The origins of Hip Hop and Rap are rich with culture and weaved with era-significant stories. Somewhere along the line we, and I mean primarily Americans, have watered down the once relevant style into a drug insinuating, profanity riddled, often sexist, image that is only perpetuated by terrible award shows, a sense of instant satisfaction and an unprecedented level of ignorance.
With all that being said, and it needed to be said, it is with great pleasure that I experienced Stronghold Sound’s Khat Thaleth A Tour Through Arab Rap In The Wake of Revolutions.
The Twenty-Three track compilation is the result of an unyielding passion to pull together an accurate, more importantly authentic, collection of Middle Eastern and Diaspora sound. Combining artists from Palestine, Tunisia, Jordan, Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, Stronghold hand delivers bold imagery with worldly flair.
The first perspective narrative is unlike anything you can find in today’s rap. For instance, opening the album, Touffar’s “Min Al Awal (From the Beginning)” speaks to state television, Hosni Mubarak and Israel. Then the elegant delivery of LaTlateh and Hiba’s “Boov (Boov)” is deceivingly beautiful as it sings “Sprawled I am in the middle of the street musing/wasn’t our neighbor’s house here yesterday?” Then, a sobering reality comes into view with RAS’ “Oumat El Zulum (Nation of Injustice)” as he weaves a poetry of fear and realism, singing “When I load my pen to write about/Syria, my hand shivers” and his feelings of Western interjection. The album is full of tales of loves lost due to war, the power of money and what is happening in neighborhoods, we often ignore as we drive to Starbucks to get our “fix” so that we can “make it on Monday.”
Instrumentally, Khat Thaleth carries an eclectic range of regional and worldly sounds. Lyrically, this masterpiece gets back to rap roots in a profound way, solidifying its presence as the most significant rap today.
The most important thing to take away from the entire compilation is that this is not anti-American nor is it attempting to make some negative political statement. Khat Thaleth is a reality that finds an outlet in a masterful way thanks to Stronghold Sound. This is cultured rap as it should be. It is a splendid expression of the power of music.
Produced by San Francisco label Stronghold Sound, Khat Thaleth, translated to Third Rail, is a twenty three track compilation album featuring hip hop artists from all over the Arab world. The result is politically conscious battle poetry set to a jungle of fruity looping flutes with tall palm trees of percussion, where harsh sounding verses drop like heavy coconuts to the world’s floor.
The Arabic language hits my ears like German, meaning it is coarse, and there is no romance in the tone of this tongue. When read from a page, the shared words become eloquently spoken tales of poverty and struggle, restless poets conveying their fearful realities through song. So well, in fact, are their stories told that I’m left to wonder what themes, if any, have been lost in translation.
There are melodies that make you see mirages, feel sweltering heat, and the wind from the wings of buzzing sandflies. There are sinister back beats and hectic bangs of uncertainty. Some songs are littered with spoken words that sound like religious prayer, while others spit ideas with a bullhorn effect.
My favorite track is called “Boov,” by LaTlateh. It features a woman’s voice over droplets of sound, and based on the translations, I’d say she must represent an angel. The song is about a world of living spirits, walking among their dead, human shells, coming to terms with the concept of suddenly losing life. It is spooky, and a lullaby of purgatory. It reminds me of the music video for Santigold’s L.E.S. Artistes, with its red ribbons of blood and it’s smoke and strawberry and crepe-paper carnage. Nothing terrible is real until that terrible something happens to you, and once it happens, all that can be done is to step outside your body, and watch yourself from the outside.
As background music, I’d totally listen to Arab hip hop. It doesn’t matter what they’re saying, because the rhythms and tempos feel urban and comfortable. They’re dancehall-ish and reggae. They’re informative and easy listening. And, sadly, but true enough, I can honestly say that everything I know about Middle Eastern culture and conditions, I’ve learned from this Arab hip hop. Coffee shops in America could play Khat Thaleth, and subliminally, we’d all be better for it.