Innerviews, music without borders

Asian Dub Foundation
Collective musings
by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2006 Anil Prasad. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution, No Derivatives license.

For Asian Dub Foundation, there’s no line separating its music from the messages it seeks to convey. The British act’s unique hybrid of dub bass, electronica, punk guitar and Indian classical elements supports one of the group’s core assertions that states music of different origins—and by extension, people of different races—can live side-by-side in harmony. Asian Dub Foundation [ADF] also offers more fiercely overt political commentary via its typically rap-based lyrics that often deal with combating racism, fascism and globalization.

ADF was initially launched in 1993 via Community Music, a London-based educational organization that focuses on collective music making. The outfit enables people from every socioeconomic and ethnic background to come together, experiment and create music that crisscrosses styles and genres. It was there that bassist and tutor Aniruddha Das, aka Dr. Das; DJ and youth worker John Pandit, aka Pandit G; guitarist Steve Chandra Savale, aka Chandrasonic; and rapper Deeder Zaman first began making music together. DJ Sun-J joined in 1995 to round out ADF’s first line-up.

From the start, ADF represented something unique on the world stage. It successfully challenged long-standing Asian stereotypes and preconceptions, and inspired leagues of Asian youth to confidently foray into the worlds of rap, rock and electronica. In particular, the group’s second release, 1998’s Rafi’s Revenge, made a tremendous international impact. The exhilarating, urgent record was full of anthemic songs, including “Naxalite,” inspired by the late 1960s uprising of landless peasants that occurred in the West Bengal region of India. It also featured “Free Satpal Ram,” a charged look at the plight of an Asian man wrongfully imprisoned in 1986 for defending himself against a racist attack in Birmingham. Ram was finally released in 2002, after a 16-year campaign that ADF’s song helped bring to wider public attention.

The “Free Satpal Ram” movement is just one of many social causes the group has promoted. Perhaps most notably, the group leveraged the impact of Rafi’s Revenge to secure funding from the London Arts Board to branch out and create ADF Education (ADFED). The organization is an extension of the Community Music concept and encourages disadvantaged London-based Asian, Black and other ethnic minority youth to learn the principles of music and music technology in order to spark them towards their own creative pursuits.

ADFED had a significant impact on ADF itself after Zaman departed to devote his energies to civil rights and anti-racism organizations at the end of 2000. MCs Aktarvata and Spex from Invasian, an act that first emerged out of ADFED, were recruited to take over on vocals in 2001. That year also saw ADF incorporate more live percussion with the addition of drummer Rocky Singh and dhol player Pritpal Rajput. The new line-up went on to release 2003’s Enemy of the Enemy. Further personnel changes ensued with MC Lord taking over Aktarvata's role for 2005’s Tank. Both hard-edged records found the group taking a more global approach with its lyrical content, particularly in its searing indictment of American foreign policy during George W. Bush’s presidency. But no matter how far its commentary extends, the group’s roots retain a primary role in informing its worldview, as Dr. Das explains in this conversation.

Tell me about the origins of the Community Music organization and how ADF evolved out of it.

Community Music is a music teaching organization that started in the ‘80s which uses unconventional methods of teaching music. We were working in youth clubs with a broad range of age groups, as well as people with disabilities. Community Music isn’t about necessarily learning a specific instrument like guitar, bass or drums. It’s very much about collective music making based on the ideas of John Stevens, a leading British jazz drummer and improviser who was one of Community Music’s co-founders. The emphasis was on creating music that anyone could participate in. In 1990, I saw an advertisement for one of their courses that taught musicians to become workshop tutors. At the time, I was involved in teaching photography alongside being a musician, so I knew I had an affinity for that sort of work.

While I was teaching at Community Music, I put an ad in a listings magazine that read “Looking for Black or Asian musicians to start experimental dub noise project.” Chandrasonic was the only person to respond. As a result, we started Headspace. It was a sound system using drum machines, samplers, guitar and bass. It formed the template for what would later develop into ADF. It was about us learning to use samplers, sequencers and how to improvise with them and use them in a live situation. Various people came in and out of that. For us, there was no contradiction that we were using guitar, bass, percussion, violins or anything that happened to be there alongside the technology. We never made the distinction between technology and so-called live instrumentation. We always used the principle “If you can hear it, then it is real.”

