ZULI: A Very Modern Sampler
The importance of sampling in the evolution of electronic music can never be overstated. Especially when considering the building blocks of hip hop and jungle, using recorded material as a sound source for manipulation and exploration completely tore down preconceived notions about who could make music and what skills or equipment were required. Sampling technology was a critical development, especially with Akai’s MPC and E-MU’s SP1200, but these instruments were created in response to an artform that stemmed from the DJ. Hip hop’s architects created their new music by juggling funk, soul and disco records to create their own collages – the new wave of purpose built samplers in the ‘80s simply accelerated and expanded the practice.
Sampling has come a long way since then, but some of its fundamental principles remain. What was critical to, for example, the distinctive crunch of an East Coast hip hop record from Marley Marl’s studio or the grit of a groundbreaking 4Hero jungle workout was the sonic qualities of the machines they were using. In many cases, this was as much about purposefully misusing the machines’ functions to meet their creative needs. This was especially true of jungle, where miniscule sampling time and a pursuit of faster tempos led to some of the most distinctive time-stretch textures in dance music history.
ZULI bends classic drum and bass breaks into striking new shapes on this track from his 2021 EP All Caps
In the constant retro-fetishization of vintage production methods and their attendant sounds, it’s easy to overlook the potential tucked away in more modern music tools. Cairo-based producer ZULI is not someone trapped in the past though, and the dazzling futurism of his music is testament to that fact. Listening to the sound design-rich beats on his debut album, 2018’s Terminal, or his spellbinding EPs on UIQ, Haunter and more recently Boomkat Editions, you’d imagine his tool kit pivots around crafty synth plug-ins and intricate device chains. But in fact, the artist otherwise known as Ahmed El Ghazoly, while steeped in sample culture, only uses Live's native devices and synths, especially Operator.
“Most of the time when I'm trying to achieve something, I'm not entirely conscious of the steps,” El Ghazoly explains from Cairo. “What I try to do generally in my practice is divide my time between sessions just for sound design and other sessions for writing, so that when I'm writing, I don't get too distracted if I need a sound.”
In our conversation, we’re focusing on the specific approach El Ghazoly takes to sound design by manipulating sampled material and recording the sessions as WAV files to be cut up and re-sampled. According to El Ghazoly, this technique makes up roughly half of his work, alongside improvising with synthesized material. There are no rules to the source material El Ghazoly will reach for, although he always prefers full tracks to one-shots and dedicated samples.
Beat tape, Egyptian style – ZULI mashes up loops of the funk and jazz recordings he grew up on in Cairo
“Even if I just want one kick-sounding hit, I'd rather do that from an entire track and filter it down or EQ it. It just sounds richer.”
Whatever he’s sampling, from traditional Arabic music to blues, his process is focused on never leaving anything in a recognisable state. What makes El Ghazoly’s approach especially interesting is his preference for a typical two decks and mixer DJ setup as his primary tool for the job.
“I use CDJs and a mixer like they were a sampler,” El Ghazoly explains. “It’s old-school sampling with a modern twist, I guess. I’m taking sounds from records, but instead of using a turntable, I use a CDJ, which is more advanced and has a lot more options.”
Part of the ingenuity inherent in sample-oriented musical forms is the friction against limitations the pioneers had to embrace. With prohibitive sampling times, lo-fi signal chains and sound sources largely limited to the physical media you could acquire, a huge amount of the identity and charm of these foundational genres lay in how technical challenges were overcome in creative ways. For El Ghazoly, the CDJ set up of course offers far more options than analogue, vinyl-oriented DJ setups do, but still there are finite boundaries which his sample manipulation has to push up against. Compared to the limitless options for sample processing ‘in the box’, the modern DJ set-up is oriented around core functions like pitch control, looping, hot cues and the comparatively modest effects you’d expect to find on an industry-standard DJ mixer.
The pitch control range, which is especially wide on CDJs, is a rich area of exploration for creating new sounds out of existing ones.
“You can turn anything into a bass sound using the right EQ and filter settings,” El Ghazoly says of extreme pitch settings. “It's very easy to make drones and interesting textures as well. When you have ‘Master Tempo’ on and pitch something down considerably, it gives you a time stretch-y artefact I really like. Some people think it's kitsch, but I personally really like that sound. And it can be very interesting when you combine that with time-based effects like reverb and do drastic slides on the pitch. Sometimes I even try and perform melodies with the pitch.”
CDJ Hot Cue pads have become central to El Ghazoly’s practice too, fulfilling a time-honoured role carried out by MPCs or any other drum pad you care to mention. When he’s sampling and experimenting, Hot Cues are what he uses if he has a specific rhythm he wants to include in his session, whether it’s based around drum sounds in a track or other noise he wants to use as percussion. Of course there are many other ways to get the same results, but sometimes a simple difference in interface can have profound impact on the creative process.
