Omar Mouallem is an intelligent and charming fellow from Edmonton who raps for fun. His debut album was released a year ago and it’s called If You Don’t Buy this CD the Terrorists Win and includes a sorted anthology of material in the works for the better part of half a decade. He’s also written extensively about felines in his book Amazing Cats and he’s a key organizer of the Edmonton’s newly forged “Hip Hop in the Park” festival. For someone so entrenched in the hip hop culture, I was surprised to learn that he’s bored of rap. Go figure.
My name is A.O.K. (Assault of Knowledge). I don’t really have a local crew, but my label Ill-Legitimate is based out of Vancouver; so I hooked up with them, back when I lived there.
How did growing up in Northern Alberta shape your experiences?
We were one of the 5 Arab families in High Prairie, so right off the bat our family never really fit in the landscape of the town. I was born and raised there [and] even though I was being raised Muslim and raised in an Arabic household, I wasn’t quite Arabic or Muslim. I think I was trying to cultivate an identity or personality some how. I was 9 or 10 when I saw Da Brat’s video for “Fundafied” – so when I was 10, I just sorta latched on to hip hop.
I’ve heard that in Muslim culture music is often scorned. Is it a sin to play or perform music?
It would probably fall into the False Idols category of things…but that’s really radical Islamic stuff. I came from a very moderate Muslim family – my mom never actually wore a headscarf or anything like that. Yeah, it has a reputation for disparaging music, but the texts are written as music, they’re written as hymns. They rhyme, they have stanzas, they’re written in a syllabic structure. That might be one of the reasons why radical Islamists feel threatened by music because they feel like it may be compromising their Koranic music.
You’re an organizer for Hip Hop in the Park (2009) this year, could you talk about that?
Hip Hop in the Park this year was the bomb. Just seeing the 2000 people that were there really blew my mind. I never thought it could get this big in it’s 2nd year. Everything went so smoothly. It was tremendous and friendly and I like it when hip hop is friendly. I like the friendly stuff, I like seeing people smile after listening to a song.
Why do you think it’s important for H.H.I.T.P. to align itself with the non-violence movement?
Everybody has their own reasons…my reason is that I feel bored to death with hip hop. I feel like it’s becoming irrelevant. We need to have an event that’s going to bring younger kids in and expose them to hip hop at an earlier age and expose them to a type of hip hop that their parents are going to encourage.
I know there were some concerns with noise levels last year at the festival and I noticed this year it was quieter, but hip hop is supposed to be loud music. How do you balance that?
I don’t know because I didn’t venture into that part of the policy making. Last year the complaint came from just one letter written into the Edmonton Journal by Norman Fusco…that’s what launched it all. It was bad P.R. and we want good P.R.
What do think could make H.H.I.T.P. more of a destination?
We could use a popular artist. You still gotta understand that there aren’t a lot of people in Edmonton who love hip hop the way that we do. So what we saw at the park was most of the people who love hip hop like we do plus their families or the joggers or the curious Edmontonian. We’ll know it when we do a 3rd one.
Your album If You Don’t Buy this CD the Terrorists Win came out last year. What’s the story behind it and why the name?
Well the title really has no significance. The reason is because I wanted to get people’s attention. The 12 tracks on that CD were at least 3 years in the making…all of it was sort of back-logged music. Some of it I wrote even when I was 18 years old – “Freedom is a State of Mind” I wrote in my first year of college. It was an accumulation of music I had and then I finally got the money to do it. I got the money because I wrote a book. I wrote a book about cats called Amazing Cats. I got commissioned to write true stories about cats, Amazing Cats.
How did this happen?
Craigslist actually. I saw a posting on Craigslist. I was a poor freelance writer working in a group home, maybe making $50/week on writing – if I was lucky. I saw a posting that said ‘wanted/needed: freelance writers to write stories about Amazing Cats.’ So I thought an anthology maybe…but I got called in for the interview and then I found out that it was actually the whole book they wanted written. And so I’m wondering, how am I going to come up with a whole book of short stories about cats and I found out that they just want true stories of cats – which is easy, you just research.
Amazing Cats is the basis of your rap career?
Yeah! It helped launch my career. I still wouldn’t have the money to put out a CD if it wasn’t for this silly Wal-Mart book.
What bothers you the most about hip hop?
I dunno…I mean I feel really good about hip hop right now. I’m getting bored of it. I think the reason why I’m bored of it is because nobody is doing nothing new. Maybe it’s hit a plateau and there’s nothing more that can be done with it. I don’t believe that, I’m sure someone will find something new to do with it. I’m sorry, Lil Wayne is maybe a fresh voice, but his word play is not that unique.
I’m not even sure that Lil Wayne is as sophisticated as people give him credit for. He’s fun…
He’s fun, I enjoy him – if he is like the best rapper alive right now, I think that’s indicative of something a lot more ominous…
What would that be then? Is that part of a trend?
For me the good ol’ days were 1994. I gotta say, I enjoyed 2001 a lot…The Blueprint and Stillmatic were solid albums on a commercial level. 1994 though…Ready to Die, Illmatic, Redman…you can go on and on. Some of the best albums came out ’93-’95 – that was the golden era for me.
What is it that bothers you today? The apparent lack of originality?
Yeah…you know, I’m sorry, doing something new with your voice or the inflection of a word is not something new; changing ‘there’ to ‘thurr’ is not a revolution in music. Yet, one dude does it and then 20 of them follow right after that. They’re just a bunch of fucking sheep sometimes.
Yeah, but the same could be said for the golden era.
I’ve been listening to rap for 14 years which sounds like a long time, but it’s really not. Not in a timeline of a culture…maybe in 20 years I need to look at it and maybe looking at the patterns. Maybe it is all gradual; maybe turning ‘there’ to ‘thurr’ will one day lead to something revolutionary – or not.
What’s next for you?
I started recording about 2 months ago. I hope to have another album out in a year or a year and a half. It’s going to be a lot more commercially – I shouldn’t say commercially friendly because I won’t be making money on this, you never do. It’s going to be a lot friendlier, positive…a lot less pedantic and complaining. I’m proud of my debut album, but I think it could be off-putting for someone who’s not in the mood to be lectured. I can’t say that I have that I have that much to complain about, I love my job, I’m in love…all this sort of reflects on the music – unless I get fired and dumped.
What would you like to see in the rap culture in Canada in the next 5, 10, 15 years? What’s missing? What could make it better?
I dunno. I think it’s fine. Every town has it’s own character. I really admire the Saskatoon rap scene. To me it’s one of the country’s best-kept secrets. Edmonton’s in the past 3 years has grown exponentially. I went into 180 Degrees – which was the only live hip hop night in the city for about 6 months. It was like 5 emcees on an open-mic. One dude was named Ice Rink – I’ll never forget it. He was wearing this Budweiser shirt that didn’t even come over his belly, a Clockwork Orange bowler hat, construction worker shoes and like really nerdy glasses. But he wasn’t a hipster, he was just a goofy kid who liked to rap. And so the whole time, I’m trying to meet this guy and he’s writing lyrics on cocktail napkins. The open-mic starts and he takes these cocktail napkins and starts rapping about 4 bars at a time, what he just wrote down – which is raps about pee and poo – seriously now. That was my first impression of hip hop [in Edmonton].
Last words/shout outs?
Shout outs to everyone who worked on H.H.I.T.P. Kazmega, Melissa Bishop, I.D., Khiri, Conrad, Gooz…by starting this I’m going to leave someone out. Shout outs to my girl Janae.
For more on A.O.K. check myspace.com/assaultofknowledge