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.

 

Radio Documentary “Rhymes to Revolution – Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings” airs July 4

In anticipation of the on-air date for my radio documentary “Rhymes to Revolution: A Soundtrack to the Arab Awakenings,” Beats and Breath will release articles in the next two days to preview some of the amazing material that will be covered during the 30-min feature. In the days following the July 4 air date, Beats and Breath will feature transcriptions of the longer format interviews conducted with members of the Arab hip-hop community, some not included in the documentary, as well as analysis by scholars and analysts on the political implications of the latest developments in the region.

The documentary which is a Free Speech Radio News production with editor Shannon Young and technical producer Rose Ketabchi, will be aired on more than 150 stations in the United States and worldwide. The documentary was funded through the community media fundraising site Spot.us. Thanks to David Cohn at Spot.us for his continued support. And Beats and Breath particularly wants to thank all the friends and supporters who donated their time and money to help fund and promote this documentary, and the valuable work being done by all the members of this burgeoning artistic movement. A longer list of credits will follow the actual posting of the documentary on this site.

An image for the Sami Matar produced song #Jan25 featuring Omar Offendum, The Narcicyst, Ayah, Amir Sulaiman & Freeway
The so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been driven by a largely disaffected youth demographic aged 18 to 30 that dominates the populations of every affected country. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the youth have demanded an end to the rampant corruption, unemployment, lack of democratic rights, and government policies that stifle freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Echoing these demands have been the representatives of the Arabic hip-hop movement living in both the Arab world and in the Diaspora.
This documentary will examine the rise of Arab hip-hop as a soundtrack to the revolution from its beginnings with Tunisian El General’s song “Rayess La Bled (Head of State)” until today. It will include the voices of rappers in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Diaspora including the creators (Omar Offendum/The Narcycist) of the YouTube viral video #jan25  (pictured above) and the creators of the Egyptian rap video  “Rebel” (Arabian Knightz)
Interviews will be balanced with testimony from relevant political commentators, photographers, producers and voices from the Arab street in order to discuss how Arab hip-hop contributed to revolution and how it is still inspiring artists and protest movements in the US, and demonstrators in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon – who are still blasting Arab hip-hop anthems from their boomboxes as they fight Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, the security forces in Bahrain and Yemen and the Sectarian state in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Brooklyn, NYC Peeps: The Lo Frequency make good in Beirut

In late October, the Brooklyn-based live hip-hop outfit Chen Lo and the Liberation Family – known now as The Lo Frequency -came to Beirut for a two-month residency in order to establish a Hip-Hop Academy and to perform with local talent (MCs, DJs, and producers). The US embassy initiative was not exactly what they expected. Beats and Breath linked up with the Lo Frequency in Brooklyn to discuss what ultimately became a two-month blessing for the Arab hip-hop movement.

Lo Frequency with members of the Lebanese hip-hop community

BEIRUT – I first heard about Chen Lo and the Liberation Family in early 2010 after musical contacts of mine in the United States told me to be on the look out for a hip-hop band on a US State Department world tour co-sponsored by Jazz at the Lincoln Center. The tour, called the Rhythm Road Tour, was due to stop in Beirut in the spring, and the Liberation Family was one of ten bands touring regions of the world “under the auspices of cultural exchange and diplomacy.”

My friends said if I was in Beirut in April, I needed to check them out.

As fate would have it, I was out of Lebanon during their Beirut tour stop, but by all local accounts, and despite a poorly attended, poorly promoted show, Chen Lo and The Liberation Family was the best hip-hop show Beirut had seen in 2010.

Six months later, the Liberation Family, was back in Beirut prepared to conduct a Hip-Hop Academy with US embassy support. Or so I was told.

What actually occurred was a little bit of a cultural soap opera with “dastardly” characters from both the local club scene and the US embassy performing a “vanishing act” when the band, an expanded 6-piece group now called The Lo Frequency, arrived in Beirut in late October from Brooklyn, New York.

Left with only a housing stipend, airfare and a paired-down version of the original Hip-Hop Academy proposal, group founder, rapper Chen Lo said the band’s “cultural refugee” status in Beirut was a blessing in disguise. “To be honest. Not only did it force us to pull our resources together in a short period of time, but also it gave us the freedom to shape our experience with minimal interference from the US embassy,” Lo said.

Lo, a well-established hip-hop lyricist who has performed with hip-hop heavyweights like Nas and KRS-ONE, singer Erykah Badu and with legendary Last Poets member, Abiodun Oyewole, was joined in Beirut by Ken White, a jazz drummer and percussionist with influences as far ranging as Indian classical music to West African drumming.

White said, “While the embassy seemed content to settle for the bare minimum of conditions…Broadly speaking, I think we were successful in doing much of what we set out to do. We put on a showcase event at Beirut’s City Theater (Masrah al Medina) that highlighted some of the best talent the Lebanese hip hop scene has to offer.”

