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Arabian Knightz: Hip-Hop Heroes

Yo, yo, yo. We sit down wit da illest Hip-Hop crew in all of Egypt to talk video hoes, African pride, their rivalry with Ahmed Mekky and why they're more gangsta than any of those NWA clowns...

Underground by nature, it's no surprise that's taken a while for the Hip-Hop scene to flourish in Egypt but one crew has been championing the cause from the very beginning. We invite Rush and Sphinx who, along with E-Money, make up the Arabian Knightz - the best known rappers in the Middle East - who have toured across the world, making the likes of Snoop Dogg, Paul McCartney and Damon Albarn sit up an listen to sound of Egypt's streets. Don't get it twisted though: these guys might seem like your typical gangstas, and you couldn't be blamed for imagining them rapping on street corners, hustling with their video hoes, but that couldn't be further from the truth. The three-piece crew make it their aim to make music about Egypt and for Egypt, meaning politics and social commentary is top of their agenda. But that doesn't mean you can't get down and dirty to their beats. We speak to Rush and Sphinx about the importance of being African, respecting women and what they think of Yeezus...

How heavy is your watch?

Sphinx: It’s pretty heavy. It’s massive.

How much importance do you put in your bling?

Sphinx: This isn’t bling. There are no diamonds on it. It’s just to match my big body!

Rush: Our look is natural. We always dress this way.

Sphinx: We also like to make our own shirts, like the shirt he’s [Rush] wearing right now.

So how did you guys get started?

Sphinx: I came here from L.A in 2005, just for summer like I always did and I decided to extend my stay a little bit. In my second month here, my family started noticing I was getting bored; like I didn’t have too many friends here, all I knew was my family members. I was really into Hip-Hop so they took me to this place in Zamalek called Rave Gosh and I was chilling. The DJ was a’ight and this guy comes up to me and goes “your cousin told me that you rap,” so I’m like “yeah, I can do my thing.” This guy raps in Arabic and at the time I didn’t know there was any rap other than in English. He started spitting, you know, like rapping, rapping in fos7a. And when I heard that I was like, “You know what? I actually like that. That’s actually dope!”

Did you speak Arabic at the time?

Sphinx: Yeah, like the basic conversation but it was still not where it is today. So, I heard him rap and I thought it was pretty dope.  We made a song, me and him, over at the studio with our third member, he isn’t here today his name is E-Money. And I heard him rap too, but he was rapping in more of an Egyptian dialect. The way he did it was with a very melodic flow and it was completely different. I saw the two different versions of how Egyptian Hip-Hop can sound. So we did a song together, put it on our MySpace account and we got a lot of hits.

How did you get your rap names?

Sphinx: I was in the third grade and my teacher couldn’t say Hisham, she’d say Ha-shem. And every time, everybody in the class would say “bless you.” So I was like, either say my name correctly or find something else, you can’t keep calling me that! She goes “Well, alright. You’re Egyptian; I’ll call you Sphinx.”

Rush: Me being the guy who always talks a lot during sessions and stuff, they used to call me Adrenaline Rush. I was like, no way I can say all that in the middle of a rap, so I made it just Rush.  

Where was your first performance, and how did it go?

Rush: We had to go Sakiat El Sawy to tip the guy to get our foot in the door because there was no Hip-Hop shows before that. After that there were about 5000 Hip-Hop shows but at that point we had to go with a demo.

Sphinx: And promise we’re not going to curse and not going say anything about the government.

Rush: It was like a school project. We had to go meet with the guy and he gave a speech at the beginning of our show about why Sakia is doing a Hip-Hop show. All of a sudden it was a big deal.

Was there still a bad reputation surrounding Hip-Hop at the time?

Sphinx: There still is a bad reputation until now because people don’t understand it or what it is.

Rush: Like somebody who works in the government doesn’t understand what it is, he just thinks it’s all about sex, drugs and guns and all that fucked up shit. So we told them, the brand we’re doing is Egyptian Hip-Hop and it’s different. We represent our culture and it doesn’t have any of that stuff. Even though the people at Sakia changed their opinion about Hip-Hop, after the revolution, they banned people talking about Ikhwan. They all got banned from performing and we got banned too.

Have you ever heard of a rapper called Mad Dog before?

Rush: I’ve heard the name. He’s here in Egypt, right?

He used to work with us. He was rapping at Sakia then got out a gun and started shooting in the air. We think he got banned too.

Rush: Are you serious? Here in Egypt? In Sakia?!

Yeah, it was fucking crazy. Do you know anybody who’s done something like that?

Rush: We had a friend who pulled a knife out during a performance once. He was trying to be gangsta and he got us all banned from the venue for a year.

