Onsy is a 29-year-old Egyptian music producer who recently released his debut album FREQ225 with Schematic Music Company. The album is possibly a risky first record. Consisting of slight clusters of experimental and abstract elements of composition, subtle melodies and interventions of carefully designed sounds, with glitches that contribute to the beats section, it is not a work that you’d find on the regular playlist of today’s listener of contemporary electronic music in Egypt or the Middle East.
In the fourth of our in-depth interviews with musicians, Kamila Metwaly introduces us to the producer behind FREQ225, Onsy (Mostafa Onsy), an Egyptian electronic and IDM music producer based in Heliopolis, Cairo.
At times FREQ225 requires stepping out of one’s comfort listening zone and regarding something else. Even though it is a very much a sleek and direct proposition, it comprises more than the evident, more than one what hears when listening to it from an entertainment perspective. It is more than its ethereal melodies, its deep sound designs and rhythm sections. It takes time to fully grasp the hearing aesthetic of what Onsy is offering us to listen to.
FREQ225 made me consider single sounds that appear throughout the tracks as complete and individual compositions of their own, and it made me probe what intelligent dance music is and what it means as a genre and a label today. I felt a need to set myself into this listening mode to be able to hear the more complex structures that derive from the urgency of sound crafting, not just music production. And since each sound — at times — becomes its own composition (simply because the transient elements that compose the sound become little universes of their own), it became more interesting to listen to FREQ225 while considering things such as sound crafting, sound design and spectrums, rather than just composition, melody and arrangement.
It takes time to switch to this listening mode and listen beyond structure, considering or hearing background as foreground and foreground as background. And it took this conversation to be able to put myself into a mode which required a slightly more complex yet free ability to hear something else, something beyond.
KM: How did you come across electronic music, and what kind of music were you involved with before?
O: The first time I ever listened to music was at the age of 14, and the first music I heard was hip hop.
KM: And before that where was music?
There was none. I come from a very conservative and religious family, so before I turned 14 I believed that music is a sin and I didn’t want to listen to it. My family did not forbid me from listening, but no one listened to music at home so I wasn’t exposed to it at all.
When I did start, I used to buy a lot of music on recommendation, mostly hip hop such as Drake and 2Pac. Shortly after though, I discovered metal and rock and found it fascinating. I decided to play the drums, but only did that for a very short time. During that same phase I heard electronic music for the first time — I was introduced to it through my friends and was curious to know what is it was, especially that there was very little electronic music in Egypt. I listened to different electronic music from the music I listen to now. I precisely remember listening to [Welsh DJ and producer] Sasha’s album Involver 01. I liked the beats. I also listened to [Dutch DJ and producer] Tiesto and I really liked his work for a while. Of course didn’t know what I was listening to, the difference between electronic music genres, and I didn’t even know that IDM (intelligent dance music) existed. That was around 2005 or 2006.
Before I turned 14 I believed that music is a sin and I didn’t want to listen to it
KM: Did that inspire you to produce electronic music?
O: Actually no. I only decided to make electronic music around 2009. In the beginning I was just DJing, and started doing that because one of my mates told me there was something called a MIDI controller [hardware or software that generates and transmits musical instrument digital interface data to enabled devices to trigger sounds and control parameters of electronic music]. I knew nothing about the available gear on the market to perform or produce music, but this guy encouraged me to get a MIDI controller and I started DJing my own sets at home only to myself for some time [laughs] and never thought about performing in front of an audience. I just really liked music. I wanted to learn, so I recorded sets and after some time I started sharing them online among a circle of friends. Slowly I got involved with a small community of online listeners that I shared my sets with. My first MIDI controller was called BCD3000, I it used with Traktor, and I produced an online radio show called Echoes, which was online on InsomniaFM in 2010, through which I could play out and mix the music I liked listening to — it was really fun.
KM: So when did you start producing?
O: During that same period, I downloaded Ableton and started watching a lot of YouTube tutorials to learn how to produce. A couple of years later I moved from just fiddling with software to considering producing my own work.
KM: Have your working methods changed since you started?
