Oh No's new American take on Middle Eastern hip-hop is not without similarly single-minded precedents. In terms of actual full-lengths, Mutamassik's 2005 LP, Definitive Works, is of equally subversive significance. For anyone familiar with post-war Egyptian pop, from the sampled string sections to the galloping percussion, the influence of Om Kholtum's band looms large on this Brooklyn DJ's debut album.
Listening to Definitive last weekend, like a lot of records of its kind, I was struck by the ways in which Mutamassik almost plays with Western clichés of oriental music. Particularly the popularity of specific types of orchestral arrangements, and belly dance signifiers popular during the early '60s, when cities like Los Angeles boasted of a number of Arab-themed club bands.
I don't mean to suggest that this album intentionally stakes out a critical position in relation to these long forgotten artists. However, if you're hip to the phenomenon (think guitar-driven mini-orchestras with fez-wearing, Arab-American and Armenian band leaders, not shriners), its hard not to place the new engagement with Mideast music in American hip-hop in relationship to them.
I own a number of out-of-print recordings by several of these groups, but they're hidden somewhere deep inside my office closet. This weekend, I'm going to do some serious excavation work, and slap them straight back onto my turntable. I imagine that I'll find them a bit more ideologically complex than I did before.