How British Asians Impacted UK Rap (And Beyond)

Words: Ciaran Thapar

Some moments stay with you. In 2014, for example, after a lifetime spent dreaming of watching a live professional cricket game in India, I found myself sat in an auto-rickshaw in Mumbai traffic, my stomach full of tandoori crab and raw excitement, en route to an IPL T20 game. Similarly, in 2008, having just entered my final year of sixth-form, I stood in euphoria at Kano’s 140 Grime Street album launch. He had brought out Ghetts, Tinchy Stryder, Wiley, Skepta and Logan Sama to join him on stage, and I couldn’t stop smiling for days.

But it’s a memory from the early-00s that is etched deepest on my mind’s rearview mirror. Back then, every other weekend my family would visit my grandparents’ home in Southall, West London. I would eat tin plates full of my grandma’s curries, talk about cricket with my grandpa, and stare up at the images of Hindu deities hanging on the walls. Because I was mixed-race, I always felt different to my full-blooded Indian cousins. They were the true children of migration. Who was I?

One evening, on Diwali, the festival of light, as fireworks covered the sky above nearby Heathrow airport, my eldest cousin took us for a ride in his BMW, whose sound-system filled the entire boot. We sped down Southall Broadway and around the local residential streets and I wound down my window to the smell of cooking spices and firework smoke. People spilled out into the street, lighting sparklers and drinking whiskey in celebration of ancient ritual. My cousin turned on the radio. Artful Dodger, Craig David and Shanks & Bigfoot provided the soundtrack to our adventure. The thumping bass of UK garage music became lodged in my mind as a symbol of untempered liberation; of gaining access to a new, undiluted British Asian world.

On the one hand, the music’s caramel vocals and playful 2-step rhythm sounded like they must have been sourced from a faraway land of bright colours, dark skin and sun. Yet the cold, edgy finish and geezerish production sounded like it had been fused behind the net curtains of a carpeted suburban living room on a rainy day. In that moment, with British music—what I am going to loosely define as black British music—I realised I could experience life on my own terms: as an Englishman, but also as someone else—a visitor, longing for another continent, craving acceptance from my fatherland.

“What do I love most about Britain? The answer is UK garage,” said super-producer Steel Banglez as we ate tandoori rotis and saag paneer at Tayyabs, the famous karahi house in Whitechapel, East London, earlier this summer. “You know when you’re young, and it’s the best days of your life, and you don’t give two fucks? I used to get home from school, wipe the needle, turn on the decks and blast garage,” he added. It was interesting to hear Banglez—whose parents emigrated from Punjab, northern India, in the early ‘80s—talk about UK garage so fondly (his name references the kara, a bracelet traditionally worn by Sikhs). He told me how he first messaged Birmingham rapper Mist over Instagram to make their game-changing “Karla’s Back” after hearing him use Punjabi words in a freestyle. If you follow him on Instagram, his proud hashtagged catchphrase is “hanji”, a Punjabi word for “yes.” I thought about his status as the most sought-after UK rap producer in 2018; how he has drawn from garage production to pioneer an entirely new sound of British music, fusing it with trap, R&B and Afrobeats. On my cycle home, questions arose in my mind.

What does the success of someone like Steel Banglez in UK rap say about the union of black Britishness and Asian Britishness? Why is black music in the UK so accessible to British Asians?

After the mutual struggle of black and Asian anti-racist movements in the ‘70s and ‘80s—which saw off the intolerance of the National Front, with race riots in Southall in 1979 and Brixton in 1981—the British Asian experience has evolved alongside the rising dominance of black British music. Saying this is not to dismiss the importance of British desi music: its bhangra tradition, the daytime raves which allowed traditionally-raised teenagers to go clubbing, and the ‘Asian underground’ scene of the 1990s (if you haven’t, watch the recent BBC Four documentary Pump Up The Bhangra). But a bit like the import of culinary culture from the Indian subcontinent has embedded itself at the centre of British life—with curry houses now regarded as a normalised high-street feature—the import of sonic culture from African America, the Caribbean and West Africa has monopolised the British consciousness like no other.

Black British music has ebbed and flowed, from the underground to the overground and back again, speaking of pain and happiness and diversity whilst planting itself firmly in its own patchwork context. And deep down, I think British Asians naturally embrace this balancing act. Many second and third generation South Asian people in the UK, who have grown up identifying as British, still feel foreign. This feeling has lasted alongside increasing access to music from the US in the form of Motown soul and funk, hip-hop and R&B, as well as domestically, through genres like jungle, garage, grime and emerging types of rap. From one angle, British Asian identity has therefore become both intertwined with, and a part of, black music’s onward march.

In 2007, Keysound Recordings co-founder and Rinse FM DJ Blackdown posted on his blog about spending a day in Southall. He writes of visiting ABC Music, a well-known desi music shop, after hearing about hip-hop super-producer Timbaland shutting it down to look for samples with local bhangra legend Juggy D. (The tabla drums Timbaland employs on Missy Elliott’s “Get Ur Freak On”, punchy strings on Bubba Sparxxx’s “Ugly”, and the pan-pipe riff on Timbaland and Magoo’s “Indian Flute”, may not have happened without mass migration from Punjab to London in the 1960s. Just saying.). In the post, Blackdown celebrates London’s “margins”, its “edges” like Tottenham or Croydon, as opposed to its anodyne, whitewashed centre. A year later, he released the futuristic grime anthem “Margins Music” with producing partner Dusk and MC Durrty Goodz, whose video has shots of Goodz racing around in a car cut with short vignettes of Southall Broadway.

