by Anil Prasad
Copyright © 2004 Anil Prasad. All rights reserved.
Telling it like it is has never been a problem for Fun-Da-Mental. It’s a refreshing approach in the post-September 11th media chill age that has intelligent people second-guessing and self-censoring themselves at every turn for fear of being a victim of reasoned opinion.
Since 1991, Fun-Da-Mental, helmed by producer/percussionist Aki Nawaz and vocalist/DJ Dave Watts, has pushed the envelope musically and politically. The U.K.-based act helped pioneer the Asian Underground movement and provide that community with a voice to protest injustices against those without one.
The group’s sound is a politics-drenched mix of electronica, Asian instrumentation and global voices, including rappers, Qawwali singers and Zulu choirs. Issues the group explores include the plight of the Palestinians, the current assault against Muslims and other brown-skinned people, and the general squelching of voices of dissent in the face of oppression.
To date, Fun-Da-Mental has released three studio albums, including the hardcore rap-infused 1994 debut Seize The Time, 1998's Erotic Terrorism which sported a punk-meets-funk approach and2001’s world music-oriented There Shall Be Love! Countless 12" singles and remix discs also abound, including 2003’s Voices of Mass Destruction EP that delivered the band's outspoken thoughts on September 11th in no uncertain terms.
The band has a synergistic relationship with Nation Records, the Asian beat culture label co-founded by Nawaz in 1988. In addition to serving as Fun-Da-Mental’s platform, the label has been a breeding ground for some of the most significant Asian acts to emerge in the last 15 years, including Asian Dub Foundation, Talvin Singh, Joi, Charged, Transglobal Underground, T.J. Rehmi and Natacha Atlas. Nation was the first label to sign these influential musicians and propel the Asian electronica movement forward.
Currently, Fun-Da-Mental is working on a DVD that tells its story via its incisive videos and interviews with members past and present. The group is also featured prominently in Mutiny: Asians Storm British Music, an impressive new documentary that looks at the evolution of the Asian Underground scene.
Like its music, an interview with Fun-Da-Mental is an explosive mix of commentary on multiple cultural fronts, as you’ll witness in this conversation with Nawaz and Watts.
There are significant stylistic shifts between each of the studio records. Tell me about the decisions that result in an album’s direction.
Personally, I don’t see that many shifts. If somebody were to say to me years ago that you can do one album and have 100 tracks on it, then I’d probably have done all the tracks then that we’ve done more recently. To a degree, because of our heavy politics, the musical aspect has never been looked at—even for the first album. There’s also a sense of humor in the construction of the tracks which people never look at. For the last album, I wanted to explore the musical side a bit more, but it’s still immersed in politics, albeit in a different language. Compared to the first album, I’m using less samples and working a bit more in the studio. So, you’re getting a far better sound. At the beginning, we didn’t have much knowledge and context for doing that kind of stuff. There was more naïveté in the first lot of albums, which is why you have more energy and angst on them.
The last album also represents stuff we did on Nation with other bands. They were part of the influence and inspiration for what I do. From a Nation perspective, I’m always looking for someone to really excite me musically, not in a commercial sense, but in a purely creative sense. I was looking for artists to do some cutting edge stuff, but I realized I have to do that on the next Fun-Da-Mental record. I have to do what I expect from others in terms of constructing that.
The biggest problem for me personally is that Fun-Da-Mental works at about 70% capacity because I have to juggle it with what I do at Nation Records. I feel each album could be far better if we were 100% focused on Fun-Da-Mental, but that’s the nature of running the record label, doing Fun-Da-Mental live and all the production. It gives you less time to spend on tracks.
The political elements on There Shall Be Love! were less overt to most listeners than the previous albums. Describe the approach you took.
I got bored and cheesed off with people imposing on you that you have to do records in English. So, a lot of the lyrical elements, especially on the African and Qawwali stuff, represent certain political perspectives, namely from them people, whether they are from South Africa, Pakistan or Siberia. Their languages represent their angst with political issues, so we have a lot in common. Only a pocket of world music artists are in the political arena. People invite them into the West and get them to perform and then they pack up their musical instruments and leave the country as quick as they came in.
They are just performers wanted for romantic notions of culture. Few get to know anything about their political perspectives or personal lives. It’s almost as if these people are there to entertain and have no voices. That’s not the case for me because I know all of these people are totally clued into what’s going on politically in the world. When I worked with them, I said “It’s fine to give me beautiful, gorgeous vocals, because that’s one thing I’m after. But I’m also after a real political aspect in what you’re talking about.” They said “It’s not like you’re saying anything new to us because we do that anyway.” I said “But I want you to feel free to do it even more.” If you understood their languages, you’d understand what they’re talking about, otherwise you’d see it as beautiful vocals and harmonies over fat beats. But there is a definite political message there. A lot of traditional music has political messages—not just music from the West. The greatest tradition of folk music is expressing yourself politically about what’s going on around you.
