Punjabi MC gives Bhangra a much needed jolt
By Jatender S. Heer
Future sounds of tomorrow are being crafted with guile and street aristocracy deep in a subversive and self-crafted recording studio in Coventry, England. Sounds taking the traditional folk of raw classic Bhangra (the traditional music of the state of Punjab, North India) through the maze of symphony’s mediums that confuse the music charts, with an end product which is already being tagged as a revolution in music production. Panjabi MC (PMC) is the man in question who has single-handedly brought the ideas of the second generation Indian from the drawing board, through the sampler, to the eclecticity of music displacement we have now.
Influenced by the ‘Godfather’ James Brown, Bob Marley and by his father’s traditional Bhangra folk record collection, PMC invested fees earmarked for his college and university education on a S1000 Akai sampler. Drawing not only on Bhangra and its traditional values, but deploying more traditional elements of Soul, R ‘n’ B, Hip Hop, Jungle and House and embellishing the sound with the odd flourish of classic movie sound clips and whatever else he felt like feeding into his samplers. Panjabi MC makes accessible dance music that sounds as good in the comfort of your living room as it does in a sweaty club or though the bass bins of the passing sound system.
Legalised, the fifth album installment from PMC aims to pull off a difficult trick: staying true to the Bhangra/Remix scene while pulling in the mainstream and world music audience that only a select number of Indian artists have ever attracted. Those new to the name and the music are the audience that need to sample and taste PMC’s insidious blend of ersatz delights. Ask the thousands of people who bought the debut album, Souled Out an 96’s Grass Roots. Or the masses who have recently acquired the singles Jatt Ho Giya Sharabee and Mirza Part Two, which gave yet-another lease of life to the vocals to two of Punjab’s premier vocalists Kuldip Manak and Surinder Shinda.
PMC is among the most articulate advocates of the electronic-based techniques of modern music-making. "Without doubt, the sampler is the most important advance since the guitar," he says. "I can play the keyboards and read a little music but the sampler is the foundation that my music is based on. The reason why there are so many people involved in the production side of Bhangra is because people are no longer in awe of the technology, it has become secondary to the creative process. It’s just a tool that you switch on…just like a PC." He has proved his point. At the UK’s prestigious Asian Music and Media Awards held in June 1998, he scooped two awards — Best Producer 97/98 and Best Remixer 97/98 beating off tough competition. "People have to be re-educated because some of them think that anything that comes out of a machine can’t have soul ... but using a sampler, you can bang it in and it all overlays, put it in and put it in time and it sounds phenomenal. The possibilities are endless and it is down to music re-education but not everyone sees it that way."
While still at college, he was sponsored to teach Rap to eager students — an unprecedented accolade for a British born Asian. As his engineering and production skills developed by experimentation and self-teaching, his love affair with Bhangra spilled over to fusing the traditional sound with his own eclectic tastes. The whole recording process takes place in the PMC Labs, the studios he has built at home. "Your bedroom becomes a place of ultimate creativity. You can take a bit of anything and make it sound brilliant. You can make hit records for next to nothing … it has changed the face of modern music."
With demo tape in hand, and a series of DJ appearances behind him, Panjabi MC went knocking at record company’s doors, but without any instant success. He faced numerous rejections or was offered superficial recording contracts. Undeterred, his music was picking up extensive airplay on pirate radio stations and his DJ-ing and rapping skills were attracting a strong following.
In 1992, he had his first break and signed to a small independent label after a performance at a Coventry nightclub where unlike other DJ’s, his rapping techniques carried the show. His debut album, Roots, caused an uproar when it was condemned for its blasphemous lyrics by Muslims. Undeterred by the threats and negative feedback from some sectors of the community, Panjabi MC was approached by Birmingham based label Nachural Records who promptly signed him up. The partnership agreed upon one clear objective: Find a hit. His first venture was the acclaimed ‘breakthrough’ remix project Souled Out which he simply describes as "emerging and fusing music…it’s not a straight ‘desi’ thing…it’s a mix of cultures." It won over a legion of fans and caused a sensation in Bhangra charts. He cities himself as evidence of a new democracy. "My first album was very basic in terms of what the sound and style was but it was something totally unique to what the rest of the market had to offer at the time. It went on to become one of the biggest selling remix albums ever. That’s no boast, it’s a fact. It all happened so fast that I was still studying at university for my degree in Business and Marketing."
From the debut release to Another Sell Out (which picked up national airplay on BBC Radio 1) and 100% Proof, PMC was able to express his musical mind expansively. The platform allowed him to interpretative his artistic flair and satisfy his own musical desires. Jogi from 100% Proof was remixed live at Tokyo’s Jungle Bass club on his promotional tour as a result of his newly found confidence. Classic traditional folk Bhangra from legendary artists such as Kuldip Manak and Mhmd. Siddique were introduced to fulfilling beats and basslines and became the hypnotic soundtrack that brought the younger generation back into Bhangra’s warm embrace. Western music sources reacted to his music as JVC followed up his success by signing him to an exclusive licensing contract in the Far East [releasing a PMC album called Bhangradelic for the Far East only], which was unheard of for an Indian artist. Compilation albums also started to herald PMC’s rise as they hosted his tracks on various ‘World Music’ albums world-wide. Jogi was featured on the Acid Jazz compilation Swaraj late in 1997 and has seen Panjabi MC stature rise. His appearances on world music bills have doubled and forthcoming U.S. tours in 1998 are to further enhance his world music credentials.
