Like the Wu-Tang Clan, Quest-Rah has a thing for piano samples, cinematic beats, Islam, and twisting tales of street drama into byzantine mythologies. Unlike the Wu, Quest-Rah is more entrenched in his Islamic and political beliefs than in the gritty, seedy side of life in the hood. Also, Quest-Rah hails from LDN, not Shaolin, which affects both his accent and his approach to hip hop.
Quest-Rah has been bouncing around the London hip hop scene for a while now, working on several projects including an album with Scarab called “Red Alert” that recieved a favorable review from this publication. “Ancient Tapes” is Quest-Rah’s first solo work, although he’s not entirely solo: a number of guests show up to offer verses. Parowdox, True Light, H-Spawn, Sleepystone, Spitz, Masikah, Consciouz, Fear, Phonetikz, Gohar, Babymuslims, Mohammed Yahya, and Street Science are all featured. He may not hog the mic, but Quest-Rah does take control of the knobs on most of the songs, with Beatcat, Gneticz, Sleepystone, B.1, and Equinox filling in on five songs.
Quest-Rah’s production style is East Coast meets Middle East, with snapping snares over Arabic instrumentation. It’s a nice combination of familiar and exotic, adding a twist to the usual hip hop sound. Equinox works a similar sound on “1001 Nightz” with a sitar-laced beat, while Quest-Rah reimagines the Bush regime as “1001 Nights.” Sleepystone’s “Storiez From The…” is a straight RZA tribute, complete with somber pianos, ticking hi-hat, and kung fu sound effects, and “Cloudy Moon” could be a b-side off of “8 Diagrams.” Barry White, Moby, and 9th Wonder all see their songs reworked with new verses over them on this mixtape.
The whole theme of the album is looking to the past to understand modern problems, blending in elements of Islam, Middle Eastern mythology, and current issues like the Iraq and Afghani wars. In the same way that the Wu relied on chess and kung fu to tell their stories, Quest-Rah and crew uses the “1001 Nights” and other Middle Eastern stories to reinterpret life today. This allows the MCs some extra room to be creative and dress up their political message in much more colorful clothing. In fact, when Quest-Rah drops the “Ancient Tapes” element on a track like “Fight Like A Man,” and instead addresses a problem like youth violence head on, it comes off as too preachy and simplistic.
Quest-Rah and company have something to say, and while they deliver some impressive verbal skills, they also misfire occasionally. Like most rappers with a message, they drop their share of clumsy and awkward lines, cramming in too many syllables and using dubious rhymes (or not rhyming at all, in the case of “Islamic Cipher, Pt. 1”). Quest-Rah’s flow can be so dense that it is hard to follow, and I found myself wishing that he had included a lyric sheet. Overall, I was won over by the sincerity of his rhymes, and forgave him and his crew for their stumbles. Their attempts to present a Muslim perspective to the problems of today are timely and much-needed. Quest-Rah represents a population that doesn’t get a lot of air time on hip hop radio, and I appreciated both his viewpoint and the Middle Eastern flair he adds to his solid hip hop beats.