One of the important aspects of Community Music is it gave people a space to perform in. There was an opportunity for everyone doing their workshops to showcase their work. There was no distinction between the teachers and students. I’d play bass or percussion or do vocals over work the students had done. ADF came out of a specific workshop in which Deeder was a student. So, ADF started as a collaboration between students and teachers. Community Music provided the fledgling ADF with an instant audience. All of the people there were supporting the thing in a conducive, friendly environment that encouraged experimentation. The soundproofing in the building we were in was awful. So, you could hear each other in every room. At any given moment, you could hear jungle being programmed, classical piano being performed, percussion workshops and brass instruments being practiced. It was the sound of many communities together in the same space and we were expressing what was going on around us without being 100 percent conscious of it. That’s why it was normal for ADF to have dub bass, punk guitar and Indian percussion. It was a result of Community Music’s vibe and physical environment.

1995’s Facts and Fictions, the first ADF record, sounds like an audio snapshot of that experience.

That’s true. Musically, Facts and Fictions came out of our experimentation at Community Music and also from listening to a lot of jungle, which was at its peak at that time. I had been introduced to it by my students and it became the musical undertow for the record, along with the heavy dub influence. The very term “jungle” was a reclamation of a racist term. I don’t think people were necessarily intellectualizing it like that. It was just a word that had something to do with techno, but when I was young, jungle was definitely a racist term. It was a term of abuse for black music. People would say “Why are you listening to that fucking jungle music? Turn it off!” When ADF heard the word “junglist,” we thought it was the most militant term we ever heard. It was really natural for the whole of ADF to become junglists and that was the musical spirit underlying the first record.

Lyrically, it was a response to an increase in blatant, daytime racist attacks against people of color. It was also during the time when Britain’s first—and sadly, not last—BNP [British National Party] fascist councillor was elected. It almost literally gave carte blanche to racists to go about their business in broad daylight. People were being attacked and people were fighting back and getting arrested for fighting back. But those who were attacking people of color weren’t necessarily the ones being arrested. All of us at Community Music had been affected by this. It marked a kind of politicization of Community Music in which we all said “We cannot be a neutral musical organization. We have to make some commentary on this.” We wanted to talk about those things in a proactive way by going around to local colleges to mobilize people to action. It was our small part in the whole scheme of things. Many other people were becoming very active too. The other related thing that happened on that record is for the first time, we were being allowed to express what was going on inside our heads as people of color and second generation children of migrants and immigrants. We were able to express ourselves about things we had never been able to talk about in our lives or in the musical situations we had been in before ADF.

Describe the racism ADF encountered when it first hit the scene.

In terms of the white British music industry, there was a general vibe that had to do with the nature of our music and people’s preconceptions of what Asian music was supposed to sound like. In general, people were comfortable with Indian classical music that had sitar and tabla. At that time, people had heard of bhangra, but not many people had listened to it. Industry people thought ADF was supposed to sound like bhangra music, but we didn’t, so they couldn’t deal with us. We were kind of aggressive in the way we brought ourselves about. And when you went to see us, there were five brown-skinned people on stage making noise that they didn’t expect to hear from Asian guys. It even offended some hippies who said “That’s not Indian music! Where are the sitars and tablas?” [laughs] People were also offended by what we were talking about. They said “You shouldn’t be using music as a platform for your opinions.” There was also the element of “Well, we’ve got Fun-Da-Mental, so we don’t need another Asian band.” One quote we heard from someone ignorant of our music was “ADF is obviously bhangra and we don’t sell bhangra because white people won’t buy it.” It was also difficult to get our gigs reviewed. So, those were the sorts of things we had to struggle with. Our profile took a turn for the better when we started to get gigs on the continent, particularly in France and Belgium, and found that none of those attitudes existed. In those places, we were regarded as being a British band, not a brown-skinned band.

