Monday, May 4, 2015

Saudi Arabia's hip hop radio host: No booty shaking culture here

Big Hass hip hop radio show host photograph Saudi Arabia blog
Mel de Tin
I've never met Hassane Dennaoui, or Big Hass as he's known on the Internet and radio, but to hear him talk about his passion, Arab hip hop, is to meet the man himself. This enthusiasm and his drive to promote local talent is what got him his job as Saudi Arabia's first hip hop radio host. He started off blogging (and still does) on RE-VOLT and then moved on to hosting his own program, Laish Hip-Hop? (Why Hip-Hop?) and producing his own magazine on the genre.
Who came up with the name Big Hass?
Oh OK. I don't think I've been asked that question! I play basketball and one of my idols growing up and until now, is Shaq. One of his nicknames is Big Shaq and I always tried to imitate him. My full name is Hassane Dennaoui and one day one person just yelled out "Big Hass is on the court!" and boom! It surfaced again when I was blogging.
That's so cool because there's such a connection between basketball and hip hop.
Correct. There's a huge connection between basketball and hip hop. For people who understand, the basketball players in the US used to listen to hip hop artists and these legendary artists used to play basketball as well.

So are you Hassane Dennaoui by day and Big Hass by night? Is it a Doctor Jekyll/Mr. Hyde thing?
Hahaha no, that's a cool question too. I'd say I'm always that Big Hass character. I do have a 9-5 job, I do have to put food on the table. But at the end of the day this character comes in me, I'm always on the lookout for new talent or supporting local talent. Even clients know me as Big Hass now, because they check me out on YouTube. The whole conversation shifts to what I do and how long I've been on the radio. At the end of the day I have a business side. Big Hass is becoming a brand now, it's crazy. I don't only do radio. I have a show that's called Hassane is Hungry and I go around Saudi restaurants and I try their biggest dishes, like Man vs. Food, but on a smaller level. I've done six or seven shows on this platform called Zone TV. I'm just trying to experiment and try everything.
Do you mind me asking what your 9-5 is?
No, my job is a marketing director at an agency. Yeah, that's it.

So we were talking before how you were visiting Malja for Urban Culture Week. How was it?
To tell you the truth it was really cool. I spoke about my journey. I can't do a workshop you know, I'm not an artist or a musician. I'm a radio host with a lot of passion. If passion's a talent, then I have it! It was the first time that I really spoke of my personal story. Sometimes after you've done a lot, you need to be reflective. You know if no one's patting you on the back, you gotta do it yourself. The interaction was cool. A good point here to mention is that there wasn't a big turn out, not just for me, but for the whole Urban Culture Week. The venue did everything that you could do, but it's for the people and if you're not supporting your local talent, who will? It's for free, all you have to do is show up. This was done on a very grass roots level, you could actually learn how to DJ, how to paint graffiti. Your blog's important because even though it's small like you said, you're supporting local talent.
You know that turn out is surprising because when I visited Malja I talked Ramah, one of their artists (whose art I love by the way), and she told me that even though Wafa Al Obaidat and Hasan Hujari came up with the concept of this creative space, Red Bull owns the place. Now Red Bull is a big corporation. You'd think that with their recognizable name and their funding, that they'd be able to attract a bigger crowd. 
It only shows you that even with big corporations, people have to go and show support. In the opening it's true, a lot of people came because it was something new. Maybe I just expected more people to come to my talk. Going back to the point, it is important for the people to be supportive. One hand can't clap alone. Even if you're doing great things, you need the people to advocate for you and keep pushing. Personally this has been my vehicle, the people. And you know, Ramah said that 90% of her clientele are based in Saudi not Bahrain. That's another problem - people don't care and they're not interested. It's plain and simple: you gotta support your local talent.
You know they had a group exhibition called Urban Nest and they had this French photographer and another French man-
Yeah! For me those two French guys did something that we as Arabs couldn't do. Every time art is mentioned, especially from the West it's always directed towards Lebanon, Palestine, Syria, Egypt, these countries never the Gulf. The GCC is only mentioned when it comes to money - the oil money and what kind of Bentley you drive. It's never to do with art. These guys did something where they went to every GCC country and they came to us in Jeddah. Their book is great, The Khaleeji Voice. I salute them and it was really something very cool that they did. I predict big things for them in the future.
You know I was so happy to see the photographs of their GCC tour at the exhibition, but it was just disappointing in a way that it took a couple of European guys to promote the urban culture of this region instead of the people from here doing it for themselves.
Exactly. And this is what I personally believe, it took two French guys to unite and promote these GCC countries because they just did it! I mean they fought for it, they went to the Bahraini Ministry of Culture and they got funding. You know they got in touch with me and I connected them to artists here and in Kuwait. Shout out to, I call them Mr. Q and Mr. M.

