'We out to show the world that we not a bunch of terrorists!'

A voice from the hip-hop wilderness is emerging to define a new musical sound in Lebanon. Menassat.com profiles the Lebanese hip-hop scene through the eyes of its most celebrated DJ/producer, Hussein Mao – aka DJ Lethal Skillz.
By Jackson Allers
DJ Lethal Skillz in East Beirut
DJ Lethal Skillz in Beirut. © Tanya Traboulsi

When you walk into the home studio of Hussein Mao, you’re immediately confronted by one of his hero’s – a huge poster of El-Hajj Malik Shabazz, a.k.a. Malcolm X, pointing his finger at a Harlem crowd, giving them his most famous speech:

"Our objective," he said some 45 years ago, "is complete freedom, justice and equality by any means necessary."

"Malcolm X is a huge influence in my life," Mao says. "What he stood for, how he lived, I got mad respect. He fought for the rights of blacks in the world. Like we gotta fight for the rights of Arabs – it’s like we the new niggers of the world.”

Hussein Mao is DJ Lethal Skillz, Lebanon’s hip-hop ambassador, regional judge for the World DMC DJ Championships, and the heart of the '961 Underground' hip-hop movement.

Discussing hip-hop with Lethal Skillz, or LS, is like going on a ride through history, and he’s all too aware that the majority of that history does not include Arab hip-hop.

In fact, it’s fair to say that there are no pan-Arab hip-hop albums, no musical signposts, to mark the development of Arabic hip-hop in the Middle-East & North Africa region - at least not to the uninitiated.

There is no pan-Arab equivalent to (rap group) Boogie Down Productions’ album ‘Criminal Minded’ (1987), with its unflinching treatment of the urban realities of the South Bronx. Nothing like the Los Angeles-based group NWA’s controversial track “Fuck tha Police” (1988), that branded rap music 'cultural enemy number one' in the halls of the U.S. Congress, and certainly nothing like the New York City-based Public Enemy’s 'Fight the Power' (1989), that activated an entire generation into some form of political awareness.

That doesn’t imply that Arab hip-hop doesn’t have its share of movers and shakers. Moroccan rapper/producer Cilvaringz was the first non-U.S.-based Arab M.C. to sign with a major U.S. record label in 1999. Ramallah-born Producer Fred Wreck has recorded with many Los Angeles-based rap talents (among them Snoop Dogg and Nate Dogg of the Dogg Pound), and these days Wreck is hosting MTV Arabia’s My Hip Hop. There are also a whole slew of French rappers from Algerian and North African descent. Still, no one has really put Arab hip-hop on the map.

All of that could change in 2008.
Old School

Witness the genesis of hip hop in Lebanon – going back to the early 1990's when young DJ’s were selling cassette mix-tapes with the latest songs out of the back of their car trunks in all five New York City boroughs.

In 1994, LS – ever the hip hop entrepreneur – was making money from his high school classmates selling mix-tapes because they were addicted to the latest releases just like their contemporaries in the USA.

"My friend used to bring in mix-tapes when he’d come back from New York. Stuff from the Tape Kings. And because my dad used to own a hi-fi store, he had these cassette dubbing machines. We’d hi-jack the shit and dub the hell out of those mix-tapes," LS recalls. "And from the money we made, we’d buy vinyl and production equipment. It’s when we started producing our first beats.”

Rewind a bit to 1990 and you’d have found a young Chairman Mao spinning hip-hop on Friday nights for a Beirut-based pirate radio station called 107.7 FM, UFO radio.

"They were mostly a rocker station that played Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and assorted heavy metal, and I was like this little short 15-year old kid spinning the latest jams – Eric B & Rakim, EPMD, De La Soul, Heavy D, Public Enemy… They hated me there,” says Lethal Skillz, seventeen years later and a lot wiser.

Fast forward to 2007 and the upcoming album release of Lethal Skillz and his crew. New World Disorder is the name, and the making of the album has been a three-year journey of love, occasionally interrupted by war [the 34-day Israeli offensive in Lebanon during the summer of 2006], politics and a general inattentiveness to the underground rap sound in the Arab world.

As well, New World Disorder is a testament to the development of Lebanese hip-hop. It pays homage to the veterans of the past and to the purveyors of the new sounds that have developed mostly since 2000 – the year Israel pulled out of South Lebanon.

And it’s the linkages from past to present that make the '961 Underground' family different from past Arabic hip-hop outfits.

As LS says, "If you don’t know where you came from, then you don’t know where you’re going."

Indeed, hearing LS explain the history of his involvement in the Lebanese hip-hop scene, with so many names, it’s hard to explain why these groups don’t have more of a reputation here in Lebanon.

LS explains, “There’s this thing about our culture here where it takes Arabs from the diaspora, making albums in Canada and selling a lot of albums there and in other western countries, to then come back to Lebanon or the Arab world for that matter, so as to be considered legit!”

