Dubai based Arabic music festival 'Wasla'' closed out 2018 with a real treat for lovers of Arabic hip-hop. The 'Wasla Hip Hop Session' brought in Arab hip hop acts from across the region, these included Mukata’a from Palestine, French-Moroccan duo N3rdistan, a stand-out performance from El Rass and DJ Karrouhat.
We sat down with Lebanese rapper/producer El Rass before he got onstage for another adrenaline-fueled performance. Our chat involved getting some insight into his process as a musician and discussing the mechanics of his work and artistry.
Tell us a bit about El Rass
I started rapping at a very young age, back in high school, then I had to put it aside for a while to follow up on my studies. I studied math and economics in France, and worked in banking for a while. I couldn’t take any more of that and I moved back to Lebanon and started focusing on my music.
"I didn’t really know where I was heading but I wanted to push it further. I have been close to other genres especially Classical Arabic music. But Quran recitation is really my thing since I’m very passionate about the Arabic language."
In the meantime I started working as a journalist and then when the Arab spring started in 2011, it gave me a sense of urgency, of wanting to do something right now. I was exploring and going back to production software and getting re-acquainted.
In 2011 I started El Rass project and started dropping on Soundcloud, It was back at the beginning of Soundcloud and I was surprised by how much people are actually relating to the music so I took it further and I was contacted by a Lebanese producer named Monma, his brother owns a small alternative music label in Lebanon so they said lets make an album.
We started with the first album and my first proper gig was from the album release and that's when I thought if 50 people show up at the gig it would be amazing because at the time rap gigs were small. But suddenly the place was fully packed.
I started connecting with other rappers in the region like Palestine and Syria. We made a compilation called Khat Talet with other rappers and I produced on my own stuff and for other rappers too.
How would you describe your music?
I’m a big fan of tapes, I collect and only sample tapes, I have a huge collection. The shit you discover is amazing, and everywhere I go I look for tapes. When I was in Kuwait I found a place with a huge collection. I found thousands of tapes in this Souk in Tunisia too. And ironically the more developed a country is, the harder it is to find tapes. Like in France I only found one shop with tapes. But I found stuff I couldn’t find in the Arab world, like Elton form the early 60’s and Prime and Stevie Wonder.
"I don’t follow a format in music. I like to have a process and then from within that I’ll go wherever it takes me."
For a rapper, I don’t like to have one flow. I don’t want to be identified for having one way of spitting. For me what my signature is, is what I say, my content, my voice, and musically how I use my sounds. For example in my last album, you can find shit that is close to boom bap and stuff that is Trap-ish with auto-tune and stuff that is dry and no auto-tune. But what unifies it is the sonic quality that comes from this tape processing and this love for analog warmth.
Have you found a difference in reaction from country to country?
I think Lebanon is where I popped and I have a big audience. I also have fans in countries like Tunisia, Palestine and Syria but I can’t go there. I enjoy performing in Egypt and I've been there five times already. It was also great to see people in Europe and London singing along to an album that dropped two weeks prior, and even I was struggling to remember the lyrics!
After seven years, have you gone pro?
It’s been full time for a while. I do other stuff on the side too, like a film project or producing for other rappers.
How many projects have you done as El Rass?
Officially, as a raper I have 4 albums and 1 EP. Plus, I've released quite a lot of singles.
What’s your perception of UAE hip hop prior to coming here?
To be honest, I know there are people here that are active culturally, but I don’t have the sense of a having a scene of rappers and producers who are here. For example, I know way better what’s happening in the Saudi scene. Maybe not in terms of events, but in terms of rappers and producers. I know there are many people active here like Big Hass.
It’s no surprise that you know very little. One thing we know is the UAE is in the growth phase of the Hip Hop. It’s surprising considering how big Dubai is globally. What’s your advice to rappers here?
Before giving advice to individuals, I think it’s important to see it as a more general thing. My advice would be for the culture in general, for the cultural activity in general. If everybody here is rapping, it’s not going to go anywhere. You need people who are gonna write in magazines, people who are going to make videos, to be sound engineers, social activists who are going to take the music wherever they go. If someone comes to me form the UAE and says check out my work I’d be totally happy to. This is what has been happening on a regional level in the Middle East for the last ten years. This is how I got connected to artists from other places. I think this is more Levant than the individual level.
On the individual level, it would be the generic advice I can give to anyone - as an artist try to work on something that will bring an added value, something that will say 'this is me and not someone else'. Also work on managing yourself, work on getting booked and think about where this can take you. Keep yourself rooted and related to where you actually started doing this - where it’s just you and your friends. We shouldn't lose the connection that we had in the beginning - this is the essence of what we’re doing so it’s important to keep yourself rooted to that.
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About the Writer
Faariss Khalil is a British musician who currently lives in Dubai. As a former turntablist from Bristol his experience of growing up in a thriving music scene has fuelled his passion to uncover new music in the UAE.