Known as the 'hardest working man in Dubstep', Philadelphia-native Khadafi Dub has gone from rap star to rave master, making an art out of walking the line between the two. Dalia Awad finds out how, hours before he gave Cairo an education in EDM...
What’s in a name? Both a lot, and not very much, according to Khadafi Dub – born Khalief Khadafi – who we caught up with ahead of his crowd-moving, speaker-shaking, scene-altering performance last weekend as part of the D-CAF festival. He doesn’t seem like a Middle Eastern dictator, so we obviously had to ask. “My parents were part of the first wave of African-American converts to Islam. I’m a practicing Muslim. It’s a way of life for me. I’ve never eaten pork and I never plan on it!” he explains. “We all know what Khalief means (leader), but I can only assume Khadafi – my middle name – came from the Colonel himself!” Though the Philadelphian producer/DJ/MC started his career as a rapper by the name of Konfidential, blowing up MTV and BET with spinning rims, outlandish bling, video hoes et al, when he made the switch to Dubstep and was encouraged to create a Facebook fanpage for his new venture, his latest moniker was, it seems, accidental: “My friends said they couldn’t spell ‘Khalief’ so I just typed in ‘Khadafi’ and ‘Dub’. It didn’t become my stage name until I found a club promoter had printed it on a flyer. I didn’t know what to tell him, but I was like, that’s my name, then!” he chuckles.
So the Rap life wasn’t for him, and as soon as he walked through the door, it became abundantly clear that he wasn’t made for the Rap life either. Donning big, fluffy hair and a back pack, he looks like a kid in a Pharaoh-themed playground. “I can’t wait to see the Sphinx! I want to see the nose!” he jokes. As soon as he was approached by the organisers of D-CAF, he was down for a little Egyptian exploration. His fascination with our ancestors began when, in 2007, a car accident left him bed-bound for months, with nothing to do but read and meditate. Ancient Egypt was his subject of choice. But New Egypt? “When the trip to Cairo was set up, people around me were like, ‘There’s a revolution there! It’s dangerous!' but to me that’s just American propaganda, that’s what they do. We spread our agenda and make people believe what we want them to. Revolutions don’t scare me. America’s been going through a revolution since I can remember; I live that every day. Egypt is Africa. This is the motherland, the first civilisation. I had to do it.”
Prior to his accident, however, he had already grown weary of the Hip Hop music industry. “I didn’t like the way it worked or who they wanted me to be. I have kids and with all the cursing and the typical Rap star lifestyle, I couldn’t even play my music to my children. I didn’t want to fit in that mold; I wanted my music and lyrics to have meaning. The song that was playing on the video channels was my least favourite song. That’s not to mention that the success I had as Konfidential came from an independent label, and from a business stand point I didn’t want to fall prey to the big shots,” he explains. Discouraged and disheartened, Khadafi took a break from making music all together, even though he admits he may have had greater commercial success had he stuck to Hip Hop. The alternate route into EDM (Electronic Dance Music), on the other hand, seems to have afforded him contentment: “I wouldn’t have experienced the festivals in the UK and across Europe, I wouldn’t have met the people I’ve met, I wouldn’t have been the real me. I definitely wouldn’t have been here in Cairo.”
Like many near-death experiences, this helped put things in perspective. Finally wise enough to leave the Rap game behind him, Dubstep – making waves on the underground scene in Europe since the 1980s but only just piquing the interest of mainstream producers in the last decade – was introduced to him by a 58 year-old bass player in his band. “He’s over 60 now, but this guy knows what he’s talking about! He was like, ‘Yo, I’ve heard you rap on every beat, except Dubstep.’ I was like, what the hell is Dubstep?! He told me it’s all about this massive intro, building up to a huge bass and that it’s killing it over in Europe. I went home that day and did my research,” he remembers.
