March 4, 2024


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Look back in bhangra: Panjabi MC on becoming a pop icon | Music

10 min read

In February 2003, the UK bhangra producer and rapper Panjabi MC played a DJ set in Germany, then flew by private jet to Switzerland to play twice more that same evening. His song Mundian To Bach Ke had recently been rereleased. Having spent five years on a closed circuit of British Asian weddings, family functions, radio shows and club nights, it would soon reach the UK Top 5 and No 1 in Italy, Hungary, Belgium and Greece.

Touching down at Birmingham airport after the tour, his manager Rekha Sagoo received a call from the promoter. “I’ll always remember it,” she says. “Jay-Z had been in Switzerland and heard Bach Ke blasting through the walls and wanted to add his own verse.” The remix that soon followed (called Beware of the Boys) took the song back into the charts again in 2003, and Jay-Z performed it at Glastonbury in 2008.

The success gave bhangra music a boost around the world and made Panjabi MC a household name. But many people remember him as a one-hit wonder, disregarding his vast legacy to British Asian culture, let alone his ongoing music career. “How much detail shall I go into?” he asks, sitting in his studio complex in Nuneaton. Panjabi MC, AKA Rajinder Singh Rai, is stroking a fluffy grey cat, and at 49 he has a warm presence, like a wise, mischievous uncle.

After the bloody partition of India in 1947, many families emigrating from the severed region of Punjab arrived in the Midlands, where men found work in metal foundries. Rai’s grandparents settled in Coventry, where he was born. He grew up Sikh in a traditional home. “We spoke Punjabi. I had a good time. But Cov did have a skinhead problem,” he says. The National Front would mobilise after games at the football stadium, and he remembers hiding from them with his grandmother inside British Home Stores.

Anger about immigration and unemployment in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain was bubbling, but so was a multicultural melting pot, and Coventry became the birthplace of the 2 tone scene that spliced punk and ska. Rai’s childhood bedroom backed on to a pub that hosted reggae bands. As he fell asleep, “all I could hear was the bassline,” he says. At community weddings, he would watch the bhangra bands set up their equipment. “I never wanted to go on the dancefloor. I wanted to be on stage.”

Panjabi MC in 2003.
Panjabi MC in 2003. Photograph: Mauritius Images GmbH/Alamy

Bhangra originated as a harvest dance from the Punjab and evolved once it married with electronic instrumentation in the UK. Prominent bands such as Apna Sangeet, Alaap, Heera and DCS toured the UK during the 1980s; so, too, did Sufi qawwali singers visiting from India and Pakistan, such as Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. For young British Punjabis, be they Sikhs, Hindus or Muslims, music preserved their heritage – language and wisdom via the ancient vocal scales of singers; pride in the thwack of the dhol – while Black music from the US spoke to a shared feeling of otherness among working-class migrant communities.

Hip-hop filtered in from America: “We used to send someone down to London with a ghetto blaster to record Tim Westwood’s Capital radio show,” says Rai, who would bunk off school to dance at “daytimer” parties organised for young south Asians who weren’t allowed out at night. After seeing Stevie Wonder use a sampler on Sesame Street, he worked in a clothes factory to save up for “my own little lab”, which he used to deconstruct and blend the voices of his parents’ favourite singers with rap and dance music. This sampling was a hip-hop method but also an example of jugaad: the Indian method of bending rules to solve practical problems. “I loved all the original bhangra songs, but they were recorded live, so they were loose. My thing was to tighten them up,” he says.

In his early teens, Rai had also practised rapping at a Caribbean social club, where others would call him Indian MC. “I told them: ‘Indian isn’t a language, it’s Punjabi!’” he says. The new name stuck.

Rai with his 2003 MTV Music Award for best dance act.
Rai with his MTV Music Award for best dance act in 2003. Photograph: Mike Marsland/WireImage

“He made music that reflected a lived experience of having multiple generations in one household,” says DJ Yung Singh, a member of south Asian music collective Daytimers and the producer of The Birth of Punjabi Garage, a new Ministry of Sound documentary. “The older generations appreciated that he sampled so much of the stuff they grew up listening to.”

