Sound Of the Underground

The Birth of Arab Hip Hop

To say that the Arab youth have caught the Hip Hop virus would be an understatement. The masses have certainly bought into the style; the crooked caps, the baggy pants and the bling. But beneath the surface simmers a whole segment of young talent who have made the American Hip Hop hype their own, by giving it a distinctly local twist. The region now has emcees (rappers), dancers, breakers, beat boxers, and singers with soul, all hoping for their big break. Or at the very least – in their idealistic view – hoping to change the way we think.

 

Cairo’s El Sawy Culture Wheel has become the platform for these young performers in Egypt. And on any give show night, the different ‘crews’ and Hip Hop groups congregate in their hundreds. If it weren’t for the Arabic words peppering the Hip Hop speak, you’d think you were taking a walk through New York, witnessing the camaraderie of some crews, along with the mean muggin’ hostility between others. To them Hip Hop is everything. They love it and they live it. One of the fore-fathers of western Hip Hop, KRS-One, often says, “Rap is something we do. Hip Hop is something we live.” Unfortunately, the community outside of Hip Hop often sees it as a lewd art form, promoting the objectification of women, drug use, over-sized clothing, and gang-banging. But these young Arabs Hip hop lovers are ditching the Western shortcomings to take it on as a pan-Arab movement promoting unity and peace throughout the Middle East.

Hip Hop is even penetrating the walls of mainstream pop, with commercial artists vying for collaborations with rappers. The style of dress is imitated in music videos, and most tellingly, MTV Arabia has made a distinct effort to promote Hip Hop artists (from within the region) with their show, Hiphopna. “It’s the perfect vehicle to showcase these underground talents and give Arabic Hip Hop the attention it deserves,” claims Jane Meikle of MTV Arabia in Dubai. But pitted against House music or even Rock, Hip Hop often loses out in the Arab World. DJ AK, known as the only turn-tablist and fader-scratcher in Egypt, explains, “Egyptian high society doesn’t attend an event based on who is DJing, but rather who’s organising the event, and local promoters are rarely willing to play Hip Hop.” And according to the famed music video director Hady El Baghoury and owner of production company, The Producers (who manage the rap group Arabian Knightz), “Concerts, events, and performances bring in the most money.

So without the money from well-funded events, Hip Hop will find difficulty gaining status and longevity.”

 

Despite the financial struggles, the social and political state of the region continues to fuel the local Hip Hop spirit. As Farid ‘Fredwreck’ Nassar, a successful American Hip Hop producer who has worked with the superstar likes of Eminem, 50 Cent, Snoop Dog and Britney Spears, is now releasing his beats for free to up and coming Arab Hip Hop artists explains, “It’s an easy way for repressed or frustrated kids to express themselves; it’s the music and lifestyle of our generation.” And many Hip Hop artists in the region feel they have something to prove to the rest of the world as xenophobia runs rampant internationally. “You must have something to say to be a successful rapper, and no one has something to say like the Arabs,” says Rush of Arabian Knightz. “The movies vilify Arabs as terrorists, but within this medium, we can tell our side of the story.”

In that vein, Arabian Knightz’ mantra is ‘Arabs Stand Up’. Their first commercially successful single Fokkak was released last January and enjoyed airplay on some of the region’s leading music channels. Their debut album, Uknighted State of Arabia, with six beats produced by Fredwreck, will be out after Ramadan. The album isn’t only influenced by Western rappers, it also takes inspiration from Fayrouz and Abdel Halim Hafez. Even Egyptian pop superstar Hisham Abbas contributed to the album.

 

Unfortunately, women have taken a backseat in Arabic Hip Hop, with few willing to take the leap into this genre of music. Yet one woman stands out. The Lebanese winner of MTV’s Hiphopna, Malikah, has received increased acclaim as a singer and rapper. “I was shocked, she’s gorgeous, she can rap and sing, and most importantly she has a good head on her shoulders,” says Fredwreck. “I hope she is an inspiration to other female artists”. Malikah herself says, “It’s an honour because I have the chance to represent my Arab roots with an Arab woman’s perspective, but there are still many obstacles to overcome.” Working with Washington DC-based label, NasJota Records, Malikah is set to release her debut album soon.

