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If There’s A Struggle, Hip Hop Will Be There – The El Deeb Exclusive

BY , August 26, 2011

With a prophetic song that dropped days after the revolution sparked in Egypt, MC El Deeb is an exemplar of World Up’s mission to use hip hop to fuel social change. We chatted with him shortly after about the “Arab Spring,” Egypt’s upcoming elections in September, and a unity felt with hip hop artists worldwide surrounding the cause.

WU: Where do you call home?
Deeb: Well, home is Cairo, Egypt. This is where I was born, and where I lived the first seven years of my life. After that I went to the Gulf. I lived in Qatar for a bit and spent eight years in Dubai where my parents moved for work.  I moved back to Cairo six years ago and finished University.

WU: What did you study?
Deeb: Finance and Marketing. Yeah don’t ask me how, or why I’m doing this. I’m actually working as a Banker right now, as an analyst.

WU: Do you hope for hip hop to be a career one day? Do you think there’s a space for that in Egypt?
Deeb: Yeah that’s my ultimate goal. Not now, I mean not yet. Producers are starting to think of promoting hip hop acts right now. Before they were very like, not skeptical, they were just providing the market with very shallow songs, or commercial songs. “Habibi Music” as I call it. Love songs and all that stuff.

“Habibi” means “my love.” I think it was because of the censorship at the time and because of the ceiling of freedom of speech that we had before Mubarak. So that allowed for this type of music to become more popular and to become the only music available. But I think after the revolution, now that the people actually went through something, I don’t think they will be accepting shallow songs anymore. They’ve experienced an actual cause and I think the producers will start to promote this. Either they like it or not, the market is there. Young people, from 14-year-olds to university grads, come to our shows. And being young and rebellious, they are open to new ideas.

WU: So when were you first introduced to hip hop? Who was the first artist that made an impression on you?
Deeb: The first things that comes to my mind is the Bone Thugs N’ Harmony’s video “Crossroads.” I remember MTV playing hip hop videos in the early 90’s. I started getting into the regulars; Tupac, Biggie. I had friends living in the States who used to come back with tapes, you know uncensored versions. In the Gulf we had the censored tapes. They had the new Biggie, “Life After Death.” I was just, you know, engulfed by the self expression, how someone could talk freely about certain topics is what got to me.

WU: So you kind of taught yourself how to write rhymes and make beats?
Deeb: Yeah. Well actually, the way that I got into hip hop writing is very weird. I was at a French class and our professor told us to write a rap poem. A rap poem in French. And I went back home very excited because I actually listened to hip hop. So I went back and I wrote this French poem, but I submitted it on tape, unlike the other students where they just submitted it on paper. So I went to my tape and I kept looping these beats, you know, old school style. That’s way before the Fruity Loops technology and all that stuff.  I kept on looping it and I recorded my French rhymes on an old school voice recorder. I played it to the class and the class loved it.

WU: How old were you?
Deeb: I was thirteen or fourteen. So if I did it in French, I could do it in English. (laughs) So I started writing in English. And then when I moved back to Egypt six years ago, I taught to myself, if I’m doing it in English, I could do it in Arabic. In my own mother tongue.  And that’s when I started writing in Arabic, when I moved back here to Egypt.

WU: Were you keeping it to yourself or did you get into cyphers with friends? Where did the Thursday rooftops come in?
Deeb: Yeah. Well in the beginning when I moved back I was solo, and then I joined a group called Asfalt who write in Arabic. I performed with them for like two years then started Wighit Nazar, a duo with another member of Asfalt. Wighit Nazar, which means “point of view,”  ended last year. And since then I’ve been solo again. I don’t know, I guess I like working on my own, it’s more flexible. I have more creative control over what’s going out. You don’t have to [be on the same] frequency, or same line of thought.

WU: You guys put out an anthem during the recent revolution in Egypt called “Masra Deeb.” Was that your project?
Deeb: It is my project. This song was recorded before the revolution. And the video was actually shot in Cairo. I released it as part of my first solo EP, the “Cairofornia EP”  it has four songs. I have a friend in the states who’s a really talented director. He really liked “Masra Deeb,” and was like, “listen, let’s do a video and when I come back to Cairo, I’m gonna shoot it.” And I must say, everyone that’s seen the video liked it.

WU: How did you guys choose the direction of the video?

Deeb: “Masra Deeb” is my stage. So the world is my stage kind of.  In the chorus, I say, “I’m sacrificing my time…for the people. The mic is my friend.” So we tried to catch that, and make it the theme of the song with a lot of freestyle in between. In the video, I’m looking for these bits and pieces and you don’t know what’s going on until the end when you see that I’m constructing a mic.

