Exploring Makimakkuk’s multidimension

Working under the moniker Makimakkuk (“makkuk” meaning “space shuttle” in Arabic), musician Majdal Nijim is a Ramallah-based producer, MC, vocalist, and DJ, who has released several tracks through the digital record label, BLTNM. Makimakkuk is a relatively new figure in the Arab hip-hop landscape. She performs and produces with a range of collaborators, from the Ramallah rap scene to the underground corners of Scandinavian dreampop. Last November she was briefly featured in a documentary short produced by Boiler Room in collaboration with Maazef music magazine titled Palestine Underground, which chronicled “the resilience of a burgeoning music scene” by means of beat master Muqata’a and techno DJ and producer Sama’, among others. During that time she also appeared in Boiler Room’s performance segment with Mukta-feen (Ahmed Zagmouri) in a show packed with the prowess of pure, uninhibited hip-hop. 

BLTNM, also rooted in Ramallah, was founded in 2017 by audiovisual artists and musicians Shabmouri (Mukta-feen), ShabJdeed, and Al Nather, and has since released over 20 productions on Bandcamp. In just two years, the label’s portfolio has come to resemble an expanding mangrove forest, growing an intertwined colony of roots despite the precarious environment in which it exists. With a focus on regional trap rap, beat-making, and hip-hop tracks gleaming with autotune, the three founders release much of their own work through the platform, in addition to that of artists like El Rass, Synaptik, and Haykal.

Makimakkuk performing. Courtesy: Sharjah Art Foundation

The first track I heard Makimakkuk featured on was 7awel (Try), released on BLTNM in January 2019, and produced by frequent collaborator Al Nather, with contributions from MCs Haykal, Julmud, and Bu Kolthoum. Like many of Al Nather’s magnetic productions, the track grabbed me within the first 15 seconds. Opening up with a sinuous synth line that glitches in decibel every so often and a clock with a ticking sense of doom, the beat drops like an iridescent sun falling out of the sky, as we enter into a shadowy and sparse trap track made up of the usual rolling drums, and a beat spacious enough for several rappers to recite their verses. Packed with subversive political content delivered through abstract poetics, complex rhymes, and layers of illusive socially and self-reflective commentary — the underpinnings of the occupation are there, and they are felt in the relentlessness of the beat, and in the lyrics too. There is a certain mastery of language at play here across the verses, in the way oppression and the pains of perseverance are metaphorically layered within the radiance of the track. It’s songs like this that remind me of the power of hip-hop to do what it has always done: offer a platform primarily to a language of survival.

Makimakkuk shuttles in at the 1:34 minute mark. Her voice is deep and definitive, like a clap of far-off thunder. But there is also something subtle about how smoothly she situates her lyrics into the track, like a thread gliding with precision through the eye of a needle, her verse immediately sewing the track with the fabric of her unique vocal texture. As it builds in momentum, the track eventually reaches its climax, fragmenting into rhythmic bliss by means of her lyrical deconstruction. With its teeming beat and towering verses, the song serves as a glowing example of Makimakkuk’s unshakable vocal charm and sharp lyrical flow. Her distinct vocal timbre and narrative point of view, set among her male counterparts, add a timely intervention, where the track would certainly be a lesser one without her verse. 

When Makimakkuk is positioned within multiple MCs on a track, her vocal passages usually carry a certain weight, and are hard to miss. When taking up the verses of a track on her own, she is just as heavy hitting — take for example, Ghara’ (Drowning), produced with Al Nather, as part of their three-song EP released last February, on BLTNM. The track opens up with a medley of eerie synth lines coiling in urgency as the beat drops, accompanied by what sounds like a relentless and entrancing bassline droning on, mirroring the urgency of the title. Lyrically, we’re given the image of someone cast away in the middle of the sea, on the verge of drowning as a massive wave forms above them. Drenched in autotune, Makimakkuk joins Al Nather in singing out a quickly deployed hook, as the drowning chorus is repeated over and over again. But instead of accepting defeat by the environment, each one of her tight verses offers a poetic solution for survival. Not unlike 7awel the lyrics in Ghara’ are laced with increasing tension, only to be resolved by Makimakkuk’s voice, which arrives like divine intervention, the same way magic flippers grow on the body of the drowning person in the song.

