Artist Feature: DJ Sotusura
Confessions of a Record Digger
Producer, DJ and record collector Hicham Ibrahim (aka DJ Sotusura) has been a key figure in the growth of hip-hop in the Middle East. Performing with the pioneers of Arabic rap and welcoming international artists to the region, Sotusura has dedicated the last fifteen years to a passion that has taken him on a journey around the world.
Born in France to Palestinian parents, Sotusura spent his teens in Amman, Jordan. He grew up listening to the Arabic classics played by his family, which deeply shaped his music today. He recalls being introduced to hip-hop by his older brother, via Public Enemy, the seminal rap crew of 1980s and 1990s New York. It was like nothing he had heard before.
Sotusura moved to Los Angeles in 1998 when he was eighteen, diving headlong into the epicentre for hip-hop at that time. He attended all the festivals, shows and block parties he could. The real turning point came when he saw Mos Def sharing the stage with Wu-Tang Clan. After this iconic concert – a meeting of hip-hop royalty – Sotusura bought himself a set of turntables from a neighbour short on rent, and taught himself how to DJ and mix. Soon enough, he started receiving invitations to perform at shows and block parties around the city.
A few years later, Sotusura felt the pull of the emerging hip-hop scene in the Middle East, ushered in by the likes of DAM and Ramallah Underground. Having witnessed the trailblazing cultural movement that the hip-hop scene had fostered in the US, Sotusura was fascinated by the possibilities. A new musical and cultural space was opening up for Arab youth. He packed up his turntables and returned to Amman, eager to be part of what was happening.
Two decades later, DJ Sotusura finds himself once again back in Amman (having travelled across continents in the interim), running the city’s only vinyl store. Speaking to us from Da Vinyl Market, his record shop, nestled in the capital’s downtown Cellar Pub, Sotusura tells us about vinyl digging and hip-hop history. There was much to discuss.
“People had this weird misconception about hip-hop. We knew it was universal… There was no reason for it not to be in Arabic”
Sotusura, like many of his regional peers, witnessed the arrival of hip-hop in the Middle East around the early 1990s via US bands and rappers like Wu-Tang Clan and Tupac Shakur. Both Ramallah Underground and DAM recognised parallels between their own lives and the rapped realities of those living across Harlem, Brooklyn and Compton. From police violence, racism and structural poverty, hip-hop became the voice of disenfranchised youth. Hip-hop wasn’t just a medium for rap or MCing, but an all-encompassing foundation for physical expression, including DJing, graffiti and breakdance (bboying).
Starting out, like many of his peers, Sotusura lacked role models and faced some resistance to the idea of ‘Arabic hip-hop’.
“People had this weird misconception about hip-hop. We knew it was universal. I was born and raised in France, so I know that hip-hop fits in every language and background. In France it’s huge. It’s massive. It’s probably the second biggest scene worldwide, and you never got [the criticism] that you were copying anything from the US. Even today, when you hear French hip-hop it has a certain vibe and a certain touch to it. It just fits France. There’s the same thing going on in Turkey, and if you look into Japan, there’s Japanese hip-hop. There was no reason for it not to be in Arabic.”
Sotusura was deeply inspired by Ramallah Underground, the Palestinian collective, formed by Aswat, Stormtrap and Boikutt, old school friends of Sotusura, with whom he reconnected through music in adulthood.
“For me in Arabic hip-hop, it was really important to sample our music. And that’s what hit me the most with Ramallah Underground. It’s what they’re sampling and the music they are using. It was really really interesting. For me it’s listening to older sounds, finding ways to flip this into something, and turn it into something hip-hop.”
Now just over a decade after Ramallah Underground started out, hip-hop has become an essential element of Arabic contemporary music, a booming industry from Morocco to Lebanon with millions of listeners worldwide. Once rare, you can now find thousands of rappers, DJs and breakdancers across the region, and graffiti covers the walls of the larger cities. Sotusura finds himself right at the heart of this dynamic new world.
