Egypt's music scene is evolving. No longer are we stuck choosing between Amr Diab and the Billboard charts - we're making our own unique sounds right here. Timmy Mowafi talks to the movers and shakers on the underground Shaabi, Rap and Hip-Hop scenes
Every time I go downtown, it seems I have a story. It makes sense. It’s easy when living blissfully (or begrudgingly) in the higher echelons of society to forget that this is where real life, and the future, more so than the past, of Egypt resides. We tread this line between high cultures and westernised pop culture so fervently that we forget the roots of all this glamourous nonsense once started off on the streets. Jay-Z starts off rapping whilst moving crack on the corners of Brooklyn’s housing projects, U2 get together in a garage in Dublin amidst national turmoil and IRA bombings, and we mustn’t forget that Jenny is in fact from the block. And if you want to feel the buzz of eminent rapture, be around something that’s special and original, that’s exactly where you need to be. Not on a hotel rooftop, drunk, listening to a track by a well-off German DJ whose album has been ghost produced, filled with subliminally manufactured hooks that give you an equally empty drop, but sober, whilst feeling a little molested, between a wide-eyed 10-year old and a group of over-enthusiastic topless men rocking out to epilepsy-inducing Shaabi beats in a decrepit warehouse theatre.
I was heading to Mahmoud Refaat’s 100Copies Studio to meet the artists signed to their sub-label, Retune, ahead of their CD launch gig the following day at Rawabet Theatre. Having started 100Copies record label back in 2006, Refaat (who’s also a musician himself with Bikya band) seems to be on a one-man mission to put Egypt’s underground music talent on the map. Turning the 100Copies Studio in to a concert space every Friday, it provides an outstanding platform for anyone doing something fresh on the music scene, from Experimental female nights to improvised field recording mash-ups, as well as hosting concerts across Europe for their signed artists. Retune is his urban music project to get talented Egyptian musicians from street to stage and beyond and, after an online call out which received hundreds of applications and demos, seven artists ranging from Hip-Hop, Rap, Shaabi and Electronic were chosen by Refaat to be part of the label and have their tracks professionally produced.
Sitting in one of the backrooms of the studio, Refaat flicks on the CD player and this destructive, yet easy-flowing Hip-Hop reverbs across the walls. It’s a track by Rap Gunz, one of the singles from Retune #1, the compilation CD that was to be launched the next day. I don’t know what they’re rapping about but my head starts bobbing involuntarily and his face lights up like a proud father when talking about them. “It’s about the inner city culture clash, there’s the folk and traditional side coming from Shaabi and there’s the Electronic street music. There’s one hell of a clash!,” jokes Refaat. “Even in Hip-Hop; they’re rapping in Egyptian but it’s not the exact dialect. I am interested in this generation and the way they deal with music in every way.”
And after two (or three, or four?) revolutions, countless security clashes and a national GDP lower than their baggy trousers, it seems like this generation, more than any, has a lot to let out. “They do have a lot to say,” retorts Refaat, as my hands now join my bopping head to the catchy Rap Gunz track. “Not as much with words as with expression, though. It’s very aggressive. If you read some of the lyrics on paper and read what they write, you might think ‘eh el bedaan da?’ but then the way they structure the song and their attitudes and performance, it really becomes something. This is mainly what’s happening in the new urban music scene, like Shaabi for instance. What the fuck are they saying? What are they talking about? But it tells you everything you need to know and the masses can relate to it. I’m interested in this sort of lyrical destruction and expressiveness.”
I ask him what they were talking about in the Rap Gunz track. “This one is about drugs… ‘I went with my friends and everyone was high in the room… I looked into their eyes…’ That kind of thing.”
Ten minutes later and I’m in the room with Shaabi group Maadfageya (Gunners), everyone is high. I’m looking into lead singer, KNKA’s eyes and I see stars.
When I think of Shaabi, what comes to mind is auto-tune, street raves, Tramadol and being kept up at 4 AM by blaring brass sounds and screeching, fluctuating vocals on the Nile. Recently, our local form of dance music has been growing branches outside of Egypt. I can’t tell you the number of times friends from abroad have sent me exciting messages along the likes of “OMG! They’re playing DJ Amr 7a7a in this club in New York!” “A7a, this DJ in Berlin is remixing FIGO!” It kind of makes sense though; Egypt’s always been about 10 to 20 years behind the rest of the world as far as trends go. Once upon a time, you had Hip-Hop from the West come over; eventually some working-class players on Tersana FC start wearing FUBU and covering Eminem songs on the team bus. All together now: “Knees weak, armes heavy, ya mama’s espeghetti.” Then, groups like EG Rap School and Arabian Knightz come about in the late naughties, heavily influenced by the West Coast sound but with Arabic infusions. It seems like the 90s rave-in-a-dark-room-to-House-and-Techno-on-drugs-with-neon-glasses-on scene has only just reached our shores but, at root level, the trend is reversing and now it’s our turn to breathe some Egyptian street culture into the global scene.
