Musings, reflections and biryani with the three realest musketeers of global Hip Hop - Outlandish
The first interview I ever did was with my all-time favourite band, Outlandish for my radio show at the time. So you can imagine my anticipation eight years on, when I heard they were back in town for a national tour, raising money in association with Human Appeal for Syria – I was on the phone arranging a meeting pronto. Hailing from the capital of Denmark, this diverse and uniquely talented trio consist of three maestros – Waqas Ali Qadri, originally from Pakistan, who can rap in four different lingos, Lenny Martinez of Cuba, whose soft Spanish rapping could calm a raging bull, and Moroccan Isam Bachiri, who completes the group with his mesmerisingly distinctive voice, that can soothe away the troubles of any rainy day. Their impressive accumulation of six outstanding albums over a period of 14 inspirational years, can only be described as music for the soul. They may be an alternative act, but they even managed to break-through the mainstream industry, by winning an award at the MTV Europe Awards in 2006, as well as being nominated since then.
Then (cringe!) and now
Before their performance in North London, they were gracious enough to meet me and enthuse my eager curiosities to find out what had happened, developed and changed since our last meeting. Eight years may have gone by, but these guys never seem to age - they’ve clearly been hanging out with Peter Pan in Never Never Land. Looking composed and dapper as always, they claimed to remember me as an up and coming youngling, but I’m sure they were just being polite! Nevertheless, they made my day.
An impeccable 14 years in the industry and six successful albums later, their music has developed and grown with them, as Lenny further expands upon: ‘I think the music always represents where you are in your life. So, all the albums are a little bit different from each other and more mature in a way. The music follows our development; we don’t follow the music development. Music follows us. It’s all about the state of mind we are in and the emotions we carry. That’s what makes it interesting for us to create music.’
What makes Outlandish’s genre of hip hop so innovative is the beauty of their lyrics. Unlike much of commercial hip hop, their songs are deep, moving and thought-provoking. When I posed the question of whether they were ever tempted to write less meaningful lyrics about booties and dollars like mainstream artists in the industry, Lenny shared a thought: ‘I don’t know if it’s meaningless, because for them it might not be. So it depends who listens to it’, before Isam laughed and explained: ‘It’s a business and a genre. We were never really part of that Hip Hop or Urban scene. Even from the beginning, I guess it just wasn’t part of our identity. What we talk about are the things that matter to us. It’s important that the words reflect what goes on in your life. In a way, it’s very therapeutic. We have always been inspired to catch those moments every day and give them a poetic picture. Also just seizing those moments and sharing them with people, it can go down in history. That’s powerful stuff.’
‘I mean, the money the fame and game all sounds appealing. Instead of entertaining, I prefer to enlighten. But then again who am I to be in a position to represent a whole generation of kids and to make them believe…’ These powerful lines from their song Any Given Time, really summarises the essence and spirit of their music, which has inspired so many. For Outlandish, it always has been about meaning over money and popularity, which is perhaps why they’re still going strong. This is what makes them the realest artists in the industry, as Isam attempts to define the part they play: ‘I think everybody has a responsibility, but I think character plays an important role. We all have dark sides to us, I don’t know what Lenny is doing when he’s at home, but that’s his home and he can do whatever he wants to do there!’ (They all have a chuckle). Lenny takes over: ‘Everybody has a responsibility to be an example of the best you can be. We don’t ever think that we have to be good because people are watching. We are just ourselves and our music is us, so it’s not difficult for us. It would have been more difficult if we had to be someone else on stage, then I can understand if there were conflicts.’
A group consisting of two Muslims and a Catholic who are sometimes armed with content lined with a subtle edge of politics and spirituality, they have been termed the ‘post 9/11 group’ which I personally find annoying, since Outlandish are so much more than being labelled and categorised in such a narrow minded way. Lenny agrees: ‘We don’t really think so much about it. Because of our music and some of the things we say, people can sometimes make their own interpretations, but we always say what we mean and the music speaks for itself. We are not a political party and we are not trying to make people be a particular way. But the thing about being with two Muslims, I don’t really think about it until people ask me.’ Waqas shares his philosophy on this matter: ‘People want to put you in a box. When things happen around the world like the 9/11 incident, and other things that have happened throughout our career, of course it affects us but we do things in a down-to-earth way. Like the song, Look Into My Eyes - it’s not a song about a big political agenda, it’s just a really strong song about teenagers living in war-ridden Palestine. It has no politics in it. That’s always been our agenda. We wanted to make music locally. The more local you make it, the more global it becomes.’
