How Egyptian DJ Kaboo brought Arabic beats to Marvel's ‘Moon Knight’

The Dubai resident fuses classical Arabic pop music with the stark sounds of trap hip-hop

Egyptian DJ Kaboo has two songs featured in the new Marvel series 'Moon Knight'. Antonie Robertson / The National
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It's one thing to experience overnight success and quite another when you are expecting it to happen.

DJ Kaboo, 37, experienced that mix of anticipation and elation over the last six months leading to the March premiere of new Marvel anti-hero series Moon Knight, currently streaming internationally on Disney+.

Mena viewers will eventually catch up on all the hype when the platform arrives in the region on June 8.

Partly filmed in Jordan and starring Oscar Isaac in the lead alongside Egyptian-Palestinian actress May Calamawy, the acclaimed series is underscored by a pulsating soundtrack featuring DJ Kaboo and fellow Egyptians, Wegz and Najat Al Saghira.

Speaking to The National from his Dubai home, Kaboo — full name Mohamed Serour — knew his career would change when the show’s producers emailed him with the initial offer for an unannounced series.

“I thought it was a joke at first,” he says. "It was around October last year and I came home after playing a gig at a Dubai club and then I get this email from a company that's handling Marvel's music saying they wanted to feature some of my tracks on a new show. They gave me no details, so I just thought it was a scam."

Fortunately, a more "official looking" email was also sent to Kaboo's distribution company the following day, stating their interest in using hip-hop tracks Arab Trap: Made in Egypt and Arab Trap: 4 Enta for the mystery project.

At the time, both tracks were already out as part of Kaboo's 2020 release Arab Trap - EP.1.

When agreements neared completion, it was revealed to Kaboo his songs would feature prominently in the first and third episodes of one of the most anticipated series of the year.

From Dubai to the world

Kaboo says he has been preparing for this moment his whole career.

As a respected name within the regional music industry — not to mention being the official DJ for Egyptian superstar actor and popstar Mohamed Ramadan — Kaboo was working on a new sound he hoped to export internationally.

“I want to take our sound from an international city like Dubai and having it played in festivals for people who may not be Arabs," he says.

"So as a DJ, I wanted to give them a sound that has Arabic instruments and melodies, but done with western and modern beats so a new generation can understand it and be surprised by it."

Kaboo achieves the heady mix — an approach he calls "Arab Trap" — by sampling classic tracks by 20th century Arabic singers and composers and marrying them with the stuttering rhythms and dark synths characterising the hip-hop subgenre, trap music.

This is not a totally novel approach.

US artists and producers, from Madonna to Timbaland, have used Arabic songs for inspiration over the years. Timbaland even scored three hits by sampling regional tunes.

In 2001, he scored RnB singer Aaliyah's track More Than a Woman, which features a section of Egyptian singer Mayada El Hennawy's 1993 song Aloui Ansa. The same approach was repeated with the 2003 Aaliyah cut I Don’t Know What to Tell Ya, sampling 1992 track Batwanes Beek by Algeria’s Warda Al Jazairia.

Timbaland’s biggest and most controversial success is Big Pimpin’, a 2000 global hit for rapper Jay Z, which lifted the signature flute line from Abdel Halim Hafez's 1975 song Khosara. This resulted in an unsuccessful copyright claim from the nephew of the late Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdy.

When it comes to Arab Trap: Made in Egypt, which reimagines Khosara as a car-trunk-rattling, trap hip-hop track, Kaboo confirms the song was officially approved by the estate of Hafez.

A golden opportunity

Kaboo says he is not surprised that previous Arab producers didn’t jump on the opportunities presented by those global hits.

"It's down to how we listen and consume Arabic music in the Middle East in general," he says. "It's more about listening to it in a theatre and appreciating it from a cultural and even educational level. No one really thought about how it may sound in a club or festival."

That said, Kaboo feels Middle Eastern DJs still have the advantage above international peers by possessing a more seasoned ear when it comes to sampling sections of old Arabic hits.

"We have a greater understanding of the music because we grew up with it," he says. "There are also a lot of opportunities when sampling older Arabic tracks because some of them can be 30 minutes long.

"So if we really listen to it as a DJ and find the right samples, you can make three, four or five songs out of that original track. It's exciting what this kind of music offers us now."

Kaboo demonstrates that reach with Arab Trap: 4 Enta, also sampling Batwanes Beek.

While maintaining the charging violin strings, as Timbaland did with I Don’t Know What to Tell Ya, Kaboo expands it further by adding extra dollops of Arabic percussion and snatches of Warda Al Jazairia's vocals.

With a European and US summer tour in the works, Kaboo is adamant that through genuine engagement with both Arab and other musical cultures, the region can unearth its next international star.

“The way forward is really about asking yourself as an artist how you want to be unique, and then really working hard in creating a sound that represents where you are from and merge with the modern sounds of today,” he says.

“That way, you can take both the older and new generation along with you.”

Updated: April 29, 2022, 4:39 PM