Not many record label founders can confidently say they never met each other in person or that they operate a record label 100% virtually, but Sefr Records and its founders are different. Growing up in regions of political turmoil and militant borders, Palestinian rapper Mohamed Jamil AKA She'rab and Syrian producer Abdo Ineni AKA Smokable crossed paths online in 2017 upon discovering each other's music. They both felt certain musical compatibility that had to be harnessed, a compatibility that saw its results flourish in their controversial rap debut of the same year She'rab and Smokable, the same album that kick started Sefr Records into existence.
From the layered experimental productions of Smokable - whose idea of creating rap beats involve heavy sampling, ambient soundscapes, contorting beats and electro-acoustic instrumentation to She'rab's evocative hard hitting rap bars that intersect Smokable's slick productions effortlessly, the sound of Sefr as a label was set, it became an inclusive music platform that sought to create a space for contemporary regional sound spheres to thrive. Upon releasing their first album, Sefr Records have been constantly putting out material, one release after the other - from Egyptian electronica duo Noiztatic's The Absent, to fellow Egyptian Besh's alternative rap release El Wesh El Tani, to Syrian ambient producer Eromoscape's After Death, to Smokable's conceptual triptych album Abad: Hell, Purgatory and Heaven and continual single releases from the likes of Jordanian rapper Shouly and more, it was evident that Sefr had no intentions of framing or limiting the sound pallet of their record label.
With only two years of experience, a versatile arsenal of artists and the profoundly intriguing case of operating a Syrian Palestenian musical label exclusively online, we had to understand the inner workings of this new typology that Sefr operates with - So we got to talk to the masterminds behind Sefr She'rab and Smokable who gave us valuable insight to such a fascinating case.
What was the starting point or the driving force that led to creation of Sefr?
Smokable: To destroy all predictability and to never compromise our music vision for the Middle East or the rest of the world, that is the guiding momentum behind Sefr's music philosophy. I mainly work as the executive music producer and engineer behind all Sefr's musical output. Our work as Sefr stems from the intent to construct a bridge of consciousness between Middle Eastern, European, and American artists.
She'rab: Sefr collaborates very intimately with the artists it chooses to work with, as the work for the albums and the singles is all produced, engineered, and visually designed in-house. In the beginning, the label started with our debut rap album She'rab and Smokable that came all the way from Syria and Ramallah in 2017, sparking controversy and kick-starting Sefr's statements..
How has it been like for you as an Arab Syrian/Palestenian Label operating on a global and regional scale? Has there been any setbacks?
Smokable: It has been a real challenge on the Regional and Global scale. The costs and the effort behind producing so many artists who live in different parts of the world at once is a continuous effort that needs its own kind of dedication.
She'rab: Since a lot of our artists use the Arabic language and a lot of our vocal artists want to innovate with the Arabic language, it has been harder to pierce through on a global scale. However, the support we receive from our regional fans has been an essential part in our inspiration to keep going.
In your bio it says the label has roots that extend to Europe and USA, can you elaborate a bit on that part?
She'rab: Due to visa issues and geo-political travel restrictions, the members and artists of Sefr Records, including us, the founders, have never met each other. Currently, Abdo is in Europe composing for European artists and for Syrian Theatre for example. Sefr's philosophy is that the "home" of the artist is only inside. That is why wherever our artists are, including Europe and the states, we feel like we spread the music of our homes there and we absorb the music of where we end up living as well.
Smokable: We base our work heavily on the internet, and we compensate for the distance with extensive online work sessions with the artists whom we we work with, as we go beyond the imaginary lines. We do not limit ourselves with artists strictly from Syria, as we produce and create with Arab artists in Syria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Romania, Amsterdam, but most of the artists involved in the label have never met face-to-face. Since each one of us is in a different country, including in Europe and the USA, we try to curate our own work in these areas too.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and equally geo-political divide and its resulting travel restrictions call for a virtual connectivity, a connectivity that transcends all physical borders through weaving together cultures and their contemporary musical identities under one virtual construct of a roof, unobstructed by barricades, border control, checkpoints and blockades of freedom.
How has it been it like running a label virtually?