O: A lot. When I started producing I was listening to very different kind of music and was influenced by it a lot. I never thought I would change this much, and I like the fact that now I am more open to new possibilities. In the beginning I wanted to copy what I heard and that was my ultimate goal — it was an important phase because I learned a lot through that process. But slowly I developed an individual take. Mostly what has changed is the understanding of the technical aspects of production in relation to the listening process, and I like that a lot. In 2010 I was fascinated, rather than having an interest in a deep listening of music that could affect the way I produce. Possibly the most evident change that I can see is regards the idea of “four to the floor” [a steady rhythm pattern following a 4/4 time signature, commonly used in dance and electronic music] approach to composition — I have become more experimental or free-form and open.
KM: FREQ255 took a very long time to release. Can you walk us through the process of producing it?
O: I started working on the album in [September] 2015 when [Egyptian music festival] Cloud9 invited me to perform. I asked around and understood that it invites various musicians from different backgrounds, but that it is also not much of a dance music environment. I started working on the tracks with an intention of producing an ambient and chilled work. They commissioned me two weeks ahead of the event and I remember camping at [musician] Amr El-Alamy’s house. We worked on separate projects for those two weeks nonstop — laptops and headphones on and barely any other source of communication. I didn’t finish the whole album for Cloud9, but it was its starting point.
After I returned to Cairo, I decided to continue working with that live set to produce an album. The tracks that are more chilled and ambient, such as FREQ001 and FREQ009, were produced for the festival — they were inspired by the sea, sand and sun, probably that’s why they are more relaxed. By February 2016, I felt that I had an album I could share on SoundCloud, meanwhile I also sent the work to a few record labels abroad including Schematic and Detroit Underground [both working mainly with IDM]. Schematic found the album interesting and decided to sign me. I was amazed, I didn’t expect it to happen.
KM: Was this your first electronic music release?
O: I worked on a lot of music before but I didn’t release it because I wasn’t happy with the outcome. I produced all sorts of electronic music and tried out very different genres, none of which I felt connected with. Drum and bass, techno, jungle, hip hop, drones and industrial music… I just didn’t like what I did, and with this release I finally started realizing what I like doing, musically speaking.
KM: How did Cloud9 come across your work if you hadn’t been an active musician? Was it because you used to DJ?
O: It happened through a recommendation. I shared a lot of my music with my friends, and Islam Shabana from Alchem Studio recommended me to perform in the festival — he sent them one of my tracks, which they liked.
KM: How did you feel about the invitation?
O: I was very flattered, especially because I am usually unsatisfied with what I produce — the fact that I was able to perform something that I am so self-critical about in front of an audience was a very important experience for me. It somehow loosened me up.
KM: How did the audience feel about your performance?
O: Fifteen or 20 people saw me live, because I played on the first day of the festival and there were many technical problems, including things such as finding a power generator for the performances and things like that. Nevertheless the feedback was really nice from the few people who watched me play [laughs].
KM: Was that your first performance in front of an audience?
O: Yes. I used to DJ other people’s music, but I never DJed my own music. I played techno mostly, I didn’t even DJ IDM music in my mixes, it was very new for me.
KM: What does FREQ255 stand for?
O: It has no meaning. Titles don’t mean much to me altogether. I feel that electronic music has the space to disregard connections of such sort, pre-listening directed concepts that put listeners into a predefined experience. I don’t want to direct the listening experience, that’s why all the titles of the tracks are abstract. Maybe this way I can allow the listener to connect with the music only.
KM: In 1994, the synthetic timbre of the drum tones feels almost like a retro electronic music aesthetic. Is there a specific sound reference that you wanted to work with in that track?
O: I am not sure if there is a clear reference. All the drums are samples from maschine which I greatly manipulated to create a specific output. I do get inspired by different musicians over different periods of time, which has some impact on my production aesthetics, but I’m not sure if there is a direct connection that I draw there. Many times when I start working on something new, it happens as a result of me listening to an interesting album which is all over my mind—I want to try to produce a work that sounds similar because I am very curious to know and understand how such sounds are produced. It inspires me and I consider it a good exercise and practice.
