Revisiting the Third Rail: Arab rappers negotiate revolution

this was the one and only episode of an interview series featured on World hip hop Market in March, 2013. this exclusive interview was with syrian-american producer Ahmed khouja who produced the arab rap compilation ‘khat thaleth’ (Third rail), released worldwide in the spring of 2013. It was unfortunately a short-lived project that reflected a greater discord in the ranks of the rappers involved in the wake of the arab revolutions. the interview still reflects an important time in the development of the greater phenomenon of arab rap in the historical levant.

Arab MCs [left] Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at a Khat Thaleth show in Beirut (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers©)

Arab MCs [left] Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at a Khat Thaleth show in Beirut (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers©)

BEIRUT – Syrian-American producer dub Snakkr is the founder of the San Francisco-based record label Stronghold Sound. The interview was conducted before the worldwide release of a massive 23-track Arab rap compilation called Khat Thaleth or The Third Rail. dub Snakkr was the main architect behind Khat Thaleth, which came one year after Stronghold Sound’s release of the critically acclaimed Guinean hip-hop reggae compilation Sembeh Ma Fa Fe – which Snakkr also produced.

In the interview, Allers and dub Snakkr discuss the meaning of the album’s subtitle, ‘The Initative for the Elevation of Public Awareness,” the future of Arab rap, and why young Arab rappers are so keen calling Arab hip-hop by a new name!

On the Real Interview series – dub Snakkr (Stronghold Sound) from World Hop Hop Market on Vimeo.

Khat Thaleth is a rap compilation with no precedent in the Arab world. 12 MCs. 5 producers. 2 turntablists. 5 instrumentalists – all hailing from the Arab world. 8 Arab countries in total with the presence of only one MC from the Arab rap Diaspora.

While there have been other Arab rap compilations in the past 4-5 years  – notably the Nomadic Wax album Thawra and the two DJ Lethal Skillz albums New World Disorder and Karmageddon – none has had the power and indigenous resonance of Khat Thaleth  – from both a production standpoint and a lyrical one.

Khat Thaleth is direct in its lyrical approach – creating a juggernaut of incendiary diatribes and stories related to the Arab uprisings. As well, the poetic possibilities of the Arabic language are on full display in Khat Thaleth with rappers in top lyrical form – spitting about their anger, and their grief, and their general mistrust at the various ways the revolutions in the Arab world are being manipulated.

 

I’m afraid to work for the revolution and turn out to be working against myself

From the  song “The New Middle East”

I remember the neighbor’s voice shouting at her children, shutting her doors because the war had neared/  Listen – I’m not telling you a story to amuse you/  I’m stating a reality to wake your conscience./  I left the circle of death and I lost my face./  I know where it is. I hid it with them. 

From the song “Ya Deeb (the wolf)”

 

Khat Thaleth has emerged during an unprecedented time – where artistic expression in the Arab world is both exploding and being suppressed in new ways, and producer dub Snakkr was aware that the window for this freedom could close as abruptly as it had opened:

“To me – my initial reaction to the revolutions was that we have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others as we can…the artistic space that was sacrificed for! And that is particularly important for those who feel silenced now or feel threatened – a renewed threat. It’s simple – if we lose that artistic space then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain.”

 

The entire album is in Arabic with an online link to a meticulously translated lyric sheet (Arabic to English) – a monumental undertaking considering the complexity of flow and content that is on the album.

Khat Thaleth iconography

One interesting note about the symbolism of Khat Thaleth, the album is also a reference to the “Hejaz railroad” that used to connect much of the Arab world in the early 20th century – a time when the borders were being imposed on Arab populations by the colonial West.

Khat Thaleth is at the end of the day a suggestion that the borders come down first artistically.

dub Snakkr (Photo credit: Alan Gignoux©)

dub Snakkr (Photo credit: Alan Gignoux©)

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT START

JACKSON ALLERS (ja): I want to start with the subtitle of the album, which is “The Initiative for the Elevation of Public Awareness.” Who is the public in this phrase, and what does the “third rail” imply?

dub Snakkr: Well let’s start with the Third Rail – it’s kind of a response to the climate in the Arab world that has been building for two, three years even more – where before you could say there was one path – or one line – and you know you could take it or leave it. That’s what was going on. There were regimes in place and nobody could really do anything about it.

Then once the Arab awakenings began – over the past near three years – an opposition emerged and there was a second line or a second path for expression and for thought. And you know that caused a lot of conflict and a lot of polarisation in general in Arab society. We really started to see that that polarity – that kind of opposition between the two sides – you’re either with or your against – and so on – was really not helping to move things forward.

There was a lot of justified criticism in both directions. Obviously I think in the end it’s still unfair to equate a regime with people who are trying to organise and create an opposition. Still, there were subtleties and criticism that should be spoken about.

