Cultural races are difficult to finish, let alone compete in. With so many stereotypes to jump over and corporate commodification booby traps to get around, it’s surprising to see any independent, conscientious voice make it through the riff raff and wholesale approach of popular culture.
Ten years ago, we sat with Euphrates, a hip hop trio that was winning such a race. They were ahead of their time, brilliant, and highly talented.
Standing at the “Bend in the River,” Euphrates’ debut album whisks you through diaspora, capitalism, empire, exile, and resistance in a way never explored prior to this hip hop breakthrough. Recorded in Montreal, lyrical phenomenon Jamal Abdul Narcel aka Narcy does his vernacular spectacular acrobatics on beats laid down and brought to life by the magic of Sandhill Productions in a divine marriage between the complex tunes of Iraq and the raw reality of hip hop.
The listener is immediately juxtaposed to his or her inner identity as diligent drum delivery elevates one right into the Euphrates experience. Peek into the minds of the geniuses behind the music in this short but tantalizing interview.
Q: Shakomako? A: JAMAL: Maku shee.
HABILLUS: Too much to mention.
NOFY: The Euphrates Experience.Q: How did music make its way into your lives? A: JAMAL: At a young age, my father used to play classical music to help me fall asleep. My grandmother was also a musician, and that drove me to play instruments as well. I went to a fine arts school and played the piano, trumpet, and saxophone.
HABILLUS: My mother used to play music all the time around the house. That tapped into the music that’s in me, and in everyone I think.
NOFY: We (Habillis and I) were both exposed in the same way being brothers that lived in the same household.Q: How did music turn into hip hop? A: NOFY: All of our older siblings listened to hip hop. When I moved to Canada, I started breakdancing at school with my brother. And then eventually we would go to block parties where hip hop really lived. My friends would have turntables, and that blew my mind. The first song that I fell in love with was “Fuck the Police” by N.W.A.
JAMAL: To me, it came through the form of a Wu Tang tape.
HABILLUS: The first album I listened to end to end was Straight out of Compton.Q: And how did you evolve from being listeners to being recording artists? A: JAMAL: I listened to the music, and I started writing, and that expanded my horizons.
NOFY: I also started writing.
HABILLUS: Producing started as a hobby for me.
NOFY: I also applied what I learned in school to the music production and “packaging” of the album.Q: Let’s talk more about Euphrates, how did u guys come together? A: JAMAL: Our grandfathers used to hang out, and that continued its way through our parents and down to us.
NOFY: We also went to the same school together, although me and Jamal didn’t hang out till later on.Q: How has being part of the same family for so long affected your music? A: JAMAL: Our parent’s experience as displaced Iraqis has affected our thirst for justice. We know that we have the ability to speak on their behalf, and on behalf of other Iraqis.
NOFY: Hip Hop has always been an avenue for expression, and speaking about important issues. We have laid down a blueprint for our experiences, and use hip hop to speak about them.
Q: Some might say that hip hop can is not an element of Iraqi culture. Has that made it more difficult for you to speak about themes that are so Iraqi in their meaning and identity? A: JAMAL: We live in the West, and we must understand that people here tune in to different wavelengths.
NOFY: We are a minority.Q: How do politics developments impact your actual music? A: JAMAL: Politics have shaped my conscious effort to add some form of discourse to sheltered minds. We grew up in societies where we could not speak out against the “regime” or the oppressive systems that have been created for us by colonization and the powers that be. Therefore, studying politics allowed me to broaden my identity and understand these dynamics. Q: What else inspires you? A: HABILLUS: I’m curious to hear what Arabic melody sounds like with drums and beats.
JAMAL: The nutation of Hip Hop.Q: Why did you guys choose “A Bend in the River” as the name of your album? A: JAMAL: We chose a bend in the river because, number one, the title stems from a book about colonization by T Naipaul. Secondly, since we are called Euphrates, we feel that people of our generation, that is Iraqis or Arabs displaced from their origin are seen as “different” or the “other.” We are that bend that should stream back into our civilization and rebuild what we have lost through the conscious efforts of war and hate mongers that have controlled us within our designated boundaries i.e. borders. All of us, including shakomakoNET work to quench the drying thirst for knowledge and understanding facing people around the world.
Q: What are your favorite tracks on that album? A: JAMAL: My favorite track, beat wise, is Watermelon Chunks. I can’t explain the zone it takes me to. It reflects the rage of Arabs at the time of September 11th, and the knowledge of our imminent subjugation due to the stupidity of so-called representatives of our people. Lyrically, my baby on that album is Seven and Silk Robes. I just spewed on those. Seven is probably my favorite representative track of who I am, and how I felt about my loss of identity or the loss of our children in Iraq.Q: In the album, how do you switch from Arabic to English so well in your flow? A: JAMAL: Well, my Arabic, being a displaced individual, has always been used at home. My schooling, pertaining to most of my life, besides Islamic class in high school, was all in English…at home, I speak Araglish, a mixture of both languages with my family. So it’s a natural thought process. You know how you formulate statements on some “Gimme that Khashooga,” it’s just a natural process for me. The semantics are all tangled in my mind. Q: What can fans anticipate for your new album? A: JAMAL: The new album is more conceptual. Habillis and Nofy have stepped up their game, as Truth Terrorist call them, they are the beat butchers of Baghdad. As lyrics, the first album was more free range stream of consciousness flow. That was just an unleashing of my jumbled understanding of me and my environment. This album is more of a story, I attack the Iraq situation prevalently, but from different eyes, different na3al (slipper).
A lot of it is story based, or putting myself in different contexts. Examples of one of them is a representation of us at a border, and what happened when we tried to go to the States. Another track is based on the concept of being the embedded journalist, in another, I am a soldier, and so forth. I’m just trying to escape the misunderstanding and being a bit more straight forward about the human element of war, American or Iraqi. The next album will be on the next level, lyrically and Beat wise.Q: How would you describe your relationship with the medium in which you exist? A: NOFY: We feel misrepresented, because there are others speaking for us.
JAMAL: Misrepresentation. That’s why we speak of Iraqnophobia. We have to make sure others don’t commodify us.