Rappers With A Cause: Asian Dub Foundation

They helped secure the release of the warehouse worker Satpal Ram from prison. Now they’re tackling domestic violence, asylum, the war on terror and the raid on the Finsbury Park mosque. Paul Lester meets Asian Dub Foundation.

THE TIME IS RIGHT for Asian Dub Foundation to release Enemy of the Enemy. Forty minutes of breakbeats, melody and noise captures the anxious energy of the moment as the band rap militantly about national and international events in the wake of September 11.

It is ADF’s first album since 2000, but the nine-strong, London-based collective, described as The Last Angry Band in Britain, have hardly been idle. Last year, they performed in Cuba and Japan, and were sponsored by the British Council to take their furious hybrid of ragga, jungle, bhangra and punk to the poorest shanty towns of Brazil.

Also in 2002, after years of campaigning, ADF finally saw the release from prison of Asian warehouse worker Satpal Ram, incarcerated since 1987 for killing a white man in self-defence. And for months now they have been overseeing the construction of the Rich Mix Cultural Foundation, a £20m arts and entertainment complex in London’s East End, due for completion in 2004. It is the culmination of the band’s Community Music (an organisation providing music technology training for disadvantaged young people) and Adfed (its educational wing) projects.

Last summer Pandit G, ADF’s turntable whiz, turned down an MBE for “services to the music industry”. “I told my dad I was holding out for a knighthood,” says the 40-year-old former youth worker whose real name is John Pandit. In fact, he refused the award because of the “exploitation and colonialism” of the British empire and because “the existing honours system is archaic and shrouded in secrecy”.

Or, as he puts it when we meet in the only usable office in the empty shell of the Rich Mix building: “It’s just such a load of bollocks, isn’t it? A Member of the British Empire – it’s not really me.” Could he have used the MBE as a stepping-stone to a political career? “No. I want to learn to DJ properly first,” he says.

Pandit formed ADF in 1993 when he teamed up with community music tutor Aniruddha Das (aka bass/tabla player Dr Das) and one of their students, a 15-year-old Bengali rapper called Deeder Zaman (Master D). By 1994, they had hooked up with Steve Chandra Savale, an inventive guitarist and producer/programmer whose radical techniques and veneration of, in his words, “the holy trinity of black technology: George Clinton, Sun Ra and Lee Perry”, soon earned him the alias Chandrasonic.

Adding dancer Bubble-E, decknologist Sanjay “Sun-J” Tailor and various musicians and MCs, ADF exploded on to the music scene. They were hailed either as leading lights of the New Asian Underground or the Asian Clash, media soubriquets the band have been trying to shake off ever since.

“The media tend to reduce things to knowable categories,” says Chandrasonic, suspicious of the portrayal of ADF as fist-waving Bolsheviks in permanent conflict with the powers that be. The band have resisted opportunities to strike aggressive poses and reduce the world’s problems to a few neat slogans on the back of a combat jacket. “Very often,” says Chandrasonic, “the left wing in rock’n’roll is viewed in symbolic terms, in a James Dean or Che Guevara way. We’re the complete opposite. We’ve always been quite pragmatic and practical and long-term. We’ve stuck with things like Adfed and the Satpal campaign.”

It was this no-nonsense attitude that brought about Satpal’s release, a significant victory for a rock group, albeit one as politically engaged as ADF. “If we were that politically engaged, we’d put down our instruments and become journalists,” says Das. “We’re musicians.” However, they “set out stalls at gigs, used our website, sent emails and faxes to prison authorities and parole boards and corresponded with the Home Secretary” until they realised their aim. “One of the reasons he was freed was the level of support he received in Britain and abroad,” says Das. “Ultimately, though, it was the efforts of his legal team.”

When Pandit says, “We’re not saving the world, we’re just getting on with business”, he’s not being disingenuous, but emphasising ADF’s realistic approach to effecting change. He is the band’s intermediary between the concert hall and the boardroom, and has his hands full, whether lobbying for funding for Rich Mix or considering local causes to champion.

Like other members of ADF, he was moved by the poverty in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, stunned by the bombed-out bridges in Serbia and horrified by the emergence of subtly deployed apartheid policies in Switzerland. He has made friends and spied potential enemies in virtually every country of the world. Now Pandit is focusing on home and sees ADF representing the slow but determined fightback against such social ills as the spiralling cost of housing, the erosion of pensions, the congestion crisis in the capital and the weakness of social services.

“All of which,” says Chandrasonic, “is quite unromantic and un-rock’n’roll.” He is unsure whether ADF have it in them to achieve the sort of rock-rebel chic you see in the pages of the music press. “I don’t know whether a group of Asians could actually be iconic in that sense,” he says. “Besides, we’re not into starting fights or infantile gestures, throwing paint at ministers. We’re not into empty posturing. We’re more into the spreading of ideas and perspectives over a long period of time.”

On Enemy of the Enemy, their fifth studio album, ADF tackle local and global matters. Sung by Sinead O’Connor, ‘1000 Broken Mirrors’ – for which Chandrasonic drew on his “own experience of domestic violence” – was inspired by the fate of Zoora Shah, a Muslim woman from Bradford serving a life sentence for the murder of her husband after years of abuse. ‘Blowback’ posits the theory that, on September 11, America witnessed the cataclysmic results of a disastrous foreign policy.

