Saudi Arabia’s first and favourite rap artist, Qusai Kheder (AKA Don Legend the Kamelion), has just dropped a new single off the Bassline EP he and Egypt’s SFNX have been collaborating on. We sat down with the hip-hop artist and TV personality to talk about his inspiration, cross-medium success and why he just can’t get enough of Egypt.
Your latest EP, Gone, is part of Bassline – a project you are working on with SFNX; how did that come together?
Me and SFNX have known each other since 2007, when I was hosting MTV Arabia’s Hip Hop Na, and we established this friendship – every time I came to Egypt, we were always in contact. When I released Umm El Dunyia in 2015, I was spending more time in Egypt and with SFNX, and we realised we both like the same music– soul, old-school, funk and all that –so we decided to work on a song or two. We did All the Way and then Gone then we decided to continue and released five different songs into an EP, and each song is an era of music – 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, 00’s.
Why did you decide to have every song represent an era?
When we worked on Gone and All the Way, we realised Gone had this 80’s sound and All the Way had the sound of the 90’s. Then I had a song that had trap-hop, and one that had a 70’s feel; so one thing led to another and I was like, ‘hey, let’s do that’.
What was it like collaborating with SFNX?
He was getting away from whatever he was getting away from in his life [in California], and he came to Cairo and stayed out here for a month, and in that month’s stay we were like, ‘why not make some music?’ Making music was just natural – we progressed from one song, to two, to three, four to five; we had a five-song EP ready to release.
Did you have a specific inspiration for any of the songs?
Life experiences; you can read in-between the lines in some of the songs. Also, music itself, because we are hip-hop heads – that’s why Bassline became what it is.
The lyrics from Gone sound like they were inspired by a very personal experience; did it help you to write about it?
Absolutely, yeah, and I had fun with it. It’s an outlet for frustrations.
Are there any other things you do that have the same effect?
Sports. SFNX has transformed the past year- he lost 25kgs! I like MMA (Mixed Martial Arts), swimming and basketball. Ever since I was a little kid, I was always into sports and music, until I reached high school and had to make a decision on what I wanted to pursue.
CG's Salma Thanatos Rixk cracks a joke or two with SFNX (L) and Qusai (R)
Your last release, Umm El Dunyia, was a heartfelt tribute to Egypt; why is it that this country is so dear to your heart and how do you identify with its people and culture?
I look at myself as an Arab and, ever since I was a little kid, I always used to come to Egypt. My grandfather, God rest his soul, used to have a house in Maadi and I used to go there all the time. I just love the Egyptian people, the Egyptian spirit...
What is your favourite thing to do in Egypt?
Chillin’ with the boys! First music, then after that let’s just go out and have fun.
Where do you like to go and have fun?
Sometimes we like to go kick-it in Gouna. We like Cairo Jazz [Club], The Tap and other small places.
How is it different from your hometown in Saudi [Arabia]?
It’s totally different and similar at the same time. The Red Sea is the only thing that separates us; otherwise, we are the Middle East.
Typically, American hip hop gets its drive and soul from the plight and story of African-Americans – where does Middle Eastern hip hop derive its nuances?
Pretty much the same thing; struggles in life, like Palestine and the war in Iraq, or the revolution that was happening in Egypt and Tunisia. The people that are rapping are rapping about the problems that they have, which is how we started. We decided to get out of the box and have fun with this album and get out of that one-dimensional reality that it has to be about struggle – we’re not specifically talking about the political and social problems we usually rap about. We got out of that shell and talked about everything – we brag on the album, talk about women, love and reality. We got to show a different side of ourselves.
You’ve mentioned that when it comes to the industry, artists have got to ‘play the game’ to make it; how would you say doing so helped you achieve so much success?
If you’re an artist and want to go with the ‘keeping it real’ mentality, you’re not going to go that far – you’re holding onto a certain genre and boxing yourself in. Music is like an ocean and if you want to swim around the ocean you’ve got to go to every area, otherwise you’re not going to go anywhere and the industry is not going to know anything about you. So my mentality is to keep it smart. Be diverse with your music.
When was a time you felt you were being pushed outside your comfort zone?
I always have. At the beginning of my career, I had something to say – I had a message to deliver and I feel like I delivered it. As I’m growing, I’m appreciating it even more.
You started DJing at the very young age of 15; when was it you feel you got your big break?
When I did the fist hip-hop show in the Middle East, Hip Hop Na [at age 29]. That was an amazing journey and opened another bigger door when Platinum noticed me as an artist.
How did you get people in the industry to take you serious at such a young age?
Content and approach – simple as that. If you’re good with your music and a good businessman with manners and a certain approach, people are going to know and respect you. You can’t have one without the other; you can’t have manners, and people like to talk to you, but have no talent; you can definitely have talent but you can be an a**hole.
What does the alias Don Legend the Kamelion mean to you?
I had that back in the 90’s. A close friend of mine – his name was The Judge – told me that I was an outcast and telling people it’s what I was going to do when I grew up. And he said if I managed to do that, I was going to be a legend. So I was like, ‘legend... that’s great’, and I was infatuated with the Godfather movies, so I took the ‘Don’ and made it ‘Don Legend’.
The ‘Kamelion’, is from one of my ex-girlfriend’s. When I was in the States, she got to know me by hanging out with me and she saw me interacting and working with all kinds of people – rich, poor, black, white –so she’s like, ‘you’re like a chameleon’, and I thought, ‘DJ Kamelion- Don Legend the Kamelion’, and that’s how it came out.
Was there ever a time where it was getting hard and you felt like you couldn’t ‘do this’ anymore?
Many times. You reach a point where you doubt yourself and think about quitting, but no one’s going to convince you otherwise but you.
How did you pull yourself away from those feelings?
One of the most important things is having the right positive people around you that believe in you.
Do you have any other projects on the horizon? I hear that you would like to dabble in acting....
I’m actually working on something right now! That’s the reason I’m here in Egypt – working on a big, big project and on September 23rd the word is going to be out!
By Salma Thanatos Rizk