It's official: we are in the midst of a 1990s music revival. This can be heard in the charts, particularly in modern electronic dance music (you can trace the melodicism in Calvin Harris and David Guetta's big-club thumpers straight back to stalwarts 2 Unlimited and DJ BoBo). It is also no coincidence that 1990s-era hooks course through the works of Ariana Grande (her 2014 album My Everything is brimming with 1990s-style R&B) and Carly Rae Jepsen (her Grammy-nominated song Call Me Maybe from 2012 is totally 90s-tastic), given that they grew up in that decade.
Capitalising on this lucrative wave of nostalgia are the stars of the era, some of whom were formerly dormant, while others have been diligently plugging away with tours of 1990s music strongholds such as the Baltic States and Eastern Europe.
But the world is becoming a much smaller place, explains Dr Alban, who will headline this Friday's Remix 92 festival in Dubai, where a host of vintage names such as C+C Music Factory (Things That Make You Go Hmmmm) and Snap! (Rhythm is a Dancer) will take to the stage. While the norm used to be performances in outposts such as Cyprus, Russia and, yes, even Dubai, the 60-year-old musician states that this newfound interest in 1990s music means that South America now beckons.
“Just the other day I got news that promoters are interested in bringing 90s festivals over to places like Brazil and Argentina,” he says. “I said I will jump on any festival and go anywhere over there. I think it is going to be something fantastic.”
If anyone can squash the caricature of a jaded 90s pop star, it is the tall Nigerian-Swede; Dr Alban has no qualms about being labelled a three-hit wonder. “What is there not to like about what I do?” he says from his base in Stockholm. “I travel around the world, sing my songs and then my job is done. I don’t feel like it is work; actually, it is all one big holiday, and that’s why you will not find me ever complaining.”
What makes him grateful, Alban says, is the fact that being a pop star was never part of the plan. Born in Nigeria and hailing from a family of 10 children, he arrived in Sweden at the age of 23 to study dentistry. His side gig as a DJ was only meant to generate extra pocket money. However, his dexterity on the decks and his tendency to freestyle over tracks (a shtick UK R&B singer Craig David since found success with) made Alban’s parties at Stockholm’s famed Alphabet Street nightclub a weekend favourite. With his name circulating on the local music scene, the late Swedish DJ Denniz Pop reached out to Alban to create some original tunes. As Alban recalls, Pop – who was years away from being the Svengali behind Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync – was looking for a fusion of African rhythms and vocals with radio-friendly hooks.
The end result was 1990's Hello Afrika, which essentially has Dr Alban bringing his club performance to the studio with freestyle lyrics such as the hook: "Hello Africa, Tell me how you're doin'". The track swept the European charts and introduced both Alban and Pop to the international music industry. This was all well and good, except that Alban had to inform his parents that being a full-time artist might get in the way of those dentistry plans.
“They asked me what the hell I was doing and said I should go back to Nigeria and be a dentist. They were not happy at all,” he says. “But once the success really become overwhelming, they said OK, this could be something good.”
Bigger hits were soon to arrive, with Alban and Pop teaming up for two more global smashes: 1992's anthemic It's My Life and the gospel-tinged Sing Hallelujah a year later.
Considering how these songs changed his life, Alban says they were relatively easy to make. “You know, we just went into the studio and I rapped something and we gave it the right sound,” he says. “It wasn’t like one big complicated thing, you know? We wanted to make it sound original and fun. I never get sick of playing it, it always makes me happy.”
Alban certainly made those songs go a long way; as well as constant touring, he re-recorded both It's My Life (with Moroccan singer Chawki, in 2014) and Sing Hallelujah to keep with current trends. Such affection to the craft was in short supply when fellow Remix 92 performers 5ive first pulled the plug on the boy band in 2001.
The touring and commitments that came with being one of the world’s biggest pop groups (with up to 20 million albums sold) took its toll, with Sean Conlon reportedly seeking hospitalisation after having a nervous breakdown.
“Think about it, this was all before social media,” says bandmate Scott Robinson wryly. “The thing was we never really had time to appreciate any of the success. The schedule was pretty gruelling and it was all pretty manic. We missed home, we were tired and generally we worked ourselves way too hard. By the end of it, we were just too exhausted to really go forward.”
After calling it quits with a greatest-hits compilation, which included When the Lights Go Out (1998) and Keep on Movin' (1999), the band announced their reformation as a four-piece in 2011, only to quit, once again, seven months later after failing to secure a feasible record deal. The third reunion, which came in 2012, may not be anywhere near the success of their heyday, but it is the most satisfying, according to Robinson. With the group whittled down to a three-piece, with Conlon and Ritchie Neville in tow, a greater sense of balance pervades 5ive.
“We are all picking and choosing our jobs, and we have more family time,” Robinson says. “Also, now we are kind of part of this whole 90s revival thing, so we have been pretty busy. I honestly feel we are in a good place right now.”
There is no real mystery to the growth of nostalgic music festivals, Robinson says. Like each decade that preceded, different generations want to hear the soundtrack of a simpler time in their lives. “People want to recall that feeling of being free and without any responsibilities,” says Robinson. “And I feel that when we play these songs now, people are really enjoying them because they are in the time of their life with families and kids, and want to be reminded of an easier time. It’s nice to be able to play songs that make people happy, and this time around we are enjoying it, too.”
Remix 92 takes place at the Irish Village, Dubai, on Friday. Tickets start at Dh225 from www.dubai.platinumlist.net