Formed in Dubai, with a pedigree as international as the city itself, the acclaimed rap crew Foreign Beggars have emerged from their unlikely origins to become key players in the UK scene with a growing global fanbase. Dan Hancox talks to the group's founder, Pavan Mukhi, about their extraordinary route to success and the problems facing hip-hop talent in the UAE. Beneath the gusty 4pm dusk of a London winter lies Mindloop Studios, a subterranean, soundproof haven from the noisy streets above. It's a plush set-up, with fancy espresso machines, comfy sofas and framed platinum discs belonging to Whitney Houston and forgotten Irish megastars The Corrs. It's not the most likely environment for hip-hop, but then neither, arguably, is Dubai: rap music has come a long way in its three decades to become the international lingua franca of a globalised popular culture.
It's a journey Pavan Mukhi understands better than most. Rapping under the moniker Orifice Vulgatron, Mukhi is the front-man for Foreign Beggars, an ultra-cosmopolitan hip-hop crew with their roots in Dubai, now based in Britain. The group have performed on stage and opened for an impressive list of artists including Snoop Dogg, Public Enemy and Wu Tang Clan. This month they begin a UK tour supporting dance music legends the Prodigy.
As we settle down in their homely corner of the Mindloop Studio warren in Islington, north London, he maps out the four-piece's respective ancestries for me. Lines are drawn from South Africa to Ghana, from Iraq to Norway to Columbia, from Afghanistan to the American deep South, until the crew's roots start to look less like a family tree and more like the flight-plan of a major international airline.
What about Mukhi himself? "I'm Indian. I was born in Dubai, my dad was born in Lebanon, went to school in Wales, and moved to Dubai in the early Seventies. My mum was born in India, grew up in San Francisco, moved to Dubai and met my dad. Both of them are Sindi Indians." This rampant internationalism makes perfect sense in the world of 21st-century hip-hop - when T-shirts commemorating rap legend Tupac Shakur turn up in the most remote of south-east Asian villages, when Australian Aborigines choose to express themselves through a musical style that originated in New York's African-American community. Hip-hop's internationalism perfectly reflects that of Dubai, of course. As a child growing up in the Emirates, Mukhi found himself drawn to rap music - but didn't it feel pretty odd listening to it in Dubai, so far removed from its context?
"Not really. Obviously it wasn't talking about anything I was directly living, but we always watched a lot of TV, and travelled around the world a lot. My mum was really American, so me and my brothers grew up on super-American culture; I was listening to Michael Jackson and Prince from the age of three." A friend of Mukhi's mother was the promotions manager for record label CBS/Epic, and every month he'd get a massive box of new music to sift through, initially piles and piles of pop and rock cassette tapes. His eagerness to soak up anything and everything coming to Dubai mirrors the hip-hop aesthetic - any music, any film snippet, any sound is fair game for sampling, chopping up and recontextualising.
"Me and my brothers grew up listening to rock'n'roll initially. We used to go to the US every summer, and I remember seeing Skid Row on MTV in America in 1988. This led me on to listening to Guns'NRoses, Nirvana, Pearl Jam - all the big American rock bands, and it was around that time they first opened up MTV and Channel V in Arabia, which made a big difference." What first drew Mukhi to hip-hop was its shock value, he's happy to admit. "The first time hip-hop really clicked in my brain I would've been about 11 years old. I was at a friend's house in Dubai, and his older brother played us NWA, and 2 Live Crew, and Ice Cube - it was just so rude, so gangster. I couldn't believe my ears.
"Before that there was this one tape that came through of UK rap, it was the Ragga Twins and Rebel MC. It was really fast, and really aggressive, and I couldn't understand half the words. My mum got so angry she threw it out the window, like, 'What is this?!'" He half-screams, half-laughs, trying to capture his mother's indignation. Recalling the time he first started rapping as a teenager, Mukhi says his distance from hip-hop's origins encouraged him to improve his skills, paradoxically. "That's one of the things that gave me inspiration, being in Dubai, and helped me understand the level of talent that was needed: there was no internet growing up, so it's not like mp3s of every Tom, Dick and Harry with a microphone would reach me. The standards were so high, because only the really good stuff would reach Dubai."
