The first on-air message Big Hass received, during his first radio show, was short but hardly sweet.
“You’re an infidel,” it read.
Starting the debut FM hip-hop programme in the conservative Kingdom of Saudi Arabia was always going to ruffle feathers – but such a stark message brought the fresh-faced presenter face-to-face with the gravity of his opposition.
“I saw straight away I had a choice: I could either give up there and then, or fight it and carry on,” says Hass, whose real name is Hassan Ahmad Dennaoui.
“For one second, I panicked – and then I went with fighting it. Reading that message sparked a huge fire in me to prove everybody wrong.”
His groundbreaking show Laish Hip-Hop celebrated its fifth anniversary in June. It remains an unrivalled voice focusing on the region's underground music scene.
Such is its influence that Hass has been elevated to the unlikely status of a regional musical ambassador, invited to public-speaking gigs and exchange opportunities in Europe and the United States.
Broadcast on Saudi’s Mix FM and streamed online, the show (which translates literally as Why Hip-hop?) has regular listeners around the globe.
Since Hass moved to the UAE in January, Laish Hip-Hop has been broadcast from Dubai Media City. One of the programme’s biggest milestones was an interview with Kool Herc, the DJ considered one of the “founding fathers of hip-hop”.
“He said: ‘You’re calling me from Saudi Arabia?’,” says Hass, adding that the pioneer was dumbfounded that “hip-hop reached that far”.
It did – in part because of the hard work and bountiful on-air enthusiasm of Hass.
Meeting him in person, the same zeal is present, by the bucketload. Dressed in a classic Batman-logo T-shirt, Hass talks fast – very fast – overflowing with the same barrage of ideas and charisma that made his show a hit.
“If you cut me open, inside you will see my son, my family, basketball and hip-hop,” he says.
It was not always this way. Hass grew up in Jeddah as a “normal guy, listening to the normal radio that mass media feeds us”.
He did not learn to speak English until the age of 15, after moving to Sharjah, where he discovered basketball and began tuning in to live American match commentary at 5am.
But it was more than a decade before Hass discovered hip-hop, when he was in his late 20s. After briefly living in Beirut, the family returned to Jeddah in 2000, where Hass worked up to four jobs at once, including selling perfume, mobile phones and flipping burgers.
His life changed in 2009 when a friend returned from Canada with a mixtape of Arab diaspora rappers.
The artists featured on the CD included Iraqi-British Lowkey, Syrian-American Omar Offendum, British-Palestinian Shadia Mansour and Iraqi-Canadian The Narcicyst.
“They were all rapping about something I felt,” says Hass. “There was no money or girls in the air – it felt real. For me, it all started here.”
His mind blown, Hass launched an underground music blog, Re-Volt, which is still going. Next he began pitching a radio show focusing on regional hip-hop, but faced repeated knock-backs from stations across the Gulf.
However, when Mix FM started broadcasting in Saudi Arabia – one of the kingdom’s first commercial stations – Hass embarked on a six-month campaign to earn his own show, which eventually aired for the first time in June 2011.
It started out as a weekly one-hour slot, but after a Twitter campaign from listeners, station chiefs expanded the show to a two-hour format.
“I became a voice for this music, so now I have to educate even myself,” says Hass.
“So many people know hip-hop music better than me. My job is to support local talent. I don’t care about how many followers you have – I care about how much talent you have.”
These days, he says, the greatest and largest variety of regional hip-hop talent is found in Saudi Arabia – a country where live musical performances remain a rarity.
“It’s the most conservative place in the Gulf – so people want to explore their talent, and they go to YouTube,” he says.
This is one of the reasons why Hass is keen to set up a regional festival – possibly in the UAE – to showcase a cross-genre mix of Arab talent.
He expects to face more opposition, but at this stage this is something he is more than a little used to.
“Doing this, I’ve faced many difficulties – from the station, from my friends and family. I do it because I believe in it,” he adds. “Hip-hop is more than a rhyme or a beat – it’s a way of life.”
• Laish Hip-Hop is streamed live on Saturdays, from 11pm to 1am. Go to www.mixfm-sa.com for more details