Apache Indian and Bally Sagoo, both from Birmingham, had developed reputations for mixing Indian music with reggae, dancehall and disco (“Bally was the guy to catch,” Rai says). Trying his own hand at forging musical hybridity, Rai fused disparate styles on his first three albums as Panjabi MC – Souled Out (1993), Another Sellout (1994) and 100% Proof (1995) – and his single Jogi would later chart across Europe.

“I remember getting Souled Out and being blown away,” says New York’s DJ Rekha, whose club night Basement Bhangra, which Rai played at many times, ran from 19972017. “I’m often playing to an audience here that is not deeply familiar with Indian music – it really has to cut through. P’s production style was so different, it’s sharp to the ears.”

In 1996, Rai travelled to Punjab to record his fourth album. “Someone said to me: ‘Why are you sampling these guys from your mum’s record collection when they’re still alive?’” he recalls. A friend helped track his heroes down and rented a studio in the bustling city of Ludhiana. Rai forgot his metronome, so he recorded a dripping tap on his dictaphone to keep his collaborators in time.

By now, the Asian underground scene was establishing itself with artists such as Talvin Singh, State of Bengal and Asian Dub Foundation combining the myriad sounds of south Asia with UK electronica and drum’n’bass – a strong foundation for Panjabi MC’s 1998 masterwork, Legalised.

It opened with Mundian To Bach Ke. Rai had sampled the theme tune from the 1980s television show Knight Rider; its tumbi riff was played by KS Bhamrah from 80s band Apna Sangeet; the vocals were by Labh Janjua, a folk singer whom Rai first collaborated with on his trip to Ludhiana.

DJ and broadcaster Bobby Friction remembers buying Legalised on CD in Southall, and the euphoria of playing Mundian To Bach Ke. “I was playing all this underground stuff, but I could drop that in the middle of a set and give a nod to my roots – it was me going: this one’s for the Punjabis!” In 2002, Friction began co-hosting a show that platformed South Asian music on BBC Radio 1 with Nihal Arthanayake. After years of circulation on dancefloors across the UK, the efforts of Rai’s label head Ninder Johal combined with support from other specialist DJs such as Trevor Nelson and Tim Westwood and the fact that “every radio plugger who entered the BBC building was talking about it,” according to Friction, Bach Ke was added to the national channel’s heavily guarded playlist.

Performing in Washington DC in 2011.
Performing in Washington DC in 2011. Photograph: The Washington Post/Getty Images

Rai named his album Legalised to signal that, unlike previous releases, the samples had been cleared. But when Bach Ke started blowing up, he discovered that he didn’t have publishing rights for the Knight Rider theme. Universal Music Group took 90% of the publishing share. “We lost a lot of money,” he concedes.

Nonetheless, it was a triumphant period. In 2003, Panjabi MC appeared on Top of the Pops, was awarded best dance act by MTV Europe, and won a Mobo award. Bach Ke opened the door for British Punjabi music being played not only in the UK, but across the globe, from India to America. DJ Rekha was driving through New York when she heard Bach Ke being played on the revered hip-hop radio station Hot 97. “I had to stop the car. I had a lump in my throat. I just couldn’t believe it,” she says.

While Panjabi MC continued to bridge his sound with other timely genres, as on the UK garage-filled 2001 album Dhol Jageero Da, the early millennium saw a new generation of UK bhangra-inflected artists come to the fore, chart success for British Punjabi R&B singer Jay Sean, and increased funding for BBC Asian Network. US producer Timbaland – who, on a visit to London, stopped by ABC Music in Southall to look for samples – drew from Indian instrumentation to make Missy Elliot’s Get Ur Freak On, while Truth Hurts had a global R&B hit with the Lata Mangeshkar-sampling Addictive.

