Apache Indian hits the comeback trail with a new album
It was a sunny afternoon when we sat down for tea with Steven Kapur, better known as the bhangra reggae king, Apache Indian. There’s a bit more grey in those dreadlocks than we remember, but the swagger and attitude still remain. “I’m talking to a few producers about making a movie on my life. I think Dev Patel could play me, what do you think?” he suggests, with the hint of a mischievous twinkle in his jetlagged eyes.
Apache’s name remains deeply ingrained in memory for teenagers who grew up in the 1990s, as a staple in party mix-tapes, and crowd favourites for graduation-day celebrations. Rolling in with his catchy turns of phrase and laidback Jamaican frisson, Apache’s debut album, No Reservations (1991), with tracks like Movie Over India, Arranged Marriage and Don Raja, were all the rage for their grooves as much as the kitschy videos became the stuff of delirious teenybopper repeat-requests in the earliest days of MTV in India. Having pretty much created the genre of bhangra-hop single-handedly, with a nod to founding bands such as The Dhol Foundation and Asian Dub Foundation, Apache is back with a new album titled In Ja (short for In Jamaica), sporting a renewed zeal to cast his spell over party scenes across dancehall and disco to R&B and dubstep.
Ja man who knew infinity
In Ja takes inspiration, as the name suggests, straight from the Caribbean island nation, the home of jamrock and stars from Peter Tosh to Shaggy, The Notorious B.I.G. and Sean Paul. “I don’t have to prove anything to anyone,” offers Apache, who’s now a father of three, including Kelvin Kapoor,
his eldest, who briefly dabbled in rap and accompanied him on a 2011 India tour. “I’m in a good place. I can do what comes from the heart. This album is pure reggae,” he says. While he is currently with the label Sunset Entertainment, Apache was first signed on by the legendary talent hunter Chris Blackwell, of Island Records, who was responsible for bringing reggae to mainstream western audiences, decades earlier. “He just took me to Bob Marley Studios in Kingston and made me record, that’s how it all started,” recalls Apache, tracing the connection with the late spiritual reggae icon. Noticeably missing from the new album are the bhangra and Punjabi elements, replaced by more mellow electronic tunes. The release pulls off a more mature effect, also making room for a lot more vocals than before. Producer Jim Beanz, noted for his work with the likes of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, who also recently cut the soundtrack for the TV show Empire, pushed him to give range to his vocal range, says Apache. “The whole album is me returning to my roots of reggae,” he says, adding, “People ask me why I did reggae in the first place, people from outside Birmingham that is. In Birmingham, it’s obvious — they never wondered.”
For his personal inspirations, “Bob Marley is obviously a huge influence, he died on my birthday you know,” confides Apache. He also names roots reggae legends Burning Spear and Freddie McGregor as idols, mentioning in the same breath that his parents listened to a lot of Mohammed Rafi and Asha Bhosle. “I credit a lot of my sound to them as well,” he adds.
Growing up in Birmingham, UK, Apache was raised in a mixed-race urban society, melded with unshakeable desi influences. His street vibe emerged from a mix of the rastafarian subculture, emigrant Indian and Pakistani sensibilities, with a touch of the native-born Brummies, for flavour. For one thing, his nanny was Jamaican, recounts Apache. “It was all a hotch-potch, and we didn’t know where we belonged. We had no one to talk to. Our parents were holding on to Indian traditional values. But India had already moved on.” The generation had no one to look up to, and there were few Asians on TV left to idolise, elaborates the original ‘bhangramuffin’. Music was a way for many of them to shape their identity, express themselves, and play up a sense of where they came from. The whole thing came naturally, insists Apache. “I was actually surprised when the songs were popular in India,” he reveals. “Because for me, my music was everything that my situation and upbringing in Birmingham had led to.”
Back in India, at the time, with tracks like Chok There and Boom Shack-A-Lak (from his 1993 EP, Nuff Vibes) rapidly gaining airplay, Apache had become the figurehead for desi cool made out for international crowds. In the years leading up to Bally Sagoo remixes and Putumayo World Music compilations, Apache’s music was a revelation. When he rapped, “so me hear from Karachi, New York, Kingston and London city...” all of us did sit up and listen.
