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 ©

Launch of Red Bull Music Academy Radio show: Quarter Tone Frequency Vol. 01

In October, 2013, Red Bull Music Academy Radio launched Quarter Tone Frequency. This was the first episode of season 1 – with eleven (11) monthly episodes following. 4 hosts from Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE were tapped to help bring the vibrations of the independent music community from across the Middle East to wider audiences – regionally and internationally. Beats and Breath founder, Jackson Allers, anchors the Lebanon segment.
QTF logo

Welcome to Quarter Tone Frequency, an exploration of authentic oriental sounds, tracking the vibrations of the independent music community across the Middle East. Quarter Tone Frequency broadcasts an hour-long show every month, combining some of the Middle East’s best alternative sounds. Split into four segments of 15 minutes each, the show will transport listeners to the vibrant underground of Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan and the UAE, each segment hosted by local voices providing insights into each scene. In the UAE, we’re guided to new sounds by radio host and DJ James Locksmith, while veteran presenter and all-round musician Safi takes us through the cultural hotspots of Egypt. Music lover and personality of the Jordan airwaves Tamer Gargour delivers the finest new tracks from the Hashemite Kingdom, and finally, crate-digger, broadcaster and music journalist Jackson Allers serves up what’s good from across Lebanon. It’s the sound from the Middle East underground.

Volume 1 – click image below to go to RBMA Radio page

click to go to RBMA Radio Page
click to go to RBMA Radio Page

 

One Board at a Time: Mohammad Zakaria – Jordan’s skateboarding pioneer

Mohammad Zakaria is one of the pioneers of Jordan’s skate scene and a veteran of the pan-Arab skateboarding scene. A Palestinian-Jordanian who basically adheres to the Field of Dreams school of thought – “If you build it, they will come” – Zakaria co-founded Philadelphia Skateboards in 2009 on a shoestring budget and the hope that if you imported the best boards and the best hardware in the world, quality would distinguish you from all others that followed. It’s a formula that has worked – with Philadelphia being recognised as the gold standard for boards manufactured in the Middle East that in turn has helped grow a roster of talented skaters both in the Arab world and in the West who call themselves part of Team Philly. This piece was originally published in September 2013.

58UMENSEP1370

58UMENSEP1371

Arab Raps Theoretical Unification

Beats and Breath’s interview with Egyptian rapper Mohammed el Deeb aka Deeb released in June 2011 contended that the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa had a galvanizing effect with Arab hip-hop heads worldwide. But has this been the spark for a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement? I put this piece out there in the context of the rap contributions to the current revolution(s).
Palestinian crew I-Voice at Masrah al Madina in Beirut 2009. Lens: Tanya Traboulsi©
Palestinian crew I-Voice at Masrah al Madina in Beirut 2009. Lens: Tanya Traboulsi©

BEIRUT – In the nearly 5 years that I’ve been writing about and documenting hip-hop in the Arab world, it has become something of a personal maxim to say that Arab hip-hop has managed to develop the trappings of a scene but that it most certainly has not created a “movement” despite hip-hop’s arrival in the Maghreb more than 20-years ago.

Like a scratched up 45, I’ve been dogmatic in writing about the fact that there was (and is still) no rap industry in the Arab world – no labels, no viable record/cd markets, no corporate radio airplay, few credible managers or agents, and except for an elite group of sponsors, no real systemic infrastructure to support the growth of Arabic hip-hop or the top-notch talent emerging.

Of course it’s a contention that has been met with legitimate objections over the years, particularly from artists who are as entrenched in this hip-hop thing as I am:

What about the collective efforts of ARAP, the now defunct Arab Summit (with rappers Omar Offendum, Ragtop, The Narcycist and Excentrik) and the massive crew, Arab League, that counts as members the heavyweight LA-based Palestinian-American producer FredWreck, Egypt’s MC Amin, Deeb and Arabian Knightz with more than 20 rapper and producer affiliates that span the bulk of the Middle-East, North Africa and Diaspora?

Are they not symbols of an Arab hip-hop movement?

I guess the simple answer is, “Yes.” They’re all furthering the idea of what is possible in Arab rap with strong messages and ever more sophisticated production palettes. But scratch the surface and there is nothing that would lead me to think there is a Pan-Arab hip-hop sensibility that is guiding some kind of formal movement within global hip-hop culture.

