Missy Elliott's "Get Yr Freak On" won many props a couple of years ago for introducing Indian rhythms to hip-hop and therefore pop radio. (We'll ignore for now the fact that Nelly Furtado's producers Track and Field had done the same thing earlier with "Baby Girl", and that Cornershop's work preceded theirs, and that bhangra has been hip in the big cities for years, and that Goa psychedelic trance transformed techno music, and that sitars and drones have been part of the Western musical landscape for almost 40 years.). "Get Yr Freak On" proves to have been the seed now more fully coming to flower now; everywhere you turn these days, there are tablas and dhols and wailing shrill vocals, and it's lovely.
The only bad thing about India being the hip musical culture to steal from this year is that it'll be "over" by next year, uncool and discarded like the rest of the fads. But for now, it's golden: three different dancehall hits here in the U.S. using the diwali riddim! R. Kelly beatjacking Bollywood for "Thoia Thong"! If only this could be permanent, this would be a better world, with those crazy stuttering beats echoing from high school car speakers all over the U.S., and the newest movies from Bombay sharing Cineplex space with our own, and . . . oh, there I go again. Dreaming.
Perhaps the most important of these neo-Indianisms is the first song on this record, a remix of Panjabi MC's bhangra hit "Mundian to Bach Ke" featuring a rap by Jay-Z. This song is called "Beware" because the original title translates roughtly to "Beware of the Boys" -- its original intent was to warn impressionable young girls away from rowdies and hooligans. It's actually a five-year-old song, a minor hit in the UK that then caught fire in Germany and sold 100,000 copies in one week or something like that. Any speculation that it did so well there because it samples the theme from David Hasselhoff's TV series The Night Rider are immediately seconded -- but was one hell of a dance track, with Labh Janjua's rollercoaster ululation-based testifying and a tabla shuffle that could not be denied on its way to everyone's ass-shaking pleasure center. (This original version is the last track on the Beware CD.) When it re-hit the UK a few months ago, it was the rage for real, prompting its reissuing and remixing here.
Of course, with Jay-Z involved, there is little discussion of anything other than Jay-Z himself, or "Roc" or "Young Hova" (that's short for "Jehovah", in case you didn't know), or whatever else he's calling himself these days. It's just the original track with Mr. Carter's signature anti-smooth off-the-cuff verses: "Young Ho's a snake charmer / Move your body like a snake, mama / Make me wanna put the snake on ya / I'm on my eighth summer / Still hot / Young's the eighth wonder", context-free, typical Jay-Z self-big-upping, etc.
But as he goes on to describe how he'll "take your girl from under your armpit / The black Brad Pitt", you start thinking that maybe the original intent of the song is being honored after all. Then, in an astonishing act, Jay-Z goes on in the second verse to actually say something that's not about his own coolness and skillness: "We rebellious / We back home / Screaming leave Iraq alone / But all my soldiers in the field I will wish 'em safe return / But only love kills war, when will they learn?" This bizarrely controversial verse is not played on many Clear Channel radio stations -- gasp surprise shock -- but it is on my local hip-hop station, and nothing could be better than driving around in Wisconsin with this pumping on the stereo.
I'm actually sorry to put so much emphasis on this song, because the rest of Beware -- a compilation of his best stuff from a decade's worth of hitmaking in London -- is just as fascinating. If you have any passing acquaintance with bhangra at all, you know that it is a wide-ranging genre, dance music with the tabla beat at its base, sounding very much like drum'n'bass, sometimes with rapping but usually with Indian pop as its melodic focus. A number of great compilations are available -- including Bhangra Beatz, which I reviewed here last year -- and it's not going anywhere anytime soon, especially with competition from techno producers that use bhangra as an element (Midival Punditz) and composers who challenge the conventions of bhangra (Karsh Kale, Susheela Raman).
So why is Panjabi MC the one who's going to break through in the U.S.? Because he's the best so far. Panjabi MC, real name Rajinder Rai, is the producer and vocalist and rapper and programmer and mastermind of all these tracks, with a rotating cast of helpers. He was not the first important bhangra dude, nor is he exactly an innovator in the field, but he is the dopest I've heard, both behind the boards and on the microphone. His tracks are smooth and rough in the right mixture, they're fresher than organic eggplant, and they have hooks that are poised halfway between Western and Eastern music. He can pull off credible chart-rap singles like "Soundz of the Des" and "Buzzin'", gentler world-beat numbers like "Sweeter" and "Ghalla Gurian", and more avant-Bollywood stuff like the two-speed "Jughi" and the tortured and ecstatic "Jindi Mahi" all with equal aplomb.
Not to say this is perfect, because it isn't. First of all, it involves English people rapping, which is always sketchy; "True MC's" just proves that you can namedrop Omar Sharif and Biz Markie in your raps and still sound corny. All the early stuff like this, where Panjabi was trying to sound gangsta, suffers by comparison to the later and more original songs. ("Mirza Part 2" is still pretty great, though, a cool cross of "I Need Love" with "It Was a Good Day" with the best songs from the Lagaan soundtrack.)
And that's the musical direction for Panjabi MC that's going to stick if anything does. "Jogi" is an amazing straight-outta-Mumbai track, with Emelzer Cazley and our hero trading vocal lines and an insistent cadre of riffs that lurk like ninjas around every corner. "Sweeter" with its beautiful vocals by Emelzer Cazley (a woman, okay) sounds like it's a Jamaican song with that diwali beat, except that it came out many years ago, before that riddim hit its first Greensleeves comp. And I couldn't really emphasize how wonderful "Challa" is, an open-hearted downtempo triumph of atmosphere and guitar arpeggio and tortured love-rap and soaring Gurdas Mann qawwali wail and flute concerto samples.
I really wish that I had more confidence that American ears will be open to more than just the Jay-Z remix on this disc, but I don't. Which is sad -- there is a lot more here than just a gussied-up one-hit comp. Panjabi MC is a real talent, and I'm going to watch him closely to see where he goes next.