'It Ain't Where You From': Talking Hip Hop in the Middle East with Philip Rachid

Artist, filmmaker and Dubai-based B-Boy Philip Rachid has a film about hip hop culture in the Middle East featured on this year's online lineup of the Shubbak festival in London. We caught up with Rachid to find out more.
'It Ain't Where You From': Talking Hip Hop in the Middle East with Philip Rachid

It Ain't Where You From is a film that needs to be watched. Drawing its inspiration from the fascinating movement that grew out of urban USA in the mid-Eighties, the short directed by Philip Rachid is everything that a hip hop film should be.

Rachid himself is a hybrid: "my father is Iraqi-Kurdish, my mom is Bulgarian. I grew up in Amsterdam via New York. Now I'm based in Dubai for the past 10 years," he explains. When we catch up over Zoom, he's at once a source of knowledge but also a joy to speak to. He laughs, he jokes around, he doesn't take himself too seriously and yet his work speaks for itself. It Ain't Where You From is a masterful document of the burgeoning hip hop scene taking hold throughout the Middle East which owes so much to its American counterpart and yet manages to build higher on the grounds of the culture's feeling of acceptance and cosmopolitanism.

Personally, I grew up in the midst of hip hop central, in NYC's Alphabet City with a healthy dose of graffiti and breakdancing around me. In the late 80's and early 90's hip hop was a kind of religion and it's no accident that youth from the world over converged on the scene to share in its credo. As the Middle East continues to take over as the new cultural centre of the world, it's only fitting that the movement has moved there, and found its own disciples in men and women like those featured in Rachid's stunning film -- Dusty, Feras Habesh, Lana Ramadan, Spiky and all.

A word of caution. If you watch It Ain't Where You From and don't become addicted to its beauty, or don't feel the urge to turn up the volume and move along with the music, there is something wrong with you.

And now, the uncut interview with Philip Rachid, exclusively on MIME. You can watch It Ain't Where You From on the Shubbak website until July 17, 2021.

What inspired you to make your film?

A lot of things to be honest. Because of my mix of backgrounds and cultures. I always had to find a place and voice in society. Growing up in Amsterdam, it was very different. Nobody knew or could place you because you didn't look like anybody else. So in short, I found my expression through through street culture, I earned my stripes through street culture, mostly through writing lyrics and dancing. And this was already like 28 years ago, when I was 14. You’re trying to find your peers and get a clique where you kind of, you know, feel a sense of belonging. And this was the base of what I wanted to share with this film. That experience when I was younger, with writing lyrics and performing got me to be acting professionally. And then from that, I got more and more into wanting to tell my stories from my perspective, which was not that easy — I noticed. I'm a self taught, filmmaker and actor and artist, I didn't go to university for it. Everybody always said “Phil, you’ve got to make a hip hop film,” because they made that connection. So that's been kind of on my shoulders for the past I would say 15 years and then when I came here…

And then NYU stepped in and helped you to make this film. How did that happen?

I could hear people saying the same thing, and I just wanted to focus on my filmmaking. So this project has always been on my mind and I've done shorter projects for TV in Holland about hip hop, short documentaries about the first Dutch generation, homegrown MCs. But when I came to Dubai I kind of left it — I just wanted to focus on filmmaking and then three years ago I got invited by NYU, for a workshop with Sam B Green. He's an Oscar-nominated filmmaker from New York, and I figured, okay, I've been going to all these seminars and workshops just trying to grow my skills. I don't want to miss out on this one. So did that, and he gave us the assignment: to make a documentary portrait of someone that you don't know within 24 hours. I delivered. He loved it. And he basically gave me the inspiration and the motivation to believe in myself, and he had a screening of his film, a transmedia film project called Kronos Quartet. Green made a really beautiful transmedia documentary about them, and that was three years ago. That inspired me so much, and him believing in me and saying it out publicly gave me the boost to kind of pick up — say to myself "Okay Phil, if you had the opportunity to to do something, what would you love to do?" Right! And I was like, I want to do something like that but with my background and the hip hop elements and the music that we come from. Telling that story visually. And then Bill Bragin and Linsey Bostwick from The Arts Center in NYU Abu Dhabi said “Hey Phil, we're interested, do you have anything in mind that we could do together?” and I pitched them the project.

