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Review: The Maghreban, '01DEAS'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.


How do you define an outsider — in music and in life? Though Ayman Rostom had been creating sample-delic hip-hop beats under the name Dr. Zygote for almost two decades, he approached the forthright rhythms of house with so much trepidation that it influenced the moniker under which he chose to do it: The Maghreban. That was what people around Guildford, Surrey, the mid-size town southwest of London where Rostom grew up, called a North African man who was a regular in a pub that Rostom and his friends frequented. It was indisputably a charged phrase — referring as it did to The Maghreb, the stretch of Africa's Saharan coastline that stretches from Mauritania to Libya — signifying that the man was not one of them.

Rostom identified with it for numerous reasons. The son of Egyptian immigrants, he says his long-time devotion to hip-hop left him "blinkered" with "very negative opinions about anything that wasn't 95bpm." Yet in 2011, a period that found U.K. clubs in a state of flux — with hip-hop and grime, house and funky, post-dubstep and bass all finding their genre borders more porous than usual — a chance exercise in creative limitation (think: Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies") infiltrated his sampler, opening his mind to the wonders of a 4/4 dance-floor, and Rostom began making strange up-tempo tracks. Most continued to be built from samples, but they marked a break from his musical past. Since then, The Maghreban's steady output of singles — for Rostom's own Zoot and his active page, but also for respected labels like Paris' Versatile and Bristol's Black Acre — has found his house stock rising.

01DEAS, The Maghreban's debut album, does nothing to dispel the notion that Rostom is approaching a rarified production space, making accessible and populist old-school-style dance tracks full of recognizable sounds and phrases, but without either dumbing down his output or treading on other people's legacies. You could compare his current direction to Four Tet's less abstract moments, or the classic uptempo grooves of turn-of-the century sample-delic producers such as Mr. Scruff and St. Germain, but that still wouldn't account for the personality quirks and musical-interest asides that Rostom has seeded throughout the album.

The opening one-two of 01DEAS establishes familiarity as one of the album's hooks. Diligent trainspotters will easily identify the mile-wide synth phrase in "Eddies" and the piano-plus-hi-hat rhythm that powers "Crime Jazz," before the tracks set forth in their own directions — the former riding a flanged guitar and a staccato kick-drum into blacksploitation-soundtrack territory, the latter adding a spooky sound-effect that pushes it further into the noir its title hints at. And though The Maghreban's source material gets murkier afterwards, the strategy of placing like-minded tracks next to each other (in almost chapter-like fashion) continues. This contributes to 01DEAS' mixtape flow, which along with smart editing (none of the 13 track are longer than six minutes long, all but three are shorter than four) are an attentive listener's dream.

Two particular "chapters" of 01DEAS make the whole album stand out. If the discovery of house music that pushed Rostom towards 120bpms has not — thankfully — fully usurped The Maghreban's creative outlook, neither has hip-hop disappeared from his palette. The instrumental "Can't Breathe" may include a house kick at its center, but its layered bass and drum groove begs for a rapper who can ride harder tempos to jump in. On the very next track, "Hi Top Remix," the Los Angeles MC A-F-R-O does just that, mimicking a saxophone line and "turning the party out" with a flow expressly designed to do so. It is a nostalgic concept with contemporary execution, the kind of maneuver that's turned Kaytranada into one of the game's hottest producers at the moment.

Even more on-point is a four-track stretch where Rostom's interest in a broad variety of African dance music gets a rinsing. The bold Afrobeat of "Sham," built from big drums and techno keys, and "Mbira," which marries the titular thumb-piano to a space-age synthesizer in an ambient ceremony, are natural, easy-to-love pieces. The twin-guitar-driven "Mike's Afro," a collaboration with Gatto Fritto, plays like a slice of the West African disco that over the past few years has spread across European dance-floors. And best of all is "Revenge," which finds the young Zimbabwean vocalist and Mbira player Rutendo Machiridza latching onto a trance groove, Rostom inducing a dub-like breakdown before returning to a closing, peak-time stomp.

Though Rostom told me in an interview that he continues to feel like "a bit of an outsider, encroaching this world of dance music," it is also true that this world has been advancing beyond its previously accepted limits of weird. So-called "outsider house" has become yet another hated, almost-meaningless subgenre, more a point of cultural positioning than a sound. Rostom admits, "I put that [tag] on myself, it's a weight I choose to carry, but maybe not willingly." It's hard when it is part of the very name you have applied to yourself. The again, 01DEAS is excellent proof that his self-consciousness does not impede the variety of his ideas.

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