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Bobby Friction and Nihal are both well known figures in the UK Asian scene. Bobby pioneered the Asian scene in UK with great club nights such as Kizmet, Swaraj and the ongoing Shaanti. While, Nihal is a TV personality who has had his own show on MTV Base called The Drop and is currently the host of two shows for CBBC called Top of the Pops Prime and The Saturday Show Extra. Together, they have given the Asian scene in UK a whole new level of legitimacy with a show on BBC's Radio 1 - which has been going strong since October 2002.
I was able to get a hold of Nihal during his busy schedule (actually, at the time, he was helping his girlfriend shop for shoes while speaking to me on phone!) to have a conversation about the next step for Asians and the scene at large.
AV: First off, why don't you tell me how you and Bobby met each other?
Nihal: Well the Asian scene in this country is not really that big and initially we had met through Outcaste club nights. But really, for the show, Radio 1 actually put me and Bobby together. The were looking for two people to do the late night show and they actually piloted us separately. Then for whatever reason they decided to pilot both of us together and then asked us to do the show together. Initially we were both skeptical but it worked - it really worked! In all honesty, the reason I feel it worked is because me and Bobby don't know each other inside out. We have discovered each other over the past few months and Bobby is really one of life's eccentrics. He has a passion for music, he is wild, exuberant, extravagant while I, on the other hand, am the hip hop and r&b head.
AV: So Bobby brings in the break beat side of it all.
Nihal: Yea he brings the break beat side of it while, I'm the one usually who tries to track down the Asian hip hop producers, mc's and singers etc. Of course he does that as well but he also goes for the people who are more on an electronic tip. That's mainly why we work so well because the Asian club scene in this country is not about being from genre or type of music.
AV: If you look back at the late 90's - the scene was dominated by Talvin's Anokha nights, Outcaste's club nights etc. - parties which were very centered on Asian Underground. But, if you listen to it now it seems very much hip hop, bhangra etc., at least from your show, - why do you think that shift has occurred?
Nihal: Really, it's not that much of a change. It's just that the western media paid more attention, during that time period, to the Asian Underground. All the bhangra stuff had been going on all along - it just slowly transitioned from guys in shiny shirts doing bhangra, guys that the kids couldn't relate to, to the new producers who are mixing up that stuff with beats, break beats, hip hop or whatever, and making it more relevant for Asian club kids. In all honesty, expecting regular Asian kids to like Talvin Singh is like expecting regular white kids to be into Aphex Twin just because Aphex Twin is white. Both those artists are abstract artists, it's not mainstream music. Just because you have a sitar or a tabla in a track the Asian kids aren't going to like it and think of it as their culture. The kids grew up in housing estates, wanting car culture, wanting to drop pounding bass rhythms and you can't expect every Asian kid to be into complex drum programming and abstract breaks.
AV: So you feel that's the reason why now the Asian breakbeat scene has subsided a little bit.
Nihal: Yea! Completely! For the people faithful who were part of it and are still part of it - for them it's still completely real. At that time, the media grabbed hold of it and everyone responded with wow's and thought this is the Asian scene. But, at the end of the day, that music is not songs it's compositions. Simply put, popular music is made by songs weather you are Nelly or Audio Slave. It's great songs that massively sell records and build scenes and cross over to different people not compositions. For example, Mundiayan To Bach Ke a great song, I was talking to someone who was at a show in Milan and they played that song and he said the people in there went nuts.
AV: So do you think Bobby agrees with you that the Asian Underground scene is dead.
Nihal: Well no he wouldn't agree and really I am not saying it's dead. What we represent is all facets of Asian music weather it be hip hop or Asian underground. I am not insulting the Asian underground scene, considering I was part of it - I used to work for Outcaste Records - I did Badmarsh and Shri's PR. And that music is great music, it's awesome but it's not the be all and end of all of Asian music.
AV: Ok then when you are picking tracks for your sets - how do you guys decide what to play and what not to - it seems you try to represent everything Asian?
