Most subcultures – ones based on music at least – emerge from the downtrodden and the marginalised. They are working class in origin. They do not emerge from a procession of jeroboams. Dubai has managed to forget this fact.
The city’s club scene is dominated by elitist pretension and commercialised trash. By EDM’s ruination of all that was once good with dance music. By ego-driven R’n’B. By promoters who value profit ahead of music. By franchises that have sapped the last drop of credibility from their globalised brands. It is the story of how the wealthy stole music and transformed it into a bastardised horror of its former self.
Look around you. Everything is mainstream, expected, obvious and uninspired. Music is one of the greatest generators of memories and emotion, but it has been reduced to a clichéd formula by the city’s nightclubs and is being spoon-fed to a nocturnal audience staggering in its insularity.
Thankfully, this story is still being written. In Dubai at least. The story is being challenged – if not completely rewritten – by those who champion what club music should be – raw, real, diverse and without pretense. Without dress codes, red carpets, sync-button DJs and plastic crowds.
To the casual observer it may appear that Dubai’s underground club scene has popped up almost over night. Real people in unfashionable, obscure locations are throwing real parties. Yet it has reached semi-fruition over the course of the past few years, thanks primarily to a number of different factors. Chief amongst them has been disillusionment with the status quo and a yearning for the authentic. Added to this is an increasingly go-it-alone attitude embraced by DJs and promoters of Dubai’s forgotten musical genres – funk, soul, jazz, reggae, old school hip hop, cumbia, bossa nova, drum ‘n’ bass, punk and indie. With the big, plush five-star hotels and bars unwilling to take risks, these DJs and promoters have been forced to find alternative venues. Many have ended up in unattractive parts of town: in Casa Latina at the Ibis Al Barsha, at The Q in the Holiday Inn Al Barsha, and at The Music Room in the Majestic Hotel in Bur Dubai. Others have found that smaller rooftop venues such as the Tamanya and Dusk terraces at the Radisson Blu in Media City have been willing to accommodate what they realise are dedicated and loyal followings.
The majority of Dubai dwellers no doubt view these venues – particularly Casa Latina and The Q – as dingy, subterranean hellholes. Dark, frequently smoky, and without a hint of glitz or glamour, they are all that Dubai proclaims not to be. Yet, more than ever before, they are filled, week in week out, with small, tight-knit crowds united by a love of music. They dance to minimal tech, drum ‘n’ bass, ska, house, disco, deep funk and northern soul, cross pollinating at the handful of nights that form the bedrock of the underground scene. There’s the monthly Sunny Vibe Up and Drop Dread, run by the Deep Crates Cartel and fronted by Break DJ Lobito; Dust, which via DJs James Locksmith and Megadon Betamax, organise a host of different parties and nights; and Analog Room, the musical baby of Mehdi and Salar Ansari. Others, such as Bassworx and Globalfunk (arguably the godfather of Dubai’s underground music scene), focus on drum ‘n’ bass, the last truly underground dance music genre.
For other cities around the world, none of this is anything new of course. In Beirut, crossing the old Green Line to explore Gemmayze’s bars and the clubs of Achrafieh’s Monot Street, a thousand different stories will spring to mind, almost all of them relating to legendary evenings of hedonism. If Beirut is renowned for anything, it’s for its nightlife. But the city’s winning proposition lies not in its stylised, über-chic 21st century nightclubs filled with impossibly attractive people, but in its acceptance of the alternative. In the side streets of Hamra, tiny bars filled with students resonate to the sounds of jazz and reggae, creating the kind of atmosphere that Dubai would do well to try and emulate.
Much of what holds Dubai back in terms of musical freedom lies in legalities. With the odd exceptions, only hotels can provide venues for clubs and bars, leading to sterile, characterless spaces peddling a globalised ideal of what is fashionable.
Yet the emergence of a sustainable underground club scene is indicative of the city’s maturing as a centre of musical diversity. It has a long, long way to go, but at least the journey has begun. As Locksmith says: “I believe it’s a reflection of the city’s economy and general growth after the crash. Also, I believe that promoters and artists have been itching for a change and have just gone all DIY, rather than waiting for opportunities. There has been an increasing trend towards this and it’s only going to grow from here. More people coming to the city, new faces, new promoters and other sounds will emerge too very soon.”
The city’s gradual evolution walks hand-in-hand with other elements associated with musical subcultures. Hip-hop, for example, is characterised by four pillars, of which music is only one. The others – turntablism, break dancing and graffiti art – are blossoming too, even if the proponents remain few in number. The Deep Crates Cartel, of which I am a member, also champions vinyl culture and all that entails.
Vinyl brings with it a whole host of questions, many of which relate to what constitutes a DJ. Why do some DJs continue to buy vinyl? Why do they search for what is perceived to be an obsolete medium? The answer, to me anyway, lies not only in sound quality and a person’s desire for the tangible and the aesthetic, but also in a medium’s ability to provide value to that which it is giving voice. New media has distorted our sense of something’s value. For example, if you want to buy Kings Go Forth’s funk track One Day on Mr C’s Records (released in 2008), it will cost you around $150. Its limited pressing and the quality of the tune obviously help, but on mp3 it is all but worthless.
Ignorance seeks to apply this worthlessness to vinyl too. In Beirut’s Souq Al Ahad, searching amidst the bric-a-brac, curios, second-hand clothes and unwanted junk, I stumbled across a copy of Abdel Halem Hafez’s Mawood, a 56-minute masterpiece composed by Baligh Hamdy. With lyrics by Mohamed Hamza, it is one of the greatest Arabic LPs of all time. I paid $10 for it. It is worth in excess of $300. Yet those accompanying me believed I had been ripped off. Why pay $10 when you can download it for free? An original work of art reduced in value to that of grotesque Arabic pop kitsch.
Both the perceived and real worth of vinyl can be used as an analogy for the gulf that separates Dubai’s wider nightlife from the city’s underground music scene. One views music as a commodity and/or an accessory, the other views it as its very reason for existence. Music should never be about Eurotrash models and their cut-out-and-keep designer boyfriends.
As Lisa Reinisch recently wrote on her self-titled blog: “Dubai’s embryonic subcultures are reclaiming the night.” They are doing this because they are fed up with corporate homogeneity and are thriving off an increasing number of events and parties that are “aimed at those of us who like their music a little less obvious, their crowds a little smaller and their fashion police in outer space, preferably”.
On a personal level, this evolution has acted as an elixir. It has made Dubai a far more livable environment. When I first arrived in 2005, only the now long defunct iBO could in any way be described as alternative. Funk, soul, jazz and bossa nova DJs were not in any form of demand. They still aren’t to be honest, but at least the music scene has developed to such an extent that opportunities and crowds, no matter how small, have emerged. They have emerged, to a large extent, due to collaboration. The Deep Crates Cartel, with its grouping of like-minded DJs, street artists, graff writers, B-Boys, producers, vinyl junkies and musicians, has used its collective strength to provide an alternative to Dubai’s infatuation with bling. Others – particularly Dust – have done something similar. Others will come along and the scene will increase in its diversity. To the rest of the world this will probably go unnoticed, infatuated as they are with Dubai’s image as a playground for the rich, but, really, who cares? All that matters is the music.
* Published in Al Ghurair, February 2014