Some months after hearing those first tracks, I met Makimakkuk at an Iraqi restaurant in Sharjah. We were there as part of Music Weekend Symposium, put together by Ma3azef music magazine and the Sharjah Art Foundation. At that point I had only heard those couple songs in preparation for the weekend, but it was enough to know that as a musician, Makimakkuk was on the brink of something very special, not only sonically but also in the perspective and narratives she’s offering — ones about love, survival, oppression, and hope.

When hearing Makimakkuk perform live at the Maazef music weekend, her multi-dimensionality as an artist continued to unfold, like watching an orchid blooming through a time-lapse video. In an open-air amphitheater in Sharjah, musicians $$$TAG$$$ and Mukta-feen were playing a back-to-back set that pulled from hip-hop, trap, and glitchy electronics. Rap boss El Rass was there as well. He and Makimakkuk took turns on the mic, freestyling and MCing while the DJs fed them beats. It felt a bit like stumbling into the studio with a crew of musicians — many of them were meeting in person for the first time, yet they carried the chemistry of bandmates. Even in the glitches, they found a rhythm. For Makimakkuk, it was usually by means of her driving ad-libs. 

It wasn’t her first time on the Sharjah stage. Earlier that evening, she had performed a live score alongside musicians Hasan Hujairi, Laith Demashqieh to a screening of Lujain Rakadh’s film Rahhala (2017), as part of the biannual ReSound program that pairs movies with live music. The score felt as though it were moving with the same ascending, spiral rhythm of the film, with sounds that were at times ethereal and hypnotic, at other times visceral and guttural, with intense bouts of sub-bass that seemed to rise from the core of the earth. 

Makimakkuk during the Resound performance in Sharjah

Within her recorded catalogue of work, Makimakkuk arrives as an apt emerging producer and powerful MC, with a tight flow and vibrant vocal energy. Her verses are articulate, creative, thematic, and full of witty expressions and double entendres. But there is also something very striking in how she uses her words texturally and rhythmically in her timely vocal interjections, known as “ad-libs” in rap (think when Migos drop a “brrrrrrrrr” or “skrrrttt”). Makimakkuk manages to do this with the pronounced inventiveness of deconstructing words into rhythmically iterated fragments of language. 

She is not, of course, alone in using this device, as we hear this across Arabic hip-hop, in the work of artists like Abyusif or El Rass, for instance. But in a very short time, Makimakkuk has developed a linguistic personality not only in her verse, but through her vocal interjections, which make for potent and infectious ad-libs that ultimately serve her narratives well, while at times becoming key melodic or rhythmic counterpoints in the songs. The technique also adds another dimension to her music, in that it heightens the track into something far more layered, where the ad-libs act as a point of emphasis to the lyrics, like an exclamation point. It also makes Makimakkuk’s music intense earworms; her ad-libs burrow so deeply into my psyche, it takes weeks to remove her self-created syntax from my head. 

This fragmentation of language is further emphasized on her EP Tartaqa, released by BLTNM in September 2018. The EP features the original version of the song, which she composed and wrote the lyrics for, in addition to two other versions remixed by BLTNM collaborators Mukta-feen and Gafacci, respectively.  

In the self-produced original version, we are gently launched into a minimal, albeit spacey, trap ballad by means of a digital drum tease and eerie programmed pins, as the intro is looped a few times before the rest of the song is allowed to develop. Anticipation builds, and a heady bassline arrives to break the tension, followed by several delayed and echoing vocal layers where Makimakkuk announces herself through a sort of call to action as her command to “ismaa, ismaa” (listen, listen), rings through the background.

And in that simple call to action, I hooked onto more of Makimakkuk’s lines for weeks. But it wasn’t until I heard her self-produced track, Mesh Ma’Enno, that I fully grasped the dynamism and profoundness of Makimakkuk. The track is a yet another departure from her previous works. Mesh Ma’Enno is made up of rich vocal layers and harmonies, set against ambient electronics, and a moody bassline that changes course at the halfway mark of the song. There are no trap or break beats present; instead, the track welds together jarring yet pleasurable moments of unpredictability that ultimately launch her lyrics, and her listeners, into yet another one of Makimakkuk’s captivating sonic explorations. 

It is through these adventures, that as a listener, we too get to travel the many dimensions of Makimakkuk’s sound, as she continues to develop it. Whether she is working as a producer on her own tracks, or an MC on someone else’s, the vessel of music she has created thus far shows something about rap and the way rappers in Ramallah continue to push the Arabic hip-hop game forward, and beyond.

Maha ElNabawi 

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