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Liberate Your Ears: Meet Saudi Arabia’s Only Hip-Hop DJ

Hass Dennaoui‘s story, he tacitly confesses to us on the phone, is “strange”. He doesn’t write, produce, or record music, and he doesn’t rap – so how did he come to be the host of not only a Hip-Hop radio show, but the most the most successful weekly programme on Saudi Arabia’s Mix FM?

“It all started on one day in 2009, when my friend from Canada turned up with a mix tape.” When he talks, you can tell you’re speaking with a personality that was made for radio; breathless, yet eloquent – jumping around from topic to topic, before tying up all the loose ends of each story to answer loose ends of each story to answer individual questions.

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Before discovering Arabic hip-hop, Hass couldn’t relate to, or enjoy, mainstream music – according to Hass, Saudi Arabia’s conservative music industry only pushes mainstream Western artists across a narrow band of media outlets. The mix tape changed all of this for him.

“We drove around listening to it, and my eyes were opened. I stayed up until 5am that night, finding out more and more.”

It wasn’t enough to just find the music, Hass wanted to everyone to know about it. That night, he became Big Hass.

Five years later, he finds himself a changed man. He’s interviewed everyone from Chuck D to K’NAAN, and been cited as one of the main drivers of the movement by most Arabic rappers – he’s usually been the first DJ ever to play their songs on air.

“The music made me re-evaluate how I think, how I react to things, who my friends were.”

Hip-hop affected Big Hass on a spiritual level – passages and references to the Koran can be found in most of the songs he plays. Now he is a total music convert, who spends his time proselyting the merits of the genre on his radio show (Laisch Hip-Hop), magazine and blog (Re-Volt), and popular Twitter feed (@Big_Hass).

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“Music is universal, not to be cliché,” he laughs, emphasising the transitive properties that religion and music have. “People from countries whose governments hate each other can work together on the same track – all thanks to the internet.”

The music also has the power to inform, politically and socially; Big Hass admits that he didn’t know much about the situation in Palestine, or in some countries in Africa, before he started listening to it.

“It’s better than the news.” Hass sees hip-hop as an opportunity to promote mindfulness in your outlook at the world – to listen is to liberate.

When one considers Islam’s predilection for poetry, and raps origins as the voice of the voiceless, it was only a matter of time when the two worlds would collide. Indeed, it’s hard not to be moved when listening to the storytelling coming out of the best artists in the scene.

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So how does he consolidate the current hip-hop scene in the West – which, some argue, celebrates mindlessness, misogyny, and boastfulness – diametrically opposed to what Big Hass is trying to promote? He doesn’t think you can draw a comparison.

“It’s all about keeping it real,” he says, borrowing a common phrase from the United States. “We’re talking about our own issues, trying to be humble. There’s no gang culture in Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t make sense for us to talk about it, but sometimes [Saudi artists] talk about rolling around shooting people, and it’s like, ‘Who are you even shooting at?’ That’s not keeping it real.”

The themes and issues that brought artists together in the 70s in the States is doing the same now in the Middle East: unity, the power to create change. Drawing on these decades-old roots, Re-Volt Magazine, made of two words – ‘Revolution’, and ‘Voltage’ – is intentionally rebellious; counter-culture for a new generation of music fans.

“You can rebel with a song, and you can rebel with a pen, with any form of art.”

Hass pushes this message through his blog (a precursor to the radio show) of the same name, as well as to thousands of followers on Twitter and Soundcloud. But he has one gripe he’s yet to overcome with his overwhelming positivity – the Middle East’s music industry at large.

“Arabic rappers are not rapping about, ‘I love you, you cheated on me, blah blah blah’, so they don’t get mainstream recognition. They don’t even get support from the Arab world.”

Local artists aren’t invited to support the Western artists that come to play in the region. Do those industries pander to a Western audience, or one that only wants to consume Western media? “Yeah, could be. The industry isn’t concerned with Arab issues; they’re ignored.”

Sometimes, this lack of attention gives some artists a more freedom; Hass recounts a story of the artist, ‘Invincible‘: “She’s very pro-Palestine, an activist for women’s rights, which comes through in her music. She was offered a big contract, but they said, ‘Okay, this is how you will look, this is what you’ll be about.’ They wanted to change her, so she turned it down.”

“Record labels are dying, man. Now you just need a good team, a Soundcloud page, and some visuals, and you can make it on your own.”

Hass himself is an example of this – he’s a self-made hip-hop machine, the hardest worker in the scene – all in his quest to bring rap to the Middle East. He gave a successful TEDx Arabia talk on the subject in 2011, and now he’s preparing to celebrate the first anniversary of the magazine.

It wasn’t an easy road – he’s worked tirelessly for no money, and been called an infidel for his taste in music. Now he dreams of making a documentary about his passion, and to curate a hip-hop festival for the artists he loves. He’s hopeful.

“I always say, ‘Keep on banging the door. The door is made of steel, you can’t break it down. But if you keep on banging, eventually someone inside is going to open it and say, ‘Enough already, stop banging. Come inside.’”

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-Interview by Chris Yeoh

To find out more, you can follow Big Hass on Twitter @Big_Hass, on SoundCloud, listen to his radio show every Saturday night on Saudi Arabia’s Mix Fm, and read Re-Volt Magazine and his blog.

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