Apache acknowledges the rise of Punjabi hip-hop as the flavour of the moment in Bollywood. “I like Honey Singh, I do,” he says with a smile, adding, “I like that his music is popular now, and I hope it is not just a phase. I want it to be taken more seriously.” Apache takes a moment to look back at his many stellar collaborations, with Prabhu Deva, A R Rahman, Asha Bhosle, Mika Singh and even Bappi Lahiri. “I love Bappi,” he gushes. “I love the chains and the bling. He brought disco to India!”
The underlying concern has always been about underground music scenes in the UK losing their essence once they gain mainstream success, explains Apache. It has to be about the music, he says, and it ain’t as easy as mixing up bhangra with hip-hop elements. Quite simply, if it doesn’t gel well, it falls flat. “That's why when rappers in Jalandhar tried to copy me, it did not work,” says Apache, hitting a grim note of worldly wisdom. “It was who we are.” While the issues at hand remain largely the same, it’s really about giving things an individual take. So while Arranged Marriage spoke about his parents trying to find him a girl to settle down with, the larger problem — “when is the right time to tell me gal friend!”— remains universal.
Seeking refuge in ragas
Quite naturally, our conversation veers towards the subject of immigration. “I’m sad, very sad at the way things are going. In the UK, we have a lot of Europeans coming in,” says Apache, striking a visibly upset grimace. “The radicalism is coming back,” he adds. But Apache is not one to sit idle. His music school, the Apache Indian Music Academy, actively recruits immigrants, even neophytes with little or no knowledge of English, or the fundaments of music. “I have people from all over Europe, ones who can’t even speak to each other, because there are no common languages, but they play together and create music together,” enthuses Apache. Music is the uniting factor, he avers, and the only way to tackle negativity. In Ja, noticeably, directly addresses dispiriting global issues. Having recently shot a music video for the song, Save The World, in Sri Lanka, Apache wasn’t about reveal too much about his immediate plans, though he reassures us about themes of race and immigration taking centrestage with his songwriting experiments. At the same time, he adds, it’s time to celebrate the increased representation of desis on the global platform. For instance, the solo album, Mind of Mine, by local Bradford boy and teen heartthrob Zayn Malik, is all about life on the streets of UK, while Dev Patel and Riz Ahmed feature in critically acclaimed new movies. “It’s a great time for us (people of Asian origin),” asserts Apache, “the formula is working out, as it is happening organically.”
The long road for Rasta
In the same vein, reggae will never go out of style, affirms Apache. Classic reggae has its own audience and it’s bigger than ever right now, he says. “We played in Japan, and they loved us. All the Rasta boys from Tokyo were there with their dreads and all... it was huge.” They played to packed crowds in the UK and Germany too. In India, bands like the Reggae Rajahs, who played at the Glastonbury Festival recently, and Bombay Bassment, are taking the genre forward, not without any help from Apache. He’s a big fan of both the bands, and plays regularly with Major C, the DJ from Bombay Bassment.
It all comes down to staying true and preserving one’s roots, offers Apache. “I think Rastafarian culture ultimately derives itself from Hinduism, and a lot of ancient Indian culture,” summarises the singer. “It's natural that we gravitate towards our cultural origins. So, me being a Hindu with dreadlocks, does add up in some way, doesn’t it?” he quips.
In the 25 years since he dropped his debut, No Reservations, it appears that Apache Indian has come full circle, flipping the idea of Jamaican chill on its head. Where his earlier tracks were hard-hitting—in a way of never letting you look away, In Ja does a complete turn-about, with laidback lounge grooves that aim for a little more soul than in-your-face spunk. The album opens with Beautiful Girls, instantly striking a beach-party vibe, and settles into folksy tunes with tracks such as Royal, Hold You Down and Heartless. Apache lays down the airplay-ready hits with the ballad Marianna (look out for the
video’s world premiere on VH1 India), and the Dr Alban-esque Save The World before letting his hair down with the explosive My Way. Time Is Money and Go Down do well to close In Ja on an up-tempo note, though we’re left wondering how long he can keep up with the mixed bag of lyrics, tossing up odes to “sexy girls” alongside brooding verses over global affairs. It’s all good, we suppose, as long as he can keep us going, “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” on endless loop.
In Ja, Apache Indian, Universal Music Group, Rs 120 on iTunes and other streaming services