In that vein, Arabian Knightz’ mantra is ‘Arabs Stand Up’. Their first commercially successful single Fokkak was released last January and enjoyed airplay on some of the region’s leading music channels. Their debut album, Uknighted State of Arabia, with six beats produced by Fredwreck, will be out after Ramadan. The album isn’t only influenced by Western rappers, it also takes inspiration from Fayrouz and Abdel Halim Hafez. Even Egyptian pop superstar Hisham Abbas contributed to the album.

Unfortunately, women have taken a backseat in Arabic Hip Hop, with few willing to take the leap into this genre of music. Yet one woman stands out. The Lebanese winner of MTV’s Hiphopna, Malikah, has received increased acclaim as a singer and rapper. “I was shocked, she’s gorgeous, she can rap and sing, and most importantly she has a good head on her shoulders,” says Fredwreck. “I hope she is an inspiration to other female artists”. Malikah herself says, “It’s an honour because I have the chance to represent my Arab roots with an Arab woman’s perspective, but there are still many obstacles to overcome.” Working with Washington DC-based label, NasJota Records, Malikah is set to release her debut album soon.

 

From his DJ booth, DJ Feedo who has been spinning for over 12 years, has seen the Hip Hop community “change, evolve, and improve over the years.” Break dancing and DJing first caught on in the early 90s before the more recent emergence of rappers and graffiti artists. “Now the four elements of Hip Hop have reached the Middle East,” explains Feedo. The different branches of the scene have integrated, providing locals with high-octane and unforgettable performances. Last July, in Al Azhar Park in Cairo, Dani Panullo’s Spanish dance company put together a show fusing artists from Spain and Egypt into a jam-packed performance of rapping and break dancing; complete with a graffiti artist creating a real work of art on the backdrop during the show (known as tagging) and DJing for each act simultaneously.

 

Local Hip Hop is also thriving through The Flavor Project, which brings together singers, dancers, breakers, rappers, beat-boxers, DJs, musicians, and producers from different backgrounds and styles. Together they put on a hybrid performance of Hip hop and contemporary music and art. “We have helped open doors for many groups in Egypt interested in putting on a well-rounded show, combining different aspects of music and dance,” explains singer, dancer and actor Mahmoud Shoukry, half of The Flavour Project’s management.

“When I started out, there was little opportunity for performers interested in these forms of song and dance, so I decided I had to create them on my own.” The collective plans to perform in Cairo’s Purple night club and throughout the North Coast this August.

 

Beat-boxing, often considered the ‘fifth element’ of Hip Hop, is the art of creating musical sounds and beats using nothing but one’s mouth. “We took our beat-boxing to the professional level because we had a feeling both Hip Hop and mainstream music listeners would be interested in this unique art form,” says Bilal El Sayed of Vocal Curse, Egypt’s best beat-boxing duo.   Nayrouz Abouzid, co-owner of Alter Ego Productions who manages both Vocal Curse and The Flavor Project says, “Unfortunately Hip Hop remains outside of the general commercial canon, but it’s had a successful pattern everywhere else. Sooner or later Arabic Hip Hop will become a musical phenomenon that will mesmerise coming generations. Right now we are simply laying the foundations.”

 

Slowly but surely it seems our own brand of Hip Hop is set to become the next big thing in Arabic music. As Malikah explains, “Hip Hop was born in order to express human struggle in the West. The same notion applies to the Middle East. Hip hop not only entertains but reveals the rough reality people have to endure.” Whether you enjoy Hip Hop for its entertainment value or the consciousness of its education, each Hip Hop artist has a story to tell. All that’s left is for us to listen.

 

Catch many of these Hip Hop artists in concert at Al Azhar Park on August 14th, 2008