Luxury cars outside the People by Crystal nightclub
The United Arab Emirates isn't a country you'd typically associate with hip-hop. It's a place that is generally bereft of the cultural signifiers native to the dark, dank locales where rap was birthed—Illmatic, for instance, probably wouldn't have been the same album if it was about the struggle of going $40 million over budget on your new artificial archipelago instead of the fight out of inner-city poverty.
But the young Emirati elite throwing cash at studio time and music videos to force their way into the rap game don't care about that, and why should they? Genres don't have to stay rooted. Dubstep was spawned in a south London borough known for its train stations and knife crime, and has become the party music of choice for frat boys with facial piercings the world over.
The problem is that those wads of cash aren't conducive to your scene being taken particularly seriously. There aren't many rappers in the UAE unleashing conscious backpack records about the government's oppression of its critics; far more who are content to jack Flo Rida's artistic process and find new words to rhyme "club" with over a lame club-rap beat.
That said, there are some Emirati acts trying to reclaim a bit of prestige. Like Desert Heat, two dishdash-wearing brothers from Dubai who you might remember from the 2008 UAE rap classic, "Keep It Desert." One of the brothers, Illmiyah, has said it pains him that Emiratis "are stereotyped as [being] born rich and privileged," and wants to correct that assumption. In fact, he even released a solo album called Stereotyped to prove it. Unfortunately, Desert Heat were banned in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait after releasing their first album, and haven't had much success in their native UAE, either.
American hip-hop is popular in the Emirates—Rick Ross had his first show there last month—but the radios won't play homegrown MCs and it seems like nobody bothers to seek out local artists online. It's kind of like UK hip-hop, I guess, only even less popular.
DJ Bliss in his studio
I wanted to get a better idea of some of the other people who make up the UAE's hip-hop scene, so I went to speak with a few of them. The first was DJ Bliss, a producer, radio host, TV presenter, and the face of Beats by Dre in the Emirates—and pretty much the only Emirati in the country's music business who everyone can name. After DJing at parties as a teenager, Bliss—real name Marwan Parham Al Awadhi—ended up momentarily bowing to family pressure and pursuing a career with a multinational tobacco company.
But that blip only lasted a year before he struck out on his own again, leaving his brothers to start a successful shawarma chain and landing a spot on one of Dubai's biggest radio stations. He's clearly been raised with the comforts of basically any Emirati his age, but Bliss struck me as a hard worker, not someone who's let his parents' money ferry him to where he is now.
He has the ego of any other young, successful DJ, but having managed a rapper who's been on his books for two years because "the time isn't right," he understands the problems facing the Emirati hip-hop scene—nobody plays it and nobody promotes it, so nobody listens to it. He also doesn't shy away from the fact that some of the Emirati rappers born into infinity pools and Maybachs are arguably just tourists in a culture that they've summoned into existence with handouts and a bulk order of Yankees caps.
"It's true—rap comes from hardship," he told me. "And from the Emirati view, there really isn't that much struggle; even if you're a high school dropout or whatever, you just join the army and make a crazy amount of money."
Some time around midnight, Bliss's driver took me to an elite Dubai club named People by Crystal, where I would wait for Bliss while he sped home in his Bentley to change into his outfit for the evening's set. I milled about with my camera around my neck, which attracted a bunch of people who thought I was the club's official photographer. When I told them that I wasn't, and that I probably wouldn't be emailing them the photo I'd just taken of them arranged in cliched bling formation poses, they got angry and I remembered why I don't like elite clubs: they're full of people who want to go to elite clubs. I left halfway through Bliss's set.
Bliss (right) DJing in People by Crystal
Bliss's output is tailored to clubs full of expats, and although he produces his own stuff—which is actually pretty good, in that bashy, shouty Jay Z way—he gets a much better response when he's dropping Kanye and Macklemore. Something a little more home-focused, though this time run by expats, is FreekTV, a YouTube channel that mocks Abu Dhabi culture at the same time as it champions local hip-hop talent.
I met up with Mustafa Ismail, a Somali who founded and runs FreekTV, and Muhammed Rachdi, a Tunisian and frequent collaborator who MCs under the name Alonzo. They don't have much time for the Abu Dhabi and Dubai rich kids, talking more about the underground scene in the poorer (but still comparatively wealthy) areas of the country—mainly the emirate of Sharjah. The hip-hop that emerges from this region, they say, is slightly darker in terms of beats and lyrical content; more Raekwon than R. Kelly.