Does Fun-Da-Mental’s particular combination of different cultures represent a political statement in and of itself?
Absolutely. When you make a concerted effort to join different cultures together, it’s blatantly political. It just is. It’s saying “I don’t have this local or national prejudice against other people or cultures.” I’m happy with my culture. I’m strong and identify with my culture, but I have no fear of anybody else’s culture. I always want to learn from their culture and I expect people to learn from mine. It’s quite natural to mix cultures, but it also depends on where you’re aiming that music. If you’re aiming at youth culture, then it becomes even more political, because youth culture, especially here in Britain, is very difficult to penetrate when you talk about cultural statements. Reggae, hip-hop and drum-and-bass are making statements, but it starts from some kind of political platform. This isn’t to say there isn’t room for non-political music. Of course there is. I’ve always found it bizarre when people say “Do politics and music mix?” They’ve always mixed. It’s always been there, whether it’s in Indian music, dance music, folk music, alternative music or rock music. It’s happening around us all the time.
You once said your music serves as your therapy. Elaborate on that.
Therapy refers to a platform. You speak what you believe. Sometimes we’ll go onstage and play and there’s a chance some people will heckle you from the crowd. You say “I’m not interested in listening to you. I know how you think. I know what you’re thinking because I hear your kinds of opinions day in and day out through the media. I know it all. It’s so predictable. I’m saying my thing because this is my station and I’m saying it to you. Now, you listen.”
The Asian Underground scene has become reasonably large in the United States. Nation Records and Fun-Da-Mental played a pioneering role in creating the movement, but they usually go uncredited in the media. That must be highly frustrating.
I don’t think we can be credited with creating global fusion because that was happening in the ‘60s with Allah Rakah and a few jazz players, as well as with several people collaborating with African artists. But without hesitation, I would say Nation Records has been the catalyst when it comes to this kind of music penetrating youth culture, clubs and more left-field places. Without a doubt, we’ve managed to create a scene. I’m totally realistic about what our function has been. When we started, there wasn’t anything like a global or world music circuit. Now there is one and it runs across the world. People hold festivals everywhere. People are collaborating and pushing the boundaries of fusion all over the place. To a large degree, bands on Nation have provided an incentive to do it.
Why do you think Nation has such a low profile given its huge impact?
I think it’s because we’ve been sincere in our creative and political vision. People ask “How many units have you sold?” I go “Fuck, haven’t got a clue.” All I know is the bands are out there playing live and they’ve got a nice little audience. So, somehow, we must have sold something, somewhere. Some of the records have recouped and some have made money. I think Nation has always been about the creative aspects.
People come up to us and say “This scene has taken off now. Why don’t you do this and that?” I say “Look, I’m not interested in jumping back on my own bandwagon. I want to move forward and let other people do those things and add something to it.” It’s important for lots of people with different perspectives to come in and do things. Other people have obviously benefited and that’s fine. We refuse to do those things. It might be bad business, but I enjoy the fact that we refuse to compromise our sound. We’re always looking for a particular edge. If we were to jump back on our own bandwagon and rewind the clock 10 years, we’d be putting out the same records we put out 10 years ago. That idea bores my arse. I don’t want to do it. I want to push forward. That’s the only way I can work.
Tell me about your pre-Fun-Da-Mental musical background.
It was punk. I was totally into punk. It was my whole education. It was my whole theory about music. I was one of those fools that believed punk was actually a real philosophy. [laughs] But I’ve managed to make it my own and create my own philosophy out of it. A lot of people saw punk as fashion and a trend, but I was in the Southern Death Cult, which was the earliest part of what became The Cult. I did all these punk gigs, promoted the gigs and put on bands like Poison Girls and The Exploited. It all forms part of my expression in music and I stand by that. People ask me how old I am and I say “I’ve been 20 for the last 20 years. [laughs] I’m still stuck in that creative mode because I find it really exciting.
Tell me about your transition from a punk drummer to a highly-regarded electronica producer.
I don’t know if you can give me that much credit. [laughs] I think I’m just a conceptualist to be honest. I can visualize music and concept it. To be brutally honest, I’m not actually a very good musician. People go “Aki, you were a great drummer in Southern Death Cult.” The truth is, I didn’t have any clue of what I was doing when I was drumming. I was drumming and didn’t know what I was drumming or where I was going. I was just doing it. I still have that naïve approach when I’m producing. I’m not saying “What’s the latest thing?” I’m thinking “I want to be excited by my own music. If I’m not excited, I don’t want to do it.” I’m very critical of myself.
