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ELGRANDETOTO // Interview

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MASKA // Interview

It's impossible to talk about Moroccan Rap without mentioning the name of ElGrandeToto who's one of the biggest leaders of Hip-Hop in North Africa. So we met the one who started from the bottom to end up in the top 4 worldwide YouTube trends. As his name suggests, Toto has all the makings of a great rapper and for A Rap & A Cup Of Tea, he goes into detail about his career and his dazzling ascension.

This young rapper from Casablanca talks about his ambitions and the trials he went through to get there. Since the release of his first album Caméléon, released this month and featuring some of the biggest names of French Rap, Taha - his real name - is living a childhood dream and that's what he came to tell us.

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Why did you choose ElGrandeToto as your name, what does it mean to you?

It's a long story. (laughs) There was a dealer in my building named Toto. My apartment was next to his so automatically I was his little Toto, you see. I used to hang out with his little brothers a lot and since my name is Taha, it also started with a T like Toto. Then El Grande was because at some point he stopped doing stupid things and that's when I started music. So I took his place some way, but in a "softer" way, you know what I mean? I thought it was a stylish name too.

Let's go back to the beginning of your career, when did you realize that you were made for Rap ?

I'd say it was the day I went on stage at the Boulevard Festival in Casablanca. There were 20,000 people there that day and my parents were also there in the audience. I think that's when I understood that I was really made for Rap and not for anything else.

You often talk about the street in your texts as for example in "La Rue" feat Maestro. Can you tell me more about your relationship with the street?

At the time, I was always hanging out in the streets. It's the first school of life you know? As Soso Maness says, "Hanging out in the streets doesn't make you a thug". That's not what makes us bad people. The street is an outlet that has helped us escape our problems, it has welcomed us with open arms. I could never have been a rapper without the streets, nor could I have been the person that I am today.

What does inspire you musically speaking?

I listen to a lot of French Rap. I started with Ärsenik and Assassin but now, I really listen to everything that's out on the rap scene. I'm not someone who is going to stay "hooked" to a generation. Whenever there is a new release, I listen directly. I also have other inspirations like reggae for example. I'm open to everything, I'm not "stuck" in a particular genre.

We find Spanish, Portuguese, French and Arabic on your project Cameleon. Was it a desire on your part to highlight several cultures?

I'm really into writing but for me the sound is more important. Especially with trap music for example, you don't have to speak the language to like it: it's the melody that counts. That's why there are some words I preferred to say in another language because I thought they sounded better. It allowed me to attract more international listeners and this cultural diversity is really important to export your music.

We have the impression that "Mghayer" is the most important track in your project. You open up to your audience on a subject that means a lot to you. Wasn't it too hard for you to talk about it?

Actually, I'm a rather reserved person. Even if I talk about what's going on in my family relationships I try not to give too many details, but I felt it was important to talk about it. To be honest, it's not a song I like to listen to. Of course I'm happy that it did so well and that itbecame the fourth most popular song on YouTube, but in reality it's a sound that makes me feel bad. Sometimes it's also important to show people your sensitive and human side. I feel like some people see artists as robots who want to ask us for pictures anytime, even when we're eating. It may be details but these are things that make us feel like we're not really "human" in their eyes. It's like I'm the Statue of Liberty, you feel me? (laughs)

I'm someone who really believes in the law of attraction. You get what you give.

Were you expecting to end up in the Top 4 trends?

Actually 4 weeks before the video was released, I made a promotional post on Instagram where I just wrote "the 27th". Everyone thought I was going to dump the album like that, without any real promotion. In the end, that day I released a documentary film and it didn't turn out as expected at all. (laughs) I woke up with 20,000 followers less and comments like: "You're messing with the public". I didn't think people would be that upset and so putting out "Mghayer" calmed them down, you know? That's when I realize that Morocco is not yet at the same level as other countries in terms of marketing. Sometimes I think I'm a bit ahead. (laughs) In the end we made 1 million in three hours, that could only make me proud.

By the way, I saw that you called on the beatmaker Ysos for this sound, can you tell me more about this meeting?

One day, I wanted to write something I had in mind but I didn't have any production that matched. So I searched for it on YouTube and I came across Ysos' production and I immediately said to myself that I had to keep it because it was really in accordance with what I wanted to do. Besides, I respect a lot Ysos' work. So I sent him a message and he sent me the beats before I even paid him! I loved talking to him, we even did some live shows together and everything, he's a good guy and I liked working with.

What made you want to do featurings with French artists like Lefa and Damso?

It's a really a childhood dream. I listened to Lefa when he was a member of Sexion D'Assaut and I've been following Damso since "Comment Faire Un Tube". These are artists that I listened to when I was in school, at the time when I was lost and didn't know exactly what to do. And five years later I find myself with them in my album... It's crazy, I would never have believed it! I can only be proud of all the way I've come even if I still have a lot of things left to accomplish.

You must be really proud!

You know, in Morocco, we don't have certifications. I have almost 200 million views but I'm still not certified there and it's a teenage dream that I want to accomplish. That's also why I wanted to try my luck in France. If it's a "rapper from the bled who brings a certification to the bled" I think it can change lots of mentalities. Besides, I launched a campaign called #TousPourleRoRo which aims to encourage Moroccans living in France to buy the album to speed up the sales process in order to get the gold record. Getting a gold record is not only for me, it's also for Morocco and the future generations of rappers.

Doing feats with Lefa and Damso was a real childhood dream.

You have inspired a whole generation of young Moroccans who wanted to get into Rap, it must be a strong feeling to know that you are part of those who have contributed to the development of Rap in Morocco?

Definitely! I'm not someone who's satisfied with what he has, I always want more. The day the album was released, I remember that I was going back and forth between smiles and tears because it was really three years of intense hardwork... You know, I lost my mother in July, she wasn't there to see it and it was hard for me to deal with that... It was a sudden burst of emotions, all at once, and it was not easy.

I can't imagine...

Two days after the release of the album, I called my manager Anissa and said "What's next?" I didn't even wait to see the stats, I already wanted to know the next step. In the end, I made 1000 sales in France and that's unheard of for a Moroccan rapper but the very next day I said to myself: "Damn, I could have made 4000 sales". I'm never satisfied but I think that's what makes my power: I always aim higher. I never tell myself that it's impossible. You see I tell myself : "Bercy is a long way but we'll manage to do it" same for Coachella. I'm someone who really believes in the law of attraction. You get what you give in real life. As they say "You reap what you sow". (laughs)

Instagram: ElGrandeToto

Words © Gloria Dominiak

Photography © Hamza Rochdi