Make it rain

A new mixtape by the Dubai rapper Perfect Storm has put the city's hip-hop scene on the map. Inside: photo gallery of Dubai's up and coming hip hop talent.

Dubai-based rapper Perfect Storm, pictured in his regular studio. “People don’t really expect me to rap. When  I tell them I rap, they’re like, ‘Yeah, sure,’” says the British born, half-Chinese MC. “I’m a quiet person, but when  I get behind the mic, I’m different.”
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Here's how it used to be: you'd hear a new tune on the radio; you'd watch the video on MTV; then you'd buy the album from the record store and see the band live. Now, here's how it is today: you open your friend's iTunes playlist and hear something interesting; you Google the group, get the link to their YouTube channel and social networking groups; then, finally, you download their music.

It's a brave new world, and no one understands this better than hip-hop artists. While record-label executives complain about the demise of the music industry, rappers and DJs - especially those who have yet to sign record deals - have embraced the changing times, and taken the opportunity to forge stronger, more intimate bonds with their fans.

One such artist is the Dubai-based MC Perfect Storm, although you won't find his new mixtape, The Calm Before, in shops. It is available only online, as a free download.

As for the rapper himself, the chances are that unless you are a diehard fan of hip-hop in the region, you will probably never have heard of him. Nevertheless, his mailing list includes thousands of people from around the world, including a DJ billed by the US-edition of Rolling Stone magazine as one of the 10 most influential in the world.

"I'm the first artist from the region to have my mixtape hosted by DJ Warrior," explains 26-year old Aaron Leung, alias Perfect Storm. As a result, it is now possible to hear verses by Leung in the Los Angeles-based DJ's international shows and live broadcasts. "For him to approve my product and put his name on it proved that I'm on the right path."

The Calm Before features 24 of Leung's strongest tracks to date. As a result of Leung's involvement in the Dubai hip-hop collective The Recipe, it also includes guest appearances by the cream of local rap talent, such as the rappers Swerte, Young Vaughn and Deen. The release was recorded in a number of home studios, then mixed and mastered by friends from the local scene and overseas.

On first listen, it is easy to mistake its crisp beats and flawless performances for a new album from America's West Coast. "Though I recorded my performance here in Dubai, a number of my tracks feature beats made by online hip-hop producers from Europe and the US," Leung says. "They've sampled tracks from the 1970s and 1980s. They understood that urban feel I had in mind." Adding to the collection's LA hip-hop sound is a tribute to Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg's Under Cover, reinterpreted by Leung and Young Vaughn.

While Leung is happy to pay homage to his Stateside influences, the bulk of his inspiration can be found much closer to home.

"I came to the UAE from Hong Kong when I was four years old," the British-born, half-Chinese performer explains. "While studying, I moved around different schools - from Choueifat in Lebanon to Oxford in England; from Emirates International to Dubai College. My parents kept moving around a lot. I even had to study in Australia for a while. But the UAE is home to me, so the majority of the stuff you hear [in my music] is influenced by the things I see around me here. The amazing thing about this place is that there are so many nationalities and so many backgrounds. So when I rap about their stories, it appeals to listeners in other countries too."

Leung's early years in the Emirates form the lyrical foundations of one of The Calm Before's standout tracks. Poignant and refreshingly honest, Believe addresses the ups and downs of adolescence, the occasionally rootless nature of expatriate experience and the struggle to make a better life for one's family. The lines "Bootleg kicks, bootleg gear/ It's funny though, to me you know / Those were the realest years," may be simple, but they are also touchingly honest.

As with most hip-hop tracks, the subject matter isn't always upbeat. "Some friends of mine took the wrong path in life and there were consequences," Leung says. "Hip-hop to me is therapy. It's my on-the-couch moment. So my feelings and thoughts about those things always make their way into my music."

Such sobering themes are a trademark of global hip-hop. Stories about gang violence and life at the bottom rung of the social ladder feature prominently in the music, but are less relevant to life in The Gulf. On the other side of the coin, however, is a love of glamour and conspicuous consumption - both of which Dubai offers in abundance.

On tracks such as Take Away the Pain, Leung contrasts the big-city glitz of Dubai with an altogether grittier picture of life in the Emirates, detailing the hardships faced by many of the region's migrant workers in a stream of thoughtful rhymes.

After hearing this track, it comes as no surprise that he is quick to distance himself from the rap world's most ostentatious excesses. For him, sincerity and a commitment to quality are key. "I take this seriously," he says. "I study the game. The history of it. The business side of it. The craft of it. I find out the latest means to reach new audiences. I'm a genuine fan of the music. I do this because I really do feel that this is what I'm meant to do and because I love doing it."

This sentiment that is certainly appreciated by his fans. It is also finding favour in unexpected and well-connected quarters.

"I even got a call from DC Shoes - they're one of the biggest brands in skateboarding," Leung says. "They want to feature my music in their upcoming skate videos. I have no clue how they got hold of my music. The internet is great!"

Michael Fillon is a long-term resident of the UAE and is the lead singer of Sandwash, a Dubai-based band who recently released Master Blaster Hole, their debut album.