The Folklore Of Raf Saperra’s ‘5 Deadly Venomz’ 🐍

Words: Ciaran Thapar
Illustration: Raj Draws

In May 2023, Raf Saperra landed in New York City for the very first time, having admired the Big Apple from afar since childhood. After the release of his explosive debut mixtape, Ruff Around The Edgez, followed by a month off for Ramadan, the South Londoner was ready to make his next move forging groundbreaking, Punjabi music. Joined by producers Bobby Kang and Taj Aulakh, the trio drove across the city’s boroughs, stopping at Airbnbs, friends’ neighbourhoods and music studios, armed with laptops to make beats.

“I was soaking it in: the mannerisms, the fashion, building a perspective,” Saperra tells me over the phone. During one car journey, they stopped at a red light with his music blaring from the sound system, its bass vibrating through traffic, his vocals turning heads. “Some guy pulled up beside us and called out, ‘Who’s that?’, so I pointed at myself, and he was like, ‘Yo, that’s fire, son!’ It showed me that people outside of South Asian culture are feeling it.”

Over the next six months, Saperra would enter into a relentless performance mode, bringing his stage show to swooning fans on both sides of the Atlantic. He toured cities in Canada, headlined Boiler Room: Southall in West London and dropped an On The Radar freestyle back in NYC. Following a UK tour in the autumn, he sold out the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan, weeks before Giggs achieved the same. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Saperra, Kang and Aulakh’s sound crystallised into a body of work. The 5 Deadly Venomz EP—a rugged merger of Punjabi folk and East Coast rap—is out now on Nas’ record label, Mass Appeal. “We were clear from the beginning that we weren’t making it for the radio or with any commercial intent,” Saperra explains. “It’s a passion project, through and through—the first of its kind, a safe space for Punjabi music fans and real hip-hop enthusiasts.”

I first discovered Raf Saperra, whose name is Adeel Sardar Khan, after he started sharing homemade song renditions on social media during the pandemic lockdowns of 2020. Stuck in my flat in South London with international travel disrupted, Covid deaths rising and farmers’ protests raging in India, the pandemic nudged me to seek new lines of reconnection to my fatherland online. Saperra’s music became one of them. His catalogue has since expanded to hit a range of stylistic pockets, from partnerships with bhangra legends Panjabi MC for Barood and Sukshinder Shinda for Snake Charmer to crossover tracks like the UK garage anthem “N.L.S (Nach Le Soniye)”. As a classically trained vocalist raised in a Pakistani Muslim household, but also a grime, rap and cinema fanatic who grew up South-of-the-Thames, he respectfully blends the myriad sounds of his South Asian heritage with Black British genres whilst paying homage to a wider hip-hop aesthetic.

“Outside my house, with my bredrins, I’d be trading the latest Giggs or Roadside Gs or Gipset via Bluetooth on the bus to school,” he told me last year, remembering his teenage years. “But inside my house? It was Bollywood, Punjabi folk, qawwali, bhangra, from Jazzy B to Surjit Bindrakhia.” Punjab’s name is derived from its five beloved rivers, all tributaries of the mighty Indus (in Persian, “panj” means five and “aab” means water, together making “land of five rivers”). For centuries before it was brutally partitioned into East and West, India and Pakistan, in 1947—two-and-a-half rivers now exist on either side—the region’s folklore evolved as a colourful, binding tapestry that was retold by Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus alike. Parables of illegal love, violent war and agricultural labour were passed on from generation to generation via mehfil gatherings, fireside celebrations and auspicious occasions. Since partition, folk music has kept these stories, their motifs and proverbs alive on both sides of the Radcliffe Line and among the globalised Punjabi diaspora. It is a genre whose performative essence cannot easily be scribed on a page, only heard and felt, like the thwack of a dhol drum hitting your chest.

