Sounds of the underground – get more from your clubbing in Dubai

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What’s On pals at Hype have delivered the ultimate guide underground nightlife in Dubai, including Audio Tonic, Plus Minus Sessions, Electric Days and more. 


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A new season of nocturnal naughtiness is upon us, which means the big promoter guns are all locked and loaded, ready to roll. As Dubai continues to shed its image as a forgotten backwater and forge ahead as a go-to clubbing destination, there is an ever classier and more considered outlook to many of the parties that play out each week. Whilst high end, bottle service and VIP culture sure does still exist if you want it, for those real underground heads there is ever more seductive stuff to get excited about.

Mike Bufton is very much a man about town when it comes to Dubai’s dance culture. As well as furthering the scene with the Audio Tonic record label and DJ agency, so too is he the driving force behind the Friday club night of the same name, an award-winning weekly party that hosts 1,600 clubbers and guest DJs like Ian Pooley, Ralph Lawson and Jimpster at Jumeirah Beach Hotel’s fabulous 360° venue.

360 Audio Tonic

Most famed for taking place in the small inside space downstairs as well as on a beautiful open-air deck by the sea, this new season is Audio Tonic’s ninth. That Mike has such history in the region really helps when it comes to bookings, because he reckons agents are still cash hungry when any UAE gig requests come in.

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Audio Tonic“There are more venues doing the exact same thing, playing the same music, so the bidding wars are back,” reckons Mike. “But Audio Tonic try and bring new names and always has done so a lot of the DJs actually want to come and play our parties as we keep it real.” One such person super keen to play last season was Visionquest’s Lee Curtiss. “That party summed up exactly who we are and what we have done over the past eight years,” muses Mike. “There were a lot of happy smiling faces, everyone grooving, and it seemed like everyone in the venue knew each other… they probably did.”

Although there is some way to go, with some venues still throwing obscene amounts of cash at international DJs for a flying visit, it appears that Dubai is finally shaking off its ‘quick cash grab’ image amongst DJs worldwide, from the most revered spinners to the scene’s respected new breed. Mike says many DJs are taken aback at the modern scene in the city. “The view, the crowd, the energy – we had Funk D’Void play at Audio Tonic a few years ago and he actually cried with joy!” he recalls.

Crowds, too, Mike surmises, are becoming more and more open in their tastes. “Whether people really know who the DJs are that are coming and playing is another question, but they are open to being educated, which is cool.”

Catering to a – still predominantly ex-pat but evermore locally infused – crowd that hungers for new music and fresh sounds, Audio Tonic is now in a place to dictate rather than follow trends. The night has built up such a following it can set its own agenda and take chances on bookings with a view to expanding the minds of those on the dancefloor.

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Audio Tonic

“We bring back a few regulars each season by exceedingly popular demand,” beams Mike. “But on the whole we bring new names. We are keeping the residents in play for September but some names coming up include the return of Pierre Ravan with his KaRavan concept, Mihai Popaviciu, Jimmy Van M and Stamina, Nice7 and   Dale Howard.

“We’re also really excited to have confirmed Thomas Gandey, aka Cagedbaby, and Niko Schwind of Stil Vor Talent, who will both be releasing separate EPs on our Audio Tonic Records imprint, where each gig will serve as official release parties. Then in December we’re delighted to have confirmed Jonas Rathsman and Isaac Tichauer.”

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Plus Minus SessionsAnother Dubai party that has always catered to sizeable crowds but has kept it underground is Plus Minus Sessions, the night that saw up to 2,000 ravers get down to last season’s highlights like a live set from Henrick Schwarz and Âme. They kick off this year’s assault with Karmon and &Me on September 19, but have also been working hard during the close season on something extra special.

“Since it’s a new season we wanted to enhance our upcoming events and start with a fresh venue,” says promoter Adrian Grech, explaining the night’s move from Nasimi Beach to Level 41 at Media One Hotel. The new venue seems like a perfect fit with its raw industrial feel – an aesthetic that always suits underground electronic music. “Level 41 is a blank canvas and it also has no sound restrictions,” adds Adrian.

“It took us a while to get where we are today as we’ve been pushing decent underground music since 2007, but yes, the Dubai scene and crowd is more clued-up nowadays,” says Adrian. “Promoting parties has got easier because of the experiences that I have built up through the years but we are still lacking a good radio station with a non-commercial music policy,” he reasons. “We would also love to operate later hours until the early morning, and not just until 3am.”

But proof that things are on the up is the fact that Adrian has been working all summer on one of his biggest ever bookings, namely Minus label boss and global techno ambassador Richie Hawtin, who looks set to come to Dubai for the first time in 2015 courtesy of Plus Minus Sessions. “We are always taking bigger risks and pushing the boundaries within our line-ups,” adds Adrian. “I hope our crowd trust my judgment, but we always share ideas and line-ups with our team so I have lots of faith in them.”

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Electric Days

It would be obtuse to claim that promoting parties isn’t, ostensibly, a man’s game. Dubai’s scene is so well established, though, that two ladies are now also making their mark – and then some.

“We don’t think about it from a gender perspective and we don’t think it’s a man’s role,” say Rima Rached and Dania Ismail, the driving forces behind Electric Days at Tamanya Terrace each and every Friday. Their booking policy is informed in part by their own tastes, in part by what the crowd wants, and in part by a constant quest for finding the next best up-and-coming performers and DJs. “We do add a colourful element to our parties, but we’re not sure if that is a female related influence.”