Smokable: It has been a challenge to say the least, when a label's concept is based off releasing Arab artists all who live all across the globe then the virtuality of the process is definitely an important factor in maintaining its energy.
She'rab: However, there is a positive factor in this in which the artists working on the music far away from each other get to feel each other's music in a different way, an inwards way that doesn't focus on the human interaction between people but rather on the music itself and our relationship alone working with it upto a certain degree. of course, there is constant communication happening densely between the artists. However, the process still retains a mystic "aloneness" virtually.
A lot of labels usually limit themselves to a genre of which they operate through, but with Sefr we see diverse fields of genres - from experimental, to post rock, to rap and more, where does this vision of representing different sound spheres come from?
She'rab: The idea to not be restricted with "genre" is one of the main ideas that we started with before we launched Sefr. We feel that by pushing Sefr beyond genre we will in turn influence the Middle Eastern and Western audience to new grounds.
Smokable: The lack of musical diversity in the general taste of the Arabic youth is another reason we push hard towards our releases being unpredictable in their sound, I believe this creates excitement for both the artists of Sefr and the audience who follows our releases.
Tell me more about what goes behind the process of the Label's visual curation and identity?
Smokable: Sefr's visual director Tariq Abdullah is the driving visual force behind Sefr's visual identity, his fascination with Arabic calligraphy is also an influence on our visual curation. However, animation combined with sculpture and painting is also important to us and we curate that with artists mainly from Syria, Jordan, Palestine, and Romania.
Can we get some elaboration on the part in Shi'rab soundcloud bio that says "Soundclouder of the Day' in Spring 2013, that's why I have so many followers.." ?
She'rab: I came into the Arabic rap scene at an early stage in its development in Ramallah. In the height of the support of Soundcloud to underground Arabic artists, my profile was chosen to be highlighted to the whole community of Soundcloud in 2013, and my music was projected unto the minds of millions of people during that time.
What elements come into play when you're choosing the artists you work with?
Smokable: The artist's sound, vision, and open-mindedness is one of the most important factors. This sort of quality can manifest itself even through a rough demo from a certain artist who comes in contact with Sefr. I mainly choose the artists and then proceed to produce, engineer, and create with the new artists based on one factor, the clear presence of the artist's soul and inspiration in the music.
Tell me about some artists you've been working with for a while and if there's any new upcoming ones on Sefr?
Smokable: We have a big surprise for a new unique intercontinental project happening on Sefr soon, we will let you in on that in the near future. On another hand Sefr has ongoing projects set for 2020 with releases from Smokable (Syria), Eromoscape (Syria), Krist El Zou'bi (Jordan), Daz Khaz (Syria), Kalabsha (Syria), we will also be releasing some compilation albums and tapes from regional and European artists curated by Abdo Ineni (Smokable)
What do you provide your artists as a label?
Smokable: We want to ensure that our artists vision is musically and visually mature and presented in its whole once the release arrives. We provide our artists full distribution deals across all internet music platforms as well as videos and graphic design work in parallel with their vision of their identity. For us, an artist's arrival at Sefr is a baptism and a rebirth as well, and we take upon it with full force and attention to detail as we work with the artist to carefully craft complimentary material to their music.
What roles do you believe Arab and Middle Eastern record labels play in developing the local and regional music scenes?
Smokable: We feel that a music labels role is to support and establish a power of influence to inspire, but not to create needless competition in such an infant scene.
She'rab: A focus of artists coming together as a force is an important role a music label should play today in the Middle East. Especially, with all the hidden talents across the region that are just bubbling to breakthrough into a wider audience.
Where have you seen your biggest support come from? Was it from other fellow Syrians or has it been a mixed bag?
Smokable: We have seen support come from all over the Middle East. Today, an increasing support from Europe is also being felt at Sefr and we hope to see more of that as we continue with more ambitious music releases in the future.
How do you stay afloat and manage being successful as a record label in today's market?
Smokable: Our dedication and love for music is what pushes us forward in today's market in the Arab world. We invest financially in Sefr through our private efforts without expecting a return on it in the same way a company does. Options are very limited for labels that are no backed up by sponsors, so we try to expand in any way we can until we can reach a more stable monetary ground. Without passion, nothing can be sustained in a world full of adversity.