In Metro Al Madina, a subterraneous theatre in the West Beirut district of Hamra, El Rass (Mazen El Sayed) reclines backstage leafing through a book of psychology lying idly on a nearby sofa. The heavy base of Munma’s (Jawad Nawfal) production rattles through the metallic frame of the theatre’s ventilation system as the bespectacled DJ goes through his soundcheck out front. Flicking through the book’s pages El Rass picks a passage at random, reads a few sentences – no more than non-sequitors –in flawless English before returning it to its place and pouring a glass of Jamieson’s. This is the first time I have interviewed El Rass, one of the foremost MC’s in Lebanon’s small but impassioned hip hop community. Two previous arrangements have resulted in no-shows.
“We are witnessing a social explosion in all directions,” says the Tripoletan MC reflecting on events in Lebanon, neighbouring Syria and the wider Middle East over the last couple of years. “Of course as writers, musicians, and individuals when critical events are taking place in our society we are going to be influenced by them. At the same time it has brought all these lights and cameras from the western world. The real question is not how local media and facebook and twitter helped in propagating our music, it’s about how much we became a more interesting topic for the West."
"I think the oriental bias fucks up a lot of things, it has the power to create an evaluation shaped by criteria we do not want to be defined by. This is the real point I am prioritising here. I am rapping in Arabic, it is oriented towards Arab people,” continues El Rass – a journalist by day and former employee in the banking sector. We are at a threshold now where either it is going to be able to go further or it’s just going to be a short lived phenomenon. So far the evolution in the genre has been noticeable. Out of the realm of the usual copied flows, topics, and attitudes, you now have people rapping over acoustic guitars, with choruses in a Bedouin style, sampling “turud” music, others rhyming over electronic beats. There are people rapping in fusHa (formal, written Arabic) and in various Arabic dialects creating a soundtrack that will serve as an archive to this critical time.”
Arabic rap remains a young beast. In general, alternative music struggles to gain a mainstream following in the region, home to a music industry dominated by the prominence of male and female vocalists and music labels that would rather stick clear of socio-politically motivated invectives. Whilst the events of the Arab Spring have certainly contributed to greater interest in homegrown rap in the region a disproportionate percentage of column inches written on the emergence of the culture appear in the Western press. Often written by author’s who struggle to grasp precisely what is being said and writing for an audience with far less of a clue.
For their part Arab rappers – often promulgating an agenda critical of the West’s role in shaping current socio-political realities in the Middle East – sometimes struggle to unshackle themselves from the perception that doing so with a form of music that originates in the West somehow compromises its authenticity. Now almost 20 years since its emergence in Palestine with groups such as DAM Arabic rap is striving to crystalize a self-definition and home-grown identity against a backdrop defined by socio-political uncertainty. No more so than in Beirut, a city with a palpably schizophrenic identity crisis perched on the precipice of Syria’s ongoing civil conflict.
“Arabic hip hop has evolved in every way since its birth in the area – both in terms of quality and quantity of beats and mc’s” says DJ Sotusura, a Jordanian Producer/DJ based in Beirut. “We have a long way to go before it is common to hear this music playing in people’s households, but you see the quality of the music and the dedication of those involved. People are beginning to see the music in a different way as it has given a form of voice to the revolution.”
“We are trying to create our own genre of music. There are MC’s getting out of traditional Hip Hop rhythms, spitting Arabic poetry over beats that lack the consistent BPMs of usual formulas,” says Waatar, of Syrian rap trio La Etlete sitting outside Radio Beirut, a hangout in the Mar Mikhael district of East Beirut that hosts weekly open mic nights.
In Beirut the transition from rapping in English to Arabic pioneered by local artists such as Rayess Bek, Aks’ser and Kitab Beirut remains fairly recent. During Radio Beirut’s open mic night it remains common to see local MC’s take to the mic in English. “I remember around 2005 at hip hop nights they would pass you the mic and expect you to rhyme in English – Arabic rap felt weird for people,” says Edd Abbass of Lebanese funk-rap group Fareeq el-Atrash. “Now there are people who don’t like English language rap listening to Arab rap.”
Waatar recalls with affection his first dabblings with producing hip hop music growing up in Damascus. “In the early 2000’s we heard that there was a Palestinian group that had a campaign on the internet to promote Arabic hip hop,” says the former member of Syria’s eponymous Hip Hop posse, Sham MCs. “So we bought a mic for about £5, made a beat using some old software and recorded. The quality was shit but the real problem was that I didn’t have internet at home, or a CD writer. Only floppy discs – so we had to transfer the track by floppy and then take it to my friend’s house. It took about 10 discs and well I can’t remember how many days. It was for the love though.”
Chyno (Nasser Shorbaji), alongside Abbas, one of two MC’s in Fareeq el Atrash, recalls happening upon obscure mid-90’s eastcoast rap in a record store in Bab Touma, a district within the 4000 year old foundations of the Syrian capital’s old city. “Since there was no internet we would scavenge around for places to buy cassettes or make requests to people travelling outside the country,” recalls Shorbaji. “We found this place in a sidestreet of Bab Touma. There was no categorizing into different genres of music etc…. I remember searching amongst these non-descript tapes and finding these two Killarmy and Sunz of Man cassettes. It was ridiculous. I would get on anything Wu related.”
