The alternative British Asian pop genre, Asian Underground, held a significant place back in the early-mid ‘90s as a uniquely transgressive genre combining Indian classical instrumentation, jazz, the contemporary sounds of dub, drum ‘n’ bass and jungle, interspersed with crooning Bollywood-style vocals. The genre blew up and enjoyed mainstream popularity in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, exerting significant influence on Western hip hop, R&B and urban music at the time. DJ Isuru Perera, better known simply as DJ Isuru, is one of the leading figures in today’s Asian Underground revival, having collaborated with a range of DJs and performers aspiring to reintroduce this strand of ‘90s Dance music to a younger generation. He is also a regular presenter on SOAS radio, where he hosts various (mainly British Asian) musicians from different eras, playing their music with accompanying track-by-track analysis.
I caught up with Isuru to discuss Asian Underground history and his latest initiative, ‘Mishti Dance’, a series of evening events held in East London. Isuru neatly articulates its ethos as ‘a return to the experimentation of the Asian Underground in the face of commercial clubbing’. The format of Mishti Dance comprises a community-based arts and performance space featuring both poets and DJs, in a radical defiance of the rigid, distinct cultural categorisation of arts events as either high arts- or club music-based.
The project is directly inspired by, and clearly situated within, the progressive tradition of Asian Underground events and organisations. ‘We take our cues from the legendary Anokha and Swaraj club nights,’ Isuru explains, ‘and from the output of labels such as Outcaste and Nation.’ The name of the label Outcaste (conjuring a rejection of India’s deeply oppressive, ever-present caste system) is an indicator of its political outlook: while undoubtedly a space for Asian artists to hone their craft, Outcaste promoted an inclusive ethos which welcomed people of different races and faiths to their club nights.
Isuru is also clear on the logic behind the name of his project. ‘”Mishti” is the Bengali word for sweet. ”Mishti Dance”…is the title of a track by Asian Underground pioneer Sam Zaman, aka State of Bengal.’ He goes on to explain how the project is, as this choice of name suggests, an ode to the East London Bengali origins of Asian Underground. These were namely youth projects made up of actors, musicians and poets like Joi Bangla and Community music, which were designed to instil cultural understanding in children as an act of resistance to mainstream racist narratives. This was the origin of the British Bengali DJ duo Joi and the better-known multi-genre band Asian Dub Foundation. The latter, which has remained active since its formation in 1993, has extended the already hybrid trademark sounds of Asian Underground to incorporate guitar-heavy Western rock, innovatively combining this with electronica, house and Indian classical music, and has spawned several successful solo musicians and DJs from its ever-changing line up.
As Isuru explains: ‘it allowed people to be themselves. You had goths, artistic people…there was the sense that Asian Underground club nights were a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. They weren’t threatened by the homophobic violence of male-dominated, hypermasculine Bhangra clubs.’
The roots of Asian Underground have a clear socio-political significance. ‘It was a response to the violence and toxic masculinity associated with Bhangra club nights,’ Isuru reflects. Bhangra, a folk dance originating in the Indian/Pakistani region of Punjab in the 1940s, became a popular club night category among young British Asians in the 1980s, characterised by a tendency to foster drunken violence. Asian Underground thereby represented an alternative space for Asian youth from the mainstream of British Asian club scenes. It was an environment which remained safe not only from this community-based violence, but also from the often racist nightlife environment in many UK towns and cities in this era. As Isuru explains: ‘it allowed people to be themselves. You had goths, artistic people…there was the sense that Asian Underground club nights were a safe space for LGBTQ+ people. They weren’t threatened by the homophobic violence of male-dominated, hypermasculine Bhangra clubs.’ Such ventures were thus ground-breaking in their representation and acceptance of diverse South Asian individuals, with little discrimination or a sense of hierarchy.
In fact, Asian Underground club nights were often explicitly political, to the extent of promoting political campaigns. ‘It became known as conscious clubbing,’ Isuru tells me. ‘You had leaflets being given out in club nights – often by Asian women.’ This is emblematic of the versatile space created by the Underground: clubs were spaces for communication on wide-ranging issues, not just for drunken raving. The rolling back of live music in clubs and the increasing reliance on records blaring through speakers has arguably reduced the possibility of such ‘conscious clubbing’.
It has also shaped contemporary pop music in ways many people are unaware of: ‘nowadays, it’s really common to hear sitar in a pop song. But these fusions were created by the Asian Underground.’
As has been noted, British Asian music is no longer such a coherent category as it was twenty years ago. Instead, many artists of South Asian origin are making waves with similarly fusional material within the wider scenes of rap, hip-hop and grime. But for its original creators, Isuru feels the Asian Underground is a natural product of a ‘90s British Asian upbringing. ‘It’s inevitable these kids would mix breakbeat with tabla. It’s like a fusion of the sounds they grew up with.’ It has also shaped contemporary pop music in ways many people are unaware of: ‘nowadays, it’s really common to hear sitar in a pop song. But these fusions were created by the Asian Underground.’
How does ‘Mishti Dance’ fit into the London music and poetry scenes of today? Is the culture of the Asian Underground already a relic of a past era – beyond these musical traces – or can it be revived in new and equally exciting forms? And is the message of inclusivity in South Asian club contexts still so urgent? Isuru certainly believes it is. ‘There’s a need to resurrect the movement, especially with the rise of the far-right, we need that creative space for Asians,’ he asserts. ‘”Mishti Dance” is about bringing back the Asian Underground club night. No one’s booking Asian Underground artists or celebrating the genre. People just expect Asians to be making R’n’B – or the Bollywood superhit of the week. It’s creating an experimental space for Asian artists.’
DJ Isuru’s next ‘Mishti Dance’ event is on 30th November 2019 at Poplar Union, London. Find out more details of the line-up on the Facebook event here.
DJ Isuru’s essential Asian Underground albums:
- Asian Dub Foundation – Facts and Fictions
- Joi – One and One Is One
- State of Bengal – Visual Audio
- Earthtribe – One Earth One Tribe
- Fun Da Mental – Seize the Time
Featured image: Mishti Dance Facebook Page
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