If I’ve been the backbone of Nation as far as creativity is concerned, I must be doing something right. My ears have picked up on bands like Asian Dub Foundation, Transglobal Underground, Natacha Atlas, Loop Guru and Talvin Singh. I must have some kind of subliminal recognition of something that sounds good, because it’s obviously created a movement. But I’m not a musician. I’ve seen great musicians and gone “Shit, if they knew how crap I was, they’d just start laughing.” I enjoy that though. It’s what keeps it fresh, naïve and innocent. I still get excited by music and rhythm. I love great rhythms. When I hear them and the playing is really good, there’s something inside me that goes “I wish I could play that.” By getting more into computers, I’ve managed to turn what I can’t play physically into something I can play through technology.
What a weird thing. What is music? How it touches you and what it does to you are amazing. Why does a stringed instrument create a certain sound and why is it harmonious to your soul and spirit? I’m as excited about music in the same way as when I was nine years old.
What were you listening to when you were nine?
At that time, I was listening to things like The Osmonds, The Beatles and other popular music. It wasn’t until I was 12 or 13 that I bought into things like Queen and moved on to Led Zeppelin and The Doors. Next, I moved into punk. My musical journey has been brilliant. I even remember the days when I loved John Travolta. [laughs] I also loved the days when I was into the Sex Pistols and Public Enemy. Even now, there’s great music around. You can always spot honest, creative music that has integrity. The fast food music mentality doesn’t excite me.
Given what you were listening to as a kid and your days in the punk scene, what led you back to your own culture?
A rejection of the boring British lifestyle, to be honest. I don’t find it inspiring. People say “You should be British. You’ve been here and you speak English.” Well, people all over the world speak English. That doesn’t make them British. And what is it to be British? Tell me. Even British people can’t tell you what it is to be British. I find it a very insular kind of culture. I don’t find it exciting or in harmony with the human spirit. All cultures have great aspects and very, very negative aspects, but that is what makes a culture. It’s them dilemmas. There’s more to life than just how you wish to live it. It’s also about the bigger picture, the bigger community, the bloodlines and how you interact with different people in different age groups. It keeps your life exciting. Granted, youth culture in the West is absolutely brilliant. The absence of that outside of the West could do with a good looking into, because I think it’s important for young people to enjoy life when they’re young.
You were born in Pakistan and moved to Britain as a child. Why didn’t you return to Pakistan until your mid-20s?
Yeah, I was dragged here when I was three years old and didn’t go back until 20-25 years later because I had swallowed all the poison that had been said about Pakistan. It’s very much like the African-American experience of neglecting anything about your cultural history because society tells you it’s less than what you’ve got where you are. I don’t know if punk is part of the Western lifestyle because it’s very anarchic, free and any rules that are set up are broken. But I see a lot of non-Western societies as being very anarchic and uncontrollable. There’s a lot more freedom in that, if you get involved in the political arena, but that’s where it can also get very dangerous—no matter where you are. That holds true especially outside of the West. In comparison, you are extremely free to get on with life here.
Fun-Da-Mental has a very low profile in America. Is that something you’d like to remedy?
I’ve got no problem with being heard in America. We did bits of work there. We’ve played a few gigs there. Obviously, when you’re involved in music from this part of the world, it’s always “You’ve got to crack America” and all that stuff. I came to the point where I said we can work on it, then I said “I just can’t be asked.” We had six or seven months of touring set up for America and I thought “For what?” I wasn’t interested. It wasn’t important to me.
The reason I ask is because Fun-Da-Mental has made some very strong statements about American domination on multiple fronts. I would think you’d want that message heard in the belly of the beast.
American foreign policy is the biggest monster. If you slice off its head, the rest of the oppression in other places begins to tumble. I am very anti-American foreign policy. I think anyone with a bit of common sense, fairness and justice in them—including people in America—knows that. They know the way the tentacles of American foreign policy work all over the world is absolutely unacceptable. It would be unacceptable to Americans if it was happening to them.
The U.S. recently pledged billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. What do you make of that?
It’s just politics as usual. I go back to Pakistan quite a lot. When I was going back in the times of Benazir and Musharraf, it was a very dangerous atmosphere. Then Musharraf gets in and it actually has become a bit more secure and safe. I know a lot of money has come into the government in Pakistan recently. Instead of normal, corrupt politicians taking the money, the army is taking it. It’s going into the back pockets of the military. I find it a bit weird. When Musharraf came in, America wouldn’t accept him. Now, they accept him and that stinks of similar hypocrisy and double-dealing America has done with other people.
Musharraf might be setting himself up for Pakistan to be the next target. America supported Saddam. America supported Bin Laden. And now, America is supporting Musharraf. It’s politics without any great clarity and full of double-dealing. It’s not going to make the world a safer place. We’re totally entrenched by these political games, by these very intelligent people all over the world—be it in Pakistan, India or America. They say it’s democracy, but it’s very authoritarian and fascist, really. They’re just playing big boys’ games amongst themselves, while the people are generally not interested in politics. You can tell by the amount of people that are voting. People are so disillusioned. These politics will carry on until there is some kind of big resistance for a better world—an uprising or revolution from the streets that tackles the present political school of thought that’s happening across the world.
