06.02.2012, Words by Ruth Saxelby

How araabMUZIK is bringing the hip hop battle DJ into the digital age

The relationship between rappers and the stage is not often a happy one. Between an apparent disinterest in decent sound, the difficulty of injecting spontaneity into meticulously programmed beats, and too many rappers of the belief that effort is just beneath them, the live hip-hop experience can make you wonder what anyone gets from it other than the chance to stare at your favourite MC. Wave my hands in the air? AGAIN? I’d rather not actually.

Naturally, there are exceptions: Busta Rhymes, Wu-Tang, Common and Mos Def can all deliver the goods. And for sheer atmosphere, a rapper at the height of their fame, riding a huge hit, even when – or maybe because – they are flanked by all of their crew driving them on, is pretty hard to beat. But the main problem with a lot of live hip-hop inevitably, is that it’s just not that live. araabMUZIK however, is.

Though ‘Electronic Dream’s ‘hood ambient’ made him a surprise favourite outside hip-hop circles, it was the Rhode Island native and ex-drummer’s YouTube videos in which he deconstructed songs like Lil Wayne’s A Milli on his trusty Akai MPC sampler that first got him noticed and might be the ultimate example of how to make hip hop live without taking the easy route of a live band. Combining a GPS-like knowledge of the MPC’s layout and his chosen song for dissection, araabMUZIK live is hip hop at its most spontaneous – tracks getting completely ripped apart, even as he keeps their groove and slots them into several new ones.

In short, what araabMUZIK does is bring the role of the hip hop battle DJ into the digital age (he only samples from digital sources). Essentially a battle-sampler, he’s a modern link to the late 90s era of turntablism and DJs like Roc Raida or Rob Swift. It’s such an obvious connection you wonder why DMC don’t stage annual MPC tournaments.

You could make the mistake of dismissing DJ battles as hip hop’s answer to muso wankery, but hearing araabMUZIK tear down perfect gleam and gloss into multiple, almost perverse, new layers of syncopation that take the originals to new extremes makes you wonder why this strain of beat-dismantling doesn’t have more of a place in live rap shows. Even brutalist producers like El-P tend to opt for ‘two turntables and a microphone’ or live musicians. But with the former setup long replaced by digital gear, araabMUZIK takes hip hop’s DJ lineage to conclusions appropriate for the 21st century, using the MPC in a way it was probably never intended, no different to what his DJ predecessors did for the SL1200s. Post-‘Entroducing’, DJ Shadow was being lauded as the Hendrix of the sampler, but with hindsight, it’s clear the title has been waiting for someone like araabMUZIK to come along.

With all that in mind, araabMUZIK’s London debut at Camp in east London back in December was anticipated – by me at least – as something like his Monterey. Instead, it was a bit Isle of Wight. Desperate to hear him make mince meat of bangers from Rick Ross or Kanye, he instead spent most of his set triggering shards of near-identical, metallic dubstep (less Hessle Audio, more Sub Soldiers) into radical, if eventually repetitive and Paracetamol-provoking new shapes. Too mindful of London’s reputation as dubstep capital of the world, what should have been a quick nod to its biggest recent sonic export ended up being a full-on dubstep love-in. Maybe he uses this tactic everywhere he goes (footwork in Chicago? That I want to hear) but it left me unsatisfied and hoping his dive into dance waters hadn’t made him forget what got us interested in the first place. Maybe a few concessions to hip hop expectations aren’t always a bad thing.

araabMUZIK will release his second album ‘Electronic Reality’ later this year. His new mixtape ‘Instrumental University’ is out now.

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