“Labels suddenly thought that bhangra was the new thing,” Rai says. In his opinion, this led to saturation. At nightclubs, “I’d come on as the headline act after two or three hours’ of other acts, and by that time the crowd didn’t wanna hear more Indian stuff! They’d be like: we’ve had enough of this, mate!” He shakes his head and chuckles. “They overdid it. But people live and learn. Our kids will see where we went wrong, and their kids will see where they went wrong.”

Panjabi MC photographed in Coventry January 2022
Panjabi MC: ‘People live and learn. Our kids will see where we went wrong.’ Photograph: Hark1karan/The Guardian

To this day, Mundian To Bach Ke holds a proud significance for many British Punjabis and south Asians. It is still a favourite across the dancefloors of continental Europe and it recently soundtracked a new commercial for German eye-wear brand, Brille Fielmann. But the song is also uncomfortable for those who saw it appropriated. “When it comes on now, people in the Asian music industry will groan. But that’s not because of the tune. The tune is powerful,” says Friction. “It’s because for years it was played whenever anything Asian came on the television – anytime someone cooked a curry on Come Dine With Me. And that took a lot of the cultural meaning away. It showed south Asians how two-dimensional the rest of society saw us.”

Demand for Panjabi MC’s live shows grew exponentially after Bach Ke. “From 2002 to 2015 it just got hotter and hotter,” he says. The spread of Holi-themed festivals across Europe in the 2010s took him and his song everywhere; “I’d have 25-gig contracts in Russia sorted at the start of the year.”

He has continued to make popular music, not least the global hit Moorni (Balle Balle) from his 2011 album The Raj, but Rai admits he found it hard to keep up with how software development, streaming platforms and social media were restitching the fabric of music. “Now, the race is not only with other producers in England, it’s with producers in India, too. And you can’t compete with India. There is so much music coming from there.”

The country’s modernisation and the ballooning of its middle class means that a UK-based producer no longer has a technological advantage. If anything, the tables have turned. “Bhangra here has always been specialised; in India it’s mainstream. Any kid in the pind [village] can get themselves a USB stick with a million pounds’ worth of software on it for £50.”

‘I spent my time in labs like this’ … Panjabi MC in his studio.
‘I spent my time in labs like this’ … Panjabi MC in his studio. Photograph: Hark1karan,/The Guardian

But Rai stands by the belief that the folk sound he grew up listening to will never be overtaken. “It’s like telling someone to remix Motown – forget it, the originals sound better. The analog sound is the best.”

Panjabi MC’s latest single, Barood, was released on Christmas Eve, with a trademark tumbi melody and fresh trap bassline, and vocals by the London folk singer Raf Saperra, who also directed the music video. “In terms of being the man who has taken Punjabi music global, there are no three, four, five ways about it – it’s Panjabi MC,” says Saperra. “I can’t easily put into words how important his influence has been to me.”

“He put us Cov boys on the map,” says Coventry rap producer Coolie. “If it wasn’t for Panjabi MC, you wouldn’t see someone like me in the UK rap scene, doing what I do.” In February 2021, he co-produced a drill anthem, Kisan, which features popular Birmingham vocalist Jaz Dhami and regional rappers like Jay1 and Temz to raise money and awareness for the farmer protests in India.

The 20-year-old BBC Asian Network DJ Kizzi grew up in a household soundtracked by Panjabi MC. “For both my parents he was like the godfather,” she says, adding that “he’s one of the only artists who has adapted himself to the younger generation.”

“I never thought bhangra music from England was going to be listened to by people who don’t even understand it,” Rai concludes. “When I was watching Blue Peter when I was 16 years old, I thought: one day, I’m gonna be abseiling down mountains, parachuting, watching football in stadiums, behind a speedboat, waterskiing … I ain’t done none of that. I spent my time in labs like this. But now I know my music.”

Our interview finishes and Rai invites me into a room where his friends have gathered on sofas for a drink. He puts on a video of Stevie Wonder performing live and makes everyone stop talking to listen. As I leave, the instrumental for Tupac’s Hail Mary is blasting from a soundsystem. Someone has picked up a tumbi to improvise a corresponding melody, and Panjabi MC has started freestyling again.

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