And they were instrumental because the film is available for free, so people can watch it.

Yeah, it's gonna be offline in a week. We're gonna do another screening in September, and it's part of a bigger project called “The Main Circle,” which is the transmedia project. And that's gonna premiere next year. So this is kind of a little teaser for everybody.

Who were your cinematic inspirations when you were growing up? And by cinematic, I mean anything from MTV videos, video games, it can be anything that inspired you when you were growing up.

I like social and culturally engaged films, I like films, you know, with humanitarian themes. I like films like Do the Right Thing from Spike Lee, La Haine from Mathieu Kassovitz you know, Means Streets by Scorsese, Saturday Night Fever… If we're talking about street culture films, yeah, that's something I would look up to and say, that's something that I would love to make— from this Region.

So how did you get all your participants in the film who are so diverse and they're based in different parts of the world — how did you connect with all of them?

Before I was based here, I was traveling a lot as a B-Boy around the world, and one of the things I did, I was a judge at a global event in Holland. And that year, a lot of the people from the UAE came to that event, And that event was called International Breaking Event — IBE. Spiky, I know him since then, and he is also in the film. So I know him already for 11 years, our paths have crossed in various ways. He stayed in Holland with me for a while and I came back here and so we build it across the years. Dusty I also met in Amsterdam because he was visiting. And then Feras I met at one of the first events here in Dubai. Lana I met as a few years back and I was really impressed by her. She's actually from here, she grew up here and she's really dedicated. So we have history, on a personal level, which was important for me because I already knew okay, we can create something together. It’s not a big budget film, so it was important that I could count on people.

But I don't want to just give credit to people in front of the camera to be honest because for example Hize and his Performance Lab is an Hip Hop artist from Spain -- the one who made the Boombox heads, and the TV heads. This is a guy from Spain, that I've known for 17 years now. We met in Ibiza. And all of a sudden he's based in Dubai, and I'm like, I love what you're doing. I just want to give a little twist on it for my documentary. I wanted the women to wear traditional clothing and this combined with our culture, and he was totally up for it. I really want to give credit to everybody that actually gave their input in the film, because without them, it wouldn't have been possible. It's not just me, you know, I may have taken the initiative, the start and the vision, but it's really been a collaborative collaborative project.

For example, the title track, 'No Competition'. This is by the first Sudani Grammy Nominated composer, Mohamed Araki. Which is, again, for me so unique, because I met him through a rapper from Sudan that I make the video clips for and he was like "man, you got to work with him!" And the editor of the film, I have to give a lot of shout outs to the editor because we had over 10 hours of footage -- probably more, probably around, I don't know, 20 hours of footage. And all of a sudden a week before I have to go into editing I get this message of a filmmaker who wants to intern -- Maitha Alawadi. And we have a meeting, and she pitches to me, she wants to be a director but she pitches to me. You know that the best editors are women! So I'm like, let's do it, you want to jump on board, and she just jumped on board and for 20 days straight organized the footage and watched it and edited it.

I also by the way, want to give a big, big, big thank you to Tiece Edwards, who has been by my side for the past year supporting me on the production side as a Creative Producer. Without asking anything back, you know, that's also a name I need on the list.

Now you've done the hip hop film, which was like this mantra that was booming in the back of your head. So what’s next for Philip Rachid?

There's been quite a few things on the table for a long time.. So what's next for me? I've got really great ideas for feature films -- I want to make a fiction film now, which basically shows that I can also direct actors and tell a story in a different way. Because I've been always stigmatized, like that monologue says, in the film "you're not good enough," right...

Is there more film in your future or is hip hop more in your future, or is teaching more in your future?

I mean, funny enough the whole teaching thing has always been a process of my development., The moment I started growing and growing and growing, some people were like “hey can you share your experience?” I'm like why not. And my most beautiful anecdote, for example is I wanted to be a student at NYU so bad. I never had the funds and stuff like that , and here I am doing a project with them and then giving lectures before their students, and it's like so surreal man.

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