The other thing you notice about the Guildford-born producer's music is how bare it sounds. Some songs consist of little more than a few Casio synths, drums and echo effects. These limitations are central to the appeal of The Maghreban's music. MT70, one of Zoot's recent releases, was made entirely with a Casio MT-70 keyboard Rostom's father bought in Egypt. Rostom took the keyboard on a holiday with his girlfriend, to Portmeirion in North Wales, where he devoted an entire night to making beats on it. Another EP, Amok Time / The Empath, is named after, and samples, episodes of Star Trek. Rostom first challenged himself to take this approach as a way of overcoming "a struggle to be creative" five years ago, a while before he began to experiment with house music.
"When I make beats, of any style, it's kinda concentrated on the noises," Rostom says. "It's quite minimalist, basically. I only put in just enough to keep it going. It's not very embellished. It's more to do with the sounds of it. You could make a bassline with one note, but the note is just a really nice-sounding bass note. I'd say that's more important sometimes with the stuff I do: the sound of that note rather than how complex the tune is that I've made with it. Same with the drums. The drums are supposed to sound hefty. And that's what kind of gives it its thing."
"Afric"'s rawness and wild energy hints at Rostom's more established persona as a hip-hop producer. As Dr Zygote, Rostom has released music since 1999: his debut under that name was a breaks album, which "sold pretty well and made some money." Since then, he's had a hand in between 15 and 20 hip-hop records, including an EP as Strange U, a partnership with rapper Obiesie Adibuah, on Eglo Records, and an album of trippy beats on Black Acre called Grupo Zygote which, unusually for Rostom, contained no samples at all.
Rostom says he owes his interest in house to his friend Ben Williams, AKA Gatto Fritto, who introduced him to the sound around five years ago, starting with artists like STL, I:Cube and Legowelt. Futuristic Abeba, an EP Legowelt released as Nacho Patrol in 2009, seems to have been an eye-opener for Rostom—you can hear its sticky drums and raw, playful melodies in his subsequent productions as The Maghreban.
Before then, Rostom didn't go out to clubs much, and describes himself as having been generally "close-minded" about music, especially house. "I used to think it was devoid of any funk. The fact that it had 4/4 kicks... dunno, I used to just dismiss it. We used to joke about it, me and my other friends. It was devoid of funk, soul. Slower beats with syncopated drums—that's funk. You know, quite close-minded. As my tastes opened up in general, Gatto Fritto played me a few tunes and I thought, 'I couldn't say that's not good.'"
Going to clubs was also a big part of Rostom's journey to where he's at now. He tells me how much he enjoys dancing these days. Through house music, Rostom was connecting with music in a way he hadn't before. His appreciation of it isn't just musical, either. Though Rostom remains active as Dr Zygote, his enjoyment of house music is partly in contrast to his experiences in the hip-hop scene.
"In some hip-hop jams, there's a lot of testosterone. Some jams, it seems that most of the audience are also artists. It's not about dancing, necessarily. Crowds can be slightly more difficult. I've done jams, years ago, where it seems that everyone in the crowd is a DJ or an MC, and they're just looking at you like: 'I could do that,' or 'Show us how good you are.' That kind of shit. Playing music to house people, it seems like they wanna enjoy themselves and they wanna dance and have fun, which is alright. I don't wanna be too harsh with hip-hop, because it's where I come from, and I'm still in it. And I love it. But I get frustrated with it, if I'm honest."
Rostom says he's gotten more attention as The Maghreban than he ever did in 16 years as Dr Zygote. "It's refreshing to press up a 12-inch, and for it to sell out. In the realms of UK hip-hop, that hadn't happened to me for a while."
