Meet Islamabad's Only Trap Star, Talal Qureshi
On Pakistan's traditional leanings, the local drug culture, and the problems with his city's underground dance scene.
Talal Qureshi lives in Islamabad, Pakistan's capital and its most internationally-connected cultural hub. He's generated quite a buzz around the bass-heavy corners of the Internet, and earlier this week he released the video for his new single "Lollicops," which pairs the song's reggae-scented dubstep and trap leanings with a story about two crooked Islamabad cops looking for something to occupy their time. "You always see police here looking for something to do," says video director Aisha Linnea Akhtar. Akhtar feels the song's leisurely reggae gait complements the slow-moving feel of life in Islamabad—but in both cases, there's drama to be heard if you listen closely.
"There's so many men on the street here, and dudes are really into each other here in this exuberant way," says the 20-something model and film director. "There are a lot of stories I'd like to cover, and the problem with the Pakistan scene is people slag things off as often being 'too local.'" Co-directors Aisha Linnea and Shahbaz Shigri are also set to release a feature-length film on Islamabad's "Pindi boy" street culture, titled Gol Chakkar, with Talal Qureshi producing much of its EDM-centric soundtrack.
The electronic music fanbase in Pakistan skews towards trance and deep house music, which gets a prime evening slot on the country's two favored music stations, FM89 and FM91. Even Radio Pakistan, the country's national radio station, occasionally spins electronic remixes of older Pakistani classics. But in terms of a palpable, local music scene, it's more like an oasis.
"Most of the shows I have done have been organized by myself, or by a specific niche group who really believes in my music. Sponsored shows hardly see the light of the day for an artist like me in this country," says Qureshi.
Like most of South Asia and the Middle East, because of stringent censor boards, music is exposed and shared exclusively over social networks. And access to YouTube has been blocked across the country for over a year now, so unless you know your way around proxy servers, you better find another channel.
For better or worse, most of the sleeper hits in Pakistan go viral not because they're good, but because they're horribly bad—like Rebecca Black after a lobotomy. It all started with Taher Shah's ridiculous ballad, "Eye to Eye," which immediately propelled the unknown singer from complete obscurity to a nationwide punch line. Even last week the viral Internet welcomed a new "hit" in the form of Shabo Lonna's laughable Gaga remake, "Eid Mubarak," released as a lead-up to the Muslim holiday Eid. Shabo Lonna is a transgendered artist, formerly known as Shabx, who could have never gotten past Pakistan's censor boards, but found overnight success after uploading dozens of previously unsuccessful videos to services like Last.fm, Vimeo and even Facebook.
"My sister posted that Eid Mubarak song on my wall and everyone was comparing her to Taher Shah," says Talal. "People consider Taher Shah to be practically a genre now for things that are so bad, they're amusing." Talal Qureshi realizes that most people sharing these videos don't realize that they may have been made bad on purpose. "The really funny thing is, even if we make something tongue-in-cheek, even if we don't take it seriously, people take it seriously."
Talal has gotten considerable love outside Pakistan and his profile is starting to pick up locally as well. Bobby Friction, an electronic DJ on East Village Radio and an inexhaustable list of BBC channels, referred to him as "the sound of the future." His productions are cavernous and thick, with rooms for snaps, glitches, and ghostly synths. His album Equator sounds like something that Geiom—the 90s UK Rave & proto-dubstep producer—might have made if there was no ketamine in Europe. THUMP spoke to Talal Qureshi about living, partying, and making dope trap music in Islamabad.
THUMP: So you just released the "Lollicops" video. How has the response been thus far?
Talal Qureshi: I wasn't expecting all these Pakistanis to be liking trapstep right now. "Lollicops" was supposed to be a fun video—Aisha Linnea and Shabaz Shigri came up with the whole crazy cop thing. Because the beat has a sample of Adil Omar spelling out "I.S.L.A.M.A.B.A.D," I think their concept fit perfectly well. We were looking more or less for party scenes but the scene turned out to be more like a typical Pakistani party, which hardly has girls in it.
I guess that's not too different from a Chief Keef video.
It's hard to pull off a video like Diplo would, in Pakistan—so we have to work with having boys.
Tell us about Islamabad.
Islamabad is a great place, but people think it's boring. It depends on the crowd you hang out with. Islamabad has all this natural beauty—you don't see mountains in every city. And everyone actually follows the rules—traffic signals and everything. Unlike Karachi or Lahore, it's an "international city."
What's the music industry like in Pakistan as opposed to, say, the UK or India?
