Rapper Eslam Jawaad in the UAE

Brit-Syrian hip-hop star on working with Damon Albarn

Interview, Hot seat

Dubai rapper Jawaad, 35, who has worked with Damon Albarn and Wu Tang Clan, played with Gorillaz Sound System on NYE. Rob Garratt caught up with him.

What was it like playing at Atelier on NYE?
It was awesome – everyone enjoyed themselves.

How did you get hooked up with Gorillaz?
Damon [Albarn] had heard about me and liked what I was doing, and he talked to me about working with his band The Good, the Bad & the Queen. We hit it off immediately and moved into a recording studio – within an hour we’d wrapped up a track called ‘Mister Whippy’. I ended up touring with Gorillaz and did about 70 shows – the whole thing. After that I got involved in another of Damon’s projects, Africa Express. And then when the last Gorillaz album [Plastic Beach] came around I was heavily involved in setting up recordings in Syria with the Syrian National Orchestra, and I ended up touring with them.

We thought that Gorillaz as a full band – rather than the Sound System – had split.
I don’t know, things happen. Some people said Blur had split and now they’re about to do another tour. I don’t think they’ll be another [Gorillaz] album on the way any time soon, but I’m sure eventually there’ll be another.

Do you think you’ll work with Damon again?
Absolutely – we always have things in the pipeline. He sent me tracks to work on, and I always end up doing Africa Express, where each year we do a show in Africa and Europe. If Gorillaz ever happens again I’d like to do that, and there’s talk of another The Good, the Bad & the Queen album.

How did you start in music?
I started writing when I was 13. I loved NWA. Ruthless Records used to print its phone number in the CDs, so I used to call and ask to speak to Eazy-E or Ice Cube. I’d speak to Ruthless founder Jerry Heller, who’d be like, ‘They’re not actually here,’ but I’d rap to him down the phone and he’d say, ‘You’re really good, keep it up.’ I’m pretty sure I wasn’t really good.

And when was your big break?
By the time I finished university in Beirut – I studied Arabic history – I realised I wanted to try music, so I moved to London. Sure enough, in the first year I got my stuff heard by [Wu Tang Clan associate] Cilvaringz, who signed me to his label. GZA, RZA and Cilvaringz worked on my debut album, The Mammoth Tusk [2009], which featured De La Soul and Damon.

What was it like touring with Wu Tang?
We had 30 days to do 28 shows – a lot of time was spent on the bus. Being in each other’s faces for 30 days meant there was a lot of ego going on, a lot of intoxication. The Clan always have a lot of infighting. But I’m now co-executive producer of the album they’re working on.
www.myspace.com/eslamjawaad.

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