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 ©

Lebanese rapper El Rass ‘Unveils the Hidden’

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).)

El Rass (Photo credit: Jackson Allers©)
El Rass (Photo credit: Jackson Allers©)

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,”

and

“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.

The cover to El Rass’ debut album “Kachf el Mahjoub/Unveiling the Hidden” – with artwork by Lebanese street artist Ali Rafei – who grew up with El Rass near the northern port city of Tripol

i.

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!

Jawwad Nawfal (left) – a Beirut-based avant-garde electronic producer and the rapper El Rass during their album release concert in Beirut. (Image: Tanya Traboulsi)

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 (Photo by Jackson Allers)
El Rass (Photo by Jackson Allers)

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.

El Rass with Munma the night of the album release to ‘Unveiling the Hidden’

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.

El Rass (left) and Munma performing on Ziad Nawfal’s renowned radio show in Beirut called “Ruptures” – which inspires a great deal of music produced for Nawfal’s independent label Ruptured. (Photo credit: Tanya Traboulsi)

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.

—-

The Perfect Storm: Beirut’s Alt Music Scene

In early July, this article appeared in Red Bull Music Academy’s Online Magazine. Beats and Breath would like to thank James Singleton, Lisa Blanning, and Davide Bartot of RBMA for the opportunity. More articles to come with RBMA – a great publication.

Tarek Attoui (right) and France’s Uriel Barthélémi -a composer, drummer and electro-acoustic musician at the Irtijal experimental music festival (Image – Tanya Traboulsi)

Lebanon is a complicated place. Historical antagonisms, both internal and external, have shaped its political and social landscape. Its diversity, ethnic and religious, is unmatched in the Arab world, and since the 1950s, its capital city Beirut has become the fulcrum between oriental and occidental, creating the ‘perfect storm’ of influences that has made it the mecca for progressive musical trends in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

The diva Fairuz, her politically charged composer son Ziad Rahbani, oud player and composer Marcel Khalife, and singer-composer Zaki Nassif have all pushed the conventions of traditional Tarab and Dabke (popular folk music forms) over the last 50 years. Less known are the efforts of Beirut-based musicians who, since the devastating Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), continue to forge new Arabic musical directions outside of bubblegum Arab pop, modern Dabke twists or the patriotic anthems of the Lebanese resistance, Hezbollah.

Mazen el Sayed (aka El Rass) is a poet, musician, journalist and upstart MC whose debut album Kachf El Mahjoub (Unveiling The Hidden) (2012) on the Beirut-based Ruptured label signifies the unchartered musical territory that is being forged as the Arab world reels from the unprecedented change that has occurred in the last 18 months.

“This phenomenon [of change] is happening on all levels in the Arab world – including on the musical level and artistic level,” El Rass explains. “There’s a dialogue going on without any rules besides the artistic rule – which is to do great things that touch people, enlighten people and give people more awareness towards how they experience what they’re living and their surroundings.”

El Rass (left) and Munma
El Rass (left) and Munma (Image – Tanya Traboulsi)

El Rass’s production partner for Unveiling The Hidden is Jawad Nawfal – aka Munma, the brother of Ruptured label founder Ziad Nawfal – whose main body of work began in the aftermath of Israel’s war on Lebanon. Six years on, Munma has become synonymous with Beirut’s avant-garde musical community that counts names like neo-futurist composerTarek Attoui and trumpeter Mazen Kerbaj among its ilk. On the album, 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’s provocative wordplay. With images of turtles running on treadmills and cocaine-addicted politicians given power solely by birthright, El Rass’s flow cuts directly into the political and social inequities of Beirut life.

While Munma fashions himself as part of the sonic dissonance of a post-war Lebanese society, El Rass is a musical cog working in tandem with the youth-driven political and social movements elsewhere in the Arab world. But more than anything else, the album is a testament to years of development within Beirut’s underground scene, which has produced the most iconic Arab alternative musical acts of the last 15 years.

The Evolution Of The Underground

Amidst the apocalyptic, Mad Maxlandscape of post-war Beirut, there was in fact a vacuum that needed to be filled, and around 1993, peace began to feel like a possibility for the first generation of post-war youth eager for something beyond the ruins. Tracing the evolution of what can be considered the birth of the post-civil war underground scene in Lebanon, and arguably the birth of the contemporary alternative music in the region, Zeid Hamdan, the underground’s self-styled ‘gardener’ and the front man for numerous musical outfits since the mid-1990s says, “People began asking themselves, ‘What is Lebanon today?’ There became interest for something else other than what they were used to: the mainstream Arabic music that they had always listened to.”

