R3hab, real name Fadil El Ghoul, has had an impressive career.
The DJ and producer has played at many of the world's leading festivals, and his upbeat dance anthems, including the hits All Around the World (La La La) and Creep, have amassed more than a billion streams.
At number 14 in the influential DJ MAG's Top 100 list, the Moroccan-Dutch artist is also the Arab world's EDM leading light.
However, all that industry kudos is no match for a mother’s nod. While her support has always been forthcoming, El Ghoul, 34, says his "mum, I've made it," moment came in December last year when he performed at Saudi Arabia’s MDL Beast Festival in Riyadh.
He says performing in front of 50,000 people alongside special guest Egyptian pop king Amr Diab was both a personal and professional milestone.
"It was funny. My mother usually doesn't watch my shows, but this one she really wanted to see because I was there with Diab," he tells The National.
“It is always great when your family are interested in what you do, but when you do something that resonates with their culture, that just makes it extra-special.”
Why a song is like a margherita pizza
Considering the challenging times we are living in, that memory is now bittersweet, too. With the pandemic having wiped out the summer festival season, El Ghoul says he misses being on the move, but that the time he has spent indoors has been creatively fulfilling.
His single Miss You More Than You Know is the latest of seven tracks, including originals and remixes, released in the space of three months.
With the Latin pop sensibilities of Besame (I Need You) and the banging vibes of Timmy Trumpet collaboration 911, El Ghoul's new material paints a picture of an increasingly assured producer and songwriter.
The tropical house flavours of Miss You More Than You Know are not a gimmick. From the keyboards that both twinkle and luxuriate, to the affecting chorus carried by Dutch vocalist Sofia Carson, the track is simply a fine piece of songwriting.
This is an aspect of his craft that he has been working on over the years. With DJs constantly preparing for the next festival, he says a lack of focus because of a busy schedule often seeps into the songwriting and results in tracks that lack subtlety and balance.
“This is something I struggled with a couple of years ago,” he says. “Sometimes when you produce you do it to impress yourself or other producers. You want to show off your skills and technique. But really, what you should be doing is serving the song.”
El Ghoul breaks it down even further by comparing a timeless pop song to a margherita pizza.
“It’s a classic dish and there is nothing wrong with it,” he says. “Sure, sometimes you can add extra things like smoked cheese to elevate it. But once you start putting things like foie gras on it, then it stops being that pizza and it becomes something else. It is the same with songwriting, in that the focus should always be on maintaining the essence of the song.”
On moving to the UAE
Keeping it simple is a life principle El Ghoul lives by. He was born in the Netherlands to Moroccan parents, and he describes himself as a "logical thinker" when it comes to his career. This means there are no flowery discussions about seeking inspiration when talking to him.
He aims to work on one song idea a day in the knowledge that by the end of each month, he will have some killer tunes to pick from.
That quality control also extends to his life off the decks. He prefers to spend time with family and friends as opposed to enjoying the hedonism that comes with the life of a jet-setting DJ, something he says is down to his cultural roots.
To this day, his favourite memories are not the large and enthusiastic crowds, but the more intimate moments spent with loved ones in his parent’s home city of Marrakesh.
“Until I was 17, I would visit there each summer. I remember just hanging out with friends, enjoying the food, getting spoilt by my uncles and talking in the Moroccan dialect,” he says.
“It was simple. Moroccan, and generally Arab culture, has a family vibe, which I love.”
This is why El Ghoul says he is seriously considering moving to the UAE next year. He views the country as an ideal base from which to unwind and focus in between bouts of frenetic touring.
“I can’t explain it, but I feel like I really need this sense of family and connection,” he says. “I love visiting cities like New York, but after a while it just feels cold and survival of the fittest.
"The UAE is different in that it is both modern and it still has that family vibe. Like Marrakesh, it is a fusion of all these styles and cultures. So it’s likely I will move there soon.”