Employees of the Month aren’t a band. Mention the B word within an Employee’s earshot and expect to be immediately shot down. Instead they describe themselves as a loose ‘collective’, bringing together many of the key players in Dubai’s hip-hop community. If one of the Employees’ frontline trio can’t make a gig, expect a backroom member of the team to step up.
There’s a reason they’re quick to pounce on the B word. Four of the collective’s current five were in a band once – and it didn’t turn out too well. It’s not that Diligent Thought weren’t a musical success: in just a few months they became one of the region’s best-known groups, credited with bringing live hip-hop to the UAE for the first time. Hot debut mixtape Lyricalligraphy Vol.1 took off thanks to a video for ‘Could It Be’, and the band attracted interest from major international labels. But after little more than a year they folded. Exhausted, disillusioned and bored – in short, being in a ‘band’ became too much.
Each member went on to pursue their own projects. MC Jibberish (real name Irshad Azeez, 28, from Sri Lanka) rapped around the region with a solo career. Partner in rhyme Toofless (Feras Ibrahim, 28, Sudanese) hung up his mic to go on a two-year ‘journey of self discovery.’ Beatmaker DJ Solo (Neil Andrew, 33, British) experimented with a number of new alter-egos – including Duck Child, a ‘real’ cartoon caricature created in cyberspace – before settling on the moniker he takes today: Wriggly Scott.
Now, four years after calling it a day in the middle of Spinney’s supermarket, those three are back on stage as Employees of the Month. Meanwhile they’ve re-recruited beatmaker Soul-Phonic (Ameel Ismail, 28, Sudan), and added Sheisty Sham (Omar Kamal, 25, Sudan), as studio-based ‘group affiliates’. ‘I was pushing them to perform for ages,’ says Neil. ‘Between us we have all this material. It sounds a bit precious, but I think we owe it to the scene to get it out there.’
One of the key facets of being a collective – not a band – is that setlists are drawn from the reams of solo material made by each member during the four-year hiatus, which will also be reflected on the collective’s first (as-yet unnamed) ‘compilation album’, set to be launched on Wednesday June 20. ‘For this to work, everybody has to have their own roles and their own projects,’ says Irshad. ‘It’s not one person: we all need to realise our own tunes.’
It seems to be working so far. Since reforming at the beginning of the year, the trio have quickly reclaimed the limelight, playing a string of comeback gigs including festival slots at Sole DXB and the Chill Out Festival, where they had the honour of performing directly before US hip-hop stars De la Soul.
The new name is a nod to the fact that, like nearly every musician in Dubai, they all have day jobs. ‘It’s like working man’s hip-hop,’ say Irshad, who works in shipping. Interior designer Neil adds: ‘We’re all artists and we all have jobs – this is serious music that people can relate to.’ It’s Feras, though, who has actually been named an Employee of Month.
‘I have!’ he shouts excitedly, ‘I worked in a performance centre and I was nominated as an extra-high achiever two months running!’
When we catch up with the band, they’re lounging on sofas and supping coffees, trading conflicting stories while trying to piece together how they first met. ‘It was in a parking lot in Jumeirah Beach Road,’ says Feras, remembering the day Ameer introduced him to Irshad. ‘They pulled up in this clapped-out car, gushing smoke, loud hip-hop – I didn’t know what these guys were into,’ he adds.
‘I met you outside Ameer’s house,’ Neil says to Irshad, ‘but I thought you were a bit of a jerk.’
Whatever caused the burnout last time around, it’s clear watching the trio chat that they’re happy to be back in each others’ company. Yet their solo successes show that each member is equally happy to go it alone – and that might be the secret to the longevity of the collective’s success. ‘When trying to make this kind of music, you have to compete with international standards,’ says Irshad. ‘We want to stand on the world stage. We want to go to Europe. I’ve already prepared my next couple of moves.’