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Exclusive Interview with Panjabi Hit Squad

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Panjabi Hit Squad are world famous for their championing of Desi Beats; a unique and versatile fusion of Asian sounds and street music.

With West London MC Ms Scandalous and BollyHood singer Alyssia, PHS have given anthems like Hai Hai, Aag and Aaja Soniya back to the streets. Always striking the right chord, they’ve been nominated for MOBOs, cracked MTV charts and produced for mainstream heavyweights like Mariah Carey, Jay Sean and Ashanti.

PHS returned with their knockout single, Miss Soniyeh. And their next single, featuring Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, is out soon. The seasoned producers discuss with SimplyBhangra their forthcoming album, changes in UK Bhangra, the importance of breaking gender and musical barriers and more!

Rav and Dee, welcome!

Thanks for having us!

The first question for you nowadays tends to be “where have you been?”  But you’ve kept really active since your last album. So, more accurately; tell us what you’ve been up to for the last couple of years.

As well as hosting our weekly BBC radio show, we now have a monthly show on Emirates. Whilst dealing with legal issues that came about from our last deal with Def Jam, we have kept ourselves busy by producing our new album as well as Alyssia and Ms Scandalous. We’ve also been touring the world and spreading the vibe!

“There are so many incredible instruments out there, and we’re just trying to infuse that with Asian music so it creates something different.”

When there’s arguably a lack of originality in the UK scene, a track like Miss Soniyeh is refreshing. How did we go this long without Panjabi vocals, steel drums and Dubstep on one song?! What’s the story and the creative process behind Miss Soniyeh?

We started by just producing the beat and music as an instrumental. The whole vibe came from a trip to Trinidad last year. We mashed up the instrumental with vocals from Flo Rida and the Black Eyed Peas and just started playing it out at gigs, and we got a good response!

In April this year, we decided to get a Panjabi vocal on the track. We took the dive to include the Dubstep section on the track because we wanted to embrace a new sound and catch the attention of the listeners.

After going to Dubstep events and seeing people enjoying the music and having a good time, it immediately reminded us of how Bhangra used to be back in the 90s.

World-influenced Bhangra from the world famous duo: Miss Soniyeh:

Is Miss Soniyeh indicative of your upcoming album, World Famous? Will it draw from all kinds of global sounds?

Yes. The album includes influences from all over the world. There are so many incredible instruments out there, and we’re just trying to infuse that with Asian music so it creates something different.

You’ve always had your ear to the street too. How would you say both street music and UK Bhangra have changed since your last album? There must be a lot of new sounds and opportunities you find exciting?

I think with Asians generally embracing new genres of music, it has made the possibility of fusing new sounds a whole lot more interesting. Electronic, House and Dubstep, to name a few, are sounds that we love working with. So, we have combined them with what we know best; Desi Beats!

“In the 90s, everyone loved the bands, but people also wanted harder beats.”

PHS are credited as holding the first major Asian club nights back in the early 90s. What was the scene like at that time? How would you describe what you did and what people wanted?

Back in the late 90s, there were a few of us who just loved to mix up Premi, Heera and Apna Sangeet with Hip-Hop, Drum & Bass and Raga. Everyone loved the bands, but the people that came to hear and see us wanted harder beats. To sum it all up; what we were doing in the clubs, Panjabi MC was putting out on CD/Cassette.

That club background must be so invaluable to your live performances. Especially in this day and age, how important do you think performing live is, considering the prevalence of ghost production and disingenuous artists?

The ability to perform live (and to do it well, of course) distinguishes the true artists from the others. I’m sure most audiences don’t come to gigs to watch artists mime.

When it comes to our live sets with Alyssia, it’s always live!

With the Bhangra industry being relatively small, do you think the business model needs to more rapidly shift towards live performance? Is that going to be both the artists’ acid test and their bread-and-butter?

I think the traditional business model needs to be destroyed and re-invented to cater for the new market. Live performances are great, but I think many of the new acts need to put some more effort into how they entertain their crowds to accompany their singing. You need that something extra.

What do you always hope your listeners take away from your work?

We hope they take away some good music and love the fact that what we produce doesn’t always follow the trend of Asian music which may be out at the time.