But the music is hard to find. A couple of shitty YouTube videos is about all you can find, because these guys don't know how to promote their tunes and don't necessarily have the money of their contemporaries in the wealthier emirates to make professional music videos. There are no shows organized for up-and-comers and nobody has any kind of web presence, so mostly they'll make a song and just send it out on BBM or email it to friends.
When Sharjah was brought up, I asked Mustafa and Muhammed about Dangour, a rapper from the area who was arrested in 2011 for "inciting gangsterism" and sentenced to three months in jail. His crime? Spreading a music video on BBM where he rapped about making life very painful for anyone who disrespected him, smoking hash and hating white people over torture footage. The police later confirmed this was fake, but nevertheless the court eventually ruled that Dangour had created the video to "make people scared of him." Which seems like the sort of exercise in obviousness you'd expect from a country that hasn't come to grips with its cultural tropes quite yet.
Dangour's is the only case I could find of an Emirati rapper trying to present himself as a thug, even if it was all an affectation. According to a policeman who knew him from school, "Dangour wasn't tough then. He used to cry all the time." Talking to Emirati media after the arrest, another local rapper, Mohammed Al Amry, said, "He wanted people to talk about him like he's a criminal and he was looking to be arrested. But don't blame rap music. It's not about the music, it's about him."
Mustafa from Freek TV
Muhammed didn't share Al Amry's opinion: "He's got something special about him," he told me. Unfortunately, I couldn't find out what that special something is, because every attempt to contact Dangour was fruitless, save for one muddled email from an associate telling me he was in Malaysia and "trying to claim his rights from outside."
As you'd probably expect, the output from Emirati rappers who aren't being jailed is considerably tamer than Dangour's love letters to flagellation. For example, Dubai-based MC Bunny J's videos don't feature anyone having their face kicked in, just people wearing sunglasses at night and pouting a lot in deserts. Those videos in mind, I expected a spoiled kid hopped up on delusion when I went to meet Bunny—a Dubai police officer by day—and his manager in a Starbucks in Dubai Mall. Instead, I met two slightly timid men with a genuine passion for what they're doing.
Bunny J is never going to deliver anything too profound—DOOM and Immortal Technique needn't worry too much about an Emirati invasion occupying their niche. But, to him, that doesn't matter: "I just rap about life, partying, what I see. I just do it for fun." I asked how that poppin' bottles lifestyle fits in with his religion and whether he's ever encountered any opposition from particularly conservative family members, but he just told me that Islam is important to him and left it at that. The UAE is moderate in comparison to many of its neighboring countries—and the vast majority of its citizens are expats—so everyone I spoke to told me that the culture is accommodating of hip-hop, even if it was a new phenomenon when Emiratis started rapping themselves.
Bunny was excited to show me the video for his new single "Fly Away," which, although not exactly inspired, wouldn't be out of place on a playlist, all auto-tuned chorus and lyrics about "touching the sky." Sadly for Bunny, he's inevitably going to have a hard time getting his song played in whatever Dubai's Boujis equivalent might be, telling me that the radio ignores people like him and that there's not really any other platform for his music to exist upon.
I tried to track down anything resembling an amateur Emirati hip-hop battle night, just to see if there's anyone in the country nurturing the scene, but the closest thing I could find was a local poetry slam night called Rooftop Rhythms. Unfortunately, the night I went to can probably best be summarized by the guy who spent the majority of his time reciting lyrics about how his "rhymes are sick" from his phone. Maybe it was just an off night, but it didn't give me much hope for Bunny and his peers.
The scene seems to be festering. The artists are passionate and dedicated, but nobody else really seems to care. The silver spoon lifestyle might seem at odds with other hip-hop movements around the world, and it does translate to some pretty awful music the majority of the time, but that doesn't mean the scene should necessarily be ignored—a lot of people like awful music.
Before I left him at People by Crystal, Bliss had stressed that the "UAE is only young." And he's right. The country itself is only 42 years old, the same mean age as The Wu-Tang Clan. Emirati hip-hop is even younger, which is easy to forget given all the older money propping it up to the same level as scenes that having been evolving for decades elsewhere. That said, age shouldn't be an issue; radio play might be rare and managers few and far between, but the internet also exists. You get the feeling that all the scene needs is someone good enough to get people listening.
Follow James on Twitter: @duckytennent
More musical scenes that we've hung out in:
WATCH – True Norwegian Black Metal
WATCH – Donk
WATCH – Raving in the Black Sea