Meta Music

A conversation with DJ Mutamassik

Photo by Geoff Albores

The dance floor has long been a site for the fast flow of cultural exchange: it seems like there the music can always get along. Egyptian-American DJ Mutamassik, on the other hand, collects the worldly sounds that are meaningful to her and makes music that doesn’t always get along. Egyptian folk beats, hip-hop and Sun Ra all get their lip service in her latest CD mix, The Bidoun Sessions. The album is a split with DJ/Rupture documenting their performances at the Bidoun parties in Dubai — an earlier incarnation of the Bidoun project by MIS in Dubai.

Labels can only give you a superficial impression of her music so bear with me as I say that from her turntable-based free-jazz to drum-and-bass smoothing out into multilingual head nod mash-ups, her layered mixes are a bit weightier than your average beat juggler’s. She sits down with Geoff Albores from Other Music in NYC and tells us what it all really means.

Bidoun: Can you name your major influences?

Mutamassik: Well, I can say, Sun Ra, just off the bat. That was definitely huge — just the swing, he can be totally out, totally in. There’s a soul around him: his sense of time, his melodies, playing style, his touch. When I write keyboard lines I think of him and also when I first heard his stuff with the Cairo jazz ensemble it totally blew me away. It’s from the 50s or something?

Oh yeah, that stuff is just amazing; it’s a huge swing orchestra. He really had a sense of purpose. What else?

I would say, definitely punk rock, you know bands like The Dead Kennedys. But it wasn’t so much about their playing as it was about their politics. It was a huge influence on me.

Bidoun: So it was more the ethos than the music?

M: Yeah. The playing, the attitude, Crass, Bad Brains — there’s so many — even Sonic Youth, even though they were after. I would also have to include classical European music, Baroque music. I didn’t like that sweeping romantic 1800s stuff, besides Beethoven of course. Renaissance or Baroque music, basically, that was DANCE music. It was rhythmical. That’s why I started playing the cello: it was relentless and rhythmical.

Thinking about specific influences is really hard. Growing up in Ohio, I listened to everything from free jazz, to top 40 radio, to The Cure. The Cure is how I got into existential literature. That song “Killing an Arab” — which is so inflammatory — which is actually based on Albert Camus’ The Stranger which takes place partly in Algeria. The Cure was a major influence on me when I was 13, 14.

My mom’s Egyptian music was always around the house. And I guess I was consciously rejecting it at the time, especially Oum Kalthoum because it was the “old peoples music,” but the folky wedding music, and the funky dance stuff, that was a great influence for me. We lived in south-east Africa for a while, so that was always present, and my brothers loved hip-hop…

Bidoun: Can you talk a little bit about how these influences have manifested in your music?

M: They are all there, without a doubt, I don’t try to deny all those influences. It comes up a lot, especially in New York, talking about progressive music, but in the modern world in general there’s all this pressure to make something that has never been heard or something. Like now, all of a sudden, improvisation — the most progressive music out there — now is going back to a reductionist kind of thing where we only play two notes an hour. That’s become the standard of progressive music, but I can’t really stifle all those different influences.

That’s what happened in the drum and bass scene. I was heavily involved with Konkrete Jungle in the early days: ’96, ’97, ’98, and I was mixing hip-hop with jungle and even that was insane. People were like “What are you doing?!?” Just that purist mentality, these cliques. It was the same thing when I was 15, and listening to classical music, and punk rock. That’s why I was a loner because there was no clique that incorporated the two.

Which is so ironic, because punk rock’s foundation is entirely based on breaking down rules and stereotypes…

Exactly, and those same movements that were revolutionary and reactionary become a mould in themselves. Like what’s happened to hip-hop now: it’s unbending. The most stalwart fascists in hip-hop are white dudes from Middle America who have become the authority on hip-hop… And keeping it real!!!

Bidoun: How was your experience in Dubai?

