What do you get when you cross a Muslim from a small town on the Canadian Prairies with the hip hop culture? You get this week’s artist in our New Artist Spotlight, A.O.K. The well rounded MC brings a lot to the table, and not just in the musical sense. He is a writer, done screenplays and written books. That well roundness is also well displayed on his debut album, If You Don’t Buy This, The Terrorists Win. The music reminds me of something found out of the Living Legends camp in terms of music and subjects. The album contains straight up goofiness in the space alien invasion tale found on “Tales From The Planet Grolic”. Then he might jump into a serious track, questioning the rolls of religion and not relying on it as a crutch. Some might call it unfocused, I’d like to say it’s well rounded. Even from the first time he contacted me, I could tell this was a cat that I could vibe with on a personal level. As some of you that might have emailed me in the past will know, depending on my mood (and how many “pops” I’ve had), I can be a little on the goofy side. Dude never missed a step in dealing with me. I can dig that. So when it was time to do the interview for the spotlight, I anticipated a witty banter between the two of us. He held up his end of the bargain well, I on the other hand was kind of flat. Eh, oh well. Take time to check the interview, listen to the tracks. An open mind is a well fed mind….
A.O.K. - Coffee Shop Girl (from “If You Don’t Buy This CD, The Terrorists Win”)
A.O.K. – You are a God (from “If You Don’t Buy This CD, The Terrorists Win”)
WYDU: What’s good? Can we have a proper introduction for the readers out there?
A.O.K.: My name is Omar Mouallem, aka A.O.K. (Assault Of Knowledge). I am a Lebanese-Canadian who grew up in a town of 2500 people, three stop lights, two mills and one rapper. I am a journalist and writer by day, rapper by night and asleep by mid-morning. I like scientific skepticism, coffee shops, dope rap shows, bad TV news and talking about my bowels.
W: All good topics…. How would you describe your music to someone who hasn’t heard of you before?
A.O.K.: People who’ve met me, but haven’t heard my music, still know what to expect from it. I live to love, laugh and learn, so my raps naturally reflect that. For people who haven’t cracked a beer with me or shared a cigarette – I have a hard time trying to explain to them. Especially in Alberta where the average person knows five rappers, and they all wear gold. I can tell you that I’m more Kanye West than Lil’ Wayne, but I’m more Bob Dylan than Kanye West. I’ve heard people call my music hipster-hop or folk-hop, so whatever that means, I guess that’s what it is.
W: The title of your album is great, “If You Don’t Buy This CD, The Terrorists Win”. I’m assuming you are talking about the group of people and not the Rap-A-Lot group from the 90′s. How did the title come about?
A.O.K.: The reason for my album title is very simple, and very superficial: I want to get your attention. (It was plucked from a stand-up bit by comedian David Cross.) I’ve been a rap critic for a prominent Canadian music magazine for some time now, and I get a package of about ten CDs a month – eight of which I’ve never heard of. The ones I’m going to listen to first, or at all, are the ones that grab my attention. You can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but the cover can entice you to the pages. The stores, the venues, the net are saturated with indie rap albums, so I knew I needed something to give the appearance of uniqueness, whether or not the content validates it.
As for those Rap-A-Lot terrorists, I wish them the best with their highly anticipated, 17-years-in-the-making follow up album, Man Did We Fuck Ourselves Over When We Named Ourselves The Terrorists.
W: As the title would suggest, there is a lot of humor on this album, and “non-hip hop topics”, but you also have some strong social commentary, such as “Fake I.D.”, “You Are a God”, and the strong “Cedar Seeds”. How do you balance the fun with the serious?
A.O.K.: I sometimes wish I didn’t. I know how jarring it can be listening to a song about coffee shop girls one minute, and then hearing me spew hate against the intelligent design movement the next. I sometimes wish I made two EPs – one light, one heavy. But I also wanted to show that I was versatile. First impressions last forever, and I’d rather be perceived as a bad track-sequencer or incohesive than a one-trick pony.
