weren’t there. And in hindsight we can all look at them and say, “Hey. There they are.” But when they were making the music back, they weren’t saying explicitly, “We’re taking this tradition from Gil Scot-Heron and trying to build on it.” Like you and the Arab MC’s are saying, “Yeah we’re trying to take Zajal (13th century Arabic poetic form of battling) and crafting my rhymes to build on that!”
EL RASS: Exactly!
BEATS AND BREATH: So you’re doing it in your context. In your way. Making it the way you want it to be to have no reference to anything else. Is that fair to say?
EL RASS: This is in some way – a way of being honest in your artistic creation. A way of bringing the minimal amount of pretensions toward what your identity would look like. I think the focus should be on the content of what you’re saying, if you’re doing this kind of music. And, the innovation and the amount of personal implication in the work. Now I think this is why I would always love this album, no matter how the public reaction is to it.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: Looking at things from a macro-cultural perspective. I think the birth of the Arab hip-hop movement occurred – the physical birth of it – happened in Egypt last November with the Voice of the Street event. (Editors note: I wrote about this event for WHHM last January – at this link)
It brought all of these rappers together in the same physical space for the first time – all at one point. They’d all known each other by reputation or virtually or in sporadic performances here and there. But in November it was the first time they physically saw each other – spoke to each other in one place. The idea – not even that the show was the best Arab hip-hop show I’d seen but it was more like, “I know you. I see you, now.”
EL RASS: This is a big part of what’s happening right now. Specifically what’s happening to this kind of music is that it’s having its own kind of revolution. First it because this phenomenon happened on all levels in the Arab world – including on the musical level and artistic level – what I’m speaking about is that we started to get to know each other and to realize how close we are to each other. And how the things we feel and the things we have to say are similar. How we feel besieged on all levels – by the same things. And confronted with the same challenges.
So it’s like we’re all having this sort of round table where all the MC’s are collaborating or are putting on the table what they have to say from this perspective. And there’s a dialog going on without any rules besides the artistic rule. And the will to do great things that touch people, that enlighten people and give people more awareness towards how they experience what they’re living and their surroundings.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is that how you feel about the album – that there would be some sense of enlightenment or sense of awareness for the people that would listen to it?
EL RASS: Look, the title of the album is Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden. First it’s the name of one of the most important Sufi books that have been written until this day almost 9 centuries ago by a Sufi master (Ali Hajvery) that is now buried in Lahore, Pakistan. To make it simple, the idea of the veil in Sufism is the fact that we tend to be pushed away from reality by a lot of veils by a lot of barriers. Barriers like manipulative media. Barriers like frontiers. Barriers like cultural stereotypes and mutual fears.
And order to aspire in any way for a better future or for a better world for us and for our kids and our grand kids, we have to destroy these barriers in order to meet each other in a proper way – in a loving way – we have to break down these barriers. We have to break down the fear of the other. And in order to let go of the fear, we have to learn. And in order to learn we have to have dialog. One very important necessity of dialog is being rigorous towards what you have and what you produce and what you say. If you don’t test your thoughts before putting them into dialog you’re not really participating. So this whole process for me is what I tried to do in this album. And this is why sometimes I might even sound like I’m contradicting myself, and on some tracks of the album.
BEATS AND BREATH: What specific tracks? Explain.
EL RASS: Like “3sha2″ whose Latin name is “Islamology.”
This track was meant to – on the first level – was meant to express the way I interact with Islam – the way I see Islam and the way I understand it. It goes from the total state of spiritual relationship, which is a passionate relationship about the idea of the absolute and god – a loving relationship – a poetic relationship in the Sufi most poetic sense of it. And moving all the way to the ethical side of my interaction with Islam which has to do with refusing injustice – with being loyal to ideas and ideals and aspirations no matter what reality is.
And no matter what price you have to pay, it is because righteousness is not questionable.
