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Welcome To Handsome Tiger's Decolonized Dance Party

The Anishinaabe producer reunites the diaspora, mixing together eclectic global influences in bass music. 

by Jonathan Crane

As the title of his new album, Diaspora, suggests, Vancouver-based producer and DJ Hussein Elnamer — aka Handsome Tigercreates bass-heavy electronic music that connects influences from ethnic communities across the globe. Alongside elements of reggaeton, dancehall, and trap, you can hear a heavy dose of Elnamer’s Anishinaabe and North African heritage in his carefully concocted beats. The culture built around dubstep and grime, itself rooted in reggae and dub culture, is also something that appealed to Elnamer as his music tastes developed. “As a kid, I was always really into dub music and reggae, so I feel like it’s one of those things that I naturally came back to,” he says.

Despite the vast geographical distances between the nations these genres hail from, for Elnamer, this blend is the result of a natural progression that mirrors the development of bass music in the UK – an increasingly genreless region that he’s been drawn to lately. “I’ve always been attracted to putting, for lack of a better word, ‘world’ or ‘global’ sounds into my music. Besides the club beats, I’ve been really into vocal artists from the UK,” he says. “I think there’s so much crossover collaborating with artists there right now, it’s just so cool. There’s grime artists working with neo-soul artists and Afrobeat artists, so there’s this amalgamation that’s happening.”

Before Elnamer began creating his own electronic productions, he played in rock bands and had an interest in electronic artists like Bonobo and Flying Lotus. His current musical trajectory started in the late 2010s when he was introduced to Lighta! Sound, a Vancouver-based collective of artists including Michael Red, Self Evident and Tank Gyal who were responsible for significantly increasing the profile of bass music in Western Canada. “They’re definitely a big influence on who turned me on to the whole West Coast Bass scene in general and local sound system culture” Elnamer says. 

Handsome Tiger performing at Shambhala in 2019.

The discovery of the local bass community led Elnamer to delve into the catalogs of historical dubstep record labels like Deep Medi and Innamind Recordings, both based in the UK. His love of hip-hop also steered him to grime, the rap-influenced offshoot of UK garage that emerged alongside dubstep. 

Wanting to be a part of this emergent culture he was discovering, Elnamer began creating DJ mixes and productions of his own. His first mix, “Love Not War,” was uploaded to Soundcloud in November 2015, and his first two original productions, “Inshallah” and “Tropical Conductor,” debuted three months later on his “Cats Only Club” mix. After two years of gaining traction both on Soundcloud and in the Vancouver music community, Elnamer released his first EP, Visions, in July 2017. To encourage himself early on and keep the momentum flowing, he decided to forgo a music label and try his hand at self-releasing music as an independent artist. “Initially, I wanted to do it that way because  I felt like I should build up my sound by continuously trying to put stuff out,” he says.

Releasing music independently also gave Elnamer room to experiment with different genres. His deep dive into UK bass culture soon led to further exploration of African genres like gqom, a South African house music offshoot, and the development of the cosmopolitan sound that he has today. Over the past three years, Elnamer has been moving away from the classic 140 beats-per-minute tempo often associated with dubstep, instead favouring slower tempos with an increasingly visible global influencesomething that he cites as a major step forward in discovering his musical identity.

This shift was largely inspired by a sample pack that Elnamer obtained at the start of 2020 from the Chippewa Travelers, an Ontario-based drumming and singing family group that share his Anishinaabe ancestry. This same sample pack contains vocals that have also been used by Canadian Indigenous electronic artists like The Halluci Nation and DJ Shub. “There’s probably 40 or 50 tracks, but I’ve been dissecting those and using them in different ways and patterns throughout the music,” he says.

The influence of this sample pack can be found across Elnamer’s 2021 Landback EP  and in tracks like “1Sound” from his new LP Diaspora. It’s become one of the dominating influences in his productions as of late.“Now I’m at the point where I’m doing it at least 50 per cent of the time,” he says. “I’ve started to notice that I’ve developed more of my own sound by doing that, and it’s also a way to celebrate my indigeneity.”

“If I’m at a lack of words or want to express something, I’ll create music around what I’m seeing or feeling.”

Elnamer refers to this as “decolonized bass music,” and it’s a taste of things to come. He’s currently working on a collaboration with DJ Shub, and later this year he plans to release another album featuring Indigenous vocals and a multitude of different tempos and vibes. In the meantime, Diaspora’s nine tracks show that although Elnamer has now honed in on his own unique musical niche, his penchant for experimentation and drawing of unexpected global influences from around the globe is still fervent. The track “Infecto Perreo,” for example, was inspired by reggaeton-influenced bass coming out of Miami. His track “Resistance Riddim” is an ode to both North African and Middle Eastern instrumentation, and was created in response to recent conflicts in Palestine. “This past year when things were getting really intense again I was feeling polarized by it, and that’s how my artistic expression works sometimes,” Elnamer says. “If I’m at a lack of words or want to express something, I’ll create music around what I’m seeing or feeling.”

Regardless of the shifting tempo changes or influences of Elnamer’s productions over the years, the one element that remains constant is their purpose, as he pays homage to the original Jamaican style that inspired both his own musical beginnings and a wealth of highly influential genres spanning the entire globe.“I still consider it sound system music,” he says. “It’s deep and bassy, and it’s dance music that dips into cultures from all over the world.” 

Handsome Tiger performs in Vancouver on April 2 at the Beaumont Studios for SPORTZ! And again on April 9 as direct support for DJ Shub at the Salish Sea Soiree, Vancouver’s first Indigenous hip-hop boat party.