“Everybody’s a producer,” a line from electro-pop trio Wetrobots <3 Bosaina’s hit track “Disco Me,” rings true in Cairo today. It feels like every time you turn your head, somebody’s cut up some samples and released an experimental electronic music EP, and somebody else is asking you to follow them on SoundCloud.
It wasn’t always this way: 15 years ago, the alternative music scene was dominated by guitar-based bands playing progressive rock and heavy metal.
“When I first started out, I didn’t know anyone making this kind of music,” says producer Wael Alaa, 26, more commonly known as NEOBYRD to his fans. “You only had DJs.”
Electronic music producers, few and far between, were confined to their bedrooms, learning the ropes of audio editing through hours and hours of experimentation. The luxury of teaching yourself to create loops via YouTube wasn’t an option, and experimental genres were largely shunned by a conservative audience and the handful of music venues available.
After the wane of rock music and a general stagnation in the scene, around a decade ago trance-obsessed DJs began clamoring to fill the void with up-tempo rhythms and feathery vocals, playing at Egypt’s four or five answers to clubs. Audiences slowly began accepting the replacement of distorted solos with thumping kicks, even if tastes were largely confined to mainstream EDM trends.
Now, with the advent of alternative music spaces in the last few years, such as 100Copies and, more recently, VENT, and new record labels like Electrum Records and Subspace popping up, the opportunity for electronic producers to make their mark cracked wide open. Yet some think the industry’s development may be slowing down.
Most electronic musicians working in Egypt now seem to have started out experimenting on an early version of the digital audio workstation FruityLoops, or a similar basic software, and sought assistance from wherever they could find it.
“You only had reading material, articles, tutorials,” says Mahmoud Shiha, 27, a DJ and producer. “We experimented and we taught ourselves.”
“We used to go on Soulseek or other chat rooms. We’d ask questions about production, and people would help,” says Ismail Hosny, also 27, who makes up one third of Wetrobots <3 Bosaina.
Producers of mahraganat (literally “festivals,” a grassroots genre that fuses shaabi with hip hop, electro and dance — used interchangeably with the Western-friendly term “electro-shaabi”) had just as much difficulty creating tracks back in the day.
“I don’t understand English, and nobody was there to teach me how to use these programs. I learned from trial and error, from experience,” says Dezel, 23, of mahragan pioneers Madfaageya.
But now, independent studios and labels are slowly starting to fill the void, allowing for more collaboration, education and opportunity. Recently, for instance, 100Copies and UK broadcaster RinseFM collaborated to form “Cairo Calling,” a program designed to bridge mahragan and London’s electronic music scene.
In 2011, Shiha, Hosny and Hussein Sherbini (another third of Wetrobots <3 Bosaina and a producer in his own right) came together to create EPIC 101, a media production studio, and launched a one-of-a-kind course aimed at teaching people how to produce, mix and master their own tracks.
When I first knocked on the wooden door of EPIC 101’s ground-floor Dokki apartment to register for the course earlier this year, I found well-maintained equipment and an acoustically treated recording studio alongside a couch that doubled as a bed, with coffee mugs, piles of paper, headphones and laptops scattered around.
After six weeks in that apartment, full of pop quizzes, readings and experimentation, I concluded that the course was a great investment for an aspiring musician like myself, but would also be so for established artists. The team are impressively knowledgeable yet easygoing, and I was able to grasp the principles of production without feeling pressured into a certain creative direction. Indeed, in the year and a half that it’s been offered, the course has helped develop the skills of a number of rising producers and artists, including Cartoon Therapy and Nadah El Shazly.
“It’s more of an ‘artist development’ course. You take people who like music, and you help turn them into artists who can produce their own material, make it into a finished project, and start promoting it,” Sherbini says.
“We want to expand it more,” says Hosny. “That’s what we’re trying to do here, teaching new talents how to produce, in order to help the industry grow.”
But it may take more than creative learning resources to keep the scene afloat.
Mahmoud Refat, a renowned musician and founder of 100Copies, often referred to as the “godfather” of the experimental music scene, believes there is definite room for improvement.
“We need structure: More labels, venues, managers, press, radio. Dynamics need to develop, and more exit channels need to be created,” he says. “The industry needs an audience.”
“We really need to focus more on building an interactive community,” concurs producer Tarek Abou El Fetouh, 30, better known as minus T. “It’ll happen, but it just needs time.”
For mahragan producers, unlike their experimental electronic counterparts, garnering a widespread audience came naturally.
“Mahragan speaks the language of the street, and so people can relate,” says KANKA, 21, also of Madfaageya. “The media also made a huge difference. Mahraganat really started spreading when there was publicity through television and movies.”
Other, less audience-friendly genres of electronic music haven’t had the same luck with the general public.
Sherbini partly blames this phenomenon on elitist marketing tendencies. “Promoters are limiting this scene to a certain social segment: the middle and upper classes. The reason electro-shaaby blew up is because it’s accessible to the public.”
“We’re ignoring a really huge portion of society,” Hosny adds. “The promoters, the people who are in charge of clubs and venues, they need to get out of their comfort zones.”
But some, like Alaa, also think that the clique-y nature of the experimental music scene itself plays a role in its lack of popularity. “People play their friends’ music. It’s difficult for artists who aren’t from a certain crowd or who don’t know the right people to get exposure, even at supposedly independent venues.”
“Producers don’t change styles, or methods,” says Refat. “Same can be said for audiences. The industry is stale.”
This is partly because sustainability is an issue, as in other experimental cultural fields in Egypt. In order to make ends meet, most producers have to find alternative sources of income than gigging and releasing tracks. Many opt to create music for television or other commercial ventures, or balance music careers alongside other jobs.
“Musicians are hitting a wall,” explains Refat. “You don’t get the investment back in terms of reward. Electronic musicians have much better chances abroad.”
“There’s no market,” Alaa points out. “We’re not going to be able to sell this music. After all the work you put into creating and promoting your music, you play once a month for LE1,500.”
But despite lacking exit routes and mainstream success, all players agree that the experimental music scene has developed rapidly in the last few years, and some see it as starting to open up.
“There are people who are doing a lot of great work today, and improvements in marketing definitely have a role in that,” says Abou El Fetouh.
“People are starting to use SoundCloud, beginning to understand genres,” Alaa says. “What used to be independent is moving into the mainstream. Pop has become cheesy,” he adds, laughing.
Even though the industry may not seem to be moving in the direction many musicians and fans are hoping for, it’s still difficult to gauge exactly where it’s headed, mainly because we’re in the thick of this movement.
And whenever I find myself getting cynical, events like this past weekend’s 100Live Electronic Music Festival, where established and rising talents come together to put on a free and exhilarating show, re-ignite the hope and excitement.
“We can’t tell how fast or slow it’s going, but it’s in a good place. I feel lucky we’re doing this now,” Sherbini says. “This is just the starting point.”