Hip-hop has a pretty bad reputation and is often dismissed on the basis of its representation. No one understands this more than Hassan Dennaoui, host and founder of Saudi Arabia’s first ever hip-hop radio show.
Inspired by the Arabic hip-hop movement and deeply frustrated by its negative portrayal in the media, Dennaoui (aka Big Hass) made it his mission to spread the word of MCs everywhere. It all started a few years ago with Re-Volt Radio, a blog dedicated to showcasing thought and talent from around the world, and culminated in 2011 with the launch of his very own radio show.
Laish Hip-Hop (Why Hip-Hop), which airs Saturday nights on MIX FM, is all about dispelling stereotypes and shedding light on an underappreciated art form. Jumping back and forth between Arabic and English in much the same way as the Arab MCs he promotes, Hass teaches listeners all the hip-hop basics—from the lingo to the character of hip-hop culture as a whole.
For Hass, hip-hop isn’t about money, sex, drugs, or glamour. It’s about knowledge, poetry, consciousness, and freedom. Perhaps most of all, it’s about being yourself. As he explained to his listeners in a recent broadcast, through hip-hop “you can be passionate, you can be whoever you are, whoever you want to be—but be you. Be real.”
Your Middle East (YME) spoke with Big Hass (BH) about his reasons for starting Laish Hip-Hop and what the response has been like so far.
YME: What was your goal when you decided to launch Re-Volt Radio and, later on, Laish Hip-Hop?
BH: Honestly, I was sick of what the FM Radio was offering and calling that “entertainment.” Based on that and being that the Internet is a huge vessel of expression nowadays, I created Re-Volt Radio. Re-Volt is a platform for noncommercial music and the main goal for this blog was to shed light on songs and artists that are very talented yet don’t get TV/radio support (or even recognition from the people). I am a big believer that music liberates and elevates minds; the masses have just not been exposed to good music and that’s where I come in.
At the beginning of my journey, I was exposing all sorts of genres (rock, alternative rock, electro, hip-hop), but then after a couple of months I discovered the Arabic hip-hop movement and that opened my eyes to so many artists, initiatives, individuals, and organizations that are based in the MENA region and also in America, Canada and Europe. This is where I decided I would want to focus more on hip-hop, being that it’s a genre and a culture that is misrepresented by what the mass media are projecting and promoting.
I continued supporting the Arabic hip-hop movement and also covered hip-hop as a culture, but then I felt I needed to reach a bigger audience and I really wanted to play these songs on the radio. So I started my journey to find a radio that would take my concept and put it live on air. Sadly I was faced with so much rejection in countries like UAE, Lebanon, Qatar, Bahrain and Jordan—these 5 countries had one common answer to my request which was, “We don’t play Arabic hip-hop,” and that ticked me off even more. But I did not quit because I believe in my mission and goals. When I came back to Saudi Arabia, a couple of new FM stations had opened; one of them was MIX FM and I offered my idea and was accepted (after 6 months of negotiations and convincing) by the station. The show is Saudi’s first FM hip-hop radio show and a unique concept in the Middle East as I was able to change the wrong perception around hip-hop and its culture.
YME: Did you face any opposition trying to get Laish Hip-Hop off the ground? What has the response been?
BH: It was real hard to launch Laish Hip-Hop, especially in Saudi Arabia, a country known for its strictness, and I figured the community here wouldn’t approve of the idea right away. On my first episode, I was called “Kafer,” which means “non-believer in God,” among other names. But I know what I am doing and I am a big believer in the power of the word and elevation of mind through music lyrics. I continued hosting the show, promoting local and regional artists and giving them a platform to expose their talents, and the hard work for the past two years is paying off, although the show is once a week only for 90 minutes. A lot of people are engaging and a lot of local artists are submitting their tracks and it’s creating some sort of a buzz around Saudi Arabia and the Middle East.
It’s messages like these (from a fan in UAE) what keeps me going, and I am starting to get those and these fuel me to continue and stay on my path.
The response has been great lately, but it still can get better. People in Saudi Arabia have the wrong image of hip-hop because they are affected by what the mass media is giving them. I want to show people that hip-hop is not what you see on TV, it’s not throwing money out of a car or dancing in a vulgar way. It’s a culture, it’s a voice of the voiceless, it’s an art form used to express yourself and to tell a story, to be real.
YME: How does the Saudi hip-hop scene compare to rap in the rest of the region? What are some of its biggest challenges?
BH: Well, there are lots of restrictions in Saudi. There’s a minimal opportunity to perform live events due to the cultural rules and regulation of the country (unless it’s a private event and those are usually headlined by techno and electronic DJs), not to mention the freedom of the topics being discussed. It’s very important for Saudi Artists to start working on their own original work and stop the copy/paste game from the West. The hip-hop scene around the Middle East is good and will only get better if we actually unite and start supporting each other (artists, hosts, writers, film-makers, etc.).
YME: Who are some of your favorite artists right now?
BH: Right now, I am listening to:
Blitz The Ambassador
Kareem Dennis (Lowkey)
Poet Mark Gonzales
The list is long, please hit me up and I am willing to share more artists that have impacted my life.
If you’d like to see more of Big Hass, you can check out his debut at TEDxArabia, watch him speak about English and music at the Wall Street Institute, take a look at this video bio, or follow him on Twitter.