The rise of the UAE’s vinyl scene
Here’s something that you might not know: according to the Smithsonian Institute only 30 percent of all music has been digitised on to CD or MP3 — which means that hundreds of thousands of hours of recordings still remain in existence solely on tape and/or vinyl. It’s a remarkable statistic that fuels the passion of DJ and self-proclaimed ‘crate digger’ James De Valera, or, as he’s better known in the UAE, Lobito Brigante.
“There is a whole world of music that is still to be discovered,” he explains. “Any dusty 45’ hidden at the bottom of a vinyl crate could be hiding a loop just waiting to be made into the next smash hit. It’s just a matter of digging through them to find the right sounds.”
He’s not wrong. Even a casual glance over the last decade of global number-ones sees a high percentage of tracks spawned from old samples. Mega-hits like Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy” or “We No Speak Americano” by Yolanda Be Cool were both built on samples from Italian songs from the early 1900s, discovered by producers ‘digging’ away in old record boxes.
But it’s not all about producing the next hit. For Lobito, who is one of the few DJs in the UAE to use vinyl, it’s an expression of identity. “A person’s music collection is a very personal thing. It represents who they are and who they see themselves as,” he says. “I spin vinyl because I love finding something that people haven’t heard before. You just can’t do that using your iPod.”
It’s a passion that has started to gain traction with others in the UAE, as Lobito — whose record collection now stands at a staggering 23,000 records — has become one of the most in-demand DJs in the country and is now the de facto mouthpiece on all things vinyl. As a founding member of B-Boy collective, the Deep Crates Cartel, he has been instrumental in helping build an underground urban culture of breakdancers, aerosol artists and street art exhibitions. Central to this scene are the increasingly popular monthly events run by the Deep Crates Cartel across the UAE. The events range from rooftop parties to regularly bringing in internationally recognised DJs, including the likes of Jazzy Jeff.
But this now-budding scene hasn’t always been this way. Having carved an impressive reputation for himself in both his native Spain and London’s cool hip-hop and B-Boy scene, for Lobito moving to Dubai in 2007 was a culture shock. “There was literally no underground scene,” he remembers. “I tried reaching out to people online and sending my stuff to clubs, but would get no response.” Unable to breach the monopoly of bars wanting iPod DJs to play Top 40 hits, Lobito began hosting events in Dubai’s less trendy areas. The setting up of his own night in a backwater hotel in Barsha would grow substantially in popularity, morphing into its current form, Deep Crates, and spawn other Dubai-based events, Sunny Vibe Up and Diggin’ in the Park.
“It has always been about the culture for me,” he says. “It is about bringing a piece of my culture to Dubai — and my culture is an all-inclusive one.” From the start, choosing venues that didn’t have a strict door policy on dress code, financial clout or race was a central criterion to building a community. Today, the Deep Crates Cartel’s ‘come one, come all’ ethos attracts people from all types of backgrounds, from Filipino breakdancers to trendy Western hipsters.
“All we try to do is create good times. A lot of people come for the music, but what we really offer is a release from other stuff that goes on, whether you have a boring job or are tired of the commercialism of Dubai — we try to offer an alternative,” he explains. “The minute it becomes exclusive we will have lost the point.”
It is not only the nightlife that has been impacted by the likes of Lobito and the Deep Crates Cartel. Access to buying and selling vinyl in the UAE has grown with the development of online communities including Vinyl Lab and Zed Records. The interest has even encouraged the likes of Virgin Megastore to stock a wider variety of records. Many of these are reissued recordings from digital files, but it is a start.
This mirrors the global upturn of vinyl sales that is now at its highest point since the early 1980s. Whether this is caused by people searching for more authentic experiences as a reaction to an increasingly virtual world, or a rise in retro-obsessed hipster culture, people are beginning to reconnect with more nostalgic things such as vinyl and paper books.
“It’s a more personal experience than just playing some files on your computer,” says Lobito of the resurgence. “The more detached from reality we become, the more people want to reconnect with real experiences – I think vinyl, in a small way, is part of that.”