Cats like Masari come to mind – although LS actually pays respects to guys like Masari for actually making an impact musically in Arabia. He ain’t no player hater!

"That’s why what we are doing in Lebanon right now is aimed mostly at an audience outside of Lebanon. And according to all of the research I’ve conducted, what through our MySpace/Facebook hits, emails and what not, only about 30 percent of our fan base are actually Arabs – either here in the region or abroad in Canada, the U.S., France, the U.K."

Truth is that it’s a bit sad that this is the formula that many of the young hip-hop heads in Lebanon seem to believe in – that it takes the West to legitimize the movement.

The reality of Lebanon, and other Western-influenced (read: saturated) Arab destinations like Dubai or Amman, is that there is no hip-hop history to rely on past the wee bit that has been passed down from those heads that have stuck around in the region to remember their forebearers.

Few in Lebanon remember that in 1995, the DMC DJ World Championships were held in Lebanon with such heavy weights as Dj Q-bert, Dj Noize (Denmark), and of course the only Lebanese DJ ever to compete on the international level, Sweet Little DJ, who tragically died in a car accident in 1999.

"Arabs in the region are not yet educated to what hip-hop is. They are only aware of what they see on MTV. We come from a culture that is all about respect – about family and tradition. It’s our responsibility to educate the people and make sure we create that history," LS says.

But, as DJ Lethal Skillz lays out, authenticity is just part of the migration of hip-hop – it had to hit properly in the Arab world eventually: "Look, hip-hop went from the various regions of the U.S. – with all of the different movements – to Europe – the UK, France, Poland, etc – then it went to the Far East. It’s taken us some time in the Arab world to realize – like blacks in the U.S., like African, and Arab immigrants in France and in the U.K., but especially in France – that hip-hop does make a difference – it is the sound of the people. And we realized that if they can do it, we can do it too!"

click to listen to "A New World Disorder" - music excerpt from debut album of DJ Lethal Skillz and the 961 Underground Family

The New School

Hip-hop references to Lebanon and Beirut by U.S.-based hip-hop acts (e.g. Wu Tang Clan, Big Pun, Red Man ('Bombing you like Lebanon'), Noriega or even by more mainstream acts like Eminem), recall perceptions of the days of the bloody 15-year Lebanese civil war that cost 250,000 lives.

Davey D, the legendary San Francisco-based hip-hop historian and longtime radio personality (Hard Knock Radio, 94.5 FM KPFA), came to Lebanon in late 2005 – in part to check the stats about how scary Beirut really was and to talk to rapper Clotaire K.

"Beirut is mentioned in rap songs as a way to describe toughness or indicate how violence-prone a particular neighborhood is,” he says. "But hardly any rappers in the U.S. who raise up the name of Beirut have ever traveled there and have very little knowledge of the people or its hip-hop scene. Sadly most don’t even know what country Beirut is in," Davey D said.

D was struck by the contrast of what he imagined would be a war-torn landscape when compared to the Beirut rebuilt by the Solidère construction company – shiny and new. His initial  misperception of Beirut is indicative of the West’s misinterpretation of Arabs and the emerging cultural trends coming from this region. When 50 Cent came to Lebanon in June 2006, he rolled through the streets with an armored entourage befitting a U.S. president.

What Davey D was also trying to do with his visit was draw linkages with the street culture that hip-hop emerged from in the United States – black street culture, ghetto culture – but he soon found that those linkages are a lot less obvious here than in the United States.

Still, a new school of Arab rap has been emerging over the past six or seven years – in the Arab diaspora but to some extent in the Arab world as well. Lebanon in particular has embraced hip-hop as a means to discuss Arab discontent, and to combat the West’s perception of Arabs – especially after September 11th.

LS recalls how, at a show in Poland in September, the tech crew at the venue event shouted, "Sound check! Taliban sound check!," after hearing they were from Lebanon.

"And the funny thing about it, after they hear us rapping in Arabic, that’s when we change their whole perception. And that’s what we are all about. Changing the perception. We out to show the world that we not a bunch of terrorists!”

Lethal Skillz and the '961 Underground' hip-hop movement (961 being Lebanon’s country code) are trying to extract Lebanese hip-hop from the political malaise and elevate it to a level where it can interact with the populace and cause a shake up.

Ambitious? Sure.

But imagine a pan-Arab hip-hop culture, a sort of Nasseresque unifying principle that takes the four cultural pillars of hip-hop – emceeing (rapping, writing, etcetera), deejaying, b-boying (break dancing) and graffiti writing – to all twenty-two Arab-speaking countries. Where the rhymes are in classical Arabic and the weapons turn from guns to tongues.

"The 961 Underground movement is a platform", LS says, "and we hope to bring as many people as we can along with us as our music spreads. Like one big Lebanese family.”