It (righteousness) has nothing to do with the price you pay or how much you’re being able to take back to see the fruits of your acts. Your acts – you are doing them because you have to do them because you think this is the right way to go because when you respect someone and you believe in peace, you can be killed and still believe in peace. If you believe in resistance, the whole world could be against you and you will still resist even if you are alone and even if you know you’re going to lose the battle. But, you still resist because this is the right thing to do.
So, this one seeming contradiction in the track “Islamology” because a part of it I have a kind of aggressive tone and provocative tone, and the other part of the track which has a longing tone -someone that is talking to his beloved and is waiting for it, or for her or for god or whatever – to be joined with god again.
Another track like “Yoga,” which has a contradiction between the name of the track and the content of the track.
The track in its appearance is a total and complete call to violence. It’s an appeal to take action in a violent way. And on different levels – in a disciplined way. But the real meaning of this is not about encouraging violence as an act. You have to view the entire track in light of the introduction of the track that says that in the way letters and language has its rules – the causality of violence has its rules. If you act violently you will have violent reaction.
BEATS AND BREATH: Live by the sword. Die by the sword.
EL RASS: Exactly. And if you encourage hate then you cannot expect anything but hate in return. So it’s to say again that on another level between theory and reality you can both navigate in a theoretical world where this is always what you’re looking for. And at the same time be well-grounded and know very well the reality that your living in. These kind of contradictions are techniques that are used in all cultures since forever to put things – to shed light on certain realities. Because when you confront contradictions you can understand the the third reality which is always closer to the truth. It’s not on any side of this duality. This is a big dimension of the whole album.
BEATS AND BREATH: It’s clear that you’re not shying away from the political realities as they exist here in Lebanon. And you’re definitely saying things poetically that are specific to Lebanon. How do you want that to be perceived?
EL RASS: Well. On this level I tried to be as clear as possible. And again you can find the same pattern – where my position is to deconstruct the rhetoric of both sides of the Lebanese political duality. It’s to prove that in their essence, they are exactly the same. Their practices are exactly the same. What changes is only the appearance in order to confuse them and separate them and to keep on the stealing and the injustice and the corruption and the non-functioning state going on and on and on.
BEATS AND BREATH: But that’s how they exist.
EL RASS: Yes it is! And the point is that only way to stop the persistence of such an existence is to make people aware – is to free people from this scheme and say, “Look. You’re being manipulated.” And I can prove to you that these two things, these two heads are actually one monster that has two heads. If you actually kill this monster, you will free yourself from this illusion.
BEATS AND BREATH: People are afraid though because there’s a certain sense of order from being passive and not confronting. Let’s bring it to hip-hop. You have Arab hip-hop heads who will listen to your album. There was this young Saudi writer – Hamza Kashgari – who fled to Malaysia because of his love of Islam – he wrote, “I shake the prophets hands as an equal. I hate him as much as I love him.”
EL RASS: People like this guy this is the real change. It’s not a coincidence that such a guy – a writer – writes something like this in these times. It’s not a coincidence.
BEATS AND BREATH: He didn’t think he was being blasphemous when he wrote it. He really thought it would be accepted by people.
EL RASS: Of course man. The question of Islam is very en vogue. It’s very like hip and in now to discuss the coming Islam. The bullshit like this. While on the other side, people on the other side that were using the terrorists scare all the time – now they’re using the pro-Islamist thing to their benefit. The real question is not the there. The real question is that if we want to be honest with ourselves, and if we want to see things in a wide-angle perspective, it’s absurd to think that we just – that someone can just extract the Islamic component of this culture or the religious component in general and just replace it with plain secularism? Which at the same time – whether economic or social – in most of the places in the world where it was practiced, it was proven that it’s not the right model for these societies. So why do want people now to follow a model that has proven a failure?
