Posted by: ghostdawg2 | February 23, 2009

Moroccan Hip Hop Hits The Big Time by Jeffrey Callen

In the last five years, hip-hop has become one of the most popular styles of music among Moroccan youth.

The opening up of the airwaves to private stations has certainly helped but the major factor has been the growth in sophistication and mastery of hip-hop basics—beat, flow, message, and style—by a new generation of artists. There are still plenty of groups creating carbon copies of hardcore West Coast beats or techno-laced French rap but artists, such as Fnaire, H-Kayne, Casa Crew, Fez City Clan, and Don Bigg, have become stars by creating a new Moroccan sound. While Fnaire (from Marrakech), H-Kayne (Meknes), Casa Crew (Casablanca) and Fez City Clan (Fez) have been influential in creating local urban styles, Don Bigg’s sound is just his own. During an interview in Casablanca, Bigg discussed the state of Moroccan hip-hop, the Moroccan music business and his future plans.

A horrendous traffic jam switched the location of my interview with Don Bigg. His manager Nabil and I were waiting at a chi-chi café in central Casablanca when Bigg called to say he was stuck on a side street a few blocks away. The Mercedes was fly—leather seats, killer sound system—and during the two-block drive to a more modest but still upscale café, Bigg played some cuts from his new album. It was a big week for Moroccan hip-hop. The death of Hicham Belkas, dj for Fnaire, in a car crash was a major blow. The Boulevard des jeunes musician, the premier festival of alternative music in Morocco, was coming up the next week in Casablanca (during the four days of the festival, every hip-hop—fusion, rock and electronica—groups dedicated a song to the Belkas). A contract dispute between Bigg and the promoters of the Boulevard also went public. It paled in comparison to the tragic death of the DJ, but it showed a riff in the force that had been hard to imagine when I lived in Morocco in 2002 and hip-hop was all about the music, community and fashion. But back then there was no money to be made.
Don Bigg, Morocco
Times have changed and hip-hop is big business. For Bigg, the dispute with the promoters of the Boulevard was emblematic of the two biggest problems that plague the Moroccan music industry: a lack of professionalism and a general disrespect of musicians. Bigg was adamant; music is his passion but it’s also his business. When he’s in the studio, it’s all about the music but when he’s on stage, it’s his job and he expects to get paid what he’s worth. And his usual fee these days is 100,000 dirhams (about $12,000). In Moroccan terms, it’s seemingly high but with no effective copyright protection, concert fees are the main source of income for musicians. The promoters of the Boulevard cut his fee to 60,000 dirhams a few days before the festival, citing unforeseen expenses and the lack of a signed contract. That didn’t cut it for Bigg: it didn’t show respect commensurate with his status as an artist and he refuses to accept second-class treatment to foreign artists booked to play the Boulevard. He smiled when he said that people say he has a big head.

A big head? Well, Bigg is sure of himself and his artistry and he has a mastery of flow and hip-hop stage moves that are still rare among Moroccan rappers. Like his namesake, the late Notorious B.I.G., he’s a big man who doesn’t move a lot on stage but, like Biggie, he works the stage like a pro. I would quickly find that he also works the room like a pro during an interview.
Don  Bigg onstage
Born Taoufig Hazeb, Bigg grew up with hip-hop as his own personal soundtrack. At age fourteen, he started his musical career with the group Thug Gang. He then moved on to Mafia C—one of the biggest groups in the early years of this century—before deciding that the only way to make a living as a rapper was to pursue a solo career just as hip-hop was making its break. Like his group work, Bigg’s solo efforts reflected his youthful immersion in the sounds of old school East Coast rap. During our conversation, Bigg displayed his knowledge of the genesis of hip-hop in the Bronx and emphasized the influence of East Coast artists, such as Afrika Bambaata, Run DMC and Nas, on his style. To end his history lesson, Bigg said he would like to produce a television show or create a website dedicated to teaching hip-hop history to young Moroccans who dig the music but don’t know the roots of the genre. Skillful at picking up a thought when I dangle it, he agrees that the Moroccan audience had needed time to become comfortable with hip-hop and to learn how to move with the beats. He attributes his ability to move naturally to growing up with the genre—it’s in his blood.

Picking up another dangled thought, Bigg lays out a typology of Moroccan hip-hop styles: Casablanca (“hard, in your face”); Fez/Meknes (a bouncy “jump, jump” style); Marrakech (fusion on traditional Moroccan styles and hip-hip). Bigg’s style falls loosely within the parameters of Casablanca style; it’s the smoothness of his flow that sets him apart. The last year has seen the rise to prominence of the roots/fusion style of Marrakech bands, like Fnaire, but it’s not for him. Musically, he appreciates it but he is adamant: his sound is not a Moroccan sound because it uses Moroccan beats or sounds but “because it’s from Morocco.” Embracing the global flows that he grew up immersed in, Bigg states that his sound is the product of “everything I’ve been exposed to.” Bigg is clear. He’s a hip-hop artist and he wants to see his CDs in the rap section at FNAC or Virgin, not the world music section.

Press clips on Don Bigg

For Bigg, the messages in his songs fall square within the hip-hop tradition of direct lyrics in the language of the street that speak to the problems and dreams of everyday people. That means his lyrics have to be in Darija (Moroccan Arabic), not English (it’s not Moroccan) and not French (it’s not Moroccan and the flow doesn’t work). The social critique was there on his first album, Maghraba Tal Mout (Moroccan Til Death), but the everyday dreams in the lyrics included big cars and bling. Bigg defends that as reflecting the reality of life on the street but it wasn’t clear which streets. Hip-hop speaks to the hopes and dreams of a wide swath of Moroccan youth but there is a wider swath still in poor neighborhoods and bidonvilles (shanty towns) that are left out of the cultural/political dialogue in Morocco.

The interview over, Bigg’s small entourage appears from the back of the café. His manager comes to say goodbye and a man I hadn’t seen join him hands me a notebook I had absentmindedly left on the table. Bigg graciously takes his leave and I make my way back onto the crowded streets of Casablanca. I had come in with a set of questions and Bigg had handled them all but I realized Bigg had also worked the room. Another sign that the mature age of Moroccan hip-hop has arrived.
When we talked, Bigg was working on demo tracks for his new album on his MacPro. The album Byad wa Khell (Black and White) is due to come out in early 2009 and, as I write, Bigg e-mails me that he just got his visa for a trip to New York and is looking for opportunities to perform. To check out Don Bigg’s sound go to his Myspace page (http://www.myspace.com/biggthadon) and give a listen to “Joumkhouri Hkeem” (Only my Fans can Judge Me) from his new album and his latest catch-phrase/motto. If you want to check out more of Bigg’s tracks and those of Moroccan rappers, such as Fnaire, H-Kayne, Fez City Clan, and Casa Crew, Youtube (http://www.youtube.com) offers a good selection of official and unofficial videos and live appearances on Moroccan television.
Don Bigg onstage

First published: http://www.afropop.org

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