One is reminded of the Pan-Arab nationalist movement that emanated from Egypt – a movement that has been mythologized and in the larger historical analysis was ??? nominally successful in some areas and massive failures elsewhere, its legacy nonetheless leads me to ask: could the Arab uprisings be the spark to create a larger sense of what Arab hip-hop as a movement could be united under – banners or maxims the likes of the Black Panther movement in the US – a sort of 10-point plan?

Merging political and social reform concepts that have become tenets of the MENA uprisings are certainly places for an Arab hip-hop “nation” to start – philosophically and some could argue artistically. Certainly, the youth-driven Arab uprisings have made that a possibility if in fact Arab hip-hop heads choose to see it in this light. And it’s not like there weren’t precursors to draw from with regards to identity politics and their connections to societal and cultural upheaval.

RBG (left), the author and Ramcess (right) at the first Immortal Entertainment sponsored ‘Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets’ event with Omar Offendum, Ragtop, and Mark Gonzalez joining a gangload of local 961 MCs (lens: Tanya Traboulsi©)

Before the uprisings, the unifying themes behind Arab hip-hop were a sort of de facto endorsement of Palestinian self-determination or varyingly, a challenge to the Western wholesale stereotypes of Arabs as terrorists and Islamists – with the the video of the song “Meen Erhabi” (‘Who’s the terrorist?’) by the Palestinian rap group DAM being the online viral totem (well over 1 million views) of this revolt against occidental stereotyping at the time of its release in 2001.

And while neither one of these messages has lost their potency -particularly in the last 11 years with the rise and fall of the Second Intifada, the September 11 attacks (London, Spain and Mumbai as well) and the subsequent US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, what I’ve concluded, more than anything else, is that the Arab uprisings have, in the very least managed to break some of the chains of invisibility the movement has experienced over the last 15 years. The uprisings have let people know that there is a thing called Arab hip-hop, particularly in the West that has shown such astonishment at the intensity of the uprisings, in what writer Arian Faribouz says is the West’s lack of acknowledgment of the “deep-seated dissatisfaction felt by Arab civil society.”

As with the Arab hip-hop movement, Faribouz acknowledges this is “particularly true for the younger generation, which has so vehemently rebelled against the suppression of free speech and artistic freedom as well as against the social hardships and the lack of job opportunities in their countries. And this didn’t just come about yesterday.”

In November 2007, I wrote an article that to date is still the only definitive history of Lebanese hip-hop in which the region’s premiere Arab turntablist, DJ Lethal Skillz, directed the message for his first album, New World Disorder (2007/2008) at a western audience. (NOTE: that history has been disputed by members of the Lebanese hip-hop massive – but I stand by that story and its recollection of Lebanese hip-hop history.) It was a move that I questioned at the time, but a strategy that I could not argue against then. (In hindsight I would have advised against it.)

Skillz on the corner. Rendition courtesy of SkyLinked

The album contained a smorgasbord of local and regional talent each distilling their rejection of the rampant corruption and social neglect inherent within their societies in witty metaphorical turns of phrase and in very grave tones, lyrically. Lebanese rappers MC Moe and Malikah (961 Underground), Rayess Bek (Aksser), RGB and Siska (Kita3 Beyrouthe), Chyno and El Edd (Fareeq al Atrash), Omarz (Dezert Dragons), Grandsunn and MC Zoog, as well as Ramallah Underground (Boikutt, Stormtrap & Aswaat) from the West Bank – all presaged the messages that were echoed by the demonstrators that took down the Tunisian and Egyptian regimes and now threatens the regimes in Bahrain, Syria, Yemen and Libya.

But as DJ Lethal Skillz acknowledged at the time, because Arab hip-hop had no real local market, New World Disorder was made almost exclusively for export. Since that 2007 article things have changed drastically and the creative efforts of Arab hip-hop purveyors living in the Arab world like Boikutt and Stormtrap of Ramallah Underground, Deeb, MC.Amin and Arabian Knightz in Egypt, Palestinian rapper Sam Zaki in Jordan, and Taffar, Ramcess, Rayess Bek and Fareeq al Atrash in Lebanon are all turning inward to stoke domestic musical fires in order to attract larger numbers of local followers – from the inside out and not the other way around. (Note: There are many other rappers I’ve missed in Lebanon, but there will be more articles dealing with these newly emerging talents as I get to know them more.)

