Hip-Hop Diary from Alexandria

Af Pelle Møller

RAPOLITICS has teamed up with Revolution Records from Egypt in order to boost the hip-hop scene in Alexandria by establishing a recording studio and a creative place for all raptivists and hip-hop youth.

During the last 12 months, the team behind Revolution Records has been busy starting 16 Bar (a hip-hop radio station), recording mixtapes and tracks with upcomming rappers, performing at concerts and facilitating workshops in raptivism and graffiti. A big concert at the French Institute is the culmination of the BOOST project funded by the Danish Center for Culture and Development.  RAPOLITICS-coach and raptivist Pelle Møller from Denmark was invited to perform at the concert in Alexandria together with Revolution Records themselves and young raptivists from the 16 Bar Mixtape. This blog post is Pelle’s travel diary where he share his experiences in Alexandria with us.

Pelle Arrives in Alexandria

I arrived in the beautiful settings around the Borg El Arab airport. It’s in middle of the night and still it seems as though life just works it’s tolls in this old and majestic city. Czar from Revolution Records picks me up and we drive in silence into the shimmering lights of the city. It’s hard to get any sleep in the constant noise of car honks, and I’m up more than once just to check out the window that this is for real. It’s on – the journey is underway!

Day 1: Aspiring Talents Getting Ready

The day is well under it’s way while I enjoy my ”coffee and a view” on the 9th floor balcony, before I sniff through the dusty streets of the city. Alexandria is a chaotic explosion of movements and sounds, and the suicidal driving makes me feel like a small kid with a yellow new-in-traffic band, struggling to keep up with Kiki as we move deeper into the roaming auto-jungle. The traffical anarchy is somewhat poetic and gives me a disturbingly calm feeling inside. Kiki is the project leader of Boost and board member in RAPOLITICS. She moved to Alexandria in order to learn Arabic and be closer to the project. She is my guide in Alex.

We spend the rest of the day in the studio of Revolution Records – who is one of the biggest rap groups in Egypt – where graffiti artists and breakdancers were making the last preparations for the concert tomorrow. The concert is a release party for the 16 Bar Mixtape, a mixtape filled with tracks from young artists recorded in this studio with the help by and coaching from Revolution Records themselves. Both the concert and the graffiti workshop are part of hopefully the first of many hiphop festivals in Alexandria.

The rooms are packed with new aspiring talents, jumpy and excited for tomorrow, a truth which many of them reveal through the many hours of exciting political and musical discussions. Among other discussions I have a chat about the lack of a hip-hop culture in Egypt with Shahin, a rapper that was in Denmark back in the Fall 2013, and a young man that would impress me greatly with the laidback realness in his performance the next day.

Day 2: Four-headed Political Hip-Hop Monster

Today is the day for our performance in the French Institute and first up is the sound check at 2 pm. Me and Kiki slowly move through the narrow streets when we come across a pop up street festival. In the back of an alley, a small entourage of street artists are decorating the walls while a couple of young guys are filling the air with rough and harshly mixed sounds of human beatbox. Yesterday I had a chat with J-beat, one of the best beatboxers in Egypt, and more than once he mentioned the non existence of a hip-hop culture in Egypt, but I’m starting to sense that something is stirring in conjunction with the hard work of the underground artists, among other Revolution Records.

We are some of the first at the scene when we arrive at the French Institute a quarter past three, that’s how it is in Egypt! Slowly cyphers are building up all over the place, even though you can feel the tension from the young rappers spreading – hip-hop is in the building! I arrange with J-Beat that he’ll perform with me during tonight’s show, and I slowly start to get ready to my first concert outside Scandinavia.

The atmosphere backstage is intense and everywhere I go I hear mc’s rehearsing a punch line. It’s obvious that they’ve put a great deal of effort into this project! To my great surprise the show starts at exactly 7 pm with a theatrical breakdance show in front of 300+ screaming youth. The support for Revolution Records is massive when they, as the first act, enter the stage as a four-headed political hip-hop monster, acting as both headliner and hosts for a event filled with the greatest hip-hop talents in Alexandria.

I enter the stage during their last track and immediately feel a strong devotion from the crowd. During the show I sense a connection and understanding in spite of the language difficulties with a crowd mainly speaking Arabic and me rapping in Danish. This makes sense. In RAPOLITICS, we work with rap as an universal expression that goes way beyond language and culture. For us, rap is basic human thoughts and feelings being expressed creatively. I point this out with my first words from the stage:

Some think that words make us misunderstand each other but words are just an extension cord of our thoughts – Pelle & Zeyn – Kucuki Cole

The concert continues with 10 upcoming rappers performing their tracks from the 16 bar Mixtape with massive support by the packed and roaring crowd. You can feel how proud Revolution Records and the mixtape rappers are to be part of an event so important for the evolution of Egyptian hip-hop.

