big gyptian (riddim meth0d repost)

[Ok, here’s another oldie-but-goodie from the Riddim Meth0d vaults. Plenty of readers are no doubt familiar with this post/mashup, especially since I’ve revisited the issue. In the time since I wrote it (almost 5 years ago!), I’ve also had the strange fortune of submitting a brief report — about the significance of “Big Pimpin” to Jay’s and Timbo’s respective oeuvres — to the lawyers working for the heirs to Baligh Hamdi’s copyrights. (For the record, while I don’t want to contribute to bad legal precedent, I’m generally ok with taking some of the money that explodes outward as rich people sue rich people, as long as I get to tell the truth as I see/hear it. Also, this likely won’t go to trial.) This example also finds its way into a chapter I’m contributing to a forthcoming book on Pop-Culture Tools for the Music Classroom. Finally, I want to thank the lovely humanitarians at for preserving the post and — more importantly — the comments on it. I’m happy & relieved to recover the comment thread from the initial RM post, which I will paste in at the bottom of this re-post. It’s hard to lose conversations to the e-ther, even little ones. For the record, this was initially published on 19 September 2005.]

riffing off pace’s east-meets-west blend and continuing my experiments with mashes of musically-related songs, i offer up an orientalist oddity: jay z’s “big pimpin’,” as produced by timbaland, mixed with abdel-halim hafez’s “khosara,” the song that provided timbo with the inspiration for the slinky, flute-propelled loop that undergirds j-hova’s jam.

wayne&wax, “big gyptian” (j-hova v. abdel-halim hafez)

although there was some controversy about the similarity between “pimpin'” and “khosara” (including talk of a lawsuit), timbaland apparently escaped penalty, at least at present, because in this case he replayed – i.e., re-recorded – the two-bar section (rather than digitally sampling it), and the sense appears to be that the underlying composition was not original and/or substantial enough to be infringed in this case. you will hear in the four-bars that begin my mashup that timbaland’s beat bears a very strong resemblance to the original. [note from 2010: i have since changed my opinion on the question of whether this features a sample or not, based on irrefutable evidence.]

this is not an unambiguous case. because the music in question is a short loop and it is re-recorded rather than sampled, it seems reasonable for timbo to get off the hook. of course, not only is the musical reference a clearly recognizable one, the two-bar phrase in question is an important part of the original, serving as an intro and as a recurring riff (notably, returning after the vocal section). at the same time, the fact that, according to this article, label owner magdi el-amroussi would have denied timbo the ability to use this fragment – “Because he’s changed the composition” – also seems to argue for timbaland’s right to do it. despite that timbo and jay used the flute loop to craft a somewhat crass (if catchy) song about pimpin’, the world would be worse off with such arbitrary, authoritarian restrictions on derivative works, whether the so-called owner of the copyright is disney or a seemingly stodgy label owner.

what i like about this mash, as with the “code of the beats” experiment, is that one gets to hear more of the original, which is great in its own right, and thus one understands the sonic inspiration at work here. at the same time, hearing the source alongside the “derivative” track offers new ways of hearing the originals. in this case, one gets to hear how timbo’s interpretation changes the original: rather than a recurring motif, the flute loop now undergirds the entire composition, moving its emphasis toward rhythmic repetition and bass frequencies. similarly, rather than supporting some southern-fried, slap-a-bitch rap, timbaland’s breezy beat, enhanced by additional winds and strings, instead accompanies the mournful, melismatic singing of abdel-halim hafez, the “king of arabic music.”

although timbo’s beat has always had me open, i gotta admit that jay’s lyrics (and those of his cohorts) tend to put me off. frankly, they make me cringe. as much as i can see the attraction of expanding the pimp-metaphor (as with the hustler, badman, etc.) and of playing the role – at bottom, it is a position of power, par excellence perhaps – i just can’t get with the misogyny when it comes down to it. similar to oliver, i have a hard time recuperating exploitation. so, rather than playing any of the verses, or even the chorus, what i have done here is to “dub in” a few of the phrases in jay’s verse that seemed more “positive” or at least could be interpreted that way. “love ’em” (without the “leave ’em”) seems about as good as it gets, though i found some others, too.

