This article was originally published in THUMP UK.
The day I call El-Mahdi Rezoug for our scheduled interview I get his answering machine, repeatedly, for an hour. When he finally gets in touch by email, it's to apologise that his phone was off. Just a day before the Soma coal mine had collapsed, a tragedy that would become Turkey's worst mining disaster and claim the lives of more than 300 people. Rezoug got caught in the protests in Istanbul after work, and his phone battery had died. "It was crazy. I couldn't even walk in the streets." Despite the horror of the incident, it's perhaps a fitting starting point to the story of a young Algerian man whose music deals with a universal struggle: being stuck between modernity and tradition. "That's who we are, let's say." As we speak on the phone the next day I can hear Istanbul's daily life through the distorted line: children playing, seagulls, the roar of traffic.
Rezoug left Algeria for Turkey at an early age, bouncing between the two countries before attending university in Turkey. "My roommate had a computer with Fruity Loops, that's how I started making music." Encounters with people, radio and the internet brought him to jungle, dubstep and electronic music further fulfilling a thirst to listen to and understand everything he could. As a result Rezoug's compositions embrace both the old—Turkey's Arabesque, a popular music from the 1970s prominent on his debut album, and Algeria's Raï, explored in follow up releases—and the new.
Rezoug's debut album as El Mahdy Jr., The Spirit Of Fucked Up Places, appeared out of nowhere via Portland's Boomarm Nation label. A few months later, it was followed by an appearance on Mala's Deep Medi label for a collaboration with fellow Istanbul producer Gantz. Yet talking to him it's clear that he isn't a man on a mission to become an artist as most desire today. Quite the opposite in fact: he's a man on a mission to understand the world through art, whether or not anyone else hears his ruminations.
"I never wanted to make an album. I just made beats with my friend's computer and collected them." Rezoug dropped out of college and moved back to Algeria, working in a construction company where he would facilitate dialogue for the local Turkish workers. "I travelled to Burkina Faso, always making beats." The music was inspired by daily life, the sort of mundane stuff most people might overlook but which is full of creative potential when your mind is open to it. "That's the feeling I really try to translate in my music." That idea then combined with a curiosity for reproducing the traditional music he was also listening to.
To make sonic sense of electronic beats and devotional North African and Middle Eastern music, Rezoug relied on two key aesthetics: sampling and dub. The power of sampling for him lies in being able to take the essence of something, "steal the spirit of a song." Dub came from his dad's record collection, one of the first things Rezoug listened to as a child. This early discovery of Jamaican music lead him to a lifelong love that on the album manifests via the manipulation of both space and samples. "Dub is the modern side of roots music. So I try to make North African dub music. If dub was born in Algeria or the Middle East, what would it sound like?"
In Burkina Faso, Rezoug discovered Malian music. An internet search later he stumbled across the Sahel Sounds blog, another Portland based label who had done a joint release with Boomarm. After a few emails, Rezoug had found willing ears. "It wasn't the first time I contacted someone about music, but most of my friends hate my music." The rest of the process was fairly painless, with Rezoug and the label culling through three years of work to put together the album in a real collaborative process that involved daily conversations and no sense of distance despite the geographical boundaries. "As long as I have the will to do it, I will, even if I don't release the music."
Istanbul has always been a prime location for the meeting of Occident and Orient, of east and west, a dynamic evident in Rezoug's music. "Right now, with the political situation, it's in your face. It's not about a place though. It's not like coming to Istanbul will show you east and west. It's just everywhere." From the outside looking in, you'd assume that this dynamic would manifest itself in the music and art coming out of the city. "I don't know why but people here who make music try to avoid the east part. It's weird. They try to fly with one wing when they have two. We are east and west. Why not use both?" The piercing sound of a call to prayer interrupts our chat before Rezoug affirms that "you should take from what you have."
One Turkish artist who has tried to articulate the dynamic of the city's unique location and history is Serhat Koksal, known as the multimedia project 2/5BZ. Koksal started work in 1986 and his digital footprint is as psychedelic as the music and art he's produced. "He's the most important, he was the first one to try and do rave stuff here." More recently it's Gantz who gets Rezoug's props, and while he might work within the more traditional confines of dubstep that hasn't stopped the pair working together on further articulating their environment through music.
While Arabesque isn't necessarily accepted by Turkish youth—"they think it's shitty music"—in Algeria, Raï it is still popular with kids. A folk music originating with the Bedouin shepherds of Oran, it still occupies an important place in the culture. "There are no labels in Algeria, they all died after mp3s. People don't go to studios to record anymore, they go to casinos and record live performances and burn them to CD to sell."
That change in the creation of the music has led to the culture mutating into something different, and more elitist. "Only rich people can get into it. Those hotels are expensive, Sheraton, Hilton, and people pay artists to give them shout outs during the show. That then gives them a degree of respectability. It's all fucked up…"
Away from the populism of Raï there are people making hip-hop and electronic music in Algeria but they suffer from challenging conditions. "There are no venues or places for alternative music. It's more a private experience. The society isn't really open, so that's a problem. You have clubs but they are similar to the casinos that play Raï." Inspiration for the local hip-hop scene comes from abroad, via French satellite TV, one of two choices alongside Middle Eastern channels for those who don't want to suffer the single national Algerian channel—"it's shit, no one watches it."
Despite the harsh social conditions in Algeria and Turkey, Rezoug sees little potential for music there to help push forward any radical changes. "There are people with their own ideas, but county wide change I don't believe will happen. I hope but it's not easy." It's hard for him to consider any political value in music when he admits to his own work being much more personal, less intent on striking change and more focused on offering personal experiences.
Rezoug's work is perhaps more pertinent to how originality can manifest itself in a hyper-connected world. "You should listen to everything without any prejudice. But you should never try to do it. Don't copy. Listen and then clear your mind and do what you feel." Acceptance of self is how this self-effacing Algerian managed to connect with a worldwide audience.
While some might obsess about becoming something, he simply translates what he sees and feels, in the process capturing the essence of our modern world with its disappearing geographical boundaries and intensifying cultural distances. "My music is nomadic, like travel. I want to know other continents, other people and understand different cultures. There is a quote that says 'we create you in different nations to know each other.'"
El Mahdy Jr. - Gasba Grime EP is out June 9th on 12" and digital on Danse Noire.
You can follow Laurent Fintoni on Twitter here: @laurent_fintoni