Panjabi MC brings hip-hop with a dash of Punjabi masala
Panjabi MC jammed cross-cultural airwaves in 2002 with Mundian To Bach Ke, a breakout international smash that hit the top 20 in at least 15 countries. Sung in Punjabi, it went on to sell an estimated 10 million copies worldwide.
Don’t recognise the name? Most will recall the tune in seconds, its distinct, frenetic riffing on a traditional one-string tumbi locked down by a hypnotic hip-hop groove. It’s a genius juxtaposition of traditionalism and modernity – exotic but familiar, an infectious floor-filler that moves the feet but also boggles the mind. The song’s appeal hasn’t diminished, clocking more than 12 million hits on YouTube.
The secret was taking a typical bhangra tune performed by Punjabi artist Labh Janjua, and reworking it alongside the bassline to Busta Rhymes’s Fire It Up, itself based on a sample from the 1980s TV show Knight Rider.
It’s a cross-pollinating formula that Panjabi – real name Rajinder Singh Rai – has been exploring throughout a two-decade career. Rai was born in the United Kingdom and his vision was also to blend the hip-hop beats he heard out of the United States with the bhangra music of his home, which evolved among the UK’s Punjabi immigrants in the mid-1980s.
“It was the hip-hop that came first,” says Rai. “At first I just wanted to mix a little bit of Indian sound to get that different flavour, and rap on it.
“But then after a while I wasn’t getting a lot of attention for my raps, but I was getting a lot of attention from the Indian samples I was throwing in – so I took it that way.”
He dropped his first record in 1993, after five years of working the UK bhangra scene, but it was an initial 1998 release of Mundian To Bach Ke that changed Rai’s life forever.
The song was an instant hit with Britain’s Indian and Pakistani communities and the song’s momentum continued to build, slowly picked up by mainstream hip-hop DJs who helped create a demand that led to the tune’s all-conquering 2002 re-release.
“One time I did a show with Tim Westwood – when he found out I’d produced it, he immediately got me on his show, and it all kind of snowballed from there.”
But that wasn’t the end of the story. Europe may have already fallen for Rai’s infectious, exotic concoction, but it reached a whole new audience when Jay Z got on board to rap over a remix, translated to Beware of the Boys.
“I did a gig with Jay in Sweden,” Rai says. “He just invited me to the VIP area and said: ‘I wanna spit on that song.' At the time I wasn’t sure if he was serious or not.
“That was definitely something that was big for the whole industry, something that hadn’t even been imagined.”
The tune has gone on to feature in movies from Bend It Like Beckham (2002) to The Dictator (2012), and TV shows from ER to Entourage – often a shorthand way to reductively frame an Asian character.
But at the time there were genuine hopes it would signal a new wave of bhangra/hip-hop cross-pollination, the spiritual heir to The Beatles’ experiments with Ravi Shankar decades before. Sadly, it never quite took off.
“I appreciate bhangra and Bollywood culture, and hip-hop culture, but there’s a massive gap in terms of communication between the two,” explains Rai. “They don’t really respect each other.”
Rai says it will take a similar innovation to get Punjabi sounds back on international playlists.
“In the UK the music has got a little bit weak – the bhangra coming out now is never going to break out. Someone needs to make some quality stuff that people can relate to.
“You’re right – the time is nigh for another bhangra crossover,” he adds, laughing. “And it would be good because it would be bhangra two, Bollywood nil.”
Panjabi MC performs on Friday at The Music Room, Majestic Hotel Tower, Dubai. Doors open 9pm, tickets cost Dh100
This weekend in clubland
The US rapper and MTV host otherwise known as Alvin Nathaniel Joiner plays a double-header of shows, getting on the mic at People by Crystal in Abu Dhabi tonight, before helping its sister club ring in five years in Dubai on Friday, November 14.
• Free entry. Call 050 826 9698 (Abu Dhabi) or 050 297 2097 (Dubai)
Saadiyat Beach Club
The capital has a new party spot in town, with the former Monte Carlo Beach Club relaunching tonight with a huge party and beats from St Tropez star Rom1 and local legends MadJam, Mr Mr and Simon B.
• Thursday, November 13 from 9.30pm, Saadiyat Island. Tickets cost Dh125 from www.timeouttickets.com
The legendary clubbing brand celebrates 25 years with a world tour of 25 cities. Featuring DJs Riva Starr, Tiefschwarz, Ali, M.A.N.D.Y and Camilo Franco.
• Friday, November 14 from 2pm at Nasimi Beach, Atlantis The Palm. Tickets cost Dh200 from platinumlist.ae