For the thousands who follow Mohammed Rayan Bailouni on Instagram, ‘Beat Lab’ has become a treasure trove of sonic inspiration.
Every Sunday, the UAE-based Syrian-British record producer, 32, releases a short video of himself in his home studio, typically with his hair pulled back beneath a flipped baseball cap, while his fingers tap away at an illuminated pad and give shape to a new original beat.
Bailouni’s beats are full-bodied creations that have become so popular that you will often find regional hip hop and R’n’B artists competing in the comments over who’ll get to jump onto his latest production.
The weekly snippets are not bound by things like genre or hemisphere; they can range in influence from a haunting operatic sample to a popular Brandy hook. (Bailouni recently received a comment from rapper Russ on one of his sample selections, saying something to the effect of: Great minds think alike.)
We recently caught up with Bailouni to discuss the surprising origins of ‘Beat Lab’, why the lime green test tube emoji has become his symbol, and what it would take for a novice to learn the art of production, too.
Firstly — what is Beat Lab?
It’s essentially a weekly instagram video series where I play and showcase beats that I’ve created. It’s entirely original music that I’ve created myself and highlights the different ways you can be creative with bridging sounds from different genres together. I got my master’s degree in Biotechnology and left a job in the pharma industry to pursue music full time, so a lot of people joke that I’m the mad scientist of music, or whatever. So, I decided to call it ‘Beat Lab’ with the green test tube emoji to pay homage to my back story of how I started.
When did you start Beat Lab?
The first Beat Lab I put out was in August 25 of last year. It’s been about six months of weekly videos I’ve been uploading every Sunday. It’s been a crazy ride so far, because with every Beat Lab, I’ve been able to connect with so many different artists from around the world like Russ, D12, Falling In Reverse and SoundOracle (Timbaland).
Why do you do it?
A big part of why I make music is to highlight the power of emotional escapism. I take a lot of inspiration from film noir and how its central theme is how elusive or out of reach something can feel, especially when you’re self-reflecting. That’s something that I really try to portray with the concepts behind each Beat Lab. I think music has an incredible way of acting like a portal to emotions that you’ve never felt before or to stories that you may never live. Some pieces of music feel innately close to us, while others feel foreign and mysterious. So the idea behind Beat Lab is that I’m using music to show how interchangeable and fluid genres of music can be, where you can’t fully put your finger on where one is starting and the other is finishing.
How did the whole thing start?
It’s a funny story, actually. I was having dinner with my fiancee and a producer page on Instagram came across my profile and reached out to see if I had any content of me ‘playing beats’. At that time, I didn’t have anything like that. So I messaged them back saying, unfortunately, I didn’t. When my fiancee heard that, she was shocked. She said, ‘Why don’t we leave now and you can film some tonight to send to them? I don’t understand why you wouldn’t.’
I literally couldn’t think of a reason not to, so I ended up coming up with the idea that same night. I messaged the page again and said, ‘Actually, I do,’ and sent it to them. They absolutely loved it. I posted it the next day and called it ‘Beat Lab’. Within hours, I started getting all these reshares of other producer pages posting about it. I was getting almost a thousand followers a week from all over. Ever since then, I’ve never looked back.
How do you find your samples?
This is a tricky question because sometimes I prefer to not use any sample at all if it doesn’t serve the purpose of that specific beat. However, it’s mainly from two sources that I take samples; old soul/Motown records, or I’ll have a listen through Splice and see if there’s anything I can manipulate or modify to what I’m trying to do.
If I’m trying to send a message about positivity or motivation, I may tap into some old soul, Motown or jazz records from the 60s and 70s. If I’m trying to blend Eastern or ethnic samples with a hip hop or trap backbeat then I might scour through YouTube and Splice.
For beginner producers, what’s some good equipment to begin with?
To be honest, I think there are so many great cost-effective starter packs people can invest in to start their career. [There’s the] Focusrite starter pack; [it’s an] entry-level bundle that comes with a microphone, sound interface, cables, headphones, for around Dh1,000. That’s a great place to start for learning how recording audio works, because it comes with all the software.
In terms of production, I bought the Maschine Mikro, which is the device I play in all my beat labs, and it’s been the best piece of investment I’ve ever made. I got it — drum machine, software, sounds, samples, etc — for around Dh1,500 AED or so, and 90 per cent of everything creative I do is done with it. I’ve done whole records with winners and finalists from the X Factor, The Voice, Star Academy, and some big artists all with just the Maschine. It’s been a game-changer for me.
On that note, tell us about your studio set up and where you record.
I create, record and engineer everything at my home studio. Around four years ago, I registered my own company and built my own production house. I tried to make it as artist-friendly as possible — bean bags, basketball net, TV with Apple TV for when people have to wait around.
I even wanted to get a pinball machine or an arcade in there (sort of like Tom Hanks playing Josh in the movie ‘Big’), but it ended up not being able to fit. All the Beat Lab videos are filmed there and it’s where I do all my work. It’s a [big] help in quarantine having everything set up and still being able to function. I think in our day and age, technology has made everything so accessible that to make music you don’t need to rent top-notch studios.