January 16, 2021

The power of hip-hop

Rapping with Comrade Dullah, musician and NCC media production student

Photo provided by Ahmed Shehata

Ahmed Shehata hoists a hefty dissertation from his desk, “The political thought of the Sayyid Qutb and his impact on the Jihad movement in Egypt.” It is his grandfather’s PHD thesis.

Shehata, a first-generation Egyptian-American, shares his grandfather’s interest in politics, as heard on “Coronatape,” an album he released in July under his rap moniker, Comrade Dullah. “The smog of colonialism is strong,” the opening track begins over a sinister-sounding symphony of synthesizers.

“The pandemic started and all of a sudden I had a lot of free time I didn’t have before,” says Shehata, who used the first few months of that free time to compose the 10-song EP.

Before the pandemic, Shehata worked for a live music production company in Philadelphia. With those types of events canceled, he had time to resume online classes at NCC to finish his degree in media production.

Continuing a family tradition of higher education, Shehata has received technical training at NCC to empower his passion for making music.

At 13, Shehata was introduced to hip hop by his uncle. Exploring the far reaches of the genre, he discovered underground artists whose unique production and thoughtful lyricism matched his sensibilities.

“They’re making hip-hop music but they don’t have to fit into this particular mould of what a rapper is,” Shehata says. “That really influenced me and kind of inspired me to be like, ‘I could be writing raps – I could be making beats.’”

Since that epiphany, Shehata has used lyricism to triumph in difficult times, writing songs to rid himself of negative emotions. “I’ve put them in this box to trap them and if I want to experience those things I can go back and experience it, but it’s not trapped inside me.”

On “Coronatape,” Shehata raps: “Symbolism is easy, the hard part is believing it, when every single moment is worse than the one proceeding it” and “’Cause I’ve got to watch ‘Cheers’ fully, a reminder of how life should be.”

In 2009, Shehata moved to New York City. That is when he became serious about making hip-hop music, inspired by the atmosphere of the place where hip hop originated. Shehata calls NYC in the mid-1980s to mid-‘90s, (hip hop’s golden age), a “modern-day Vienna,” likening hip-hop pioneers to classical composers of historic importance.

“Hip hop is the biggest genre in the world. And it’s deserving,” Shehata says. “It’s not a fad like they thought.”

After a year in NYC, he returned to the Lehigh Valley and enrolled at NCC, beginning his studies in media production. Between classes, he distributed copies of his CD to students in the smoking section of the courtyard.

“After a few weeks it seemed like everybody who smoked cigarettes at [NCC] had heard this CD,” Shehata jokes. (Note: on “Coronatape,” Shehata raps, “Quit smokin’ so I do my s*** with no punches,” meaning he records his verses in a single take thanks to increased lung power.)

Making hip-hop music is something anyone can do, Shehata says, regardless of musical ability or access to equipment; only a smart phone is needed to get started.

“There’s a lot of apps for making all sorts of stuff,” says Shehata, opening his phone to play a beat he made in an app called Keezy drummer.    

To produce his albums, Shehata uses a digital audio workshop (DAW) called Ableton. The computer program was included with a piece of production hardware he bought for $100. A different DAW app, Garageband, is available on iPhones for just $5; similar apps are available for Android.

“You don’t really need anything more complicated than that to get started,” Shehata says. He explains that a smart phone’s built-in microphone can be used to record vocals and other sounds, but there are also adapters for plugging studio microphones into the headphone jack.

Eventually, serious musicians would need to move onto something more sophisticated, but it’s a great place to begin, he says.

Shehata recommends NCC’s music production program to anyone interested in pursuing a career in sound recording. The access to top-tier equipment in NCC’s audio labs is reason enough, he says, reminiscing about the fun and educational studio sessions he enjoyed with his professor and classmates.

On “Coronatape”, Shehata affirms his commitment to the craft of music “A millennial with Gen X characteristics, concerned with selling out but can’t risk it — I wanna be artistic.”

When moments of discouragement and self-doubt attempt to infiltrate and obstruct his creative process, he takes a break and returns with a fresh mind. Skateboarding is another of Shehata’s favorite activities, but as the cold weather sets in, he anticipates spending more time in his home studio. He’s already begun to lay the framework for his next album.

“Hopefully that gets me through what this winter will probably be like for the world.”

Listen to “Coronatape” by Comrade Dullah: https://comradedullah.bandcamp.com/releases

Chris Devlin

Chris Devlin, editor of The Commuter, is a freshman at NCC.

View all posts by Chris Devlin →
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