“Shaabi music, they say, may have been going on since the 30s but this type has been around since the 70s,” Refaat explains, relieving me of some ignorance on the subject. “There has always been this genre portraying very specific subjects and a very specific lifestyle. It was always about surrendering or complaining before… I’m in a black hole and my life is fucked and all that. That theme is still there but it’s more intense because the lifestyle has changed. Drugs have changed, prostitution is different, the language is different, and this community is now different. It’s not about surrendering anymore, it’s about breaking free.”
Back to Madfaageya and KNKA rolling a joint nonchalantly, ignoring my presence in the room. We’re waiting for the other members of the crew. His hair is gelled into a faux-hawk with blonde highlights running down the front. DOLCIKA walks in shortly afterwards donning big dark shades and carefully coiffed, long, dreaded curls, followed by SHENDY in a smart waist coat and Pop Art t-shirt. I’m sitting with the Egyptian Backstreet boys.
“Are you guys famous?” I ask tentatively. “Yes, elhamdullilah, people know us; we’ve played all over Cairo,” KNKA replies, still quite unable to shift his focus from the joint. The three of them, though, spring to life when asked about their roots. The first thing you notice with these artists is that they’re very territorial and, to the experienced Shaabi ear, the difference in where the music is coming from can be clear. Maadfegeya hail from Madinet El Salam and met just a year ago after becoming friends while doing wedding gig circuit. “Everyone has his own style, we’re different than Sa’ad El Soghyar, Oka & Ortega, Ein Shams and everyone knows Madfaageya. They know our music even if we haven’t linked the song to ourselves or put our stamp on it,” remarks Shendy, excitedly. I ask them if they’re aware about how big Shaabi is getting as an art form and if they think it can be a global phenomenon: “As long as it’s constantly evolving,” says KNKA. “The music and the work being done around it is what makes the people want to hear it and it’s not just for the time being.”
Their answers are often vague and diplomatic as I’m sure they’re just beginning to get used to being barraged by foreign media (I was definitely foreign in this situation) and answering questions that, to them, just seem common sense. With this new-found limelight and potential path to fame and riches, I had to ask them what they would do with their first million geneh… “Well first things first: I’d help out my family, make sure they’re taken care of and then after that I would see whatever I want to get for myself,” Shendy answers warmly. I found out that on the side, these three are well known party organisers and being famous has helped them make a living from it, as well as helping them out with the ladies. “Each of us has a girlfriend,” KNKA boasts. “Just one!” interrupts Shendy. “There are so many girls, we can’t keep up!” I high five him, excited to find somewhere that our ven diagram of social differences met. Until Dolcika adds: “But they’re only friends, no love. No marriage.”
On that note, I rather awkwardly smile at the Shaabi rock stars and soon find myself in the 100Copies recording room with Kaboos Nation, as Mahmoud Refaat is sat on Pro-Logic, putting the finishing touches to their live set. Lead vocalist Farghaly stood approvingly, nodding his head to the heavy bass melody. We sat down and it was clear to see he was the most Americanised out of the group, donning a bandana and occasionally speaking with a thick, West Coast accent surely learned from religiously watching some of his favourite artists like Eminem and Lil Wayne. “We were all neighbours living in Abdiin,” Farghaly starts the conversation, feeding into the territorialism that comes with Egypt’s street sounds. “And everyone was working on their own music. We listened to each other’s music on the internet and met through mutual friends. We began to record songs at home studios that were released online and gained some followers. We heard about Retune and jumped at the chance. Thankfully, we were successful.” Very much on the path to stardom themselves, when asked what they’d buy when they were rich and famous, Farghaly is quick to crack a joke: “A soundcard,” he laughs. Three of the other members, M A Rokmeda, Crunchy and Omar Pato, sit quietly, observing the conversation. There’s no smoke and mirrors about them and you wouldn’t look at them twice on the street but, by God, do they have flow. After teasing them into a rap battle with MC Tahoon, who sat close by, I was literally blown away by their talent, not to mention how young they are. The group’s ages range from 16 to 24.
After they exchanged rhymes, my attention firmly landed on MC Tahoon, who’s been rapping since 2007. The only way to describe him would be saye3 neeeek. He’s hilarious, unAmercanised and undoubtedly has his own style. His originality came out in droves after his freestyle and I realised he was a people’s poet first and foremost. He’s not trying to emulate what he’s seen on TV as much as he is trying to express exactly what’s going on in his own life. Nevertheless, he knows it’s a hard journey ahead of him to ‘make it’ as a rap artist here. “I have no dream in Egypt, because Pop music is what sells and gets people dancing. If you put on rap music, there’s no response,” he tells me dejectedly, whilst keeping his jovial air. The conversation with him quickly moves to the subject of smoking, of which he seems to be an expert. We have an in-depth discussion about the difference between Bango and Marijuana before he invites me for a joint the next day, before the show.