We're going to shift gears just a bit. So writing a blog and then hosting your own radio show are two separate things, you're sharing content and communicating with people in two very different ways. What was that transition like?
I would say that it was very much needed. When I first started it was out of passion. The whole point of the Re-Volt blog was because I was sick and tired of what the FM radio was playing and how they were pushing certain songs. I didn't know how to do a YouTube show at the time. At the time I was just interviewing these artists, like you're doing right now, but mainly in music and hip hop. It was focusing on Arab hip hop and pushing that movement and supporting it. One thing led to another and I got support from these Arab hip hop artists and people started to push my blog as well. I thought to myself, I always had a passion for broadcasting as well. I love to talk, as you can see right now... I pushed for the radio show, not in Saudi Arabia, because in Saudi we only had one radio station and they really don't play hip or English music and they really don't want to support it, I knew that. I went to Lebanon, Qatar, Jordan and the Emirates and in these four countries I pitched my show, which talks about hip hop culture and unfortunately I got the same answer, "No, we want you to play Lil Wayne, 50 Cent." I said that I'm not a DJ, I'm a radio host, I'm going to interview local and regional artists. They said, "I'm sorry this won't sell, we can't do it." I came back to Jeddah and at that time a couple of new radio stations popped up. I pitched the show to Mix FM and within six months they simply gave in, because I went in every day to the manager and said, "I don't care if you don't pay me." What sold is what I told them - I'm bringing in a demographic of people that would never listen to the radio at all. They will listen to my show because it's something authentic and real, it has new tracks. I do have people that only tune in to my show. You know it was a big struggle, a big fight.

Do you think if you visited those countries today that they'd hire you as a radio host?
Yeah I always ask myself that question, I think it's a big possibility. The name and the brand has gotten there. I'm even more confident in myself, I could pitch it much stronger. That being said I do have some shows that are broadcast on Internet radio in the US and Lebanon, but not on the FM. The FM is still very powerful, I wanna bring back this old feeling of listening to a conversation on the radio and knowing that good music can be played on the FM. But to you answer your question, I think that they'd think twice about hiring me. I'm not sure if down the line I'd be going to a station where it has many more followers and a stronger impact. The atmosphere where I am, 85-90% of the people working in the station don't speak English. On my show I do play English music and I do speak Arabic and English about 50/50. Let's say for a country like the U.A.E, where 90% of the population are expats, aren't even locals, this is a population that could connect to me even more. This is something I've been thinking about the past year, it's been on my mind. I'm not sure if it's going to happen or not.

Big Hass hip hop radio show host photograph Saudi Arabia blog
Ali Haji
Yeah it's a big step. You wouldn't be a big fish in a little pond anymore.
Exactly. And your point is very right because I'm trying to make myself stronger, have bigger interviews and so far I've interviewed someone who's never been on a radio in the Arab world, LL Cool J.
Yeah I saw that!
Yeah it was really crazy because when I tweeted him he said that it was the first request that he got from Arabia. And I was like, "What!?" I was shocked. And we hit it off. I reached his manager and he said that he could bring him down any time and stuff like that. I need to do five or six of those before I can hold it down, as they say.

OK so you're working for Mix FM, how much say does the radio station have over the material that you broadcast?
That's a great question. In the beginning they were very picky over the music I played - going over the lyrics, checking them out, even sometimes arguing with me over the songs. But I'm like a bull, as long as it's not too political. A too political track won't get played over here. That being said, it wouldn't get played anywhere in the world. If it's too political it won't get played on the official FM. It can get played on college FM, maybe one or two times, but if it's too political... Look, there's something about the Arab hip hop movement that I need to address. The Arab hip hop movement, when you speak of hip hop, it's the voice of the voiceless, it's the sound of the struggle, that's how it initially started. In the Middle East there's so much craziness, let's call it. I don't call it politics, I call it poly-tricks. it's like a game, but it's the people that are being fed lies. The real Arab hip hop artists will not sing or rap about what the other 99.99% of pop music artists in the Middle East are singing about which is love. This is the statistic that I'm sure of - 99.99% of the pop music that we Arabs listen to talks about I love you, you love me, she cheated on me with that guy, why you miss me, I miss you, it's all about that. I don't have a problem with that, but it doesn't reflect the reality. So what I'm trying to say is that real Arab hip hop artists will definitely discuss politics. For example, Palestine is going through attacks right now, why would they talk about the girl next door? This is something that I personally as Big Hass have had to learn, which is balance. Now I'm not saying all our thing has to be politics or has to be love, no. We have to balance it out. In the beginning I was against everything that was commercial. If you were commercial, I used to hate you. But this comes with part of the maturity, you know I was self taught. Of course commercial people can be good as well, I've learned that. But yeah the radio does have some say in it. If you can believe it in the beginning, the radio only let me submit three songs per week and I'm a weekly show. It was a bit frustrating to me because a lot of new things were being released. And you know my show was only an hour long and alhamduhlilhah it went to an hour and a half then two hours. It's once a week and now people are pushing for twice a week! But back to the point, now I'm allowed 10 or 15 songs, which is a big leap. It really helps me a lot with the direction of the show, playing fresh new tracks every week.