Naturally in my opinion – kaman (also in Arabic) – I work on it a lot and in my album I work on it a lot – I say to people, stop thinking that the only choices you have are the choices that are already existing. You can create your own choices. We are in a conjuncture in a historical moment and socio-economic moment, and a culmination of a human experience and knowledge that gives us the capacity to innovate – to create new models. And these new models can at the same time include a new vision of Islam. A new way to read Islam.
Now, personally, as someone who lives in 2012 and who is immersed in a lot of modern dimensions or our lives today, in the same time I very well attached to the Koranic text to be a big component of Islam. And I’m sure 100 percent that in a very honest, disciplined, scholarly way, my understanding can go way beyond the understanding of Islam 200 or 300 years ago, and I can find a model for understanding Islam that is much more informed…
BEATS AND BREATH: But the way things existed 200 years ago, those discussions then weren’t blasphemous as they are today. Then there was more freedom because interpreting Islam was a means of moving forward. As well, the world then was much bigger and less interconnected than it is today. But how is there is a parallel with this idea musically. As your press packet describes, you have a skill with traditional instruments. And yet the production of this album which combines that sense is with a a very modern digital sense also are things that couldn’t have happened 200 years ago.
So you’re having to take elements of culture that you find traditional and beautiful and reinterpret that as well with the product you came up with. In the context of hip-hop it’s going to open boundaries up because you have producers in the West that decided to break open certain production boundaries, and do certain things. J Dilla who died on February 10, 2006 took traditional black musical forms of recording’s past (jazz, gospel, etc), and while he produced for all manner’s of people, never wanted any credit. His idea was to break open ideas of things in his context. There are some of the same parallels going on with your album?
EL RASS: My relationship with music has always been like this. I want to synthesize and absorb the cumulative experience of the culture I belong to on a musical and artistic level and be a continuation of this culture. And in order to be a continuation of this culture, you have to always have to have a part of view there and a part of view in the next moment.
So you would exactly be in the middle. In the present moment. My intention is never – for example – the idea of simply incorporating an oriental element into the production. It’s more about my vision and how it is – and naturally my vision has some components that resemble a more classical oriental thing. And other components that belong to a more futuristic and beyond any kind of culture.
BEATS AND BREATH: But that’s only a possibility because, in my opinion, it’s only successful to people who really understand and feel that classical root. For example, when you talk about producers like OhNo! and Madlib, and others – they’re taking Ethiopian, Arabic, East Indian, and they’re interpreting it in a way that’s never going to be perceived by people of these regions as being an extension of the authentic. They’ll love it. It’ll be great but the difference is that because of where you come from and the sensibility of how you make it is going to be from here. And that distinguishes as you said – as a furthering of traditions from here quoting a different cultural context, but you’re contributing to it in a new way. So that’s Arab hip-hop. That’s when I put the label on it. The idea is that it isn’t just hip-hop. It’s Arab hip-hop because suddenly it’s something that couldn’t possibly have been created someplace else.
EL RASS: That’s why I think that I use this Arab hip-hop terminology but I don’t really believe in it. As much as I don’t like saying French hip-hop for example. Or German hip-hop. Really this realm of hip-hop is actually like a big universe with different kinds of objects – every object has developed it’s own definition of existence by itself.
The motto’s and the flows and the dynamics and the techniques and the kind of beats and sampling sources in France for example – I am someone who grew up with a lot of French hip-hop – is totally different from the American approach but it has managed to have its strong identity and be there and open a new scale of evolution and creativity and complexity. This is what is happening in the Arab world. Now it’s prime time and it’s at some sort of peak. It’s this. It’s like you have this whole alternative music scene in the Middle East. I always see myself as trying to create something that’s going to be perceived as traditional music a century from now.
BEATS AND BREATH: So that means that people aren’t necessarily conceived of something called a future. That future is going to be like us discovering the pyramids, the ruins, and us interpreting it. Versus the idea of what it was like when it was produced. But getting to Unveiling the Hidden, I want to know is putting it into a context – the idea of hip-hop culture – it is still proper to stick into a hip-hop cultural framework because hip-hop doesn’t have to be about borders.
