For a big name, Hassan El Shafei is a private person. Although recognized as one of the Arab music industry’s brightest and most original producers, it’s fair to say that his passion is with the product, not the fame.
“I don’t like to waste people’s time with useless gossip,” he says. “I would rather add something to their hearts and their minds. I have a very simple belief: less is more.”
Retaining an air of mystery and dignity in an industry where so many others often lay their souls bare only adds to the 34-year-old Egyptian personality’s appeal with millions of fans. And his appeal is undeniable.
Since first appearing as a judge on MBC’s Arab Idol in 2011, his notoriety has exploded along with the popularity of the show.
El Shafei’s charisma and professionalism have earnt him the respect of his fellow judges and industry peers, and his good-looks have reeled-in legions of besotted admirers.
With nearly three million followers on Twitter and Instagram, and over seven million on Facebook, El Shafei’s fanbase is spreading like wildfire.
As a result, today the El Shafei brand is in demand. With six Billboard number one hits connected to his
name, El Shafei has produced and arranged for the cream of the Arabic music scene’s crop, including Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, Hossam Habib, Abdel Mejid Abdallah, Mohammad Hamaki and Nicole Saba.
He’s currently in the studio producing new projects for Egyptian star Sherine Abdel Wahab, as well as working on a new release of his own, something he coyly describes as a “music concept”.
This level of creativity is not something he is willing to compromise on, selling-out not being a part of his style. When faced with the prospect of conforming to overused Arabic music conventions he instead chose to venture into entrepreneurship and create his own record label, founding The Basement Records in 2009 to revolutionize the industry as he saw it.
The emphasis here is on originality rather than churning out tunes in large quantities. There are around 20 artists currently signed up, and there has been deliberate care taken to choose them—El Shafei is determined that every project to come out from The Basement Records should have its own character.
He won’t divulge exact figures, but says that the label is currently earning enough for it to grow slowly but surely.
“The Basement Records is simply my personal lab and my window to the outside world, where I can experiment as I wish with no boundaries or a producer nagging and asking to produce more mainstream and commercial content,” El Shafei explains.
“My goal is simply to push a new progressive sound into the wild.”
El Shafei’s business partner in The Basement Records, Mohamed El Shaer, agrees that the focus for them both is in quality and creativity. “We wanted to introduce new talents and revamp the already established ones through our experimental projects, all while keeping the essence of the Middle East. It’s not about how big it becomes.
Our goal is to change the music scene in our region,” he says. A child prodigy, El Shafei grew up being mentored by two legends on the Egyptian music scene: first by classical pianist Moushira Eissa, and later by jazz musician Rashad Fahim.
El Shafei began working on his own characteristic sound while studying for his degree in Business Administration, and in 2000 he made his first big waves with the release of “My Ecstasy”. Hitting the underground clubs in Egypt as a fresh-faced teenager, he recorded and performed his early electronica creations under the alias “The Saint”. Although he no longer uses the name, he admits it will always hold a special place in his heart.
By the mid-noughties the industry was sat up and paying attention, and the awards began to stack up. DG Magazine named him Best Music Arranger, first in 2007 and again two years later. 2009 was also the year that saw El Shafei take home the Middle East Music Award for Best Music Producer. And in 2010, national radio station, Nogoum FM, named him the Best Rising Label in Egypt.
At the same time as he began to take his music mainstream, the digital age exploded. The music industry, like every other, rapidly changed. Far from being blindsided, Hassan was young, open-minded and already deep into the digital scene—he was in the perfect position to embrace the new world.
“Technology changed music in every aspect, in the production process and in publishing and marketing,” he agrees. “It made me see things differently and seek more opportunities because you really have no limits coming up with new fresh ideas and implementing them right away. If you are smart enough you can definitely take this to your advantage. It is a solid diversification for income.”
Naji Antoun, head of business intelligence at Middle East music platform Anghami, believes that artists such as El Shafei embracing game-changing technology have in some way saved the music industry. “Streaming is driving the growth of the music industry after the tragic decline caused by illegal downloading. Our region is embracing this change and the growth is fueled by the exploding smartphone penetration in all our markets,” he says.
