Real Lives: Rock of Asians

Britain’s Asian community has long hosted a thriving pop scene, operating in a lucrative parallel universe to the chart mainstream. Now, CAROLINE SULLIVAN reports, radical bands are emerging who could have as much impact as black rappers did in the Eighties

KID MILO is a large and bald fellow who encases his maisonette of a body in yards of “bullet-holed” denim. No surprise then that he is a middleweight boxer whose last opponent was Nigel Benn. For two years, however, Milo has had a day job and it is this that brings him to the Birmingham Hyatt Hotel. He is casing the joint before his boss, Apache, arrives. Apache is Apache Indian, the 25-year-old Handsworth-born Hindu whose fusion of two apparently unreconcilable musical genres — Asian bhangra and Jamaican ragga — has made him Britain’s biggest Asian pop star. His recent Top 20 single, ‘Arranged Marriage’, got the first Asian on Top Of The Pops in years. Apache is part of a movement that could make as much cultural impact on the Nineties as rap did in the Eighties. Kid Milo is Apache’s bodyguard. He enters and glances piercingly into dim corners. A few minutes pass and in walks Apache.

Why does he need a bodyguard with one Top 20 hit to his credit? Moreover, Apache employed Milo long before ‘Arranged Marriage’ was released two months ago. Is Milo an affectation? A bit of popstarly arrogance? Apparently not. Apache (ne Steve Kupar) has been an underground star since 1990. He had three hit singles on independent labels before Island signed him last year and released ‘Arranged Marriage’. But, as Milo explains: “The Indian community don’t take kindly to his singing about street things. They feel he should keep certain subjects within the community. The castes get offended and they stick together. We had a bomb threat at a record-signing the other day, and they petrol-bombed a club he was appearing at in Toronto.”

Hence Apache’s nixing of a request that we visit old haunts in Handsworth, the multicultural neighbourhood where he grew up listening to reggae and “chatting” on the microphone with black sound systems. Furthermore he does not want to be photographed outdoors. Eventually he takes us back to his place.

The five-bedroomed house is a testament to his success. There’s a recording studio off the dining room and a forest’s worth of heavy dark furniture throughout. In the plushly-carpeted front room, Apache turns his baseball cap aft and worries one of his six gold rings.

“There’s never been an Asian hero in Britain before,” he says in rapid Brummie. “Asian kids have never had this sort of thing sung about, and we need this. I get so many letters from Asian kids — I got one from a girl who’s from a lower caste in India and she gets teased here. She wants me to write a song about it. I’ve actually just done a song about how all the castes should be equal, from the lowest to the kings and queens. My parents say I’ll probably be shot for it. I believe my destiny is to sing these songs and I’m sure I’ll end up being shot.”

Although Apache uses Indian instruments such as tablas, his heart is in ragga, the macho music of Kingston’s dance halls. His subject matter may be Asian but his style is derived from ragga heroes like Supercat and Apache (no relation) rather than the stars of bhangra. His appearance, from the short haircut with its shaved-out tramlines to the capacious trousers, reflects his affinity with black youth culture. Steve Kupar is a fast-talking, Nike-wearing product of 30 years of (sometimes unwilling) black and Asian fraternisation in Britain’s inner cities. He personifies the “one love” ideal preached by Bob Marley and echoed with varying degrees of futility by rock bands ever since. More importantly he is the most visible member of a growing underground of Asian musicians who are vociferously challenging white prejudices.

Haq The Propaghandi Machine, leader of a Bradford-based Pakistani rap group Fun’Da’Mental, summarises their aims: “We will no longer sit back and let people walk all over us. It’s no longer a question of just being accepted — we have something positive and concrete to contribute. We don’t walk around with chips on our shoulders; we’re just saying to young Asians, take what is yours.”

Outfits like Fun’Da’Mental, Cornershop, New Konscious Kaliphs and State Of Bengal are forcing change through that wheezy vehicle of rebellion, popular music. They are adapting genres formerly considered the province of blacks and whites: hiphop, for instance, and indie guitar-rock. (Fun’Da’Mental model themselves on radical New York rappers Public Enemy). Most of these bands are intensely political, with a remit covering everything from the empowerment of Asians to the re-education of racists.

“We’re not pacifists, we’re Pakifists,” says rapper 2 Pharn of Rochdale’s New Konscious Kaliphs, whose tunes include ‘Nazi Murderer’ and an anti-skin-whitener ditty, ‘More Mercury In My Bloodstream Than Freddie’. Fun’Da’Mental’s latest single is ‘Wrath Of The Blackman’.

To judge by a couple of incidents I witnessed in Bradford, their anger is eminently justified. As they pose for photos near Bradford’s football ground, the Fun’Da’Mentals were accosted by a quartet of white football fans. “Salmon Rushdie!” the fans chortled. The band’s expression did not change.