The only problem with Pakistan's music industry is that they want to serve the commercial masses, and the audience expects you to keep some things traditional; they want you to represent Pakistan. That's all they ask for in the music. Pakistan's more on the traditional side—they like the acoustic stuff, the folk stuff. Pakistani musicians like adding all the traditional instruments to every track. "We should add sarangi, we should add sitar, we should add flute, we should add…. [laughs] every single instrument." I'm trying to change the whole scene here. I've been experimenting a lot, and I've been doing traditional music as well, with traditional instruments.
It's kind of hard to explain the situation on the UK side of things because the bhangra industry is so stuck in the 90s, but it's the same with Pakistan—they just want to listen to pop music. In the UK they just want electro-punjabi-bhangra music to dance at their weddings.
Would you say you have any peers in Pakistan?
Well, the Internet has changed everything. All over Pakistan they're trying to come up with electronic stuff. But their stuff is more on the trippy side, like house, trance, that stuff. There's a lot of electronic music and its very monotonous, very exstacy-ish. They're also not trying to promote their music like I am. It's mostly just people doing it for a hobby.
There are people who contact me from all over, in rural Quetta even. I dont think we should think about the cities as defining the people too much. I used to live in Hyderabad, which is much less westernized than Islamabad, and when I go back there all I do is produce music.
I notice more things going on in India. They have big festivals there for electronic music like NH7 [India's largest electronic, rap and rock festival that takes place in Bangalore]. They're even bringing dubstep into their Bollywood stuff.
How do you approach your composition process?
Variation is something I try to do when I make music, so I try changing the beat on every bar. I like to start off with a slow tempo and change it into something crazy—that was pretty much the whole idea with "Lollicops." If I'm making music, I like to experiment with traditional sounds as well. Reggae also fits well—it sounds fresh. I was thinking of doing a reggae song with a dubstep drop, and I was trying to experiment with screwing down Adil's voice. But walking through Islamabad and seeing the mountains, the track just came naturally.
You're not into Molly?
I've heard a lot of parties in Islamabad have been giving away ecstasy. One girl even died by overdosing on ecstasy at one of those parties about a year ago. I've been doing music for 12 years and I've been doing it sober. There's a lot of hash and weed that's going around wherever I'm playing. I don't know about any other drugs. And people tell producers to do acid or ecstasy just so they can start being creative, but I dont need hash or weed to make music.
It seems everyone wants to sensationalize the electronic scene in Islamabad—even Reuters. What are your thoughts on it?
I don't like parties. I don't like to go to raves. They happen in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. They just bring some DJ from America or something and organize a party and go all night in a farm house. A lot of Pakistani producers are into deep house music, and I guess that's the kind of audience they wanna serve. They don't care about local talent though.
They're booking random DJs—DJs who I don't know about that have like 400 friends on facebook. The people who are putting on these parties don't appreciate local talent. They'll call a DJ from London; they'll pay their fee and give them the treatment. And usually they find ladies who DJ—specifically goris (white girls). Edward Maya was brought out to Islamabad, and it was the worst choice. That guy came in, he performed two songs, then DJ'd for six songs and left. There was a huge crowd of people for Maya and 4 packed police vans were provided for his own personal security. They paid him three million rupees (roughly $49,000) for 30 minutes. You could you spend three million rupees to put on an entire electronic festival.
Is there anything to "Pakistani deep house" yet?
I dont think there is anything to that yet, but we can probably come up with something [laughs].
Where do you go in Pakistan if you want to hear good electronic music?
Pakistan DJ network is very active on Facebook. They do house parties in Pakistan. It's gradually happening right now, but it's going to take another four or five years, since we're 15 years behind everyone right now. if a song like "Like a G6" was released in 2010, we're going to hear it in 2012. There is also Forever South, but among many of Pakistan's good producers, their main focus is to sample old Urdu songs and try to turn them into electronic songs. It's like a mashup that doesn't really go well. They look at it from a druggie perspective, like, "oh, that sounds trippy." They overuse that word "trippy"and make music which is good to dance and be on drugs to.
That doesn't sound too far off from anywhere else.
Has anything happened during a live set that you'll always remember?
I was spinning an A-levels school party, like a prom type-night, and I was playing electro music because these kids all had glowsticks and there were strobe lights and everything. This guy came up to me and said, "Listen man, you need to play something commercial. People aren't enjoying the music." But when I saw them they were going ahhh and doing their Pakistani moves. But a lot of people came up to request music like, "Can you play Jennifer Lopez?"
I won't name the school but they all had alcohol on their breaths. This little kid tried to offer me some alcohol, and said, "You should have some alcohol, you'll be loosed." That's exactly what he said. "You'll be loosed."