“Nowadays streaming is an artist’s priority, and the impact is showing on their marketing from an exposure point of view as well as revenues.” Despite evidence to the contrary, El Shafei doesn’t see himself as a trailblazer. Or at least being unique is not his key ambition.
“I just do what I feel,” he says. “I must say, it took me a lot of time and courage to reach a point of not caring about what others will think and worrying less. I just make sure that I never lose my passion, which is the drive that pushes me forward.”
In 2011, after more than a decade in the business and with The Basement Records launched, Arab Idol made El Shafei a household name. The Arabic version of the hugely successful global talent contest premiered in December of that year and is today one of the Arab world’s most watched television shows, drawing in up to 100 million viewers for its nail-biting finales.
El Shafei’s popularity on the programme has seen him return as a judge every season, placing him firmly in the public eye. From MBC’s perspective, getting him in connected them with a large portion of Arab youth. At the time a bigger star in Egypt than in the pan-Arab countries, he was in tune with one of the biggest entertainment markets in the region.
“Hassan had the right credentials as a music composer and professional in the industry to be able to help the contestants learn from his market experience,” says MBC Group’s official spokesman, Mazen Hayek. “He will give you the most logical career-advancing advice you can get.
Yes, he cares about his reputation and popularity, but he’s not obsessed with it, and he speaks his mind.” Once his status as Arab Idol’s resident heartthrob was secured, international recognition soon followed. In 2013, he was awarded an endorsement as an ambassador for Hugo Boss—he was the first Arab celebrity to hold the title.
The high-end reputation of the brand is what drew him to the deal however, not the money. “For me endorsements aren’t about cashing out. I only collaborate with a brand if I believe we are both adding value to each other and stand behind the same beliefs,” El Shafei explains.
Awareness of El Shafei on the global stage was further reinforced in 2014, when he was the only Arab representative asked to contribute to the international FIFA World Cup-minded album, Pepsi Beats of the Beautiful Game, alongside international names such as Timbaland, Kelly Rowland, Santigold and Janelle Monáe.
He also produced the Coke world-cup hit featuring Nancy Ajram and Cheb Khaled. And the same year his summer single “Mayestahlushi” secured the number one spot in the top trending YouTube music videos and Twitter hashtags across the Arab region, racking up over 16 million views.
He is characteristically humble and grateful when discussing the big names, he’s worked with. He admits that he has turned down projects in the past if he doesn’t feel that they are on the same page. “If I can’t find a challenge in what I do, it just kills my stamina,” he says.
“I don’t care if I work with superstars or fresh new talents as long we are all having fun and really enjoying what we’re doing and we all share the same vision.” To El Shafei the key qualities he looks for when considering a collaboration are talent, manners and passion. He “simply can’t” work with an artist that is unwilling to try something new.
As he has made the journey from quirky underground dance phenomenon to household heartthrob and superstar collaborator, El Shafei himself has developed as a musician as well as an entrepreneur, a fact he recognizes with a nod to the early supporters.
“Those who worked with me when I started was because they believed in me and saw merit in what I do. Those who worked with me when I became more mature musically was probably because they liked what I did,” he admits.
Looking ahead and he hopes to continue to grow, as an artist, as a producer and as a businessman. He plans to invest in new businesses that are both technology and art driven. Eventually he aspires to set up a non-profit organization that will focus on teaching children the arts and encouraging young people to follow their own creative dreams.
And although the tools of the digital age—not to mention the prevalence of TV talent shows—are having an impact,
the one thing this uncompromising creative force can certainly teach, is that attitude beats all else. “Technology and social media have made it easier to share your art with people in the blink of an eye, but aside from super talent, you also need a good team to help you shine and market you differently to find your way to success,” El Shafei states.
“My advice to anyone starting their career is to be different and be who you are. “Do more, worry less.”