Is it hard to get away from this gangsta image in Egypt? People here are experts at stereotyping…

Sphinx: We don’t really need to try because with all the revolutions going on and us being a part of it from the beginning, we’re kinda gangsta enough. Like when we stand in front of 3arabeyat el amn trying to jam, we proved we got bigger nuts than any NWA member.

How much does the American Hip-Hop scene influence you vis-a-vis the Egyptian culture?

Sphinx: Our whole influence began with the American scene. But the fact that we know Arabic and there’s lots of beautiful poetry in our language, we had a whole region we could expand to because Hip-Hop is universal. Hip-hop is in every language. Everybody has either heard a Hip-Hop song or is into Hip-Hop at some point in their life.

Rush: We had to be familiar with both Hip-Hop music and traditional Egyptian music. We want do a lot of work with traditional music that’s being killed by the media. Nobody is giving a damn about Port Saidi music, for example. Tambura and stuff like that; we want work with people like that.

Have you ever done any collaborations like that?

Rush: We did a song with Mahmoud El Leithy before the mahraganat stuff. We recorded it about four years ago but it came out two years ago. And Amin, who is down with us in the Arab League, he’s done a few songs with Sadat. I think it’s good that he didn’t compromise his style to get their message across. He kinda uplifted their message but at the same time, it was hip-hop because when hip-hop started in America it was what they’re doing.

Speaking of Sha3bi music, what are your thoughts on autotune?

Sphinx: I personally hate it.

Rush: It’s overkill. If you’re a rapper, you rap. If you’re a singer, you sing. But you don’t do autotune because you can’t sing.

Do you produce the music yourself?

Sphinx: Now the music or the beats, we have producers who do that. But we write the lyrics ourselves. We have a lot of friends who produce; some are L.A based.

Rush:. All of it comes from our imagination but we don’t know how to do it technically.

Are there any good Egyptian producers?

Sphinx: Coming out now? Yeah, there are actually.

Rush: Young ones, yeah. Outside of hip-hop, I love ZULI’s music. He’s amazing. We worked with Altay [Abyusif] before and we were supposed to do collaboration with ZULI but we never got to it. There’s some new guy called Jamaica who we’re supposed to meet up with and hear his stuff. When I hear about a good producer I want to sit down with them and work with them. Incorporate the styles.

Do you ever get people who want to work with you just for the sake of their own careers?

Sphinx: Yeah, we get sent beats all the time and people asking us to listen to their tracks.

Rush: We listen and respond because at the end of the day, these kids are going be the rappers of the future. Nobody helped us, we met the rappers that we did after we’d already learned that stuff ourselves, so it would really help them to be heard and it would boost their self esteem so much. It pushes and motivates them to reach their goal. 

Do you have a favourite collaborator?

Rush: MCMA, definitely. We think around the same circles and ideas. We have the same character, me and him, especially when it comes to politics. Like, Sphinx always tells me to tone things down, like “Don’t say this, don’t say that!”

Sphinx: Yeah, I like to observe; I don’t want jump on any bandwagon too fast. I like to see where it’s going because I don’t want to be taken advantage of or get too happy like, “Oh, the army saved us” and –

Rush: And, they’re already trying to go back to emergency law and the national security service. I just read an article about it today and I agree but if you’re going to do it for a whil,e just tell us how long that while is going be, because you’re not going “fight terrorism” for another 30 years.

We know that a lot of your lyrics are very political, but what about the side of Hip-Hop that’s all about fun and parties?

Both: We do that!

Sphinx: We do everything. It depends on how we feel at the time and what’s around us. Right now everything is so political so everything that’s in my mind is politically charged.

Rush: Like, why don’t you do a party song and have something in it that makes people think? If you’re at a party, you’re not going hear what’s being said anyway, but what if I’m in the car and I want think? I want hear something that has a good beat and I want think to it. Lupe Fiasco does that. Jay Z sometimes does it too. We did that in Mooled and Es7a. Even Fokkak has a message. Nobody paid attention to the message though.

Sphinx: Yeah, but it’s funny though.

What’s the smartest lyric you’ve ever written?

Sphinx: All of them.

Rush: Fokkak was the one that we really had an idea behind but nobody got it. Because in Fokkak the hook is actually doing what Lana, the singer doing the hook, would never do. She was doing something that sounds like a jingle.

Sphinx: We were actually sitting in the Melody office and somebody from the team came to us and heard our music and he was like “Why is everything so serious? Fokkak men el seyasa w el kalam dah w edeeny fi el heshik beshik w ra2asny!” So we were just like “Fokkak men el enta fih,” and then we were on his channel and number seven on the charts.

What’s the most trouble you’ve got into for your lyrics?