The musical director of The Lo Frequency, White and Lo formed the original Liberation Family in 2007, two years after meeting at New York University. Now the band includes DJ Scandales, a Queens, New York-native and veteran turntablist who gets down with many of New York’s hip-hop royalty, and one of the few women bass players holding it down on the New York hip-hop scene, BAASIK. Rounding out the group are North Carolina native soul singer Shannon Grier (Editor’s note: crazy vocal skills) and guitar phenomenon Hakhi Alakhun – a musician that gives me faith in my long jaded view of the guitar.

Beats and Breath caught up with Chen Lo, White and DJ Scandales just days after their return to the United States in early December to find out what went down in Beirut and to talk more generally about what they thought of the development of the Arab hip-hop scene – having seen hip-hop in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon.

NOTE: Since this interview, a lot has happened to the Lo Frequency and in the Arab world. The Arab Awakenings took root and continue throughout the Middle East and North Africa. The Lo Frequency continued building their musical repertoire, and in April, the Fam raised $7,800 in 30 days to pay for the costs of recording, mixing, mastering and packaging an EP of their music to be called The Export. And they shot a music video which will be included in a forthcoming post – directed and produced by Merass Sadek.

The whole Lo Frequency family (l to r: BAASIK, Chen Lo, Hakhi Alakhun, DJ Scandales, Ken White, Shannon Grier) Lens: Fatima Quraishi

BEATS AND BREATH: Why did you decide on a residency in Beirut – I mean compared to all of the other cities that were part of the first tour you did?

CHEN LO: We had a chance to rock in Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. There were some strong scenes in other places we visited, some stronger than others (like the scene in Morocco). But Beirut was the place that felt like the powerhouse of the developing scenes. There was some very advanced talent here. Also, the environment, more than many others, was fertile soil for a major movement. Artists were tapping into the history of the place as well as plugging into the cosmopolitan and vastly international city that is Beirut. We just felt nature could take care of the rest.

KEN WHITE: I’d say what ultimately drew us back more than anything else was the particular personal connections we made with members of the scene. For instance, almost immediately, we had a real friend in John Nasr (aka Johnny Damascus) from (Lebanon’s live hip-hop band) Fareeq El Atrash (Forward Music Label). Turntablist DJ Lethal Skillz was a great contact point, a real professional who offered great potentials for further collaboration.

As well, for me Beirut represents a crossroads culture- a culture with a recent history of traumatic events that’s caused social upheaval…and subsequently there’s a desire to rebuild and redefine itself. You combine this with its central proximity to cultural hubs like Europe and North Africa, and add to that its center stage position in world politics – it makes Beirut fertile ground for cultural mingling, collision and creation. So when we came on our first trip to Beirut, we found a lot of like-minded people rooted in the history and the essence of hip-hop trying to build a scene and a community.

B&B: This second tour of duty in Beirut was meant to be with US embassy support – but that wasn’t what panned out in the end. What happened?

CHEN LO: We received a message (last May) that a major venue in Beirut wanted to do a collaborative performance experiment with us. Through a little cost sharing with the US Embassy in Beirut, it was proposed that they (the venue) would bring us (the Lo Frequency), house us, pay us a fee and deal with our incidental expenses.

We decided to enhance this proposal by structuring a Hip Hop Academy, followed by a showcase performance at the venue and even unique musical fusions with some of the world class musicians that worked there (at the venue). Of course the US embassy jumped all over the idea.

To say the least – when we got here we realized the venue had other things in mind and nothing worked out with them. Unfortunately (and fortunately) their final offer was not in our best interest at all and in the end they contributed absolutely NO resources to the process – which left us out here on our own.

The US embassy supported us in endeavors that were in their best interest like English speaking Access classes in a few areas around Lebanon like Tripoli and portions of the Hip Hop Academy ended up getting funded but in a severely stripped down form.

Still, in regards to really tapping the scene and moving forward, we had to hustle on our own accords. To be honest, it was the best thing that could have happened. Not only did it force us to pull our resources together in a short period, but also it gave us the freedom to shape our experience with minimal interference from the US embassy.

DJ SCANDALES: I can say that I saw Ken And Chen put In over 6 months of work with phone calls at like 4 in the morning…we were in Vietnam (on our world tour) last May when we started planning for our trip to Beirut.

Our (the groups) goal was to enhance, create and record with this hip-hop Academy – and a lot of effort went into this to assure its success — only to be undermined by our own embassy. I mean our schedule was reduced from 2 months to like 2 weeks in total, and much of it was put together the day of our meeting with the Embassy after we actually arrived in Beirut. We pretty much were newborn babies dropped off on someone’s doorstep with a note attached. Except the note had no explanation just a closing greeting of “Thanks!” But we’ve had 15-years of real world experience with in the music industry – we bounced back.

KEN: What surprised us was the amount to which we needed to rely on our local partners and our own dedication and drive to get anything meaningful done. It seemed as though the embassy agenda did not extend as far as we thought and as far as our intentions were taking us. The bare minimum seemed to be sufficient for them. It was truly our local partners in and around the hip-hop scene in Beirut that made the experience pretty monumental. In the end it worked out for the best.