When asked to choose which song of theirs is most special to them, Lenny revealed: ‘That’s difficult because all of the songs represent something. It depends what mood you’re in. I think I would have to choose If Only, because we haven’t played it live so much, whereas the other songs we have played loads.’ For Isam: ‘It’s more about what state you are in your life. Worrier/Warrior is a very special and strong song.’ In the midst of discussing the depths and meaning of Warrior, I hear Waqas quietly singing a Justin Bieber number, whilst trying to keep a straight face: ‘Baby baby baby ooooh!’ Not quite Outlandish material me thinks! He quickly changes his tune: ‘Every album is a strong period in our lives. In the first album we were ending our teenage lives and wanted to conquer the world. In the second album, we still wanted to conquer the world (they all laugh) but all our songs have a special place with us. They say something about who we were and who we are now.’ Lenny adds: ‘It’s like when women have to choose shoes. It depends on where you are going and what you are wearing.’ Well, when you put it like that, I totally understand (did I really come across so girly, that they had to explain with such an analogy?! Oh well).
It has been almost three years since their last album, so the enthusiastic fan in me wanted to know when their next album will be released. Waqas replied: ‘At the moment we have a lot of new music out individually. Isam has a solo album coming out and I have one called Lucid Dreams. So there’s a lot from the Outlanders. Regarding new music - we’re seeing when schedules fit because we’ve been so busy with different stuff, so we just need to make it match somehow.’
Solo albums?! I can just see the panic on their fans’ faces. But fear not – this isn’t the end of the road for Outlandish, as Waqas reassured: ‘A lot of people ask us if we have broken up but we’re still here. It’s just good being in a group like ours, because we’ve been together for so many years that you try out different stuff and find new energy and strength. It’s like any other relationship, you get tired so you need to try new things. When we come back together, hopefully we’ll have a fresh new energy. That happens to us all the time. We can’t release an album every year, because you really need to dig deep to find inspiration and creativity. Then when we suddenly get to a point where we click, it all kicks off and then it doesn’t take so long for us to create something.’
The guys have always maintained a ‘too cool for school’ image and a mysterious vibe. So in my attempt to crack this, I got Waqas to open up about biryani: ‘I’m still looking for that perfect biryani. No one can cook it better than my mother, my wife and my sister.’ Then came hesitant, reluctant pauses of thoughtfulness, finally broken by Isam: ‘We try to purposely be private from all the gossip magazines and tabloids. (At which I interjected – we don’t gossip at Asiana!) It would just be weird, so we like to keep the mysteriousness going. What happens in the house, stays in the house.’ Lenny concluded: ‘We have nothing to hide.’
I had to know if Waqas indulged in a spot of Bollywood sometimes, to which he disclosed: ‘We like the films Black and Gangs of Wasseypur. Those are some of the best I’ve seen. I don’t like it when they try to make spin-offs of American movies. Barfi was really nice, but unfortunately it was a rip off of so many Charlie Chaplin movies. But the actors and actresses all look like Barbie and Ken. It’s becoming that kind of industry, but that’s why it was nice when Deepika (how do you say her surname?!) Padukone came out and told people she suffered from depression. They never do that in India and make everything look picture perfect.’
Coming from backgrounds where it is not really encouraged to pursue a career in music, they are a proud example that if you are talented and passionate about something, you can make it a success. Being parents themselves, they each shed some advice for other parents and budding artists out there, as Lenny mused: ‘There was the uncertainty of leaving school and going into music, but luckily my parents were cool,’ whilst Isam acknowledged both perspectives: ‘Parents always worry, that’s their job. So I think what they really need is an example. Like if you are being creative, you need show them the way, just like you need to show the young ones that there’s actually a way that you can do music and not lose your tradition and your roots. It’s all about exemplifying. That takes time because you need to find your own style in whatever you do.’ Parent of two Waqas can also relate to this: ‘I think parents should always support their children when it comes to creativity, because that’s how kids blossom. Unfortunately, in our culture they don’t encourage that too much. It’s all about getting an education and becoming a doctor or a lawyer. And of course that’s good, but if your child is good at drawing or something like that - encourage it. That’s very important.’
Outlandish are all about deep words, so the guys parted with some words of wisdom for their fans which went something like this…
Lenny: ‘Don’t eat too late. I’ve been doing that a lot and it’s not good for your digestive system.’
Isam: ‘Whatever you do, try to do your best and leave the rest to the Master Planner. And don’t worry about money.’
Lenny: ‘Whatever you do, do it right.’
Waqas: ‘Or do it wrong, and then get it right. Don’t give up without a fight. Try not to party all night…’ (they all laugh)
Lenny: ‘The more local, the more global.’
So there you have it! Waqas, Isam and Lenny – Outlandish really do find inspiration, Beats, Rhymes and Life in everything. They were fully in the mode, which was great timing as they performed immediately after the interview. I had the pleasure of seeing them perform for the fourth time, and have to admit, they only get better. Amidst the hauntingly atmospheric Union Chapel, I found myself marvelling once more at their flawlessly enriching acoustic set, accompanied by equally talented vocalist Jonas. They sure are still keeping it real. Peace out.
Interview by Fariha Sabir