In a perfect world, Mutamassik would get as much press as M.I.A. Both have intriguing backgrounds (Mutamassik is half-Egyptian, half-Italian) and fuse militant non-Western sensibilities with Western beats. But Mutamassik’s work is mostly instrumental, giving listeners (and critics) no easy angles or hooks. She prefers that listeners think for themselves: “[I] find that one of the only sanctuarys (sic) is in the music I do where the arguments and influences can battle themselves out, convulse, break bread together, get bashed into place in an inspiring, juicy pulp, still alive and kicking as sonic plasma should be.” As battleground, dancefloor, and roundtable, Definitive Works ably succeeds.
Mutamassik’s M.O. is this: Egyptian, North African, and Middle Eastern sounds on top, hip-hop and drum ‘n’ bass on the bottom. This type of fusion is not new; Talvin Singh, Badmarsh & Shri, Banco de Gaia, and Juno Reactor have all mixed traditional non-Western sounds with electronic beats, and commercial hip-hop a few years ago had an Indian/Arabic sampling fad. But Mutamassik’s approach is rawer, more organic. She combines traditional sounds with dirty, lo-fi breakbeats, weaving grooves into a unified whole. This is harder than it sounds. Any sonic colonialist can slap sampled sounds on top of electronic drums, but to line up percussion from different cultures, each with its own idiosyncratic sense of timing, requires a deep understanding of each, as well as a sharp ear. “Babomb”, for example, mixes booming hand drums with DJ Premier-esque boom-bap beats into a rich, complex stew. It’s refreshing to hear non-Western sounds as true sonic ingredients rather than symbols of exoticism.
However, with titles like “War Booty”, “Babomb”, and “Immigrants on Course”, Mutamassik is well aware of the current significance of Middle Eastern sounds. “Mutamassik” means “stronghold” or “tenacity” in Arabic, and she has said that she is playing on the stereotypical fear of Arabs. Arguably, combining Middle Eastern sounds with grimy hip-hop plays on racial fears in general. “High Alert A’ala Teta” even has a helicopter and air raid sirens, but where Public Enemy would explode into a call to arms, Mutamassik slowly unfurls a dense drum workout. Is this menacing? Mutamassik leaves that up to the listener.
Interestingly, she also deconstructs her sonic fusions from the outside. The first half of “Mawlid” seamlessly blends hip-hop drums with flute and string ensemble riffs. After a brief interlude, turntable scratches of these riffs call attention to their overlay, recalling the old school hip-hop practice of scratching in bits of entire songs as choruses. For the rest of the track, Mutamassik then chops up and manipulates these riffs with turntablist techniques. The album also shows a strong willingness to disturb even the most organic grooves with wild drum ‘n’ bass beats verging on breakcore. “Immigrants on Course” has stirring machine-gun drum rolls, and “Raqs Sharqi Scratch” has beats that filter, flange, and fly all over the place. At times, the drum ‘n’ bass feels dated, but, then again, this is a career-spanning compilation. Let’s hope that “definitive” here means “defining” rather than “career-summing”.
For someone who has worked with Arto Lindsay, Vernon Reid, Marc Ribot, and DJ/rupture, there’s precious little press on Mutamassik; she’s much more likely to show up in blogs or academic journals than in hipster web sites. Hopefully, Definitive Works will change that. In an increasingly polarized post-9/11 world, Mutamassik’s cross-cultural sonic dialogues are more vital than ever.