Now 37, Rostom has been involved in music in some capacity for most of his life—his older brother first introduced him to hardcore rave, jungle and drum & bass when he was 12 or 13—but he's always had to fit it around other things. Born and brought up in Guildford, he reluctantly became a physical sciences student at University College Of London, a degree which he "just" managed to finish. After that, he moved back to Guildford and worked for Debenhams in a loading bay, and thereafter spent a good chunk of his professional life at an insurance firm. For the last five years, Rostom has made a living selling second-hand records—a job that, as a hip-hop producer who "harvests" samples, he got lost in.
"I've kinda slowed it down a bit, because I realised that's not what I actually wanna do. I got sidetracked into doing that. I'd been spending all my time doing that, and then I thought, 'I'm not actually making music'. So it's kind of complicated. I've always made music, along with a guy called Jazz T. I've made music with this guy for, like, 15 years. So I was always doing that. We'd always meet up every week and we'd make music. But I'd stopped making any other music, any of my own music. I was getting really obsessive about buying records, finding records and stuff. So I made a concerted effort to spend more time with music and less time doing that."
In other areas of Rostom's life, obsession has been useful. For the last three years, he's made music every day as a rule (hence the keyboard in Portmeirion). Sampling has been a big part of his music-making process, and a conduit for many of his other interests. He's taken sounds from a long list of cult British and American TV shows from the 1960s and '70s—police procedurals, spy thrillers and, more unexpectedly, Charlie's Angels.
Underpinning all of this is a drive to keep being creative. Rostom works harder than most to preserve the fertility of his ideas—for example, he's part of a group of people from multiple creative disciplines who meet weekly to discuss their respective processes to help one another stay inspired. While we talk about records he's been buying recently—edits by Japan Blues on Berceuse Heroique, an old Theo Parrish record, Fluenka Mitsu by Call Super, among others—he admits to some anxiety about how diving deeper into house might affect his sound.
"I'm always kinda worried, because one thing I do is, I don't listen to current music. I've always done that. I don't listen to hip-hop, really. I avoid listening to new music of any genre. It's a bad habit. It serves me well in some ways, because, on occasion, I've heard stuff—this is in hip-hop, it could be the same for house—and I could start thinking, 'Oh, I need to make stuff that sounds like this or that,' and I can start making music that's a bit contrived. I think that's why I do it, but it's also good to hear music and be inspired. I could never make a track that sounds like Call Super—he's got a style, and I appreciate that. So, it's kinda good moving out of that, but there's a little thing in my head that says, 'People like your stuff because they say it sounds different to other stuff, and that's because you don't listen to other stuff. So, if you start listening to other stuff, you're gonna start making stuff which sounds like everyone else, and then you'll start making shit music.' So that's kinda the fear. But yeah, I don't think it's valid. Or maybe it is, I don't know."
If Rostom seems unsure of himself, perhaps it's because he's lost the arrogance of youth. As the saying goes, the more you know, the more you know that you don't know. His music is paradoxical, too. Some of his records, especially the earlier ones, are brawny and barrel-chested, but once you get past their physicality, they can also be vulnerable, or daft, or a bit of both. Rostom takes his music seriously, but the music itself is full of mischief and irreverence.
As our conversation winds down, I ask him about his name. When he was 17, he and his friends used to drink in a pub in Guildford called The Rat's Castle (now a gastropub named The Albany), and they would often spot the same regular inside: a flat cap-wearing man of Northwest African descent ("my dad's Egyptian, so I'm not being racist!") sipping a pint with his back to the wall, watching his fellow customers with suspicion. Recreating the man's typical pose, Rostom cups his hand up to his nose and juts his head deeper into his grey hoodie as he shifts his eyes from side-to-side.
"He was a weird guy. We used to refer to him as The Maghreban. Cause that's what that means: someone from Northwest Africa. The Maghreb. It's Morocco, Tunisia, kind of into Libya. I was thinking of a name, for the house stuff. I didn't want to use Zygote, because I didn't want it to be too connected with my other stuff. Then that came to me because, I guess, I'm kinda 'outsider house.' That term's a bit fucking overused, but that's what it is, really. I'm not from house. So I picked that name."