The hip-hop community is at war. I’m not talking about the East Coast vs. West Coast battle that resulted in the deaths of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls. The war I speak of isn’t a war of egos and guns, fought with real hardware and ending in all-too-real results. The war I mean is a skirmish between ideologies, but the outcome is just as important, and the stakes are the very identity of hip-hop itself.
For the uninitiated, hip-hop began in the 1970s in the South Bronx as an expression of protest among the oppressed African-American communities living there. Its base was infectious and danceable, but it was socially conscious in its content, and had more in common with the protest songs of the late 1960s than any of the mainstream hip-hop that you can hear on the radio today. And therein lies the root of the modern hip-hop schism. As the genre grew in popularity and drew the attention of the hungry record industry, it was forced to cast off many of its political and social roots. Lyrics about getting out of the ghetto and the trials of street life turned into material wealth, casual sex and reckless drug use. Music that was largely credited with reducing inner-city gang violence became rife with it. In fact, violence became an almost universal presence, and as young hip-hop stars grew into that new environment, they began to ape it, reinforcing the gangster mentality while bankrupting themselves and killing each other.
In opposition to the current state of affairs, a community has begun to grow around the idea of re-instilling the cultural roots of hip-hop back into the mainstream consciousness. Here in Birmingham, one such group has been having remarkable success. Known as LOBOTOMIX, and lead by a DJ named Rashid Qandil, this hip-hop collective have managed to resuscitate the kind of socially conscious music that helped give birth to the genre and have gathered a large base of local fans in the process.
LOBOTOMIX didn’t start out with such noble goals. It began as a birthday party. “Two years ago, now, it was coming up on my birthday, and I hadn’t been doing anything for my birthday for a couple years,” Qandil recalls. “I would catch up with friends at a bar or whatever. I started thinking it would be fun to just get the turntables out like we used to, just play hip-hop and all get together. And then I thought, ‘You know I end up at Speakeasy for my birthday every year, whether it was the plan or not,’ so I called George [Cowgill, owner of Speakeasy] and asked if he cared if this year we showed up with some turntables and some friends and just hung out and played records. His confirmation came through six days before my birthday, so I threw a Facebook event up, called my friends and [future members of the LOBOTOMIX crew] Shaheed and The Green Seed, and everybody was like, ‘Cool, that will be a lot of fun.’ He got more than he bargained for. “Over a hundred people showed up, which was unexpected,” Qandil says. “The best comment I had was, at the end of the night when I walked up to thank some of the b-boys for coming, they asked ‘Who are you?’ and when I told them I was Rashid, they were like ‘Oh, it’s your birthday, can you have another birthday in two weeks? This is the most fun we’ve had in forever.’ It was then that I began to wonder why I wasn’t focusing on hip-hop. It was kind of that slap in the face, ‘Hey look, dude, you don’t have to keep this in the bedroom.’ I’ve been DJing for a long time, and had been frustrated because there’s a lot of music that I wish was more represented in Birmingham. I’ve always collected hip-hop, and I would mix hip-hop in to stuff. Right before LOBOTOMIX started for real, I did a couple of nights called LOBOTOMIX where I was trying to do a night that would progress from obscure down-tempo instrumental hip-hop through Brazilian street club music, through glitchy house into more energetic French house. Did not go over well. I would be playing hip-hop and people would ask, ‘Do you play trance?’ Towards the end of the night I would be playing glitchy electro house, and people would ask ‘Where’s more of that fresh hip-hop you were playing?’, I’m like ‘You can’t mix 89 BPMs into 130 BPMs and have it make any kind of sense.’” These days, his shows are having a lot more success. LOBOTOMIX’s most recent show at the Bottletree, which featured a number of LOBOTOMIX DJ’s as well as members Shaheed and Supreme, The Green Seed and b-boy crew Kids in the Cypher, drew an impressive turnout for a hip-hop show in Birmingham. “The crowd was really responsive, people were up,” Qandil says. “As soon as stuff was happening, they were on their feet, up front and center, engaged, bobbing their heads, throwing their hands in the air.
It’s not really a dance situation, but even before the live hip-hop started, and we just had DJ Tanner spinning records, the b-boys were up front killing the dance floor, and everybody was crowded around seeing what that was about. That’s something that you don’t see at shows in Birmingham.”
The LOBOTOMIX crew are all consummate performers, and Qandil says that he is very particular about whom he chooses to work with, given his mission: “The people who I work with are not making music because they want to become filthy rich, or get fucked up or get the ‘bitches’. They’re making music because if they don’t make the music it would make them crazy. I want to work with people who are making music because they have to make music, not because they see it as a path to something, or because they want to be iconic. I don’t really care if you want to be famous. I want you to be successful, but I want you to be successful because the music is something that is worthwhile.”
Being picky has its drawbacks. There is no real breeding ground for up-and-coming hip-hop kids, and though he sees potential for Lobotomix to serve as that kind of a space, he is wary of that path as well. “Part of what I want for Lobotomix is to provide a venue for people to come out of the basement and be able to perform, but part of the problem is that you have all these people who are completely unseasoned and don’t know how to stand on a stage and give a show,” Qandil says. “They can record an album, but on stage there’s no second takes. You have to have breath control, you have to have an eye for what the audience is doing, which is something you can only learn on stage, and there is no DIY scene for hip-hop in Birmingham. I do not hear people saying ‘I’m gonna have a hip-hop show in my living room and invite people.’ It doesn’t happen like it does for punk or rock music. It’s cool as a rock star to be in your garage rocking out. To be in a basement with nothing but a bust-ass amp, a guitar with four strings on it, still putting on a freaking show. But in the perception of most people who want to be in hip-hop, there’s this sense of the trappings of hip-hop requiring more than that. I think the generations coming up now are used to things being polished, and they have a misconception about polished meaning good. Putting three coats of varnish on something doesn’t make it any less of a piece of shit than it was before, but putting your heart and everything you have into it does make it better.”
After talking to him, it’s clear that Qandil lives by his own ideals. He genuinely loves hip-hop, what it once was and what it could be if the media mongers would stop destroying it one track at a time. If passion is the key to the creation of great art, than there is no better person than Rashid Qandil to shepherd Birmingham into the future of hip-hop. When you ask him about it, he bubbles over with enthusiasm. “What do I love about hip-hop?” he asks. “I love the way it makes me feel. I love the way it gives voice to politics, to society, I love the way that it screams party when it wants to scream party. I love the way it screams revolution when it wants to scream revolution. I love the way it screams ‘this is who I am’ and it can talk for so many people. Hip-hop is a voice that can power so much. I love the bass, I don’t even have to listen to the words sometimes, and the booming beats and the hook will drive me. I won’t be able to tell what you’re saying. My girlfriend gets really frustrated with me, because I’m like ‘I don’t know what you just said for the last five minutes, because do you hear what’s happening?’ I love the experience of hearing somebody who can take elements of so many disparate musical histories and cultures and mash them together. Hip-hop is like the new jazz. When jazz evolved into that free-form that spoke from the spirit, that’s what hip-hop has been doing since it was born. Real, honest-to-god hip-hop that’s not like this bubblegum, fast-food, bullshit hip-hop, which is all glamour and completely free of substance, but hip-hop that is driven from the soul. There’s nothing like that. Hip-hop speaks so loud and so well for so many people. If some kid from Cameroon in the streets of the ghetto, or who is downtrodden in France, can put some beats together and raise his voice and say, ‘This is who I fucking am,’ that’s a beautiful thing.”
For more information on LOBOTOMIX, visit www.lobotomix.com.
Sam George is the Editor-in-Chief of Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.