Anglo-Indian rap musician Panjabi MC (born Rajinder Rai) made waves in 2003, when his single "Mundian To Bach Ke" became the first Punjabi rap song to garner mainstream appeal in Europe and the United States. A remix by American rapper Jay-Z helped make Panjabi MC (also known as PMC) one of the most talked about names in hip-hop that year. The England-based artist mixes urban club grooves with modern bhangra, a dance-folk music rooted in traditional Indian song.
The son of immigrants from the Punjab region of northwest India, Rajinder Rai was born around 1976 in Coventry, England, a suburb of Birmingham in the English Midlands. His father worked as a spray-painter at the Jaguar automobile factory there. Eventually his family launched a retail business selling fabrics for saris, an Indian style of clothing. "I remember two cultures clashing in the house as I was growing up: British and Punjabi," the musician told Baz Dreisinger of the Los Angeles Times. "I was left looking for ways to combine them." His musical tastes ran the gamut from his father's record collection of traditional Indian folk, or desi, music, to the American rap music popular at the time, including Public Enemy and NWA. He also listened to modern bhangra, the Anglo-Indian dance melodies that set the tone at Punjabi weddings and other gatherings.
As a teen he identified most with hip-hop music, and he tried his skills as a rapper in the early 1990s. His new hobby met with disapproval from his parents, who as native Punjabis tried not to make waves in the mostly white, working-class town of Coventry. Hip-hop's rough street reputation unnerved the musician's parents, who feared their son would become a target for the racist skinheads who hung out in Coventry's local park. In an interview with Rafer Guzmán of Newsday, he recalled his parents saying, "'Someone's going to beat you up. You don't want to do that; you know what rap's like.'"
Other rappers in the hip-hop circuit, who had never seen an Indian rapper before, gave him the nickname Panjabi MC. Although he began first with straight hiphop and rap, he soon began to incorporate vocals from traditional Indian singers, carving out a niche for himself. Converting his bedroom into a makeshift recording studio, he used a cheap Roland sampler and his own rap lyrics to blend modern bhangra with rap and hip-hop sounds. Panjabi MC released his first collection at age 19, while studying business and marketing in college.
Known as the reggae of India, bhangra is recorded only in Punjabi, the language of northern India and Pakistan. Traditional bhangra has its roots in Punjabi folk dancing music performed during harvest time. A dhol drum (two-headed drum), dating back to the fifteenth century, gives the music its rhythmic beat. Arriving in Britain with Punjabi and north Indian immigrants after World War II, bhangra grew to incorporate a modern, Anglicized sound. First-generation Anglo Indians—who grew up listening to bhangra as well as to their parents' Indian folk music—combined these sounds with Western guitar and keyboard rhythms, creating the modern bhangra popular among Indians living in Britain in the early 1980s. Artists like Panjabi MC added rap and hip-hop to the mix, creating a fresh new street sound that fused Anglo, American, and Indian rhythms.
"Rootz," Panjabi MC's first single, expressed the musician's pride in his Punjabi heritage. Yet Muslim fundamentalists objected to the song's racy American style and wouldn't let clubs play the track. "I received death threats straight away," Panjabi MC told Newsday 's Guzmán. "But I was young at the time, so I loved it." However, Panjabi MC also learned a valuable lesson: If he wanted to achieve mainstream success, his music would have to appeal to Punjabi listeners first. In the meantime the rapper would have to overcome this audience's distaste for Western styles of music.
The musician's quest led him to India in the mid-1990s. There he collaborated with several established Punjabi singers, creating melodies that mixed traditional and modern styles. One of these tracks, "Mirza Part 2," was received enthusiastically in some London clubs in 1997. Panjabi MC began to enjoy modest success in the city's underground music scene and among alternative listeners in other European cities. For several years he released his music on small, independent record labels specializing in bhangra.
