Shadi Megallaa is an inspiring man - an amazing DJ holding his residency at Dubai’s Analog Room, owner of Dubai’s only independent record store, The Flip Side, and owner/A&R at Ark To Ashes, a label connecting Brooklyn and the Arab Emirates.
Combining all this work in the environments around him would seem to be hugely challenging and rewarding. We chatted to him to delve deeper.
You mentioned you’ve been really busy of late - what have you been up to and what does an average day (if there is such a thing) look like for you?
Everyday has its own set of challenges, but a typical day usually consists of me getting up at around 9/10 am. First thing I do before anything is make myself some coffee and have a cigarette. Right after that I start replying to emails I've received from my distributors since most of them are in the US and Europe. Time difference is the biggest factor at play here. After that I take a shower, head to the kitchen to make breakfast and head to the shop. On days where we have records coming in, Jedd and I will take them out of the boxes and check the quantities. After that we put them in our inventory, put price stickers on the then get them up on the shelves. Once that's done I usually edit the last in-store recording and get that up on our Flip Side Mix cloud page. Of course, by now it's probably time for a cigarette break, before listening to samples of records to make another order. Some days I leave around 7pm to go home and continue listening to samples, as it's a little hard to hear them while we've got music playing on our shop's system at the same time. There are days where we have someone coming in for an hour or 2 to rent the space for a photo or a video shoot. Those days are harder to focus on certain tasks as there is a lot going on in the shop and I'm very easily distracted. Before I got married I’d usually head to a pub and have a beer or two with my then girlfriend (now my wife). Since getting married we usually hang out at home, have dinner and watch a movie. A lot of times I reply to more emails before going to bed as my distributors are starting their work day as I end mine.
To what extent is your shop enabling your addiction as opposed to being a viable business proposition?
Damn. That’s a tough one. First the shop was strictly business, then my collecting habits kicked in hard. I was going home with about 2-3 records a day. The thing with collecting records is that the more you have in your collection the harder it is to find new records, as you slowly start to own everything you’ve always wanted. The other thing with collecting is that there is always something that I’ll want to have in my collection. Basically, it never ends. First and foremost, opening the shop was purely because there is no other job on this planet I’d rather work. Since there were no record shops in Dubai I had to open one just so I could work there. I guess I could do without the ownership part. I wouldn’t mind just working at a record shop. The admin part and the never-ending stress of trying to pay bills is slowly but surely getting the best of my sanity. It comes with the territory. I definitely have no regrets, but the pressure is on.
To an outsider the idea of a secular record shop in one of the most culturally conservative environments on earth appears like a recipe for trouble. How is your enterprise generally perceived and what are the effects of this perception as you experience them?
The Flip Side has been perceived very positively from the start. As you can imagine lots of record collectors and casual vinyl enthusiasts are really happy that a record shop exists in Dubai. The shop has also been championed by the city of Dubai as the Dubai Tourism Authority have come to the store to do a video shoot recently. I really wouldn’t call the UAE culturally conservative at all. You can do whatever you want here in the UAE as long as you respect the culture and the fact that the UAE is a Muslim country. Independent record stores are historically very anti-establishment ventures. It's been a little challenging to run The Flip Side with that anti-establishment vision in a city that is home to the biggest corporations. I’ve turned down a lot of possible collaborations simply because it didn’t feel right for me. If a collaboration just doesn’t make sense I won’t hesitate to turn it down. From a business perspective it might be worth doing, but if the thought of it makes me cringe then there’s no way in hell I’m doing it. Some people think its extreme, but I’ve got a very distinct vision for the shop and I’m not going to compromise that. No money in the world is worth selling your vision out.
Demographically, who are your customers?
Our customers are all kinds of people from all walks of life. We’ve got lots of old time collectors as well as people who have just recently been turned on to vinyl culture. It's a mixed bag really. We also get people just coming through to hear some music and to chat with us. We treat the shop like our home and it’s got a very laid-back atmosphere, which is quite rare in Dubai. It’s run by us for us.
From what I can gather the shop functions in the wider community as a kind of resource for the local music scene in Dubai. Can you describe this scene and how the shop fits in?
There are many different micro scenes in Dubai. You’ve got the rockers, the dance music heads and people who are into all kinds of music. Even within the dance music community you’ve got several crews. It’s quite tricky to explain really as Dubai’s music scene restarts itself every 3 years or so with lots of people leaving and new people coming in to Dubai. The Flip Side is a place where all those people come. It's kind of like a neutral zone if you will. I’ve also been a part of this scene for quite a long time, so I know lots of people personally. It's hard to explain, but it all just happens organically. I think this question would be more fitting for members of the community to answer. I just get on with it and try to do what I can. I can definitely do more on the programming end of things, but I’m really swamped in shop stuff like ordering records and lots of admin work.
One would imagine that due to the rich mixture of cultures the possibility for new musical hybrids might well be high?
