Having grown up in the U.K. in the early-to-late 2000’s, my childhood was marked with the early wave of Punjabi garage music. As a result, I grew up listening to the likes of RDB, Metz N Trix, Rishi Rich, Dr Zeus, and more -- on the radio, at hall parties, and on TV programmes.
In fact, Aja Mahi by RDB, featuring Metz N Trix is one of my all-time favourite songs to this day. So while I enjoy the new generation of Punjabi music, I’ve been increasingly nostalgic of that Y2K sound that not only represents my youth and my connection to my culture, but has also fostered my deep appreciation for music.
This nostalgia of mine was revisited this past week, with the release of the documentary: The Birth of Punjabi Garage.
Produced by DJ extraordinaire, Yung Singh, and Ministry of Sound, a multifaceted multimedia business, this 11-minute film showcases footage from the early 90’s and 2000’s of the origin of the Punjabi garage music scene in the U.K. It also highlights some of the genre’s early pioneers, namely Surinder Rattan, SurjRDB, Metz n Trix, and Indy Sagu. While not a cumulative history of the origins of Punjabi garage music, the documentary touches on a lot of key moments in time for this genre and the way that many of these pioneers joined forces.
The documentary also depicts the way that Punjabi garage music and South Asian dance music in general have developed over time to be what they are today, through artists such as Yung Singh, and the Daytimers, a South Asian dance music collective (their name taking inspiration from the South Asian daytime raves in the 80’s – 90’s era in the U.K.).
Overall, this documentary is incredibly meaningful for the South Asian diaspora as it documents a music movement which has typically been erased from the U.K. garage music scene. Hopefully, it will also create a future movement that will inspire more Punjabi and South Asian garage artists.
If you aren’t familiar with garage music or Punjabi garage music, you may still be wondering what on earth it is. As an avid listener of both modern-day “western” garage music and old-school Punjabi garage music, I couldn’t quite pinpoint it myself, having never defined the music that I was raised with.
However, if I were to describe it, I would say that garage music is a genre of electronic dance music (EDM) that presents as a mismatch of fast-paced beats often infused with components of R&B and hip hop. A more technical definition would be, “heavily swung and syncopated house-inspired rhythms, deep bass grooves, soulful vocals and instrumentation – but presented at a faster tempo.”
Garage music originated in 1970’s New York, where DJ Larry Levan got the opportunity to DJ at Paradise Garage club. This initial form of garage music was a combination of EDM from genres such as soul, disco, and rock.
You can still find Levan’s iconic mixes up on YouTube today. Once this garage sound was transported to the UK in the 90’s through New Jersey DJ Todd Edwards, it evolved to be at a much faster tempo, a deeper bass, and to include the voice of an MC. Notable songs of this era include, 21 Seconds by the So Solid Crew, Movin’ Too Fast by the Artful Dodger feat Romina Johnson, A London Thing by Scott Garcia feat MC Styles, and more.
However, garage music’s popularity was short-lived with its progression into new genres such as grime and dubstep and with the U.K. media vilifying garage in the mid-2000’s. But there has been a revival since the 2010s with U.K. garage making a return even in the present day.
What is noticeably absent in my foray of the U.K.'s garage music history, is the introduction of Punjabi garage music. This is where the documentary fills in our gap in knowledge of the Punjabi take on garage music.
From the beginning, it is evident that there wasn’t just a single point where Punjabi garage music emerged -- rather it seems that there were several significant moments; the RDB trio DJing at events, Surinder Rattan reaching out to Metz N Trix, Metz N Trix MCing at raves, and more. A common theme however, is their recognition of the way that for a lot of British South Asians in the 90’s and 2000’s, there was a need for music that acknowledged their “British way of life,” while also representing their culture.
What emerged then through these pioneers of Punjabi garage music was a combination of a Punjabi vocal, an MC rapping in line with the mainstream garage sound, and a fast tempo. Songs like Tappe by Surinder Rattan feat Metz N Trix, Putt Sardaaran De by RDB feat Ranjit Mani & MC Trix, Bheer by Panjabi MC feat Ranjit Manni, further shaped this shifting point in garage and Punjabi music.
However, at the time, this genre was not widely welcomed. In fact, there was pushback as many felt that these garage elements were ruining the sanctity of Punjabi music. To those critics, Surinder Rattan, argued that this wasn’t Punjabi music that he and his peers were creating, rather this was an entirely new genre. As such, Punjabi garage didn’t initially receive much mainstream media coverage by South Asian networks.
Despite all of this, this wave of music was incredibly popular throughout the 90’s and early 2000’s. Surinder Rattan speaks of cross-cultural events and the garage sound spreading through the villages of Punjab; Metz N Trix talk about being the first South Asians at Glastonbury (a performing arts festival); Surj RDB discusses the aftermath of RDB’s album with the development of a record shop and record label; and Indy Sagu speaks to the timeless sound of Punjabi garage music and the hopes of a revival. It's evident to me that this period was reflective of the sheer creativity of these South Asian garage musicians who helped create a sense of belonging for British South Asians.
The documentary then pans back to Yung Singh, who is arguably one of today’s modern pioneers of Punjabi garage. I came to know of Yung Singh after watching several TikToks of his viral Boiler Room set this past summer.
After watching the full set on YouTube, I found myself in tears with the beauty of what he’s created by reintroducing old-school Punjabi garage and putting his own twist on it for the South Asian diaspora. Hearing the sounds of my childhood, seeing a Singh play at a club in London, and witnessing the joy of everyone present made me feel like I belonged in that space too, despite being miles away in Canada.
Singh started by putting out a Punjabi Garage mix last year after disappointment with the way in which South Asians were being excluded around the resurrection of garage music. Of the mix, he says, “the reason I put it out was because I was annoyed at the narrative that was being spun around a U.K. Garage Revival [which] leaned heavily on middle class white men. I was like ‘hold on, I’m not included in any of these conversations. I’ve been listening to garage longer than you guys have.”
While researching the genre to write this piece, I’ve come to realize just how versatile and creative Punjabi garage music is and how it is alive now more than ever. Not only that, but there has also been greater documentation of its evolution through this documentary, historical photographs, and social media.
It makes me think of this quote; “In a period of claustrophobic nationalism: immigrant communities have always found a way to stake their claim in new worlds, and they always will.”
Beyond the garage scene too, I’ve learned about UK’s South Asian daytime raves, the prevalence of female DJ’s within this underground scene, research papers and studies capturing South Asian music in the UK, and different venues for performance like UK’s Dialled In festival. I’m incredibly excited to see the continuation of Punjabi garage music over these coming years and see our musical communities adapt and shift their sounds. I also hope that there is continued documentation of these events in the UK and within North America (where there has been a historical lack of documentation of the South Asian music scene altogether) for the generations ahead of us to look back on.
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