Kontagious is a Turkish hip hop crew from south London whose incendiary live shows culminated in a slot supporting two stars of Turkish pop, Rafet El Roman and Hande Yener, at their central London concert a few weeks ago. Their first single, the dance floor friendly, belly dancing style hip hop track “Shake It Up,” is about to get a national release in the UK through independent label bhi. After building up a fan base in their own community through a series of appearances around London, they have been signed and are creating a buzz that’s spreading as far afield as Cairo. While Kontagious seems to have mainstream appeal, their story is not one of record label machinations but of four likely lads who decided to try to crack the music business for themselves. I met up with Koray, the group’s singer and fast talking public relations man, so he could explain how they did it.
Koray’s broad south London accent and crisp sportswear belie his attachment to the culture into which his Turkish Cypriot parents were born. Like two of the other three members of the group (one, gK Rhyme, is Anglo-Brit), he is the second generation of his family to be brought up in the UK. He and his cousin Lev-G, also in the group, went to Turkish Saturday school, their parents keen to maintain some connection to their roots. He seems to have enjoyed it: “I’m glad my mum took us — all we used to go there for was to check out girls and play football. It was wicked.”
After getting into music in his late teens, Kontagious gradually came together, as these things often do, through a series of chance meetings and discoveries of shared interests. Most members seem to have had their first experience of performing and producing through their involvement in London’s garage scene. As Koray comments about his cousin’s experiences, “The mid-’90s, the end of the ’90s, was all about UK garage, MCing at loads of raves, on pirates…it was big.” The group’s producer, Arkz, started making music around this time as well: “He was really stepping up his game with regard to the producing; he was doing a bit of garage and a lot of hip hop.”
The old skool garage vibe was all about good times, and this comes across in Kontagious’s party oriented sound, which takes in commercial hip hop and R&B as well as more traditional Turkish styles. But with big US artists incorporating belly dancing influences into their productions, it seems that the sound of family weddings may be providing Kontagious with up-to-the-minute inspiration. “I love wedding music. When you go to a wedding you hear the flutes and the döpleks and the saz going and just the beats and the rhythms. I love all of that — it’s hype, it’s all hype,” Koray comments, also citing the impact of more commercial Turkish artists such as Tarkan and Mustafa Sandal on the crew.
Turkish hip hop has had some notable successes in places such as Germany. But as far as the UK is concerned, Kontagious is looking to the crossover success of Asian urban sounds as a blueprint for what they could achieve: “I’ve seen how the Asian guys like Jay Sean have done it over here. In my neighborhood, there are a lot of Asian people and I mix with a lot of them; I got a lot of them as friends. Every time I see them out raving and one of their Juggy D or Panjabi MC tunes comes on, they go mad for it. I see how they’re interpreting their kind of culture, and you’ve even got people like Timbaland taking them as influences.”
With teenage girls across the UK swooning over the likes of Jay Sean, the Asian crossover has lead the way for Kontagious. “I saw how they were bubbling on the underground for years before they actually blew mainstream, and I’ve seen the big following we’ve got, and the big Turkish community, and we’ve tried to tap into that. And it’s working,” Koray observes. “We’re British Turks and English,” pointing out that their music is as much a UK thing as anything else.
After extricating themselves from an unsatisfactory management arrangement, the crew took matters into their own hands: “If you want to do something, you’ve got to do it yourself. It’s not anyone else’s dream, it’s not anyone else’s product, it’s your product and, like anything, you’ve got to know how to sell it, and you’ve got to create awareness. So once we had a couple of tracks I thought we needed to start getting some gigs together. I knew a couple of promoters, and it’s led to quite a lot of big gigs.”
As well as organizing shows, the crew produce their own press and online public relations: they contact newspapers and magazines, manage their remarkably slick website and edit their own video for music TV. Their efforts seem to be paying off. Koray was recently contacted online by an Egyptian B Boy who wanted to get hold of one of their tracks: “I said to him, if you buy Undercover magazine you’ll get the track and the full video on CD-Rom. He said ‘Ok, but there’s a problem — I live in Cairo.’ I was like, how the hell did you hear about the track? He and his breakdancing clique— there’s about twenty of them — wanted the full track for a show and they heard the track in the background of a female breakdancer’s show in Paris. Now that’s all through the internet. I couldn’t believe it.”
With this kind of international interest coming before they’ve even released so much as a single or a mix-tape, the future looks bright for Kontagious. And “Shake It Up” has the potential to achieve recognition in the club and on the radio, raising their profile way beyond the Turkish community that has supported them so far.