WU: Yeah that was a great video. I think it’s so amazing that the song was before the revolution. But it came out post revolution right?
Deeb: It came out post revolution because we were planning to release it before January 25th. But we never knew it would be that big. Nobody knew there was going to be a revolution like that, an uprising. I remember speaking to my colleagues at the time  like “are you going out”  and they’d be like “I don’t know probably.” No one knew what to expect until January 25th  basically happened. So I released the song and video on February 7th. I don’t know, I kind of felt that I was using the revolution as a way to promote my music. But then I was like no, it has a positive message. The stuff I’m talking about remains true to this day.

WU: Do you feel that hip hop as an art form played a role in the revolution? Other than your songs, were there other artist out there promoting it that way?
Deeb: Definitely, yeah. From Egypt and out side Egypt. From Egypt we have the Arabian Knightz, who put out a song called “Rebel.” We have a couple of other local artists with songs that talk about torment and all that. There’s a song from Omar Offendum , who’s a Syrian living in California and [we also heard from] Narcicyst, an Iraqi living in Canada.

WU: We worked with The Narcicyst actually. He’s a friend of World Up.
Deeb: No way. Yeah, we did shows together in Amman and Beirut. He’s a very nice guy. Yeah, so they did a song called “Jan25” that was on Al Jazeera with pictures of the Egyptian revolution. It was very inspiring that people from outside of Egypt were addressing this issue. It felt like, as if they were there on the streets.

Also Freeway, who’s from Philadelphia. Freeway is like a veteran in hip hop. And to have him talk about the revolution, and show support, it was very motivating. It was a good thing to see and to hear. And that’s when the internet was cut, by the way.

WU: It must have been so inspiring, or relieving to get your internet back.
Deeb: It was kind of tricky, because it had its ups and downs. We were disconnected for a week or more. And then when the internet was back, suddenly we got online and saw videos of people talking about our issues and repping the cause. It was great.

I don’t know if you guys heard of the whole “Camel Incident?” Mubarak supporters just walked through Tahrir riding camels, horses and hitting the protesters. They were basically paid by Mubarak’s group and other corrupt politicians. That day all the affluent, upper and middle class people stayed at home. Then the internet came back. Suddenly everyone was checking their emails and Facebook and everything. Leaving the very unprivileged people in Tahrir. So it was kind of a trick. That’s how I see it.

WU: Who is your audience?
Deeb: I would guess young people. Probably as young as ten because I don’t have explicit lyrics in my songs.

WU: Is that intentional?
Deeb: Yes. It’s conscious hip hop. I’m not going to swear and act like a bad role model, when I’m promoting good morals and that stuff. So yeah, I think the video was very powerful because it was shot in downtown, it was shot in Tahrir too. We passed by Tahrir. It had a lot of scenes from downtown, from the people. And even though I wrote it before the revolution, it was still applicable. So people related to to it more. It had a positive note too, it wasn’t very depressive, so people also wanted that. Because at the time the people were worried. No one knew what was going on. That was before Mubarak stepped down. So people wanted some hope. A lot of people were giving up on the revolution. They were sick of it. They were like ‘OK, let’s get back to normal life. We don’t want this violence, we don’t want all this chaos. [They said] we were happier before the revolution.’

WU: So your song is more upbeat, it’s more about celebrating the culture, freedom and liberty?
Deeb: Exactly. It’s about the people, our culture.

WU: How often do you have shows?
Deeb: There’s three main open mic events; up on the roof is one. There’s another open mic called Mashra Marih which means “Project Mars.” I try to attend as many events as possible, to get my music out there, to interact with my audience. Sometimes we even have strictly hip hop open mic’s where you mingle with other hip hop artists, upcoming artists and we cypher and freestyle.

WU: Are other up and coming artists focusing on conscious hip hop as well? Here in the States we have also have the profanity, bling and all that. Are Egyptian youth gravitating to hip hop as party music, or using it to express social injustice?
Deeb: I think the problem we have here in Egypt, because it’s a new genre, you don’t have a lot of like game-changers. Everyone’s copying each other. So you have like the very angry hip hop, the hard core hip hop; anti-government and all that stuff. And they’re just shouting, you know, not presenting a solution. And you have the conscious hip hop; such as myself, Asfalt, Arabian Knightz. And believe it or not, we do have gangster hip hop here in Egypt.

WU: Yeah. And who would that be? That’s interesting.
Deeb: There are guys who are into gangster hip hop. They see these guys in California, you know with checkered shirts and stuff. That’s something that I can’t relate to. I mean, I used to listen to gangster hip hop, but that was like 15 years ago. (laughs)

WU: The young demographic has always gravitated towards hip hop, how do you think the older generation feels about it? About this new music coming in?
Deeb: (laughs) That’s the thing. That’s the thing. Some people understand there’s good and bad hip hop.  My grandfather is a very old school guy, this guy listens to traditional music and he recites poetry with his friends. And when I read him my poems, I don’t rap it to him of course. I’ll say the words very clearly so he can understand. And he feels it. And I mean, so if my grandfather, who is around 77,  can relate to my songs, then I’ve achieved what I wanted to do.

WU: Where do you see Arabic hip hop heading in the future? Do you feel it going down the same path that you guys kind of started here with the post-revolution?
Deeb: Yeah exactly. We’ve been waiting for this. This Egyptian pop star named Tamer Hosny was like the biggest thing in Egypt pre-January 25th. And then he came out on TV speaking about the revolution, telling the protesters to go back home, and everything’s going to be OK. People didn’t want to hear that. They’re protesting for toppling a regime, getting rid of a dictator and this pop star saying just go home? So he went to Tahrir Square was beaten up by the protesters. I don’t know, the revolution kind of showed you who was real and who wasn’t. And now, I don’t know if any Egyptian will be listening to Tamer Hosny anymore. They’ll be listening to other stuff. Stuff with meaning, as I told you before; hip hop. We have a lot of rock coming up too. I like to call it conscious rock. Ben Harper, all that type of music.

WU: So you’re working on a new album right?
Deeb: Well, an EP. It’s an extended play-list. I’m not going to work on an album until somebody is actually ready to pay for it. (laughs) Because I’ve been paying the whole time, I’ve been paying for everything, from A to Z. I’m releasing EP’s, four or six songs, every couple of months.

WU: Have you recorded anything new recently that we could share with our readers, we have a pretty international audience?
Deeb: I actually don’t have anything recorded yet. It took me a while to write something after the revolution because I was active in the revolution since day one. I was there. I didn’t even know if I was going to go down on January 25th, but I felt I had to go, you know what I mean?  It was just something I was waiting for, but I had some, I was afraid, I’m not going to lie to you. Because the state that we were living in before the revolution, you could end up anywhere, you could end up in prison and no one would know anything about you, for speaking against the government. But when I went down, I felt like it was the right decision to go down and then suddenly I got this adrenaline rush. I felt myself becoming involved in the uprising since day one. So it took me a while to write something, to express my thoughts and what was going on. Everything was too fast. This guy says there’s a lot of protesters, and the protesters are going to go back home and the Army is going to bring Mubarak back [to power], and the Army’s working with Mubarak. No one knew what was going on. And in order to write something, in order to express your views, you have to know the feeling–you don’t have to have the full picture, you have to have some solid facts. [I’m writing] “Transitional Period” which is the state we’re in right now.

WU: It was so good talking to you. Do you have anything else you’d like to add here? Last comments?
Deeb: I’d like to send a message to the West that Egypt is fine. And that Egypt is back to normal. I mean that the only uncertainty that we have is the elections coming up (in September). That’s the only thing that we’re worried about. You have a couple of parties coming up, not just Islamic parties. Even Islamic parties that are coming up, and a lot of Egyptians were very, how do you say, “turned off” by the amount of Islamic parties coming up that didn’t even exist before the revolution. I believe in a civil society, not based on religion.  So do most liberals, a lot of moderates too. But you have a lot of other parties coming up too, liberal parties coming up. So I think there will be no party that will monopolize the political scene. Even if the Islamic parties come into power, I think they will follow Turkey’s model. That’s what I hope to communicate to the West; we won’t become another Saudi Arabia or Iran, because we have our own history. Egypt has its own history of moderation, and even our demographics–we have Christians living with us, we have Muslims. I’m very positive.

WU: A lot of people don’t even know how international hip hop is, so when we ‘Egyptian hip hop,’ it’ll definitely grab attention. It’s going to be a great way to introduce you guys.
Deeb: Well hip hip is a culture based on resistance and discrimination. It was started by black Americans in the States because of discrimination at the time. I mean it’s very similar. If there’s a struggle, hip hop will be there.

And give me a show in New York, I would love to come and visit. I always hear stories of New York, everyone’s like “New York, New York-the city never sleeps.” Although [I think] Cairo is the city that never sleeps (laughs).

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1 Comment »
  1. Very dope!

    Comment by Ian Mitchell — September 22, 2011 @ 1:09 pm

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