The full-frontal approach of Rafi’s Revenge served as a high-profile reaction to those British attitudes.

Yeah, the word “revenge” represented how we felt as a whole. We were livid and angry with Britain and the British press and it’s represented in the sonics on that album and how we played live. Our performances during that time really helped develop our reputation as a live band. Audiences on the continent weren’t as static as those in Britain. They really moved to the music and really loved music in general. We had to give the energy back and it affected us all in a positive way. That vibe is also represented on the album. Also, on Facts and Fictions, I wrote the majority of the lyrics. I was expressing what had been bottled up for 20 years inside me. I’m not a natural lyric writer. I was just saying things I needed to say and they also related to the whole band and many other people. Rafi’s Revenge represented us kind of moving on. For instance, “Naxalite” was something we knew about, but it wasn’t something that we were necessarily that well informed about. So, we engaged in some research to flesh things out, as opposed our music just being us blurting out a gut reaction to things around us. With that album, we also made a conscious effort to not swear in our lyrics because we realized we didn’t need to and it prevents your stuff from getting played in places you want to be played. Rafi’s Revenge also continued some of our self-help philosophies in songs like “Buzzing” that were about getting on with things and working as an independent entity to solve your problems and make things happen.

How do you look back at “Free Satpal Ram” and the impact it had both as an anthem and as something that contributed to his ultimate release?

It was an important song for us to do in every sense. It was a campaign that was going on and something we could relate to. It was about fighting back against perpetrators and getting penalized for doing that. It outraged us. We could feel that rage and wanted to express it, as well as try to do something practical in a musical sense about this person’s situation. Unfortunately, a lot of people thought we were the campaign itself and we had to say “No, we’re just advertising his situation” and occasionally we’d manage to raise money for the campaign as well. We were doing it for Satpal and also to show people that this is something you can do. This is how you can be engaged and have an impact.

What we do has a value as an alternative news broadcast. The greatest power of the media is to not write about something or report on something that’s going on. The media’s second greatest power is to write about things that are totally irrelevant to people and use that as a smoke screen to cover up something important happening. So, when you’re faced with that, most people give up. What we’re saying is “You’ve still got to try and do something and get the information out.” Some people do that full-time and that’s what campaigns are all about. But we weren’t campaigners. We weren’t the people writing stuff and then standing outside in the rain handing out leaflets. We had the luxury of putting it on a CD and playing it at a gig. We just wanted to ask people to make use of any opportunities they have to play a part and it turned out to be effective to a degree and helped with the campaign despite a lot of cynicism, much of which came from the media. The media held a certain kind of resentment that went “How dare you try to engage in any kind of debate? That’s our job.” Yet, those are the same people who are obsessed with us being a so-called political band.

“Free Satpal Ram” happened before the Internet and indie media kicked in, in which anyone can become a journalist and spread information. It’s funny, some people say “How can you vouch for the validity of these alternate news sources?” Well, the same arguments apply to the so-called mainstream media. Why do we trust what they write about? Why don’t we question what they write and do not write about? I think those issues remain as important as the actual “Free Satpal Ram” campaign itself.

During the Rafi’s Revenge period, the group set up a new youth organization called ADF Education (ADFED). Tell me about its goals and principles.

ADFED’s goals are to promote and teach music, music technology and other methods of creating music similar to what we do in ADF. ADFED is generally targeting Asian youth, but not exclusively. It came about at the time because both Chandrasonic and I had been tutors at Community Music and Pandit G had been a youth worker. We really wanted to continue to encourage innovation, expression and discussion amongst youth. The reality of it was we had to find funds, redirect funds to buy equipment, set up initial workshops and get a project manager and tutor in place. It eventually became an independent organization, though we remain on the board. The organization continues in London’s East End and is encouraging people to express their experiences through innovative music making. Music isn’t necessarily the end in itself though. It’s designed to give youth an outlet, including teenagers facing various issues and risks in their lives. Hopefully it helps make music integral to their expression and an important part of their lives.

