The World of Electro Chaabi, Egypt’s Festival Rap

Peter Holslin invented ice cream. If I ever get married, I’m hiring DJ Amr Haha to do the reception. A producer from Egypt, he and his cohorts—MCs Sadat and Alaa Fifty Cent—have redefined what...
By    September 26, 2013

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Peter Holslin invented ice cream.

If I ever get married, I’m hiring DJ Amr Haha to do the reception. A producer from Egypt, he and his cohorts—MCs Sadat and Alaa Fifty Cent—have redefined what it means to celebrate a newlywed’s vows. Here in America, we eat some cake, sip some champagne and maybe try to hook up with a bridesmaid. Over in the working-class Cairo suburbs, these guys perform alongside multiple drummers while hundreds of people flood the streets and some wave around what appear to be dangerous, flame-spewing fireworks.

Sadat, Alaa Fifty and Haha (also spelled 7a7a) hail from Salam City just outside Cairo, the capital of Egypt. They specialize in a style of crude, computerized dance music alternately called “mahraganat” (Arabic for “festivals”) and “electro chaabi.” Chaabi (which means “of the people”) refers to a longstanding musical tradition that centers around the everyday grind of poor Egyptians, and in recent years, these guys have channeled its style and sentiment with the aid of FruityLoops and Auto-Tune.

Mixing humor with social commentary, electro chaabi tunes provoke and excite in equal measure. In their hit song “The People Want Five Pounds Phone Credit,” Haha, Sadat and Fifty vent their hopes and frustrations about the country’s 2011 revolution by delivering a snarky play on the popular revolutionary slogan “The People Want.” Meanwhile, in the song “Aha el shibshib daa’!” (or “Fuck, I’ve Lost My Slippers!”), Haha, Sadat and fellow producer DJ Figo scandalize stuffy Egyptians by daring to utter the word “fuck” in song.

That kind of lyrical taboo might be nothing compared to what’s uttered by even the most mild-mannered American rappers, but that doesn’t mean these artists are less bold. Egypt is going through a historic period of political and social upheaval, and while it’d be corny and simplistic to declare their music the “soundtrack of the revolution,” it does seem to reflect an existential intensity that’s become central to some Egyptians’ lives.

In the past couple years, electro shaabi has slowly built up an international audience as bloggers and journalists outside Egypt have paid more attention to the music. It’s also gotten a boost from a Dutch DJ crew called Cairo Liberation Front, which regularly puts out mixtapes featuring artists like Sadat and Alaa Fifty. Though the crew’s members don’t hail from Egypt or even speak Arabic, they’ve become fascinated by the music.

“Like Chuck D said that hip-hop was the CNN of black America, we also had a vague idea that electro cha3bi might be the CNN of the kids in Egypt,” says Joost Heijthuijsen, a member of the group, using one of the more popular transliterations available for the word chaabi. “After reading Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo, a book about the slums of Mumbai, we thought that music might be a vehicle that could lead us to the places in Cairo where you otherwise could not go. Connect with people you otherwise could not connect with.”

Earlier this month, the Cairo Liberation Front helped Sadat and Alaa Fifty put out their first official release, The Best Of…, an album that’s being released through the blog/label Generation Bass. Produced by Haha, The Best Of…gives a non-Arabic speaker such as myself the ecstatic, dizzying experience of a Cairo street wedding at less than a tenth of the cost. (The album ran me $8.23 online, while the cheapest plane ticket to Cairo is a cool $1,077.)

The album starts out at a nice, danceable pace, but it isn’t long before the BPMs get cranked to high velocity. In a neon haze, rudimentary synth and bass parts loop relentlessly as computerized darboukas resonate like giant oil drums. Sadat and Fifty’s Auto-Tuned voices hit you head on, and clearly, the effect isn’t used to keep their voices pitch-perfect so much as to send them flying into a cosmos of trippy, futuristic texture.

A listener with a light stomach might not be able to handle more than five minutes of this stuff, but I can’t get enough of it. Even though I don’t understand the actual words, the MCs channel tons of attitude with their spitfire phrasing and fierce, glottoral inflections. And there’s something intoxicating about the rawness and momentum of Haha’s production. I’m a little bummed that the album doesn’t include my favorite track of his, “I’m the One Whose Life is So Wrong,” a seven-minute banger whose brawny drums and one-note synth beeps recall the minimalism of LL Cool J’s Radio.

In a way, this music makes me wonder how it must’ve felt to see a game-changing artist like Iggy Pop or Afrika Bambaataa for the first time. While many popular “indie” artists these days seem heavily indebted to their influences—as well as to established networks of taste-makers, sponsors, managers, agents, et al.—this music feels remarkably organic. There is no industry to prop it up, no conventions to abide by; there’s just a few simple tools, a bottomless reserve of passion, and a pressing need to tell it like it is. All I want to know now is—do these guys do wedding parties overseas?

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