The birth of Asian underground: ‘This music was for us and by us, and that was very powerful’

Twenty years ago a new movement blending eastern sounds with electro and drum’n’bass arrived to give a generation of young British Asians a vibrant new voice. Why did it fade away so quickly?

When most Brits think of Asian music – if they do at all – they might conjure a twanging sitar and the high-pitched vocals of a Bollywood dance sequence blaring in an Indian restaurant, or the meditative chimes and chanting of a yoga session. In reality, of course, Asian music is a vast and diverse series of musical disciplines, and one that had been reduced, in the UK, to the reserve of anoraks and first-generation immigrants. But in the 90s, a scene came along to change all of that.

Twenty years ago, the Asian underground was born. A product of the first wave of Asian immigration into the UK in the early 60s and their children growing up in a newly diversifying society – one imbued with the racism of the National Front, as well as with a burgeoning multiculturalism from the Caribbean and west Africa – the music these first-generation British Asians made was full of internal tension. It was a mix of Indian classical instrumentals, Bollywood singing, jazz and the 90s club sounds of dub, drum’n’bass and jungle.

British Asian music since may be best remembered for its most commercial moments – Panjabi MC’s 2002 hit Mundian to Bach Ke, R&B poster-boy Jay Sean, and Cornershop’s No 1 Brimful of Asha, a reference to Bollywood singer Asha Bhosle. But the Asian underground encompassed a breadth of music on the fringes, as well as in the charts: there was the head-scratching mix of ragga, synths and Indian classical in the Asian Dub Foundation; the sitar-electronica of Black Star Liner; producer Bally Sagoo’s Bollywood remixes; and the time-stretched drum’n’bass of Tabla Beat Science. It was Talvin Singh and Nitin Sawhney, though, who were its most critically acclaimed and experimental artists.

Both producers released their seminal albums in 1999: Sawhney’s fourth record, Beyond Skin, and Singh’s debut OK. OK won the Mercury prize in 1999 and Beyond Skin was nominated the following year. The records are very different; Sawhney’s incorporates vocal samples on his family’s migratory experience as well as jazz, Indian classical instrumentation and hip-hop, while Singh’s focuses on the dancefloor, stretching frenetic drum patterns over sub-bass and sitar.

Both have gone on to longstanding careers as composers, yet the Asian underground movement quickly faded. “I always disliked the term Asian underground,” Sawhney says. “The whole idea of the movement was that cultural change could occur and that Asians would feel they have a relevance and identity within the wider culture – that’s what was exciting. Not this idea that we were underground, but that we were part of music.”

Shabs Jobanputra, founder of the Outcaste record label that released Sawhney’s Beyond Skin, was one of the few record label executives championing this nascent scene in the early 1990s. “Outcaste started in 1994 because I wanted to see if I could form a movement to express my culture,” he says of its beginnings as a club night in west London. “Initially, it was hard to get people down to the club because it was something so different but by 1997, when we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Indian independence, 800 people turned up to our 200-capacity venue. We’d never seen anything like it.”

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