Asian rock is not a movement as such, consisting as it does of autonomous groups and disparate styles. The musicians are justifiably irritated to be associated on the grounds of colour. There is assuredly no musical link between, say, noise-drenched female rockers Voodoo Queens and acid-house producing suavester Bally Sagoo.

However, the umbrella word “movement” applies. Each artist shares respect for the Asian traditions of religious values, veneration of parents and, as Fun’Da’Mental’s percussionist Goldfinger puts it, “love of humanity”. Asian rock stars are undoubtedly the only ones who seek closer bonds with their elders.

It’s crucial to point out that these bands have no connection with the UK’s Asian recording industry. That vast entity, which specialises in bhangra, is a remarkable parallel universe to the mainstream music business. Since the Sixties it has flourished independently of the mainstream, with its own distribution networks, concert circuits and superstars. Recordings, usually on cassette, are produced on the sub-continent or in the many British bhangra studios and sold in Asian groceries and record shops for between 50p and £3 each. Sales of up to 50,000 per album are by no means unusual (Birmingham’s Bally Sagoo sold 50,000 copies of his Essiential Ragga LP last year).

ACTIVITY LIKE that would normally send these LPs straight into the Top 10. An illustration: on February 7 a white guitar outfit called Belly entered the charts at No 2 with sales of 27,000. Asian releases never reach even the Top 75, because Asian record shops are not included among the chart-return outlets that supply chart compiler Gallup with its data. Gallup’s excuse is that Asian cassettes do not bear the bar-code necessary to register sales on Gallup’s Dataport machines. Additionally, the big chain stores claim that they have had little demand for Asian products. The Asian community prefers to buy their tapes cheaply from local shops. Why should they spend up to £13.49 at chart return shops?

Persuading them to do so will be a battle. Things could change, however, now that the biggest Asian label, Multitone, has just sold 51 per cent of itself to Bertelsmann Music Group, owners of RCA and Arista Records. Multitone’s 35 acts will have access to the promotional muscle that sells Annie Lennox and Whitney Houston. A compilation, Ragga For The Masses, has just been released.

“Bhangra was on the verge of breaking in Britain a few years ago, but we were badly hit by three things: the recession, the BCCI collapse — around 30 per cent of our retailers banked with them — and the collapse of the rupee. It meant that tapes could be manufactured in India and sold here for 40p. We had to pay British production costs. We couldn’t compete.”

Jitesh Gohil, Multitone’s young Gujerati director, went on to reveal that, until a few years ago, almost 70 per cent of his profits were lost to bootleggers. Bootleggers — illegally copying and selling a recording — are the scourge of the Asian music business. The practice has nearly been eradicated here but is rife in the US and Canada. Apache Indian was offered pirated copies of his own single in a Toronto shop. “He said he’d sold 20,000 bootleg tapes. I come from the street and I know the man’s only trying to make a living. I thought we could do a deal. But out comes a big knife.”

If bootleggers still operated here, they would probably be uninterested in the Fun’Da’Mentals and Cornershops. Today’s young Asian groups are less naive than the bhangra acts. They ensure that their records reach mainstream outlets. It’s hard to find their stuff in small Asian shops. “We sell some Fun’Da’Mental but I haven’t heard of Cornershop,” said an assistant at Sargom, the largest Asian music emporium in London’s Brick Lane. “This is our biggest seller.” He brandished the inevitable Bally Sagoo tape. On the cover, the goateed, Rolexed artist was smiling smugly. He would be.

One day in late January I attended a Bengali rave. “Day” means literally that. The action kicked off at three in the afternoon and finished at nine. This is standard at Asian raves; it appeases parents and enables girls to attend. Posters plastered around the area of east London where the event was held promised a shebang on a par with anything you’d find in a field off the M25. “Raving mad for dance-crazy people!” the posters read. “Are you headstrong enough? Hardcore, techno, hiphop, ragga, bhangra…”

The rave turned out to be a sedate affair. The ravers were exclusively teenage and exclusively male. Where were the girls. I asked a boy-rapper called Blade MC. “We don’t get a lot of Asian girls. Their parents are too strict. I don’t let my wife come.” His wife? He looked about 15. But he’d had an arranged marriage eight months before.

Women are under-represented in Asian rock. The few involved are outspoken, political types like Radical Sista’s, a pirate-radio DJ from Huddersfield. She explains that Asian women who assume western attitudes are said to be “azaad”. “I’m considered as azaad. My older relatives feel I’ve lowered my marital premium.”

Asian bands are shoving their way into an industry that has previously ignored their existence. The industry will find itself richer for their presence. It’s happening already.

© Caroline SullivanThe Guardian, 13 March 1993

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