“With crossover success, people will see that Asian artists do have something to contribute...”

You produced Miss Scandalous’ Aaja Soniya, which reached number four in the MTV Base charts. Your own single Hai Hai (featuring Ms Scandalous) topped the same chart. As Urban enthusiasts and Desis, how would you express those achievements?

I think it’s great that our music reaches out to a wider audience and to have tracks that are played on mainstream channels to begin with. To have our music top the chart is just an awesome feeling for us.

Urban-Desi being embraced by wider audiences and topping the MTV charts? Hai Hai

Why aren’t Asian sounds present in the mainstream all the time? What changes need to occur to make that happen?

I think over the past ten years, the Asian sound has been used quite a lot, but the mainstream will only pick up on the sound if it’s commercial enough to be played alongside Top-40 hits.

The last track to be picked up was Imran Khan’s Amplifier as it had a great sound sonically and the melody was catchy. I’m sure there will be many other artists to have tracks that sound as amazing and will crossover soon.

How much good do you feel that would do for the Asian community, in terms of how others see us and how we see ourselves?

I think it will do a lot of good. People will see that Asian artists are popular and that we do have something to contribute to music.

“Alyssia and Ms Scandalous bring out a good side to the Asian music industry.”

You clearly strive to contribute something that stands out. What Ms Scandalous and Alyssia each bring to the table does stand out on a few levels. How would you describe what they do, and how important it is to have that female representation?

I think they bring out a good side to the Asian music industry. It gives ladies (young and old) someone to identify with. Ms Scandalous spoke about social/personal problems for Asian females, while still making tracks to dance to. With Alyssia having such a beautiful voice, it’s hard not to like.

I see so many more females in the industry today ready to take it on!

For the dancefloor and for the ladies: Miss Scandalous’ Aaja Soniya and Spread Love medley: 

As producers, what’s it like working with Ms Scandalous and Alyssia?

Working with two artists with two completely different sounds can be a challenge. Hearing what type of track each artist wants and then discussing and executing how the music or sound should be takes time.

It’s quite a difficult process as the product is as much theirs as it is yours, so everyone has to be clear on what the end product should sound like.

Hard to argue with the end product: Alyssia’s sublime Tera Pyar:

Are Ms Scandalous and Alyssia set to release new material?

Ms Scandalous is writing new material as we speak, so we’re just trying to find a new sound to go with her. Alyssia has two songs on our album and has already completed six songs for her own album. So, everyone’s keeping busy!

“Bollywood is realising that the UK scene has a lot to offer...”

Which other vocalists will be on your upcoming album, World Famous?

Other than Alyssia and Harleen, we have Richa Sharma and Krishna Beru, who are both massive in India and Bollywood. Jaspinder Narula and Saini Surinder are also on the album, as well as the one and only Rahat Fateh Ali Khan.

With such big Bollywood names featuring, can we expect your trademark BollyHood sound to have a strong presence on the album?

The BollyHood sound is present on the album, but, with Richa’s song, the sound is not as hard as it’s aimed at more of a Bollywood audience.

Why do you feel Bollywood is turning to UK Punjabi artists now, and is that transition something you’re aiming for your own brand of BollyHood to be a part of?

Bollywood is realising that the UK Asian music scene has a lot to offer in terms of variety of sound.

We have already started to get the Hit Squad sound over to Bollywood. We are currently working on a couple of things which should come out in 2012!

PHS’s trademark BollyHood: Alyssia’s Deewana:

What else does the future hold for Panjabi Hit Squad?

At the moment, we are just starting to come back into the market with our music. Miss Soniyeh was just a small introduction, but we still have so much left to put out, not only from our album, but on various musical platforms.

Of course, every time we do anything, SimplyBhangra will be the first to know!

Dee and Rav, thank you very much for the interview! We wish you the best with your upcoming album. What message would you like to close on for the SimplyBhangra readers?

Just want to say thank you to SimplyBhangra for all the support over the years and with the single Miss Soniyeh. We want to thank everyone who has ever bought or supported our music because, without you, we wouldn’t be here!

Interview by Govinda Lakha.

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