Initially, I thought September 11th would motivate a lot of Americans to come to grips with the realities of the country’s foreign policy practices. That turned out to be an incorrect assumption.
September 11th, for me, is no worse than what happened before September 11th to other people. American soldiers are going into South America and Africa, wiping out small villages with people who don’t agree with their theories. Them villages mean everything to them people. That’s their livelihood. The Twin Towers, the White House and the Pentagon may mean a lot for them people. Those things are perceived to be more worthy. Well, to me, it’s equal. I don’t agree that because something is considered bigger and better that it’s of more value than some small village that’s being totally slaughtered.
The people of America have to look into what their government gets up to. These things have been happening in different places across the world and them people are no less than we are in the West. I’m no more valuable than some small guy in a village in Pakistan who is bringing up chickens. If I go and kill one of his family and he comes back and kills one of my family, my pain is no greater than his, just because I have a bit more than he’s got. The pain’s equal. I don’t have any room for nonsense about favoring certain powers, countries and people and not other people. I think that’s been one of the greatest tragedies—this brainwashing that’s been going on.
What’s your perspective on pacifist versus violent protest?
I only see violence as a physical self-defense mechanism. That’s it. I hate seeing violence. I’m a passive guy, but I don’t fear anything. Nobody from Fun-Da-Mental is going “Fight with someone.” We’re saying we need to discuss things, debate things, be honest, truthful and equal. But don’t patronize me or have the audacity to say yours is better than mine. My thoughts may be different than yours. You don’t even have to respect or accept me, but don’t have the arrogance to negate everything I say. If you do, fine. Fair enough. I’m not interested. I don’t need your endorsement or your acceptance to live my life equally. The worst thing is that violence is a reality in every society, day in and day out. America has its Hollywood and it shows violence all the time.
Do you feel the average Brit has a better grasp on foreign policy than the average American?
I think it’s very similar to be brutally honest. People in Britain perceive themselves as being more intellectual, more advanced and a bit more open. I think that’s totally untrue. I would say that about most of Europe. It’s arrogance to such a degree. It’s a comedy. It’s not acceptable. Don’t think Americans have a monopoly on arrogance. It’s just as prevalent here as it is over there. If people can do something about their ignorance, they should do it. It’s only going to benefit them.
Some say there are two Fun-Da-Mentals—the band that recorded the early 12” singles and the one that existed from Seize the Time onwards. How do you look back at the 1993 split with Goldfinger and Lallaman, the group’s original rappers?
In all fairness, my biggest fault—and this is me being totally sincere—was that I didn’t do what I should have done, which was offer some accounting of the sales figures. We had so many people looking at Fun-Da-Mental at the time. We were working 24 hours a day, seven days a week to get that result. We were totally immersed in the work, trying to get people to write about us. I should have offered something officially to say “This is how much we’re in debt.” I was creatively involved in doing videos, doing this and that. I made them paranoid and they thought we were earning a lot of money. When we eventually did split up and offered accounts to them and they found out we’d lost so much money, there wasn’t an honorable comeback. They didn’t turn around and say “We thought this was what was going on. Now, we understand and it’s fine.” It’s weird talking about this. It was 10 years ago. But I say “Look, you’ve had every opportunity to do what I’m doing with Fun-Da-Mental. If anything, I’ve helped you create a platform and you should have done it by now. It’s been 10 years and you haven’t done anything. You haven’t even done anything politically.”
They had an equal shot at it. I’m not the singer. The singers are the most important things in bands, to be honest. When The Cult split up, Ian Astbury got the best shot. The singers have the character and personality to carry it off. So, they had the singers and everything. They should have moved on and done something. It’s a shame. I don’t bear any malice other than I wish they would stop talking about this shit 10 years later. I’ve moved on. I got married. I have four kids. Our records don’t compromise. Politically, they stand for themselves. I don’t have to justify anything.
You’ve said you believe Fun-Da-Mental’s music is too radical for India and Pakistan. Why?
I think people in those countries are more attuned to a lot more radical ideas than we give them credit for. If you go back into the history of Bollywood music and different traditional musics, there’s so much experimentation going on. For us, our eclectic-ness is basically because of our Western influence. I’ve been influenced by Motorhead, Metallica, the Sex Pistols, The Clash, Aphex Twin or whatever. It doesn’t sound sweet. It’s too bitty for them. If I wasn’t doing music and heard Fun-Da-Mental, I might say “I’ve already heard this kind of stuff. I’d rather hear the real stuff instead of Fun-Da-Mental doing the fusion.” I understand that.
There is a small contingent of Asian people that come to the gigs who love the madness of it. It’s almost like a more cultured Marilyn Manson or Rage Against the Machine. That’s what Fun-Da-Mental is. Sometimes it’s really weird playing Asian festivals because you’re so conscious of maybe having an auntie or uncle out there watching you and you’ve got weird hair and are going mad onstage. [laughs] People have to understand that the Asian community is very conservative and not very expressive.
The soundtrack for the Bollywood film Pakeezah is your favorite album of all time. What makes it special for you?
You have to listen to it and pull it apart. You have to listen to the emotion of it. Pakeezah is one of the greatest albums I can relate to because its lyrical elements talk socially and politically about society in general and how absurd it is in its judgments—whether you’re talking about the bigger political picture or the smallest house in the village. From skyscrapers to mud huts, it talks about the absurdity of human beings and how we function. Pakeezah is also based around love. Someone’s put a lot of emotion into making it. The musical mathematics of it are mind-blowing. When I listen to the album—and I’ve listened to it so many times—it just blows my head off to think about how it’s been constructed. It makes my hair stand up on end. Like I said, I still get excited about music.
It's rare for a band to be as diverse as Fun-Da-Mental has been across its output. How do you determine the musical direction for each record?
The records represent what’s happening there and then. I think with the first album, we had maybe 30 years to make it and it represented things we had all observed, experienced, heard about and witnessed. A lot of it deals with the darker side of humanity, but within all of that, there is some hope. I don’t think we’d be doing this if there wasn’t any hope. There was so much happening during the first album and a lot of what we were talking about then and on the early Fun-Da-Mental 12” singles still has a lot of relevance now. We were talking about Saddam Hussein and a man named Bush when that stuff was written back in ’91, ’92 and ’93.
Hopefully, you grow and develop as people, musicians, producers and lyricists. You progress and strike up conversations with people and learn about new production methods and new instruments. You also grow older. Aki got married between the first and second albums. On the second album, you’ve got a few bits that were recorded at his wedding. Then we came across Qawwali music and threw that into the mix. We even went to Pakistan and heard some new things. You get struck by hearing sounds and instruments for the first time. They touch you and you want to share them with other people.
Why is there less of a rap element on the albums after Seize the Time?
On one hand, it still carried through, but we work with different rappers. Fun-Da-Mental was originally a concept and then the concept was put into reality. With version one, we were rightly or wrongly perceived as a rap group, but the original idea of Fun-Da-Mental wasn’t to impose any limitations upon the concept. Fun-Da-Mental is still more of a concept than a band. The idea was always to have contributions from lots of different people. When Inder [Goldfinger] and Amir [Lallaman] left, they left on the eve of a U.K. tour, so then Aki and I were faced with a dilemma. What do we do? Aki and I aren’t vocalists as such, so we ended up doing things as an instrumental unit and that gave things a different dimension. It let the music breathe more instead of having tons of lyrics over it. We were able to come across in a different manner. We then brought more vocals back. I personally started doing more vocals too.
Describe your role in Fun-Da-Mental.
I’m Mr. Motivator. [laughs] When it comes to live shows, I do vocals and throw in some samples willy-nilly. Live, there’s a certain energy that’s present and one gets captured by that. In terms of a specific role, I couldn’t really say. I’m just a part of it. I’m a sounding board for ideas Aki has. We throw ideas at each other. There’s also silly things like tour management. We also have the record label. Basically, it’s just Aki and myself.
Why didn’t you contribute to There Shall Be Love?
I was working for Virgin at the time and spent a lot of time juggling a lot of things. I’m free of that burden now. [laughs]
What were you doing for Virgin?
I was working in international marketing and promotions. It was good to see the other side of the biz, but the business kind of changed and I couldn’t deal with it. I wanted to devote my time to what I really believed in and that was Fun-Da-Mental. Around the time I left Virgin, which was around September 11th, I decided I had enough. Virgin wasn’t what it used to be. Virgin is now owned by EMI and EMI had donated one million pounds to the victims of the World Trade Center attacks. I thought “Well, why didn’t anyone donate anything to the victims of everything that happened before September 11th? Why hasn’t EMI donated any money to the Palestinian cause?” They might have, but why didn’t they make those donations public?
I was trying to get a debate going. Fun-Da-Mental is all about encouraging debate. A lot of things start through debate. It’s the only way to make things happen. The IRA had a disagreement with the British government and in the end, they had to have discussions, no matter what the public perception was, no matter what the government said. Remember, the British government said they would never sit down with such people. The reality was, they had to have a discussion to get a sense of peace.
Debate regarding the events of September 11th wasn’t really forthcoming in the environment I was working in. There were intelligent people there, just as there are everywhere. It’s like a microcosm of society, but debate seemed to be stifled. I would have discussions with people and be amazed when I realized people were regurgitating the line they picked up from the six o’clock news. It was a really frustrating environment to be in. Here at Nation, we discuss these things. Nation Records and Fun-Da-Mental don’t fight wars as such, but as individuals, we’re all affected by what’s going on. People need to have some real understanding of events of such magnitude.
