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.

Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets – Pt. 1


Jazeera Airways magazine cover for the Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets show in January 08

In honor of this legendary night of hip-hop in Beirut in January 2008 – Immortal Entertainment, Phonosapien Productionz and Beats and Breath Productions brings you the Brooklyn Beats to Beirut Streets Redux @ Basement on Sunday, January 10!

Send an email to me for more information on the January 10 show:

In a basement in downtown Beirut, Jackson Allers gets the lowdown on the Lebanese hip-hop underground.

BEIRUT CITY (January 2008) – I check I have the right address. Could Black and White, a swanky venue in the upmarket district of Monot, really be the epicentre of Beirut’s nascent hip-hop movement? Zipping my jacket open, exhaling the last bit of cold-weather condensation from my mouth, I make my way down the stairs and catch the muffled thud of a major sound-system.

A nod to the bouncer, the obligatory body-search and then full immersion into a dungeon filled with dozens of heads bobbing in unison to old-school jams from the golden era of rap, the early 1990s, when hip-hop effortlessly combined political intent with truly innovative musical arrangements.

For a second I think I’m somewhere else. Was this Lebanon or Fort Greene, Brooklyn? After 15 years of covering and promoting hiphop in the United States, I found the unpretentious, fashionable street vibe of Black and White awfully familiar.

MC Siska from the oldest Lebanese hip-hop crew - Kita' Beirut

“Yo Jacks, wassup? kifak?” MC Siska of the veteran hip-hop group Kitaa Beirut gives me a big hug and the mandatory handshake, a slide across the palm leading to a meeting of closed fists. “Word ya khayi (brother), you ready to mash it up tonight?” I inquire.

He nods and smiles, “You know how we do,” his woven hat and full beard making him look much older than his 24 years.

Over in the corner, surrounded by an entourage of hipsters who look like they’ve been plucked straight from the pages of Fader or XXL, is Malikah, one of the newest kids on the block and a finalist in MTV Arabia’s answer to American Idol, Hip Hop Na (Our Hip Hop). Also known as MC Lix, her reputation as a powerful live performer is on the up and many are in the club solely to see her perform. “I hope to set the bar for up-and-coming female rappers in the Arab world – like a role model,” she once told me. “Maybe I can even have my own production studio to help them grow.” Confidence is a good thing and Malikah has it in spades.

“How ya doin’ Beirut City, Lebanon,” yells DJ Lethal Skillz, the reigning king of the city’s hip-hop scene and the man anchoring the production on this night. “Let me know you’re feelin’ this!” Hands shoot up on the packed dance floor as Dr. Dre’s anthem Let Me Ride is cranked up. With his trademark dark-tinted goggles and oversized silver timepiece on his wrist, Skillz mixes his way through an anthology of hip-hop – and the crowd’s loving it.

DJ Lethal Skillz workin' the decks on that legendary evening © Tanya Traboulsi

Over fifteen years, Lethal Skillz has become Lebanon’s number one practitioner of turntablism – playing Technics SL-1200 record decks instead of traditional instruments. He has invested thousands of dollars in a professional studio where he can work with Lebanon’s rap talent – a collective that’s become known as the 961 Underground Family. They performed in Poland in the autumn of 2007 for the first time under the 961 moniker, thrilling the eastern European audiences with a rare blast of home-grown Arabic hip-hop.

As I’m drawn towards the stage, I greet two visiting MCs from Los Angeles: “Wassup Omar? Hey Ragtop! Wassup you two?” Omar Offendum, a Syrian-American rapper from the group The N.O.M.A.D.S, and Ragtop, a Palestinian-American from The Philistines, are here for the week as guests of the 961 Underground Family. “Man, performing in Beirut with Skillz and crew – it feels like history in the making,” Offendum tells me.

“Mic check. One two, one two.” A voice from the stage informs us that the show is about to get started. The subsequent live performance flows from Mic Mssadah (Rusty Mic), a track featuring Siska and RGB, to Ragtop and Omar Offendum’s heavily sampled Arabic melodies on Teezie and Nimroud (Stubborn). Their stage presence is immense and their deliveries are flawless.

Next up is Malikah, whose electrifying set peaks with Tafrikah (Discrimination), with its highly charged lyrics about the West’s narrow-minded perception of Arabs. Afterwards, the MCs freestyle until 3am, when the turntables stop spinning and a small contingent of us go back to Lethal Skillz’s Red Leb Studios to keep the party alive.

Unlike the States, where the East, West, and Central Coast scenes vie for legitimacy, Lebanon’s hip-hop movement works from the same lyric sheet. Sunnis, Shias, Christians, Syrians, Armenians and Africans all join the cypher. Given what Lebanon’s going through, I couldn’t help but feel that hiphop has a unifying power.

“There’s no room for beef (rivalries) in a country as small as Lebanon,” Lethal Skillz tells me. “Especially when we’re struggling to create a market here. Sticking together is the only way we can grow this movement and show both Arabs and non-Arabs that we’re legit.”

The 961 Underground Family consists of members from all sides of the political divide. They may not always agree when it comes to politics, but they’ve come to rely on each other for encouragement, support and inspiration. Which is exactly the way it should be.

Ragtop from the Philistines (left) and Omar Offendum from The N.O.M.A.D.S. will perform again at Basement with Mark Gonzales on January 10

Levant Hip-Hop Essentials:

1.) Radio in Beirut – NO GOOD HIP-HOP RADIO IN LEBANON but peep DJ Sotusura’s show URBAN BEATS online at 102.5 Beat FM in Amman, Jordan on Wednesday’s from 9pm – 11pm (Jordan time +2 GMT)
2.) The Essential Albums – Eslam Jawaad’s solo debut album ‘Mammoth Tusk’, DJ Lethal Skillz’ ‘New World Disorder,’ and The Naricyst’s debut solo effort ‘Phatwa’