As it stands, the only impression that exists of hip-hop for young Arabs is the hip-hop mainstream strewn all over the foreign owned corporate radio stations and satellite music channels. If you don’t have access to those sources, then what could Arab hip-hop possibly mean to you if you’re an Arab who has not been exposed to the genre?

The Arab revolutions have, thus, exposed hundreds of thousands of young Arab brothers and sisters to a new soundtrack they might not have known was theirs before – and this is the most significant thing I can point to when discussing the revolutions affects on Arab hip-hop.

Take for example the first hip-hop salvos that came from Tunisia – the origin point of the uprisings. Tunisian rapper Hamada Ben Amor aka El Général rose from relative obscurity within an already marginalized Maghreb hip-hop scene competing with “more prolific” rap scenes in Morocco and France to upload a song in November 2010 on Facebook called Rayess Le Bled (Head of State).

My president, your people are dying
People eat garbage
Look at what is happening
Misery everywhere, Mr. President
I talk with no fear
I’m speaking for the people who suffer
Although I know I’ll get only trouble
I see injustice everywhere.

While I can say El General was not nearly as talented as other veterans of the Tunisian hip-hop scene like Balti, Lak3y, or Psyco M, Andy Morgan of The Observer wrote that his song had “within hours lit up the bleak and fearful horizon like an incendiary bomb. Before being banned, it was picked up by local TV station Tunivision and al-Jazeera.”

He added, “El Général’s MySpace was closed down, his mobile cut off. But it was too late. The shock waves were felt across the country and then throughout the Arab world. That was the power of protesting in Arabic, albeit a locally spiced dialect of Arabic. El Général’s bold invective broke frontiers and went viral from Casablanca to Cairo and beyond.”

El Général went even further releasing a second song called Tounes Bladna (Tunisia, Our Country), and on January 6 at five o’clock in the morning, some 30 state security agents showed up at his family’s house to arrest him – “on the orders of President Ben Ali himself.”

The rapper was held in a Tunisian jail for three days before his release – shaken but more resolute than ever to speak out against the excesses of the Tunisian government, particularly after 26-year old Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation was further cementing the demise of Ben Ali’s regime. (He too was greeted as a celebrity in his home town of Sfax.)

And while the more professionally produced, lyrically diverse catalogs of veteran rappers in the Arab world and Diaspora like MC Bigg from Morocco, Canadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist, LA-based Omar Offendum, UK-based Lebanese-Syrian rapper Eslam Jawaad, and Wu Tang affiliated Dutch-Moroccan rapper Saleh Edin have all managed to garner fan bases in their adopted countries in the West, none it seems has had the impact musically that El Général has had with the Arab street.

In this sense, El Général’s message set a precedent, and Rayess le Bled inspired Arab youth from Tahrir Square in Cairo to the capital Manama in Bahrain where the mostly Shia opposition have experienced the most brutal crackdown at the hands of the minority Suni royal family and the security forces of their Saudi Arabian and Qatari Gulf Cooperation Council allies.

While El Général’s Rayess le Bled has made it to Bahrain, in Libya, songs from 16-year old producer and composer Imad Abbar and his 22-year old rapper partner Hamza Sisi are on heavy rotation in the cars of rebel fighters trying to battle their way westward to Tripoli to end Muammar Gadhafi’s 42-year rule.

The two-man crew from the rebel capital Benghazi in east Libya admitted to AFP that they were no where near the levels of production they wanted to be, forced to record songs in Sisi’s home, in a small amateur studio equipped with a keyboard and a computer -a rudimentary set-up that perhaps has best defined the conditions of early hip-hop artists – producers, DJs and MC’s –worldwide for the last 30 years, what Candadian-Iraqi MC The Narcycist calls “the permeability of the creative process.”

“All you really need is a microphone and a pair of headphones to record, and then a good engineer to mix it. So, it doesn’t really take much to create it,” Narcy said in a Democracy Now! interview in March. In fact, it is the immediacy of the message of hip-hop and the accessibility of production that has made it such a powerful force for the Arab youth in these revolutions.