Nihal: Basically we try to find tracks that have energy and power and that are relevant to the kids. We will play both break beat and hip hop but, we really have two hours of radio time - we can't start playing thirteen minute drum n bass odysseys. Moreover, we have to think about the guys and girls who are bouncing to the music, who like to go out and party - so we have to play the club bangers for those people. And honestly, we want to because we like to party and rave ourselves.
AV: So how do you respond to those people who complain that you have these UK and US people who are creating this club songs but can't speak the original tongue and, because of it, don't understand the culture they are representing?
Nihal: Seriously to those people all I have to say is - why should you use your cultural background as a prison. Why not use it as an aid to creation? It is ridiculous to assume that because I grew up listening to bhangra music, that should be the only music that I can now make. We grew up listening to hip hop, r&b, drum n bass but at the same time we grew up listening to bollywood soundtracks, bhangra and even classical works. So what is so wrong in using those influences to make western music more exciting. Because, really that is what's happening. That is what DJ Quik and Dr. Dre did on Truth Hurts - it's what Timbaland did with Missy Elliot's Get Your Freak On. So why can't we turn around and do the same thing and use our culture to propel us forward rather than hold us back. Seriously though, we are 21st Century Asians living in western society and it's amazing achievement to show that not only have we succeeded in fields of business, medicine and law but also in popular culture and the mainstream media - the things that were absolutely alien to our parents. I mean, look at me - I was a rapper at one point doing rap gigs, hanging out with mostly black kids, even had a record out a long time ago.
AV: Actually on that note - how did you come to the point you are now - I know you have done work on MTV.
Nihal: Ok going way back: while I was at university, a guy called me up and said that his guitar band wanted a rapper to do some work with them. Since, I had been rapping from the age of sixteen - I was twenty one at this point - it kind of took off. We got a lot of indie press; it was not a political sound, just real funky with rapping. Through that I managed to network relentlessly - I didn't even know it was called networking - to me it was just meeting people and shaking hands. I was one of the few Asians in the record industry then and I got offered a PR job working at Outcaste for their parent company Media Village. That job really validated me to the record industry at large, it got me a lot more exposure. After that I started doing PR for Mos Def, Gang Starr and Beenie Man.
AV: So - it was your job to get them on TV in the UK?
Nihal: Yea, I did their TV plugging here - and dare I say, I did quite well. Through all that though, I met TV producers who kept saying that I should be on TV. Eventually I landed a gig on MTV Base presenting hip hop on my own show called The Drop. Essentially this was an Asian presenting a show which so far had be considered black music. I even got asked a couple of times "shouldn't a black person be doing this?" My response always was "music is about your knowledge not about your color. You should just have love and passion for the music." So then after that I did kids TV on BBC - interviewing pop stars for three hours on saturday morning. Then I heard about the Radio 1 show - and here I am.
AV: With you having been on MTV and you and Bobby having this show on BBC 1 - how do you see the western culture reacting to the new Asian scene that is occurring now?
Nihal: Actually, literally I just had lunch with a guy who is the editor of the magazine called Face, its a French fashion magazine here in the UK, about 20 years old, and he said "We want you to write for us because we don't want to do what other journalists do and miss the next trend - we really want to keep up with the Asian scene and how it's going to expand." So there is obviously a very big interest in this scene. In reality though, the problem with this country is that it's so transient. Although, we are probably the most fashionable country there is - we just move too fast. Everybody simply goes through the trends really quickly - but I see a serious response to the Asian scene and it is just waiting to explode. Honestly, you know what - the Asian Underground scene came and went in this country because it was largely a media thing ignored by the typical Asian kids who grew up listening largely to r&b, hip hop, bhangra and bollywood. Personally, this time around it will happen - unlike the last time with the Asian Underground, this is mainstream, it's real, this is the Asian kids listening to it and not the media blowing it out of proportion. It's always going to be fashionable because this is us and we got no where else to go.
AV: All right, thanks for the interview - any final comments?
Nihal: Nothing really - just thank you and tell the readers to check out the Bobby & Nihal show on Radio 1.