Prior to that bands like Force and Amnesia joined the progressive Oriental musical stylings of Rahbani and Charbel Rouhana, to become what local music journalist Muhammed Haamdar says were “the trendsetters for Beirut’s civil war alt musical legacy,” that all but faded from view in the initial post-war years as Beirut society focused on vapid pop music to wash away their war weariness. This was the time when a microscopic western-influenced audience, who had been raised equally on Fairuz as with Led Zeppelin and Kraftwerk, rejected the sexually charged ‘habibi’ love songs flooding the radio airwaves, and instead raided black market cassette shops and CD stores in a search for punk, electro, alternative rock and hip hop.

Zeid Hamdan at the venue Democratic Republic of Music in West Beirut. (Image: Jackson Allers)

Hamdan returned from the war in the early 90s filled with western sounds in his head – The Pixies for one – and co-founded the seminal electro-Arabic fusion act Soap Kills withYasmine Hamdan (no relation), considered the voice of an entire generation of post-civil war youth in Beirut. Soap Kills self-produced four albums between 1997 and 2005. Their sound was derived from the production influences of Massive Attack and Portishead, and featured Yasmine’s contemporary, if not uninflected, interpretations of classic Arab songs like “Ya Habibi Taala Lhaeni” (“My Love, Come Chase Me”). It was a bold new approach and took more from the classical Arabic repertoire of their parents’ generation than the nominally popular Lebanese rock acts of the 1990s and early 2000s did.

Ultimately, their second album Bater sold 5,000 copies in the Lebanese market, which was unheard of at a time when there was no reliable internet commerce or a viable music industry to speak of. But none of the albums received radio airplay, and as Beirut-based cultural writer Kaelin Wilson-Goldie observed, “For nearly a decade, Soap Kills was held up as the next big thing. It was a band that served as an unprecedented artistic hothouse for live experimentation and studio innovation, a band that was always on the verge of a major record deal but never quite made it happen.” Seven years after their last release and nearly as long since their disbandment (2005), Soap Kills is ironically seeing more airplay now than they ever did during their heyday.

For his part, Zeid Hamdan never left his underground roots, having co-founded his own short-lived independent label Mooz Records (2003-2006) with musician and film composer Khaled Mouzzanar. At its peak, Mooz counted practically the entire alternative music scene as part of its roster, and in May of 2006 Mooz held the Beirut Luna Park Music Festival. It was the largest festival of its kind, but it became a symbol of Beirut’s propensity for false promises. Most of the cultural elite that constituted the alternative scene, and certainly most of the roughly 1,500 festival attendees, were looking haphazardly to the future, ignoring the country’s fragilities and external political actors. Articles at the time reflected the country’s optimism, but on July 12th, Israel invaded. 33 days of bombing later, huge swaths of Beirut and south Lebanon were destroyed. Irreparable damage was also done to Beirut’s alternative music scene, and according to Zeid, Mooz records was forced to close.

The two subsequent years of violence and political instability that followed continued to wreak havoc. Scrambled Eggs was one of the groups that suffered the most. From 1997 to outbreak of war in 2006, the four music geeks that founded the group wore their musical sensibilities on their wrinkled button-up shirts and tight jeans, hammering out smart, hard-hitting post-punk that appealed to a burgeoning fanbase. But they banked on the false promises of peace like nearly everyone else in the alt scene – and in the possibilities of an active, independent, then up-and-coming music industry that had enjoyed roughly six years of peace.

After the war and at the beginning of the group’s denouement in 2007, the unofficial spokesperson Charbel Haber, a talented experimental musician in his own right, was glib when talking to the press, exhibiting a fuck-you attitude that, like so many of his peers from the post-civil war generation, showed open contempt of religion and politics. In a2007 Time Magazine article, Haber extolled, “We do everything as if the world is going to end tomorrow. The Syrians might come back, Israel might attack, Hezbollah might start another war. In a situation like this, you do a lot of self-destructive things,” adding, “At the end of the day, sex, drugs and rock’n’roll means freedom.”