KM: At the opening of the track FREQ009, we hear Richard D. James (aka Aphex Twin) say: “I just like to make music; I don’t like to release it or to talk about it much.” It’s a strong decision to work with spoken text, and you didn’t choose to do it in any other track. How do you relate to this text and why did you work with it?
O: I heard him saying those words and found them very interesting. The fact that he says the most important element of music making is the music, making everything else unimportant including talking much about what you do is something I think we, as musicians/producers, should remind ourselves of more often. It loosened me up about naming my tracks — I feel I don’t need to name them in a way that promotes a certain idea, because there isn’t one.
I worked with the words he said, more than with the idea of working with voice or spoken word per se. I really liked working with that text. It was also a very spontaneous decision — there was something very off with the way the track sounded before, but other than that I had no specific reason for that choice.
O: The relationship in those two tracks starts with the sounds I used in both — I worked with the same sound source that I made in operator on Ableton. I really like that synth. Both tracks follow the same tempo and I decided to connect them through the titles as well. FREQ001 is influenced by an album by [Berlin-based electronic musician] Kangding Ray called Stabil, released on the raster-noton record label. I really liked its minimalistic approach to beats, and the substitution of drums with glitches and elements make it very powerful. I wanted to follow this direction and try to compose a few tracks without relying on a regular drums sound. Of course my sound is different, but I was interested in his compositional technique. I loved his use of synthesizers too. As for FREQ009, at the start I composed it without the Aphex Twin interview excerpt, and it was 10 minutes long and very boring. Nothing was happening, only minute changes here and there. I needed to change something and decided to include the interview, but also I shortened it a lot. That track reminds me of the Pink Floyd song [laughs] Keep Talking.
KM: How so?
O: Of course there is no direct influence or relationship — I think it’s the general feel, it’s atmospheric and dramatic at some parts, and the pads I used in it…
KM: Crack Cake and CutOFF V3 sound a bit more complex. They take a different approach to sound texture and design: many things happen at the same time, from the compositional tension to the buildup, ambient sounds clashing with well-designed glitch elements and beat. Can you tell me more about those two tracks?
O: Crack Cake starts with a melody, a steady beat and a bass line. It evolves from the melodies to the beat, and I created a drop to introduce the beat [the glitches part], which I produced for another track but imported into a new project which became Crack Cake. I used the same routine with CutOFFV3, changing the arrangement slightly, which made those tracks sound a bit different, yet both were both composed from the same source. Generally, when I start working on a new project, I copy elements I like from the previous projects and paste them into the new ones. This way I unify the sound by dragging in previous settings. I limited myself to what I had sound-designed before and didn’t compose much in the way of new elements.
With the album I really wanted to create subtle changes that move from one listening space to another, avoiding harsh switches. The intention was to sustain a defined and singular sound aesthetic. I felt it was essential for me to use repetition when composing melodic music. Those subtle differences create change that can be heard in the secondary layer of the music.
KM: Which tracks do you like most?
O: Crack Cake and CutOFF V3. I thought listeners would feel the same way, but they didn’t. I was a bit surprised and disappointed that I received more positive feedback for FREQ009 and FREQ001 — I suppose it’s because they’re more accessible.
KM: Did anyone help you produce, mix or master the album?
O: Yes. The album was mastered by SikSik (Mohammed Ashraf) aka Pie Are Squared, and Zuli helped me to mix it down before the Cloud9 performance. The artwork that appears with the album on SoundCloud was made by Omar El Abd, but different artwork was used when it was released on Schematic.
KM: What do you work with when producing music? How do you feel about the tools you are using? Do restrictions have any creative merit?
O: I try to alter the sound I have on hand to create a sound I like, but I haven’t reached a level of creating a sound from scratch. At this point, I am also not sure if it is so necessary for me to create a sound from scratch. But concerning the tools: I work with Ableton and Max for Live and a wide variety of plugins. I also use Reaktor and actually anything that at a specific point of time makes sense to me while producing music.
KM: What is your starting point then?
