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Hip Hop In The Holy Land: Mike Skinner Interviewed
Christopher Sanders , July 30th, 2015 14:33

Chris Sanders talks to the former Streets rapper/producer about his involvement in Noisey's series of films on Middle Eastern rap music

In light of the conflict between Israel and Palestine, Mike Skinner has co-directed and presented a new six-part documentary for Noisey, exploring the hip hop scene in the Middle-East.

The series of short films featuring rap music made by "Arabs, Jews, Christians and none of the above" - co-directed by Alex Hoffman of VICE - kicked off with a profile on Tamer Nafer of DAM (Da Arabic MCs), the God Father of Palestinian hip hop and one of the original rappers to spit in Arabic.

The second part of Hip Hop In The Holy Land focussed on Ohad Cohen, who grew up to become a rapper in the nascent Israeli scene before becoming completely immersed into the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community of Tel Aviv, and the contradictions that this has thrown up.

Part three is available to watch above. In this episode Mike visits the desert town of Dimona where a group of African-American Israelis, who refer to themselves as Black Hebrews, could have their first breakout rap star in Ben Blackwell, author of 'Israel We Go Hard'.

Mike spoke to us about his involvement in the documentary and his experience of the conflict seen through the lens of hip hop.

What was the inspiration behind the documentary? How did you become involved in its production?

Mike Skinner: Alex Hoffman [head of music at Vice] told me about it and it was just something that seemed to sit right in the middle of everything that I love. It’s about history and the world. My background is in domestic rap and you tend to notice other domestic rap things.

What do you think are the main similarities and differences between European and American hip hop and that of the Middle East?

MS: Obviously, with everything that isn’t American there is a big elephant in the room which is that it’s not American. I think its changing, I think rap has been around long enough now, where it isn’t really thought about so much. I mean certainly in the UK, certain rappers are really into the idea of the American lifestyle, but it’s not something people really think about anymore. I feel like in a lot of domestic scenes, we’re getting to the point where rap is something which is part of the furniture. And I mean obviously in Israel and Palestine another factor is where you stand politically.

How far do you think hip hop is an effective medium for giving a voice to those occupying a fringe status in the Middle East?

MS: I feel that it can motivate change with young people. It’s a very difficult thing. I feel like the best stories are the ones which don’t tell you how to live your life, they sort of give you the dilemma rather than the answer. But I think if the dilemma is powerful enough then yeah, it can make people want to change things. I think that stands more of a chance over there than anywhere else, because people have to hang their opinions out on the line a bit more than they do over here or in America.

Especially with the guys from DAM…

MS: Yeah, you know you hear about Americans who make party heavy metal being really right wing and supporting the Republicans; but you really don’t know what someone’s political opinions are just from listening to their music in this country or America that often, whereas you absolutely do over there.

Are there any musical influences you see as having had a significant impact on hip hop musicians in the Middle East?

MS: Well, the one person who kept coming up on all sides of the scene was Tupac. I think Tupac was the guy that really inspired a lot of people. I think considering English isn’t their first language, Tupac has such an international appeal because he is spinning a yarn isn’t he? There’s a lot to think about with Tupac, whereas other MCs use word-play which doesn’t translate so well internationally.

I get the impression that nearly all hip hop in the Middle East is imbued with some form of religious or moral message. Would you agree with this? If so, why do you think this is? And if you don’t agree, why not?

MS: I don’t think its consciously so, I think you sort of have to wear your stripes or it’s suspicious. I think to us it does seem like everything is really loaded, but I think life is really loaded. It’s a bit like talking about violence, because violence is just like the wallpaper a lot of the time, and so I can compare two rappers who to an outsider would seem quite violent: that guy’s a violent guy and that guy’s not a violent guy but they’re both saying violent stuff, so it ends up being about how they say it you know? And it’s the same with Israelis and politics, some are really political and would be political anywhere in the world and some of them though it sounds like they’re political, but that's just what you do there. After a while of getting used to it they don’t seem that political.

Could you please elaborate on how you have been ‘inspired’ by the people you interviewed during the making of this documentary?

MS: I wanted to learn. The bottom line is the most of them aren’t earning a living from it, so what you tend to get from it is what is important in life, and that is to do what you enjoy doing. On a personal note, and not so much on a musical note, it was inspiring and massively educational, spending time with people who have completely different pressures you know? On all borders of that country is heavy shit going down on all sides, and it just makes you realise that we like to think that the politics does matter, but the politics doesn’t matter when you’re living in a country which is surrounded by other European shaped countries. The politics do matter when things start getting a bit scary. And all the people I spoke to, whether they be ultra right wing Israeli defence force or boycott supporting Palestinians, it all just comes from a place of maybe not fear, but of, you know, ‘Realpolitik’ or whatever they call it, it’s the real world, and the stakes are much higher.

How far has this documentary been important in changing your perception of the conflict in the Middle East?

MS: Well, when I first came away from there I felt like I knew less than I did before I went (I’d been there before) but I guess I had all the same opinions that you see on the BBC or something like that, whereas I came away feeling like I knew less this time. But actually as I’ve had time to reflect on it I think what I did learn is that it’s a lot more complicated than we think it is.

Where do you stand on the BDS sanctions, and how would you feel about playing in Tel-Aviv?

MS: I got on really well with Tamer, I also got on really well with Saz who doesn’t do the boycott but is mates with Tamer, and I think they are two approaches which I think I have equal respect for. Saz chooses to perform everywhere and wears the Arabic headdress when he goes on stage. And I think Tamer and those guys, you know, you’re going to get more attention, the boycott forces people to take notice. But in another way, if you just get out there and perform and show people that you are a real thing, that can be just as effective, I think they’re both valid. The problem with the boycott is, with regards to my experience as a musician, is that if you don’t get out there and show people how amazing your music is then people will not be desperate to hear it and they’ll listen to something else if you’re not careful. So it’s two different ways of getting peoples attention.

What are you up to at the moment besides this documentary?

MS: I’m about to shoot another thing with Vice in Manchester which is just about music in Manchester, and also I do a club night called Tonga, and we did that up near the Lake District at a festival called Beat-Herder. We are also making a Tonga album.

What new music are you currently listening to?

MS: I Dj a lot now so a lot of what I listen to has really changed, because it’s all club stuff. Probably five years ago I tended to listen to a lot of head music, you know the sort of stuff you listen to at home, whereas now all I listen to is club music because I’m always about to be DJing somewhere. I think it’s been really good for me, the club music makes you a bit younger because it’s something you stop doing as you get older and you’re not in clubs.