Tell me a little about your personal and musical background.
I was born in London and moved to Toronto when I was 12. I lived in Canada for about 15 years and moved back to London in 1988. I’m 42 now. I was never in a band or anything like that. I never played any instruments. I came from a radio background. I used to have radio shows at college and university stations in Toronto. I also used to work on the scoreboard crew at Exhibition Stadium, but when the Blue Jays moved to the Skydome, I got tired and thought it was time to move on. I decided to head back to London and get involved in the music business. I ended up getting a job at Virgin Records.
It worked because it’s what I’ve always done, basically. In Toronto, I’d always go to Record Peddler or Disco Sounds to buy new music. So, going back to London was about a love of music and politics. I wasn’t in Fun-Da-Mental from the beginning. I came in about a year-and-a-half afterwards, but it was still during the early stages. I heard about them, saw the name and it grabbed my attention.
We had just come out of the Gulf War and just witnessed the supposed fall of Communism, so it was an interesting time. I saw the shift of attention from the Communists to the Islamists and Arabs and thought “Something’s going on here.” So, I went to a few Fun-Da-Mental gigs and at the time they were using a lot of visuals of Women in Iran, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Gandhi. They also had bits of speeches featuring these people as well. It just appealed to my senses and at one point the original DJ, DJ Obeya, got married and wanted to spend more time with his wife. That was when I was asked to get involved.
Given that you’re not Muslim, what unity do you feel with Islam?
We’re brothers, man! [laughs] I saw an assault happening against certain people. Even when I was living in Toronto, there were people like Bruce Cockburn who tried to inform others about what was happening in Nicaragua. It’s the same as what The Clash was doing with Sandinista. You look at things happening around the world and realize there’s a connection. There’s a string running through so many happenings, be it Chile, Panama, Nicaragua and even Grenada. I remember thinking this is about my fellow man—my brothers.
What are your spiritual beliefs?
I’m a humanist. I grew up going to the Church of England and when we moved to Toronto, I went to Pentecostal churches and things like that. Then I got to an age where it was like “Hmm.” I started to question things. I remember taking passages from the Bible I had grown up with and saying to myself “There are certain things that don’t make sense.” So, the religious teachings fell to the wayside. I feel they’ve also been retained though because a lot of religions try to deal with goodness and acknowledge a fight with the darker side. So, I try to keep myself on the good side of things the vast majority of the time. If I step over the line and become a bad man for a moment, I apologize and I’m not happy about it. So, hopefully I have a stable belief system that I define as being a humanist.
Fighting American domination is one of Fun-Da-Mental’s primary aims. Do you believe every American deserves to be implicated by virtue of simply living there?
Hell no. Not at all. We’re talking about a political system that puts forward a feeling of superiority and says “God bless America and fuck the rest of you.” Let’s look at that phrase “God bless America.” What is meant by that? What about everyone else? It should be “God bless humanity.” Now, if we were to paint all people that had U.S. passports with the same brush, we wouldn’t get very far. We’d be pretty sad. I should mention we have an American in our crew too.
Hopefully, we’re not that small-minded. It’s about a political system and the same holds true in Britain. The line goes through so many instances in history where you can find the fingerprints of American foreign policy. It’s evident and consistent. It’s the consistency we find amazing, unfortunately, because time and time and time again, certain people get away with coercing or bribing people into doing their bidding for a country or government and these people hold the term “democracy” so high. The word “democracy” has a real high status for these people, but the reality is, democracy is being trampled on left, right and center. This system has to be fought against, but a lot of people feel it’s too big to take on.
Aki has said it’s frustrating that a lot of people only listen to Fun-Da-Mental’s music, rather than acting on its message. Do you believe music can instigate change in this day and age?
It’s a weird one because I think what we’re talking about is stuff that’s on a lot of people’s minds. I believe people are making moves to do something about the situation, even if it’s locally. Even something as simple as buying food from your local area is fighting the system. You have to fight just to put decent food on the table for your family these days. You shouldn’t have to fight to do that, but you do. Getting food that’s not tainted by X, Y or Z genes or pesticides is difficult. It’s just one of the things that have to be fought against. A lot of people are taking up that mantle. In a way, it’s no different than taking on the global justice system.
As for what our impact is, I don’t know. I think we’re just part of something. We’re serious about what we’re talking about, but then you look at serious people who have talked about the ills of society like racism and sexism like Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. These people’s words have traveled the world a million times over, yet we’re still in this situation. What the hell can we do? What can a band of six people do at a gig? But we choose to look at it as encouraging debate. Certain people are allowing us onto a platform to have that debate.
What do you make of the media perception that Fun-Da-Mental is about extremist viewpoints?
