How did an English-born DJ manage to mix the familiar with the exotic to popularize the music of India’s Panjab region?
In one interesting way, Panjabi MC’s hit single “Mundian To Bach Ke” (“Beware of the Boys”) is a classic example of Bollywood colliding with Hollywood. When the kinetic track first hits the ears, the rhythms of the Indian festival music known as “bhangra” are overwhelming.
It’s hard to get the jangle of the “tumbi” — a one-string instrument found in India’s Punjab region — out of your head. But listen more closely, and fans of U.S. television might hear something very familiar.
Underneath the distinctive sound of the “dhol” — the hollow, two-headed drum that defines the banghra sound — fans of the mid-1980s U.S. television series “Knight Rider” might hear something familiar. Yes, Panjabi MC borrows the bass line from the show’s theme song as the foundation of his hit single.
“Knight Rider” was a science-fiction show about a high-tech talking car that fought crime, with Hasselhoff’s character (playing Michael Knight) as its driver. Despite the silly premise, the program was among the most widely viewed U.S. TV shows around the world — in part because of the appeal of its star, David Hasselhoff.
A former soap opera star, Hasselhoff became an international star via his roles in “Knight Rider” and another highly popular series, Baywatch. He also is a worldwide recording star, with a particularly large following in Germany.
Thus, Hasselhoff is one of the most recognizable U.S. actors in the world — and the shows in which he starred still play on television to this day.
Clever hip-hop artists such as Panjabi MC exploit this kind of cultural trivia to attract listeners. After all, one of the objects of incorporating a familiar tune into a new song (known as “sampling”) is to build a bridge to audiences. The listener will “recognize” — even subliminally — the song that is being sampled.
Thus, when the fans of “Knight Rider” hear “Mundian To Bach Ke,” the song may already have a slightly familiar ring to it. Building such bridges of recognition become even more important when the music is deemed by pop audiences as “exotic.”
Despite the increased popularity of Indian music, it has yet to conquer the U.S. pop music charts — which are dominated by rock, rap and rhythm & blues music.
In many ways, it is no surprise that Panjabi MC is the artist to accomplish this feat at long last. Translating the “desi” — or “popular folk” music of India — sound into Western musical forms has been a particular strength of Rajinder Rai’s music ever since he began working as a disc jockey, rapper and recording artist back in the early 1990s.
Rajinder Rai was born in the British city of Coventry. According to the biography on his official website, he began his musical career by rapping in a conventional style — and picked up the nickname “Panjabi MC” at that time.
Eventually, he says, the exotic name became a musical road map. “After I had been doing this for a couple of years,” writes Panjabi MC, “I started adding desi samples into the music. To start with, this was from vinyls [records]. But soon I got singers and musicians to play live — and my sound was born.”
British hip-hop audiences found much to like in Panjabi MC’s novel blend of banghra and rap — but the first reaction from banghra musicians was less than enthusiastic.
Still, the music’s undeniable popularity eventually won over the banghra community as well, setting the stage for world musical conquest.
Enter “Mundian To Bach Ke.” The song’s combination of traditional banghra instrumentation, vocals and hip-hop flavor — not to mention that sly wink to “Knight Rider” — has proven immensely successful, climbing the music charts in numerous countries.
But when Panjabi MC finally released his first full-length album in the United States (“Beware”), there was a crucial addition to the song. Layered over the blend of banghra and hip-hop was a vocal track by the most popular U.S. rapper of the last few years, Brooklyn-born Jay-Z.
Like Panjabi MC, Jay-Z is also a worldwide figure — topping charts in numerous countries with his own best-selling records. If the original version of “Mundian To Bach Ke” represents a collision of Hollywood and Bollywood, the new Jay-Z version is a meeting of Brooklyn and banghra.
Panjabi MC might have put it best when speaking to the press in early 2003: “For the bhangra crowd in the UK, we don’t even know that anyone outside our community is down with it. To think that someone like Jay-Z is going to be bouncing on a bhangra beat, it’s amazing, very groundbreaking.”
Groundbreaking, yes. And very global, too.