In a city of 23 million, Ahmed El Ghazoly sometimes had trouble finding a receptive audience for his brand of club music. “My stuff is too weird for Cairo,” he told The Wire a few years back. In fact, El Ghazoly’s output as ZULI sounds extreme just about anywhere. Drawing from hard-edged sounds like techno, trap, and drum’n’bass, his music is not just forceful, it’s fundamentally unstable; even his toughest drums seem dipped in corrosive fluid, so that they flake apart to the touch. Beneath each crumbling beat lies a potential wormhole to points unknown: a torn scrap of UK grime, a blast of static, a fleeting glimpse of crowded cityscape.
Since 2016, when he put out his Bionic Ahmed EP on Lee Gamble’s UIQ label, followed by two more records there over the next two years, ZULI has become a familiar face on adventurous international lineups, slotted among like-minded peers for whom “too weird” can be a point of pride. For the past year, of course, he hasn’t played in public anywhere, at home or abroad. You might guess that a year of enforced solitude would have pointed El Ghazoly back toward the slow tempos and queasy atmospheres of his UIQ debut. Quite the opposite: A collection of six unrelenting club cuts, All Caps is ZULI’s heaviest record yet.
El Ghazoly has good reason to sound so aggressive. Four months after putting out 2018’s Terminal, his most ambitious record to date, he had a follow-up EP ready to be mastered when he fell asleep on a French train and awoke to find that his laptop was gone. He lost the completed record and a big chunk of his sample library and music collection. “Tany” opens All Caps on an appropriately cathartic note, its overdriven Amen breaks hitting with the fury of a fist through drywall. What gives the track its manic edge is a looped vocal sample that’s been pulverized until it’s just a spray of nonsense syllables, like an auctioneer’s spiel peppered with duck calls. “Where Do You Go,” the EP’s other jungle cut, is just as exhilarating: Again, he chops up familiar breaks in fresh (and virtuosic) ways, and he drops in a verse of Arabic-language rapping, briefly giving the song an anthemic feel. Every so often, the whirlwind of kinetic energy is silenced by an eerie, violent shudder of bass, as though the track were imploding upon its hollow core.
The record’s textures are uniformly dazzling. The club cut “Keen Demag” rattles like a rock tumbler packed with agates and razor blades; the footwork-tempo “Bassous” triggers kick drums and hiccupping vocal shots like the bumpers of a pinball machine. The latter is the record’s simplest cut and also its most evil. There’s little more to it than drums and voice, but El Ghazoly stabs at his spartan palette with a sense of controlled violence.
Despite the scowling intensity and occasionally acrid mood, All Caps isn’t entirely dour. It can actually be quite funny. The lumbering trap song “Penicillin Duck” gets its title from a garbled vocal sample that does, in fact, sound remarkably like the titular phrase. And the closing “Bro! (Love It)” is structured around an actual joke, punchline and all. For the song’s first two minutes, El Ghazoly lays on the EP’s messiest, most disheveled drumming. Then, as the tempo slows and broken beats give way to North African reeds and percussion, an American-accented voice interjects: “Oh my god, this has Egyptian music all over! Love the Arabic fusion, bro!” If you were casting a voice actor and needed the Most Annoying Guy in the World, this would be him.
In interviews, El Ghazoly has criticized the Orientalist narratives that Westerners impose upon Egyptian styles like mahraganat, a working-class genre often praised, and exotified, for its noisy immediacy. Likewise, as a global citizen who spent the first 10 years of his life in London—“All my influences come from the internet and, before that, from MTV,” he says—he bristles at the idea that he should be tasked with representing some idealized Egyptian sound, even an underground one. In “Bro! (Love It),” he drives the point home.
After the Most Annoying Guy in the World exits the scene, El Ghazoly turns a dial, and the North African ensemble morphs back into a chaotic club beat. Then, another voice appears, like someone poking their head into the DJ booth: “Excuse me, excuse me, hi—What happened to the North African music you were playing earlier?” The song was inspired by a real-life DJ gig in Berlin, he says, when a listener mistook his hard-drum selections, part of a global subgenre that stretches from London to Mexico City, for traditional North African music. Here at the end of a blistering EP, his impromptu mashup feels both hilarious and scathing, a bravura display of subverting expectations and demolishing stereotypes. The producer whose music is too weird for Cairo, it turns out, is a few steps ahead of European clubbers, too.
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