King of the 808: Egyptian Lover Talks
Greg Broussard – aka Egyptian Lover – has devoted his life to squeezing every last boom and snap from the Roland 808. He's been making people go wild for over 30 years now – watch the seminal 1983 documentary Breakin' N' Enterin', a who's who of West Coast hip hop culture, and there's Lover; cutting records on stage with Ice T, demonstrating to camera how to pull earth shaking rhythms from an 808, and generally being the genial, life loving musician he remains today. The internet has enabled him to enjoy a rennaisance of sorts and, right now, Egyptian Lover is in a good place, doing what he loves doing – writing fresh, bass booming party jams and playing them loud all round the globe. When I phoned him he was driving. "Let me just pull the camel over" he cracked, parked up, and proceeded to lay it down…
You’re coming over to the UK to play at the Bloc Weekender – What form does your live show take now?
Well, the live aspect comes from playing the 808, and I bring my drum machine with me, my 808, and I actually sing a couple of songs whilst playing my 808.
So in many ways it’s a similar show to what you’d have been doing in the 80's.
Yeah, exactly what I did in the 80’s. My show is actually the evolution of the Egyptian Lover. So when I come out, I start off as a DJ, as I was in the 80’s, playing the exact same records that I played in the 80’s, like Planet Rock, Electric Kingdom and Kraftwerk. Then I go into my drum machine and I play some beats and I start singing over the drum machine, and then I play the records that I made when I was producing records.
I always remember seeing the footage of doing the 'what is a DJ if he can't scratch' routine – is that going to be getting an airing?
I’m definitely going to be doing some crazy DJ/turntabling skills. I actually play Planet Rock backwards by hand and mix in Electric Kingdom on the left turntable at the same time.
What’s the best show you’ve ever done?
There are so many good shows it’s hard to say. I actually did one that stands out in my head. It was in Dublin. It was a festival and it was raining, everybody was standing in the mud with their rubber boots on and I was playing the 808 drum machine and we had a chant going that went ‘8, 0, motherfucking 8’ and everybody was screaming it out loud like crazy. And then the chant went ‘I need an Irish freak’ and then the crowd just kept on going ‘Irish! Irish! Irish!’ When I’d finished and went backstage and the next performer came on the crowd just wouldn’t stop chatting ‘Irish! Irish! Irish!’ The poor guy had to stop performing and we had to come back out and plug the 808 back in and play the song again. Everyone went crazy.
Have you ever been tempted by the laptop revolution, or is it something that you’ve just thought isn’t for you?
Well, when it first came I did a gig with a friend of mine – Arabian prince – and we wanted to test out the computer records vs the real records. So we both played the exact same record at the beginning of the party. He was playing Hashim, and I was also playing Hashim, and nobody was watching him play the record, they were just dancing or whatever. When they saw me flip the actual record over they came over to my side of the stage and were watching what I was doing. We were both doing the same kind of tricks, but when I played the people wanted to see the label on the record, and what I was pulling out of the crate, and how I was flipping the record over and moving the needle around. You’re just giving more of a show when you’re using vinyl. I said right then and there that I’m always going to use vinyl because laptops just seem to take the show away.
So there are tunes that you can never play because they haven't come out on vinyl?
Well, I only play the old school stuff anyway so everything I have is on vinyl! All my new stuff will be on vinyl as well so it’s not something I’m worried about.
And you’re still writing tunes?
Yes. I have a couple of albums coming out.
Yeah, I have an Anthology coming out on Stones Throw and I also have an album coming out called 1984 on Egyptian Empire Records.
Okay, it’s interesting that you have one coming out on Stones Throw because you’re an artist that straddles the house/ hip-hop divide in a way that not many do.
Yeah. It’s crazy how it all works out.
Stones Throw are generally seen as a hip-hop label – maybe they’re a bit left of center but you know, that’s their thing, but in the UK, a lot of people that are into you are very much more from the house and techno side of things.
Well, when I first started making records it was considered hip-hop. I guess it’s different all over the world, the way that people label things. When I first started making it, it was called hip-hop and that’s what Peanut Butter Wolf remembers it was. It was definitely a hip-hop song. And the same with What Is A DJ If He Can’t Scratch. All the hip-hop radio stations played them. On the West Coast when it first came out it was considered hip-hop but as the years went on and music changed it merged into other categories. But to me, it’s just all dance music. If you can dance to it and it’s good music then just go ahead and do it.
Do you think in the US there was a resistance to dance music? Do you think people found it easier to embrace something labeled as hip-hop?
I’m not really sure what people were thinking. But everyone had their own kind of hip-hop. Like the West and East Coast both had different styles. Miami had their own style, Detroit had their own style, The South had a style, Chicago had a style. It was just party music and we all loved all of it.
I’m interested in the Egyptian imagery – what was it that drew you towards it?
Well it all started when a friend of my father actually came to where I was DJing at my house and he said that I looked Egyptian, with the big sideburns and hump in my nose. So from that point I thought of calling myself Egyptian Something, I was thinking maybe Egyptian Prince or something like that. Eventually I stuck with Egyptian Lover as that was a nickname that I’d picked up way before I’d even started making records. I’d always really liked the fact that King Tut was a young king and the fact that he was a king of his own empire – and that’s what I wanted to be. A king of my own empire, or record label.
Was there ever an Afro-centric element to the decision, or was it just pure coincidence that it was this great African kingdom?