“Back then there were only a handful of rappers in the region. There wasn’t a massive scene as there is today, and very few DJs. So if they wanted to come perform in Lebanon their go-to person would be DJ Lethal Skillz, as he was the one holding the scene down there. If they came to Amman, it would be me, because there was no one else doing that in Amman.”
“It’s super important for MCs to work with DJs. I think it will bring their show to another level… But very few have the possibility to do so”
Sotusura has since performed with a wide range of artists across the Middle East, including Malikah, DAM, El Far3i, Omar Offendum and Narcy. Contrary to what he knew in the US and France, he noticed that most acts did not work and tour with their own ‘in house’ DJ. Working with different people from show to show, with the exception of DAM whose DJ Bruno Cruz has been a key member of the group, bands generally did not build up an artistic rapport with the same DJ over time. As a DJ, Sotusura took a while to put himself forward and recognise the importance of his role in artistic decision-making.
“It [initially] never really went any further than me DJing at their gig. The only person I’ve got into the dynamics with is El Far3i. If I perform with other MCs in the future then I would get involved more. But at first I didn’t even know how much I should get involved. It’s his music, his lyrics, his performance. So you’re just there to support him to start with. I was happy doing that. I discovered otherwise when five to six years ago, there was a DJ from LA, DJ Jam, who was Dre and Snoop’s DJ for a while and a DJ for Up in Smoke [tour]. He came to Jordan to perform and we chilled for a few hours. When I talked to him, he explained to me that the entire Up In Smoke lineup, tracklist, order of the tracks, and everything – was him. He told me straight up: ‘That’s your duty as a DJ to do that’. That’s when I realised that I need to get more involved….It’s super important for MCs to work with DJs. I think it will bring their show to another level… But very few have the possibility to do so.”
Sotusura emphasises that having an MC take charge of the full performance isn’t necessarily the best way forward:
“The MC is really attached to their music. They’re going to want to start in a certain way, have a certain lineup and play tracks according to how they feel towards them. I think it’s wrong. I don’t just think it’s wrong: I know it’s wrong. Because I’ve seen the hip-hop scene in France and the US where it’s really important to have a DJ, someone who is less attached to their music. The DJ at the end of the day is the one that has the most stage experience. They play nights in, nights out in clubs, they know what works with people and what doesn’t. So it’s really important to have a DJ part of that crew.”
“I always loved music, even before hip-hop…You hear different music when you play on vinyl”
Sotusura has earned his position at the centre of the Arabic hip-hop stage and contributed to the vinyl revival, with thousands of records in his collection. In 2019, he made his official debut as a producer, releasing full-length album Saleh El Ahlan (The Adequate Melodies). The sixteen-track instrumental hip-hop album includes samples of iconic singers and producers from the Middle East, on top of Sotusura’s own brand of old-school hip-hop beats.
“I always loved music, even before hip-hop. When I got to LA and started to mix I realised how important vinyls are. You hear different music when you play on vinyl, but also the beauty of digging for records. I just love that. I love looking for music in that way. When I travel and land in a new place, I firstly look for record shops. Only once I find them do I start to look for food. If I don’t have anything to do, I will spend half a day in a record shop.There’s the love for vinyl, but also in hip-hop, grabbing sounds from our culture, from any culture, from anywhere… I will keep digging.”
Sotusura estimates he has collected well over 6000 records over the years. About half live in Amman, and the rest are at friends’ homes and in storage across the world, marking his journey from Beirut to Cairo, Martinique to Paris.
“[In 2006] there was a vinyl-only bar that opened up in Beirut. I used to perform there every Monday night, driving from Amman and back. I’d leave around 3 or 4 in the morning to avoid long border checks and traffic. Driving around four hours, through the Syrian border, the Lebanese border.”
For a die-hard record fan with a penchant for international travel, travelling light was never an option. Sotusura has faced a wide range of reactions at airports and border control when he opens up a suitcase full of records. Often, they lead to kind musical exchanges like with Egyptian border police (“They get it”); inquisitive and enthusiastic, the conversation shifts to records, artists, song suggestions and questions about his career. At the Jordanian border, he met unpredictable and arbitrary import taxes on his turntables and equipment, despite the fact he had left Jordan with the equipment just weeks before. He shrugs, resigned to the process. “I’m Arab, so I’ll get weird looks wherever I go anyway”.
