He's dubbed his particular brand of music "Habibi House" - a synthesis of dark melodic beats with subdued Arab elements. We talk to Khaled Elsayed, AKA Abu Ashley about growing up in Port Said, DJing in New York and producing music in Berlin.
"Habibi House" - Sounds like a possible sub-cultural uprising from the streets of Shobra, with roughly cut Hossam Hossny and Hamdi Baatchan vocals blaring over cheesy 4x4s, but it's actually the affectionately labeled concoction of 25 year old Egyptian Techno and House producer Khaled Elsayed AKA Abu Ashley.
Currently based in Berlin, but raised in New York and born in Port Said, Ashley's debut EP Asmaa (inspired by the movie of the same name) released on Par.Ka records, has been creating quite a buzz internationally. Asmaa is brimming with dark, luscious, and melodic beats that are subtly infused with Arab-ised elements, making for a thoroughly dance-inducing four-track introduction to Habibi House.
We talk to Ashley about his Egyptian roots, mixing and ma7shy...
So what are you doing right now? Describe the setting.
I’m sitting in my new apartment in Berlin procrastinating on this remix I have due on Sunday. I haven’t bought any furniture yet! Well, I tried to the other day, but came home with €150 worth of plants instead. So basically my room consists of a mattress and a shit load of plants amidst a sea of vinyl, synths, and a seemingly endless supply of wires.
Tell us a bit about your musical journey and when and how you got into production?
I say I first became really interested in electronic music at the age of 8, so it must have been 1998, which was a pretty crazy time for NY nightlife. There was a local radio station that played trance at night, and I would tune in for hours! I moved to Egypt when I was 11 for two years, where I became a Moby fanatic. I also listened to a ton of Prodigy, Bjork, Fatboy Slim and Orbital.
Fast forward to college, I started DJing and throwing parties all around campus. Funny thing - Moby went to the same school. I immediately started opening up for my older friends at clubs around New York City. And from there I got better and started building a reputation for myself around New York. I became a resident at the downtown "cool" clubs like Le Baron, Le Bain, Red Egg and Westway. I would head to Paris every few months to gigs, as the New York/Paris scenes are very similar.
The transition into production was a pretty natural one from the DJ world. A lot of friends of mine are producers, and were making some pretty awesome tracks. I got a bit jealous, so I thought I’d start experimenting. I’ve only been doing this for about a year and a half. My EP actually consists of 3 of the first 4 songs I’ve ever made!
Is music a full time gig now for you?
I’ve worked in the music world since I was 18. I was working at a really cool booking agency when I was 20, then from 22 onwards I was throwing massive events for Red Bull, with artists like Jamie XX and Cam’ron. I left my day job about 15 months ago to focus solely on producing and mixing music during the day, while still DJing at night. I had my dream job, but just couldn’t live with myself if I didn’t try and explore the production world. I’m still young, so I can take risks like quitting and moving to Berlin. Plus waking up at 8am after DJing until 4am wasn’t so fun, so I’m happy daytime Khaled is no more.
How close are you to your Egyptian/Port Said roots?
Pretty close I’d say. I made the transition from child to teenager in Port Said so that’ll always be an integral part of my identity. My parents made it a pretty big deal that I appreciate my Egyptian heritage.
I’m always watching Egyptian movies too, and trying to stay in touch with the current state of things. Thought I find most contemporary Egyptian movies to be absolutely awful, I find Amr Salama’s work to be brilliant. My lead track was made after watching his film Asmaa.
What were your biggest musical influences growing up, and in creating Asmaa?
As a teenager, I was a huge fan of moody, melancholy music. Bands like Joy Division, Bloc Party, The Smiths, Blonde Redhead, LCD Soundsystem, Beirut and The Postal Service, which I discovered when I was around 14. I was really attracted to the emotional element of music and I just felt a strong connection to darker tunes.
While writing Asmaa, I listened to a bunch of ambient Moby albums, plus a lot of (arguably cheesy) Arabic R&B like Samo Zein or Elissa. I didn’t really try to seek any musical inspiration, as much as I did emotional. I love how some tracks, like Elissa’s Agmal Ehsas, made me feel, so I tried to capture those emotions into my own tracks.
Where have you gigged to date?
I said before I’ve been a club DJ for years, but under my Abu Ashley project, which I started about a year ago, I’ve had a bunch of cool shows. I’ve played a lot at Output, which is the top house & techno club in NY, with guys like Dusky, Midland, & Untold, to down in Miami at Shore Club with Tiga & Matthew Dear.
What's your studio and live set up?
My NY studio was a lot more exciting. It was hard transporting everything to Berlin, but I tried my best! I have my x0xb0x bass synthesizer (an analog TB303 clone), Dave Smith Tetra and Mopho, Juno 106 and Ableton Push.
My live show is still in the works. I just ordered the new Electron Analog Rytm. The plan is to put together an all analog live show, though it’s probably going to be a long time before that happens ha.
What layer do you usually put down first in a track?
I always open up my Roland drum folder. I love their classic kicks! It’s the first sound I touch.
Oriental/House fusion can end up sounding very cheesy - how do you go about avoiding this...
I just don’t force it. I don’t sit there and think, well ok this track needs to have tabla or more horns. I just find sounds that I feel naturally fit into whatever I’m making. I also don’t over do it. Oriental music is very distinct, so it’ll often clash with traditional house.
How did you go about injecting that Arab heritage feel to the EP? Was it a case of just digging for the right samples and experimenting?
It was more experimenting. When I was making Asmaa, I didn’t really set out to make that kind of tune, it just happened. I did set out to make something that kinda reflected how I felt after watching the film Asmaa. So it was just natural that I gave it a bit of a Middle Eastern vibe.
My music is also very personal, and I felt that adding in sounds that were distinctly Arab reflected on my own upbringing.
Can you describe ''Habibi House" and how it differs from regular House, Tech-House, boat-house or Semi-detached house...
People kept asking me what genre I made and I hated giving an answer. Habibi House to me is house music with a subtle Arabic feel. It’s the blending of two styles. I wouldn’t say it’s different. A song could be techno and Habibi House, but I feel as though it’s an umbrella term for the deep, techy, minimal stuff that all have certain Middle-Eastern elements in common.
What was the inspiration for the Hussein Online video?
The video represents Hussein growing up in Cairo and discovering rave culture later in life. It begins with shots of rural Egypt to add context, before heading over into city living. As the song progresses and builds, we find young Hussein entering underground raves and blend the two scenes together -- his familiar surroundings and his newfound interest -- signifying the fusion of two worlds.
How familiar are you with the House/Electronic music scene in Egypt - any plans on playing here any time soon?
I don’t live in Egypt anymore, so I’m just following everything on the internet! I find the electro-shaabi stuff really insane! I’m working on something now actually, with some people here in Berlin! Still in the works, so details are sparing - but hopefully soon!
Finally, and possibly most importantly - what's your favourite Egyptian food?