Though D-CAF has officially wrapped up, one Michigan rapper has made a lasting impression on managing editor Dalia Awad. She talks with One Be Lo about real Hip Hop, Islam and Mohamed Mounir.
While D-CAF never fails to impress with its line-up, there was one specific night I was waiting for with baited booty shaking. You can keep your House DJs and alternative Indie nights – give me a million words a minute, bass so heavy the floor vibrates and sexy, sassy choruses and you’ve got all my attention. While Hip Hop continues to struggle to find a mainstream audience in Egypt, D-CAF once again pulled a rabbit out of the hat by bringing in Michigan rapper, One Be Lo, to blow the proverbial roof off the historic Shehrazade Club, where I, and what seemed like the whole 200 people in Cairo who put bumping and grinding above popping and rolling, were glued to the dance floor. And we were treated to one hell of a show from a man who was clearly meant for performing. Even through sound check, where I had the pleasure of meeting the man who reached cult-like popularity in the States with his releases as one half of Binary Star, One Be Lo – or Nashid Sulaiman as he prefers to be called since his conversion to Islam – oozed charisma, confidence and creativity as he geared up to spit some serious fire on the stage where he would later insist that “there ain’t no party like a Cairo party!” to a screaming crowd. As if they needed convincing.
One Be Lo’s adventures in music began, like many, from a very young age. “I’d always be beating away at the lunchroom table, creating a rhythm without even thinking,” he explains, in his 8 Mile accent, before telling me he’d just bought a traditional darbuka and a req plans to learn the intricacies of Arab percussion to add a new flavour to his next production. “I heard this track in a store a couple of days ago, and I was like, man, what IS that? They told me, that’s Mohamed Mounir. That’s the The King. I was like, hell yeah – he is the king, man,” he says about his gravitation towards unique sounds, whatever the language. This wasn’t One Be Lo’s first trip to Egypt, however. In fact, he’s a Cairo regular. “I first came in 2007 with a friend of mine on vacation because he has a house here and told me that entering the country is pretty easy. Since then I’ve even got my own apartment. I’m always back and forth. I’m on tour in the States right now but as soon as that’s done, I’ll be back,” he assures.
Extremely poised and genuinely interested, One Be Lo is the kind of guy you could talk to for hours. Not about anything specific, but about everything, all at once. Unfortunately, we didn’t have hours. This was a man in high demand, as TV crews waited impatiently for the slot in the interview schedule. You see – a Muslim American is always cause for celebration and naïve yet genuine intrigue in Middle Eastern media. He could be another example, a reference when pleading: “we Muslims aren’t all bad; even some American like us.” Eventually and inevitably the matter of faith would come up in our meeting, too. But first we talked music.
An animated and expressive speaker, One Be Lo’s conversations are as rhythmic and well-articulated as his lyrics and flow. He certainly has a way with words – and he knows it. This is the rapper that changed his given name Ralond to Nashid – the Arabic word for poem. When asked whether it’s his natural draw towards percussion or the formulating of lyrics that were more central to his music making, however, he pauses. “I almost look at my vocals as percussion. When I’m rapping, I’m also riding the drums. They’re fused,” he finally says, assuredly. This sort of precision of thought and casual delivery carries through to his music where his convincing, conscientious lyrics dance around on smooth, layered melodies and gritty, bouncy beats. It was the winning combination, in a time when Hip Hop was becoming over-exaggerated, over-produced and over-spilling with super cars, platinum chains and, for lack of a better phrase, video hoes, that shot Binary Star, One Be Lo’s first rap venture, to cult status. It was the late 90s and he had just been released from prison where he was incarcerated with his best friend, partner-in-crime and the other half of Binary Star, Senim Silla. They hit the ground running and sold each and every copy of their self-released album Water World. One Be Lo soon remixed the album, adding new verses and fine tuning the arrangements, and it was rereleased as Masters of the Universe. It was an instant underground hit, heralded as a new classic by those in the know, as it introduced a refreshing duality to the music as the two rapped interchangeably in lightning speed, adding a quirky conversational element to their rhymes. Though Binary Star would soon split, One Be Lo remains as dedicated ever, following up this success with a handful of E.Ps and few unofficial releases, remixes and features that may have never made it to MTV but stayed in the hearts and playlists of those who still pine for the days where rap music was raw, real and unaffected by excess.
“I remind myself of my first concert, every time I perform. I think about what music is to me. It’s fun,” he says, when I venture to ask whether the rush of the stage still hits him, even after hundreds of gigs. The innocent approach to both performance and production has most recently resulted in an album entitled K.I.C.K.P.U.S.H (Keep It Cool Kid, People Usually Show Hate), tracks of which we were treated to when he hit the stage last week with DJ, rapper and good friend Haseeb The Futuristic, proving to be the perfect dynamic duo, bouncing off each other’s energy as they took turns on the mic. One Be Lo admits that his latest release was born of wanting to go back to just having fun with music and enjoying the process from studio to stage. Though the typical Hip Hop life encourages that, One Be Lo’s life hasn’t been that typical. “I didn’t know anything about Islam. I grew up Christian but when I went to prison I met a lot of Muslims who talked to me about the faith. My first reaction was to ask my father to send me a Bible; I wanted to be sure of what I knew and what I didn’t know,” he remembers. After arming himself with knowledge, One Be Lo began to question his spiritual upbringing and realised that in prison he was ironically set free from the status quo. He quickly changed his name and adopted Islam after reading the Quran in English and being particular struck by a line in the Al-Emran verse which reads: Abraham was not a Jew or a Christian. He was an upright person who had submitted himself to the will of God. “That just made a lot of sense to me and I called my parents to tell them I’m converting. My dad said, ‘You’re not going to become one of those Moooselms, are you?’” he laughs.
This sense of humour; a lightness about serious things is exactly what makes One Be Lo’s music thoroughly enjoyable without losing the message, and this is certainly reflected on stage too. “I love Hip Hop, I love this art form. And I want to make my contribution to it,” he says with certainty, as he explains that his conversion to Islam has allowed him to focus on the music and not the drugs and the alcohol that surround the business. The undivided attention he’s given to his art has made sure his music continues to stand apart. As he puts it: “When I started producing my own beats everyone was like man, you need 16 bars and a hook. I’m like, fuck 16 bars and a hook! I don’t need that, I don’t need a girl singing on a chorus. Whatever sounds dope to me, I do it.” Inspired by the scattered and deconstructed nature of Jazz his father exposed him to as a child, he definitely does it well. With a multimedia project combining literature, music and photography currently underway, as well as finishing up a record entitled Baby featuring rap favourites including Royce Da 5’9 and Jean Grae, and a follow-up entitled Contractions, One Be Lo is certainly a busy man but it certainly doesn’t seem to overwhelm him. Then again, for someone who’s lived in Cairo, nothing will.