But a more concrete Pan-Arab hip-hop movement cannot emerge as long as there are gaps of inequality between the hip-hop movement in the Arab world and the hip-hop movement in the Arab Diaspora, despite innovators like Palestinian producer Damar in Jordan, and Tashweesh who are pushing production values to their ultimate limits, rivaling near anything coming out of the West. That means until the means of production “permeates” an increasing number of disenfranchised Arab youth communities, the idea of a Pan-Arab hip-hop movement will remain a theoretical fantasy.

‘Intro’ by Tashweesh from Tashweesh on Vimeo.

Fortunately, I feel optimistic that the gaps in production and infrastructure will continue to lessen and that the Arab hip-hop being produced in the Diaspora will ultimately have to reflect back to the audiences in the Arab world to gain credibility. The standard bearers for future production in Arab hip-hop will come from the Middle East and not from the West – and new rhyme styles will emerge from the Arabic world versus coming from Arabs in the West.

What is certain is that the Arab revolutions are certainly focusing attention on the Arab hip-hop artists living in the Middle East and North Africa in ways that have never happened before, and that by all accounts is the best thing that could ever happen for the young Arab MCs, producers and Djs living in the region – youth who are passionate and serious about what they are doing in their attempts to further the evolution of Arab hip-hop that has so far avoided the trappings of the corporate system that will certainly battle for the soul of the emerging culture.

DJ Sotusura – Holdin’ down Jordan’s hip-hop scene singlehandedly

DJ Sot 01
DJ Sotusura workin' the tables © Laith Majali

By Jackson Allers (originally published in UMen Magazine)

BEIRUT – Hicham Ibrahim, aka DJ Sotusura, is solid – holding down the hip-hop massive in Amman almost single-handedly, he doesn’t exude the stress you’d expect for someone so damn busy. But don’t let his nonchalance fool you.

What I mean to say is that this wiry Palestinian, born in Paris with Jordanian and French nationality, has learned to handle pressure the old fashioned way – by persevering through life’s hard knocks.

As he tells me on a balcony overlooking the Beirut port in early October, “I was a serious baller (basketball) at one point in my life – coming out of high school in Jordan. Then I left Amman in 1998 to go to school in Los Angeles. Really what I was doing was hustlin’, listening to hip-hop and collecting records AND playin’ ball at UCLA’s (University of California Los Angeles) outdoor courts and on the beaches of Santa Monica. Classes were just a formality.”

In a somewhat nostalgic way he tells me, dragging on a cigarette, “But all that ended when I messed up my ankle in 2000 during a game in LA.”

It was that fateful event that ruined Hicham Ibrahim’s basketball career and blessed us hip-hop heads with DJ Sotusura.

When I met Sotusura in Amman in the smoke filled room of a friends’ house party in early 2009, he was candid and approachable. We talked hip-hop to the wee hours of the morn – discussing groups of a by-gone era like Black Moon and the Boot Camp Clik, Goodie Mob, EPMD, Nas – all standard bearers of early 90’s NYC hip-hop flavor.

Truth is that from the moment I met him and listened to his radio show on Urban FM 102.5 FM in Amman, I never really doubted that I’d be watching this 29-year old make some moves with his DJ skills – if for no other reason because his taste in music was impeccable. (And so was his fashion sense. Sotusura’s Ecko Unltd clothing store in Sweifieh Al Wikalat Street features the freshest Ecko Ltd, and Marc Ecko Cut & Sew duds in the entire region.)

I caught up with Sotusura during a Ghetto Superstarz show in Beirut at the club Basement in early October to get his impressions on the future of hip-hop in the Arab world and whether there will be that next generation of turntablists in the Middle East.

U-MEN: Tell me about the hip-hop scene in Amman.

DJ SOTUSURA: It’s still a pretty underdeveloped scene in Amman. The breakdancing scene in Amman is very good. From what I’ve heard from world recognized breakdancers that come here is that Jordan has the second best b-boy scene in the Middle East.

But there are a lot of new MC’s comin’ up. The problem or the way I see it is that they need a lot of guidance. But I am probably a bit harsh on the Arabic MCs – that’s just how I see it.

Even in the entire Middle East, I feel there’s only really one Arabic MC that actually raps in Arabic that I really feel and whose music I could listen to daily and that’s Boicott from Ramallah Underground (West Bank). He’s really, in my opinion, the dopest MC in Arabic.

DJ lookin' pensive

UMEN: That’s not to say there aren’t other amazing Arab MC’s that rap in Arabic – like Salah Edin from Holland.

