Hip-hop artists are rarely shy of self-praise, but the genre's celebratory spirit sounds important and timely in the recently released Anghami Cypher.
Funded and distributed by the region’s leading music streaming service, the Dubai based Anghami, the group track (referred to in hip-hop parlance as a “cypher”) and accompanying video featuring nine of the region’s star MCs was released today to showcase the diversity and dexterity of the Middle Eastern hip-hop community.
Those following the scene should be excited at the sheer talent on display by the group of artists who hail from Algeria to Lebanon to Iraq.
The boisterous near eight-minute track has Syrian American rapper Omar Offendum, Egypt’s Deeb, fire-brand Algerian-Canadian MC Meryem Saci, Saudi rapper Shiboba, Syrian artist Bu Kolthoum, Iraqi-Canadian rapper and regional favourite Narcy, Lebanese rapper Edd Abbas and compatriot, DJ Lethal Skillz, Palestine’s Muqata’a and a rare verse from the enigmatic Iraqi-British hip-hop star Lowkey. The beat is produced by the industry veteran Sandhill from Iraq.
Corralling them is Anghami’s hip-hop editor and UAE music personality Hassane “Big Hass” Dennaoui with the aim of delivering “a powerful message that we are strong, we got amazing talent in the form of rhythm and poetry”.
Rooted in tradition
This is thrillingly illustrated in the accompanying video featuring all artists rapping their verses in their respective home cites: Offendum drops his rhymes in the urban surroundings of Los Angeles; Deeb is found in the backstreets of Cairo, while Saci is positively fierce as she spits thought provoking rhymes in a Montreal park.
Linking them together is the beat composed by Iraqi producer Nawar Al Rufaie, also known as Sandhill.
Firmly rooted in hip-hop’s boom-bap sonic tradition of tough kick drums and chaotic snares, the production also boasts a welcome regional touch of a plaintive loop of wailing Middle eastern strings. It ultimately strikes an elegant balance of sounding both modern while paying homage to the genre’s golden 1990s era.
“Yeah, I grew up on early 1990s east-coast hip-hop with artists such as Big Daddy Kane, Public Enemy and Eric B. and Rakim. A lot of it was up-tempo and placed emphasis on big breakbeats and thick groovy bass,” he says.
“I thought it would be interesting to draw inspiration from that and apply it within the context of Arabic hip-hop.”
In true hip-hop fashion, Sandhill threw a few sonic curve balls to the MCs to see if they were up to the challenge.
"Most MCs have tempo ranges they feel most comfortable working with and that bring out the best in them," he says. "But in the competitive spirit of hip-hop, I wanted to challenge the rappers on this song to step out of their comfort zone by trying something different on a technical level. It was about finding their 'pocket' on a beat they are not used to."
Omar Offendum sticks to his roots
Indeed, it is fascinating to hear how the MCs grappled with Sandhill's urgent production, with some electing to embark upon full-throttle speed rapping, while others were content to simply sail over the ruckus with a smoother and punchier flow.
Regional hip-hop stalwart Omar Offendum lies in the latter with a magnetising multi-lingual verse tracing his journey from Syria to the US where he is now a fully-fledged independent artist.
“The verse is reflective of where I am at the moment,” he says. “I am proud of the fact that I stuck to my roots. I shout out Damascus and Hamma – the two cities I have roots in in Syria. I also talk about how I do rap on my terms. And off course I am also flexing – that braggadocios MC that is Omar Offendum is still in there.”
Deeb breaks down the writing process
When it comes to Deeb, the Egyptian rapper, full name Mohamed El Deeb, goes for broke with a scintillating speed rap verse – delivered in Egyptian dialect where he touches on the writing process, hip-hop as an inspiration for Arab youth and labelling himself as a “lyrical doctor”.
The verse is also a fine example of how the Arabic language, with its own rhythms and syllables can merge seamlessly on top of hip-hop beats. “I am addressing the artist and creative people in the Arab world. It’s a message to use their skills and do something positive for society,” he says.
“This is why I begin with the words ‘its starts with a beat and a rhyme’. What I am doing is breaking down the creative process and telling them that it is as simple as that. Begin there, and then move forward.”
These are the words of experience. Indeed, a feature of the Anghami Cypher is how it brings together a multi-generation blend of rappers.
Artists such as Omar Offendum and Deeb, whose careers span a decade, represent the “old school” of the hip-hop pool – a time devoid of streaming services and where the websites Myspace and Bandcamp were places to be discovered and share tracks.
And introducing Meryem Saci
Representing the region’s fresh batch of talent is Meryem Saci, an Algerian rapper who fled Algeria’s civil war in 2000 to relocate in Montreal. Indeed, her stellar and forceful verse, is a highlight and a reflection on how the region’s hip-hop scene is in rude health.
It also marks another high point for Saci, who recently quit her job as an estate agent to focus on a burgeoning solo career that included the release of her well-received solo EP On My Way last year.
Her blistering verse, powered with a husky tone recalling Lauryn Hill’s work with The Fugees, almost acts like a personal manifesto with pledges to maintain her values and trust her intuition.
Off course, being the only woman featured, she also throws down the gauntlet for others to match her skills.
“I do boast in the beginning when I declare that ‘I am going to kill this beat’,” she says with a soft laugh. “As the only women, I just felt inspired. It really ignited the fire in me and I just let my pen flow.”
This is not an introduction
With all those lyrical fireworks available on a grand platform such as Anghami, the cypher is set to ignite regional and international interest in the Middle Eastern hip-hop scene.
While Offendum, Deeb and Saci welcome the spotlight, they caution against the notion that the cypher is an introduction to the scene.
“It is more a reintroduction” Offendum says. “Most of the artists in this video have been doing this for a while and it is a chance to show where we are lyrically and how much we progressed.” Also it shows how much we value poetry in the Arab world. We have a history and tradition when it comes to poetry and that comes through here as well.”
Deeb agrees, stating that with a lack of regional festivals catering to Arabic hip-hop, the cypher is a rare chance for artists to be together on one stage, so to speak. “A lot of us are aware of each other, so this is a great chance to connect and celebrate,” he says. “I look at it as a way of saying to each other, what’s up, as we all continue on our own hustle.”
To hear the track go to www.anghami.com