Fifteen-year-old Ahmed Ashraf is having the time of his life.
An hour into the launch event of 100Copies’ new sublabel, ReTune Studio, and the downtown Cairo native is dancing his feet off as the stage before us erupts into a colorful display of high-energy hip hoppers, male dancers and just the right amount of deep bass to rattle the walls.
The crew on stage at Townhouse’s Rawabet theater goes by the name Madfaageya. Its four core members were all born and raised in the poverty-ridden neighborhood of Salam City on Cairo’s outskirts. The boys, who go by the names Kanka, Diezel, Shendy and Dolsika, are the latest force to be reckoned with in Egypt’s burgeoning electro-shaabi music genre.
For Ashraf, Madfaageya are in a “world of their own” compared to other pioneers of the genre, like Oka and Ortega’s Tamanya fel Maya (8%) or Sadat, Ha7a and Figo’s crew, Al-Sallam Ghosts.
“But I have to say, I’ve never seen Tamanya fel Maya or Sadat and Figo and such live before,” says Ashraf. “I listen to all the mahragan guys on YouTube, but Madfaageya are my favorite now that I danced with all these strangers to their songs. It’s the best part you know? To dance, and to do it like this with no one to bother you, and we didn’t even have to pay anything.”
Ashraf tells me that ReTune’s launch event is the first live concert he has ever attended. He goes to school during the day and helps his father sell sunglasses and knock-off accessories around the corner on Talaat Harb Street at night. He’s seen a couple of street performances and certainly attended a wedding or two with mahragan-style entertainment, but he emphasizes over and again with beaming excitement that this is his first “real concert.”
Before we can finish our conversation, Madfaageya break into their next song and I watch Ashraf disappear into the pit of dancing, raging bodies that move, swing and shake with endless possibility.
The brainchild of 100Copies founder, music producer and curator Mahmoud Refat, ReTune specializes in alternative, urban music with special emphasis on hip-hop, shaabi, punk and electronic or digital music. According to Refat, ReTune aims to serve two purposes: To help expose and cultivate urban talent within these genres, and to have a regular series of events with a truly open-door policy. A policy that allows neighborhood kids like Ashraf to gain entrance, and hopefully, inspiration from those on stage.
Launched in April 2013, with the help of an EU grant and the pairing up of Mahmoud Refat and project partner Mateo Vaelli, ReTune aims to be an organic project based on a collective discovery process.
“This is why we called it ReTune,” says Refat. “The whole concept plays off the idea that this label will decide its own direction, its own scene, its own mentality and dynamics rooted from the artists and their audience.
“It was important to create a sublabel because I wanted to keep 100Copies’ image within the avant-garde, experimental world it is rooted in,” he adds. “At the same time this allows for ReTune to have its own dynamic growth and identity process separate from the world of 100Copies — the sublabel can decide its own future now.”
According to Diezel, the producer behind Madfaageya, the band heard about the project several months ago from both friends and social media. They applied to the open call, and shortly afterward were asked to participate in a brief residency program to work on producing a track under the oversight of Refat.
“It’s been great working on the track,” says Diezel. “I think the best part was working with someone as knowledgeable as Mahmoud — he gives us all the freedom to do what we want, but also helps guide us. It’s also been great to be around all the other ReTuners, it’s like a little community.”
ReTune is not the only record label working to develop Egypt’s alternative and dance music scenes. Subspace, launched by Ahmed Mehessen and Aly Samaha last November, provides a full-circle platform for hip-hop and electronic musicians, and debuted with local producer Neobyrd’s second album, “The King is Dead.” But ReTune’s arrival to the nascent scene adds a much-needed competitive boost.
ReTune #1 debut compilation album
The September 26 concert at Rawabet marked the launch of an eight-track album also called ReTune. It features a power-packed line up of Egyptian musicians from across the urban music spectrum, including hip-hop musicians like MC Amin, Tahoon and Kaboos Nation, shaabi crews like Madfaageya and producers such as Cellar Door and DJ Raymond.
The album opens with an ambient, galactic electronic track produced by a Cairo-based musician who performs under the guise of Cellar Door. Cellar Door has two tracks on the album, and they are hypnotic, captivating and at times ethereal in their minimalism. Mixing synthesizers, strings and a kaleidoscope of digitally made timbres with a subtle dose of down-tempo dance-floor beats, Cellar Door points at the future of abstract electronic music.
The rap duo known as RapGunz move the album along swiftly with rapid raps about smoking hash, getting high and life in the margins. Their sound is riveting and reminiscent of “The Chronic” days of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dog’s 2001 album. Yet RapGunz find an entirely unique identity with anthem-like vocals and a dance-floor sensibility.
Other hip-hop highlights on the compilation come from Egypt’s fiercest lyricist, MC Amin, and the four-man rap crew Kaboos Nation.
MC Amin spits a wicked game of socio-politically infused rhymes against a backdrop of sirens, a looping house vocal and an in-your-face punch.
Kaboos Nation, meanwhile, has a sound that has become a hit among Cairo’s youth, with punchy lyrics rolling through layers of synths and drum machines. The four natives of Cairo’s Abdeen neighborhood have a clear, cohesive energy that pushes their sound forward with rattling bass, flickering hi-hats, and a chant-like chorus that revs up the audience.
That being said, it would benefit the hip-hop scene as a whole if all the rappers on board refined their performances a notch or two, particularly the vocal delivery. Many local rap concerts are lost to screaming MCs with untrained voices and tone-deaf intonations, and the ReTune album doesn’t entirely escape that pitfall.
Nonetheless, the ReTune #1 album is still one of the most fresh and exciting compilations to come out this year. The refined showmanship particularly needed on the rap front will likely come with time, practice and knowledgeable producers like Refat. After all, the average age of the ReTune #1 artists is about 20.
There is no set schedule for the second mix tape: As Refat says, these things will happen organically. But ReTune will continue to work with its artists while bringing in new talent with future open calls and collaborations. Refat also hopes to add more female crews into the line up — in fact, he currently has his ears on an electro-shaabi crew known as “Banat Madraset Gamal Abdel Nasser,” whose video has garnered over 90,000 views on YouTube.
But for now, Madfaageya steals the show on this first album. Their track, “Fi haga mish mazboota” (Something isn’t right), is one of the most engrossing, dizzying dance songs to come out of Egypt in the past decade. While the crossbreed of mahragan and electro-shaabi music is no longer entirely novel, Madfaageya’s sound stands out with the strong presence of clearly superior electronic dance music elements in its sonic structure and overall texture.
“Fi haga mish mazboota” opens up with an infectious shoulder-shaking layer of traditional Arabic cymbals pushed forward by speedy percussion, horns, synthesizers, catchy lyrics and minimalist “bop-bopping” echoes that could make even the toughest of high-culture critics spasm in a fit of dance and movement.
After listening to the album a couple times, it struck me that young Ashraf was right. Madfaageya succeed in the sophistication of their music and unique ability to deconstruct and reconstruct various genres into something that can send both a 15-year-old kid and a 30-year-old journalist into a simultaneous dancing fit.