The 90’s started with Tupac Shakur and Biggie making their way into the mainstream. Their rising popularity led to an influx of hip hop in the UK. This development was carefully noted by the first and second-generation Punjabi NRI kids. The Punjabi diaspora over there had always felt a sense of alienation and a lack of belonging due to their displacement and this led to them identifying more with hip-hop songs and culture rather than the more “caucasian” / music genres.
The scene started mixing and matching traditional folk music from the pind with hip hop beats and with people doing shows for this very specific hybrid genre called UK Bhangra.
One of the biggest pot-stirrers in the UK Bhangra scene was Panjabi MC. He released “Mundiyan To Bach Ke” in 1998. This song blew up blew up. It charted Top Ten almost globally and it reached the number one spot in Italy and Belgium. When it was peaking way over in Europe, Jay-Z heard the song in a Swiss nightclub in late 2002. He was enthralled with how the crowd reacted to it, he said that he’d never seen anything like it. Cue to him stating that he wanted to collaborate on the song. Panjabi MC didn’t take him seriously at first but then management got involved and he knew that Jay-Z wasn’t messing around. This is Panjabi MC’s most successful song to date. Jay-Z’s verse on a bhangra song produced a unique sound that was unheard of before. Especially with the use of the theme song of Knight Rider’s bassline. “Mundian To Bach Ke” is till now, 22 years later, a staple at Punjabi weddings and events. Some of us have grown up to it repetitively being played at family functions almost like a ritual. A play per function AT LEAST.
The early scene was paved by the likes of Labh Janjua, Kuldip manak, and Malkit Singh.
In 1993 Sukshinder Shinda released his first professional recording “Dhol Beat Ek” and since then has collaborated on over 200 albums. An expansive and well-evidenced career.
A name to note is Malkit Singh. He was the first Punjabi singer to be honored with an MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace and his song “Tootak” was one of the fastest-selling bhangra songs of all time, it sold 2.5 million records. Another 1980s hit was “Dil Da Mamla Hai” by Gurdas Maan, a man held in high esteem by his community, which generated national attention.
UK Bhangra had more of a “Punjabi” identity rather than an “Indian” identity as most immigrants cared more about their state rather than the country that the state belonged to. It would be an understatement to say that folk music has helped bhangra along. It is, in fact, integral to it. Without the Punjabi folk singers who initiated the movement in the 1960s & 70s, the genre simply wouldn’t exist.
Traditional legendary folk singers like Lehmber Hussainpuri, Amar Singh Chamkila, and Bindrakhia were signed and their songs were copyrighted by DJs and recording artists such as Bally Sagoo, Dr. Zeus, and RDB who brought their music to the UK Bhangra scene by mixing them with hip hop.
These were the main factors that resulted in Bhangra evolving the way that it did: mixing on turntables and DJing.
One of the earliest fusion songs was created using “The Next Episode” by Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre which was released in 2011. DJ Sanj mixed it with Dippa Dosanjh and released the resulting track with the same name. It was a fusion of two contrasting but (apparently) symbiotic styles and cultures.
When it was released in the early 2000s, It traveled back to Punjabi kids in India. Most of us were only made privy to the DJ Sanj version of this song before a high-speed internet connection was established in our households. We were, for the most part, completely unaware of the original version!
RDB (Rhythm, Dhol, Bass) was a band created in 1997 that consisted of three British Indian Brothers, Kuldeep, Surjeet, and Manjeet Singh Ral. The band's style blends western genres with traditional Punjabi beats and vocals. Their musical journey began in the Gurudwara where they used to assist their father with performing for the local community by playing on the Harmonium and Tabla. Their path led to them winning “Best Club DJ Bhangra” at the UK Asian Music Awards.
In the early 2000’s Rishpal Singh Reshi, or Rishi Rich, began his career. He gained such popularity that he was featured in the film “Hum Tum”.
In 2003 Dr. Zeus released “Unda Da Influence” with Lehmber Hussainpuri and in the same year, Rishi Rich initiated the Rishi Rich Project with the goal of showcasing new talent. This collective Included Rishi Rich, Juggy D, and Jay Sean. Their debut single which featured Jay Sean “Dance with you (Nachna Tere Naal)” peaked at no. 12 on the UK Singles Chart. It also won “Best Single R&B” at the 2003 UK Asian Music Awards.
Kamaljit Singh Jhooti (or Jay Sean) released his debut album “Me Against Myself” in 2004 and even though it wasn’t exactly incredibly popular in the UK, it sold over two million copies across Asia.
The third member of this trio goes by “Juggy D”. He’s been performing since the small age of fourteen. He has appeared on numerous crossover “Hum Tum” along with Rishi Rich. Juggy D’s first album “Juggy D” was released in 2004 and became the first album to enter the UK national charts whilst using the Punjabi language.
Let’s move away from the UK scene for a minute.
Bohemia was born with the name “Roger David”. His great grandfather had converted to Christianity and as a result, he really was at a midpoint between two cultures. What struck people most about his work was the way he could easily write songs and poetry in both Urdu and Punjabi. His first album was released in 2002. It was called “Vich Pardesan De” and it was about coming to a foreign land. He pioneered Punjabi rap and in 2006 released “Pesa Nasha Pyar” in India. This was the first full-length desi rap album to grace the worldwide market.
When the UK Bhangra scene was in full swing, NRIs from the US wanted to get in on it. They had the same tools as the UK diaspora. Here’s where Rekha Malhotra comes in.
DJ Rekha is a London-born artist who created the space for Bhangra in North America. She released her first album in 2007. It was called “DJ Rekha Presents Basement Bhangra”.
And, by the same name “Basement Bhangra”, she had launched a monthly event at S.O.B.’s a decade prior. This was a place where Wu-Tang Clan, Jay-Z, and Busta Rhymes came to perform. Rekha Malhotra was a visionary. The kind of moves she was making back then are the kind that you call mainstream today.
This was a dance party that lasted twenty years. From 1997 to 2017. S.O.B’s had artistic energy as opposed to the rather typical uncomfortable atmosphere of a regular bar or club. Musicians vied to perform there. You could say that S.O.B.’s and Summerhouse shared a vibe through the barrier of being in different eras and you could compare DJ Rekha to Mo City.
Rekha and her Basement Bhangra platform served as the first North American stage where Panjabi MC performed and her 17 track debut album featured collaborations with Wyclef Jean, Panjabi MC, and Bikram Singh.
Like all art movements, this had to come to an end. We don’t mean to imply that the work done by artists in the name of Bhangra now isn’t valid. Rather, that work can be considered a spin-off from the original genre. Not the same, but in the same vein.
As Punjabi Folk music evolved into UK Bhangra, we have evolved from UK bhangra to our current scene, Diljit Dosanjh and Siddhu Moosewala hold the reins. Music evolves endlessly, we stay as fluid and rep the instances we appreciate.
Directions by Harkrishan Alag