Rapper, producer, TV personality and owner of a vast collection of hats – Qusai is a man with plenty on his plate. The Saudi hip-hop artist – the first from the Kingdom – is a veteran and pioneer of the Middle Eastern hip-hop game and has just released a new mix-tape and has an LP set for release in 2015. Yes, the man they call Don Legend the Kamelion is a busy man, but we caught up with him in Cairo to talk about the state of Arab hip-hop, Arabs Got Talent and a very possible collaboration with music legend.
Tell us about your new mix-tape, FDL.
FDL stands for Featuring Don Legend and you’ll notice that on every single song on the mix-tape, I have someone featuring with me, especially young talents from the Arab world – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Syria, etc. Some of them approached me about working together and I took it as an opportunity to collaborate with them.
FDL is all about hip-hop, real hip-hop, but it’s also very experimental and expressive. I’m a music lover, before I am a hip-hop artist. These songs have been recorded over the course of many years, and I decided to release it for free – it’s something for the fans, because the fans have been waiting for an album, and they’ll get one, hopefully this year.
You’ve been in the music business for 15 years – what has changed in the industry during that time?
Everything has changed – for better and for worse. Take the internet for example. The internet has opened opportunities for people to expand and to showcase their talents, whether it’s original, creative, niche or just BS. Connecting artists from all over the world on social media is amazing, but the downfall, however, is piracy. Artists are not making money from record sales like they used to, because their songs are available on the internet to download.
If you are true fan, you know what you need to do. You need to support that artist by buying his or her records. Start purchasing the songs on the internet, don’t download it for free. It’s as simple as that. Music has become a weapon of sharing, and everyone is sharing. That’s why artists are trying to be smart, and trying to find other outlets to make money, because music just doesn’t make you money like it used to back in the day. Where are the copyright laws in the Middle East? We need that. They’re still building it. I think the first country to do that is the UAE. Emirates is trying to build a congress of copyrights like the one in the States, so they can protect the intellectual properties of any artist – to protect your creativity. The mentality in the Arab world is still somehow old school. That’s why we hope that the next generations can protect their work. It’s stealing, straight up. You feel great when you’re downloading stuff from the internet, but imagine yourself as an artist and somebody is stealing your hard work – how would you feel? People need to think like that.
Hip-hop, more than most music genres, is shaped by the culture it emerges from – is that the case with Arab hip-hop? Does it have its own characteristics? What are they?
Well, the number one subject when it comes to Arab hip-hop is salaam (peace). Every single Arabic hip-hop artist talks about it because this is our reality the Middle East. We’re still building the industry and its tough because you’re introducing it to people that don’t understand this art, or hate it because of its misrepresentation in the media. They think you’re trying to be Eminem or Jay Z.
With that in mind, then, do you see potential for Arab rappers to make it big, or are they constrained by the culture?
I see potential for Arab rappers all the way! But our biggest obstacle is that we don’t have many outlets. We build these outlets on our own. We build our fan base and sooner or later the industry is going notice, because we’re money-making machines. I tell new artists to be smart; don’t have that “keeping it real” mentality the whole time. You’re not going to grow up with that mentality; keep it real in your art, and to yourself, but when you’re in the industry, you’ve got to be smart and play the game, otherwise people are going take advantage of you.
Alright, let’s do some shameless name-dropping. You’ve worked with the likes of Ludacris and Akon – tell us more about the experience.
I like Akon, he’s a very good artist. But I’m a big fan of Luda and met him when he first started back in 1999/2000 in Florida and then I met him again in 2007 in Dubai, and we did a show together. It’s a great experience to be around artists that you’ve been inspired by, and an even greater pleasure when they recognise your work.
Nice – but who would be your dream collaborator(s)?
I’m currently in talks with Lionel Richie – I’m a huge fan and it’s a funny story. I remixed a song of his a long time ago and a friend of mine heard it; this friend said that he knows someone who knows someone who knows Lionel, and last year the song reached him and he apparently said “I want to meet this guy.”
He invited me to one of his concerts and we sat down and spoke – it was a dream come true. He’s the sweetest, most humble person. For him to spend time with me and speak to me about my background and where I’m from was huge for me. So, yeah – there is a possible collaboration between me and Lionel. I’m an eighties kid, so I grew up listening to his music and he and the likes of Michael Jackson played a huge part in my life. We’re just waiting for the right time.
I’d love to work with Chab Khaled, too, and if I had to pick another foreign artist, I would definitely like to work with Sade. I fell in love with her music, because it’s feel-good baby-making music! Her voice is so unique.
Yeah Sade is pretty cool – my editor occasionally and randomly starts singing By Your Side in our office. Anyway, we can’t not talk about Arabs Got Talent – who impressed you in the last season?
My personal favourite is Salah the Entertainer. I bet on him from the beginning, when I first saw him and said that he'd make it all the way to the final. I also like Yasmina for two reasons; firstly, her talent is raw and unique. We don’t have these kinds of artists anymore from – young artists who understand the classics. Secondly, all the constructive criticism that she has received has made her stronger and put more attention on her.
I feel that season four is the strongest so far and a lot of people agree. I mean, we’ve been doing it for four seasons, so the team has got used to each other in a beautiful way. When it comes to the talent, season one was the real challenge because despite there being so much talent in the Middle East, we’re afraid to express ourselves – we’re afraid of being judged. But the show is a unique outlet and when people saw the success of season one, season two was even stronger. Season three was good, but to me it wasn’t all that. What helped season three is the presence of Ahmed Helmy. He came in and definitely gave the show a boost.
Speaking of AGT, people went nuts for the song you performed, Omm El Donya. Were you surprised by such a positive reaction?
There are certain things in life that touch you; that you have an unexplainable love and passion for. Egypt has held a special place in my heart, ever since I was a kid. I have lots of childhood memories here with my grandparents, and I’ve had a lot of Egyptian friends since I was young. I mean, we’re talking about Egypt –the Middle East’s Hollywood! That’s something I’ve always said to people, and I’ll keep on saying it.
There’s been a theme with my work. My very first single, The Wedding, represented where I’m from, El-Hegaz. The second one was the The Job, iwhich had a Khaliji flavour which represented the Gulf area, while the third, Yalla, had a Lebanese touch.
I just felt it was time to make a song about Egypt. I wanted to rap in the Egyptian accent, so I sat down with a good friend of mine, MC Amin, and asked him to convert my verse into an Egyptian accent. Initially, I wanted it to be shaabi, but the guys from the Arab League Allstars insisted that the trend now is Mahrganat – so I went to two of the pioneers of the genre, Alaa Fifty and Sadaat. They showed nothing but love and respect from the beginning and it turned out to be a very fruitful experience. We reached one million views within a month – it was just amazing.
What's your advice for up-and-coming Arab rappers?
Never give up. Be creative. Be original. Your opportunity will come one day, but you can’t just wait for it – go get it, because it really is true that if you build it, they’ll come. But if you’re in it just for the money and the fame, then good luck buddy! You’ll either fail, or you’ll sell out. The industry is going to treat you like a puppet, but if you stay true to your heart, money and success will follow.
Wise words. So what does the rest of 2015 hold for Qusai?
There are a lot of things lined up and we’re trying to capitalise on Omm El Donya. I’m happy, and I’m feeling good. Egypt has always shown me nothing but love, both as a hip-hop artist and as a host on AGT. I’m looking to finish my album and I’ve looked at doing some acting, too. I worked hard in 2014 so that 2015 can be a big year.
By Mahmoud Hussein