Hey, You’re Cool! Street Culture Festival Sole DXB
"There is a caricature of [Dubai] that we'd like to paint a clearer picture over"
Sole DXB is an event that began with a simple mission: bringing together like-minded hip hop and fashion enthusiasts. It started as a movie screening in Dubai and quickly evolved into a global phenomenon built on four pillars: music, art, fashion, and basketball. 2017’s Sole DXB event (which takes place from Dec. 7-9) is centered around Japanese brands, artists, speakers, and fashion influences—streetwear icon Hiroshi Fujiwara is serving as the festival’s keynote speaker. Additionally, MASS APPEAL’s own Sasha Jenkins will premiere his documentary Word Is Bond, which examines lyricism in hip hop.
MASS APPEAL chopped it up with Sole DXB co-founders Josh Cox, Raj Malhotra, and Hussain Moloobhoy for a deeper look at how they connected, the mission of this year’s festival and the globalization of hip hop.
Let’s start with the basics: How did you guys connect and was it for the purpose of creating Sole?
Hussain Moloobhoy: Going back to 2010, we were invited by Puma to be a part of a workshop. For the first time, the three of us met. We shared the same interests, talking streetwear and talking music. We all come from different cities. Josh [Cox], one of the co-founders, is from Dubai but grew up in Australia. Kris [Balerite], Filipino. Raj [Malhotra] grew up in Kuwait, spent some time in New York. My background is in London. We haven’t met people who share the same interests who live in [Dubai]. From the first time, we just vibed. A week later, we got together for a meal and decided to put on a kind of party. There was a short documentary called The Mystery of Flying Kicks, and we put on a screening to meet like-minded individuals.
At that time in Dubai, there were quite a few pockets of artists in the city: lyricists, DJs, collectors, but there was nothing that brings those people together. So we decided to engage those various communities with this party. There was a little bit of guerrilla advertising, a little bit of flyering and a radio interview. We invited the collectors to put up their wares. We had an art exhibition, and a few people came to perform. We even put some decks outside. We were hoping for around 200 people. It was a free event—you just had to come in a pair of kicks. We had just under 1,000 people that showed up. We didn’t plan for it to be what it is today. At that time, it was about getting together and meeting like-minded individuals.
Did you see the festival as solving a need within the culture, bringing all of these elements together?
Raj Malhotra: Yes and no. Part of it is, we’ve been saying to brands out here that there is a demographic that they haven’t been attending to for a while. That’s not just in the space of products. That’s to music in the city, life in the city, basketball in the city, and how people approach the city in general. Our first goal was, having lived in Australia, New York, Kuwait, London, L.A., we shouldn’t have to get on a plane to do what we want when we’re back home. There should be something for us and our culture here.
Is there a need? Yes. We’ve got fashion, music, art, and basketball as our four pillars at the event. If you’re a promoter here, and you’re trying to put a concert together, you’re going to be very conservative. It’s a very peculiar market for these types of things. You won’t be able to bring the type of artists you want, and events all start to look the same. Because this is something we were doing on the side, we had the opportunity to do something that doesn’t have to be commercially driven. We can serve as this filter for the program and for the culture, and it is our job to curate a program that we think is relevant and see if there was a need. There were a good couple of years where we weren’t sure. Today, we are in a more confident position. Yes, there is a need for it, and we fill a pretty large part of that need. There are also a lot of people, now, that are doing some cool stuff out here. They’re doing their part like we are.
Different countries’ cultures have influenced the festival, and this year you’re bringing to light the Japanese influence.
Raj: Japan is a big part of our story this year. Every year what we try to do is, whether it’s in the sphere of designers, speakers, singers, we won’t bring out anyone whose work we don’t like personally. That’s our first hurdle when we look at our shortlist for the year. At the same time, there is something for everybody. We don’t want this to be an exclusive event. We choose one or two stories each year that we like to highlight. If you look at 2015, our story was very much about heritage hip hop, early ’80s in New York, Stretch and Bob, Run DMC. Last year, we looked at how growing up in ’80s, everyone said hip hop was trash and it would never leave the city. All of a sudden, you find that it’s actually crossed the Atlantic and there’s a huge movement in London. So we brought out Skepta and Stormzy and Little Simz.
