Review: Sole DXB salutes 50 years of hip-hop with Big Daddy Kane and Jadakiss

Urban festival returns with performances spanning the longevity and adventurism of the genre

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Fifty years of hip-hop is being celebrated at Sole DXB this weekend.

The annual music and culture festival, taking place at Dubai Design District until Sunday, returned with artists spanning the genre.

Where last year’s line-up was forward-leaning, with burgeoning talents like RnB artists Jorja Smith and Central Cee, this year’s offering looks back at the genre’s evolution over the decades while, perhaps, offering some insights on what is to come.

American-Sudanese rapper Oddisee is an example of that future.

His fluid set, backed by a live band, deftly mixes jazz, funk and even some go-go with the kind of introspective lyricism – that touches on raising a family and mental health – rarely heard on the Sole DXB main stage.

British singer-songwriter Arlo Parks also added a fresh flavour, particularly with material from her new album My Soft Machine.

Hit tracks like Weightless and Impurities shimmer in their delicacy, while Devotion delivers some of the hardest guitar sounds of the evening.

Tobe Nwigwe’s set was the best of the night in terms of band performance.

Backed by an eight-piece group, including three singers, he delivered a set of gospel-infused hip-hop.

Lord Forgive is a righteous stomper while the sheer euphoria and weirdness of the turbo-charged Catfish Blackened with Grits was enough to prove Nwigwe is on track to becoming one of the most popular live acts around.

While the aforementioned acts showed hip-hop’s versatility and seamless ability to blend with other styles, Sole DXB’s line-up also belonged to some of the heroes of the genre.

American rapper Big Daddy Kane, widely regarded as one of rap’s first big stars, showed that pedigree with fun and forceful renditions of Smooth Operator and Ain’t No Half Steppin'.

The latter 1988 track remains one of the most influential rap songs of all time. The complex rhyme scheme, peppered with clever metaphors and stylish narrative influenced generations of rappers such as Jay-Z and Nas.

The festival’s decision to pack in more acts impacted set times this year, something that was particularly noticeable during Lupe Fiasco's performance on the main stage. The American rapper is simply too good to be limited to a 20-minute slot.

That said, the Chicago native did his best by performing some of his biggest anthems such as the Kick Push, Superstar and a particularly resonant Hip-hop Saved My Life.

The atmosphere of celebration felt particularly poignant when the headliner Jadakiss took to the stage.

More than the blistering set by the New Yorker – which featured solo favourites Knock Yourself Out and By Your Side, as well as tributes to peers with covers of songs by Nas and the late DMX – the real action was below and to the side of the stage.

There you could see several of the night’s performers rapturously rapping the songs back to Jadakiss with the kind of respect, appreciation and vigour synonymous with the genre.

Watching from the sidelines was co-founder Rajat Malhotra.

From its beginnings in an Al Quoz warehouse as a "sneaker summit" in 2011, Sole DXB has grown to become one of the region’s biggest hip-hop festivals.

Malhotra says this year’s nostalgic effort is the team’s way of saying thank you for the music that influenced their lives.

"This event started humbly and we still think there is a long way for us to go to reach its potential," he says.

“But when I look at how hip-hop just brought us five co-founders together and turned us from strangers to family it is really amazing.

"And in many ways, hip-hop's growth mirrors the story of Dubai.

“Many of us come from somewhere else but this collision of cultures and ideas makes the music and city almost like nothing else out there.

“And it's this reason we feel this place and music will always have a general sense of optimism.”

Updated: December 13, 2023, 10:41 AM