With everyone raving about the Student DJ Program, and after the massive success of RedBeats last year, we catch up with Electrum Records founders Hany Sadek and Nadia AbouTaleb to trace the story so far...
Founded in 2008 by Nadia AbouTaleb and DJs Ahmed Fahmy and Hany “Samba” Sadek, Electrum Records was the first dedicated EDM record label in Egypt. That's back when the DJ scene pretty much consisted of a handful of DJs. Fast forward five years, and there's now a huge community of deck-dazzlers playing at an international level around the country and beyond and, for the most part, that’s thanks to Electrum Records. With the aim of grooming Egyptian talent and providing a platform for original productions, they quickly diversified into organising large scale events, highlighting their artists, as well as adding some much needed variety to Egyptian nightlife. Last year, they combined both event throwing and talent scouting into the first competition of its kind, RedBeats, putting the spotlight on amateur talent and turning out some of the best-loved DJs on the scene today. This year, they took things to a whole new level with their much-raved-about Student DJ Program which received 400 applicants and sees hundreds of music-lovers head to see the finalists go head-to-head every week. We spoke to two of Electrum Records’ founders, Nadia and Samba, to find out how it all began, how Electrum has transformed the music scene in Egypt, and their hopes for the future, before we get some exclusive information on the Student DJ Program final…
So how did Electrum Records come about?
Samba:It started in 2008. Basically, when me and Fahmy started producing together and we were about to release our first track, it was a big struggle. We thought about it, and realised that Egyptian artists have no platform to release their music on, unless they keep sending demos abroad and, if you’re not recognized, then 90% of the time they never answer you. So we decided we’re going to start an electronic music label, essentially to help the local artists release their music internationally. But then we found out that, with the amount of production that we were getting, we cannot really sign a direct distribution deal because you need a certain volume to be able to cut that kind of deal. This is when we decided that we have to hold the release part and we work as a sub-label for a label in the UK for a while. While we did that, we worked on developing the scene more and more so we can get enough music out to be able to sign a direct distribution deal. That’s what we’ve been doing ever since and this year we finally signed a direct distribution deal and we’ll be on BeatPort and iTunes.
Nadia: This was the start. Then we realised that this is not going to make the money, and we need money to invest in the new artists and productions so began doing events to compliment the label. We realised that this kind of thing could go hand-in-hand with the record label when we saw the great impact our release party for Streets of Cairo, the first track on Electrum Records.
Aren’t you worried now that Electrum Records becomes known more for its events than for its music?
Nadia: That’s why we combine events with the label’s work. The events, now, aren’t just generating money but also generating artists and productions. So this is where we combine them together, with RedBeats and now the Student DJ Program.
How did the idea for RedBeats come about?
Samba: Like I said, our objective was always to have more artists and productions and, as you know ,the DJ scene two years ago was made up of about three or four DJS and of course it wasn’t enough to run a label on. So we needed more artists and we thought about it. What did they need? What was lacking? And it was just a platform where they can show their talent and be introduced to the crowd and this is where the whole idea came from. So RedBeats became that platform for new talents to be discovered and from there we can take their music and help us create better industry with more artists to benefit the scene as a whole.
How did you trust that you would indeed find talent, given that there were only a handful of DJs around?
Samba: Actually back in the day, we had one artist, Misty, that we used as an experiment! It was 2009 and we introduced him, released his track and set up his gigs and it worked great. From that experience, we were sure that there’d be a lot more talent out there just waiting for that push. That’s when we started working on RedBeats and we were right! There was an incredible amount of talent and we were even more surprised this year. There’s even more talent.
How many applicants did you have for RedBeats and how many for the Student DJ Program?
Nadia: We didn’t have the same process for RedBeats. We more or less knew the finalists, or we had heard their work. These were budding young DJs who had sent us demos and emails about how they wanted gigs and be involved in the music scene. This year we had around 400 applicants. We interviewed about 80, picked 30 to go to the bootcamp and then 12 for the competition.
Samba: Last year’s competition was made up mostly of people who already knew how to DJ but never had the chance. This year, we prioritised people who knew how to produce but not DJ, digital DJs that wanted to mix a proper set on decks and then people who were really into music but had no experience at all.
And out of those, on what criteria did you choose the final 12?
Nadia: It’s the same criteria they’re being judged with now at the knock-out rounds. Part of it is, of course, music, and then performance, charisma, popularity, communication skills, everything. A DJ isn’t just a person who plays music. It takes much more than that. So we’re trying to combine all the elements that make up a good DJ and judge them through it.
Did anyone get through this year who didn’t know how to mix at all?
Nadia: Yeah we have people in the final 12 who produced but had never mixed. And we had four who didn’t know the first thing about DJing, and they learnt from scratch at bootcamp.
What’s been the most awkward situation in dealing with the Student DJs?
Samba: Choosing 12 out of 30 after bootcamp… We were about to cry, man! We wanted to have them all in the competition they were all great and really motivated !
Did anyone cry?
Samba: We didn’t want to tell them in Gouna (where bootcamp was). We had made our decisions but couldn’t bare telling them to their faces. We didn’t want to ruin the trip for them. We wanted them to go back to Cairo with hope!