As for the balancing act. It’s just me talking about what I think I know. Some of these things make people laugh, some of them make them think and some accomplish neither.
W: Back to “Cedar Seeds”, which deals with the conflict between Israel and Lebanon. Why is this an important topic to you and how did the song come about?
A.O.K.: Man does this question open up a door to a very large room. The gist of it is this: I was going to Lebanon in the summer of 2006 to see family, learn more about ancestry, exercise my Arabic and experience my heritage as an adult for the first time. Six days before my flight the war broke out between Hezbollah and Israel. I spent the entire summer glued to Al Jazeera. One night I was at Cousin Moe’s house with my other cousin, Spinning Truth, and we were watching Lebanon get obliterated on TV.
It was July 30, and probably the worst massacre of the forty-some day war just occurred in Qana, a Shiite slum. It was murderous and the news was not holding back; they were giving us a glimpse of the anguish as vivaciously as cameras can make it. So we just started writing – we’re all emcees, and Spinning Truth is also a singer. Cousin Moe bought a beat from Givemebeats.com with his Visa, – it sampled an intense Middle Eastern song. By 5 AM we had the song finished, but the civilians of Qana were still dead.
W: So the generic question, after that deep one. What do you hope to attempt with the album in general?
A.O.K.: Other than participate in a genre of music that I love, nothing much. I’m not trying to elevate the industry or re-define anything. I’m just doing one of the things that I love doing.
W: I’m not going to pretend I’m a expert when it comes to being geographically in tuned to Canada, but I know that Edmonton isn’t a huge hip hop hot bed. How did you get involved in hip hop, being from a small town on the Canadian Prairie?
A.O.K.: I live in Edmonton now, but I spent most of my life in High Prairie. This is going to sound ridiculous, but I attribute my love affair with rap to Da Brat. When I was ten, Columbia House sent us Funkdafied and it was the most super thing ever. (It still gets regular play from me, actually.)
I never really fit in in High Prairie, even though I had lots of friends, I was the non-pork-eating alien from a funny speaking family. We didn’t live on a farm or own a quad or go hunting – we were a just hard-working, successful immigrant family. But because I didn’t really fit in as an Arab either, seeing as how I’m born-and-raised Canadian, I felt isolated from both cultures and had to fit in somewhere. So after hearing Da Brat, and then obsessing myself with rap, I clung to hip-hop and let it shape much of my personality. It gave me a sense of belonging.
A.O.K.: I’m not in Vancouver anymore. I did live there, for three years. It’s where my label-mates live and where I started recording my album, did my first shows and first took rap seriously – but it’s not where I live. I live in Edmonton, aka “Stab City.”
Edmonton is great. I’ve watched the hip-hop scene grow twofold in just the last two years, though it is still very disconnected. There are several reasons for the sudden growth: Cadence Weapon has brought some light to our city, a new rap night that’s lasted more than a month without getting shut down, and a festival I helped organize, called Hip-Hop in the Park, last May. That was a block party we threw. Hugely successful, like 700 people showed up. It was 9 hours long and had 50 local artists. Pretty amazing for a small, blue-collar city with conservative values.
W: What do you have going for the future?
A.O.K.: I need to bow out from rap for a month or two, get some other projects – books and screenplays – completed, then I’m hoping to complete an album with my Vancouver homie, Neato! (who appears on my album as The Filthy Varmint). We call ourselves The Hood Samaritans, and it’s going to be largely boom-bap and humor-hop, nothing too heavy like “The Cedar Seeds”.
W: Any last words for the fine people out there?
A.O.K.: I was going to share my mothers recipe for meat pies, but she said she’d disown me if I did. So I’m going to share a TV pilot I wrote in film school in 2004. It’s called The Committee, it’s a cartoon, like Ninja Turtles, except the crime fighters are rappers. Hope you enjoy.