In his trips back over the years, Mukhi says he's seen Dubai's youth culture develop in both its infrastructure and confidence, with substantially more concerts and all-age events than when he was growing up. "I remember in the mid 1990s we'd go all over the place to try and skate, but there was only one shop in Dubai that sold skateboards, and even that was as a sort of novelty item. But there's a much larger youth contingent in Dubai now. There's a lot more for kids to do, and I think the internet's played a massive part in creating that youth culture."
Mukhi met Foreign Beggars' other core member, producer Dag Torgersbraten, in an English-speaking school in Dubai before they'd even hit double figures. After attending boarding school in Britain, Mukhi returned to Dubai in 1997 with a new obsession: drum'n'bass, and in particular its super-fast vocal delivery. "My rapping style was already really hyper, so it was a natural transition for me, plus drum'n'bass is a really international music too. We started throwing big drum'n'bass house parties in Dubai for all of our friends, or renting out ballrooms in hotels, because we were too young to be allowed into shows.
"Dubai's a small place, so people who wanted to have the same type of fun found each other, at Battle of the Bands competitions or at concerts. All the musicians knew each other so there'd be jam sessions at people's houses. Our house was dope because my three younger brothers are all musicians as well, so we had a specific band room where loads of bands would come over and jam too. Dag is a classically trained violinist, and played guitar and bass as well, and eventually he started setting up electronics and DJing, too."
With these musical foundations in place, Mukhi returned to England in 1999 to attend university, and started making contacts in the UK hip-hop scene. Dag joined him in London in 2000, and around the same time he met James Miller, who would become Foreign Beggars' DJ Nonames. "I was doing the lighting for a play, The Wizard Of Oz, and Nonames came to do the sound. He brought The Wizard of Oz on vinyl and started scratching all the sounding effects in, it was brilliant." The group was joined by fellow rapper Metropolis, and they started putting out vinyl albums on their own Dented Records label.
With four albums under their belt, Foreign Beggars have become key players in the UK hip-hop scene, but they're known far beyond its borders. Asking Mukhi to name every country he's performed in turns out to be a slightly unfair challenge - he keeps getting to double figures and losing count. But Foreign Beggars have done extensive tours of Canada, Australia and France, as well as gigs from Bulgaria to Sweden to China. They've also played a couple of shows in Dubai in recent months, to great acclaim.
"Both shows were wicked - there are a lot of kids into hip-hop in Dubai now!" he beams, proudly. "In fact, there are a lot of rappers in Dubai now as well, from all over the world, from a massive variety of different nationalities. There is definitely a hip-hop scene there now." A lot of this is down to Danny Neville, he says, who as well as collaborating with the likes of Snoop Dogg, hosts the main hip-hop show on Dubai's Radio 1, and has been connecting local rappers with record labels, working to build an infrastructure for rap music in the Emirates.
But can hip-hop ever become fully established in the region? Mukhi isn't sure. "One thing about hip-hop is it does have this kind of street culture at its heart, and there's no street culture in Dubai. Rather than hanging out on the street you're probably going to be hanging out outside someone's mansion. "But hip-hop does have this fully blinging side as well - there are certain hip-hop-related things I could do and make happen in Dubai I could never make happen in the UK. Like to try and make a video on a yacht here would be madness, but I know about 10 people with yachts in Dubai, so if I want a yacht, I can get a yacht.
"I think hip-hop in Dubai will continue to grow, because it's something that the kids like. It's just up to them to educate themselves, and improve their skills. You don't necessarily have to be in Detroit to be making Detroit-sounding beats. Talent is talent, wherever it's from." United Colours Of Beggattron by Foreign Beggars is out now on Dented Records. For more information, see www.dentedrecords.com