“Searching For Paradise”: An Examination of Mister El-Are’s New Fusion of Literature and Hip-Hop
Hip-hop culture and rap music always played an important role in the life of Amherst Regional Middle School English teacher and rapper Mister El-Are. After spending his early years performing Run DMC’s “It’s Tricky” at a 5th grade talent show, El-Are started composing his own raps with the group Chaos towards the end of high school. From there, he toured all over the United States as a manager for the underground mainstays The Masterminds during his college years. These days, he records in his home studio and attends shows in Northampton, MA for artists like Wu-Tang’s GZA. No matter the era, El-Are continues to find inspiration in the beats and rhymes of his favorite MCs.
As a lifelong reader, ideas of merging his passion for rap and education have long percolated in his brain. “When I was was college, I would get a new record. And if a song grabbed me, within 24 hours I knew the lyrics to it, back and forth,” he explains as we discuss Searching For Paradise, Got Lost On The Way, a new album inspired by books from his 8th grade English class and related historical events. “I already knew when I was in college that I wanted to be a teacher. So I always thought if I could merge the way music moved me with some educational program, that would be amazing. This idea has been bouncing around in my brain for a long time.”
Before he was ready to make fusion of education and music a reality, El-Are further cut his teeth as an MC during the late 90s and early 2000s. While navigating a vibrant Boston-based hip-hop scene, El-Are rubbed elbows with Akrobatik, Fakts-One, Mr. Lif, and many other respected acts. But like so many adults, he also found it difficult to balance a busy work schedule and personal life with his creative projects. After landing a job as an elementary school teacher and meeting his wife Lauren a short time later, he took a brief hiatus. No longer feeling the same level of emotional turmoil that was the driving force behind much of his early work, El-Are hung up the mic from 2004 to 2008.
“This idea has been bouncing around in my brain for a long time.”- Mister El-Are
Like all artists, it was only a matter of time before the creative bug bit him again. Inspired by the upcoming birth of his daughter Kira, El-Are recorded ‘Ups, Downs, and All Around” and shared it with Lauren before they welcomed their baby girl into the world. Two years later, El-Are penned “Undaunted Spirit” as part of ARMS Rocks For Haiti, a benefit concert organized by middle Amherst Regional Middle School students in response to the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. Watching his student’s continued efforts to lend a helping hand after the concert inspired El-Are to pick up the pen more often. “Being inspired by beauty and tragedy woke up the spirit of the artist, the spirit of the lyricist in me,” he writes in the Searching For Paradise companion book.
Now, as an adult with the maturity and focus to to finally bring his dream project to life, El-Are is releasing an ambitious album and companion book that tackles such beloved novels as The Giver, The Great Gatsby, Invisible Man, To Kill A Mockingbird, and Of Mice and Men. What originally started with the recording of 2012's Mockingbird inspired tack “Love Was Atticus” has since morphed into a full-length, 16 cut record.
For the long-time educator and MC, it’s a relief to finally understand how to turn his ambitious ideas into finished products. “I think one of my issues when I was younger was I had a hard time actualizing ideas. Now that I’m older, I have a better sense of how to make an idea into something tangible,” he explains.
“Being inspired by beauty and tragedy woke up the spirit of the artist, the spirit of the lyricist in me.”- Mister El-Are
Featuring innovative production from underground beat kings Batsauce and Paten Locke as well as lyrical support from Akrobatik and The Masterminds, El-Are’s new project promises to expose young people to history and literature in new and exciting ways. Utilizing a variety of sounds and textures, the album’s production ranges from jazzy and laid-back on “Revolutionary Minds” to the incredibly inventive on the standing-bass-only “A God Fearing Man in a God Barren Land”. The diverse beats lend themselves well to El-Are’s flow and allow him to play with different deliveries.
One standout moment on the album is the Rogue Pharmacist-produced “He Had To Be The Giver”, which showcases El-Are spitting over a distortion-heavy beat alongside the beautiful vocal pairings of Christine Eck. The disparate elements of the track work well, making for engaging and unique listen. The Akrobatik and Masterminds assisted track “Firebrands” is a powerful tale of slave revolt with the MC’s rapping from the perspective of Cato, Nat Turner, and Denmark Vesey over a hard, drum-heavy Batsauce beat. It makes for an appropriately intense climax to an ambitious and layered album.
Although his creative output has increased tenfold in the months leading up to Searching for Paradise, El-Are remains open to the sometimes indescribable way that the creative mind works. “When it works the best, I’m just a conduit for ideas that I’ve somehow accessed through some process that’s beyond me,” he says. At the same time, he realizes that being a dedicated father, husband, and teacher means he has limited opportunities to make music and must seize the moment when it presents itself. “With the structure of my life right now, I make it happen when I can make it happen,” he explains.
So what can fans of the project expect next from El-Are? According to the companion book this is “only the beginning of an ongoing, ever changing, evolving journey.” Educators, music fans, and students should consider themselves lucky.