Whilst Shorbaji remains a Wu afficianado, in other respects times have changed.
In July a reported mortar blast killed 4 people in Bab Touma, the first major explosion reported within the walls of Damascus’ old city since the outbreak of the Civil War in March 2011. One of many incidents in an ongoing conflict that has claimed the lives of over 100,000 people. Come the end of August the situation had become a lot worse after chemical agents were deployed in the Damascus suburb of East Ghoutta, contributing to calls for foreign military intervention.
“I would love to get myself out of the Syrian revolution to talk about other things but I can’t,” says Al Sayyed Darwish (Hani Al Sawah) of La Etlete and a native of the Syrian city of Homs. “My body is in Beirut but my heart and soul remain in Syria.”
Bandmate Waatar recalls a studio session in March 2012 as Syria’s conflict began to permeate Damascus, and a spate of car bombings began to exact its toll on the city. “At the time it felt like the beginning of the disaster. It took us a lot of time to understand what we were doing. How to write the story, to describe these new emotions we were experiencing. “Back in the day in Syria it was impossible to say what you wanted to say,” continues Waatar. “Now I don’t care if there are repercussions. There are over 100,000 people dead. (Even if Assad stays) I can’t be afraid from a couple of words. Now we are making sad music,” he says with a wry smile.
Back in Metro al Madina the auditorium begins to fill as people make their way to the venue following the celebration of Iftar, the meal that marks the end of a day’s fast during the month of Ramadan. Mumna re-appears on stage. Perhaps somewhat ironically given the trajectory of El Rass’ earlier invective he drops a set of mid 90’s east coast bangers before the distinguishable shaved pate and bushy goatee of Al Sayyed Darwish appears on stage.
As Darwish launches into his opener – an impassioned lament to his homecity of Homs – the power of his vocals, and the pain, anger, and idealism, of a message forged against the backdrop of Syria’s ongoing civil misery resonates in the energy of a crowd discernible by its diversity. Hip hop heads stand alongside women wearing hijabs, and older generations sporting dinner suits and summer gowns.
As Darwish departs stage left Munma begins to loop “Ehsud, Kassr, Lif” – Nar El Din’s anthemic take on the inner workings of the lucrative Lebanese cannabis trade. The lanky MC takes to the stage in a shirt emblazoned with the Jamaican flag rapping with an irreverence forged in the furnace of Lebanon’s Bekaa valley, the nucleus of both Hezbollah and the country’s principal cannabis producing region.
In the ensuing chaos that accompanies the completion of his first verse the Bekaa MC doesn’t even bother with the chorus such is the ferocity with which it is being yelled back at him by a particularly vocal group of heads standing stage right. The atmosphere feels as heavy as “Simon Says” during a Pharoahe Monche gig and El Rass is still philosophizing backstage. As the lights fade a temporary hush comes over the heaving auditorium.
“Wahid, Itnain – Wahid, Itnain (One, Two – One, Two),” spits El-Rass appearing stage left – his enunciation marked by an emphasis on the breathy “h” of “Wahid” – a sound drawn from within the lungs and possessing a crispness unparalleled in the English language. Amplified over the theatre’s sound system it cracks like a lyrical whip down the back of the spine. With a vice-like grip on the mic and his body held tight like a spring prior to the moment of recoil El Rass launches into “Kief ma bidy koon?”, a rumination on the expectancies placed on individuals growing up in Lebanon’s politically and religiously fractured society.
As the lyrics resonate with the crowd people start throwing elbows. A few overcome with emotion look like they might be crying. El Rass (The General) absolutely kills it. As the gig closes I am reminded of a conversation a couple of weeks previously with Shorbaji: “Political hip hop in the Middle East is like the equivalent of gangster rap in the US. It is the paradigmatic topic that MC’s lean towards most regularly.”
Later I ask El Rass whether the politicized nature of Arabic rap will forever limit its popular appeal. “People who approach this art from different angles will bring diversity that will crystalize the nuances of its identity. But for me I am here to denounce, to instigate, to provoke, and to propose ideas. I would prefer to have access to 10 thousand fans who seriously listen, then a million who just like the sound of one of the beats.”
Three Noteworthy releases out of Lebanon this year
DJ Sotusura, El 3Arabi Mokh, on Immortal
A mixtape courtesy of Sotusura showcasing the skills of some of the finest MC’s from across the Middle East).
Various, Khat Taleth: Initiative for the Maturation of Public Consciousness, on Stronghold Records
The brainchild of Lebanese rapper El Rass and DJ/Producer Dub Snakker, Khat Taleth gathers a broad cross-section of the most conscious and innovative Arab hip hop artists and producers from the Middle East and diaspora to provide a platform of free expression concerning on-going revolutionary changes in the region.
Fareeq El Atrash, ‘Al Mawjeh El Tarsha', Independent
The Middle East’s premier funk rap group return with their second LP once again showing it is possible to have a socio-politically conscience and still get down. Positively dripping with funk and soul.
Follow Martin Armstrong on Twitter here @scotinbeirut