During the show a crowd of 300-400 people starts to shout and yell outside, trying to climb the fences of the French Institute to get into the venue. The show is therefore shortened, but the night ends with a magnificent performance by one of Alexandria’s greatest rapper: Ahmad Shahin. We leave the venue by squeezing through the huge excited crowd outside and a lot of people show respect to the performing artists, once again reminding everybody of the importance of tonight.

On our way to the studio, a bizarre and charming scenario plays out. We are driving the wrong way of a one way street through a narrow alley filled with people with 3 huge graffiti paintings on the roof of our small busted car! Still people are smiling and greeting us passage as we move through the pulsating heart of the city. Amazing! The night ends with plenty of servings of beers and snacks with a smaller group gathered on a bar nearby.

Day 3: Recording in the Studio

I get a good night sleep and wake up to a brunch with Kiki and her roomie. We then use the afternoon chilling by the seaside with ice cream and smoking plenty of waterpipe. After a few hours of sun and self-indulgence, I’m get ready to go to the Revolution Records’ studio. When we arrive at the studio, it is trashed from all the work on the mixtape and activities from the last couple of days, which means Kiki and I get a rare chance to actually help and do some practical work. Afterwards we sit down and listen to the beats I brought with me, donated to the purpose by my homie Dj Wernz from Denmark. The guys fall in love with an Arabic sounding DJ Premier stylish beat and soon the studio is filled with heavy drums and the sound of pens on paper. Temraz quickly gets the idea that we should try to sum up our work with hip-hop in the song and a couple of hours later I’ve recorded my verse. Here is a translation from Danish:

It happens right now – this studio is a revolution. A reformation of a nation through a michrophone. If silence is golden than rapping is a million. Don’t be afraid to be somebody, because everybody are Revolution Records gives what Alexandria needs. Can they? Yes! Should they? Yes! They cant just take it easy So they do what they do because it means something greater. Cause if the children will be heard it will change a person forever. I am Pelle – And I use my lyrical skills. To defend everybody who under pressure turns psychologically ill. And explain that its plain that on this ground. You can buy more than just shisha for Egyptian pounds. RAPOLITICS is more than a crew. We took tomorrow today and we still do. We must create the future to live in the present. 16 Bar rappers – This one is for you!

It’s a pleasure working with the guys and I really feel the huge amount of mutual respect we have established for each other. When the hours turn late, Kiki, Czar and I grab a cab that takes us through the night in this city that never sleeps. Back home, I pass out while eating a juicy chicken kebab, smiling.

Last day: Country in a Political Whirlwind

I wake up to a scolding sun and an amazing thunder of noise from the nearby tram station. Kiki and I arranged a business meeting with Revolution Records to discuss their future as a record label and a band. They’ve achieved so many things during the last twelve months and during my stay here it has become clear that a lot of people in Egypt are counting on their studio in the future. First up is the most important thing for a musician when traveling through a country in a political whirlwind – Breakfast! We eat an entire table full of falafel, hummus and the local bean all star Fool.

Kiki tells me that this is the place where the legendary Notorious B.I.G once ate (even though further researched enlightened me that it was in fact Coolio, but who has time for details when you’re living in a gansta’s paradise?). 4 days with a diet full of white bread makes me feel even rounder than usual, so of course I flush it all down with sugary juice and mint tea on a nearby cafe, while planning he meeting.

”Side note”: If you are wondering why I have all these long descriptions of rather unimportant stuff during the day hours, it’s because people in Egypt or revolutionary rappers in particular, starts of their day incredibly late. So even though I sleep twice as much down here compared to what I’m used to in Denmark, Kiki and I still have lots of time to devour North African deli’s.

Back in the studio we work our way through a lot of details during the fellowship-of-the-ring-extended-edition long meeting. My last hours in Alexandria are spend with the crew in a authentic and semi-suspicious looking seafood restaurant, where we consume extreme amounts of deep fried goodies. On my way to the airport I go through all the incredible experiences during my short and intense stay, and come to the conclusion that a small part of me is forever changed by the extraordinary people and raptivists in this old city.

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RAPOLITICS Boost was all about boosting the hip-hop scene in Alexandria. Our partnership with Revolution Records has provided young raptivits and artivists as well as hip-hop youth with a creative space for self-expression where thoughts are developed and stories are told. Having a voice is essential for youth living under socio-political instability. Being able to tell your story is a prerequisite for personal growth. RAPOLITICS is committed to support Revolution Records even though the Boost project is ending now after a great year with many achievements. We are currently invested in securing funds for the continuation of the studio and workshop facilities. Pelle’s travel to Alexandria serves to draw attention to the great work being done by all the team in Alexandria, but there is a lot of work ahead of us. We will do our uttermost to keep breaking the silence and boosting the hip-hop scene in Alexandria!

Cover picture of Pelle by: Melissa Chenok & Alison Ryncarz.