Sphinx: I was sitting at work during Mubarak’s time and I got a phone call from a number that was had seven zeros and I was like, what the hell is this?!”So I pick up and he’s like “Hisham?” I’m like, “Yeah…” And he starts saying my full name and I’m like “Yeah, who’s this?” and then he switches to English but with an accent. He goes “I know what you’re singing or rapping about. If you do zis agen, you will hide behind za sun.” And I didn’t even know what behind the sun meant!

Rush: He got the phone call and we started doing more songs after that.

Sphinx: I got tripped out. At first I thought it was somebody like joking but like that number full of zeros made me think, who the hell could do something like that?

What’s the hardest Arabic word to find something that rhymes with it?

Sphinx: I don’t know, I can’t even rhyme with Arabic words.

Rush: Each Arabic word has so many roots to it. It’s like the richest language in the world. Each word has like six or seven roots and synonyms. So, it’s really easy.

Can we say an Arabic words and you quickly find something that rhymes with it?

Rush: Sure

Molokheya

Rush: Namleya

Mooz bel laban

Rush: El sha3b 3omor ma etgaban

Ra3d

Rush: Youm el sa3d lama el Ikhwan yemaweto ba3d! I’m not a good freestyler. He [Sphinx] is the freestyler.

Ok. Freestyle something about CairoScene and we’ll throw words at you. GO!

Rush: He does that when we’re like chilling at his house!

We heard that when you were trying to release your album, United States of Arabia, there were a lot of censorship issues. Can you explain what happened?

Rush: I don’t think it ever reached El Nekaba (the censorship bureau). There was a little speculation, not from our side but from the fans’ side about Ahmed Mekky stealing the intro of our album. Our album has been played for four years and our fans know the intro by heart. We got a video of a fan saying our intro was stolen. Then, suddenly, Melody didn’t want to release our album after they’d signed with us because they’d signed him as well and he was more important for them.

Sphinx: They said the government censored it and they couldn’t use the lyrics.

Rush: But we didn’t actually see any official paper saying that.

So are you going to pop a cap in Mekky’s ass?

Rush: We did a little song about him and other rappers but we’re not going to really mention any names; we’re just going to talk about specific facts and whoever can understand and relate these facts together is going to understand what we’re talking about.

Do you have beef with any other rappers?

Rush: We get dissed a lot, just for fun.

What’s the biggest diss you’ve had?

Sphinx: The hardest rhyme against me was something like “Sphinx re7to stinks” or something like that.

If you could pick any Arab female celebrity to be your video hoe, who would it be?

Sphinx: Hoe? Nah, we don’t do that. We don’t do video hoes. It’s about the message. If we were doing it for Hip-Hop hoes, we’d be like millionaires right now. If we’d have been like “I got my bitches, and my bling and my cash!” We’d have popped by now.

Rush: The fact that we have a message is more respected in the western world. A lot of rappers were touring in Africa expressed that to us. Paul McCartney was there. He told me “You’re from Egypt? You guys have got great rhythm.” And Led Zepplin actually told me that their influence was Om Kalthoum. I was showing the video for Sisters to Damon Albarn and he was like “I’ve not seen women used in such a positive way in Hip-Hop before.” The women are acting in the video; they’re not just being models. “This should be what the West does to women.”

Sphinx: The funny thing is, I just saw a video yesterday where Jay Z said the same thing. He said they should start portraying women in a better light. Which is ironic.

What do you think of the bands that suddenly had their own message during the revolution?

Rush: We don’t like that Coca-Cola now sponsors the revolution. Like ok, you united us but you united us for Coca-Cola!? That’s what we went down for? Aida Ayoubi already quit because of how bad the media is. Now you drag her with you to a Coca-Cola ad? That’s just shameful. She was better off without that.

Has it become easier to engage people in politics than before?

Rush: Yeah, we did three songs about the Ikhwan. Each song was about a different period of the Ikhwan. One about them when they got elected in Parliament, one after Morsi’s first 200 days and then one right before June 30.  But these songs haven’t even been on the anti-Ikhwan media. We heard a shout out on Youssef El Hosseiny show about us. But we don’t know how to get on these shows. We don’t have managers to put us out there and we don’t look. You know, the people who actually do their research and find us are actually foreigners. The American and European media do their homework better than the Egyptian media.

Do you think that’s because Hip-Hop isn’t as mainstream in Egypt?

Rush: It’s not just Hip-Hop. [Acoustic singer] Ramy Essam is also the same way. If it weren’t for the western media, he wouldn’t have been on Egyptian media. That’s a bad thing. We hadn’t started getting for example on Amr Adeeb’s show and stuff like that until after they heard that we toured and got on stage with Paul McCartney. Does the West have to approve of me first? That’s a mentality that we have to change with the revolution.

You guys have been around for a while. Have you seen a change?

Rush: Media-wise and personally, nothing

Sphinx: Hip-Hop wise, turn on the TV! Every commercial now has a Hip-Hop tune when they told us that nothing would become of this music. Hip-hop is part of the culture now.