Yeah, that’s the perception and the term “extremist” can be used to consign one to the waste paper basket. There are certain things we talk about that get classified as a “conspiracy theory.” What they’re saying is “Don’t take this person seriously. They belong in a mental institution.” What we’re seeing on a daily basis in the world is true extremism. You can’t tell me it’s fine to accept that certain whims of political leaders in the U.S. and U.K. aren’t extreme when they’re funding wars all over the place, resulting in the deaths of thousands of people. I haven’t killed anyone, you know? No-one’s going to kill others in my name because I’ve said X, Y or Z. I have no blood on my hands. However, there are presidents and prime ministers that have a lot of blood on their hands. So, how come these people aren't tainted with the term “extremist?” It’s a type of deception.
You guys sell t-shirts on your website with slogans like “Bush is another name for a cunt” and “United States of Aggression.” The shirts seem designed to provoke reactions from everyday brain-dead assholes. Do you believe the struggle you speak of needs to be fought on the micro level in that way?
[laughs] It’s gotta start somewhere. The t-shirt slogans have some truth, but it’s also about humor. It’s about getting something out of our systems. With the Bush shirt, it was just having a laugh at the situation. Ever since September 11th, a lot of people have felt pressure. You’re waking up every morning and catching up on the news and it’s in your face.
One of the shirts we did in 1994 had the star and crescent on it. A workmate said to me “Oh, I wouldn’t wear that after September 11th.” Why does someone feel they’re going to have a go at me just because I’m wearing something they associate with Islam? You can use that same thought process to have a go at anyone on the street in this country, even a so-called white person. I can carry a lot of baggage as well. If you want me to carry baggage in that way, I’ve got tons of it! I’ve got so much of it, you just wouldn’t believe it. I’ve got reams and reams and reams of it. But we just don’t operate in that manner.
We’re getting a lot of orders for the shirts, so there’s some truth to what’s behind those slogans. One person said “Can I get a shirt? I want to get beaten up by some stupid American.” [laughs] Someone else said the shirts really encourage debate. That’s good. We’ve got to have an exchange of information. It’s so important. Even in the band, we don’t agree on certain things, but we agree to disagree. That’s fine. You’re learning something hopefully and you take what you’ve heard and try and get a better understanding of where you are and where somebody else is at. It’s one of the few ways you can go about things without too much hassle. But you can get hassled by the police for wearing certain shirts with certain slogans on them.
It’s happened with the stickers as well. We go to anti-war marches and police say “You can’t wear those” or “You can’t stick those up.” We stuck the stickers up around the American Embassy and the police came down, armed and everything. To be honest though, the police pissed themselves laughing. On several occasions, we’ve had policemen say “Can I have a couple of stickers?” [laughs] So, it’s not all bad.
Back in late 2002, several articles with headlines like “Fun-Da-Mental Sparks Airline Terror” appeared over some hijinx caused by the shirts. Tell me the tale from your perspective.
We were coming back from a festival in Sweden late August that year and one of the band members wore a shirt that said “Don’t Panic, I’m Islamic.” I was also wearing the Bush shirt and someone else wore the “USA: Terrorist Number One” shirt. We were pretty pooled up in that sense. [laughs] We were the last people on the plane and sat down. The stewardess came up and had a chat with some of the people behind us. Then she went to see the captain and came back. Six people got up and walked up to the front with her. We thought “What’s going on here?” Then the captain made an announcement over the PA system saying “There are some passengers who refuse to fly and want to get another flight.” The flights were going to leave the next day. One band member told the stewardess “Sorry for making your passengers leave.” He was just taking the piss. He didn’t mean it. She said “That’s okay. It’s not really your fault. Some people are like that.” It turns out they were six American passengers. They also thought one of our guys looked like Richard Reid, the shoe bomber.
People say we’re a Muslim band. I’m not a Muslim, but if people perceive us as an Asian band, even though there are two Afro-Caribbeans in it, whatever. Whatever. And if people are going to be scared of the word Islam and what they feel that represents, then I have no problem provoking them.
What sort of trouble has that provocation caused you?
People have made threats, but it’s never really come to anything. Years ago when we were doing gigs, there were threats from the National Front and the BNP. They said they were going to come down and disrupt the venues and nothing came of it. Nothing. It’s more talk than anything. After September 11th, Aki was asked to take part in several radio programs and documentaries. These were debate and discussion programs. There hasn’t been any hassle except for the Home Office who came around to say they wanted to have a few words with him and his family. The Home Office is like the Secretary of State office in America. Aki was like “No, no, no. Sorry. It’s not happening.” If these people want to pin something down on you, they can do it, no doubt.
We’re not a band like Radiohead. It’s not like we release something and people anticipate its release. But we might be close to a certain bone. It’s not like we sway a lot of power. I think Radiohead does and that’s good. Calling their album Hail to the Thief was a brilliant maneuver. I think we’re bigger in someone’s imagination than we are in reality. I don’t think we’re really a threat to the political stability of the United States or Britain. In someone’s dreams maybe.