Raf Saperra has sought to plant this ancient, rustic culture in the tilled, shifting soil of our glitzy internet age. Having started off as a filmmaker, he directs his own videos—he directed the video for Sidhu Moose Wala’s Celebrity Killer after the Punjabi Indian megastar, who was shot dead in May 2022, saw his work and messaged him on Instagram—translating the lyrics into English subtitles. His most streamed song, “Modern Mirza”, produced by Bobby Kang, is a boom-bap take on one of Punjab’s most famous tragic romances. The first single and video from 5 Deadly Venomz, Ranjha, is inspired by another. Both tales have filled South Asian popular culture for decades. But the slick and accessible packaging that Saperra has created to deliver them allows him to cut through to new audiences with flair and force.

“Folk stories have such a range of emotions,” he says, noting that in hip-hop and bhangra, “sometimes the lens can get narrowed down to talking about being a gangster and having guns. In order to break from that notion, I want there to be enough space for vulnerability and emotion, without it seeming moist. There is a broader horizon of masculinity I want to build through folklore.”

Bobby Kang sees a natural parallel between the commercialisation of Punjabi folk music and the inception of New York hip-hop in the 1970s and 1980s. “The magic is that these genres were worlds apart, happening on opposite sides of the planet,” he says. “I don’t think the old bhangra legends were privy to people spinning funk records in New York, but they’re similar in how they use narrative and even sonically, in terms of their musical arrangements, reverting back to a riff after each hook. It’s easy to put that folk feeling into hip-hop beats because it's already there for you.” His production on “Venomz Boliyan” off the new EP—a skippy head-bopper that channels both the boisterous atmosphere of a rap cypher and the poetic couplet form of a traditional Punjabi call-and-answer—is his own take on this synergy.

5 Deadly Venomz is thus an alchemy of multiple folklores. Its name is a nod to the 1978 Kung Fu classic film, Five Deadly Venoms—a favourite of Saperra’s—as well as 5 Deadly Venomz Of Brooklyn, a cassette mixtape compiled by five New York DJs, including DJ Premier and Tony Touch, in 1997. Days before the EP’s release, Saperra uploaded a self-directed short film called Tales Of The Snake Charmer onto his YouTube channel, in which he delivers a monologue paying homage to mid-2000s London youth culture: Keisha The Sket, Jamie Oliver’s reformation of school dinners, and grime’s golden years. “That was a moment, a massive part of who I am, the cloth that I’m cut from,” he says.

Arguably the most impressive aspect of the project is its unprecedented roster of collaborations. None other than Buffalo rap heavyweight Conway The Machine features on the EP’s opening track, “Rolling Thunder”. Its title is a cinematic reference to John Flynn’s 1977 psychological thriller of the same name. The second single from the project, “Hood Harvest”, features a punchy verse from Harlem MC Dave East and raucous hosting from Big Body Bes, who took Saperra to shoot the video across different parts of New York. In it, he peacocks in Kid Super styling, delivering lines of passionate yet playful braggadocio.

With such a steepening upward trajectory headed in unpredictable directions, Saperra has much to be excited about. It’s a fool’s game guessing what sound is coming next, or where he might be in a year’s time. In the meantime, this summer he will perform at Sydney Opera House with Sid Sriram and Priya Ragu. He’s eyeing up the festival circuit, plotting a world tour and aiming to drop a new project before the end of the year.

“I’ve always admired great auteurs, like Stanley Kubrick, Tarantino, Alfred Hitchcock—artists who have such control over their work, where every inch of their canvas screams their name,” he adds. “And I now feel that both of my projects in my career so far, though very different, have been painted with my soul. Both are undeniably me. I hope my art can be a statement that shows what a South London-born, British Punjabi artist, whose immigrant parents hail from West Punjab, can bring to the scene. An artist’s life is riddled with mortality and, sometimes, in this exciting space, we lose sight of that. So as long as I’m here, I pray that I’m able to make more dope pieces of work that resonate with people.”

Posted on April 04, 2024