O: Just right before our conversation, I was working on a new track and live set, and I was improvising with a plugin. I like working with Aalto to create texture and different sounds… I wanted to hear all possibilities that come out of these manipulations/improvisations. After that I am going to record the whole thing and listen to it, then I’ll choose the parts that interest me most and use them to produce the track. That’s one way I kick off a new production.
KM: The tools you’re using, although of a digital nature, are largely based on the emulation of analogue sound synthesis or even digital copies of specific models of analogue synthesizers. Would you ever go “all digital” by creating not just sounds but your own instruments through programming? Or would it rather be analogue gear that could successively replace your plugins and digital audio workstations?
O: I never worked with modular synthesis systems, but it’s amazing how digital platforms have enabled so many producers and musicians to work with sound at its core formulation without analogue systems that come with hefty price tags. I was once obsessed about working with analogue systems, but I’m over that phase, because I don’t think I would be able to produce what I do with them. By now I’m used to working on a laptop using a mouse — I’ve become very fast with it, too. It would be impossible for me to own all the plugins, effects, synthesizers, reverbs, compressors and everything I have on my laptop in analogue — I’d need to buy every single tool separately and of course I wouldn’t be able to afford it.
I have thought about creating my own instrument of a digital nature, that’s also why I started working with Max for Live. Recently I spoke to a friend who makes great patches for Max for Live and I was thinking, maybe we can create an instrument together, not necessarily a synthesizer but a sequencer that sequences sound in a unique manner. I watched tons of online tutorials to figure out the level of hardship of programming your own instrument and felt that it would take me so much time to learn. And then I felt that what I want in terms of sound already exists, so why do it? It doesn’t make sense to program something that already exists.
KM: What about the sounds you work with, where do they come from?
O: I use various samples. In Vetamine-k for example, the percussions and drums were all recorded during one of the music production sessions at Amr El-Alamy’s. I just hit my hand on various objects laying on the desk, such as keys and a box, and recorded them using a zoom handy recorder. I took those recordings and chopped and manipulated them using effects to create the drum set. I’m not too strict about the source of sound. It’s funny — in the past I used to think that using recorded samples, or sampling other people’s music, is sort of a cheat, but today I think the opposite: it’s about what you create with those samples, not about what you use.
KM: When you work on an album do you have an idea beforehand, or do you just sit and produce?
O: I have some sort of an idea, but it is driven via sound aesthetics and not a concept. This release was sort of commissioned by Cloud9, or at least that’s how it started. I wanted to produce a whole live set to perform, to have one mood throughout. I aimed at creating repetition and listening similarities to be able to smoothly move from one track to the other. You can hear it in the melodies for example, they are all played in the same key. The other thing is the same tempo — I worked on 85bpm or the double of it, 170bpm, that created a similar vibe. I also wanted the album to be melodic. The live set I’m working on now has a very different direction though.
KM: What will it sound like?
O: I’m a little bit surprised that I am working with very different musical aesthetics. I want to use less repetition — the sets are pretty abstract and there is nothing constant or steady. There are a lot of things already happening and the work is way more experimental and less melodic. A lot of it is also happening in the post-production because I’m dealing more with effects and the idea of listening experience, rather than composition only. I feel the new work is more sound-based — I’m trying to create a sonic experience or mood.
KM: You refer a lot to [British electronic duo] Autechre. Can you tell me how they influence or inspire you?
O: I go through phases in which I am highly influenced by a certain genre, certain musicians, and I am still discovering new music that’s shaping how I hear and make music. I get very hyped up about and attentive to a specific artist every now and then, and barely manage to listen to anything else.
KM: Who else had a significant influence on your sound design aesthetic?