It was a coincidence. But I mean, I guess it was always on my mind- the kind of things, like the fact that even today we can’t really figure out how they built the pyramids or how to replicate it. It just blew my mind how they were so advanced that they had schools at the same time when there were other people living in caves. I’ve just always been a fan of the Egyptians.
I guess in a way, the futurism that they seemed to have back in the day sort of matched with what you were doing – musically, you were building pyramids when other people were sitting in caves…
Have you ever thought about tweaking your 808? I’ve seen that a lot of people mod them now.
Yeah, but I’m not really into that sound. I love the sound of the original 808 and all I do is EQ it to make it thicker or louder or put some reverb on it or something like that.
So you wouldn’t pitch the kick or anything like that?
No. I like the original sound of it. I turn the decay up on the 808 so you get that boom come out of it. When it’s live at a concert, you’ll definitely hear the analogue big bass of the 808.
It’s such a young instrument isn’t it? Guitars have been around for like 900 years or something but the 808 has only really been here for 20 or 30. Do you feel that it’s still got a lot to offer?
Oh definitely. I remember when they went out of fashion and they were all in the pawnshops and I just went and bought them all! Every single one I found, I bought. Now if mine breaks I have another one. I have 6 of them now and I love every single one of them. Every one sounds pretty much the same, but because they're analogue they each have a slightly different character to them and I love that about them.
So do you reach for a certain one for different performances?
Well, I only have one that I take on the road. It’s the one that’s beat up and been the airport countless time and all scratched and busted up. Customs even took it apart at one airport. They actually unscrewed it and took it apart because they didn’t know what it was. So I’ve never checked it in ever again and just carry it with me. That was on my way to Portland, from LA to Portland.
So that’s not the 808 you write your tracks on in the studio?
No, I have different ones for different things. I have one for the studio, one for just making stuff up on at home, I have one still in the box, I still have the one I made Egypt Egypt with. I actually have two that I take on the road – one for Europe and one for America.
What’s the difference between the European one and the American one?
Just different beats. The European one has more electro type beats in it.
Okay, that’s interesting. What’s the cheapest you’ve ever bought an 808 for then?
About 3 of them for $400 each.
When was that?
That was back in the 90’s, the early 90’s.
So if you only play old school stuff, what’s the point in your set where it cuts off for you? What point do you think, ‘this is where I want to go up to, but I don’t want to go past here’?
Well, that’s interesting actually. I play stuff that I played before I started making records myself. The only things that I have from after I started making records is probably Telephone Call and I think that’s what ’86, maybe ’87. So that’s the latest I go.
So everything after that is purely your music?
So who have you drawn influence off of then? Have there been people where you’ve thought ‘yeah, I’m feeling what they’re doing’?
Wow, yeah. A lot of people! Since the internet you can hear a lot of different people that haven’t necessarily been popularised by everybody else. I mean, who only have 100 followers or something like that. But I get a lot of inspiration from a lot of different people. When I was making music I could hear people down my street coming up with ideas so I’d think about what they were trying to do and go and do something like this. I take my influences from everywhere though, even the TV. I take a lot of it from the club and listening to other DJ’s mixing and pull together things in my own mind and then come up with something different. I listen to a lot of old stuff. I still listen to old Kraftwerk and a lot of stuff from Detroit and the freestyle music out there. I can listen to it and rearrange it in my mind and come out with something brand new.
Are you still living in the same areas that you grew up in?
Yeah, pretty much the same area. I mean, I’m around the area. I have a couple of different homes around the area that I used to be so I’m never too far away. It’s still LA County.
So are there any kids coming up that you’ve thought about showing how to play an 808?
Yeah, there are a lot of kids coming up. I’d love to show them the 808, but they really just want to stay with the laptops and turn them onto different programs like Fruityloops as they can make an 808 beat on there or whatever kind of beat they feel like. A lot of different kids probably like playing on their phones or iPads or whatever more than actual real equipment. There’s one guy, named Brian Ellis that can actually play music and he will listen and learn every single thing that I show him and will then re-interpret it in his own way. I think he’s probably the most creative person I’ve met in the last 30 years.
Yeah. He has a record out right now actually. He’s on a funk album, and he’s actually in 3 or 4 different bands. He’s doing a funk band right now under Brian Ellis and he’s also in a rock ‘n’ roll band called Astra. So he’s doing a lot of different things. He also plays keyboards on my album because he was so great that I just had to have hive play on my album. He’s a very talented cat.
Okay. So what can people expect from you now, lyrically, with the new stuff.
Well, the album is called 1984, So I went back to the studio with the exact same equipment that I used back then, so I’m using the 808, Jupiter 8, keyboards. I brought them all out of storage and cleaned them all up so it was the exact same studio that I recorded in back the day. I’ve been trying to get that same sound and it’s been working out. There are 11 songs and one more to go to until I can release the album.
So lyrically, are you going to return to those 80’s themes as well?
Definitely. It’s less of a rap and more of a chant going through a vocoder and stuff like that. It’s really, really old school.
You went in a lot with using the vocoder. What are your feelings on auto-tune? Is it the modern equivalent?
I actually made a song with the auto-tune and it’s called Freaky DJ. I like it, but you still have to have a little bit of talent to use it and make it do what you want it to do. It’s a cool tool and with the vocoder on top it’s just another way of putting yourself out there.
So to finish up, is there anything you want to tell the people of England to look out for when you come over?
Wow, well… Just be ready for another exciting Egyptian Lover moment because every one that I do is a moment that you will remember for the rest of your life.
Egyptian Lover plays at Bloc Weekender, taking place 13th – 15th March at Butlins, Minehead. More info and tickets over here