U-cef is Morocco's first and foremost digitalizer. In the course of his two albums, he's managed to put gnawa music, dub, sinuous classic Arabic arrangements electronic beats, MCs, big drums and crunchy rock guitars into a giant blender to produce something fresh and original.

U-Cef biog by Andy Morgan

Clandestinos have to travel light. There's little space in their kit bags for anything other than hopes, dreams, memories and music. That was pretty much all U-cef, aka Moulay Youssef Adel, had to declare when he arrived in the USA from his native Morocco back in the late 1980s. In the following years faith kept him suspended just above the starvation line and immigrant courage earned him a foothold in the New York music scene. It was a meagre one at first but with persistence it solidified and grew, especially after a move to London in 1994.

 Meanwhile U-cef devoured music from hip hop to acid jazz, dub, reggae, ragga, drum 'n' bass, 2-step and R&B - in fact, the whole gamut of urban sounds that kept the world dancing in the late ‘90s and early ‘naughties. In exchange, U-cef brought his ‘mother song’ to the party - a treasury of north African music including the deep trance sounds of gnawa and ahwash, the sophistication of melhoun and andalusi, the raw pounding rhythms of Berber singers from the high-Atlas, the protest pop of Nass El Ghiwane, the sacred and the profane, the meditative and the funky.

‘Fusion’ is a dirty word for some, perhaps because it expresses what is really a very simple, inevitable and human process with misplaced pseudo-scientific pretension. Call it fusion if you like, but U-cef’s music is nothing more than the latest incarnation of that age-old equation A + B = C which has been keeping music alive and fresh since the beginning of time. It is also an exact and faithful expression of the journey that Moulay Youssef Adel has taken from the dusty streets of Rabat to the dark and cold ‘hood of northwest London, of the music he has heard and played along the way and of the people who have both helped and hindered him on his journey.

Growing up in the Dour Jamâa district of the Moroccan capital Rabat, U-cef imbibed Moroccan music with his mother’s milk. “Moroccan music is like our oxygen,” he explained. “You breathe it all the time.” The musical world beyond Morocco first broke through at the local cinemas where a flavoursome diet of Bruce Lee and Hindi films were on offer with their languorous symphonic cop-funk and Bollywood soundtracks. Then came The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and later, when the teenage U-cef was gracing clubs like The Jefferson and La Casbah in Rabat or La Nauté in nearby Casablanca dressed in flares, cheesecloth shirts and clogs, the sound of funk and disco reigned supreme: Sly Stone, Isaac Hayes, Kool and the Gang and Funkadelic. U-cef’s older uncles were both his protectors and his musical educators. Uncle Rachid brought back some instruments from Europe and U-cef would spend hours playing and experimenting, first on the guitar and then on the drum-kit, because it was easier and didn’t need tuning. And when the drum kit wasn’t available, U-cef would just practice with kebab sticks on a cushion.

On leaving school, U-cef spent a year and a half in Montpelier France, the highlights of which were a chance meeting with Jimmy Cliff and hanging out with the Break-dance Posse from New York. This was U-cef’s first encounter with hip-hop culture. Back in Morocco, U-cef enrolled into an architecture course to keep his parents happy, but spent most of his time on the beach or with his new band Quark. He formed the group with friend and singer Mamoun in order to play original music and break out of the ‘covers band’ ghetto in which most Moroccan pop and rock combos were languishing at the time. Their heroes were Weather Report and Return to Forever. But it was hard to survive in a country without a real music industry. Quark managed to secure a lucrative residency at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Rabat, but after a few months U-cef was kicked out for not wearing a tie. At that time, musical ambition tended to die young in Morocco. If you wanted to make it, you had to leave.

U-cef travelled to New York for the first time in 1987 and spent his first months in the land of the free washing dishes in a Moroccan restaurant and working as a bus boy at Trattoria del Arte in Manhattan. Evenings were spent reading the small ads in The Village Voice and cold-calling bandleaders in his terrible heavily accented English, asking for gigs. But slowly connections were made and U-cef ended up joining the band of New York based gnawa musician Hassan Hakmoun, and performing with a number of other hip hop and reggae acts. “Back with Quark we’d thought of fusing everything - no control, man, like a bit psychedelic,” U-cef remembers, “New York was a more realistic place. You couldn’t afford to be dreamy. Western culture is like that - when you’re into reggae you just do reggae. When you’re into hip-hop you do hip-hop. I didn’t have that kind of baggage with me so I just tended to play what felt good.”

U-cef moved to London with his English ex-wife Fiona in 1994. The English capital offered a wealth of new sounds - drum ‘n’ bass, techno, 2-step, ragga - but it felt cold and lonesome compared to the tight-knit intimacy of the New York scene. U-cef ended up playing drums in Pan, who, like the name suggests, mashed up a wide spectrum of contemporary styles into one funky psychedelic groove. Some of the bands gigs, especially their Glastonbury appearance, were hailed as triumphs and for a while they were courted by Talking Loud, but in the end - the group fizzled and died.

U-cef decided it was time for him to create and control his own musical destiny and he set about making that giant leap from being primarily a musician to being a producer, a mixer - a studio hound! He built his own studio in the flat he shared with Fiona in Chippenham Mews, just off the Harrow Road. “The halal idea was always in the back of my mind,” he says. “I had the chance to express a musical angle in a way that I had been living it for years.” Working with a disparate crew of musician friends he patiently put together a set of songs, recorded partly in London and partly during numerous trips back home to Morocco. All his obsessions came into sharp and original focus: hip hop, flamenco, funk, Moroccan chaabi, drum ‘n’ bass and gnawa. The result was ‘Halalium’, a debut album which was released in November 1999 on his friend Andy Morgan’s new Apartment 22 label.

‘Halalium’ was undoubtedly ahead of its time. Fusing ‘exotic’ North African sounds with breaks and beats became a favourite pastime soon after, but U-cef’s music stood out both for its originality and its dark edginess. Not for him the bland and dreamy orientalist soundscapes of so many other ‘Arabic fusionists’. Perhaps this is why his music had such a profound influence on an emerging generation of Moroccan hip-hop artists, including Fnaîre, the current dons of the scene. In Europe and North America, ‘Halalium’ was a cult success, reaping enthusiastic press coverage in many countries. U-cef toured Europe and beyond with his MCs Sweetman and Rafik aka Don Killer. But thanks to a number of factors - including 9/11 and the mutation of Apartment 22 from a record label into a management company - U-cef found himself without a record deal and back in his Harrow Road home studio, pursuing his lonesome musical vision like some halal monk.

‘Halalwood’ is the next chapter in this immigrant story, the next crunch of the equation. It has been seven years coming and it reflects both U-cef’s evolving love-affair with rock and R&B and his ever widening circle of friends and musical collaborators. But despite the huge list of credits on the album, its making has often been a lonely experience, with solo sessions clamouring for space between odd-jobs, gigs, remixing for others and spending time with his two children Maysoun and Joshua. Still travelling light, still in exile, still struggling, U-cef’s music is the ultimate immigrant adventurer, clandestino warrior, halal pilgrim, living by courage and inspiration alone, busting boundaries and going from strength to strength.

 Andy Morgan

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