“I'm just familiar with [CDJs] because I’ve played on them so much,” says El Ghazoly. “That’s also another reason for me to try and experiment with something outside of Live’s native devices. Other than using the CDJs for sampling, I don't even use third-party plug-ins.”
As well as manipulating samples to generate new sounds, El Ghazoly also uses his two-deck approach to create and extract new rhythms and grooves. The source material can vary wildly from session to session, but a typical one might find a loop of a track rolling on the deck A, while deck B has a track set up with hot cue points for El Ghazoly to jam out his own rhythm on. By adding time-based delay into the mix on deck B, all sorts of unusual, un-quantized rhythms are created. Once he takes the WAV recording of his experiment into a Live set, he can extract the resultant groove and apply his own sounds to it.
Fluent In Mouse
While the ‘traditional’ DJ set up gives El Ghazoly a tactile, expressive way of experimenting to generate new sounds, he also replicates the methodology purely within Live too. The key difference here is the interface, where the faders and pads are traded for the trusty, and often maligned, trackpad.
“My brain behaves differently when I'm using the mouse instead of my hands,” he explains, “and differently doesn't necessarily carry any negative connotations. I've been using a mouse since 2002 for production, and the first time I ever used a controller for production was around 2010. So I guess I'm fluent in mouse!”
ZULI’s beginnings as a beatmaker in the Cairo hip-hop are well represented in numerous collaborations with rapper Abyusif
It’s worth mentioning at this stage El Ghazoly lives in Cairo, where shipping a controller from a European stockist would have been prohibitively expensive. Similarly, he never had access to vinyl turntables or new records – his entry into DJing in the late 90s was via all-in-one Denon CD mixers with jog wheels for pitch controls, manual loop setting and cumbersome buttons to nudge tracks back and forth. It’s little wonder the craft of CDJing is so intrinsic to his artistry.
When riding the trackpad and working solely within Live, El Ghazoly follows a similar path of sample manipulation and resampling as he does with the CDJs, but the overall pace is more methodical and certain tools become more important in the process.
“I have a lot of fun with Ableton Live's Warp functions,” he reveals. “CDJs just have two Warp modes, the re-pitch and the other one. But with Live, stretching sounds produces so many possibilities, especially in terms of turning something into something completely different, like a drone into a rhythm or the other way around.
“I can talk for hours and hours about Warp modes! I love Re-pitch for obvious reasons, but the reason Beats can be more interesting is that you can specify how often loops occur, and you can really mess up the timing with that and generate very interesting grooves. And then when you start playing with the different looping modes, and combine that with how many beats, it's just amazing. Beats is very powerful.”
“My brain behaves differently when I'm using the mouse instead of my hands”
There are of course functions within Live that deliver similar results to the CDJs – using Simpler’s slice mode to jump around in a track like you would with Hot Cues, or using the Sampler for more extreme pitch variations. But there are more options available to El Ghazoly in Live as he traverses further down the rabbit hole of sampling and re-sampling – for example sending samples into reverbs and re-sampling the tails and putting them into instruments. The question is, how does he know when to put a sound down?
“Sometimes I keep working on a sound for years,” he admits. “But what I found is good practice, for me at least, is putting the sample in a Sampler or a Simpler and save that in my own User Library, with its effects chain if there is an effects chain.”
Beyond the studio
El Ghazoly’s re-sampling is more than just a studio technique though – thanks to its grounding in DJ technology, it gives him flexibility on the road as well. Most touring artists have stories of technical malfunctions or misfortunes that required an element of last-minute improvisation to honour a gig booking.
“One time, I think it was January 2019, I was on my way to a residency with Muqata'a from Palestine,” explains Eh Ghazoly. “My stuff was stolen on the way. Everything I had on me. Luckily, we were doing a residency in Poitiers at Le Confort Moderne and they have a record store. They were kind enough to give me a turntable, mixer and a laptop, and I plugged everything in and I just sampled from the record store. In my set with Muqata’a, I was doing drums with hot cues using drum sounds from individual tracks I’d just sampled.”
In his hands, the CDJs become a traditional instrument like any other. El Ghazoly talks with fondness about radio sessions where he was able to browse his friends’ tracks and turn an Egyptian track into a pad, or finding a kindred CDJ-jamming spirit in Ziúr. As long as he has some kind of sonic material to feed the interface with, he can manipulate the finite controls at his fingertips and express himself, until the sampled sounds become, undeniably, his own.
Text and interview by Oli Warwick. Photos © Malak El Sawi