Rap and gangsters have always gone hand in hand, but where a lot of rappers have chequered pasts, they’re hardly elevated above the sort of low level dealers you’d expect to see in the background during an episode of The Wire.
Most of these criminal records have been mythologised in order to keep up credibility, but Eslam Jawaad’s biography is so intriguing that it can’t have been made up. He’s a Syrian exile from the Lebanese mafia after an $8m sale of a stolen mammoth tusk from a Siberian excavation went wrong. Yup, you read that correctly. Mammoths.
Having moved to London in 2003, he relieved the stress of the capital by getting involved in the underground music scene. An encounter with Wu Tang Clan‘s Cilvaringz set the ball rolling, further resulting in Eslam being granted honorary member status of the Clan and eventually Damon Albarn’s The Good, The Bad and The Queen (he’s the vocalist on Herculean b-side Mr Whippy).
His debut album The Mammoth Tusk makes best use of the connections he’s made, featuring production duties and guest slots from a multitude of hip-hop artists including Albarn (production on Alarm Chord), The Rza and De La Soul.
The self styled Beat Butcher of Beirut shows all the necessary rap attitude and aptitude to carry an album. Given his London base and musical heritage, the majority of The Mammoth Tusk feels surprisingly American west coast. There are some UK hip hop influenced tracks, in particular Criminuhl which looks at the change of British attitudes after the 7/7 bombings, but it’s the more obvious singles that really impress; The opener Pivot Widdit is a good call-to-arms and Rewind with De La Soul reworks Aaliyah‘s Try Again to provide us with the best track on the album.
There’s perhaps a reluctance to do too much in his native tongue for fear of alienating listeners, preferring instead a decidedly commercial sound, though the final two tracks are not in English. The album is a little disjointed; despite its highlights it feels like a trojan horse, a calling card for what may yet be to come. Eslam Jawaad has done most of the groundwork, and when album number two comes along it won’t be a mammoth task for him to achieve his full potential.