Just south of the 10 Freeway, in a nondescript part of Culver City, three young men test their music equipment on the stage at this hipster café/club that books regular gigs and treats visitors to New Orleans cuisine, including Creole and Cajun dishes like po'boys, jambalaya and even a Ya'Ya Turkey Burger ("good for you, bad for the turkey," reads its description).
On this night, in addition to these savories, the Levantine Cultural Center is serving up "The Arab Street: Hip-Hop-Funk-Rock for Peace," featuring rappers known as the Philistines and the N.O.M.A.D.S., short for Notorious Offensive Male Arabs Discussing Sh*t. The concert is co-sponsored by the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in conjunction with its current exhibition, "Sovereign Threads: The History of Palestinian Embroidery."
One might wonder if this will be an incendiary evening, given that it features hip-hoppers, artists known for insurrection. But the three men onstage are mild-mannered musicians, three skinny white kids, probably in their 20s, who it turns out are the opening act, New West.
After keeping us waiting for the obligatory hour, the funk-rock band plays a half-dozen songs, during the last few of which members of the crowd begin dancing. It's an intimate venue, with a high ceiling but only a few tables and booths, so most people stand.
Later, the audience comes out in even greater numbers in anticipation of the Legitimates, another funk-rock outfit. As the Legitimates mount the stage, they wear black hats and black suits, some of a rumpled variety, and bear a resemblance to the Blues Brothers or "a bunch of Chasidic diamond merchants," to quote Aretha Franklin from the film starring John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd. But they are not necessarily Jews, and given how hot it is onstage, the band members, led by front man drummer Donnie Baseball, named in honor of former Yankee star Don Mattingly, begin to discard their jackets. Baseball plays a ferocious set of drums as the band performs several instrumentals.
As midnight approaches, a tall youth with some fuzz above his lip steps before the microphone. Like the Legitimates, the emcee, clean-cut by rapper standards, wears a dark suit and a dark Yankees cap, adhering to the Bronx Bomber theme. He says his name is Ragtop, but it's a moniker. His real name is Nizar Wattad, and he was, according to the press material, "born on a mountain in Palestine."
Ragtop says he is 6-foot-5, but because he is so thin, it is hard to judge his height. It is also hard to judge his voice. Despite his Yankee cap and the fact that he was raised in Tennessee, his voice doesn't seem to come from either New York or the South. He produces a sound that blends in nicely with the band, and he doesn't show off or become obstreperous like some rappers, but with his dynamic physical gestures and syncopated intonation, he exudes a kind of ghetto authenticity.
Ragtop, along with a cohort with a shaved head, rap of "that long time ago"; they rap about the proletariat, tsunamis and a lack of justice. But they do so cheerfully, respectfully.
After they point out that rapping requires a participatory audience, Ragtop asks, "Who here holds down a 9-to-5 job they hate?" A number of people in the crowd raise their hands.
This is about as subversive as the Philistines get. They look almost wholesome in their suits and clean or trim beards, though their shirts stylishly hang outside their pants. And they occasionally adopt Ragtop's partial Southern roots, addressing the crowd as "y'all." Indeed, these Arab street hip-hoppers come across as being almost All-American.
With midnight approaching and bedtime beckoning, my wife and I grab a CD comprised of "23 rounds of heavyweight hip-hop" between the N.O.M.A.D.S. and the Philistines.
Slipping the CD into the car player, we finally hear something approximating Arab music. There is a wind instrument, perhaps a flute, playing in the intro. It wafts in the background, as if through the labyrinthine air of a bazaar. We imagine a swami is calling us, trying to draw us out like a genie, until the gangsta rap pierces the moment.
That is when we return to urban American hip-hop, with all the tropes of the art form -- the ubiquitous, nonstop patter; the ingenious rhymes, such as "Iverson" with "Bedford-Stuyvesant"; the word-smithery and prolonged assonance of multisyllabic words beginning with the letter O.
The N.O.M.A.D.S. battle the Philistines to a draw. Both are hailed for drawing attention to the angst of checkpoints, but it is hard to discern all the lyrics, let alone any political content in them, just the occasional reference to Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah or Mexico.
They even have a joint song titled, "The Inquisition." In it, my wife, a better listener than I, detects the phrase, "passing for a Jew." Whether or not they can pass for Jews, they can certainly pass for rappers as American as Kanye West or Eminem.