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Cerebral Cypher

TOWER OF BABEL: HIP HOP GONE GLOBAL, Part I

Jun 6, 2006


On his latest album, My Big Phat Greek…, rapper BZ JAM, a first-generation Greek-Canadian, features a track titled, Tower of Babel. This track is the album finale, and epitomizes how Hip Hop has gone global. According to the narrative in Genesis Chapter 11 of the Bible, the Tower of Babel was a tower built by a united humanity to reach the heavens. To prevent this project from succeeding, God confused their languages so that each spoke a different language. As a result, they could no longer communicate with one another and the work stopped. The builders were then scattered to different parts of Earth. This story is used to explain the existence of many different languages and races. BZ Jam knows history, and brings back an old school classic remixed with modern day relevancy. Featured in this track he is accompanied by his counterparts offering a Persian rap, the ancient language of Persia a/k/a/ Iran, and Serbian, Arabic, Greek, and English raps, verse for verse. The MC’s aren’t just from these native lands by way of one generation or another; they actually spit rhymes in their native tongues. Contrary to the title of the song, there is no babbling going on. This is a treatise, a summary statement; this song crystallizes what music does best—to bring people together through the universal language of music. Can BZ Jam take this to the United Nations? Number one question, how can I be down?

Word on the street is, Hip Hop permeates and transcends all cultures and has finally spread around the world. There are vibrant Hip Hop scenes spanning the continents, everywhere in Europe, Asia and Africa. Although proudly made in America, Hip Hop is no longer just American owned and operated. However, Hip Hop is still young, only thirty years old, but somehow, here in the States, some bad twist of fate suddenly happened. Hip Hop lost its freedom ring. Whether it’s the artists to blame and their lack of accountability, the record companies and their formulaic greed, or the listening public as lowest common denominator, one thing is clear–the music is suffering. It’s getting harder to find a good song in the rubble. There are no more anthems, only flavors of the week. This is very ‘what comes first, the chicken or the egg.’ Whose fault is it? Is this crap what listeners really want, and it’s just a case of supply and demand? Or are we just taking what we can get and making the best out of it with a weak two step in a shitty lounge with bad ventilation, oops, another fight broke out…move, bitch, get out the way…

Hip Hop crosses borders, figuratively and now, literally. Just like East Coast gave birth, the West Coast reared Hip Hop into adolescence, the Dirty Souff has most recently nurtured Hip Hop in its formidable years, it will be the rest of our world that will help Hip Hop mature into adulthood. It will be artists from various cultures, histories, languages, and lands that will advise Hip Hop about its potential for content, beats, and lyrics, developing itself as a tool for instrumental social change. Hip Hop will be the soundtrack for peace treaty signings and arms diffusion. It is the present generation that is laying down the tracks headed in a new direction. We do not want to listen to our parent’s music, we want to sample instead, take the best of what they have made, add a new base line, and rock this dope beat. We don’t want to listen to our parent’s music and we no longer want to fight their wars.

The Tower of Babel track is proving there are other things going on in Hip Hop outside of the United States. I am Hip Hop, I listen to Hip Hop, but outside of artists Mos Def, Talib Kweli, remember Lyricist Lounge?, and old school nostalgic reminisces— Wu-Tang Clan with Method Man (before MTV Cribs), Tu-Pac and B.I.G. releasing albums when they were still alive, the metaphors of Buckshot and Keith Murry— I am discontent with what we are making here in the States, instead I turn abroad for direction, only to learn they are just as disappointed with our hits that keep missing. Fair enough, there is always the hope for the subculture’s underground, but regardless, this is one case of outsourcing that Americans should support.

In an interview with me about The Tower of Babel, BZ Jams says, “The track was done by me approaching ethnic kids in Vancouver and getting them to do their thing in their own language…” Because so many here and around the world have become hyphenated, halved, with one foot in two sides, we have had to negotiate being from one place and living in another, having to learn more than one language. BZ Jam offers about the new and old world, “I grew up listening to my parents Greek music and rebelled against it, I didn’t really realize how much of an impact that it had on me on a subconscious level. When Hip Hop came into the picture and we started producing and doing our own thing, it got to the point that I couldn’t relate to what was being said in Hip Hop. So for me when I was writing my rhymes they came from what I knew which was growing up in a Greek household. Also, it was such a natural progression to start making Hip Hop beats and incorporating Greek instruments like the Bouzouki into what I was doing. In the end I was just a lower middle class Greek kid putting out what I now call Bouzouki Hip Hop.” Finding BZ Jam was important for me personally because I learned that I wasn’t the only one. I wasn’t the only working class Greek kid living in Hip Hop. I wasn’t a novelty; I was part of a natural progression. We have to make a place for ourselves to belong, to bring something to the scene, as Hip Hop artists, we bring our culture, in BZ Jam’s case, he brings the Bouzouki and a historical context. He adds, “I think Hip Hop was always the voice of ’struggle’. For myself, seeing my two immigrant parents struggling to make it was real. So I identified with the ’struggle’ of Hip Hop trying to make it into the mainstream. The more Hip Hop was resisted in those days the more it persisted and gained fans around the world.” I concur, yo.

BZ Jam’s most applauded song is Hellenic Genocide. Remember when I mentioned content, to bring it, you have to know who and why you are, there are connections to be made. “Over 2 million Greeks died in the Hellenic genocide and still to this day Greek people haven’t received an apology or even some sort of acknowledgement of wrong doing. My first single ‘Hellenic Genocide’ has been refused airplay by the BBC UK because of its lyrical content…” But finally in 2006, BZ Jam was invited to perform ‘Hellenic Genocide’ for the Greek President. Vre manga, ya sou BZ!

when will you stop calling me a terrorist?/ when you hit me on one side and I give you the other? — Da’ Arabian MC’s

www.dam3rap.com, www.bornhere.net, www.arabrap.net

Assalam u Alaikum. Peace be upon you.

Have you ever heard Arabic Hip Hop? I couldn’t sit still in my seat when listening to Maaraket Baghdad, one of the top 5 songs on www.arabrap.net. Although I do not understand the language, the urgency was translated perfectly. Tamer Nafar from DAM, Da’ Arabian MC’s, lyrically testifies in We Want Education this message translated below,

this is for the small kids in this big world
lost, don’t know what is happening
barely opened your eyes, u saw tears
barely opened your heart, u felt pain
barely joined us, u saw that we are separated
Jews, Christians and Muslims
none of these sides wants to understand the other
Every side thinks they’re better than the other
Claiming that he is the only one who’ll go to heaven
in the mean while, makes our lives as hell
but, you are different than us, your heart is still pure
so don’t let our dirt touch it
keep asking for a life full of equality
and if someone asks you to hate, say no
I am the child of today, the transformation of tomorrow

According to their mission statement, DAM is the leading Palestinian rap group, they are the first Arabic rap group in the Middle-East, created and performing together since 1998. All three members were born and raised in the slams of Lod, a mixed Israeli town of Arabs and Jews. DAM’s music is a unique fusion of east and west, combining Arabic singing, Middle-Eastern compositions and rap beats. The music and lyrics of DAM are influenced from the effects of the continuing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. DAM’s music expresses identification with the suffering of their Palestinian siblings, fighting against discrimination, and dealing with severe issues of crime, drugs, and women’s rights in Arab society. You will learn more truth listening to these young people on the front lines, then reading the bottom scroll of CNN.

DAM’s first introduction to Hip Hop was Tu-Pac. In an interview, Tamer Nafar said, “We heard the lyrics and felt like its talking 2 us more than ‘i love u, u love me’ songs.” When I asked him how Hip Hop, born in the Bronx in African-American environs traveled all the way to Palestine, he offered his insight, “Well, ‘every city got a ghetto and every ghetto got a hood.’ (m&m from Jadakiss’ song-D Block). It’s da way of the world, every place u got… people who depress and eat da minority’s rights, u got the white man depressing da blacks in America, France towards da Algerian and Zionists towards Arabs/Palestinians.” Because Arabic culture has a tendency to seem conservative, I asked him about the elder’s reactions, he says, “Believe it or not, but they appreciate it, I mean maybe not musically, but they really respect and push our lyrics, it’s things they feel, wanna say, so we say it for them.”

I was amazed how all of these artists I talked with are so proficient in English. It proves how much I take for granted as an American, and how much others are forced to comply, learn, and abandon, in order to live with in this time and space. Would Americans be able to live in the rest of the world? Our detriment is catching up to us. I asked Tamer and DAM about the rest of the Arabic Hip Hop scene and its development, he said, “There is an awareness towards it…but it’s not that developed…it’s a bit like a lame try 2 imitate da Americans.” This is what worries me. But not so much, DAM will set the standard. Their upcoming album set to release this April is Ihda2, it means dedication. On it you will find protest music, in DAM’s words, “Palestine/Zion , Arab women/chauvinism , da people/Arab dictators… its politics, social, young, rebels…”

Wa Alaikum Assalam. And upon you be peace.

 

The blasphemous will survive/

–Active Member www.lowbap.com, www.sadahzinia.com

In August of 2005 I visited Athens, Greece and attended the Umicah Festival, celebrating the utopia of the microphone. Seeing Active Member perform live in an ancient outdoor site offered context to their mission statement. They do not align themselves with their Greek history, instead, they coin new terms to describe their future. Although Active Member, made up of MC’s BD Foxmoor, DJ Booker, and Sadahzinia, are MC’s creating Hip Hop and rap music, they call it something else. BD Foxmoor, the leading man who has single handedly mobilized a Hip Hop underground in Greece, has traded in Hip Hop for Low Bap. In an interview he said, “Low Bap is like hip hop plus ‘something’. This ‘something’ is to ‘support your words with your actions and vice versa’… ‘you walk, you talk’, and this is something that does not really happen very often in US. Also, Low Bap is a way to find the beautiful things in life.”

BD Foxmoor refers to Hip Hop as Hiphopoly, which also happens to be the name of one of their albums. I question his right of ownership to rename Hip Hop, the movement, what it is called and how we know it. At first glance, it seems arrogant. At the Umicah concert, when DJ Booker exclaimed, “/fuck the USA/”, in one of his raps, I wanted to remind him that if it wasn’t for the USA, none of us would be standing here in this place and time, doing what we are all doing. I want to invite him to actually visit the States, to actually come here, and learn the difference between the people who struggle to live here (and that means everybody, people of color and white folk too, it is class that is becoming the greatest divider) and the myth. I try to remember my patience, and BD Foxmoor says, “Hip hop in America is struggling to acquire a culture. Thus, in other corners of this world it managed to acquire a culture from its first days. Low Bap has its culture and is preserving the initial sense of hip hop that nowadays unfortunately is remembered by a few people in USA.” Although I can offer names of people, festivals, albums, places, reference material, specific instances, anything to prove him wrong. Now, I am frustrated with myself because I cannot seem to properly argue that sentiment. He might be absolutely right. More accurately, he isn’t right, as much as I understand how and why he arrived at his conclusion. That is what I cannot argue. I cannot argue the way the world looks at us. We did a lot to contribute to that opinion. (Remember that hoax article about a business man Richard Gonahangya and his company America Media Operative Inc. buying and trade-marking the word Hip Hop, demanding billions of dollars in royalties? It was a vicious spread in cyber urban legend, and what is more telling is how many people actually believed it to be true.)

I asked BD Foxmoor and Active Member what is Hip Hop like in Greece? He offers reluctantly, “It is miserable. As it is in many places. But if you ask me about Low Bap, I could tell you a thousand beautiful things. That is why, when we first started to do hip hop we decided to rename it. Because we wanted to differentiate ourselves from the trend.”

What is very clear about Active Member and Low Bap is the development of a philosophy. The music is an extension of a theoretical state of mind and way of life. I asked how they ethnically identified; I was met with disbelief, “We don’t comprehend the term ‘ethnicity’. We just identify as a group that lives in the west end of Piraeus, in Perama, and we do our music and all our things from here.” Active Member strives to be self-defined; they disengage themselves from past and lineage to the extent of changing their Greek names. They are unlike BZ Jam and myself, who align ourselves in a long line of tradition. But maybe if BZ Jam and I lived in Greece and grew up there, it would be a different story, different issues, we create our art from being the children of immigrants, and we were forced to learn about the implications of ethnicity in our world. Active Member has a different story. In the song No Man’s Land, a Greek rhyme goes,

My only enemy is the bad side of me
On this land with dreams betrayed a thousand times
you demand from me all those that you’ve lost.
Move away, say no more. If you want
keep only what’s important, the few and the good.
Step hard on the earth; make a body out of sun
and go; this world has not yet been won over by no one.
So - look around – ‘cause those who know,
they fight, they heel, they resist,
they gather dreams, they don’t beg.
There’s no boss, stand up and look ahead in no man’s land.

If things are getting easier maybe you’re headed downhill/ Up your speed/

–Sway
www.swaydasafo.com, www.signsway.com

One of the things that really stand in the way of British rap is the accent. It’s hard to integrate it into a flow. Or so I would think when only contemplating the easy listening I am accustomed to, but the London underground scene is giving rise to a new sound in Hip Hop, really a style all its own, Grime. Grime is related to Hip Hop and rapping. According to ever trusty Wikipedia, Grime is a genre of music which developed in London’s underground scene between 2002 and 2004. Grime’s tempo varies between 68 and 150 beats per minute. Style of flow also varies but its most common for rappers to spit double time or aggressively over the beat. Grime can often be dark and aggressive. Grime has roots in both hip-hop and electronic music and is characterized by rapid and rhythmic rhyming over sparse break beats, futuristic bleeps and guttural bass growls. Thus we introduce Sway, described as “generation grime’s most charismatic rapper yet.” He has resisted signing a record deal. Usually we are used to hearing artists vie at the opportunity. It is the deal-maker, the goal, what every MC hopes for…Sway offers, “I may never sign a deal. But if I do, I want to be established first. I’ve seen a lot of artists get picked up and dropped. Then they’re nothing. And why? Because they haven’t put in the groundwork.” He set up his own Dcypha Productions label, and hit the ground running with a home grown effort. He boasts British references, and makes much of his own beats. Although you can download from his website, he offers this jest in one of his rhymes,

People don’t wanna pay for CD’s, now every other household’s got PC’s/They download on MP3’s, people please be reasonable/How’m I gonna make my G’s if you’ve got my album before the release,/The quality’s rubbish and there ain’t no sleeves, do you deem that feasible/

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To be continued…

Stay tuned for Part II of Tower of Babel: Hip Hop Gone Global.
This has been a Cerebral Cipher,

I am Angela Kariotis.

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