This year, we picked Japan because we needed last year’s event to go the way that it did for us to have any credibility and for us to be able to go out to Tokyo and speak to anyone. The second is, the market is ready here. Our angle for Japan is: Here is a group of people that went to America post-World War II, where they appropriated American culture and within three decades made it their own. There are very few people who can’t tell if something is Japanese or American. They have their own visual language, their own design language, so it really is about how they’ve been able to do that. Now, they’re two generations ahead of everyone.
Hussain: Over the years there’s been a definite narrative [to hip hop]. To a larger extent, with regards to the culture, we had to start with who are the pioneers of this. Going back to the ’80s, Raj mentioned we talked celebrating hip hop and where it comes from, a large part of that was educational. There’s a new generation right now, and a lot of those enthusiasts aren’t necessarily educated on where the culture comes from.
What is that influence going to look like?
Raj: It’s not overly themed in any way. There are points that we try to highlight, and we try pull on certain threads. So if you look at the brands that are coming this year, you’re going to see your Neighborhoods and your Undercovers, and your Visvim and Wacko Maria. These are brands that don’t usually come out to events like this, so that’s a proud moment for us. Our headline speaker for the event is Hiroshi Fujiwara. For us, where we look at music or fashion, it’s hard to deny his influence. So having him out here, we’re just starting to start that story with Japan in this city.
Whatever we do, we want it to be a catalyst. We ask the question: “In three years, are we going to have the right mix of creatives in this city working with us?” and part of that is our job every year. In February we start with a few ideas. In March we figure a country we would like to highlight. And in December, we work it out so that in the coming few years they’re actually on the ground for more than just the event.
Over the years, you’ve partnered with every brand on the forefront of fashion and culture, but for you guys personally, which brand was the one that you were most excited to have attend?
Josh Cox: For us it’s hard to name a brand, because that goal post keeps shifting. Every time we get close or start working with a brand, we start thinking about the next thing. Partly to your previous question, we look outside of the city to build bridges to our city and to inspire our local brands to follow suit. To show them it is possible in our city. This year we’ve got a pretty big introduction into luxury brands. Looking at Japan, it’s one of the few cities where the crossover between premium lux and streetwear is just there naturally. The detail of their streetwear brands is the same thing as you’d expect from luxury brands. We’ve managed to break the ice with Dior Homme and we’ve got KENZO. I’m sure it’ll raise a few eyebrows, because it isn’t what people expect of us, which is generally what we try to do.
Zooming out, what are your guys’ thoughts overall on Japanese and broader Asian culture’s influence on hip hop and the whole lo-fi aesthetic that’s come to be so celebrated?
Raj: We look at hip hop as not just music, but as culture as a whole. American culture has always been very inward-facing, almost like an island. So it’s interesting for us to see that there is an influence coming in from the outside. We made our first trip to Japan as a team earlier this year. It was everything we expected and more; there is such a particular aesthetic. Even if it’s a music video with a Japanese director, it’s nice to see that type of aesthetic. If you look at what A$AP [Rocky] did a few years ago with the “L$D” video, that was fun and it raised a lot of eyebrows. We would like to see more of that.
Hussain: Last year we really celebrated how this culture moved over to the UK and the British interpretation of hip hop. Any other parts of the globe that take this culture and embrace it and allow it to evolve also have an incredible story.
Raj: And if you look five or six years ago, the American outlook on British hip hop was holding it at a slightly lower tier. That’s not the case anymore. Purely from the number of collaborations, it’s nice to see that there’s a movement going back the other way. Just from choosing [Japan] as part of our story, the number of artists we’ve been exposed to, we were actually surprised.
Josh: I think that it’s nice, it’s an affirmation that other cultures can put their signature on something where we once assumed it was solely an American influence. Hip hop culture and the fashion scene is more than one thing. It’s not just reaching new places, it’s taking on new forms because people can put their stamp on it. With Japan, the fact that they’re able to elevate [the culture] and the expectation of quality and craftsmanship, that’s also a key thing. When you’re out here in Tokyo, you see that whatever they’re about, they really dedicate themselves to it. They’re pushing the boundaries and they’re pushing everyone else as well to live up to that kind of level.
There are artists now in Brooklyn that are learning from the flows and cadences of London artists.
