By Mostafa Ismail
Rapper, TV presenter, and music producer Qusai is the Saudi music sensation that has captivated Arab and Western audiences alike for years. His most recent song, Um El Donia, features electro-cha’bi stars Sadat and Fifty, bringing his unique musical style to a wider Egyptian audience.
Known as the host of music shows like MTV Arabia’s 2007 hit show Hip Hop Na, and MBC4‘s Arabs Got Talent, Qusai aka Don Legend the Kamelion started his musical career at a very young age. As one of the first DJs in Saudi Arabia, Qusai traveled to the US to pursue his education where he mingled with producers, musicians, and rappers from around the world. While in the US, Qusai established his musical style, which blends oriental beats and melodies with western sounds.
In 2002, he co-founded Eyesomnia Productions – a music label that produces hip-hop and R&B records, and later collaborated with Ludacris, Akon, and Karl Wolf, among others. Today, Qusai is one of the most famous hip-hop artists in the Arab world and is considered one of the leaders of the hip-hop movement in the Middle East.
Community Times sat down with Qusai to ask him about his life, music, and career.
Your passion for music started when you were very young. How did you discover that passion? What inspired it? What was your drive back then, and what was your relationship to hip-hop?
Ever since I was a kid, I was into entertainment. I love entertainment, and that is how I learned English – I was speaking words before I knew what they meant. Later on I got really involved with music. Hip-hop was born in the late 70s, and it really started to build up in the US in the 80s; by the late 80s-early 90s, hip-hop had spread worldwide. This was around my time since I was born in the 70s and grew up listening to all kinds of music in the 80s, including hip-hop. It all struck me when I was listening to LL Cool J’s song Mama Said Knock You Out. I was drawn to that kind of music and found myself listening to all these hip hop artists, from the 90s native tongue movement, to gangster rap, to Tupac, Dre, Snoop, Wu-tang, Biggie, etc. I was also a DJ and I loved to spin all kinds of music, but I loved playing hip-hop more than anything else. When I bought some equipment, I moved from just playing music as a DJ to composing my own music.
Later on, the pen and the paper came along, and I started writing, especially after I listened to a lot of Tupac. Tupac truly inspired me to write and rap. That was basically my beginning – my drive all along was my passion towards what I love to listen to, and that inspired me to do what I do; I am inspired by many things – real life scenarios, people I meet, or even people I look up to.
You were DJ at age 15–16. What was it like to be a DJ in a closed country like Saudi Arabia?
I was one of the very first DJs in Saudi Arabia – this whole movement started in 1992. I started in ‘93, and of course there were no outlets. People played at private parties or at the beach. My mom saw how attached I was to music, so she surprised me with one piece of equipment after another on my birthdays and other occasions. I connected these machines together and began to spin. A friend of mine – the one who gave me the name Don Legend – was the judge. We started this whole thing together in ‘93 and continued to spin until ‘96, when I went to the United States to pursue my education.
So your mom was really supportive of your music?
My mom was a major, major support to me when I was a little kid. I was a good kid. I wasn’t really a troublemaker – but when I was I was slick about it and I rarely got caught. I was also a really good student, and I never caused my parents any huge problems. Thankfully, unlike other parents, my parents didn’t limit me.
I know a lot of people ended up being with the wrong people or getting into drugs or basically doing nothing at all because their parents boxed them in. I thank God my parents were supportive and understood me. I had two outlets: music and sports, and at a certain point in high school, I was pretty good at both. I used to play basketball, volleyball, football and I swam. One day, my football coach told me that the Saudi Ettihad Youth team wanted me to join them. He said: “Qusai, we know that you’re into music and girls, but this path will not allow you to be a sportsman; you have to choose.”
You can tell what my choice was, obviously. I’m glad that this is how turned out, and this is thanks to my mom’s support.
Why did you choose music over sports?
I was blindly in love with music. It gave me a feeling that I used to get when I played sports, like when I had a good game, or scored a goal even though I played a defensive position, and everyone was cheering me on. That feeling of victory is beautiful in sports. But it didn’t really fit my soul. Sports did not move me or quench my thirst like music did. I was really into writing and composing and making music, so I chose music. To this day, I play sports, but now I play to stay in shape. But music is my reality.
The hip-hop scene in the Middle East is growing, partially thanks to the Internet. As one of the leaders of the movement, how do you think hip-hop has changed?
It has changed drastically. First of all, the Internet connected us. I have gotten to know Arab hip-hop artists from all over the world, starting from here in the Middle East and now that we are connected, we get together and collaborate. There are a lot of artists whose only outlet is the Internet, and because of my experience, I can tell the fake from the original. When I started, it was just Facebook, but now we have all these other outlets and anybody can be a star.
The disadvantage of the Internet is that it kills the hustle of being an artist. People are becoming digital slaves; they are losing the essence of their social life. You have to get out, hustle the streets, gather, let people see you; you have to sell your product yourself instead of being an Internet super star. Some people had their break on the Internet because they delivered something amazing and creative, or they managed to entertain people, no matter how silly their content was.
Who do you think stands out in the Egyptian or Arab world hip-hop / rap scene?
The people I work with: Arab League, the Arabian Knightz, and of course MC Amin. I met Amin in 2006 when he first started doing his thing. He had already been building a fan-base, and he took advantage of that.
Tell me about your experience with Hip Hop Na.
Thank God for the opportunity I had with Hip Hop Na in 2007 with MTV Arabia. They approached Fredwreck, who is a music producer from the West Coast that represented the commercial scene, and myself – an underground artist from the south. We were both Arabs living in the US; we got together and did the show and it was successful. Through the show, we met a lot of amazing talent and they got to know us. We met people we wanted to work with; the others, we just wished them well.
Do you prefer rapping in Arabic or English?
