Muhammed El Deeb is not your average rapper. A former banker, he is a poet, and a full time advocate for Arabic hip-hop. Born in Egypt, and raised in Qatar and Dubai, his first rap verse came about because he did his homework. He is a seasoned member of the Egyptian hip-hop scene, having performed with the groups Asfalt and Wighit Nazar before going solo in 2011. Weeks before the Egyptian revolution, he filmed the video for his song "Masrah Deeb" ("Deeb's Stage") in Tahrir Square, urging Egyptian people to "wake up." On January 25, Deeb joined the protests, and performed for the crowds with other artists. Since the revolution, he quit his job to focus on his music full time.
He rejects the label "political rapper," emphasizing that he raps about everyday life and the realities of the Egyptian people. His flow is impeccable, and you don't need to speak Arabic to appreciate his music. Read on for more from Deeb, who makes his US debut this Saturday at Mic Check, and download his 2012 album The Cold Peace below.
What was your first introduction to hip-hop, and when did you start rapping?
The way I got into rapping was very random. When I was in high school, I was asked by my teacher to write a rap verse as part of an assignment for French class. I was so excited doing the assignment that I put a lot of effort into it. Unlike the other students who submitted their verse on paper, I looped a beat using a tape deck and recorded my verse on a TDK cassette and played it to the class. The reaction from my colleagues was overwhelming, and that was when I realized that I had to be doing more of this. I started writing in English since it's my second language and then eventually started writing in Arabic in 2005, which is the year I moved back to Egypt. I was 13, which was around the same time I started listening to hip-hop music.
What was your experience like during the revolution in Tahrir Square in 2011, both as a protester and as a performer?
January 25th, 2011 was my first time joining a mass protest. It felt right to be there in the square alongside millions calling for the collapse of a corrupt regime that stagnated Egypt's development for the past 60 years. I would be a hypocrite if I didn't participate as a protestor, especially due to the fact that I address these issues in my songs. Performing in Tahrir Square was one of the special moments in my life as I got the chance to perform to a diverse audience; many of them [had] never heard hip-hop music. The protesters reacted positively to my music and many approached me after my performance telling me that this is [the] type of music they want to hear in the new Egypt.
How have things changed for you and other Egyptian artists in the past two years?
One of the many advantages of the revolution is the burst of conscious music and the appreciation for it by the average listener. When you experience a revolution, it is very difficult to relate to corny pop love songs, which dominated air waves pre-January 25. Every now and then a new rap song is released on the internet addressing current events in Egypt and the Middle East. People are not afraid to speak up anymore and hip-hop allows that freedom of expression; it has become a tool for the youth to vent its concerns with regards to the future of this country and [a way to] raise awareness with the public.
What music are you listening to these days?
With regards to hip-hop, I only follow and listen to the underground scene because it remains untainted and resilient to the mainstream culture. I'm a big fan of MF Doom, Homeboy Sandman, Talib Kweli, to name a few. I also listen to a lot of roots reggae: Gregory Isaacs, Dennis Brown, other Trojan Records classics. The only Arabic music I listen to is either Arabic hip-hop or old school legends like Abd El Haleem Hafez, Fairouz, and Fareed El Atrash. I don't relate to a lot of the new music on the scene as it tends to be commercial and shallow.
This will be your first time performing in the US. What are you looking forward to about this trip to Brooklyn?
I'm looking forward to performing in the US for the first time and what a place to start than New York, the birthplace of hip-hop. Taking it back to where it all started. I know a lot about Brooklyn before even visiting the place thanks to hip-hop music. I grew up listening to Nas who is a proud Brooklyn native. I want to visit all the landmarks, the Brooklyn Bridge, take the subway around the city and go to as many jazz bars as possible as I'm a big fan of jazz music. Trying the food there is another thing I will be looking forward to, so I will be scouting for some good restaurants.
Stream and download Deeb's album The Cold Peace:
Deeb will perform with Amkoullel, El Général, and Shadia Mansour at Mic Check on Saturday, March 9, 7:30pm at the BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, and participate in an artist talk about hip-hop and political change on Thursday, March 7, 7pm at BAM Fisher.