It wasn't until American rapper Jay-Z discovered him that Panjabi MC began to achieve more mainstream success. Jay-Z had heard one of his tracks, "Mundian To Bach Ke," in a Swiss nightclub in late 2002, and was struck by the artist's fusion of Indian sounds and urban street music. Uniting traditional Indian drumbeats with theme music from the 1980s television drama Knight Rider, "Mundian To Bach Ke," translating roughly as "Be Careful of the Boys," is a catchy dance tune with a message of caution for teenage girls. Jay-Z was so taken with the track's rhythms that he wrote his own lyrics to accompany them, and an overseas collaboration ensued. "I wasn't aware that anyone like Jay-Z had ever heard our music before, let alone would want to use it," an enthusiastic Panjabi MC told Dreisinger.
When Jay-Z released "Beware of the Boys," his remix of "Mundian To Bach Ke," in early 2003, the song became a club hit in both Europe and the United States. Jay-Z's lyrics added a dash of American-style bluntness, including a verse protesting a developing war with Iraq ("We rebellious/We back home/Screaming, 'Leave Iraq alone'"). The lyrics appealed to Panjabi MC, who felt that Jay-Z was expressing the feelings of many young listeners at the time.
"Beware of the Boys" hit number two on Billboard 's R&B/Hip-Hop Singles Chart in April of 2003, marking a strong debut for bhangra sounds among mainstream American audiences. Meanwhile, Panjabi MC's original 1998 single "Mundian To Bach Ke" had made history by hitting the top ten in the British charts as well. It was the first time a song with only Indian vocals had climbed so high on the charts. In Germany the song reached number two, and in Italy it hit number one. Panjabi MC was touted as a "crossover" success in both Europe and the United States, and was regarded as the poster boy for a new music style fusing bhangra and rap.
Panjabi MC's success coincided with a trend in which all things Indian had come into vogue. In 2003 the Anglo-Indian film Bend it Like Beckham became a surprise hit. Musical artists like the rapper Missy Elliott and the singer Truth Hurts were integrating sitar music and other Indian sounds into their tunes. "For sure, right now [Indian music is] definitely what you call 'in,'" Panjabi MC told Cary Darlin of the Houston Chronicle. "I could see it blending (with pop) more, like reggae, and enveloping everything."
For the Record . . .
Born Rajinder Rai c. 1976 in Coventry, England.
Started mixing own hip-hop music as a teen, early 1990s; released first collection, age 19; traveled to India to record with traditional singers, mid 1990s; released albums on independent bhangra labels; collaborated with American rap star Jay-Z, 2003; hit top ten in the charts, United States and Europe, with Punjabi rap song "Mundian To Bach Ke" and remix with Jay-Z, "Beware of the
Awards: World Music Awards, Best Indian Artist, 2003.
Addresses: Record company— Sequence Records, 150 Lafayette St., Ste. 11R, New York, NY 10013. Web-site— Panjabi MC Official Website: http://www.panjabimc.com.
In July of 2003, riding on the success of his collaboration with Jay-Z, Panjabi MC released the album Beware on Sequence Records, which included both the original "Mundian To Bach Ke" and Jay-Z's remix. Called "incredibly danceable" by Rolling Stone 's Pat Blashill, the album was enthusiastically received, and in October of 2003 Panjabi MC won the Best Indian Artist award at the World Music Awards in Monte Carlo.
CD, Nachural, 1993.
100% Proof, Nachural, 1995.
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Panjabi MC, Nachural, 1998.
Beware, Sequence, 2003.
Desi, Import, 2003.
Dhol Jageero, Import, 2003.
Mundian To Bach Ke, Compagnia Nuove Indye, 2003.
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Los Angeles Times, June 8, 2003, p. 45.
Newsday, July 15, 2003, p. D20.
Rolling Stone, July 10, 2003, p. 66.
Washington Post, July 13, 2003, p. N1.
"Coventry-Born Panjabi MC Creates Pop History," BBC Online, http://www.bbc.co.uk/coventry/music/stories/2003/01/panjabi-mc.shtml (November 11, 2003).
"Panjabi MC," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (November 26, 2003).
"Panjabi MC Finds Inspiration in Bhangra," CNN.com, http://www.cnn.com/2003/SHOWBIZ/Music/09/11/mroom.panjabi.mc/index.html (November 26, 2003).
Panjabi MC Official Website, http://www.panjabi-mc.com (November 26, 2003).
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