Said parties have won several nightlife awards – including the Hype Award for Best House/Techno Night earlier this year, no less – and have played host to the underground talents of Visionquest associate Laura Jones, vocalist and deep house heroine Kim Ann Foxman and No.19 act Tone of Arc as well as many others.

This summer, when most parties took a break owing to the oppressive heat, Rima and Dania instead went big: they hosted a huge one-off party in a giant marquee in Dubai Media City at the end of Ramadan and roughly 4,000 people turned up. “It was great, and we will definitely be doing more of these pop-up events throughout the year,” say the ladies about the party that saw international headliners Audiofly, M.A.N.D.Y. and Blond:ish all do their thang.

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Groove on the Grass

As well as more pop-up events, they report that they’ve also been busy “planning the new season, getting more DJs on board, and getting our stock of Electric Days toys for future events. Also, new concepts will be coming out soon, and besides our Go Baby Go brunch concept, which is back at Sho Cho, we will be launching one or two other events in Dubai that cater to other musical tastes.”

As promoters who have always lived in the area, Rima and Dania are well placed to comment on the current party landscape and how it has evolved over the years. “Dubai crowds have always been clued-up to good music in our opinion, but now there are more events catering to their tastes. We have always lived in Dubai but didn’t have options, now people are spoilt for choice so they are all coming out of the woodwork. We love the Electric Days crowd because they are cool and really know their music.”

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Electric DaysHaving built up a loyal following, Electric Days is now focussed on “continuing the legacy we built in the past year. It doesn’t get easier, but it’s very important not to lose focus of the original concept and get swayed into promoting to a more general crowd. Our dreamers are unique and we will always be true to that.”

At the same time, Rima and Dania themselves are dreamers and so are hoping to use the trust of their faithful crowd to make braver bookings that still fit in with their musical MO. “We work hard to deliver the music and people stay loyal to our events. We can definitely take bigger risks, but we are more focused on the music and less on the big names: we look hard to find the DJs we bring out, and we will never settle for being predictable.”

What helps make Electric Days stand out is the fact that it takes place on the Tamanya Terrace, an outdoor, rooftop space with city and sea views on the 8th floor of the Radisson Blu Hotel in Media City. “Our guests DJs love it as most of them are used to playing for crowds in very dark underground settings in places like London, Berlin and Ibiza.”

Looking forward to a busy season as well as the upcoming Formula 1 event in Abu Dhabi and a New Year’s Eve party “Electric Days style”, Rima and Dania are just the sort of enthusiastic and conscientious promoters any scene needs to thrive in the long run so make sure you get down with them this month, when Julietta stops by on September 19 and Chicago heiress Kate Simko visits on September 26.

Groove On The Grass, meanwhile, started back in 2012 but in just a short space of time has already become one of the most talked about events in Dubai. What separates it from the rest is that it is not so much a club night as a mini outdoor festival that takes place at Emirates Golf Club. Tale Of Us and Butch, Steve Bug and Ellen Allien all played last season, so it’s clear that Groove On The Grass cater to the more established and internationally acclaimed artists on the house and techno spectrum. They kick off their season with Pan-Pot and a live set from Avatism on September 26.

“There is more awareness now compared to when Groove On The Grass started in 2012,” says Deian Markov, one of the promoters of the night along with Lisateca Discosant and Warren Noronha. “Nowadays clubbers in the UAE are genuinely interested in the music and crave originality that steers away from the standard corporate venue settings which Dubai is known for.”

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Groove on the Grass

He reports that his audience, too, is changing, and that more and more new faces seem to attend each event, joining the hoards of devoted followers that have been there since day one.

“Things have changed drastically, from my interests in different types of music and culture, to understanding what boundaries should be pushed when introducing concepts. It’s been a roller coaster ride, but very rewarding.

“There a lot of things missing here that are readily available in the global party scene,” reasons Deian, “but it’s really beautiful to see people adapt to the conditions we have, and still be able to create a vibe at Groove On The Grass that feels like you could be anywhere else in the world.”

Underground nightlife in Dubai - Groove on the GrassGroove On The Grass is already at the stage where it can bring underground darlings like Pampa boss DJ Koze to play, and people turn up in droves. He, along with “Konrad Black and Butch’s makeshift set-up in the cabin, fully going off while it was raining outside” were the sort of highlights of last season, in case you missed out.

“This season we are going to make the experience more interactive for our guests,” adds Deian. “In an ideal world we want to remain consistent with the amount of guests we accommodate and we’re not going to shoot for the stars and try to grow this to 10,000 people because we love intimate atmospheres. Even though the brand is growing, this is key for us, because a good vibe is what we are known for. We work based on trust, and for the love of what we do, so hopefully our crowd shares the same feelings towards us in return.”

As Hype went to press, Blue Marlin UAE was also putting the finishing touches to its line-ups for the season and several new venues were due to open in October. With so much on offer, and much of it ever more boundary nudging, it is finally time to put to bed the notion that Dubai only exists as a shiny destination that deals exclusively in commercial pap. As we know, that couldn’t be further from the truth. World take note.

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