Ahead of his gig at Zigzag this Thursday, we sit down with veteran spinner and producer Mahmoud Shiha, about his career to date, gigs in the forest, and making things happen from his bedroom.
Mahmoud Shiha is not one of the ‘in’ DJs. He's not playing House Sessions, he doesn't wear oversized t-shirts, and he probably doesn't care where the after party is.
But, once upon a time, before DJing became the occupation du jour among young Egyptians – before their names were flashing across 50-foot LED screens, before knowing how to beat-match became an option – musical talent, passion, and dedication were the factors at play, and Shiha, now 29, has those in droves.
A meeting with legendary Egyptian Trance maestro Khaled AbdelRahman of Sense Arabia nearly a decade ago set the path for Shiha’s career, and after teaming up with him and Ahmed Tawfik, they released a slew of Euphoric Trance tracks that got huge support from international DJs under the trio's alias, Dr.K & Nii Vs Shiha. Eventually, he branched out to work on his own solo productions, veering towards a hard-hitting mix of synth-heavy, melodic Tech and Progressive House; and, recently, a couple of ear-catching, dance-floor friendly remixes of the likes of Depeche Mode and The Beatles. Last year, his debut solo EP reached 31 on Beatport’s Top 100 Progressive Releases chart, supported by the likes of Cosmic Gate and Markus Schulz, and his recently launched Clubbing Purposes series garners thousands of listens each month.
In 2012, he also co-founded Epic 101 Studios, where he's been busy passing on his talents to a new generation of Egyptian musicians through their renowned production courses, whilst also producing for a string of up-and-coming local Pop artists. Ahead of new releases this year with the likes of Nueva Recordings and, locally, with Electrum and Besworx, we sit own with Shiha to talk gigs in the forest, MySpace, and being paid to play requests.
When did you start getting into music?
Since I was a little kid, listening to Techno and all that kind of stuff.
You listened to Techno as a kid?
Yeah, I did, but Techno then was a bit different; not Detroit, though. But I used to play theatrical music: piano and trombone. It runs in the family, actually. Then I decided to try out DJing.
How old were you when you started?
I was 15 and I got hooked up with Khaled AbdelRahman
How did that happen?
I used to do a lot of things; I was actually a web designer at the time, and I did an online radio player for his website. I had always seen him as a Godfather in the scene; he got me into it, and I started Djing with him. One day, he gave me a CD with a production program on it and he’s like, “you should try this.” He never tried it, but he asked me to try it. He was like, “I know this makes music, so just go ahead and use it,” and then I went home and went NUTS! I went nuts for like two weeks, and came back with a track; when I showed it to them they were like, “What is this shit? It's really bad…”
That was the good thing, because I realised I had long way ahead of me to develop my production skills. From there I just developed, practicing every day for like two years of my life, with no social life or anything! Just working my ass off on producing and creating different ideas, researching, and all that.
What were the sets with Nii & K like when it started?
It started out with Khaled and I producing tracks together. It was all Progressive & Trance; it still is because, you know, we started a long time ago and we just got together and did this alias: Dr. K & Nii vs Shiha.
We produced a track in 2008 called I’m Alive that got huge support from all these big old school names like Tone Depth, Paul Oakenfold, and Matt Darey, and it was remixed by Martin Roth, Tone Depth, and Tarkan & V-Sag. Other DJs that supported us as well are Paul Van Dyk, Gareth Emery, Roger Shah, Matt Darey, and Aly & Fila, of course, multiple times.
Were those Dr. K & Nii vs Shiha times fun?
Yeah, it was really fun, just the three of us in the studio coming together, putting our ideas together, and making what we love.
Why is it VS?
We did it a long time ago and now we figured out that it was a bad idea, but we stuck with it!
For the longest time we thought your name was Dr. K Nii Shiha...
A lot of people thought I was the vocalist of some sort… Anyways, last year I started off my solo work again.
How do you see that the scene has changed from when you started DJing until now? And for someone who’s been there for so long, do you find it hard to keep up? Do you give a shit about keeping up?
