What’s in your bag? is a recurring feature where we ask people to tell us a bit more about their everyday gadgets by opening their bags and hearts to us. This week, we’re featuring music producer and DJ R3hab.
R3hab, real name Fadil El Ghoul, strides into The Verge with a bubbling energy that ekes into every corner. “Who’s the sound man?” El Ghoul says to the room as he plunks down for his interview. “Make me sound really cool! It’s crazy what a little bit of compression does. Sometimes I listen to myself on the radio and my voice sounds deep!” Everyone cracks a smile. El Ghoul simply can’t help but talk about engineering audio wherever he goes.
The 32-year-old Moroccan-born DJ and producer first popped onto people’s radars in the early aughts, as one of the leaders of the Dutch house music movement alongside names like Afrojack and Chuckie. While on the rise, he racked up millions of plays making four-on-the-floor festival fuel like “Prutataaa,” and was signed to Afrojack’s label. Over the years, the sound he’s put forth has changed, found nuance, and simmered down from raw sawtooth waves and thick kick drums. His 2017 debut album Trouble showed a wider breadth for El Ghoul, and he’s doubled down on exploring slower tempos with recently released follow-up album The Wave.
Though there are a couple showings for big room tracks on The Wave, the album dances all over, from pop to future bass. But mostly pop. There’s even songs that don’t fit into any genre neatly, like “Cherry Blossom,” which uses sounds from a mechanical music box paired against a wandering, lazy and buzzy main line. According to El Ghoul, he had no option other than to dip into other genres. He stopped getting inspiration from making house songs at 128BPM again, and again, and again. “It’s maybe like a chef,” he tells The Verge when trying to describe his musical path. “If you cook Italian the whole time, you don’t get inspired anymore. I was getting less inspired, so I changed the tempo and now I’m even more inspired on the high energy music.” See what else gets El Ghoul going, literally, below.
So you’re a Dutch national and you travel a lot. How many flights do you take a year?
A couple of years ago I made a contest on my social media saying, “Guess how many flights?” and it was 228 in one year! I have not counted them again but I’m still the same status on all the airlines so I think it’s still around 200 a year.
Home is where my laptop is. It’s where I make my music. I live out of a suitcase and a bag. But, I live in Belgium right now.
What’s the one thing you couldn’t do without in your bag?
Laptop! It’s actually a funny story. I was at a certain airport, and I was with my VJ and they confiscated his laptop for no reason. I think they wanted to confiscate mine, too. And I said it’s not happening. That’s my life. That’s my music. They took his laptop and we never got it back. Of course I have backups, but I need this every day. This is my stress reliever, my music maker, and my friend. It sounds weird, but that’s where I can express myself.
Where do you spend your time when you’re not performing?
In the studio. And I like to work out. When I’m not performing I’m still performing behind the laptop. Also I like to go out when I’m traveling and see the cities where I’m at. Now looking back I regret the times where I was not enjoying, I was not seeing the cities, seeing the culture, and I’m actively doing that now. It is difficult because you arrive and then you want to relax, but I’m like nope, Fadil, let’s go out for two hours. Let’s see the city. Let’s enjoy and feel the energy.
Let’s talk about some of your music. Your song “Hold On Tight” from earlier this year sounds very London to me.
Yeah, it’s got an ‘80s vibe. I love the ‘80s, synth-wise specifically. When I did my debut album, Trouble, it was actually pretty soft tempo on purpose. At a certain point I was making music for 10 years and I was stuck on that 128BPM counter every time. I was like, I need to get out of it, because the ideas run out. So my debut album and my new album are a lot more downtempo. It’s just more inspiring for me. It’s maybe like a chef. If you cook Italian the whole time, you don’t get inspired anymore. I was getting less inspired, so I changed the tempo and now I’m even more inspired on the high energy music.
Tell us about the laptop. What’s on it?
All my music. It’s a fully specced out laptop with the biggest hard drive. So I have to carry less in my bag because I hate carrying extra hard disks. I once lost one a couple of years ago and said never again. I use it every day for my music and my e-mails and everything.
You’re on the road all the time with your laptop, your baby. How do you write music using that?
I’m using Ableton on my MacBook with all software plug-ins. For me, what has happened is I get inspired after shows. I’m like, “Oh this could have been better. I need a record like this.” And that’s how I start writing. And many times I use my phone for voice memos. One of my records that just got released, it’s from a voice memo where I had the melody in my head. And then I started composing and finding the right sounds for it. But many times I have some chords or something, and then I have a lot of voice memos. And mostly those voice memos come after the show, when I’m fully inspired. I just played, and I felt the energy, and then I start composing.
What phone are you carrying?
I think this is an iPhone 7 Plus? I didn’t switch to the X yet. I like this one a lot, and it’s working really well, and I like the little stand so when I’m on a plane I can watch something. So yeah, I’m staying on this one.
I’ve got to ask you about the headphones. Because we’ve had a lot of arguments in The Verge office about headphones.
For traveling, comfort is most important. These have a latency so I have to put in the cable. I have other headphones I DJ with. I don’t think these sound amazing, but the noise cancellation just gives that rest on the plane. That constant buzzing is frustrating. I think they need to step it up, all of the noise-cancellation [headphones]. These break quick.
How do you feel about dongle life?
I have this thing, which can charge and you can put four USBs in. I’m not a big fan of the system but I believe USB-C will be the future in a couple of years. So it is what it is — you have to do it. But it’s frustrating because if I lose this thing, and I need USB-Bs to play my sets with then I’m messed up. I have smaller backups with me, but yeah, it’s annoying.
And what are you carrying for charging up?
