Redemption 2004 featuring Euphrates with the Dope Poet Society , People's Republic , the Red Menace and Belladonna at Revival (783 College), Tuesday (November 2), 9 pm. $10. 416-535-7888. Rating: NNNNN
His grandfather still lives in Iraq, so you'd expect Jamal Abdul Narcel to spit some pretty scrappy shit about life in wartime. Surprisingly, though, the Middle East-born MC raised in the West, the lyrical force behind Montreal hiphop crew Euphrates, seems incredibly diplomatic.
"Being a product of both sides, I don't even think I have an opinion any more," says the well-spoken 22-year-old over the phone from his Montreal HQ. Born in the UAE of Iraqi heritage, Narcel moved to Canada with his family in 1986.
A childhood fan of rap, by 1998 he'd teamed up with production duo Nofy Fannan and Habillis, two other Iraqi Canadians, to form Euphrates. Focusing on giving voice to the displaced peoples of Iraq and the world, they've become a force for conscious hiphop in Canada and a shining example of cultural cross-pollination.
Their timing couldn't be better. Since the 2001 release of their debut LP, A Bend In The River, the group's been the subject of intense media attention. How many Canadian hiphop groups have been featured in Time magazine and on the BBC? And while the crew get plenty of props from heads for their tough beats and sinuous rhymes, a lot of the attention so far has focused on one thing: their nationality.
Narcel isn't concerned.
"That's definitely the reason for the publicity," he agrees. "No press is bad press, and I'm grateful for it, as long as we're not pigeonholed into the mad Arab stereotype.
"But I don't like it when the CBC asks me how I feel about the situation in Iraq. It really doesn't matter what I think, because I probably think the same thing you do. The media just wants a sound bite. The media makes everything sensational, but you've gotta use it for the right reasons."
Narcel believes in the power of hiphop as a conduit for conscious discourse, a force that can reshape ideologies and opinions when used correctly. In recent years, hiphop's political edge seems to have sharpened up the mainstream, too. Consider Common, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez - artists who've been moving serious units without resorting to the trite gangsta thugging and braggadocio that have dominated the game for so long.
"The whole political thing has become a gimmick, too," warns Narcel. "That's why I stopped going to rallies. There was all this solidarity, and then everyone went home and didn't do anything about it.
"In Canada we're supposed to be this melting pot. I feel like we're all in a pot, but there's no heat on right now. I'm a carrot and you're a tomato, and we're just floating. We're not learning about each other. We have it good in Canada, but there's still racism here."
While the last record was an abstract trek through the existential musings of a rapper barely into adulthood, the band's new LP, Stereotypes Inc, works a more narrative, personal approach. It's also sarcastic, says Narcel, adding that the beats have been jacked up to some truly next-level shit.
While one track dives into the controversial mad-Arab stereotype, another takes the perspective of an American soldier in Iraq who realizes the futility of his situation. Narcel also weighs in on the implications of imperialism through the metaphor of an Iraqi wo-man trapped in an abusive relationship with her American husband. File this one under heavy shit.
Even with the weighty material, the MC says he's always wary of becoming too political. "Politics drains your human energy," he says. "If you become too political, you stop being an artist and you become a politician."