Snap at their Beirut showcase for the hip-hop academy workshop> Lebanese MCs (l to r) Edd, Malikah, Ram6, Chyno Lens: Karen Kalou

B&B: What do you think about the hip-hop scene in the Arab world. Is there really a scene to speak of? Is it regional? Is it pan-Arab? What’s your assessment?

KEN: It’s hard for me to say whether there is a strong unified Pan-Arab hip-hop movement…yet. I feel it developing though.

CHEN LO: I’d say there definitely is a scene in the Arab World. In my experience over the past year, it seems like hip-hop in all of its various manifestations and angles is flourishing at a greater rate outside of the US. The Arab world is a part of that growth for sure.

DJ SCAN: For me, during our tour we saw major differences from the more seasoned Moroccan scene to the much newer Syrian hip-hop scene,

CHEN: Yeah, I think there are some regional differences, but I think it is Pan-Arab. I haven’t seen hip-hop all over the Arab World, but we’ve encountered a lot of it. North Africa, if you include it in the Arab world, has two very strong and established scenes in Algeria and Morocco. In many other places, including Lebanon, things are developing at a very rapid pace.

DJ SCAN: But what makes the Arab hip-hop scene so fresh is that it is still in its early growth stage and is untainted by Corporations dictating the direction of the music and culture.

KEN: True but there has been a lot of divide and conquer throughout the Arab world by colonial powers. People are also very entrenched in their politics. As a result, the major cross-national hip-hop scenes I see are centered on political movements like the Palestinian cause.

What I find most interesting about hip-hop in the Arab world is the commonality in the way in which most artists say they came to hip-hop. Almost across the board, artists saw hip-hop as the tool that spoke to them the most to express what they experience around them everyday. And in a climate, where proper outlets to do that are essential, it reminds me much more of the conditions in which hip-hop began in the South Bronx. As more and more artists gain popularity and begin to collaborate across national borders, they’ll find common ground and common cause in the culture of hip-hop.

B&B: Now that you guys are back in the US have you experienced any culture shock after being in Lebanon for two months?

CHEN: Being back in the US, culture shock is definitely in effect. We’re plotting on our next overseas endeavors in 2011 and working on an album. These are exciting times for us. We want to keep collaborating with artists all over the globe and making a living doing our passion. We have to get it while it’s good and make it better. KEN: It was definitely disorienting for me and still i haven’t really settled back at all. I’m still trying to get over missing all of our new friends. Our experience in Beirut was really a beginning – a launching pad to not only come back to Lebanon but tap into similar movements all over the world.

The Export – EP (The Lo Frequency’s first release)

Arab Revolutions, Arab Spring, Arab hip-hop: Radio Documentary fundraising pitch

The following is the fundraising page/pitch for a 30-minute radio documentary I am producing for the US-based radio news organization – Free Speech Radio News. Go to the Spot.us community media page to donate. Description of documentary follows. Thank you in advance for your support! It is a rare opportunity to expose US audiences to Arab hip-hop and its increasing importance with Arab youth.

#jan25 – featuring Omar Offendum, The Narcycist, Freeway, Amir Sulaiman & Ayah

The so-called “Arab Spring” uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa have been driven by a largely disaffected youth demographic aged 18 to 30 that dominates the populations of every affected country. In Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan, the youth have demanded an end to the rampant corruption, unemployment, lack of democratic rights, and government policies that stifle freedom of expression and freedom of speech. Echoing these demands have been the representatives of the Arabic hip-hop movement living in both the Arab world and in the Diaspora.

This documentary will examine the rise of Arab hip-hop as a soundtrack to the revolution from its beginnings with Tunisian El General’s song “Rayess La Bled (Head of State)” until today. It will include the voices of rappers in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and the Diaspora including the creators (Omar Offendum/The Narcycist) of the YouTube viral video #jan25  (pictured above) and the creators of the Egyptian rap video  “Rebel” (Arabian Knightz)

Interviews will be balanced with testimony from relevant political commentators, photographers, producers and voices from the Arab street in order to discuss how Arab hip-hop contributed to revolution and how it is still inspiring artists and protest movements in the US, and demonstrators in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen and Lebanon – who are still blasting Arab hip-hop anthems from their boomboxes as they fight Gadhafi’s forces in Libya, the security forces in Bahrain and Yemen and the Sectarian state in Lebanon.

Voices:
Angie Nassar – hip-hop scholar & cultural blogger, Beirut, Lebanon
El General – rapper – Tunisia
El Deeb – rapper/journalist – Egypt
Rush – Arabian Knightz – rap crew – Egypt
Malikah – rapper – Lebanon/Algeria
John Nasr aka Johnny Damascus – Lebanon
Rayes Bek – rapper/philosopher, Paris/Beirut
The Narcycist – rapper and creator of #Jan25 – Canada
Laith Majali – documentary photographer – Jordan
Muneira Hoballah – director, youth program center ISAM fares american university of beirut
Street Voices – Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

B&B: Incognito?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(We listen to the track.)

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

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

Fareeq al Atrash in John’s Studio. [Lens: Tanya Traboulsi
B&B: Translate the song

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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