With several number one hits under his belt and a string of Arab superstars knocking at his door, award-winning Egyptian music producer Hassan El Shafei is a music maverick to be reckoned with. And as eniGma’s Daliah Galal finds out, this is just the beginning…
Winner of the Middle East music award for Best Music Producer in 2009 and DG magazine’s award for Best Music Arranger in 2007 and 2009, 28 year-old Hassan El Shafei is on a rocking roll. With memorable number one hits to his name, El Shafei has produced and arranged for Amr Diab, Hossam Habib, Angham, Sherine, Abdel Mejid Abdallah and Nancy Ajram. His unique music productions have quickly gained popularity in the Middle East, Europe and the U.S. And after founding his own record label – The Basement Records – El Shafei now has his sights set on revolutionising the way music in the Middle East is produced; giving big stars a music makeover while paving the way for talented young artists to introduce something fresh into the local market.
El Shafei started playing the piano at the tender age of seven. After constantly getting in trouble for skipping meals to play on his grandmother’s piano, his parents realised he had an unbreakable connection to music. Eventually they had little choice but to support their budding little maestro. And so it was that famed Egyptian pianist Moushira Issa was brought onto the scene, taking the young El Shafei under her wing and coaching him through his formative years.
El Shafei’s obsession with all things music proved so powerful that he spent his entire freshman year at university under the misinformed impression that he was studying computer science when in fact he was enrolled in a business administration degree. As it was, the mix-up proved positive. The computer science course took place on a campus far from home and would never have afforded him as much time to work on his music. So three years later, unwittingly armed with a business degree, he landed his first gig at Cairo’s Mohamed Ali Club where he flouted classical convention and took to the decks under the moniker ‘The Saint’. His electronic mixes caught the attention of Egyptian D.J Khaled Abdel Rahman – resident D.J at Egypt’s hottest club at the time ‘Upstairs’.
The upbeat duo made a formidable team, setting up a mini-recording studio in Abdel Rahman’s offices, making, mixing and experimenting with music to their heart’s content. “I spent all my time composing and producing music and one of my songs, My Ecstasy, turned out to be a huge success,” recalls El Shafei. “Although it was released over 10 years ago, I sometimes still hear people play it!”
Moving onwards and upwards, El Shafie went on to collaborate with production-powerhouse Ahmed Fahmy, forming ‘Global Productions’. It turned out to be the big break he was after. They started out producing jingles for advertisements, but soon Fahmy was introducing El Shafei to some of the region’s top executive pop producers. He suddenly found himself working with the likes of Boushra, Essaf, Amr Moustafa, Hossam Habib, Angham and Nancy Ajram. When Amr Diab gave El Shafei his seal of approval, demanding that they work together, the young maverick’s success was set in stone.
Despite his rise to the top as one of the region’s hottest music producers, El Shafei wanted more. “Growing up, I never used to listen to Arabic music… I’d always make fun of it,” says El Shafei. “And I don’t think I was the only one who was tired of hearing the same melodies, lyrics and music-ideas over and over again, year after year. It was that frustration that motivated me to start my own label.”
After studying advanced music production, recording, mixing and remixing in the U.S, El Shafei took the plunge and his record label The Basement Records was born earlier this year. His objective was to create a full-service label, which is rare in the Arab world. It was to be a workshop of sorts where he’d be responsible for every aspect of the entertainment package, from the star’s look and sound to the marketing. He wanted every detail – from the lyrics to the music videos – to fall under his expertise, ensuring commercial-success and originality. “There’s a lot of competition in this field, and show business is a seriously risky business. You can put hundreds of thousands of pounds into an artist and for whatever reasons, the results just don’t work… especially when you’re introducing something new and different. But unlike the big production companies, I keep my costs down as everything is created, conceptualised and produced in-house. More importantly I’m offering my artists the chance to really be involved in the creative process.”
The moment El Shafei launched The Basement Records, Egyptian superstar Angham signed on. And the release of her high-octane album Mahadesh Yehasebny (Nobody Judge Me) last September immediately generated buzz across the region. The luscious new look and cutting edge high-octane sound was a serious departure for the once traditional star. While most loved it, there were some who took issue with the star’s new direction. Yet El Shafei did what he set out to do… he made an impact. “Everyone involved was so excited to be part of something that was so new, fresh and different,” says El Shafie. And as well as superstars, El Shafei has his sights set on nurturing underground artists and bands to inject the Egyptian music industry with some much-needed alternative rock. “I’m not in it for the money,” says El Shafei. “When I take a risk for something I love and believe in, that’s me living the dream.”