Raj: Very much so. If you look at the early group of hip hop artists, there were doubts about whether they would make it. And now it’s set in stone: these are the new rockstars. With that, there is a responsibility to make sure that hip hop in the U.S. doesn’t see itself as gatekeepers, that they encourage it in other countries. For example, we don’t bring people out here for the sake of bringing them here. When Mobb Deep came out, we were quite nervous about if the younger crowd were going to get it. Everyone in the first six rows knew the lyrics to every single track. Even Prodigy and Havoc were in shock that they were seeing this. It wasn’t just about them performing. We connected them with artists on the ground and got them in the studio together. We hope that the artists that we bring see it as an opportunity, because there is a lot of talent here. It’s also about people creating music.
Josh: The other thing is, with other places embracing this, it wasn’t that long ago where people talked about hip hop being dead. With hip hop being embraced by other places, it doesn’t stay stagnant. It’s becoming a phenomenon now and allows for interesting new sounds and visuals to come up, which helps hip hop evolve continuously.
Staying with music, how do you guys go about picking artists for the bill to fulfill a mission?
Raj: Every year we start with a list of artists and ideas, and we start to filter. Part of it is a balance between contemporary and heritage, making sure we represent both sides. We generally try and stay away from the pop side of hip hop today. We also try and have a mix of artists from different places. This year we’ve got Goldlink and Pusha T and Kano. At any given time, we’re representing different parts of the globe. This is 10 months for us to put this together. We wouldn’t change this, but at the end of it, we want an artist that we would pay to go see in any other city as well.
Hussain: We obviously want to pull in the crowds with our headliners, but we don’t shy away from underground artists where the majority of the crowd don’t know their work. After six or seven years of doing this, there is a level of confidence that if Sole is bringing out these artists, they’re worth checking out and listening to.
Josh: We try to widen the net of hip hop being only rap or only gangsta rap. We don’t have the framework that the U.S. kind of has where you only listen to certain kinds of artists to be relevant. We have influences of soul, funk, jazz, reggae, whatever is tangentially associated to the culture. That allows us to create different atmospheres during different times of the day and attract different types of people.
Hussain: Even growing organically, we couldn’t afford the huge artists two or three years ago. So we had to work with restrictions, and only through that are we now fortunate and grateful enough to pull out the artists that are now attending the event.
Josh: It’s a hard market to pull off, because for a lot of artists, it’s a long way from home. We’ve been fortunate that we can create an environment for them to be comfortable and have a good time. The market here is a generally a few club appearances or an arena. We’ve been fortunate to attract the right crowd, so the entire performance is an experience for everyone. We’ve all been to concerts where we’re standing next to people who don’t know the songs and it’s not the same as when you’re in a crowd and people are moshing and getting into it.
With your experience behind you, where do you see your festival—and festivals in general—going in the future?
Raj: For us, anything that allows us to create, that’s what we’re interested in. As a company, we will not take on any work we’re not passionate about. We are looking at launching a new property, it’s called Audio. It’s music-only. Our goal is to look at Sole DXB the event and take each pillar individually, and spin them off into single events that take place on a weekend.
There is an impression that outsiders have of Dubai that isn’t inaccurate, but it is incomplete. There’s more going on here that’s not being covered. There is a caricature of the city that we would like to paint a clearer picture over. If you look at festivals in general, no one can deny the experience of the attendee. That has been our focus for a few years now. If you look at what it costs for someone to come through our door, we keep our costs as low as possible. The cost of attending festivals is through the roof, and that affects your experience. So our metric for the festival is not the size of it, but the quality of the content.
Hussain: Sole DXB is the event. We’d like to see each one of our four pillars grow beyond that weekend. With regards to fashion, how does that landscape grow in this city and have a permanent impact. Raj mentioned Audio. We’d like to have a separate entity with music. Basketball and sports performance is something that we’re concentrating on. We have a responsibility of introducing and allowing other cultures to grow out here, and paying homage to that culture. How can we bring that culture into the Middle East and add our own flavor to it, and have it celebrated by everyone? Let’s look at the Middle East and recognize that there’s something going on out here.
Josh: Part of that is also every year we try to set the bar a little bit higher. And we show our community that we can do things on this level. Anything we put into the event, it should be the same that we expect from New York or London. If we can do it better, great. Our city has something to add that you won’t get in those other cities.
Hussain: There’s pride, and from that pride comes inspiration. We have a responsibility to everyone part of this community to hold that flag and move forward, and do something with it, and allow for culture to evolve over here, too. If we can encourage that, that’s something that we’re going to do.