What do you make of the music industry’s general lack of interest in giving back to communities in a similar manner?

It’s the way it’s always been. When you talk about the term “music business,” the emphasis is very much on business these days. But then you go back to the Motown era and you’ll find the idea was there just as much, even though the outcome was markedly much better than music that is around today. At some point in the last 30 years, the notion of developing artists seems to have gradually gone out the window. Now, it’s about instant returns. And we’re not just talking about profits anymore, but super-profits. Corporations are even willing to engage in mass killing to make these super-heavy profits happen. As far as music goes, it’s about quick turnover. It’s about the next big thing and that thing changes on a monthly basis. Someone comes up with a totally fantastic idea which is totally rejected, but then they somehow have a hit against the odds. Then all of a sudden, the record companies are after anyone capable of making that kind of sound in order to get a hit. That held for bhangra too. After Panjabi MC had a hit, everyone turned around to us and said “Why don’t you do bhangra too?” These were the same people who said “We’re not going to sell bhangra in the shops because it’s not bought by white people.” So, that encapsulates my cynical attitude about the cynical attitudes of the record business.

What were the circumstances surrounding Deeder Zaman’s departure from ADF?

Deeder had been in the band as a student since the age of 14. He was growing as a musician and as a person. As a teenager, he was going through the same things all teenagers go through. We were kind of his proxy parents in one respect given that the rest of us were a good 20 years older than him. So, it was hard for him and all of us to be touring all the time and away from our families and friends. But it was affecting him quite a bit more. When he left, he had spent seven years—a full third of his life—growing up in this band situation. Also, he didn’t like the media touting him as the lead vocalist of the band. They refused to understand that ADF is a collective and not about a singer-songwriter who runs the group. For instance, the only NME cover we got simply had a picture of Deeder on it. That really affected him badly. On a day-to-day basis, Deeder also intensely hated the music business. So, all of that led to Deeder wanting to leave and get involved first-hand in some of the things we had always talked about, like working with campaigns against racism and fascism—things the rest of us had a chance to do when we were younger. We had a lot of annoying people act as if we had kicked Deeder out, which we hadn’t. But the most annoying thing was the typical rock press attitude that assumed Deeder had written all the lyrics, when in fact he hadn’t.

We just got on with it after Deeder left. We thought there was no point in having somebody there that didn’t want to be there. It was kind of a relief. We had already been working with two other vocalists, Spex and Aktarvata, who subsequently joined the band. We spent some time coaching them in the music we had previously written and started writing new stuff when them in mind. We took the new band to Brazil which was probably the best trip we ever had. It had a great impact on the new line-up. It was the first time Brazil saw the group, so they didn’t have the issues of “Oh, it doesn’t sound like it used to.” Brazil proved to be a fantastic environment where music and art are treated very differently than they are in Britain. In Brazil, music and art are considered as important as other stuff that’s supposed to directly contribute to the economy. Over there, people just get on with art and music despite their lack of resources. It was a great launching pad for ADF Mark II.

For 2003’s Enemy of the Enemy, ADF chose to incorporate a drummer and dhol player after previously relying on loops and sequencers for percussion. Tell me about the shift in philosophy.

For years, people hassled us and said “Why haven’t you got a drummer?” We’d say “Because we’re not a rock band. We developed out of a sound system.” So, we were never looking for a drummer. It just happened that we met Rocky Singh in Canada and it turned out that he was good at playing in time with sequencers. Personally, I always wanted to have a live percussionist instead of just using samples. Adding Rocky on drums and Pritpal Rajput on dhol for Enemy of the Enemy represented a chance to have some different textures in the band. Also, if you look back to Facts and Fictions, songs like “Rebel Warrior” were six minutes long. And during our sound system days, pieces were anywhere from eight to 20 minutes long. By the time we got to Enemy of the Enemy, we were doing songs like “Blowback” that were just under three minutes. So, we thought having Rocky and Cyber in the group would enable us to improvise more within these tight structures. We also wanted some fresh blood to rejuvenate the sound and inject new life into some of the songs we had been playing for five or six years.