That's definitely true, but again this coin has two sides. Most of the artists that live in Dubai can’t afford to just live off their music. Most of them have day jobs, which leaves them very little time outside of work to work on their craft and hone their skills. This is the problem of living in an expensive city. Most of them just end up taking up residencies in hotels to make some extra money. What happens then is that you’re playing music for your audience because you need to get that pay cheque. This situation leaves no room for experimenting and taking your music into lesser known territories. There are a few acts who have carved out their own sound which is in fact a new musical hybrid. Like a band called Noon for example. I’m not saying that it doesn’t happen, but it gets even trickier in a city like Dubai. Very few people own houses or live somewhere you can just jam. Most people live in tall buildings with neighbours all around them. All of these things contribute to the situation. What makes these questions hard to answer is because Dubai is constantly changing. Every 3-4 years people leave and new people come into the fold. If someone reads this interview 3 years from now my answers won’t be relevant and they’ll probably thing I don’t know what I’m talking about. My answers are based on my own personal opinion. Ask someone else and you might get totally different answers. It's all a matter of perspective, so I hope I didn’t paint Dubai in the wrong light. Every city has its advantages and disadvantages. If there was a perfect city, we’d all be living there. In the end it comes down to your situation and how you can make the best of it.
What is your experience of being a DJ in Dubai?
I’ve been DJing in Dubai since the year 2000. I’ve experienced many of these different chapters of the music scene. Back in those days things were very different. You started at the very bottom. I had a residency playing at Longs Bar on Sundays. I was mainly playing to middle ages men watching Rugby. The dance floor in that place fit about 10-20 people. I was opening for a known DJ at the time, who will remain unnamed. Basically, I played till I got a vibe going. He’d take over whenever he felt like the party was worth it for him to play. He’d then play till it died down at which time he’d give me the floor back. I did that for a while till one night I decided I was sick of it and quit. I just walked out, slowly working my way up till I started getting some good gigs. The kids these days get a controller, learn to DJ in a month and want to go straight to the big stage. Damn I feel old and jaded but that's how it is now. It gets harder I guess to stay in Dubai once you’ve played all the venues and parties that you want to play at.
I lived in Switzerland for about 2 years or so in the early 2000s and lived in New York for another 3-year stint in the mid 2000s. My time DJing abroad was definitely inspirational for me. I did play my fair share of whack parties, but that happens everywhere. It's been a bit tough lately for my DJing career here in Dubai. After opening the shop, I started to collect all kinds of music and started to slowly get bored of just playing and collecting dance music. There really isn’t a point in collecting dance music if I’m not getting too many gigs at clubs. I don’t really listen to dance music at home. The thing with being a very versatile DJ is that in some cases it works against you. The more eclectic parties think of you as a dance music DJ and the more dance music-oriented parties think you play eclectic music. The truth is I love all kinds of music and what I play depends on the party I get booked at. That being said, I do want to play more clubs again.
The most I’ve enjoyed DJing in Dubai was in the early 2000s, playing at Terminal which has been shut down for quite some time. The more recent time was being a resident at Analog Room when it was at the Q Underground. Other than my Dubai experience, I really loved and still do love playing at Boogie Box in Abu Dhabi. I started Boogie Box with my very dear friend Hassan Alwan back in the day because there weren’t any decent parties in Abu Dhabi at the time. Since I’ve moved to Dubai, my man Hassan has kept Boogie Box alive and has even started the label which has been going strong. I always enjoy playing at Boogie Box as the sound and booth are always on point. Seeing my AD homies always makes the experience memorable. At this stage in my DJing career, what I’ve learnt is to say no to gigs that I don’t think I would really enjoy. Being busy with the shop has definitely hurt my DJing in a way because you constantly need to be out and about. The more you go out and socialise the more bookings you’ll get. Outta sight outta mind. The older I’ve gotten my priorities have changed. If I had to choose between playing a gig just for the money and hanging out at home with a few friends and spending time with my wife. I’ll always take the latter. You best believe that.
How do you categorise your stock for public consumption?
We categorise our stock with some main sections. As of now, our sections consist of Jazz, Funk, Soul, Hip hop, Beats, Rock, Sound tracks, Reggae, Dub, African, Regional music, Latin rarities, Arabic rarities, Arabic reissues and 45s. We also have a minimal techno section, house/techno, 12’ new releases, Ambient, Disco/Boogie and a few sections for some of our favourite house/techno labels. One of the most popular sections is our Local label sections. Labels like my own Ark to Ashes, GYPS labels as well as Boogie Box, Bedouin records, Volt Music, Marionette and now the Analog Room label. We also have a used record section which consists of Arabic 45s, mixed genre 45s, Soul and funk used LPS and house/techno. We’re hoping to get more used records this year but that's always challenging as we live really far away from the US and Europe where vinyl can be most easily sourced.