A little over 24 hours later and, as promised, I’m leaning against the graffitied wall on a down town street adjacent to the concert, smoking with MC Tahoon, surrounded by a group of his mates. Printed on his t-shirt in big neon letters, back and front, was: “I am not perfect but I am limited edition.” And it couldn’t be more apt. He’s wearing black Persols and has his friends in stitches, talking about his upcoming performance. I ask him if he’s trying to be cool wearing those shades. “Nah,” he replies “I just don’t want to look fucked up on stage.” I head off to get a beer, “Ha, 7ad beybayar ya gama3a?” he calls out to the group. No, because they have Friday prayers, he jokes.
A little blurry eyed, I made my way to the entrance of Rawabet Theatre and my senses took a smack to the face. Multicolored lights flashed rapidly, reflecting demonically off of Madfaageya and their crew, as three uniformed dancers in suspenders jump about in pure automatism amongst them on stage, in front of a few hundred arms raised thoroughly to the roof.
I force my way to the middle of the crowd and it was just so much to take, I couldn’t even form an opinion about the music, the crazy lighting, the scattered cadence of showmanship or the karate kid dancer but every inch of me wanted to get involved in the antics, take my top off, swing it about and jump right into the Shaabi mosh pit. The first rule of a Shaabi mosh pit, by the way, is stay high above floor level lest you be drenched in 555 man sweat. You should probably also never talk about Shaabi mosh pit.
People compare Shaabi to Hip-Hop in the way it was brought about from the streets, but it’s not. It’s Punk. It’s Punk fucking Rock, man! I felt like I was looking at Egypt’s version of Sid Vicious in KNKA. His aggression, the energy, the fuck-the-man lyrics, and the oneness in rebellion with the crowd... In between tracks, he riled everyone up: “Adeek fel ard? Adeek fel ard!” And like a renegade messiah, everyone followed him, got down to the floor and back up in unison, returning to flailing arms and unfathomable dance moves. It wasn’t just a proper a gig, it was a show. I often head out gigs here just to see these ’tortured soul’ third-culture-kids, strumming their guitars with insouciance in front of an equally blasé crowd of pseudo hipsters. This was effort, this was drive. These were tortured souls, but they were doing something about it.
Next up on stage was MC Amin, who apparently was the most well known amongst the scene; by the time he got on stage, you couldn’t even squeeze inside the theatre space and I watched him from outside, being grabbed and dragged into the crowd triumphantly to the tune of “AMIN, AMIN, AMIN!”Although he is undoubtedly a solid and gifted MC, along with the onstage collaboration with the equally-gifted Sphinx from Arabian Knightz, it was a very western-influenced set and, by that point, all I wanted to see was more of what Egypt had to offer.
It was provided in the form of Kaboos Nation’s enigmatic performance. Farghaly owned the stage; he was a complete natural, every note coming out of his mouth expressed right through his whole body with these Lady Gaga-esque jittery movements, perforating a heavy glitch Dubstep chorus. M A Rokmeda, Crunchy and Omar Pato suddenly came out of their shells on stage, dominating the audience with their rapid fire spits.
MC Tahoon took to the stage last, showing no sign of the pre-show activities, instead oozing charisma and whipping the crowd into a frenzy with his relatable rhetoric and magnetic flow. Behind him on the decks was Farghaly and it was great to see them all working together to make the best show possible; there’s no rivalry because they know the industry will grow as a whole if they help each other out.
I wondered outside after the show, with an exhilarated feeling I only used to get from concerts in the UK; when these kids would perform their hearts out on stage, the energy would bounce off every object in the place and lift everyone into this strange, unified euphoria. Kids were walking out of the concert screaming ‘Maaadfageyya, Maadfageyya’ or inspired, practicing their freestyling skills. I don’t remember the last time I saw that kind of fanfare around a gig in Egypt; we’re usually to cool or too on drugs to give a shit. It got me thinking that I just wished more people, the kind of people who are reading this article, the kind of people who can make a difference, would pay more attention to this kind of music.
As I had this thought, a delirious group of young girls ran up to me begging to take a picture with me. I was confused but they insisted. Standing next to some of the most talented young stars in the country, as well as GRAMMY AWARD WINNING musician Fathy Salama, but it was I, a former kombars on a terrible MBC 4 reality show, that she wanted to take a picture of. Two very Egyptian girls were more excited about a copy of a western reality TV concept than the magic that was happening in their very own streets. With that bizarre moment still playing in my head, I jumped into a cab and sat distracted, staring out the window. The driver starts blaring out loud Shaabi tunes from his souped-up speakers. He looks me up and down at my Takeshi Murakami tattoos and wing tipped shoes and says: “Do you not like this music? This is the music of the people, are you not one of the people?”
Check out the SceneNoise’s review of Retune #1 compilation CD here.