Asian Underground

The umbrella term “Asian Underground” applies to a wide variety of pop music artists and subgenres that emerged primarily in England in the 1990s, and that continue to exert an influence on Western popular music well into the 21st century. All of its manifestations involve pop, folk, and classical musical elements from the Indian subcontinent fusing with British, European, and American popular music styles – including hip hop, jungle, techno, synthpop, rock, and R&B – a natural outcome of Britain’s colonial history and of the South Asian diaspora that resulted from India’s partition in 1947. 

Anokha (Soundz of the Asian Underground), a compilation curated by DJ and tabla player Talvin Singh, is widely credited with giving the movement its name. But that album was released in 1997, at which point things had been simmering for quite some time. In the early 1990s, the British-born Indian dancehall DJ Steven Kapur, recording under the name Apache Indian, had released multiple singles that drew deeply on his Subcontinental musical heritage, including the songs “Chok There,” “Don Raja,” and “Boom-Shak-a-Lak” – the latter a major hit. The London-based Asian Dub Foundation had released their groundbreaking debut album Facts and Fictions in 1995, and for several years electronic dance artists had been creating funky remixes of qawwali recordings by the legendary Pakistani singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Khan’s collaborations with experimental guitarist Michael Brook, with Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder and with alt-pop darlings Peter Gabriel and Alanis Morissette, would bring him further global exposure later in the decade and into the 2000s (well after his untimely death in 1997 at age 48). Bhangra, a fusion of Punjabi folk music and Western electronic dance music, had been developing for even longer, beginning to take on its modern characteristics in the 1980s – and it attracted new fans as the Asian Underground movement gained momentum in the subsequent decade.

In the late 1990s, the Asian Underground grew in diversity and global recognition. Bands like Cornershop infused indie pop sounds with Indian instrumentation – and, occasionally (as on their hit song “Brimful of Asha”) explicit lyrical references to Indian pop culture – while the producer Bally Sagoo achieved success remixing Bollywood film songs and contributing to the soundtracks for such movies as Bend It Like Beckham and Mistress of Spices.

As a distinctive musical movement, the Asian Underground eventually faded, but its influence continues to be felt in Western popular music, particularly in hip hop and R&B – listen closely to tracks by the likes of M.I.A., Jay-Z, and Missy Elliott and you’ll often hear tablas, dhols, sitars, and other instruments that may never have come to the attention of those artists and their producers without the groundbreaking work of so many Asian Underground artists decades before.

Realize cover

One of the most important figures of the Asian Underground movement is the multi-instrumentalist Karsh Kale, who is heard most often accompanying others (among them Anoushka Shankar, Sting, U2, and Norah Jones) but who as a solo artist or co-leader has made some of the most powerful and enduring albums in that style. Realize is perhaps his finest moment as a solo artist, a wildly varied and complex exploration of rhythm and texture that draws on an entire world of musical elements.

MIDIval PunditZ cover

The eponymous debut album from MIDIval PundtZ (Gaurav Raina and Tapan Raj) finds the duo staking out a unique place in the Asian Underground movement. Their sound is something of a contradiction: very tight and clean, but at the same time cinematic and rich. Like others associated with the Asian Underground, they draw deeply on the double-speed breakbeats of jungle and drum and bass, interweaving the beats with samples of traditional Indian instruments and vocalists, but the hard edge and digital clarity of their sound creates an instantly recognizable vibe.

Signs cover

DJ Mohammed Akber Ali and tabla player Shrikanth Sriram only made two albums together, but both are important examples of how exciting the intercultural fusions of the Asian Underground movement could be. Opening with the title track (a reappropriation of a classic reggae tune), their second album then explores jungle, hip hop, and chillout grooves in a way that could leave you thinking that the Brits had never left India and instead had stayed and achieved a complete musical integration with their former colonial subjects.