“It’s not just about listening to that record… This is sampling material. To me that’s the beauty of it”
With the global resurgence of vinyl sales, Sotusura and his international peers who depend on its industry, have witnessed a growing interest in records and record stores. Putting his passion to practice, Sotusura set up Da Vinyl Market in 2021, a record store and hub for Amman’s music enthusiasts where he hopes to share new music and give others a chance to experience the joy of record digging:
“It’s all about discovering new music, finding stuff that you probably have never heard before, or finding obscure versions of records. What I find interesting in record shops is the owners and people working there. They’re like really, really, really into music. On another level. So when I go to a cool record shop and the guy sees the five or six records that I picked out right away, then he has another sixty records he wants me to hear and you end up listening to and discovering a whole bunch of new shit. And that’s what I love about it. It’s cool to discover new music online, but when you’re in a record shop they see you picking out an old Arabic record and then tell you to listen to this obscure record from India, or this like Turkish psychedelic rock record that you’ve never heard of – you hear it and it blows your mind. For me it’s all about sampling. Like I said, I love sampling music, so when someone at a shop makes me hear this stuff, that’s the first thing I think of. It’s not just about listening to that record or playing it at a gig. This is sampling material. To me that’s the beauty of it. Just finding all these records that you’ve probably never heard of, and some only have like 500 prints. And you can’t even find it if you looked it up on YouTube. But then you have it right there on a record. It’s dope. It’s beautiful.”
While the pandemic has put a halt to several of Sotusura’s projects, he has been keeping busy and preparing for what’s to come, “making some beats here and there”. In the meantime, he hopes to go to Turkey and Southeast Asia during Ramadan. Why? To dig for records of course.
For anyone in Amman, you can stop by Da Vinyl Market, Saturday-Thursday from Noon to 6pm (due to the current curfew and regulations).
If you enjoyed this article and want to learn more, you can watch the award-winning documentary on the birth of Palestine’s hip-hop scene in ‘Slingshot Hip Hop’, streaming free on Vimeo.
For a deeper read on the fall and rise of the vinyl industry read Forbes’ Vinyl Is Bigger Than We Thought. Much Bigger.
Three artists currently on Sotosura’s radar: Moroccan producer El Auw, the young Cairene rapper Raptor and Sudanese rapper Dafencii.
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect privacy requests, we have kept names anonymous.
- What was the first record you bought?
Outkast – ATliens
- Tell us more about your album. Is there a story behind the title? How was it received when performed? Inspirations behind it?
I had a few names and concepts for my coming albums, this one is the one that fitted most for the first one, I now have two more concepts in mind that will probably be my next two releases. It has been received surprisingly well when performed and I’m surprised by the number it has done on Spotify even though I had no more budget to promote it well or to print it on vinyl. The inspiration behind it was to make it as basic as it could be by digging for crazy loops and adding old school hip-hop drums to them, the next album will be more intricate and it will keep evolving with time, marking a clear evolution down the line when you listen to them all.
- Most memorable show?
The first one is performing with Ramallah Underground in London in 2007, since it was the first international gig. Another night that stands out would be a day trip to Beirut to spin at the vinyl only bar there named Flipside. On my way there, a good friend called me up from Beirut and asked me where I was – I was at the Syrian-Jordanian border. He told me to finish my gig at Flipside and to stay posted there, he would send a car to pick me up to go to the hills of Beirut for a pre-party for the Gorillaz and De La Soul. I finished the gig, told my friends who were at the bar to stay, a red school bus came to pick us all up and the rest is history…
- Where is your favourite place (anywhere in the world) to dig for records?
I would have to go with Amoeba Records in LA
- If I’m in Cairo, where should I go for records?
There is a building in Zamalek where you have a few record shops in it, Cherry’s record shop is there and if you walk around and in the building you can find a few other smaller shops. That’s my go to place when I get to Cairo, you can also find a few other random ones here and there, but this building probably has more records then anywhere in Cairo.