O: [US electronic due] Phoenecia, [US electronic musician] Dalglish and [Finnish musician] Brothomstates … but Autechre had the strongest impact on the way I make music, listen to music, and generally think about music production. What I love about them is that with every new release they are renewed, their music is so broad and inspirational that you can learn so much from it and that level of diversity. One of the first albums I heard of theirs was Oversteps (2010). One song I listened to for some time was See on See, which has made me think about the way you compose and arrange melody and how playful you can be with it. They are also very experimental in the tools they use. In 2015 they produced a series of live sets solely programmed on MaxMSP. Earlier, they worked only with one singular nord synthesizer to produce an EP called Cichlisuite (1997). The albums LP5 (1998) and EP7 (1999) also sound like they were produced with a nord. Those details really interest me and make me think about production, sound design and how I approach music making.
What interests me most about Phoenecia is their nonlinear approach to composition, or how they produce sounds that don’t come from the same place — they are very playful too. These days, I’m listening to Dalglish aka Scaled Rougish (aka Chris Douglas). The sound design of the album Auen Ansici . Bardaachd is mind-blowing and it’s been growing more and more onto me.
KM: FREQ255 has been just digitally released by Schematic Music Company, and soon will be available on cassette tape, even though it has been online for about 11 months.
O: Schematic is one of my favorite labels and it’s owned by Romulo Del Castillo from Phoenecia, whom I am a huge fan of. I really like most of their releases — they have a great roster of artists, very different and interesting. I feel it is very close to what I do and I really wanted to be a part of the Schematic community. I basically added Romulo Del Castillo (one of the members of Phoenecia) on Facebook, and we started talking in general. I didn’t really have an intention to release the album through the label, but was interested in him. After a while I shared my work with him and he found it interesting, and we agreed that I would sign with his label.
I didn’t want to just to be signed by a regional or Egyptian label for the cause
KM: Why didn’t you consider working with a regional or local label, possibly to integrate yourself more within the electronic music scene here since you are a music producer living in Cairo?
O: I really wanted to sign with a label that would have a broader community or pool of listeners interested in the kind of music I make. That was my prime goal. I didn’t want to just to be signed by a regional or Egyptian label for the cause, or to connect with the Egyptian or regional idea of being a producer. Regional labels don’t really work with music similar to what I do. That is not necessarily the labels’ mistake —I t is also that this music is barely heard in the region, never mind given space in the grander concept of performance, audience interest, etc. I don’t necessarily connect with the country I come from, or I generally don’t think of where I come from when it comes to music. I do not feel the urge to release with a local label simply because I’m Egyptian — I see things only in terms of music, so it makes sense to release with the label that would support and understand what I produce best.
In Egypt, I didn’t connect with any existing record labels or feel that they would elevate my career or connect me with broader audiences. 100Copies could have been my only shot, but they are now focusing on electro-shaabi, which has nothing to do with IDM or what I do. I am also not too aware of the region, to be honest — maybe I could have found a fit somewhere in the region that I am unaware of. But even if I am ignorant about record label possibilities here, I think that signing with Schematic will have a better outcome and impact on my career, even when considering integration with the local and/or regional music scenes on the long run.
KM: I read a quote by Richard D. James which I found funny but also realistic, him being a pioneer of the genre referred to as intelligent dance music (IDM): “I just think it’s really funny to have terms like that. It’s basically saying ‘this is intelligent and everything else is stupid.’ It’s really nasty to everyone else’s music. It makes me laugh.” You refer to your music at times as IDM. What does that genre or term mean to you?
O: IDM is a very complex and vague term, especially today. I use it a lot, you’re right, but I don’t mean the literal translation of it — I do not see what I do as intelligent. IDM is the general umbrella of music under which what I do (and the genre’s current definition) falls. I think it’s a very valid genre in terms of production aesthetics when it comes to what I do, but it has no element of intelligence versus stupidity. The term was coined in the early 1990s when a compilation CD called Artificial Intelligence was released on Warp Records that comprised primarily British artists such as Autechre, Aphex Twin, Speedy J, etc. But I think the scope has changed to a large extent — I don’t connect directly with IDM’s origins, how the term originated. The connection comes from the music I associate with, which is called IDM. So I do not identify myself with the term “intelligent dance” in terms of process but only genre.
KM: How do you feel about the merits of self-releasing vs. working with a music label?