I mean the idea that there are certain aspects that are universal like spoken word – we can’t get around that one when thinking of hip-hop. The idea of an instrumental backing and the idea that on its own a song can be simply instrumental music -we can’t get away from that aspect of hip-hop. Then you have the idea of performance – some kind of electrical instruments whether they be turntables or the MPC’s and the dude on the mic. There’s no difference there. I’m saying that it’s not a diss to the uniqueness that your album is unclassifiable and yet it still fits into the broad, evolving definition of hip-hop culture.
EL RASS: Look. Their’s nothing that comes from the void. In every initiative whether it’s artistic, cultural, philosophical, there is a part of imitation – an imitative component. And that’s what makes that dynamic of the universal dialog between cultures and how things evolve. Or else every culture would be rigid like it is and digress.
BEATS AND BREATH: That’s the fight you were talking about earlier with how people interpret Islam or how people are ruled by criminals and corrupt governments.
EL RASS: My judgement about Islam is that it is not a religion. And that we can now – even in this sphere of Islam – liberate ourselves from the idea of religion. From the idea of a community, and you have this community and the “other” community. You can just consider it as just an individual philosophy.
BEATS AND BREATH: So the Umma (Islamic community) becomes a much bigger thing at that point?
EL RASS: Yes. And the umma is something you see as the expansion of the idea of the nation as a measure of how much you are liberated from your frontiers – from your veils! Again! Because if I want to put frontiers, why not put them up in my town, and in fact make it smaller – it’s my neighborhood. And we might make it smaller, it’s my family. At some point you see that there’s no sense in this – that there’s no logic in this. There are struggles, but the struggles in their essences are never about community struggles. They are about reality struggles – about political struggles; about existence; about food; about water and oil; about things like this. This is what makes the world go round. The community thing is a political illusion, and a false community.
BEATS AND BREATH: Bringing it back to hip-hop. When I go to hip-hop shows around the world, the same people that will love to see El Rass or Arab hip-hop, are the same people that if you throw them in a different concert in a different country in a different setting and they’re going to love that as well. They won’t necessarily understand anything that the people are saying on the stage. Talking about the lyrics you wrote for this – a combination of Fus7a and 2amiyeh (Arabic dialect), strategically I assume. Who do you think is going to be most affected by your lyrics?
EL RASS: Look I think in their essence there are as many universal messages in this album – man it sounds cheesy – but I mean human messages -things that touch human beings. I mean in the end our experience is a human experience. Especially nowadays, whether you be in Paris, New York, Beirut – we have very similar experiences.
BEATS AND BREATH: We can blame media and technology.
EL RASS: Of course, and because of the economic, international system…all the bullshit. At the same time I cannot deny that I belong to a certain culture; I belong to a certain space. And it’s like a Russian doll (matryoshka doll) where there are many different levels, and at each level there are many different questions that have to be asked. And all the answers to the questions on one level shouldn’t contradict the answer to the higher level neither should it contradict the answer on the lower level. So it’s like a system. It’s like a web of thoughts that you can navigate through to find a certain peace – to navigate inside all the perspectives inside all levels that they have within them.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: There doesn’t need to be a negative friction in other words?
EL RASS: No. I don’t think that conflict – that created a zone of conflict with the listener or with any kind of receiver of a dialog – conflict is never a good way to pass a message or to create interaction. But sometimes shock is. Sometimes provocation is. But in the intention – you’re intention should never be aggressive, even if your tool is aggressive. You might have to use an aggressive tool but you have to keep your intention collaborative and cooperative and a part of a dialog.
WORLD HIP HOP MARKET: So when you decry aspects of the political system in Lebanon. You’re not doing that with an agenda per se. You’re doing that to say – this is what’s happening and you can’t deny it.