M: Dubai was really surprising. When I made the mix CD for the Bidoun party I was very conservative. I didn’t want to be too abstract, I didn’t know what to expect. My only experience playing in “Arab” country was Egypt, and that was a total nightmare. I was playing in the mountains and in Alexandria at these big nightclubs filled with the worst kind of stereotypes: rich Arabs, eurotrash, …

[Egypt] was so decadent and Dubai is very decadent also, but you find pockets of these great people, like Shehab Hamad from Kitsch 22 and the Bidoun people. But other than that it’s a very strange decadent Las Vegas type of thing. I had preconceived notions of it, but I really enjoyed playing there. There was this breakdance crew that came out to the party as well. They were one of the best things about it. But in comparison, the people in Egypt were not as international as the people in Dubai.

I found out that [in Egypt] a few hundred of my promo CDs were held in customs and the officials wanted $1,500 for them. A year later my friend told me they were being played as the intro to a news program on Nile TV! My music was hated while I was there, and then it ends up being on a TV channel.

Bidoun: Are you interested in doing live PA stuff?

M: Well the next record is totally different from the first. It still has live elements, but it’s not improvised at all. I’m playing drums and Morgan Kraft is doing his stunt guitar. There’s a lot of riffing. He comes from heavy metal — Minnesota heavy metal, which is the land of the Vikings. I think there’s more Vikings there than anywhere outside Scandinavia — and I come from Ohio punk rock, and somewhere in between there are bands that meet in the middle, like Black Sabbath. That was the main idea behind the album. It’s a studio record where we overdub electronic stuff on top. I love to play the turntables like a percussive instrument.

Bidoun: So not just like a linear instrument but as a textured rhythm.

M: Exactly.

Well the first time I saw you perform it was with Burnt Sugar, and you played a DJ set before the band came on. But when the band came on you became an instrument, which was really amazing to me. I know you’ve collaborated with people in the past, are there any people that you’d really like to collaborate with now?

Well that’s really tough. As far as working with someone in the studio, I would say the Egyptian string musicians and percussionists to have a more orchestral sound.

You can get someone over here in America that has studied the music and understands it in an academic context, but the Egyptians have SWING, a lot of funk. People talk about Oum Kalthoum’s orchestra and say oh, the cello is off, the sound is flat but to me, that’s the kind of shit that can make you cry, there is so much feeling there. It’s that kind of thing that I’ve seen in Cairo that I would definitely love to work with.

Bidoun: Do you feel pigeonholed or typecast as an Arab-American musician?

M: Absolutely. It’s been both a blessing and a curse. In the past, people have heard that I do certain things and they would like to rent that fantasy for a night. I’ve dispelled that myth now though. I don’t play into Orientalism: 1001 Nights and all that kind of shit. On the other hand I feel like it’s impossible. As much as I have promoted Arab culture, in a way, I am not fully Arab. I’m half Italian, half Egyptian.

Bidoun: If someone asked you for a mission statement for your music, what would you say you are trying to do?

M: Well, my general mission in life is to take as much inspiration as I can and reflect that back, whether that be through art or music. I want to educate people about these cultures that are out there that people might not know, and let people know how funky and how mind blowing music from this culture is. Specifically, my roots, my culture, which is the Sa’adi culture of southern Egypt. It’s a very specific type of thing but if you listen other music like folk music from Japan you can find similarities; there is a heavy drum sound. I’m relating to this music that is going on halfway around the world, and it sounds like hip-hop from the Bronx, there is really a deep connection.

This is my mission because I’m pissed off at the world, and anger can be sublimated through the music in a non-violent way. You can hear the urgency in the music but it doesn’t necessarily have to reflect violence. The world of transcendence is about letting go of all the negative stuff.

Bidoun: What are you upcoming projects?

M: The High Alert project, Rough Americana 2 with Morgan Kraft. The album that should be out this fall on Sound-Ink which is more like a collection of my work including previously unreleased stuff. I’m also working on some new stuff and looking forward to a full length album.

Mutamassik’s latest EP High Alert is out now on Sound-Ink records and her collaboration with DJ Rupture, Shotgun Wedding Vol. 1: The Bidoun Sessions is also available on the Violent Turd label.