Many argue America has an epidemic of blind faith and ignorance masquerading as patriotism and nationalism. What do you think?
Aki and I were in New York City a couple of years ago to do a DJ session. We were there for two days and I couldn’t wait to leave. Aki said “Let’s go down to the World Trade Center.” I said “There’s nothing there.” But we went down and saw it’s become a tourist attraction. It’s Disneyland. They’re even selling postcards of images from the planes hitting the tower and crumbling. What’s that about? “Wish you were here?” They’ve turned it into a commodity for God’s sake. Even George W. Bush is selling photographs from that day when he was aboard Air Force One to raise money for the Republicans. It’s a really weird society.
What are some positive aspects of the United States for you?
It’s a place that has contributed significantly, both culturally and musically. If the Alvin Ailey dance group were coming here, I wouldn’t say “Oh, I’m not going to see them because they’re American.” I haven’t thrown all my hip-hop records out the window because hip-hop culture came out of the United States. There are good things. There are good people. There are some good ideas. I’ve got friends and family there. At the moment though, I’ve thought “If I never have to go back there again, no problem.” It doesn’t bother me. Now, if I couldn’t go to Spain or the Canary Islands, I’m going to have a problem. I think it works the same from the United States’ perspective because only 14 percent of Americans have a passport, according to Adbusters. So, Americans don’t seem too worried about coming over here.
The U.S. recently pledged billions of dollars in aid to Pakistan. What do you make of that?
When I was in Pakistan in 1995, there was a lot of talk then about U.S. aid and that aid came in the form of F-16s. I’m not surprised. I think anywhere else it’s what one would call bribery or a payoff. It’s consistent with how the United States has behaved when it comes to dealing with things like the World Trade Organization or multilateral trade talks. Yemen voted against actions in the Gulf War and the United States immediately cancelled a $70 million aid package. So, what else is new?
Fun-Da-Mental was embroiled in some internal politics when Goldfinger and Lallaman left the group in 1993 and tried to take the name with them. What’s your perspective on it now?
Basically, certain people didn’t have any understanding of what the music business is about. They didn’t understand how a label is run. They were fooled by the general media in terms of what it means to be in a band that’s getting a lot of press attention. Some people interpreted that as meaning there was going to be a lot of money floating around. This situation has happened to us since that split as well.
We had some really excellent times and a laugh when we were all together, but it got sour. We were about to go on tour and they decided to leave and wanted to use the name. They didn’t even have the decency to discuss it with us. They told a radio station they were going to leave. They didn’t tell us. So, it’s like “Fuck off! If you’re leaving, you’re leaving. What you have, you can take with you. Goodbye. See you later. But you can’t take anything with you.” We settled with them and they got thousands of pounds. We just washed our hands of the whole affair. There are bigger, more important things for us to be spending our brain cells and time on. We didn’t want to go down to their level.
We refocused and tried to turn it into a positive situation. I think we did. We tried out new talent and vocalists. I think the lyrics of Mushtaq and Hot Dog were far superior in their delivery and execution to the lyrics of Lallaman. They had different qualities about them. There are still some lyrics of Lallaman’s I like, but the split enabled us to take a huge step forward. As we’ve moved on, we’ve been able to work with Qawwali musicians, Zulu Nation and many others. We've grown musically and as people.
How do you look back at Seize the Time?
The things we said in ’91, ’92 and ’93 are things we’re still talking about now. I think the thing about that album is you can put it on now and it stands the test of time. Musically, we were as into programming back then, but it was mostly loops and samples. From that perspective, maybe you can say it sounds dated, but as a whole, I think it’s still valid. I think it definitely captured the moment and spirit of the time. That spirit still exists and that’s fortunate or unfortunate, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.
What can you tell me about the forthcoming DVD?
We've done a few promo videos over the years, and apart from “Countryman," which is 11 years old, none of them have really had decent exposure. We think they are good videos that tried to bring something fresh to the video arena. We tried to say something with the videos instead of doing regular, run-of-the-mill semi-porn or bling-bling champagne drinking things. We tried to step away from that. So, we thought of compiling them and making them available.
To add to the package, most of the people that have been Fun-Da-Mentalists over the years speak their piece on it. Dennis a.k.a. “Hot Dog,” who featured on Seize the Time, as well as Mushtaq have contributed. So has Nad a.k.a. “Made in Britain” from Erotic Terrorism. The dreaded Lloyd "It's gotta be an Ampeg" Sparkes, our current bass player and vocalist, came to the party as well. Martin "MuckDonalds" Dudley, who handled our concert lights and visuals, also spoke with his mouth for a change. We've been trawling through aged VHS tapes and whatever else we could find to put a decent collection of images and words together. Hopefully, it will be decent, but really we should be working on something that will remove Bush and Blair from their seats of power, instead of fuckin' around with a compilation video, you know what I mean?!