Rafi's Revenge cover

In the early 1990s, Asian Dub Foundation burst onto what was then called the Asian Underground scene with an incredibly exciting sound, one that blended punk, jungle, dub, bhangra, hip hop, and reggae. The resulting sound was actually more of an emulsion than a fusion: the different stylistic elements rubbed and jostled against each other, creating musical and cultural tension that exploded in some of the most memorable sounds to come out of London in that decade. Rafi’s Revenge is the band’s masterpiece: there’s not a single weak track on this album, though “Buzzing,” “Free Stapal Ram,” and “Culture Move” are all particularly powerful.

Mustt Mustt cover

The great qawwali singer Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan was a bit of an unlikely figure in the Asian Underground movement, and might not even have considered himself a part of it at all. But on this album, which was produced by the experimental guitarist Michael Brook (and released on Peter Gabriel’s Real World label), he illustrates the promise of Asian-British musical fusion beautifully, his nimble voice blending seamlessly with the East-West accompaniment created by his own band and multiple guests. And there’s a Massive Attack remix of the title track!

Visual Audio cover

He only lived to be 50 years old, but during his all-too-brief career Saifullah Zaman was a pillar of the emerging Asian Underground movement in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the name State of Bengal, he organized music clinics for kids and eventually became a successful producer and DJ. His work as a solo musician — particularly on Visual Audio, his debut album — combined jungle, hip hop and Bollywood film music in a manner that paved the way for a generation of his colleagues.

O.K. cover

A year after curating the magisterial Anokha: Soundz of the Asian Underground compilation, composer and tabla player Talvin Singh released his own take on the still-developing Asian Underground sound. OK finds him exploring in a variety of musical directions: “Traveller” is beat-free and almost ambient, with a bamboo bansuri occupying center stage; then “Butterfly” takes us in an upbeat, jungly direction. “Decca” is nearly industrial in mood, while the title track pulls in Japanese synth-pop maestro Ryuichi Sakamoto and incorporates unison choral vocals as well. Brilliant and stylistically unprecedented.

Bombay Dub Orchestra cover

Although neither member of Bombay Dub Orchestra is of Asian descent — Garry Hughes and Andrew T. Mackay are both British — it’s hard to imagine that the music they have made under that name could have emerged outside the context of the Asian Underground movement. It’s explicitly cinematic in style, drawing simultaneously on Bollywood tropes and on chillout club sounds. Their self-titled debut album remains the best distillation of their musical vision; the music is often relaxing but also complex and very carefully constructed.

Facts And Fictions cover

The debut album from Asian Dub Foundation heralded an entirely new sound in what was soon to be known as the Asian Underground. Wielding spoken-word samples, snippets of bhangra and classical Indian music, hip hop and jungle beats, and heavy metal guitars — and fronted by a teenage rapper with an uncompromising political stance — Asian Dub Foundation blew in like a typhoon. Their sound would deepen and thicken by the time their next album was released, but Facts & Fictions laid out the foundation of that sound pretty comprehensively.

Panjabi MC: The Album cover

The Anglo-Indian rapper Panjabi MC had a massive international hit with the song “Mundian to Bach Ke,” making him perhaps the most generally recognizable voice in the Punjabi folk-pop fusion bhangra style. This album leads with that track, drawing the listener in with the familiar before heading down more explicitly hip-hoppy and dhol-driven, cinematic paths. Guest singers are everywhere, notably on the gorgeous “Ghalla Gurian”; every track unpeels a different layer of Panjabi MC’s complex musical vision.

Anokha (Soundz Of The Asian Underground) cover

Although the movement had been developing for almost ten years in 1997, this compilation by tabla player, composer, and club owner Talvin Singh is credited with giving it the name the Asian Underground. On this album we find artists like State of Bengal, Kingsuk Biswas, and film composer A.R. Rahman blending traditional and classical sounds from the Indian Subcontinent with Western electronic dance music — especially jungle and drum and bass. Such fusions have come commonplace today, but when this album was released the sound was new and electrifying, and it still holds up very well 25 years later.