EL RASS: I’m saying this is what is happening. And you can’t deny it because I’m proving this to you. If you have a way to prove me wrong, please do. And I’m doing it because after I’m telling this what’s happening and I’m telling you – so now let’s see what we want to do. If we can agree on the fact that these things I’m describing are bullshit, let’s see what we want to do.
BEATS AND BREATH: Is there a song in particular that you talk about that?
EL RASS: The only song that exists in two versions – and it’s called “T5ayel” which we translated to be conceive versus imagine. It starts with a recorded voice of Lebanese philosopher Mahdi Amel – his actual voice who was assassinated in the 1980′s, that we had access to in university. He was a university teacher, and it was at a conference. And fikr – the process of thinking – it always used to be separated from reality and condescending to reality. Always imposing normative views on how things should be without doing anything to it.
He says at one point that the only thing he could do with reality was to “dream” and “imagine.” So what I tried to do in this track is to say – let’s see how we can use our imagination to get closer to reality and not further from reality. How do we do this? By imagining the suffering of every victim of injustice in the world -even if we are not directly aware of it. We do it by imagining a totally fictional corrupt individual that has a lot of look a likes in the actual world, but lets imagine that to and let’s see how we would feel about it. And again link all the pieces together and see. Automatically without – not because of that but because it held its own nature – it got remixed in a totally different dimension musically. The same flow of the lyrics with different production.
BEATS AND BREATH: This is totally free music – abstract for lack of a better word – or experimental hip-hop in which aspects of the production that have also fallen in line with a style of production in hip-hop culture that conjures up artists like Prefuse73, Madlib, Aesop Rock, Dalek, Anticon, etc. In essence, it’s because they don’t know what to call it.
EL RASS: Exactly. The frontiers of what you can call hip hop and what you cannot call hip-hop is very ambiguous. So it’s very interesting to play on these frontiers because if we play with these frontiers you can really enrich yourselves with other kinds of music – with other kinds of people and to really go to new dimensions.
I mean this album has been seriously worked on, and that every track is a different universe! Every track has a different sound we’re trying to reach; there’s a different ambience and a different approach individually. I tried to use the fact that I can perform different voices even on one track on the part that is more conceptual – like conceive – where the speaker is more abstract.
“It starts with the image of a turtle stuck on a treadmill in a gym. It’s a way of saying -imagine a person who is structurally slow going at such a speed that the turtle becomes an absolute victim. I use a different voice at the end, in which a certain politician has suffered a cocaine addiction since going into the university but that people in the street brandish his images because supposedly his father was something, so he must be too.
There are so many political and business figures in the Arab world who are the sons of important people but that become important themselves because they grew up in a luxurious way. It’s actually the same patterns.”
The point was to say that these two realities – one is as important as the other. But they are different dimensions – not only different tonality but a different voice to them. This hasn’t been used in Arab hip-hop (or really in hip-hop in general) but who says we can’t use them? The ultimate judge is the ear. If the you find the product Is harmonious then you’ve done something harmonious. If it’s bullshit, it’s bullshit.
BEATS AND BREATH: There are examples of it happening in hip-hop’s past like Kool Keith, the Pharcyde others – I mean RZA became Bobby Digital. But it doesn’t take away from the fact that this is unique what you’re doing in this context. But it’s using a trope that if employed correctly, people can imagine it: all these different voices in the same MC – why not?
EL RASS: And what you’re saying with this there’s a different dimension which is the theatrical dimension and the story-telling dimension, and actually there’s one track on this album that I’m particularly proud of because it’s my first storytelling text ever in hip-hop. And storytelling rhymes. I’ve written novels, but never a rap story. In the same track there are two stories that is going to be made into a animation clip that’s going to be finished at the end of February done by Shortfuse Films. Everything on this album including the artwork done by Ali Rafei and Ali is from where I’m from in Tripoli– actually the same building together. We’ve been homies since we were kids. We used to play basketball together.