SOTUSURA: No doubt. Salah is very good. But his Arabic is more Mughrabi (Algeria, Morocco, Tunisia) – his accent is more for that audience. What I mean really is the Middle East when I talk about the best Arabic MC. Like Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq, Syria, Egypt…etc. The Middle East.

UMEN: Are there any hip-hop DJ’s in Amman?

SOTUSURA: Specific hip-hop DJ’s in Amman, not really. You got DJ Shadia, but she’s not really live – she’s more of a radio DJ. I mean – no one is really using turntables. Even in the electronic music scene they’re using CD decks. Locally, I can’t think of any other Jordanian DJ’s but me and Shadia into hip-hop.

UMEN: There’s no doubt that of the 4 pillars of hip-hop culture (Deejaying, Emceeing, Graffiti writing, Breakdancing) that DJ’s in the Arab world are a scarcity. Real DJs. You even have way more MC’s than DJ’s and they’re often having to rock CD’s to perform versus having a DJ backing them at a show. Name some DJ’s in the Arabic world that have international skills.

SOTUSURA: I have three in mind. One is Samrah Ma7in from Qatar. He’s got skills. He plays nice beats and plays a lot of club gigs throughout Qatar and the Gulf. Then there’s Flash B in Dubai who is originally from Jordan. He’s a fly DJ and a good producer actually. He just started messing with the MPC (sample machine) like 6 months ago and he’s already crafting beautiful beats.

Then you got of course, DJ Lethal Skillz. I feel like he’s kind of the pioneer for deejaying in the Middle East ’cause he’s not just a DJ – he’s a real turntablist (someone that can actually use turntables like instruments). We got very few of those, and he’s really a good turntablist. He’s on point and he practices a lot and there’s no doubt that he could compete internationally. Although that’s not what he’s about right now. He’s not just a DJ that rocks a club.

UMEN: Now, let’s be clear, we’re talking the DJ’s that actually live in the Middle East?

SOTUSURA: Yeah. As soon as we go outside the Middle East, we got a bunch we could talk about. We got Fred Wreck – who is the main cat who is a great DJ that has turned his skills into being one of the worlds leading producers.

UMEN: And what about MCs outside of the Middle East?

SOTUSURA: That list is also long. You’ve got Omar Offendum from The N.O.M.A.D.S. – he’s Syrian-American. Then there’s Ragtop from The Philistines – he’s Palestinian-American. Then The Narcycist from Euphrates – he’s Iraqi-Canadian. So there’s people. They’re all inspirations to us. It’s good when we see them. For me, when I see them rolling through the Middle East and I see there focus – they’re all very focused even though they’re a minority wherever they live at and where they’re working (USA, Canada), it motivates me to do stuff. I think that if they’re doing that over there then why can’t we all make it happen here – and then combine them with us so we have a complete picture.

UMEN:  What are some of the difficulties you face as a DJ in the Arab world?

SOTUSURA: The first difficulty I can say as a DJ working in the Arab world is that the Arab world is very very electronic music oriented. You’ve got hip-hop heads in the Middle East, but it’s just that the majority listens to electronic music. Which kind of kills it a bit.

But – alhumdulillah – I feel blessed that I’ve been in Amman long enough to get work as a hip-hop DJ and I know who to talk to and who to meet to set up this kind of work here. I feel the real boost and the real blessing that I got this year is the fact that I picked up a two-hour radio show on Urban FM 102.5.

UMEN:  Tell me about that. You really spin underground hip-hop without any real concern about a station play list. This is kind of unheard of anywhere much less in the Arab world – what with all the corporate direction radio takes.

SOTUSURA: How I got it – I own a hip-hop clothing store in Amman, in Soufiyeh. And there was a English cat – Rob – with Urban FM that came in to the store and I played a bunch of beats for him. He was really feeling it. But at the time he had no real power to do much for me. 6 months later, he had taken over his bosses position and decided it was time to give me a show.

UMEN: So it actually took someone with a love of hip-hop from one of these stations to actually put you on?

SOTUSURA: Exactly. And at first, I was supposed to do the show more like the radio wanted – 30 percent commercial, 30 percent classics and 30 percent underground. I kept doing that for a month – but the radio station’s feedback and my personal feedback was that people were really feeling the underground stuff. So I talked to the station management. They’re all very cool people that said – as long as the feedback is positive – do what you want to do!

