In Cairo, the capital of Egypt, there is no escaping the street music style known as mahraganat.The genre (which means "festivals" in Arabic) first emerged from poor districts of the city—a sprawling metropolis home to 20.4 million people—in the years leading up to the country's 2011 revolution. Mahraganat (also sometimes called "electro chaabi") has since become embedded in urban Egyptian culture—a crazed, computer-produced mish-mash of booming local rhythms and Auto-Tuned raps, which drives many Egyptians crazy and earns sneers from some local musicians but nevertheless offers a platform for joyful street wedding celebrations, dirty new slang terms, acrobatic breakdancing and faux-hawk hairstyles.
One of the key figures behind mahraganat is Mahmoud Refat. Founder of the Cairo record label 100Copies, he's not exactly a shaabi (or "popular") dude in the way some mahraganat artists are—his roots come from heavy metal and experimental electronic music. But he saw the potential of mahraganat as far back as 2011 and 2012, and in recent years he's worked closely with local artists like Sadat, Islam Chipsy and Filo, acting as a producer, sound engineer and occasional performer while booking them shows overseas and promoting mahraganat to a global audience. In recent years, Sadat as well as Chipsy and his band EEK have played numerous clubs and festivals in Europe and the UK, while in 2014, 100Copies and the British Council teamed up with legendary UK radio station Rinse FM for a project called Cairo Calling that featured collaborations from Kode9, Artwork, Faze Miyake and others.
On a recent Sunday, we sat down with Refat at his offices in downtown Cairo to discuss some of his favorite tracks he's worked on in recent years. He makes clear that he's found a lot of financial success from the genre. Though 100Copies originated with an underground focus (the name comes from his strategy of only printing 100 CD copies of each album he'd put out), last year the company moved from a second-floor office and studio space in downtown Cairo to their swank new headquarters near Tahrir Square. Their 10th-floor office overlooks the city, and houses an acoustically treated studio space with a sound library full of hundreds of live drum breaks recorded by 100Copies and used in many of their productions.
These days he remains a tireless advocate of the music, quick to compare the mahraganat artists he works with to older Egyptian artists like the beloved singer Oum Kalthoum. "Oum Kalthoum is [someone] who I have a lot of respect [for], we all do. But the music of the people is happening from mahraganat," he says. "The fashion, the lyrics, the words! The language! The development of the language—the street language. The signs. The body language. The choreography. The attitude. The culture. The way you walk from here to there. The way you set up a party. The way you build a house. This is all related to mahraganat." Below, he tells us the story behind six of the crucial mahraganat tracks he's worked on, and the secrets to making a successful mahraganat production.
1. Hysa, Halabessa and Sweasy - "Hitta Minni"
"We introduced this culture of having live drums to mahraganat—live music elements. We made a library [of live drum samples] and this library is used by every single producer for the last two years. We introduced this track to the scene with pleasure. It became very popular, very popular. We introduced the slow rhythm to the scene. This was the first time we introduced the live drum sampling, in this track.
The beat is the core of the track. The beat has to be the track. If the beat is good, then you can put anything else on top of it—that's fine. If the beat is done well, it's 50 percent successful—khalaas, finished! [dusts off his hands] Then after that, in mahraganat, you need to look for the body and power and push. You need to make it always louder and stronger. That's the goal. When you play it live or when you post-produce it, finalize the track, you need to make it stronger, always. That's why we all sit in the studio. There's no other reason."
2. Sadat and Alaa Fifty - "Hooga"
"The rhyme in it, it's very different. It's just different. The dirtier, the crazier you get, the better. As if you're threatening someone almost. You always hear this in the room: "It has to be dirtier. It has to be much more dangerous. You have to do it like that. You have to scream like that or say it like that." The scarier you are as a character, in the way you talk, the better you are on the mic."
3. Hysa and Halabessa - "T3arif""Part of [the Auto-Tune] is for them to be in tune with the track, and the other part is the character of the mahraganat. It's very much related to the Auto-Tune. It's used for both. You need them equally—like 50 percent for the character and 50 percent in order to sound correct. It also gives a brightness, a certain brightness to the voice. It makes you sound nice. It's clean. It looks good, but not in a weak way. Not because they are ashamed of the fact that they are not proper educated singers or anything. It's related to the wedding parties, to the ceremonies, and happiness and joy."
4. Ahmed El-Sweasy - "Aznabto Ya Rabbi"
"There's this style that he does too. Not only mahraganat. I will play mahraganat stuff for you too but there's this side-project that we do. He's a very good singer. Sweasy is the new rock star. I invited his previous band to produce a track for the studio, and then he was there. He was not very comfortable with them. You hear this guy? Jesus. And he's very streetwise."
5. Islam Chipsy and EEK - "Kahraba"
"Chipsy is the king of keyboard. He's the best keyboard player, ever. I heard of him through someone and then I checked him online. I liked what he does very much. There was a wedding of a good friend of mine and she told me, "Oh, what should I do?" I told her, "You should get this guy in your wedding, playing live." She had a nice wedding party a bit outside of Cairo, in a nice villa. And then he was there, and I was very drunk, and I went to him and said, "Chipsy, you're great and we will do big things together. Trust me." And he said, "Yeah, yeah, of course. Good night. Enjoy yourself." And then he left and I left and then I called him and said, "Remember me?" [Refat now manages Chipsy and plays drums with EEK.]"
6. Filo - "El Slek Lammes"
"How can I say this in a polite way? Fuck the elite culture. It cannot just decide what's experimental or what's new or what's different. The youth culture is much more important for me. If we don't work for this, there's no future basically. You don't have a future if you don't see the good things coming from your culture, from very deep. I don't care how the West or how the elite culture thinks about new music or "good" music or respect in art or all these issues about music, or what is mainstream or what is not mainstream. We have this room and we have the other room. [Gestures at his studio and his office across the hall.] We come here and we do what we do. It happens to be successful and I'm very happy. It happens that we make a lot of money out of it; I'm very happy. It happens we have a real estate company putting up a festival, or a beer company paying money [to produce our music videos], but I still work with these kids. I don't change. That's the source. And that's really what's deep inside. If I don't have an influence or an impact in the culture where I function, or where I live, why do it at all?"