We journey to the Middle East for Boiler Room and Ballantine’s True Music: Hybrid Sounds

“I'm the post-generation right after the war. The war ended and we started doing music,” says Elias Merheb, aka Lebanese DJ/producer 3lias. “It's the same now in Syria — they all wanna party.”

When we meet, on the rooftop of a bar in Beirut, the selector had just been playing in Damascus. “It was outstanding. One of the best,” he stresses: “They've had enough. Even in Beirut in 2006 with the [Israel–Hezbollah War], we used to play at a club for 16 hours and the club was full. Beirut was bombed for 24 hours non-stop and people were still partying. It was at least 13 to 18-hour sets.”

The faint bullet holes in the walls are the only reminder of the city’s chequered past, which is lost amidst a buzzing district full of slick bars and restaurants. We’re at a warm-up party for Boiler Room and Ballantine’s True Music: Hybrid Sounds show; a blend of local and international acts as part of the project’s three-continent tour. Tomorrow night, 3lias will join acts like Dollkraut, Miss Kittin and Chaos in the CBD in an old Chevrolet hangar in the Hazmieh area of the city for a party live-streamed around the globe. In front of millions, he’ll spin a mesmerising set packed full of tech house to jazzy iterations of the genre, acid, techno, and everything in between.

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A key player in the Middle Eastern house and techno scene, 3lias was born in the mountains to a family of artists. “By default I was born into art,” he explains — his father was a folk dancer and singer, while his mother was a choreographer, and his uncle made musicals. “I grew up in studios and backstage, falling in love with dancers,” he says. “You know, as a kid, it was like a fantasy.” Growing up during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, he remembers “every single bomb that dropped over Beirut every ten seconds. As a kid for me, it was cool because — no school!” he laughs. “But then you grow up and put yourself in your parents' shoes, you understand how stressful it was for them to be able to feed you and get you water. We used to get a six-pack of water for 100 dollars.”

Before he even owned turntables, he was collecting records. “I was a spoilt kid, so I was like to my parents: ‘Can you buy me turntables?’ They were like, ‘Sorry, we don't want you to become an artist’. I'm not gonna say what I did to buy turntables but I ended up buying them and this is how I actually started,” he laughs.

The first parties he threw in 1996 were in someone’s living room with just a handful of people. “Then it got bigger so we moved to a forest. It was an illegal party so if you got caught you went to prison.” As the parties increased in size, 3lias started travelling, hitting Paris’s Techno Parade and squat raves in London, where he discovered drum ‘n’ bass (“This is how I really decided to become a DJ!”) He went to Scotland to study Sound Engineering, developing a love affair with Glasgow's Sub Club in the process, and moved to Montreal, but eventually the Middle East drew him back. “At some point I was like, ‘I need to come back to Beirut,’ because I really believed that I could do something here with a bunch of friends. I've been there since 2004 and I don't think I will leave ever.”

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It was at famed Beirut club B018 that 3lias cut his teeth — a spectacular bomb shelter-esque venue which boasts a retractable roof for dancing under the stars. There he scored a ten-year residency (not long after he’d had to use his fake ID for entry), as well as becoming booker and artistic director. “It was maybe the best ten years of my life this far,” he says. “I learned a lot, about myself, about DJing, and about the scene, about the international scene as well.”

“I really had the chance to learn the hard way,” he continues. “I was up late every weekend, seven hours, so fourteen hours a week. “Which for me is a privilege because you have an hour and a half, two hours, where you're barely starting your set. I had no Internet, no digital music, so it was tough. I made a lot of mistakes as well, but you learn from your mistakes.”

These lengthy selections garnered the admiration of John Digweed, whose Bedrock label 3lias would come to release on, with his and Ali Ajami’s ‘Bring It Back’ getting regularly used by Digweed to close his sets. 

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3lias’s focus now is uncovering local talent and promoting the nightlife of his home soil. “Everything I think about is just focusing on the region — Lebanon and all the countries around. That's why I came back, and a lot of people were like, ‘Don't you think it's time for you to move to Berlin?’ No, I don't wanna be popular. I don't want to travel from Thursday to Friday to Saturday. I don't like aeroplanes”.

“You've got so many hidden talented people that really deserve recognition,” he continues, before namechecking established homegrown artists like Nesta, Rolbac, Jade, Gunther, Jool and Three Machines, as well as his own Atomic Circus live act with classically trained pianist Ziad Sarrouh (“We use about 15 machines, just sending signals to each other. What I like about it is that you never play the same live, it's always a different interpretation.”)

“I think the main purpose, as an artist, is sharing. Whatever knowledge you have, whatever makes you feel good. I try to share whatever really makes me feel good. To make a scene, having one big artist is not enough. It's collaborating with talent, discovering new talent, appreciating other talent. When I started I had no-one, no-one helped me. And that's why I'm doing it because I think it would have been cool to have someone lead me somewhere."

"That's why most of my recent pieces are collaborations," he finishes. “I just wanna just help whoever I can help."

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True Music: Hybrid Sounds is a three-continent tour which will pair some of the electronic music scene’s most original live acts with their more traditional, instrumental counterparts in four of the most musically and culturally diverse cities in the world. To find out more, visit truemusic.boilerroom.tv

Words: Felicity Martin

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