In addition to playing new music from mostly non-commercial artists, you do interviews. What has been your most memorable interview on your radio show?
Wow um, the most memorable interview... Uh I would say... Actually there are a lot, let me give you a couple. I did this one with this Muslim hip hop artist, Baraka Blue and on the show he confessed that he converted to Islam through hip hop. For me that was very powerful. It showed people that hip hop isn't the booty shaking culture that you guys see on TV. Rap stands for rhythm and poetry. When this guy confessed that he converted through this music, I think a lot of people could relate to that. Another interview that actually brought me to tears was one with K'Naan, you know he's Somali and Muslim. One day I tweeted his manager and he told me to be ready in a couple of hours and he came on the show. It was a big, big thing for me. It was something to be proud of. LL Cool J was a cool one. Russell Simmons, the founder of Def Jam records, that was a cool one too. At the end of the day I loved these interviews, but what I'm proud of is the fact that I gave a platform for local and regional artists to speak and be interviewed. This is something that is dear to my heart. When people tune in and hear a local female artist that's singing behind her parents' back for example, when it's an artist like her that has the guts and courage to go on the radio and speak and sing and perform that is way more powerful than giving a radio interview to one of the biggest stars ever. I'm glad to see that some of these local artists have excelled and become popular.

So I've interviewed political cartoonist Khalid Albaih-
Oh you know him? 
Yeah! Khartoon is featured in every single issue. I think his work is brilliant and so simple, it's not complicated. Everybody can understand it. What I did is, I took his cartoon and I showed it to local Sudanese people here and they related so much to what he was saying. Anyways, go on!
Hahaha. Yeah so I've also researched comedian Hisham Fageeh for an upcoming interview, I'm sure you know him-
Yeah those guys are epic.
They both talked about how the Internet changed their lives and their careers. What would you have done if you didn't have the Internet?
I don't think that I'd be talking to you. It's that simple. I had the online radio thing, I used to broadcast to my circle of friends, and then there's Twitter and Instagram. It would have been so difficult. The Internet is a blessing, as long as you use it in the right way. The Internet was definitely my only vessel. I don't know what I would have done without it. The Internet helped me practice my interview skills. I look back and I sucked! I don't know how these artists spoke to me. I had no experience at all. The Internet gave me the experience that I have now.

Who is your favourite hip hop artist right now?
To be fair, I'm going to give you one Arab artist and one international one. From the Arab world it's Omar Offendum, he's a Syrian American poet, activist and hip hop artist. He's basically a great guy, he translates Arab poets so the world can see what great poets we have and he did the same for American poetry, he translated it into Arabic. He helped build the bridge between the West and the Arab world that we so need right now. For the American hip hop artists, there's Public Enemy, Chuck D. whom I met last year in Beirut. There's also this other guy, Brother Ali. I love him because he's this Albino rapper... I mean I love his art, but I love the fact that he's a human first. His focus is on pushing humanity first. He's amazing when you hear him speak. For me as Big Hass, I love it when an artist puts humanity before his art. If you're a human first before an artist then I really connect with him.

What would you recommend to a beginner to the genre? Who's the grandaddy of Arab hip hop?
Omar Effendum, The Narcicyst, who's a Canadian Iraqi hop hop artist... There is as well the Arabian Knightz, who are holding Egypt down. There's Shadia Mansour, the first lady of Arab hip hop who's a Palestinian British MC. All her rap is about what's happening in Palestine. She always performs in her traditional dress. Me as an Arab, when I listen to them I relate a lot to them because of their lyrics. We've been taught not to talk about politics, but when they talk about what I feel inside I feel liberated. Some people think that it's naive to think that music can change the world, but I think that it would be naive not to think so. I have to mention an artist who I saw on YouTube that made me think that I had to start a blog: Lowkey. He's an Iraqi British MC who recently retired. His lyrics are very political and I don't know if he was pressured to get out. I hope he comes back.