I prefer rapping in English because when I first started in the early ‘90s there was no Arabic rap. There probably were Arabic rappers out there, but none of us were connected – we did not know who was rapping in Jordan or Syria or Lebanon, it was only later that we got to know each other. Since I was in the US, I learned about Arabic rap from the Internet.
When I was in the US, I wanted to be different, so I used Arabic to influence my music. I started talking about Arab issues, putting some Arabic melodies and using some Arabic words or Arabic lines. When I came back here, there was a strong Arabic rap scene and I met a lot of Arabic rappers, that’s when I started to rap in Arabic. I love my language and appreciate it yet I’m more comfortable in English because I started with it. Still, I enjoy rapping in Arabic – it’s beautiful, especially fussha; the mix tape that I released recently has two songs where I rap fully in Arabic.
Your new song Um El Donia features Egyptian cha’bi or mahraganat musicians Sadat and Fifty. What inspired you to work with them and why did you choose to blend this specific style with hip-hop?
The short answer is Arab League. I spoke to Arab League and told them that I was working on an Egyptian song called Um el Donia, and I asked them if they could help me find someone to sing the chorus in cha’bi. They introduced me to mahraganat music and told me that it was a new musical style in Cairo that was doing well. Although I was leaning towards cha’bi, when I heard mahraganat I was attracted to the sound, so I said yes. They suggested HaHa, Fifty and Sadat, so I met with them and we connected. I believe it was a success – we got one million views in one month without the help of the media.
What would you say is the most challenging thing about being a hip-hop artist in the Middle East?
The Middle East itself is the biggest challenge. Before we start, let’s take Saudi Arabia out of the picture because it’s considered a very conservative country; I respect my country and I understand that they have their reasons.
But let’s talk about the Arab world. Hip-hop is a form of art. It is music and music is a universal language. And even though this art came to us from America, it is related to our culture because of the beats and the poetry. The Arabs are the kings of poetry. So it was a meant-to-be connection, but where are the outlets? We [artists] create our own outlets through the very few event organizers or booking agencies or networks. Very few actually appreciate the art for what it is; major organizers may see the talent that we have in this genre, but still decide to throw big concerts with big names like Fifty-Cent and don’t even consider letting a local artist open the show. This is what I despise about the Middle East. But we’re not going to sit around and do nothing, we’re going to create our own outlets.
What’s the most bizarre thing that ever happened to you on stage?
I thank God that all of my shows have been good. However there are always going to be issues with the quality of the sound or the promotions. In the end, though, it is all about the performance, if you put on a good show, people are happy. But when you do a bunch of shows, there’s always that one that ruins everything.
This happened to me last week in Dubai – my favorite city in the world (I’m being sarcastic).
The venue was D3 (Dubai Design District), which is a great stage. The organizers did a horrible job of managing time and there were some politics involved that I didn’t like, but my manager had to deal with that. One of the performers was late so they kept changing the times. Since I was the last act, they cut down my set while I was on stage, which was not cool. I had prepared a 20 to 25 minute set, closing with Um el Donia, but when I’d finished my third song, my manager told me that I only had five minutes left and thar I should just do my last song. Long story short, it was the stage manager who intervened to stop the show and the moment I saw him on stage, I started the song. I am a very humble person but when it comes to my music, there is another side to Qusai that I myself don’t like. Everyone on stage saw it, I was about to turn into a hawk. I saw my stage manager and asked him to get me out of there before I hurt somebody. I saw some organizers coming my way and told them to stay away. That was it.
What advice would you give to young hip-hop artists?
Be yourself, be original, be creative, don’t imitate, don’t hate – that’s my advice. And last but not least, if you really love what you do and you want to do what you love, don’t give up, because it won’t be an easy journey, especially here in the Middle East. If you’re in it for the wrong reasons, then you’re taking the easy way, you know what I am saying?
Who is your favorite musician?
Michael Jackson: the King. If it weren’t for Michael Jackson, I probably wouldn’t be the entertainer and the performer that I am today. I learned a lot from him. I was three years old the first time I danced to Off the Wall. I spun, flipped and fell down and broke my arm. My mom took a picture of my broken arm.
However there are a lot of great musicians in the world: Prince, Ray Charles, Bill Weathers, Lenny Kravitz, Sting, Phil Collins, etc., and I’m not even going to mention hip-hop. I am a music lover, but when it comes to hip-hop, I have a long list of people who inspired me to become the rapper that I am.
Can you tell us a little about your creative process?
I wake up in the morning everyday and see where each day will take me. Like I always say, life is the biggest teacher and in life you learn something everyday; you want to talk about the things that make you feel good, make you feel bad, the things you love, a break-up, war, peace. That’s what inspires people to write: life itself or anything life has to offer.
Back when I started, I had to depend on myself to produce a song. Right now, my sense of responsibility and where I stand has grown, and I realize that everything I do requires my undivided attention. Through my journey in hip-hop I got to meet a lot of amazing producers who want to collaborate, which makes my job a lot easier. Right now, I can be the Dr. Dre: back in the day, he used to sit down and produce on his own. Now, he has a bunch of producers and he orchestrates. That’s where I stand right now. I work with so many producers, so many artists, and we get together and we create. Creation doesn’t have any limitations and it’s an inspiration from God. It can happen while I am talking to you, and if I don’t have a pen and a paper, I write it on my phone.
What is your favorite quote?
I always say: “Love what you do and do what you love,” and I stick to that.
I know a lot of people who are gifted or talented but didn’t get an opportunity to get a job doing what they love, so they got another job to make a living.
But I say, to make it easier for you, just love what you do and do what you love. And if God blessed you with a gift where you can be your own nine to five, you have a bigger responsibility than getting a regular job with a paycheck at the end of the month.