O: Working with a record label really makes things easier. Marketing, building a name for yourself, branding, bookings — I wouldn’t be able to do that alone. It’s work that I am also not much interested in, it’s not my job and not what I know how to do. Many people claim that the role of a record label has deteriorated, but self-releasing is a very hard job, not everyone has that talent, and this is where labels, booking agents, music managers come in. They do their job and you do yours. I think the record label is pretty necessary, but might have changed from the way it was functioning in the 1990s and before. I self-released my album on SoundCloud and don’t feel I reached the audience that would dig my music. With the label I think I reached out to more people that are truly interested in listening to my music.
KM: You haven’t performed the album live yet, right?
O: The few times I performed it in front of the audience I took my laptop and played it back somehow from Ableton. I just changed a few settings, entrances, I DJed the work but didn’t perform it, no. During my recent performance at Canale Undici I did kind of the same but I also played back some of my new material. I feel that with the new work I can be more playful with the idea of live performance.
KM: You often refer to yourself as a sound designer — can you tell me more about that? Do you also consider yourself to be a musician?
O: I see myself as a guy that sits on his laptop and makes some sounds or music. I am fascinated with sound design and technically I do design the sounds I produce to some extent, but I can’t call myself a sound designer since what I do is probably very minute in comparison to what sound design stands for. It’s a big responsibility to call myself a sound designer. I see myself interested in producing sounds, working with sounds, but I think for now I can be called a producer. I don’t like calling myself a musician because I never really studied music academically, I am not a professional.
KM: What is sound to you then?
O: A medium of expression and a tool that I use to be a producer and make music.
KM: On Facebook you’re known to be the music guru — you share new music you find on a regular basis. Can you tell me more about that and how you come across new artists?
O: I listen to what my friends recommend but also sometimes I just dig a lot and try to find new music. I like sharing the music I like as a sort of a connection with the people I know on Facebook, especially as most of them are interested in similar music. I also like to raise discussions around the music I listen to with my friends, peers, hear opinions about liking and disliking what others produce, also about the technical aspects, the tools and the sound design of the music we share.
I also listen to what I produce a lot, to be able to really criticize it. I’m trying to put myself in the listeners’ shoes, judge what I hear and think about what I should amend or remove. It’s hard to judge your own music, but I think with time one learns how to listen to a work-in-progress with some distance.
KM: Is there any music coming out from Egypt or the region that has caught your attention lately?
O: I listen to [Egyptian musicians] Omrr, Rami Abadir, ZULI, Ismael Hosny. Generally I like the current wave of electronic musicians coming from the region. I also am very inspired by [Egyptian visual artist and VJ] Nurah Farahat, we performed together in Mapping Possibilities v1 and I find what she does very interesting and inspiring.
KM: What will you be doing next?
O: I’m trying to produce a 40-minute set that I can perform and manipulate live. I will probably pre-record a part of the set and prepare the sound library that I will then jam-like with onstage. There will be a structure preplanned, but a lot of the changes will happen live. It comprises chaotic sounds which interact with one another. I am looking at the sounds’ relationship and the lack of it with this set.
KM: Apart from that, is there anything else you are currently working on?
O: I am also working on the sound design for Egyptian director Reda Ali’s upcoming short film Ain Gowa, Ain Bara (An Eye Inside, an Eye Outside). I am very excited as I’ve never worked with film before. Reda heard my album and contacted me via Facebook to work on his film. We agreed that the sound would be of an experimental nature, and not musical.
Another thing I’m working on is a series of jamming sessions with Rami Abadir under the name 0n4b. We wanted to do something together for some time, but it never worked out. Finally we decided to just meet, improvise and jam together and see what comes out of it. Every time we meet something new and more interesting happens from the previous jam, which is very exciting. The nice thing is that we’re very open to anything because we couldn’t define a genre or direction for these sessions.
KM: Who would you recommend for Mada to interview in the future?
O: I would really like you to interview Nurah Farahat, I really like her work as a visual artist and a VJ. However, if the series is strictly about music then I recommend J!n. She is a great musician, singer and producer.
* Special thanks to Rami Abadir who helped me delve into Onsy’s mind and music.