Now this was long before Skrillex hit the scene and boys and girls alike started shaving their heads and shaking their bodies to this little thing called ‘bass’ that was widely ignored in the world of Electro. This was when Dubstep was the epitome of underground and acts like Skream, Benga, Mala and Digital Mystikz were barely known outside of their hard-partying, cult-like circuits. “When I YouTube surfed for Dubstep – and it was mostly down-tempo stuff at the time – I really connected to it. It had elements of Hip Hop and Reggae, the stuff I grew up on, and I was feeling it,” he recalls. But it wasn’t just the bone-rattling bass, the building tension and the euphoric climaxes that got him hooked. It was the industry of the burgeoning genre, in and of itself, that urged him to take the leap. “It was a new industry. It wasn’t tainted. I could jump on and shape Dubstep, rather than have a genre shape me since there were no gatekeepers,” says the man who unexpectedly counts Kanye West and Will.I.Am as some of his current day influencers. “These guys who work on the production side of things, as well as the rapping; the guys who command the whole business side of things – they’ve made a big impact on the way I work.”
And work he does. Verse after verse, track after track and mixtape after mixtape, Khadafi Dub’s discography is growing as faster as the Dubstep industry is, if not outrunning it. He’s a veritable factory of hits, from remixes of chart toppers to bass-banging originals to the occasional appearances on the tracks of others, there’s not a part of the music making process he hasn’t been a part of. His performances too operate with a business model; the supply and demand formula that, though foolproof, eludes many recording and performing artists. The demand? A thirst for floor-filling, grimy beats, breathtaking build ups and blissful peaks. The supply? Exactly that. And then some. Last week’s performance at the quaint yet crumbling Shehrazad Club delivered Khadafi’s signature blend of DJing expertise (“Bauer’s my boy, he taught me how to DJ. But nobody can get a hold of that guy since the Harlem Shake hit!”), skillful rhymes and magnetic stage presence. Working off the crowd’s insatiable appetite for the next big bass line and the electricity his melodies fire into the air, he mixes his extraordinary lyrical talent and the rhythm that only rappers have with glorious, mood-lifting, high-octane tunes that had even the Dubstep virgins in the crowd torn between popping and locking or jumping up and down with their hands in the air. The only thing they couldn’t do was stand still.
“I had a feeling Dubstep would make it big because I could see the commercial appeal. I knew that even the urban communities would feel it because it’s so hard and grimy. They’re getting now because even commercial rappers are rapping over Dubstep. They’re just not calling it Dubstep,” Khadafi explains. In fact, his feeling was so strong that he scrapped a finished Rap record before its planned released to follow the path that would take him to some of the biggest EDM festivals across the world, to a 17,000 person crowd at the legendary New York Giants’ stadium and, eventually, to Egypt where he’ll be performing a second gig on Tuesday 16th April in Alexandria. But, despite his undeniable talent for the genre and the obvious hard work he puts in, his rise to the top ranks of Dubstep wasn’t met without criticism. “The guys on my label thought I’d lost my mind after the accident! They couldn’t believe I’d go from Rap and Hip Hop to this electronic sound they’d never heard before without there being something wrong with me!” he remembers. “And I got a backlash from the European Dubstep community too. They were like, why do Americans have to go ‘eff up everything?! What’s this rapping got to do with Dubstep?”
But in any field, corporate or creative, it’s perhaps expected that the true trendsetters, leaders and pioneers are the ones that go against the grain and Khadafi Dub certainly does just that. Pitting the history of Hip Hop against the future of EDM is one of those ideas that’s so crazy, it works and his latest mixtape, The Glitch, is unequivocal audio-evidence. The only question that remains is as obvious as asking about his name: If Hip Hop is best enjoyed on weed and alcohol, and EDM comes alive on ecstasy, what’s the ideal drug for Dubstep? “That’s a good question!” he laughs. “I don’t drink and I only smoke weed, but everyone’s on this Molly vibe recently. So I’d say Molly and marijuana. We can call it M&Ms.”
See all the photos from the night on CairoZoom now.
If you missed Khadafi Dub’s Cairo performance, don’t miss out on Tuesday 16th April where he’ll be performing at the Jesuit Culture Centre in Alexandria from 9PM.