Rush: It’s about how they portray the image, for example the Tatis commercial that Asphalt did. I know Asphalt personally and I would tell him this to his face: you were used for the commercial. You never dress like that. You wear suspenders and button up shirts. All of a sudden you got the old school Hip-Hop too-baggy-hat-to-the-back look? What the director is trying to do here is set us back. We just stopped the media from calling us “yo, yo, yo” and you’re brining us back to that.

Yo, yo, yo… We heard you did a track with Snoop Dogg?

Rush: Yeah, we did but it never came out here in Egypt.

Sphinx: He was doing am international campaign of rappers all over the world. It was before Snoop Lion. He’d just dropped that song I Wanna Rock Right Now. So he did an I Wanna Rock campaign getting rappers to do a remix of that song.

Was that before or after Tamer Hosny and Snoop Dogg?

Rush: It was before.

Sphinx: Tamer Hosny paid him like $70, 000.

What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you during a gig?

Sphinx: Getting flashed. I actually forgot my lyrics then. That was in Copenhagen.

Do you play a lot of gigs abroad?

Rush:  Yeah, especially in the last two years. Usually, when Arabs do a show abroad, the Arabs in that country go to see them. We don’t have that. When I was in London performing I had the Egyptian flag on as a cape and when the crowd saw us they started cheering like crazy. Obviously there were Egyptians there but the others starting cheering along. People receive us really well abroad. We toured three times in Denmark, each time in 10 different cities.

When are you hoping to release the new album?

Sphinx: When it’s done.

Rush: We’re hoping this time there’s going to be distribution in Egypt.

What does the distribution in Egypt entail?

Rush: CDs in Virgin and stuff.

CDs are dying…

Rush: But nobody in Egypt buys digital.

Sphinx: But we’re signing to Empire for digital distribution.

Rush: We already have an album on iTunes but everybody here buys CDs still. They don’t know how to buy online yet. Teenagers, who are the ones that download music, still don’t have an outlet to go buy music online which is a dilemma right now. Jay Z is getting rid of that problem for himself by getting a deal with Samsung. If we could get a deal like that, maaaaaan. We should get a manager, for god’s sake. We should start managing ourselves. We’re getting the United States of Arabia album put online to be downloaded for free. We want to get our album heard, even if it’s for free because we put a lot of hard work and good music in it and it deserves to be heard. It’s quite a great album, we got tweeted about it from Snoop Dogg. Damon Albarn tweeted about it too so we know it’s a good album. We just don’t care to sell it anymore we just want people to hear it.

If you could collaborate with anyone in the world, who would it be?

Sphinx: Michael Jackson

Rush: If he was still alive, yeah. Also, Mounir and Shereen. She is really good. She’s on point, vocal wise. And Mounir; it’s like working with Bob Marley. Damon Albarn is also great. He does beats as well, not just vocals. We actually have permission to use any drum kit we want from Tony Allen, who is the best drummer in the world right now. He gave me a bunch of CDs and said we could use any of them. We don’t even need to ask for permission.

We have a really important question: Do you think you’re black?

Rush: No, we’re Arabic and we’re African. We really have to work on our African roots as a government right now. Africans are so proud of us and we’re like shrugging them off. Africa is so wealthy, like, what are we doing? It’s one of the wealthiest continents in the world. We’re stupid. We keep on acting like we’re racist and supreme. We even have racist jokes in our media. For God’s sake, racist jokes in Egypt? What continent are we in again?

Don’t you think that there’s a problem that the western world don’t think of us as African either?

Rush: Because we’re not saying that or pushing that image. Right now anybody can say anything about Egypt and it’s believable.

Sphinx: But you can’t say we’re not African. It’s got nothing to do with how dark you are.

Rush: Because we are drawing out our identity from Africa, they’re taking it from us. “Oh, you’re Arab? Then Africa is ours.”

What are your thoughts on Yeezus?

Sphinx: He’s just crying for attention. Like all of sudden now he’s a black slave? I mean, he’s a Louis Vuitton doll. I don’t like him.

Rush: As an artist, his first album was cool. As a person, he’s weird. I get that it’s entertainment but I mean, how far can you go? Tupac was doing it for entertainment, you know like messing with the cops, sticking up for the black guy, getting beat up and stuff like that but not for the weird shit. Not for getting drunk at the VMAs. He’s doing what George Best was doing back in the 60s. I guess it’s ok if it works for him.

 Find out more about Arabian Knightz on their Facebook page here and follow @ArabianKnightz on Twitter. For more of their music check out their Youtube channel here and keep up-to-date with the Arab League forum where you'll be able to download The United States of Arabia for free on August 8th 2013: http://www.arableaguerap.com/forum/