after putting the phrases together, i was struck that the line “take ’em out the hood, keep ’em lookin’ good” suggests quite another set of meanings when heard in the context of egyptian music: one can either hear jay-z critiquing conservative islam’s call for women to wear veils – recalling vybz kartel’s “you nuh haffi hide your face like bin laden gal” – or one can hear him assailing the american-style torture interrogation techniques so symbolized by hooded abu ghraib prisoners.

and despite its appearance before 9/11, “big pimpin'” does tap into our historical moment nonetheless, sitting alongside a host of other orientalist beats in hip-hop, dancehall, and various electronic genres. the resonance of middle eastern music in the world’s (urban, popular) musics has been building for some time, reflecting centuries of history of interaction, not to mention a contemporary and increasingly visible and audible cultural presence in the US.

even so, representations of middle-easterners and islam in the US (and, say, UK) remain as stereotyped and distorted as the “eastern” musical figures in contemporary popular music. the article in al-ahram notes that the hip-hop press completely conflated various asian/orientalist signifiers when trying to describe the egyptian sound of “big pimpin'”:

The identity of the composer of the song, though, has been lost within the crazy machinations of the hip-hop world. A review of the song on MTV describes it as “Bollywood-wigged NOLA bounce stutter-stepping,” ignoring its Egyptian roots. Another review describes the beat as featuring “Z droppin big willie rhymes over a swaying, South-Seas flavoured groove that’s a happy musical marriage of Brooklyn and Bali.”

so it is also my hope that a mashup of this sort can serve to bring a little more awareness to the actual music whose ghosts and caricatures today haunt mainstream radio and the global underground alike. the hafez original could serve as a window into a wonderful world of truly amazing music, which, really, should only further justify the existence of timbaland’s homage. (let’s face it: they’re not exactly competing in the same market; one’s existence does not diminish the other – on the contrary, they enrich each other’s resonance.)

i recommend tracking down the original recording of “khosara” – never mind various live versions – and giving the song a listen. it certainly holds up on its own. (i’m sayin’, how do you think it came into timbaland’s hands?) in fact, given that the infringement suit seems like a non-issue, and considering that so many of us really dig the same sounds that inspired timbo and jay-z, it would be dandy if hafez found new listeners by virtue of timbo “putting him on.” you can find one version of “khosara” on CD here (and listen to a real-audio file of the whole thing), and you can hear much, much more from him here. enchanting stuff, no doubt. listen to this alongside some um kulthum, and you’ll get a good sense of mid-20th century egyptian popular music.

a word on technique: i have pitched the hafez recording up slightly in order to match the timbo version (since the latter had the more compelling, bumping center, which i would rather not distort). when the hafez makes harmonic changes, however, i shift the timbaland up in pitch to match it (which, yeah, sometimes sounds a little weird – but this is all kind of weird to begin with, no?). i have simply replayed the first vocal section of the hafez after the jay-z-quoting dubby section in order to give the track’s form a kind of roundness. because the hafez original is substantially longer than i imagine most people’s attention spans are, i decided to excise the rest of it. (when i tried out an earlier mix of these at a boston-based college-bar, it was clear that heads were not ready. it nearly caused a riot on dance floor, and not in a good way. but i insisted on making it through at least one round of hafez’s singing before bringing back the jay-z. the manager thought i had lost it. i quit that gig shortly thereafter. when i played the same sequence at beat research, where there also happened to be some egyptians in the house, people went bananas for it.)

one final note: i’ve added some additional, locally-inflected percussion here. having added this mash into my set at the boston bounce party a couple weeks ago, i already had the two tracks arranged with some bounce-y beats underneath (i.e., all the percussion that enters after the first eight bars). i decided to leave the beats in because they give the track some nice extra drive (if obscuring some of the halftime feel of the jay-z) and because i’ve been enjoying this odd beantown groove lately. “big pimpin'” and “khosara,” both with tempos in the mid-130s, were well suited to a boston bounce refix. it’s kind of a funny tempo, i think – unsettling with its constant question, “too fast or too slow?” – but between grime, garage, b-more, techno, soca, electro, and the occasional uptempo hip-hop or dancehall oddity, among others, beats in the 130-140 bpm range seem all the rage of late. at any rate, what’s another node in the network? shit’s messy enough to begin with. i think that’s why it sounds so good.

in case you missed it at the top:
wayne&wax, “big gyptian” (j-hova v. abdel-halim hafez)