One song you immediately take note of in Asian Dub Foundation’s new album is Mindlock. The sound of an Iranian frame drum, processed to industrial strength, draws you in. Then guitar notes drop in over the top, creating a heightened sense of tension, before the thundering dub bass smashes its way through the door.
From that moment on, Asian Dub Foundation delivers a wordless sonic message that perfectly encapsulates their compelling appeal. Originally composed for a live rescoring of George Lucas’ film THX 1138, Mindlock sounds like a punk scorcher, a dub monster, a drum and bass roller and industrial jazz at various points in the three minutes and 44 seconds it plays.
The fact that this instrumental from the band’s new album, Access Denied, stands out as a highlight feels like a vindication for the band. Throughout their 25 years of existence, they have railed against the simple pigeonholing of their music as political activism. Sure, they regularly spit fire when it comes to the injustices of the world, the band would say, but to make that the only focus of what they do does not do justice to the body of music they have recorded since 1995 – 10 albums and counting.
Dancing against the world
Nobody could really blame Asian Dub Foundation for looking backwards these past couple of years, as their celebrated albums of the 1990s, Facts and Fictions and Rafi’s Revenge, turned 25 and 21 respectively. They are not, however, the kind of band to trade on past glory.
Their new album – announced the day the United Kingdom left the European Union – proves the band still has a lot of fire in their bellies, even if they are not as fresh-faced as when they emerged. In 2020, the band still has a dual mandate: to make your feet move and your mind think.
The song Comin’ Over Here sets UK comedian Stewart Lee’s skit about Anglo-Saxons coming over to the UK to steal jobs to a perfect example of what the band call their Indo-Dub. Something similar is done in Youthquake Pt. 1. This time it’s climate activist Greta Thunberg’s United Nations speech set to music. The two songs place the racism that fuelled Brexit and the climate change crisis front and centre.
The band’s collaboration with Palestinian hip-hop crew 47 Soul resulted in Human 47. It is a high-octane dance floor construction driven by the Palestinian exile’s fusion of hip-hop and traditional dabke dance music. Frontline Santiago, featuring Chile’s Ana Tijoux, is another bass-heavy, club-ready tune that also functions as a global call to solidarity for all the world’s oppressed.
As guitarist Steve Savale said in the press release announcing Access Denied: “Music works viscerally, this is not defeatist music, it’s not lock-yourself-away-from-the-world music… It taps into the hedonistic urge to dance and party, but it has this sense that you’re dancing and partying against the way things are.”
Asian Dub Foundation were born out of a music education workshop in 1993, when the band’s bassist Aniruddha Das (Dr Das) and programmer John Pandit (Pandit G) began recording with one of their 15-year-old students, Deeder Zaman (Master D). The band’s debut record Facts and Fictions was released in 1995, on Nation Records.
From the thudding joy of opener Witness, it was clear that Asian Dub Foundation had a sound of their own. It was a heady stew of dub-drenched bass, high-energy jungle breakbeats, snarling punk guitar and a spitfire verbal approach from a teenage rapper called Master D, who clearly had a political consciousness. The Clash, Public Enemy and Rage Against the Machine were obvious precursors. However, it was the influence that the band brought from classical Indian percussion, bhangra music and London’s then underground drum and bass scene that made them stand out.
The UK commercial music scene they emerged into was dominated by Britpop bands like Blur and Oasis. These were bands to which members of Asian Dub Foundation could not relate. They found that scene “vacuous”, a point difficult to argue considering Noel Gallagher from Oasis sipped champagne at 10 Downing Street with Tony Blair, a prime minister who obstinately sent troops to an unjustifiable war. Asian Dub Foundation’s music was the complete antithesis of this smug rock star lifestyle. In contrast to Gallagher’s taste for champagne, when Pandit G was awarded a Member of the Order of the British Empire in 2002, he refused to accept it.
Because of this disconnect with the commercial music scene, the band struggled in their early years. They received a better reception from audiences in Europe than at home. Their 1998 album Rafi’s Revenge, released on Pete Tong’s FFRR Records, broke the band internationally. It got in the charts in the UK and Norway. And it was only a re-recording of the band’s album R.A.F.I., released in France the year before.
With singles like Naxalite, about persecuted tribal warriors in 60 districts of India, and Free Saptal Ram, about a British warehouse worker who was in jail for killing a white man in self-defence, Asian Dub Foundation were the kind of rabble-rousing electro-punks that were not expected to get anywhere near the charts. But nothing about this group was conventional.
The Asian Dub Foundation that greets audiences in 2020 looks decidedly different to the one that took to stages across the world in the mid-1990s. Rapper Master D quit the band after they finished touring for their fourth album, Community Music, in 2000. On Access Denied, the band is fronted by rapper Aktar Ahmed (Aktarv8r) and On-U Sound-affiliated reggae artist Ghetto Priest. The latter first worked with the band on their 2005 album, Tank, but returns in 2020 for the first time in almost 10 years. Also up front is flautist Nathan “Flutebox” Lee, who first hooked up with the band for their 2011 album The History Of Now.
Lee’s contribution to Access Denied is one of its standout features. The beautiful melodies of his flute ride high across the album. Stalwarts like guitarist Steve Savale and programmer Pandit G are still present. Bassist Dr Das is present, too. He did not play with the band between 2006 and 2012, and it is a period marked by an output of substandard albums. Sitting behind the drum kit is ex-Prodigy stickman Brian Fairburn. He joined the band in 2015.
However, it’s not just the line-up changes that feel different about Asian Dub Foundation in 2020. There are two moments on Access Denied that feel like they are speaking directly to each other. And in a way, what this conversation tells us quite clearly is that Asian Dub Foundation are not the idealists they have often been painted to be.
The struggle is complicated
The first moment comes early in the album. In third song Frontline, Aktarv8r spits: “Beaming into my mind I trust/ That I’m on the right side, it’s a must.” This is closely followed by the declaration:
We’re on the same team
Can you hear the call
United we stand
Frontline is a global call to solidarity, which wraps up its objections to poverty, racism, capitalism, the war on terror, the global war machine and surveillance capitalism in three minutes of punk-fuelled industrial dub.
The second moment comes late in the album, in the last song, Smash and Grab the Future. It is a remix of the album’s opening single featuring Australian beatbox vocalist Dub FX. The original single speaks to former UK prime minister Theresa May’s statement at the Conservative Party conference in October 2016, when she said: “If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what citizenship means.”
While Stealing the Future harks back to the sound of Asian Dub Foundation’s guitar-drenched take on drum and bass that captured so many imaginations in the 1990s, it lacks the sonic punch of visceral 1990’s singles like Naxalite. In fact, Access Denied’s most endearing moments manifest when the band sounds like they are not trying to be what they were in the 1990s.
Thirty seconds into the remix of Stealing the Future, Aktarv8r raps:
Can’t you see we’re not unified
Individualistic in our pride
Maybe you’re just too satisfied
To reject what they provide
It feels at this moment that he is referring to the idealism that is so embedded in the songs Stealing the Future and Frontline, which open the album.
At the beginning of Access Denied, Aktarv8r is rapping about standing “united” and “being on the right side”. By the time we get to the end of the album, he is telling us we are not “unified” and too “individualistic”.
This is an important duality, one that was less evident in Asian Dub Foundation’s earlier work. It’s an important reminder to the listener that getting fired up on the dance floor to a global call for solidarity and being on the “right side” is one thing, but to see real change in the world requires sacrifice and involves day-to-day decision-making in our real lives, not the dance floors we escape to on weekends to forget about our nine-to-five jobs, or our lack thereof.