Omid Walizadeh’s new album mixes hip-hop with music from the pre-Iranian Revolution era
Among DJs and music producers in Los Angeles, crate digging is a competitive sport. Most genres in western music have been picked over and reintegrated into contemporary hip-hop and electronic tracks, and the internet has made it easier than ever to seek out rare and rarer sounds.
It’s a pastime that’s familiar to Omid Walizadeh, an artist based in Long Beach, California, who released a string of hip-hop albums in the 1990s and 2000s as Omid or OD and a compilation Beneath the Surface, which documented LA’s underground hip-hop scene at its peak. Walizadeh used to dig (that’s search out second-hand vinyl rarities, to the layman) for jazz but now he gets his thrills seeking out ultra-obscure tracks from pre-revolution Iran.
“It makes it even more exciting when you find something,” he says, “because it’s so hard to find, especially in good shape.”
Inspired by the tapes and records that his parents used to play when he was a child in Tehran – and later in California, where the family moved when Walizadeh was 7 – he began collecting Persian music a decade ago. But it wasn’t as easy as trawling music stores or online.
“The only time I’d come across these records is when someone from my family was visiting from Iran,” he says. “So I would beg them: ‘Please, go into your closets and bring whatever records you have,’ and they would be so surprised, like ‘Why would you want these? Everyone has CDs now.’”
Walizadeh moved on to cassettes too, asking his LA friends with Persian roots to search their parents’ closets. He’d offer money in exchange, but mostly they’d give the collections away for free: 300 vinyl records from a friend of his father’s, hundreds of tapes from the father of a friend.
The era that particularly interests Walizadeh is from 1966 to the late 1970s, when Iranian music could be freely made, was often political in its subtext and incorporated influences from American and British counterculture: The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix. He also collected tapes of children’s stories and poetry in Farsi.
Many of these have made it into the mix on his forthcoming album Modern Persian Speech Sounds, which fuses snatches of the audio he’s discovered with his own basslines and beats – the latter sometimes created by banging on tables and walls. The record’s second track tells an allegorical story about a town terrorised by a demon and a boy who persuades the citizens to conquer their fear and unite against it.
The overall effect is haunting and richly textured, with strings and woodwind instruments layered over beats that thump and skitter, wobbly dubstep basslines and rhythmically repeated snippets of Farsi speech. Even in the digital recording, the crackle of an old vinyl recording can be heard in some of the pauses.
“Just to be able to play with all this Persian material was so exciting,” Walizadeh says. “I’ve been trying to make them mesh for so long.”
The album is available to stream for free on SoundCloud, but it will get a vinyl release on Saturday in association with B|ta’arof, an English-language magazine dedicated to contemporary Iranian culture, and fans can expect more in the same vein to follow.
“There’s still a lot of material I have yet to touch,” says Walizadeh of his vast Iranian music collection, “and I have so many ideas of what to do with these sounds. Hopefully people will dig the record and look out for more, because I’m just getting started.”