Big Hass hip hop radio show host photograph Saudi Arabia blog
How does Arab hip hop distinguish itself from American hip hop and other styles from around the world?
I salute you for that question. A note to any hip hop artists reading this - please don't copy and paste what the hip hop artists are doing in America. I will go on and say that hip hop is an American culture started in the US of course, but it's a worldwide thing now. You can take that culture as it is and do your own thing relative to your own culture to it. This is what the Arab hip hop movement has done. They've started rapping in Arabic, they've started including Arabic beats, Arabic samples from legendary singers in the Arab world, from what we call the Golden Age. Imagine you're listening to a track and you hear samples of Umm Kulthum or Abdel Halim and a guy's rapping over it. It's bridging cultures and bridging ages between the past and the present, between the elderly and the young. I personally believe that the backbone of Arabic hip hop is sampling old Arab, authentic tracks. Another thing that is important is that Arab hip hop artists are becoming some sort of news platform. Especially when it comes to Syria, Palestine and Egypt during the Revolution and stuff. This is something I listen to because I get my news from the street. It was very refreshing to hear that. Brother Ali told me a year ago that the next big hip hop artist will come from Africa or the Middle East because in this continent and countries there is a lot of oppression. Hip hop came from oppression. And he said that listening to African or Arab rappers reminds me of why we started this and how things have diverted from that with commercialism. These guys are returning to the essence of hip hop. That's why it's so important that rappers from here don't just copy and paste! Like why would rappers from Saudi Arabia talk about gangs and shooting each other? We don't have a culture of organized gangs like in the US. I mean Tupac had a gun in his car. Of course he was a philosopher, he gave thug a new meaning - to struggle and to fight. Over here you gotta find that struggle. If your struggle is about putting food on the table, rap about that, if your struggle is corruption in the government rap about that.

What do you see in the future of hip hop in the Middle East?
In order for the Middle East to have a future in hip hop we need unity. There will always be Arab hip hop artists, but we what we need now is unity for it become a big thing. If everyone's just looking to promote me me me, then it won't work. For me, I see myself curating festivals in five years. Maybe not in Saudi Arabia because it's very difficult over here, but in Europe or America. Bring five or six rappers and perform there. Festivals are very important because a lot of people go there, there are workshops...

OK so this is my last question already! So you've said in previous interviews that you initially featured other types of music on your blog, but then you got turned on to hip hop because a friend showed you songs from Shadia Mansour and The Narcysist. So what if another friend showed you a really great reggae record? Are you going to be like Snoop Dog and then become Snoop Lion?
You know that is an amazing question. I'm so dedicated now to this hip hop thing because I got hit by a wall. I felt that I had to dedicate my blog to it because that's what the Arab hip hop culture deserves. That being said, I love supporting local talent. Once in a while, I bring on people who do electronic music, pop music, reggae music. My dedication is always on hip hop, but I'm open to listening to other genres. With all the work that I've done, I feel that I've only covered 2% of the Arab hip hop scene. If I was in the States right now, I could interview so many more people. In Saudi it's a little bit more difficult. But it's so important what you're doing with your blog. You're the voice of the street, you're reflecting what you see. Everything that's on your blog is what you see, what you've heard about. When I first started RE-VOLT I used to say that you can revolt with a pen, you can revolt with an article, you can revolt with a blog. It doesn't have to be a revolt where you have your fist in the sky and you carry a gun and shoot. You can take a picture and that picture will change perceptions.


You may not know anything about Arab hip hop or the genre of hip hop itself, but Big Hass's story is one that can resonate with a lot of people - finding a passion later on in life and becoming dedicated to spreading awareness about it because of the genuine belief that it needs to be heard. And that's the same story of so many of the musicians that this radio show host promotes, they want to educate their listeners on what's happening in Palestine, Syria, or Lebanon because it matters to them and they believe that their genre of music is the way to do it. Thankfully when it comes to hip hop, all you need to do is listen, or in Big Hass's case turn on your radio, to appreciate that story.

You can catch Laish Hip-Hop? on 105.5 FM every Saturday night from 10:00-12:00.

Below are a couple mixtapes done in collaboration with DJ Lethal Skillz, a turn-tablist from Lebanon and a big supporter of the Arab hip hop movement:


  1. truly enjoyed readin this!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! Please keep on coming back :)

  2. Great one, Nadine. He comes across as a sharp and insightful dude. I love the energy these kinds of people can generate. Art needs these people! Thanks for spreading the word.

    1. Thanks Mateo! Glad you liked it. Please keep on coming back for more. My interview with comedian Hisham Fageeh will be happening shortly! :)

    2. Thank you Mateo! Appreciate it.
      Nadine did a great job in askin me questions I never had before. One Love!

  3. You've got some great questions. I'm impressed with both of you.

    1. Thank you Anonymous! Feel free to stop by any time!!

  4. Man, seriously, big up to you brother! I really wish one day I can set with you and talk, you have a great and strong mindset, and sodetermine, humble .. and you really inspire me a lot.. keep it up man.

    1. Truly appreciate you fam. Your positive vibe & continuous support is appreciated a lot ! i need people like you to always tell me this! & again we all human first. I am just doin me & doin what I love. Thank you for reading & sharing

  5. Big did so much to show the real HipHop culture and did a lot in supporting artists he really deserve appreciation.