No, I never gave a shit at all since I started because here you have different segments. You have those DJs who just want to hug the mixers and envy other ones, and they don’t do it for love, they just want to show off. They have ego problems, you know, and I've seen a lot of these guys and thought, “Shit! I don’t want to be like that!” I can do all that shit from my bedroom and get support from major DJs, so why should I care about a place when there’s no stable market for the music industry. It's not like Europe; we don’t have a lot of labels, music stores, etc. We don’t have any of that shit.
DJing is a phase that fades away, so production for me is key. I love producing music, melodies, and all that kind of stuff, and now I started shifting my style.
I started my solo work now; I'm doing more Progressive Tech stuff, but still with euphoric, melodic elements.
What’s your favourite technique to use when you produce?
You cannot start with a certain thing. First of all, accidents are great. At the same time, it could be a melody that I have in my head or a beat or a groove. It could be anything. You don’t just go open up and be like “I'm going to do this and that and that.” Maybe you start off like this and then you’ll find that all your ideas have changed into something else. There’s no philosophy around it.
Who are you listening to these days?
A lot of unknown people. Literally, if you check out my sets, most of the producers on them have 500 likes or 1000 likes, and they’re doing great music, man! That’s the point; no likes at all and no fan base, but they’re doing fuckin’ intense tracks, and I'm surprised as to why they don’t have more of a fan base. Basically, if I like it, I will support it.
I always love to do that. When you look for music online or whatever – screw the charts, of course – you just have to look for the unknown people, and you’re going to know who’s going to make it big or not, you know?
I did that with Axwell. I literally used to listen to Axwell when he first started, and I was like, “this guy is going to be a star,” when it was the time of House, you know? But then he went towards the shitty EDM genre. How the hell do they call this Progressive House?!
Are you happier that there is a DJ scene in Egypt now?
Now it's much better; the crowd is way bigger, more people are into it, and more people now learned about the community. A long time ago it was a small community who partied, and you would know everyone at a party, but now it's gone bigger. There are a lot more DJs and more diversity.
How did the studio, Epic 101, come about?
I met my partners in Epic 101, [Hussein] Sherbini and Ismail [Hosny], a long time ago when we were kids. I actually met Ismail on SoulSeek (the P2P music downloading program), which was really funny.
Yeah, I was in the States studying and I went online on Soul Seeker to ask a technical production question, and he sent me a PM and asked me, “Are you Egyptian?” I said, “Yeah,” and he said, “Me too, I’m a producer,” and so we started exchanging tracks. When I came back to Egypt I invited him back to my place and we just hit it off, producing, and ever since we became friends. We eventually partnered up with Hussein, who started the production courses for Epic 101 Studios. Actually, we’ve done that in order to grow the industry to have more producers, more people. We have an audio recording studio as well, and that’s what we use it for, but DJing we haven’t come to yet. We will in the future; we’re planning it, and we’re doing a visual course as well for VJing.
What was the best gig you’ve ever had?
That was in the States, in the middle of the woods. It was crazy. I got a message from some people on MySpace at the time who said, “We’d love for you to headline in our gig.” It was a three-day thing in the middle of a camp in the woods on a lake with fire. I played, and every DJ was playing an hour, and the people there were crazy!
Was that how you would promote yourself back in the day?
Yeah, I would use MySpace a lot. It was big there.
What was the song you had playing on MySpace when the people would go onto your page?
I remember Beneath The Sound, my first track ever.
What’s the weirdest thing that’s ever happened to you during a gig?
Well, I’ve played in some shitty places in my time. I once had a guy come and give me money in order to request a song.
Did you take it?
No, hell no! I cursed the shit out of him and kicked him out of the booth. I was like, who do you think I am?
What’s your dream?
My goal is to actually make a statement with my work for life, leave a good imprint on upcoming DJs, and inspire other new upcoming producers and DJs, because that’s our motto in our company. That’s what we want and that’s why we’re teaching everyone who wants to be taught.
Shiha performs at ZigZag this Thursday, February 25th.