Updated: Jan 20, 2022
The Asian Underground. It’s been around as long as the Paki slur, hip hop and Bangladesh (its definition acquainted with each). It represents the music of Brown Britishness yet, just like many of the other labels South Asians in the UK navigate, it also represents a community-convention-compromise. A claim to the Asian Underground is a claim to spaces with all brown faces. But it’s also an acceptance that juggling authentic representation, individual expression, and reactionary stereotype-subverting all in front of a white gaze is a delicate balancing act.
From the 70s through to the 90s, the Asian Underground meant UK bhangra – Punjabi folk music played over the dominant sounds of British nightlife (garage / jungle / reggae) helmed by artists like Punjabi MC and Bally Sagoo. And it meant daytimers – the daytime raves organised and attended by South Asians as a means to navigating both parental restrictions and the void of representation (or acceptance) at mainstream club nights. As expressed by Riz Ahmed’s short film of the same name, inherent to the double-life ritual of bunking off school to attend the daytimers before returning home for dinner was faction conflict and animosity (unhappy with Sikh girls dancing with Pakistani boys, Sikhs would even record attendees entering the venues in some instances, to later play at local temples).
The 90s is when the Asian Underground earnt its name, borrowing from the title of a compilation by Talvin Singh, the legendary tabla player whose seminal 1998 project, OK – an eclectic work fusing Indian classical, electronica and dnb – won him a Mercury Prize. OK reflected a diversification in the output of British South Asian artists and a deviation from the bhangra sound that had become the cliched expectation; Nitin Sawhney’s Broken Skin combined Indian classical with soul, jazz and hip hop while Asian Dub Foundation’s Rafi’s Revenge confronted racist stereotypes placed upon brown people through hard-hitting lyrics over dub beats. Club nights like Bombay Jungle, Asian Vibes and Anokha created safe spaces for these eclectic sounds, attracting not just South Asians but mixed crowds of all ethnicities
The cultural momentum of the Asian Underground was palpably drained following post-9/11 perception of South Asians in the mainstream. In the 2000s, Rishi Rich pioneered Asian-R&B fusion music, launching the careers of proteges Juggy D and Jay Sean, the latter becoming a pop sensation. Tamil record producer and activist M.I.A also began her career and cemented herself as a creative powerhouse, non-ascribable to a single genre. There was the saga of enigmatic electronic dance visionary Jai Paul (if you know you know). And the past couple decades have seen Punjabi producer Steel Banglez become one of the UK rap scene’s most integral. Despite all this, the pre-millennium Asian Underground movement seemed to have been replaced in the most part by a sparse series of moments - communal spirit lost to elbowing competition to achieve token whiteness-bestowed acclaim.
Thankfully, there’s been a recent resurgence in unapologetically Brown British nights like No ID, Cousins and Hungama. Building off this, a snowballing momentum is now being generated by all brown creative collective Daytimers (their name a reference to that latent legacy of the Asian Underground). It’s a call for the South Asian musical moments of the past couple decades to be consolidated back into a movement – the Asian Underground’s latest wave.
Beyond a revivalist movement, Daytimers are seeking to advance upon their namesake and carve a community space devoid of compromise. The collective cultivates and platforms a united talent pool of diverse brown creative talent; archives and celebrates the history of British Brown brilliance; and delivers a consistent, well-conceived stream of creative output (events including an outstanding Boiler Room and an iconic first-of-its-kind all-South Asian festival, Dialled In, as well as radio shows, tracks, mixes, compilations, playlists and a podcast). The DJ sets and mixes heard at Daytimers’ events are electronic escapades venturing across bass, trance, acid, house, dance, hip hop, dnb and more, often sampling and blending Bollywood, Indian classical or bhangra in imaginative ways. And far from the undertones of hostility at original daytimer events, this collective stands by an inclusive ethos of community and solidarity which is embodied in their actions – previous projects, including a 24-hour livestream for the Indian farmer protests, have raised funds for humanitarian campaigns, while safe space policies and plans at the events enact a zero-tolerance approach to harassment or prejudice.
The Daytimers collective is representing British Brown creative talent authentically and purposefully. But their conception, like the Asian Underground collectives and movements that came before, is not a fluke. The spirit of community, the uninhibited expressiveness, and the kaleidoscopic music comprising the South Asian experience is context to Brown Britain’s inevitable carving-out of a vibrant space. And it's one that demands to last.