A Mophie. I’ve got a MiFi for internet. Back in the day I would just hotspot from my phone but that just drains the battery. Anker is really nice because it also has USB-C, which I can use to charge as a backup. Then I have a strong cable for the iPhone. I don’t know why Apple can’t make normal cables themselves because they break all the time. Probably because they like that people buy new cables [laughs].
I noticed a little bit of tech there that we probably don’t see in the US a lot. It’s a little banking thing. Tell us about that.
It’s called an identifier. You put your [credit card] inside and then you can log in and make payments. I think you can make payments on a phone [app] that are below a certain amount, but when you want to make bigger payments you have to use this as protection.
You just bought a camera. What’s that all about?
Yeah I have like a bigger camera and, of course, the phone camera. The phone is handy, but sometimes not creative because then you go on your social media and stuff. So I bought this camera, a new Sony. It has a nice selfie thing so that’s handy when I’m doing a show because I want to show my fans more behind-the-scenes footage. On Instagram there’s a nice picture and it’s that moment, but it doesn’t show how we got to that moment. And that’s what I want to show. I’m trying.
I started recording. It’s not that great yet, but I just want to show people what it is like to be on a tour for six days, and what you carry with you, what you do, what you eat, and how your day looks like. Because they only see the part from 1AM to 3AM, but what’s the rest? I want to do a vlog. Not many electronic artists have one. And I decided to buy this [camera] because I can actually see myself and it’s nice and small.
Are there any vloggers you watch?
You know I haven’t watched too many vloggers. There’s only a couple I really follow like Casey Neistat. But personally I’m not a fan of most vloggers. Most of them I despise. I hope to give some quality to the people and life. I don’t want to show like, I’m so cool, look at me making this. Come on guys let’s give some substance, you know?
How important do you think it is to still play live in front of an audience?
It’s nice to have a social media presence. I think we have around 7 million on Facebook, 2.2 million on Instagram, and more than 1 million on Twitter. The thing is, there is a connection with the fans, but you cannot feel the energy like you feel live, because with live you feel the emotion. It’s nice when I play a festival — I absorb that emotion also. It makes me excited. Of course, posting is nice, but you only show the best on social media and a show is a journey. It’s a roller coaster ride of emotions. That is the biggest difference for me.
Tell us about the money.
When you’re traveling you always have your wallet with you and a lot of cards. But in some countries they don’t like certain credit cards and they like cash. I have a little bit of cash for tipping, of course, and also to pay cabs or whatever. Also when I was 30 I wanted a really nice watch [points to wrist]. Gold is always a good currency around the world. So this watch, if I ever get stuck and I lose everything I can still sell my watch and fly back home. It’s your get out of jail free card.
Why do you have so many health supplements?
It’s actually not that many because when I do supplements, I do research. I’m not a big fan of these packet supplements with 20 things. I like to do them all separately and organically. So for example, here’s fish oil and here’s cod liver oil, and they’re separate. I like to take them separately because fats you need with certain vitamins. It seems a lot but it’s actually not that much.
I put them in daily packages, because I can put it in my pocket if I’m going to dinner and I don’t want to carry this [picks up big container].
It’s vitamin D, magnesium, turmeric, rhodiola, cod liver oil, fish oil, spirulina, and then potassium.
How did you start on the keto diet?
I started on the keto diet because I was having these troubles while traveling. I would eat a lot of snacks and I would get headaches on the plane. I read a couple of books and [watched] some clips on YouTube. I was like, it would be amazing if I wouldn’t eat sugar. I read about intermediate fasting, and then I found combination paleo keto.
So, I have all these fat bombs. That’s how we call them. Sugar-free chocolate with a lot of fat, coconut oil, electrolytes, stevia, because when you’re on keto you need to keep your electrolytes in. Grass-fed [beef stick] with no carbs. And here an almond bar which is keto, paleo, and low glycemic-inspired. And some tea for on the plane because you need to drink a lot. Water tastes really bad on the plane and they always have a poor selection of teas. I don’t want to drink caffeine on the plane, so I bring my own little teas.
What else have you got here?
The only other thing that I really like that I travel with is a cream. It’s pretty weird. It’s sort of a clay and you put it on like... I don’t know what the English word for that is... but it removes the [armpit] odors for a couple of days which is absolutely crazy and you could still put deodorant on it. But it’s very handy. You know with traveling in airports it’s busy, it’s hectic, it’s sweaty.
What about these socks?
These are compression socks. They’re nice for flying. I actually just started using them, but they seem to help. Maybe it’s a placebo effect. I’m not sure.
When did you first decide to become a DJ?
I think I was 15 or 16. I was at a school party and I wanted to dance with girls in a slow song. Finally the slow song came on and I was dancing, and then the DJ changed it to a different song and I’m like, why are you changing it! I’m just dancing! And then I realized, wow this guy is really powerful. He’s the director of the night. And that’s what made me realize I love music. That’s crazy that you can be the director of the night and that you can change people’s emotions.
Did you ever have a plan B career?
My mother made sure there was a plan B. I have a degree in business marketing. When I finished my degree, I asked my mother if I could stay with her for a year because I didn’t have any money. I said [let me] pursue making music again and see if I could get any success in a year. And yeah, that happened in a year. So, now we’re here.
Where do you want to go from here?
Where do I want to go in my career? You know, it’s going very well. I’m looking toward the next five years. I want to inspire people, not only musically, but also mentally, because my biggest trouble in the whole music business was mentally how difficult it is. It’s very draining and I feel like a lot of kids need that knowledge. Everyone thinks, oh it’s just about the music, it’s about the records, but it’s also the mental state. How do you feel after playing for these people? It’s a big rush, right? It’s a big adrenalin pump and then you’re in your hotel room all alone. How can you manage these emotions? That’s what I struggled with. And I have now sort of managed to live with those.
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