"We had a gig two weeks ago in Ramallah. That was an interesting place to go," says Isam Bachiri, speaking from the Sony offices in Denmark. "Interesting" might sound like a bit of an understatement from a musician just back from the West Bank. But Outlandish, the hip-hop trio which Bachiri helped to found in 1997, have a way of getting themselves into unusual situations. They are, after all, a two-thirds Muslim, one-third Roman Catholic, 100-per cent Danish rap outfit. Among other things that means that, along with his band mates Waqas Ali Qadri and Lenny Martinez, Bachiri has become a poster-boy for the notion of hip-hop as a truly global culture. Their current tour, for instance, has taken them far off the circuits more usually frequented by Sony acts and into India as well as through the Middle East.
"I was in Jerusalem for a week before the show," Bachiri says, "because I was thinking this is an opportunity to actually see Jerusalem. So I went there with my family and I had a great time." His tone softens as he explains: "There's definitely people living side by side with different religions and different communities. They're living, they're living their lives. What else can they do? That was a beautiful thing to see, I think." He admits: "It was tougher when you got outside Jerusalem. That was a tough thing, to see the checkpoints, to experience how it is to just wait in those lines and see those towers where they point a gun at you."
All the same, Bachiri concludes: "The concert was very special because we all know music is a universal language and it just brings lots of people together - especially in a country like Israel, where they live very separated." It's a very Outlandish take. In fact, the group has long traded in a message of tolerance and cross-cultural understanding. They sing and rap in English, Danish, Spanish, Urdu and Arabic, the languages of their varied heritages. Bachiri is of Moroccan extraction while Ali Qadri's parents were Pakistani and Martinez is Honduran. All three men are devoutly religious and Outlandish's route through the often rather louche world of hip-hop has been distinguished by an unusual sense of moral purpose. They have released tracks discussing the Arab-Israeli conflict, the spread of HIV and the experience of immigrants in Western Europe. Their first American tour was hosted by the Muslim American Society.
Yet Bachiri insists: "The fact that we have two Muslims and one Catholic in the same group - we never really thought that much about it. When we write stuff, we use our music like writing a diary. It's just your life." Indeed, for Bachiri the form itself encourages customisation to one's individual circumstances. "I think that's the beauty of hip-hop. It's a way of expressing yourself on a street level," he says. "And the language - it might be provocative for some, it might be foul language for some, but it's a picture of what a community looks like. You might talk about something which people find controversial, but at the end of the day, you're just talking about what you see. When we started out, it was very much about the whole gangster hip-hop scene, because that's the thing that blew up in Europe. That was the hit. But after that you grow up and start listening to the other sides of hip-hop. And hip-hop has a lot of sides, you know."
In May the band released their third album, Sound of a Rebel, a diverse and poppy collection by comparison with their last effort. That record, Closer Than Veins, displayed the band's social conscience. The gleaming, radio-friendly follow-up shows off their Rolodex. Among other collaborators it features the famous Egyptian singer Ihab Tawfik, the Spanish hip-hop-cum-flamenco performer Mala Rodriguez and the little-known Copenhagen rapper Lucy Love. The band has never worked with female artists before, but Bachiri doesn't see Outlandish's collaborations with the latter two artists as a watershed in his group's career. "For me I don't really care if it's a man or a woman," he says. "It's more if I feel what the person is doing, if it sounds right, you know? That just happened."
Nevertheless it was a long and difficult process to get things sounding right on the new album. Four years in the making, it forced the group to reconsider what had first got them interested in music more than 12 years ago. At first, Bachiri explains: "The process was going really good. We had about 40 tracks to launch." But then it became apparent that the trio's hearts weren't in it. "We got caught up in the business somehow. That happens in every relationship, I think, but we experienced it through our music. We felt like we were not on the same page." Consequently, Outlandish had to kill a lot of songs. "Even though we had enough material for two albums," Bachiri says, "there was not one track where we could say that we were all on the same page. So we had to sit down and talk it over."
A record-company associate came to help the band members address their misgivings: "He would take time out to listen and gather us, make us sit together and not just talk business but actually talk about some personal issues," says Bachiri. When asked what those issues were, however, he becomes vague. "We've been together for more than 10 years, and in a relationship when you just get into these routines, everything is just like a robot. You don't really talk, you know what to do... I know what I do, Waqas knows what he does and Lenny also, so there's no need to change that because it's working, you know? But we had to go in and change it because, yeah it's working, but it's not working for the friendship." The important thing, he says, was to rediscover "that hunger for making something original, or the pride, the passion for music".
So Outlandish have returned refreshed, if a little defanged. The group's new album is the most commercial thing they have released, though it lacks the polemical fire of their best work on Closer Than Veins and their breakthrough disc, 2002's Bread & Barrels of Water. Still, it's an upbeat collection, and the stand-out track, Dale Duro, stretches the group's newly airbrushed sound into agreeably raucous new territory. "That was an interesting track," Bachiri says. "So energetic and it had this Asian flute going on, mixed with some of the Latin grooves and percussion... I don't think we'd ever done something like that." The Danish rapper Lucy Love appears on the track, turning in a spitting performance that ought to endear her to fans of M.I.A. She is barely known outside Denmark at the moment, but watch this space. I ask Bachiri if there are any other acts who have impressed him as ones to follow.
"To be honest with you..." he says after a deliberative pause, "right now I'm listening to Michael Jackson, the Bad album. It sounds like new stuff in my ears. It's incredible to just to listen to his achievements. That was an album that really had a great impact on me." I press him for other formative influences. "We were very much inspired by the French hip-hop scene," he says. "You have a group like IAM" (a Marseille outfit who use imagery relating to ancient Egypt as a cover for addressing contemporary Islamophobia). "You see some of their videos," Bachiri explains, "you know they look like me. They have Arab origin, but they're still French. And that was interesting to see. It means something to see people expressing themselves who look like you. It has a mental effect somehow."
On the other hand, Bachiri is clearly enthusiastic about the ability of music to transcend racial barriers. "Music is a very powerful tool," he says, "and I always love when an artist does something extraordinary... You know, like Michael Jackson when he did his thing. You can actually feel there's been a lot of people working on this, as perfectionists. And that's the power of music, and I think that's something not to take for granted." Back after a four-year absence, Outlandish are one group of perfectionists it's time to start appreciating all over again.