Telling good instrumental hip hop from bad boils down to one question. If the question gets asked while listening to an album, it’s a sign the music isn’t good or interesting enough. If the album reaches its end without the question coming up even once, the musician has good reason to feel proud of himself. That question is, of course, “When is the rapper coming in already?” – or, as it’s formulated in the head when the music becomes especially boring, “Oof, when is the rapper coming in already?”
Instrumental hip hop albums aren’t released in massive numbers in our region, and those that don’t elicit that question are even fewer. So it was good to come across (somewhat late – the album came out at the end of 2018) “Inkanakuntu” (Souk Records) by the Palestinian hip hop producer Muqata’a. Formerly known as Boikutt, Muqata’a is one of the leading musicians in the awakening wave of Palestinian hip hop. He was among the founders of the pioneer band Palestinian Underground in the middle of the last decade, and in recent years has been a member of a collective called Saleb Wahad.
The “godfather of the Ramallah scene,” as he's been recently dubbed, is also scheduled to appear this summer in the Sonar Festival in Barcelona, one of the most important electronic music festivals. As founders of a new musical scene, Muqata’a and his colleagues (rappers and producers such as Al Nather, Makimakkuk, Shab jdeed, Julmud and Straight Outta Palestine) are breakthrough artists in the context of contemporary Palestinian culture. Muqata’a is marching on a musical and structural road paved by American producers (RZA, Madlib, Deejay Shadow) from the 1990s on. But along that road, Muqata’a has a musical grammar of his own, and through that personal grammar he is able to infuse the tracks on the CD with a sense of development, with a plot that’s interesting to follow.
The atmosphere that prevails on the eight tracks of “Inkanakuntu” are dominated by a tense, nocturnal feeling. The music proceeds at a measured, cautious pace, alert for any danger that may be lurking around the next corner. It possesses a clear minimalist foundation. The raw materials are relatively few – samples of drums, a slice of melody on a synthesizer, a murmur or sound drawn from field recordings, a bit of an old record – but are organized with meticulous musicality, which evokes variation out of variation out of variation.
The last two elements – field recordings and samples of old Arab music – confer a local essence on the music of Muqata’a. The field recordings were made in Ramallah and also, according to what the musician said in an interview, at Israeli army checkpoints. But if the new album contains sounds recorded at a checkpoint, they don’t appear as such explicitly. Indeed, Muqata’a has a tendency to abort and cut back both its samples and the rhythmic thrust of the music. It’s one of the most pronounced features of his work. He does the same with the old Arab music samples, whose use bears a clear political character.
“A lot of the old records in my grandparents’ houses in Jaffa and Safed, for example, were taken when they were expelled from their homes. So this is a way to bring those sounds back,” he told the Guardian in an interview. The samples appear in fragmented, shattered form, flicker for an instant and immediately disappear. Muqata’a is proud of his heritage, but plays up its erasure and its tragedy.