This idea of the “margins” is a useful descriptor for explaining the coexistence of postcolonial identities in Britain, what has in the past been labelled as ‘3S’ multiculturalism: saris, samosas, and steel drums. Just like how some of London’s peripheral vicinities exist physically, geographically—on the margins of the city, out of the way and excluded from the tea-and-cake branding of its historic centre—ethnic minorities in Britain exist conceptually, on the margins of mainstream discourse, power and public life. This marginalisation happens in different ways for different diasporas. But the evolving continuum of black British music has risen like steam out of Britain’s melting pot as the most potent, universal artistic form of expressing ethnic minority experience. It has done this in a way that literature or political activism alone cannot, and in turn attracted many of us who are broadly ‘of colour’. I remember photographer Simon Wheatley, who spent over a decade documenting the birth of the grime scene, recently describing to me how the feeling of “alienation” he experienced from being a mixed-race, Anglo-Indian immigrant led him to his subject, in the poverty-stricken tower blocks of East London in the early 2000s.

What’s more, in reciprocation, the British Asian community has played an important role in the rise of forever popularising forms of black music. “It’s become cool in recent years to add Asian flavour to a non-Asian record,” says a Guardian review of bhangra fusion legend Rishi Rich 2006 album The Project, which featured Jay Sean and Juggy D’s ‘bhangraton’ hit “Push It Up”, whose grainy, Channel U-style video was filmed in Puerto Rico. Indeed, the intermixing of Asian sounds with others from breakbeat, hip-hop and reggae scenes, as practiced by Bally Sagoo, DJ Ritu or Jazzy B, occurred extensively throughout the 1990s, whilst bhangra continued to thrive. But post-2000, this was becoming more pronounced. It is not a coincidence that BBC Asian Network was relaunched as a nationwide platform in October 2002, and in 2006 received an extra £1 million funding to make British South Asian interests “a mainstream part of the corporation’s output.”

In the space of a few years, Timbaland formed his habit of using Hindi sampling material to make era-defining hip-hop. Dr. Dre released his controversial rework of Lata Mangeshkar’s “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” with Truth Hurts and Rakim for their anthem “Addictive”. Jay-Z hopped on a remix of Punjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” (the original had already become a worldwide hit). Dipset frontman Juelz Santana laid a verse for the remix of female group Rouge’s “Don’t Be Shy”, and Sikh brothers The Kray Twins produced “What We Do” with none other than Lethal Bizzle, Gappy Ranks and Twista.

Since then, Sri Lankan Tamil, Hounslow-born M.I.A. has risen to global stardom. Aside from a host of other achievements, her 2008 hit “Paper Planes” is widely regarded as one of the most significant songs of its decade (it was also sampled in the same year for Jay-Z’s “Swagger Like Us”). And British-Pakistani actor Riz Ahmed, who founded Oxford University’s first drum and bass night as an undergraduate student whilst studying there, has, alongside exploits such as acting in Star Wars, sustained a side-career as a spoken-word rapper under the name Riz MC. A lyric from the 2016 song “Half Moghul Half Mowgli”, by his group Swet Shop Boys, goes: “My only heroes were black rappers, so to me 2Pac was a true p*ki.”

Where does the British Asian involvement in black British music stand right now? East London producers Faze Miyake and Rude Kid have both spent over a decade carving out unique lanes in grime, and they continue to be two of the most influential names in what has become an internationally-acclaimed scene. And as the rap world’s gaze rests increasingly on the UK, helped by the forward-momentum of veterans like Giggs, Mist and Nines, you can look carefully enough and see that the British Asian contribution in the field is strong. Aside from Steel Banglez, producers Sevaqk (who, on Twitter, calls each of his productions a #pataka, a Punjabi word for firecracker), JB (who has produced for Fredo, Nines, Ice City Boyz and Ard Adz) and Emil from UK drill specialists D Proffit (responsible for AM & Skengdo’s chart-topping 2Bunny mixtape last year) are all British Asians. They all, like Banglez, sprinkle raised female vocals over their beats. This employment ‘vocal science’ undoubtedly reflects the influence of UK garage on their craft. But I’d be tempted to claim that it isn’t too far removed from the high-pitched singing of women actors in classic Bollywood films, too; those that so many young British Asians grow up watching at home over a plate of daal.

Maybe I’m just getting excited. Meaning may or may not be extracted from the growing British Asian contribution to modern rap. One thing, however, is for certain: the music being made by Britain’s intermixing diasporas, who are more united and visible on the world stage than ever, has become a celebratory coping mechanism for our country’s Brexit-induced identity crisis. In the words of People Just Do Nothing star Chabuddy G, the strengthening multicultural aesthetic of British music is “UKIP’s worst nightmare.” Long may it last. Hanjiii!

Posted on September 11, 2018