“It’s funny, I’ve had bad reactions in the past, people saying: ‘That’s not music, that’s cheese,’” ponders Robin Pors, who sings with Vengaboys. “But now everyone loves us. Even hip people. And it’s like, what? How did that happen?”
It’s a phenomenon familiar to many pop survivors. Mocked during their chart-topping heydays, even the cheesiest acts suddenly become OK-to-like when the “retro thing” kicks in, as Pors puts it.
Time is a great healer. “I’m sure there were bad vibes in the old days,” agrees N-Trance’s rapper, MC B. “But now it’s all mad love.”
N-Trance and Vengaboys are two of five evocative names appearing at MiXTAPE Rewind on Friday, at the Emirates Golf Club, Dubai. This second instalment of the vintage dance-pop event is a varied affair, also featuring the fellow 1990s hitmakers Snap! and Dr Alban (who always took themselves rather more seriously), as well as the famed 1970s band Boney M (who definitely didn’t).
Their old hits still bring joy, but the intervening decades have not always been kind. Triumph and tragedy: it’s all part of pop’s rich tapestry.
The colourful Dutch outfit made a remarkable splash from the late 1990s onwards in Europe and the US, and even drove their famous Vengabus down roads less travelled.
“We went to Dubai in 2000 and they told me it was one of the first concerts held in Dubai,” says Robin Pors, speaking from Amsterdam. “Everybody went to that concert. Two years ago, we were back in Dubai and we met some people who said: ‘You’re the Vengaboys. That concert!’ Everybody was euphoric that we were there.”
Pors featured on their early hits – We’re Going to Ibiza!, Boom, Boom, Boom, Boom!! – but then, surprisingly, quit. “I fell in love,” he explains. “I was touring always on the other side of the world and that was really hard.”
He turned to acting while Vengaboys’ success gradually tailed off, but rejoined five years ago, as the burgeoning revival scene beckoned. Even their old records have enjoyed a resurgence. “There were five Vengaboys singles in the top 10 in India a few months ago. We’re always big there: there was a time we sold more than Michael Jackson. So we may go there soon.”
Vengaboys played “100 shows last year”, Pors explains. “I must have sung Boom Boom, what, a million times now?”
Thankfully his music is better than his maths.
That name is no idle boast: the Nigeria-born Dr Alban was actually a dentist before breaking big in Stockholm’s nightclubs, then beyond. One global hit, the 1992 dance floor anthem It’s My Life, allowed him to drop the drill forever.
“It’s My Life generates a lot of income today,” he admits. “In Germany, one TV show is using it, in America one movie. In Ireland it was in a movie as well. It’s everywhere.”
Alban continued to release new material with less success, but enjoyed a sudden surge of interest “around 2002-3,” he recalls. “Especially in Eastern Europe: Russia, Czech Republic, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus – all those people are crazy for the 1990s, it’s madness there.”
Alban is making a fresh bid for wider fame by competing in the hugely popular Eurovision Song Contest – provided he wins the Swedish heat in February. “They’ve been asking me every year, so I said yes this time,” he says. “It’s an easier way of breaking a song. It’s difficult now. In the 90s you had MTV, but that’s not the same now. MTV is dead.”
So where will he drop the big single during his MiXTAPE set? “The song comes almost at the end,” he says. “If you play it earlier, the people will leave.”
The doctor knows best.
The first of several global pop successes created by shadowy German producers, Boney M were dividing critics long before the other MiXTAPE performers.
Frank Farian’s project was fronted by four Caribbean singers, whose perky pop featured some bizarrely novel themes: Belfast, for example, was a slightly misguided attempt to solve the Irish Troubles. The band eventually split in 1986 (Farian then invented Milli Vanilli), but various line-ups continued to tour, including one led by their most recognisable member, Bobby Farrell. After years of bad blood, he died in St Petersburg in 2010 – in the same city as one of the band’s subjects: Rasputin. Farrell’s flamboyant dancing is much missed.
“My mother and father were friends with Bobby Farrell, before I was even born,” says Pors, who is keen to meet the remaining members. “They inspired us, yes, so it’ll be really nice to meet them – in the sun, hopefully on a beach. Maybe we can have a little mash-up, because I love their music: [sings] by the rivers of Babylon.”
Or even by the sea in Dubai.
For bands that now rely on retro gigs, introducing new music is a conundrum. Can you move forward when your audience craves the past?
“On the new album, there’ll be some dubstep beats,” insists N-Trance’s MC B. “You have to go with the flow.”
Formed by two British DJs, the flexible outfit shifted from innovation to imitation in the 1990s. They launched with a genuine club classic – 1995’s Set You Free – then switched to cheesy covers, including a notorious, rap-strewn update of the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. MC B – who now performs that in rap – joined only three years ago, after the ill health and untimely death of the band’s original MC, Ricardo da Force. N-Trance recently returned from a mid-noughties hiatus, during which the creative team tried different aliases, with modest success. Now they’re attempting to be both nostalgic and relevant. So would they rather quit these retro gigs, really?
“Not at all – these are the people that first heard about us. Obviously we want new fans as well, but we have to make sure we’re catering to the people who’ve bought our records. And they know how to rave as well, which is obviously a good thing.”
But will the new album also plunder more classic songs?
“There was something we sampled from Michael Jackson,” admits MC B, “but we couldn’t get it signed off.”
The old stuff: you can’t beat it.
Formed by two German DJs, Snap! performed at the inaugural MiXTAPE Rewind event in 2012 and also bring a bit of edge to this bill.
“Snap! were one of our contemporaries, one of the first acts to put the rapper with the dance beat,” says N-Trance’s MC B. “Now if you look at the charts, it’s everywhere, people like Calvin Harris working with Dizzee Rascal. But back in the day it was groundbreaking.”
A fertile marriage of pumping house and aggressive Public Enemy-style rap and attitude, Snap! enjoyed numerous 1990s hits, most famously The Power and Rhythm Is a Dancer, which were frequently remixed and reissued long after the band’s 1996 split.
Their charismatic MC, Turbo B, eventually quit for good, but a notable guest has now returned to the fold. Indeed, Penny Ford is arguably the most gifted of all of Friday’s performers. An unsung American soul diva, Ford’s gospel-trained voice has been employed by the disco queen Chaka Khan, the funk legend George Clinton and many other discerning talents.
She’s got the power.
• MiXTAPE Rewind is on Friday at Emirates Golf Club, Dubai; ages 21 and over only. Tickets, from Dh295, are available at Time Out Tickets. Visit www.facebook.com/SundanceLive for more email@example.com