1996 was the renaissance that traditional Bhangra had waited for. Panjabi MC headed back to his music heritage in India with his DAT machine in-hand and recorded the father-figures of Punjabi music in a way never before witnessed. Back home in England, he laced the vocals of Kuldip "he is what James Brown is to soul - he’s the Godfather of Bhangra…" Manak and Surinder Shinda with street beats and melodies totally new to their style of vocals. The results on the album Grass Roots were unbelievable ! The album cemented itself at the number one chart position all over the country and the success spilled overseas were hordes of fans signed up to PMC’s fan club to show their appreciation. Grass Roots has since sold an unprecedented 100,000 plus copies which had previously been a visionary sales target in the Bhangra music business. For music fans, Grass Roots was a new musical journey. Exploring the true essence of traditional folk music via the vocals of Manak, Shinda, Labh Janjhua and Ranjit Mani, PMC’s mind has united them, for the first time, with the basic fundamentals of UK street sounds — garage, jungle, R ‘n’ B, hip-hop and soul. In 1997, PMC was presented with a platinum disc by Kuldip Manak in London in recognition of the sales and success of the album.
Jatt Ho Giya Sharabee and Mirza - Part Two were the two EP’s released in 1997 from the forthcoming album Legalised. "My fan base were begging me to put out some new material so I obliged with these tracks. It would have been easy for me to just churn out another Grass Roots style album but I’ve progressed musically and I’ll leave the that music style to the wannabe DJ’s out there. Now it’s just a matter of time till Legalised blows up." Mirza - Part Two, the hypnotic sound that captured a radio airplay frenzy, is based around the aggressive R & B/Hip Hop groove that effectively fused a funky beat with the classic sound of raw, undiluted Bhangra seeping through. The EP went to number one and enchanted a whole new breed of listeners.
In the last year Panjabi MC has played as a live act in Europe and the USA. "In the States, I have played primarily as a DJ in LA, San Francisco, Washington DC and Chicago but in June this year I did my first stage show in New York where I previewed some new tracks. I took along DJ Chani from P.J.D and vocalist, Kebi (I’ve worked with him on Mirza and he has great potential…he introduced a whole new visual and audio element to my stage set), and we played at a club which is predominately a World Music club in the heart of downtown New York. My PR manager suggested that it would be valuable exposure but initially I didn’t think I had the live set to pull it off, but at the end of the day we just blew the whole place up…it was an amazing response…totally unique. We managed to get a lot of press from the mainstream media," he explains. "Sangam Entertainment Group who invited me over to New York did a very thorough media drive…we managed to attract a crowd that was largely Indian but at the same time the number of non-Asians there was also hard to believe…they were lapping up the traditional tunes!"
He states that playing as a live act on stage is a whole new experience with a totally different energy to that of working behind a turntable or in a studio. "My live stage show is being defined and it will be expanding before the next gigs. It isn’t just a case of me standing there behind a turntable…I can through down some live free-style raps…it’s a new style of group." Although, South Asian music in the United States centers around the Hindi remix scene, Bhangra continues to enjoy a productive labor-of-love without ever fading from the musical overtures Bollywood keeps throwing up.
Already, tracks for the next album Steel Bangle, which is scheduled for a 1999 release have been drafted. "Legalised has given me so many new ideas. This album is more on the lines of 100% Proof whereas Steel Bangle will be new vocals and more hip-hop style beats…so many ideas have come about during this project so Steel Bangle has already become a working-model rather than just an idea in my head." PMC prides himself on being more listener-friendly than a lot of other producers and remixers. "This music (Bhangra made outside of India) has wasted so many opportunities. It has always had great lyrics but is often held back by the musical content. Even though I’m using modern technology I’m employing traditional ways of moving people - like songs and chord structures - and a lot of it is built around what the people on the street, the people buying the music, are saying."
As Panjabi MC prepares for the imminent release of Legalised, which features the classic sound’s of Gurdas Maan’s Challa, a new track by Labh Janjhua featuring a "I’ve-heard-that-before-hook," the revitalized sound of the late Lalchand Yamla Jat and others, the sheer success of his past releases means that he is big business and that the pressure is on for Legalised to continue that trend. The instrumentation and loops are tight and add to his laid back grooves which are static and blunting at the same time. PMC’s phrasing and somewhat creamy vocals lace some tracks with poetic ease keeping the music flowing as his rhymes are recited over the stunning phat beats mirrored against the irritatingly infectious hooks. "Making my debut album was relaxing and more of a hobby," he says ruefully, but accepts that such indulgence is a thing of the past. "It’s a different ethos…a different vibe this time round, but it’s my job to keep the business side locked out of the recording process."
It’s anticipated that Panjabi MC’s Legalised will give us and the Bhangra market a severe jolt. The hype and feedback, especially via the Internet, has given the album a huge impetus to succeed without fear. Regardless, his message is clear to those who await it’s release around the world, "I’m still young, ambitious and definitely serious. Legalised is my best release to date…without fail."
PunjabiMC can be reached via the internet at: