The Arab world's large diaspora presents a formidable pool of music talent. Recently, Dubai-based music label Platinum Records waded into the arena by launching its boutique branch, Platinum Independent. True to its name, the new company has scoured the globe for young, unsigned Middle Eastern artists, specialising in a range of styles including hip-hop and rock, with the goal of producing modern pop music targeting the United States market.
The venture is headed by an impressive duo: Grammy-winning producer and former American Idol judge Randy Jackson will take care of business in North America, while Taymoor Marmarchi, head of Platinum (home to Arab stars such as Palestine's Mohammed Assaf and Emirati diva Ahlam), is in charge of regional operations.
You can already hear the benefits of this behind-the-scenes pedigree with the label's debut effort, Got It on Your Own, by Dubai-based Iraqi-American rapper Julian. Released earlier this month, it is a slick piece of radio-friendly hip-hop that ticks all the commercial boxes: skeletal production of throbbing bass and lurking synths that is in fashion; Julian's Drake-esque melodic vocal flow; and a sultry hook delivered by American R&B crooner Jeremih.
The fact that the song can snugly fit into the playlist of any western radio station is the point, according to Julian. Born to Iraqi parents in Detroit, the 22 year-old (real name Julian Michel) arrived in Dubai 13 years ago. He explains that his regular shuttling between the US and the UAE plays a major role in his approach to music.
“That upbringing was the best thing for me,” he says. “In Dubai, there are so many people from all over the world. I learnt their cultures and traditions, ate their food and listened to their stories. In Michigan, it was a whole different culture. The lingo and way of life are their own. Both experiences define who I am as an artist.”
There is also Julian's artistic lineage. His paternal grandfather performed with the Iraqi National Symphony Orchestra for two decades, while his father is a professional pianist. However, the creative world's hard road to success initially made Julian's parents wary of their son's passion.
"Like everyone, Arab parents also doubt," he laughs. "It's just that they didn't view what I did as a career choice, you know what I'm saying? But I started young. Started writing my own lyrics when I was 8 and producing when I was 14 years old. I wasn't really good at school because I kept focusing on my music. Once they saw how into it I was, and knowing that I was working hard and dedicated to it 100 per cent, my parents became more comfortable," he says.
Julian's career is equal parts hip-hop fanboy and musicianship. It was his teenage obsession with artists such as Eminem, Notorious BIG and Puff Daddy that pushed him to write his own rhymes. The technical skills came after he learnt the guitar and piano under his father's tutelage.
Got It on Your Own is one of the first songs where it all came together. As well as penning the introspective lyrics (essentially a message of encouragement to a friend), he composed and recorded the demo himself. This came in handy when Marmarchi contacted him last year, impressed by Julian's earlier, self-funded material, such as the track I Apologise, and his social-media channels.
Marmarchi's handling of the burgeoning artist is an example of the quality control that Platinum Independent aims to maintain. "He flew me to Los Angeles, and in a way tested me by having me work with big producers such as RedOne [Lady Gaga's Poker Face] and Rodney Jerkins [Michael Jackson's You Rock My World]," he recalls. "Once these big producers said that I was dope and good enough, then I flew back to Dubai and we really started to put the work in."
With Got It on Your Own clocking more than 850,000 views on YouTube and being lauded by the international hip-hop press, expect a string of tracks from Julian to be released before the end of the year. Being the flagship artist for a new label does have its pressures, but Julian says he is gratified by the fact that he is representing the Arab world.
"There is a lot of Arab talent out there, such as DJ Khaled and French Montana [hip-hop stars with Palestinian and Moroccan roots, respectively], but the only difference is that I am doing it from the Arab world," Julian says. "These guys, if you listen to their music, don't really talk about where they are from. I mean, Khaled doesn't talk about Palestine, but Miami instead. I want to not only represent Iraq, but also the UAE for being such a multicultural place."
Got It on Your Own by Julian featuring Jeremih is out now on Platinum Independent