ADF has always been a loop-based band. Loops and the nature of loops have always been intrinsic to our sound. We’re all completely loopy. [laughs] Loops are the sound of our time. It’s what characterizes all of the music we’ve listened to during the last 10 years. For Enemy of the Enemy, we started to treat our own playing, whether it was guitar, drums or percussion, as loops within Pro Tools. So, we went beyond the breaks, percussion and noises we traditionally programmed. We treated the whole lot as loops and had the entire band go into the digital domain. The other important element is that Adrian Sherwood also came on board as executive producer for the record. He made suggestions about mixing and remixing, as well as other musicians we might want to consider having involved. So, for the first time, other people were involved. Previously, we had never let these decisions go beyond the band. All of these things led to the ultimate sound of the album.

You’ve said you incorporate Indian classical music principles into your bass playing. How do you go about doing that?

My aunt taught me Indian harmonium and scales for several years as a youngster. It became part of my experience. Between the ages of 12 and 14, I also studied tabla, so I really learned a lot about Indian rhythmic cycles. Later, I applied the tabla principles to conga and percussion with some bands, but my love was always bass from having heard reggae, and in particular dub. I realized dub has some connections to Indian classical music in terms of its cyclical nature and the emphasis of music being in one mode, rather than the emphasis being on chords. When I realized that what dub bass was doing was basically playing a cyclical melody as opposed to simply underpinning chords played on a guitar or keyboard, I thought “Wow, this is a wicked instrument.” Dub is very subversive because it inverts Western music in that the hook line—the melody line—is played by the bass. The thing people remember when they go home from a gig or when they’re listening to the music is the bass line. So, I was really interested in this idea. When I listened to my dad’s Indian classical music, I wouldn’t be listening to the soloist, rather I’d be listening to the tanpura, the harmonium, the sarangi or the violin—whichever instrument had the role of stating the cyclical melody. So, what I’m doing is transposing that onto a bass guitar and playing with a dub bass sound. So, if you listen to what I play, the first thing you might think is “Oh, he’s playing dub” and dismiss it at that. But if you listen deeper to the runs I do, you’ll see that it’s influenced by Indian scales. So, that’s why I say electric bass is my favorite Indian musical instrument.

What’s your perspective on the politics inherent in dub?

The origins of dub are in Jamaica, a country the Americans and the CIA were attempting to destabilize. The way that was affecting the music business and vibe of Jamaica is related to the emergence of this dark, core music. Dub initially came out of commercial concerns about how to fill b-sides, but it then became one of the dreadest sounds of all time. Sonically, it’s the sound of people trying to bring down Babylon. Militancy is totally borne into the music. It also deals with the politics of music, in which bass players in rock and pop are third class citizens. They’re nothing. They are considered unmusical or non-musicians. There’s real musical snobbery at work and you can link this to how people relate to others in society and how some people are considered important while others are not.

To me, politics are intertwined into the very fabric of music in general. You can’t separate them and point at someone and say “this is a political band because their lyrics are political.” To do that is an insult to people like Archie Schepp, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Everyone is making commentaries with their music. ADF want to be known for making commentaries with the sound of our music just as much as we’re known for what we’re saying. The music itself says we’re hopeful, but we’re also livid and we’re going to fucking do something about the way things are. That’s the meaning I’ve implied with the bass lines I play. Every single bass line I play reflects the meaning of the song. The other big message in the music is that all of the sounds we use in the music exist quite happily together. So why do people insist on calling it a fusion? It’s not a fusion. Our sound reflects all of the music we listen to and all of the communities that live together at the same time. Our music reflects the street and town I live in. It’s not wrong for black, white and Asian people to live side by side. By the same token, it’s not outrageous for these sounds to live in the same piece of music, in the same bar and in different layers. In fact, it’s perfectly normal if you can accept it in your heart that this is a completely natural situation.