Despite their appearance at South By Southwest in 2008, Scrambled Eggs’ slide into inactivity inevitably opened the door for other groups to join the alt music fray. Between 2000 and 2008, grunge unit Blend signed briefly to EMI, and rock band Meen – alongside electro-pop group Lumi – courted the vestiges of break-out fame afforded to very few of Beirut’s independents. Meen released their last LP 3arouset Bkeseen in 2011, and sing mostly in a Lebanese Arabic dialect, often about mordant subject matter – a marked contrast to the pure pop sensibilities that Lumi represent.

A duo composed of guitarist Marc Codsi (Scrambled Eggs, Zeid & The Wings) and singer Mayaline Hage, Lumi entered the scene in late 2005 and quickly rose in popularity, due in no small part to their 2006 single “Don’t F With My Cat”, which helped them land a major record deal with EMI/Virgin for their second album Two Tears In Water (2008). Like Scrambled Eggs before them, Lumi’s approach was a contrast to the doldrums of Lebanon’s volatile political reality. Embodying the “glamour and chaotic dynamic of Beirut,” Hage told the local paper The Daily Star in 2008, “We wanted to do something popular but intelligent – intense and happy,” while bandmate Codsi saw Lumi’s pop sensibility as a challenge to “do something that could be heard and felt by everybody.”

It’s likely that the most influential regional alternative group to come out of Beirut in the last decade is the seven-member indie rock act Mashrou’ Leila (which translates to ‘Overnight Project’). Formed in 2008 as part of a music workshop at the American University of Beirut, there is little to compare them to musically. With tinges of Armenian folk music mixed with Arab punk guitar riffs, DJ samples, hard-hitting break-beats, gongs and Arabic folk rhythms, Mashrou’ Leila have relied on their original student fanbase, spreading their musical message to college campuses throughout the Arab world through the now familiar, but highly effective use of social media platforms and internet distribution methods. As a result, they’ve managed to expand their influence almost exponentially in the last three years to include not only the Middle East but cities as far afield as Paris, Amsterdam and Prague. They’re a musical phenomenon with unabashedly risqué lyrics that are satirical masks held up to the face of Lebanese society. Both their self-titled debut album (2009) and their EP El Hal Romancy (2011) are tomes to the possibilities of future independent Arabic music.

Rap And Rebellion

While Mashrou’ Leila’s fanbase within the more rock-oriented orientalist circles is growing, their political sentiments and their sample-friendly approach have also gained audience crossover from the alt music scene that has emerged most prominently as the soundtrack to the Arab revolutions: Arab hip hop.

“The revolutions definitely inspired the youth to write about what was going on in their own countries,” John Imad Nasr, aka Johnny Damascus – bassist and longtime fixture of the Beirut hip hop scene – explains. Based in Brooklyn now, Damascus adds, “Cats in Lebanon were writing about what was going on (on the streets) before the revolutions. And during and after,” just like the heads in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, Jordan and Palestinian Territories.

Right now, that political reality in Lebanon is looking increasingly grim with the situation in Syria a constant threat to sectarian antagonisms here. But that has only added fuel to the fire with the hip hop community in Beirut, who are consistently organising and producing events in spite of the potential for violence – with voices that stand in clear opposition to the veneer of the notoriously insipid party scene that brings in artists like Flo Rida and Wiz Khalifa, but has no room for homegrown Arab hip hop talent. But according to the Middle East’s premiere turntablist Hussein Mao Atwi, aka DJ Lethal Skillz, “Used to be the only references to hip hop in Lebanese hip hop circles were the corporate acts. But now the young heads are beginning to realise they are their own destinies.

DJ Lethal Skillz (left) with The Lo Frequency
DJ Lethal Skillz (left) with The Lo Frequency (Image Tanya Traboulsi)

“There’s constant political instability always hanging over your head here in Beirut,” Skillz continues. “Only in the last five years or so are there people you can turn to and say ‘Hey, those are the veterans.’ There was no real historical record in the late 1990s [digitally], so people don’t even remember the [1995] DMC DJ World Championships were held in Lebanon, with heavyweights like DJ QBert and DJ Noise, or that Lebanon’s first turntablist Sweet Lil’ DJ was competing on an international level with the best of them – rest in peace.” (Sweet Lil’ DJ died of a car accident in 1999.)

Skillz has also lent considerable production to dozens of pan-Arab hip hop recordings, and his 2012 sophomore release Karmageddon is a who’s who of the global Arab hip hop movement. With some of Beirut’s best MCs, it includes the lyrical satirist Omar Zeneiddine aka MC Dee; the understated yet highly politically charged writer Edouard Abbas aka (El) Edd of Lebanon’s most well-known hip hop group Fareeq al Atrash; and lyrical savant Ramcess L’Hamorabi, whose self-released, self-produced albumL’Hamorabi was among the best international hip hop offerings in 2011.


Above: Aks’ser w/DJ Lethal Skillz “Safeit bi 3akss el Seir” (1998, perhaps the first Lebanese hip-hop video)

Beyond their solo work, these MCs have taken to frequent collaborations with other rappers from Egypt, Jordan, Palestinian Territories and Syria. The previously mentioned El Rass, Osloob – an MC with the raucous Palestinian crew Katibe 5 (‘Batallion’ 5) from the Bourj al Barajneh refugee camp south of Beirut – and MCs Jaafar and Nasserdyn from the Bekaa Valley’s crew Touffar – a name that literally translates to ‘outlaw’ – represent a new breed of Lebanese hip hop talent.

Touffar: Nasserdyn (left) and Jaafar
Touffar: Nasserdyn (left) and Jaafar (Image – Hani Naim)

Osloob’s newest self-produced release “Fasl” (“Separation”) (2012) includes MCs from Jordan, the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon and Syria, who all lay down revolutionary verses on one continuous track that Osloob spent months composing. And Touffar, who spit about the AK-47 lifestyle in the Bekaa Valley and their unapologetic antagonisms towards the absentee Lebanese government, is busy at work delivering new tracks for an upcoming pan-Arab hip hop compilation about new perspectives on revolution called Khat Thaleth(Third Rail) with Syrian-American producer Ahmad Khouja aka Munaqresh/Dub Snakkr.

And with nearly unlimited access to music from the net and plenty of sources for cracked sound-editing software, many Beiruti MCs carry that hyphenated rapper-producer credit de facto. Throw in some warped 808 effects with the wealth of sampling material at their disposal – from the decades of classical Arabic record production coming from Lebanon and Egypt – and you begin to understand why Beirut’s hip hop stalwarts are helping to change the very underbed of sound production in Arab hip hop. And increasingly these heads are catering more to their local audiences than to the world at large. This local scene has provided its supporters with their own socially aware soundtrack since the late 1990s with groups like Aks’ser and the crew Kita3 Beirut both rhyming about the realities of urban Beirut life and about social inequity – not in French, as was the case in the Maghreb during that period, but in their native Lebanese dialect.

Labels And Legacy

Despite the problems that surround Lebanon politically and economically, there are some bright spots within the local alternative music market, namely where independent labels and artistic representation is concerned. Zeid Hamdan’s Lebanese Underground and the regional music agency Eka3 are two of the most active where independent music is concerned, and combined represent the majority of alternative musicians in the region. While they certainly don’t have mass appeal, Forward Music label and Ziad Nawfal’s Ruptured label are two examples of independent record companies with business models that are geared towards preserving catalogues and funnelling their artists towards live shows – the bread and butter of any musician these days.

From 2006 to 2010, the label that was the driving force in Beirut’s alternative music scene was Incognito. Nawfal spent two years with Incognito before forming his Ruptured label, and for the better part of 20 years has been charting the evolution of Beirut’s more western-influenced alternative music scene on the state-sponsored radio station Radio Lebanon.

Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut book cover
Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut book cover

In 2009, Nawfal also co-edited a book with photos by Lebanese-Austrian photographer Tanya Traboulsi called Untitled Tracks On Alternative Music In Beirut that captured a moment in time with Lebanon’s emerging alternative music scene. All of the artists featured in the book have made it on his weekly radio show Ruptured Sessions, and four of Nawfal’s eight albums released on Ruptured were based on live sessions during his radio show. Nawfal’s ninth album will reveal his own proclivity towards Beirut’s exploding electronica scene.

With a mission to elevate Arabic music beyond its pop confines, veteran musician-producer Ghazi Abdel Baki started the Forward Music label in 2001. While Forward Music has assured the increasing relevance of contemporary interpretations of oriental traditions it has also championed hip hop talents like Fareeq al Atrash, former Aks’ser front man Rayess Bek and DJ Lethal Skillz. And luckily, when Icognito folded, Baki kept the discography alive; a sign that perhaps whatever you throw at Beirut’s alternative music scene – civil war, political assassination, socio-economic depravity – it is destined to go on.

In Arabic, the word samidoun comes to mind – literally translated it means ‘steadfastness’. That’s what the scene has going for it. Somehow, somewhere, even in the dusty bins of some backwater garage, you’ll find Beirut’s musical heritage surviving, at least according to the all-vinyl funk, soul, rare groove DJ Ernesto Chahoud, aka DJ Spindle, himself a pioneer in the scene currently working on a film about underground 1980s disco belly-dance recordings.

Ernesto Chahoud aka DJ Spindle (left) and Rami Obeid – founders of The Beirut Groove Collective
Ernesto Chahoud aka DJ Spindle (left) and Rami Obeid – founders of The Beirut Groove Collective (Image – Manal Abu Shaheen)

“For me, the alternative scene in Beirut is like a bunch of outcasts accepted by hardly anyone,” Chahoud says. “The political powers or political players in and outside the government don’t acknowledge them. So, when you have these outcast musicians – or DJs, or artists – that are expressing themselves and nothing but themselves, without care for anything, this is Beirut’s alternative scene. And it is what makes Beirut an underground trendsetter in the region.”

Of course Beirut’s musical history is often subsumed by civil war and post-civil war narratives, but a quick survey of the music coming from Beirut over the past 60 years reveals, as Chahoud says, a vibrancy affected by war and political turmoil with a cadre of musicians “that have always searched for the ‘alternative’ to what was going on,” in both traditional and non-traditional terms.

“My relationship with music has always been like this,” posits the poet-MC El Rass. “I want to synthesise and absorb the cumulative experience of the culture I belong to on a musical and artistic level and be a continuation of this culture. This is what is happening in the Arab world. Now it’s prime time and it’s at some sort of peak. I know I’m not alone when I say this, but I always see myself as trying to create something that’s going to be perceived as traditional music a century from now.”

Other Notable Mentions:

Rayess Bek – A veteran of the hip hop scene, Aks’ser’s former frontman has collaborated as an MC/producer with worldclass talent (RZA, Niles Rogers, Miles Copeland), composed for TV and has released three solo albums – the last, Khartech Aa Zamn (The Leftist Man), with his multimedia musical experiment The Rayess Bek Orchestra.

Lazzy Lung – With one album to their credit (Strange Places, 2010) they won the the 2011 Rolling Stone Magazine Middle East‘s Battle of the Bands contest and a 2012 Ray Ban sponsored trip to Capitol Records Los Angeles last April.

Slutterhouse – The electo-pop duo was formed in 2006 by singer songwriter Raibih Salloum and veteran Beirut producer Nabil Saliba (aka Trash Inc). Their three releases have spawned two European tours and a growing fan base in France and the UK that includes the likes of Duran Duran’s Andy Taylor.

Zeid And The Wings – Hamdan’s newest project.

Rima Khcheich – Her recent tribute album to the legendary Lebanese singer and actress Sabah is less of a reinterpretation of the ‘pioneer of popular tarab’ than a revival of a song tradition.

The Kordz – A veteran alt-rock band that has a wickedly loyal fanbase and have opened for the likes of international acts like Placebo, Deep Purple and Robert Plant.

La Gale – Swiss-Lebanese MC who splits her time between Lausanne and Beirut – her lyrics are bombastic threats against the system.

The Incompetents – Fronted by non-musician Serge Yared in collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Fadi Tabbal, Yared’s off-key voice and awkward arrangements betray the honest artistic intent behind the music.

Irtijal – Experimental music pioneers in Beirut guitarist Sharif Sehnaoui and horn player Mazen Kerbaj began the Irtijal music festival 12 years ago to serve an emerging niche of music improvisation in the later 90s.

Acousmatik System – Non-profit cultural organisation founded by electronica promoter and DJ Hadi Saleh – you can find the best of Beirut’s electronica roster on their website.

Extra Inclusion from filmmaker Merass Sadek – who offers a video recap chronicling the Red Bull Music Academy’s 2012 Bass Camp in Beirut

The RBMA Base Camp in Beirut this year brought together a handful of leading musicians, producers, DJs and vocalists from around the Middle East gathered for three days to collaborate in bedroom studios, perform in the city’s best clubs and music venues, and listen to inspiring lectures from DJ Zinc, Jay-Z’s in-house producer Young Guru, composer Ibrahim Maalouf and local underground legend Fadi Tabbal.

 

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