So then I really just flipped it to be an underground hip-hop show. It really opened a lot of doors man. 4 months after I started the show, I picked up an internet radio show called “The Art of Rap” and it’s on a New York based internet radio site called Radio 23.

UMEN: That means you’re spinning all the latest Arabic hip-hop. Do you think the Arab hip-hop being produced these days in the Arab world and the Diaspora is international caliber?

SOTUSURA:  I definitely think some of it is, but not enough to have a real market built around it. For example, in the Urban Beats sets in Amman I play some N.O.M.A.D.S. and some Philistines and this cat from Sweden called Palestine, and The Narcycist because it’s an English-only show.

As far as live performance is concerned – the cats that can rock it on the stage is rare. DAM from Lod in 48′ territories in Palestine definitely put on the best live Arabic hip-hop performance live. They’re like the godfathers of Palestinian hip-hop. They’ve got good chemistry. They do at least 30 shows a year.

UMEN:  Practice makes perfect type of story?

SOTUSURA: Exactly. Like for the MC’s here in the region. You also have to give them the opportunity to perform live and see good live performance so they know what they’re up against and what it takes to be respected as professionals. Like real MCs…We need to bring more proper MC’s to the region.

If we were to bring lesser known cats like Aceyalone from LA (from LA’s Freestyle Fellowship) – you can put him anywhere – even if you’re in Japan and people are not going to understand anything, and he’s still gonna rock the crowd. And for people in Jordan, they don’t really know what it is to watch a concert like a great MC live.

They’ve seen like Suheir Hammad – a great poet from New York. There’s been a few good shows. Not enough though. If they were to get some lesser known cats like Mos Def, he probably wouldn’t attract even half the people that someone like Snoop would bring in.

I guarantee you though, if you get someone like Mos Def into Jordan, anybody in the room will have a good time. No matter if they’re five or 65. They would enjoy the hell out of it because he’s someone that thrives to do it live.

UMEN: Do you think there are entrepreneurs out there missing out on the whole hip-hop phenomenon?

SOTUSURA: Most definitely! It’s like a snowball effect man. Once it’s on a roll, you can’t stop it. And the youth is really into hip-hop in all the Arab countries. Like if there’s hip-hop in Oman, that’s an indication of things.

But, I think the wrong acts are coming across to Arabs at the moment – misrepresentations that make it more difficult for us.

Now when you get into hip-hop and you understand what it really is and what the culture’s about, then something different can happen. The boundaries of color, race, religion – much of that gets wiped away in hip-hop culture in some way. It started in the States and in the 1990’s I was living in France and it was huge. Think about Japan and other places like that. When hip-hop takes root, they start doing it their way. They take that and turn it into their hip-hop. Rapping in Japanese, French…whatever. And everywhere hip-hop goes it does that.

So it ain’t going to be no different in the Arab world. It became popular in these other places and is undeniable there. So there’s no reason it won’t happen here. It will happen no matter what. They spread their messages and develop the subjects they want to talk about in their cultures.

As published in UMen Magazine

UMEN: Do you think it’s important for the godfathers of this hip-hop thing in the Arab world to be bustin’ their asses to be role models for these younger kids? Is that important?

SOTUSURA: It’s important for us Arabs to plant the seeds. I mean take DJ culture for example. Kids have missed the whole buying turntables and digging for records thing because of the online mp3 culture. Been now, we can bring it back and rewind the script on them a bit and introduce them to the turntables and the whole idea of getting the old Arabic pop and classic albums of their parents to use in their mixes, production, etc.

I mean why get CD’s? It means getting them into an essential part of the culture and not just buying CD decks…on the international level this is laughed at! Two months of study on CD decks doesn’t make you a DJ. Although it’s harder on turntables, it’s way more versatile and way more complete.

As published in UMen Magaazine

UMEN: There’s no real turntablism aspect with CD decks.

SOTUSURA: Yeah and that’s a good point. No international gigs will come your way if you’re rocking CD decks in hip-hop. That’s just not happenin. And these kids are lacking exposure to this fact. So I think there’s gotta be more conferences, workshops – whatever they can see so they can learn more about this DJ think and the art of deejaying.

Especially since Serrato came out – and you’re still on vinyl. I don’t really understand why anybody is rocking CD’s now.

%d bloggers like this: