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IAM, Jay-Z, Rim-K, Hamza… When rap borrows from oriental music

Listen Just a minute by rapper Hamza. Perhaps the tune of the piece is familiar to you? Normal. Behind this song hides a work by the famous Algerian singer-songwriter, Dahmane El Harrachi, already covered by Rachid Taha: Ya Rayah. Remember.

And Hamza is far from being the only artist to have made you dance to oriental sounds. The best known example is none other than Jay-Z and his planetary tube Big Pimpin, title sample Khosara by Abdel Halim Hafez.

A real gold mine, Arabic music is often used in rap to make the instrumental part of a piece, called “prod” or “instrument” in the jargon.

The beatmaker who produces this “prod” will isolate a part of the title that interests him, extract it digitally and reuse it to create the backdrop for the new song. It then creates what is more commonly called “a loop”. And this technique has a name: sampling. Used in different musical genres, this process makes it possible to cross and merge different sounds. And this is how the majestic violins of oriental music began to rub shoulders with the bass drums of rap.

But when did the meeting between these two musical styles date? Hard to say. For Bachir of Toukadim, a duo of DJs who mix traditional Maghreb music on vinyl, it is necessary to cross the Atlantic to find the first traces of oriental sounds in hip-hop music. And more precisely in New York, the city from which the rap duo Eric B. & Rakim originated. In 1987, the band released the song Paid in Full. A great classic, the track comes from the eponymous album. The instrumental is based on a drum loop, accompanied by a flute, to which are added several vocal samples borrowed from different artists.

In the middle of this sound collage, a voice stands out and surprises. This is the voice of Ofra Haza, an Israeli singer, taken from her song Im Nin’alu. “We have this flute which immediately brings this oriental sound. Added to the striking passages with this singer who sings in Hebrew. This piece is a precursor because it came to say that rap could borrow oriental music”, analyzes the DJ.

But why did these artists from the land of jazz decide to dig into this repertoire? “We must remember that we are in the early 90s. This is a period when rap is loaded with violin. So when a producer listens to a piece by Feiruz or Abd El Halim, and he hears extraordinary violonades, he just has to loop them to create his production.”, believes Bashir. Added to this is the club dimension in American rap. “All the pieces that have sampled Arabic music have this oriental dance side. By borrowing from this musical genre, rappers also aim to make girls dance at parties”he adds.

There is something else: rap is above all ego music that allows artists to celebrate their art, their person and their exploits. By seeking rare sounds, produced miles away from Uncle Sam’s country, rappers want to innovate and stand out. “They have a goal: my sound must not sound like the others. And in this game, Timbaland was formidable! He went looking for sounds that no one dared to take and he created hits”, enthuses the music lover.

Following closely what is happening in the United States, French rappers will soon follow the trend. If the sampling technique is identical, the affective value is different. Across the Atlantic, Arabic music brings a touch of fantasy to hip-hop. In France, it is not exotic since rappers have a cultural and geographical proximity to this region of the world.

So when Rim-K, member of Kabyle origin of the group 113, chants the text of Tonton du Bled on the love song Harguetni Eddamaa by Ahmed Wahby, it pays homage to part of his cultural capital. “For the anecdote, before going to record this piece, Rim-K takes some records from his father. Arrived at the studio, DJ Mehdi comes across Ahmed Wahby’s record and removes the famous loop which gives all its originality to the piece”, says Bashir.

But sampling oriental music does not necessarily aim to wink at its origins. And the legendary Marseille rap group IAM is proof of that. In this collective, only one of the rappers was of Algerian origin. And yet, “IAM is the first in France to have sampled Arabic music” recalls Hajer Ben Boubaker, degree in History and Political Science and creator of Vintagearab, a podcast channel on Arab musical heritage in which she tackles the question of samples.

First, the band comes from Marseille, a city full of diverse cultural mixes and influences. Second, they have a special interest in Egypt. They naturally sampled Egyptian music. And it is on this oriental imagery that the IAM myth is based.”, continues the music lover.

Sampling oriental music can be very expensive for producers. To acquire the rarest music, many use the services of Vinyl Diggers. From Marrakech to Beirut, via Tunis, these vinyl seekers explore local record stores in search of Arabic records. Forgotten for years, vinyls are bought for a pittance. Arriving in Europe or the United States, the records are sold to producers at exorbitant prices.

Among these bargain hunters, enthusiasts, but also formidable dealers. “We are facing outrageous speculation on a property that was hitherto accessible. Recently, I saw that Cheb Khaled’s first vinyl was over 1000 euros. It’s just maddening.” highlighted Hajer Ben Boubaker. “With this practice, we bring out a lot of heritage assets which are rare recordings and which end up ending up in the West in private collections”.

This search for “exoticism” hides another issue: the non-respect of copyright by a large number of artists and producers. For lack of a real legislation, the Arab music has for the producers the advantage of being not very attentive on the respect of the copyrights. The fault of a judged system “defaulting“.”In the Maghreb, for example, copyright offices are not well maintained. They have turned into organizations that local artists cannot count on”, reports Mohamed Sqalli, creative director and co-founder of Naar, a collective of Moroccan artists who create bridges with the Western scene. “And I have experienced it. For one track, I sampled singer Cheb Hasni. It was a hassle! I spent six months calling the local Sacem in Algeria”, he remembers.

So when European and then American laws became very protective of authors, beatmakers fell back on Africa and Asia. “They allow themselves to dig into this part of the world because they know there is little protection and they will not be held accountable.”, denounces the creator of VintageArab. “And even when artists demand accountability, it is very difficult to take a case against a Western artist who has the means. It is a very unequal situation. Some become rich by exploiting works belonging to artists who will never be“.

But for this inveterate fan of La Scred Connexion, there is no question of suing rap. “Rap is the culture of resourcefulness, the art of trickery. Rappers sting, sample and then assume getting caught. Rap has never hidden behind a veneer of hypocrisy”.

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