So, have you made any enemies?
Samba: I hope not! We only had one case of a sore loser this year. It’s not a big problem because he wasn’t qualified for the semifinals anyway, but he went and wrote on Facebook about how he’s no longer part of the DJ Student Program and how terrible we were. It’s a shame because he had lots of potential. He was one of the best DJs, but when it came to his final assessment he messed up.
Don’t you think you feel like you might have your own bias based on music style?
Nadia: No, but we’re a House music label, so we’re not going to go for an R&B artist. But this year, for example, we have DJs who are playing Electro music and you know there is no scene for Electro music in Egypt, so it’s not about the music that we like, it’s about what they like. If they like what they do and they do it right then they do have a chance, definitely!
How can you teach someone who’s great technically and knows their music but they haven’t got the charisma?
Samba: Part of bootcamp was to teach them how to perform on stage and how to act and deal with the crowd but, believe me, the fear factor is always there! So we try to teach them small things that’ll make them more comfortable playing. Things like the position of headphones. It sounds like something pointless, but the way you wear them can either make you very comfortable or have you panic. At the end of the day, it is all about practice.
What is one of the most common mistakes you came across?
Samba: They always mess it up when it comes to starting or ending the set. They panic at the beginning or when they’re doing great and you ask them to finish, they mess up.
Do you plan to have a competition every year, so anyone who is voted out can try again?
Samba: Yes. But if you were part of the final 12, you can’t.
So basically if you half sucked, you have another chance but if you’re pretty good, you’re out?
Nadia: A lot of the DJs from the 30 were really good and we would have loved to have them back.
Samba: Maybe they needed more practice, we told them to practice more and try again next year. On a personal level, I surprised with the final assessment. There were people who I expected to suck and they were great!
Can you tell us about the voting system for the knock-out rounds?
Nadia: It’s divided into a number of categories like technical background, the crowd’s engagement, mixing and beat matching, charisma and more. The judges scores count for 70% and then you have the online voting which counts for 20% and 10% is based profile liking on the website.
Do you have any problems with people getting so drunk before they get on stage?
Samba: The DJs are really great, all of them. I know who you’re talking about, though, but hasn’t played yet, so we’ll see!
The hot thing at the moment is that every kid wants to be a DJ. Do you not worry that a competition like this can play into that idea or is that something you actually encourage?
Samba: Actually the more competition you have the higher quality you’re going to get.
But then we’re going to run out of doctors and lawyers ..
Samba: It’s a different industry and it needs to be developed like any other. A night like Nacelle or what byGanz is doing, wouldn’t have existed three years ago because there would have been just a few local DJs and the season would have been like, three parties. Now you can get a different DJ every week for months on end.
Nadia, what if your kids said they wanted to be DJs when they grew up?
Nadia: I’d love it!
How many artists do you have on the label so far?
Samba: Between international and local, I believe around 25.
Have any of the artist started making you guys money yet?
Samba: With the digital music, you don’t make money out of selling music. Selling music is your tool of marketing yourself to get more gigs and this is where you get your money, unless you’re going sell 30-40 thousand copies which is VERY rare with all the piracy going on. So we’re not really looking to financially profit from releasing the music. What were looking for is to position our local artists on the international map of the electronic music scene and we’re starting to do that now.
What’s the big dream at the end of this?
Samba: It’s to have at least 10 Egyptians from Electrum Records in the top 100 DJs in the world.
Who do you think honestly has the most potential as you see it right now, in Egypt?
Samba: I see people from this competition, and I cannot say names, but the level of talent we have this year is unbelievable.
Nadia: We’re personally backing everyone but you have to be realistic, some of them are more international than others.
There are no girls in the competition though, correct?
Nadia: We really tried to get girls to enter the competition. We had one at bootcamp and we tried to push her but it didn’t quite work out.
What do you think is the problem? Is it a social thing?
Samba: Yeah, I believe there’s still a social barrier that they cannot break. But it will eventually. This year we had at least four girls applying.
Have you considered a surprise for the last event that suddenly DJ Samba becomes..
Samba: A girl? Hahahahahahahahaha!
Actually speaking of that, now that you’re running a business and you’re very much focused on the next generation of DJs, how do you maintain your own name as a DJ in the industry?
Samba: We do believe that the way to make it as a DJ is through music production. So you can still do music production while you’re working on a platform like this and Fahmy and I actually have a lot of upcoming releases. And very soon Electrum Records is going to have three E.Ps which are all 100% local talent. Each album is going to have eight tracks and personally, as Fahmy & Samba, we have three upcoming releases as well. So I don’t think it’s interfering at all.
What do you think is the secret of the success of Electrum Records?
Samba: Umm…. My hair?! Hahaha. It’s that I believe we’re doing the best for music as musicians, we think of what the artist needs and we give it to them.
What information can you give us about the Student DJ Program final?
Samba: The only thing we’re going tell you is that we postponed the final until Eid. It’s going to be in Sahel and it’s going to be BIG!
To book your spot at all the Student DJ Program parties, use Tazkarty.