The latest single, ‘Fortress Europe’, deals with asylum seekers. The events of this month, when a group of men purported to be refugees were found in a north London flat with a potentially deadly substance, have not shifted ADF’s position that Britain’s borders should remain open, even with war looming. “Britain has always needed immigrants,” says Pandit. “Even illegal immigrants create wealth,” says Chandrasonic.

What disturbs ADF are the spurious connections being made between asylum seekers and terrorists. “It’s like a cheap join-the-dots book,” says Das. “It’s like that ricin business,” laughs Chandrasonic.

“That was rubbish; they found a few castor beans in some flat. And then they said it could be Iraq because, look, we found a castor oil factory. Oh, come on. I’m not a conspiracy theorist but I really do think there’s an atmosphere of terror designed to condition people for conflict. It’s like, what might happen if these people had done this or they might be this? I’m sorry, but it’s a load of tripe.”

What was their response to the raid this week on the mosque in north London? “That’s just another part of the build-up of hysteria as a means of rallying people for war,” says Das. “There are seeds being planted in people’s minds that Islam equals fundamentalism. It’s like saying all Christians have something to do with extreme Christianity. I’m not a supporter of fundamentalism from any doctrine.”

For Das, the media’s depiction of Muslim cleric Abu Hamza as the personification of evil is like something out of a children’s storybook. “The man with the hook hands?” he asks, bemused. “I mean, where’s the parrot? Where’s Peter Pan? It’s so tabloid I might stop subscribing to Beano. I’m just flabbergasted. The way information is being disseminated is just polarising people. Cross out Asians and it’s Kosovans or people from Afghanistan. This is why we’re livid and we write songs like Fortress Europe.”

But can you really handle a serious political situation with a song? “Aspects of it,” says Das. “It’s not meant as a solution, it’s to kindle debate. People should question their own governments’ foreign policies and underhand activities around the world. What drives someone to fly a plane into a building? Let’s open it up and have a proper debate.” The band foresee terrifying consequences for US hegemony and control of the earth’s natural resources. “George Bush,” says Pandit, “is a much greater threat to world peace than Saddam Hussein.”

ADF are cited as the most revolutionary firebrands since rap-rock forebears Rage Against the Machine or hip-hop politicos Public Enemy. Others, among them comedian David Baddiel, have accused them of being humourless didactics and puritan ideologues.

“No, no, we’re not that at all,” says Chandrasonic, mildly affronted. “I mean, define it. Ask me something and I’ll tell you whether I sound like a puritan.”

But can a socially conscious bunch of young (and not so young) men make sensationally exciting rock’n’roll? Can you be worthy and sexy? ADF believe so. Pandit might “have to attend too many meetings these days” to truly indulge himself, but fun, he insists, is never far from the agenda. “When people see us live, we have a party,” he says. “We try not to preach.”

“ADF’s a celebration,” says Chandrasonic. “It always has been. But we’re really anti the rock-star thing. We try to remove that barrier. We’re teachers. We believe in passing on skills and ideas. I don’t think that’s puritan. We don’t believe having fun and thinking about the world are incompatible. That’s why we called one of our albums Conscious Party.”

So “conscious” and “party” aren’t contradictions in terms? “No, why should they be? Unless they naturally imply being a tosser. Being a wanker and hating everyone, oppressing your fellow human being in one way or another, then they’re contradictory.

“You get that with rock stars: abusing people or smashing up hotel rooms or whatever. Maybe we don’t go in for stuff like that. But we’re still up for partying. I remember when we did the NME Brats tour, we were definitely the most partying group there, whereas the NME bus had about two people on it.

“We’re not saints,” he continues. “But then, most people in this country under the age of 40 smoke dope or take illicit substances, have sex, like to dance and behave to varying degrees of badness. There’s nothing special about that any more.”

What’s the most radical thing you can do in 2003? According to Chandrasonic, it is “not to censor yourself, not to be afraid of saying what you think. Politics are taboo, talking about the state of affairs and what’s wrong. But it’s changing. You’ve got people like The Streets, Massive Attack, Ms Dynamite.”

Last weekend, Ms Dynamite appeared at a rally in Villa Park, Birmingham, calling for an end to the sort of gang violence that saw two teenagers shot dead at a new-year party. She read a poem: “Let us not bow down to gun crime… let no more of my sisters and brothers die in vain.”

“Seems pretty common sense to me,” says Das. “She said what anyone would have said. It wasn’t outspoken. It would have been more controversial if she’d asked whether the police will prioritise this as a problem, whether they see it as a problem that black people are being killed, and what would be happening now if it was young white people that got killed.”

Das believes that “as artists, we choose not to self-censor”. Later, however, in a conversation about culture minister Kim Howells’ denunciation of gangsta rap, he declares: “I’d be pro-censorship in some cases.”

But isn’t there a thrill to be had from the morally suspect? “What, you mean songs about paedophilia? You’ve got to draw the line somewhere.” Isn’t music that is “common sense” in danger of becoming bland? “I’m not into music that glorifies guns,” says Das, recalling an ADF track, ‘Naxalite’, about an uprising in India that encouraged people to “chop off their landlords’ heads.”

When it comes to hate-filled art, he is certain of his position. “I don’t like Led Zeppelin’s misogynistic lyrics,” he says. “But take them out and you get wicked drum and bass.”

© Paul LesterThe Guardian, 24 January 2003

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