Music of the Arab World: Arabic hip-hop

In the second of our eight-part series on music from the Arab world, Saeed Saeed takes us behind the scenes of Arabic hip-hop.

The hip-hop artist and social commentator Yassin Alsalman, aka The Narcicyst. Callaghan Walsh / The National
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It is one of the fastest growing genres in Arabic music. Spurred by technology, the internet and globalisation, not to mention a few recent revolutions, Arabic hip-hop has been making waves locally and internationally. In the second of our eight-part series on Music from the Arab World, we break down the rise of Arabic hip-hop in the region.

Bring the beat back

Where Arabic pop-stars took most of their music cues from observing what their American and European counterparts were cooking up in the studio, Arabic hip-hop spread courtesy of its diaspora communities. While there is no clearly defined year kick-starting the genre, the first beats constituting Arabic hip-hop emerged in the mid-1990s from North African communities residing in France. Aided by laws promoting local content, French hip-hop grew to become the mouthpiece for disaffected and refugee youth with the groups Saïan Supa Crew and IAM, which had Arabic members, leading the way. Not long after, similar collectives began to coalesce in Palestine such as DAM (Da Arab MCs). However, it was with the television satellite explosion at the turn of the century that Arabic hip-hop really thrived. Relegated to underground status by uninterested major record labels and suspicious governments, Arabic rap crews took to the internet to upload content online. With the arrival of MTV Arabia and western music channels, the genre found a growing audience that was increasingly receptive.

Beats and lyrics

At the root of American hip-hop is sampling and Arabic artists have maintained the tradition because, let's face it, unlike regional pop stars who tour with a full orchestra, sampling is simply a cheaper method. However, with such a rich musical tradition to pilfer from, Arabic hip-hop artists were like kids in a candy store. Inspired by Public Enemy, the Palestinian political rappers DAM often incorporated news sound bites from the Second Intifada as well as readings from local poets. In My Mother, the Saudi rapper Klash makes great use of a loop of Arabic strings to craft a tribute to said parent. Other artists were also content to sample riffs and vocal loops from traditional Lebanese and Egyptian folk, rai and influential singers such as Fairuz and Julia Boutros. However, not every artist referred to the news or the past for inspiration. The pioneering Dubai hip-hop duo Desert Heat looked to the modern era for ideas. Last year's single CruZin found them mixing Arabic and English - sometimes within the same verse - over a riding beat that could have come from America's west coast.

The stars

Arabic hip-hop artists have not only made a name regionally but some have also become major players in the US. Presently, one of American hip-hop's leading producers is the Palestinian-American DJ Khaled, whose trunk-rattling production has been used by the likes of Dr Dre, Lil Wayne and Rick Ross. The Iraqi-Canadian MC Yassin Alsalman, known as The Narcicyst, is another artist whose politically inspired work drew plaudits from many quarters including entertainment magazines and the political journal Foreign Policy. Dubai's Desert Heat remain one of the leading groups in the Gulf, with brothers Salim and Abdallah Dahman establishing themselves as charismatic MCs in their own right.

The ladies

The Arabic hip-hop talent is not only limited to the fellas. Female MCs have also emerged from Palestine, Egypt and Lebanon to give their male counterparts and fans something to think about. While the title Queen of Arabic Hip-Hop is contentious, Shadia Mansour is definitely a contender. The British-born Palestinian MC hit the scene with the fierce Kofeyye Arabeyye (The Kufiya is Arab) and has already toured Europe and America with the popular Iraqi-English rapper Lowkey and the Libyan-American Khaled M. The Lebanese, UAE-based rapper Malikah has also been turning heads and is currently hard at work on her debut album.

Next week we will be looking at rai, from Northern Africa.


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