And so that’s where the idea of a third line or a third rail came in – an unaligned position to sort of criticise both perspectives and maybe suggest a line of thinking that is more subtle and maybe goes between them.

ja: Discuss your motivations for managing this whole project?

dub Snakkr: One was that we saw in several cases – from Tunis to Libya to Egypt – that regardless of what you may have considered regarding the aftermath of the changes that happened and with the regimes that were falling – a definite and clear result was an increased ability of people to express themselves -to criticise, to protest and to feel like their voice had more weight than it had before, and more freedom than it had before.

To me – my initial reaction was that we have to grab that. We have to grab as much of the space that was carved out by others that sacrificed for that. Maybe others who now feel silenced or feel threatened – a renewed threat. We have to take as much of that – occupy as much of that as possible so that regardless of what happens next, at least we’re not going to lose that. Because if we lose that then it will really feel as if what has happened in the Arab world (these past 3-years) was in vain. In every location that it happened. If you lose that – sa7it ta ta’beer – that space of expression then we’re going backwards and that’s a real shame.

 

ja: As Arab rap has been developing over the last ten years, the production palettes of Arab hip-hop producers has also gotten so rich – like the rest of the world. So tell me a little more about the direction of the album musically and what separates it from other Arab hip- hop offerings.

dub Snakkr: There’s really not one perspective of what makes a hip-hop beat…I think it strongly has an urban feel because there’s a mix of a few different rhythms, tempos. You have things that start to resemble a reggae feel – not in an obvious way.

I’ll be honest, I’d say I’m more in a reggae camp than I would be in a hip-hop camp. But my name is the Snakkr because I kind of mix everything together and I take bits and pieces from all over the place.

Me myself – the beats I was working on, I was really pulling from a lot of different things. I was pulling from old Arab records – Ta’rab records. Sampling everything from Um Kulthoum, to Abdel Wahab. So all of that kind of mixed together. That’s been happening already. It definitely happened on this album, but it’s been happening in many other artists’ music.

It was interesting for me and exciting for me because I’ve always found there to be an interesting connection between folkloric music or very specific cultural dance movement from different places, and how many of the rhythm sections are similar. In my opinion I see a kind of connection between dancehall reggae and Huwara dabke music (*local folk music to Lebanon, Syria and Palestine) and Punjabi bangra music. There’s a similar tradition even between bangra and Huwara and how the type of drum and how it’s played and so forth. So it’s kind of interesting for me to explore that and innovate along it.

There’s other examples of the traditions – if you’re talking organically as to what its referencing in Arab culture – its not just a new thing to have poetry on top of rhythm.

ja: Zajal is a 13th century battle poetry session…

dub Snakkr: Yeah it’s kind of an old school, very organic form of battle poetry. You have people with a full-band behind them kind of saying a verse and another one kind of responding and the crowd kind of oohing and ahhing as they kind of one-up the other.

ja: Head-cutting in hip-hop terms…

dub Snakkr: Exactly!

MC's Naserdayn from the Bekaa Valley (Lebanon) crew Touffar (left) and El Rass (Lebanon) performing at Khat Thaleth concert. (Photo credit: Jackson Allers©)

 

dub Snakkr: Well El Rass (Lebanese MC) has a good perspective on this – and I think many other artists would agree as well. It’s a little odd to use a term for the art form that you’re doing when the term itself has letters in it that you can’t pronounce in your language.

In Arabic – there is no “p.” There’s a “b”

ja: (pronouncing the word rap) “Rab”

dub Snakkr: So you end up doing this bastardisation of the word where it’s “Rab” or “Hib Hob.” And you know rap I think comes off a little easier than “hib hob.” But it’s funny! And you can understand their wanting to innovate. And even Syrian rapper Al Sayyed Darwish who teaches classes to Syrian refugees in the Beirut Palestinian refugee camp Shatilla, They began telling us – “We don’t want to call it hip-hop.” And so they started thinking of different names they could call it.

I think they – yeah they ended up calling in “Shiiq.” They called it Shiq because it’s shaar – which is poetry – and iqaa3which is beats. They took the first half of each word and so in Arabic – they took the “sh” from shaar and the “Iq” from iqaa3 and they said it was “Shiiq” – Shiekh.

And we both had a blast with how they got it on a certain level that …It’s yours! Do what you will with it. And I don’t think any kind of really self-respecting rapper from any part of the world would not understand that.

ja: When we’re speaking about the future of Arab rap or whatever they might want to call it…

dub Snakkr: Shiiq! (laughing)

ja: The idea is that this is kind of what happens with the movement of this cultural form as it goes from place to place.

dub Snakkr: I think it’s an honour – and the ultimate respect to hop-hop for a culture to want to take it on – to really innovate it in their own way, and not to just do a formulaic application and stay within the same sounds – you know to really contribute something.

In the larger scheme of things, I hope that the compilation and the work in general that everyone is doing gets placed so that we can look back and say this is where art and thought and action came together at the time it was needed!

END

 

Final-BW-Lyrics-Poster

 

Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers ©

Al Sayyed Darwish (Syria) (Photo Credit: Jackson Allers ©

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