Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Killing in the Name of Good Music

The British Asian community has lost its beloved band Cornershop to the white middle-class masses.

No wait, British Asians never ever gave a shit about Cornershop because they always considered them too honky sounding.

Actually, come to think of it no one of any colour really gave a shit about Cornershop. They've not been relevant since circa 1997 when Norman Cook's poptastic remix of Brimful of Asha scored a No. 1 radio-friendly smash hit single for the band that was played to death.

Last week saw the release of Conershop's 6th studio album titled Cornershop & the Double-O Groove Of which the band has put out themselves on Ample Play. It charted at a pretty respectable 24th place in the UK Indie album chart, slotting nicely in between Fleet Foxes and Suede's Greatest Hits.

Double-O Groove Of is a pretty special album because it's probably the closest Cornershop has got to replicating the magic of their breakthrough album I Was Born for the 7th Time which was staple sonic fodder for most students in the late-1990s.

Cornershop's Tjinder Singh talks about the new album ft Bubbley Kaur by cornershop

What's remarkable about Double-O Groove Of is that it's not actually a Cornershop album in the traditional sense. Tjinder Singh's - frontman and, along with Ben Ayres, the brains behind the sound of Cornershop – distinguished vocals feature nowhere on the album. Furthermore, the album is not in the English language as it's purely sung in old-fashioned Punjabi by an unknown thirty-something Lancashire housewife called Bubbley Kaur who also wrote the lyrics. Bubbley Kaur isn't even a professional singer; she is in fact a blue-collar Northern lass who was discovered by Tjinder Singh while working at a kitchen-sink launderette somewhere in Preston.

Yet Double-O Groove Of is in every way a Cornershop album. It may take its inspiration from the Punjabi folk music of my dad's era but it is still a hip-hop album. In fact, to call this an all out hip-hop album may be short-sighted. The album is as much in the tradition of cockney kings Chaz and Dave as it is in the style of Beastie Boys and Outkast. It pinches the rhythms of classic kids' fare like Rainbow and Sesame Street by way of funked up beats redolent of Handsome Boy Modeling School. It is as English sounding a record as it is a product of Indian classical music traditions. This is an album for the 21st century where sounds, customs, cultures, ethnicities, and languages are malleable, contorted in wondrous ways that shouldn't gel yet somehow they do.

Cornershop have been going for 20 years now. The band's core team consists of Tjinder Singh and Ben Ayres who met in the late-1980s when both were students at Lancashire Polytechnic. (The band comes from a time when those who hadn't been educated in the expensive way could still land record deals based on talent and not contacts.) Bubbley Kaur first met Singh in the mid-1990s in Preston, and met again a decade later in a launderette opposite Islington Town Hall where she was doing the service washes. A taxi driver friend of Singh's had heard Kaur singing at a wedding reception and encouraged him to record with her.

Initial recording sessions for Double-O Groove Of took place around 2004 at Singh's own Sassy P Studios. The first track they recorded was Topknot, initially released as a stand-alone single and was played heavily by the legendary Radio 1 DJ John Peel. Topknot topped end-of-year critics' choice lists and made the lower reaches of the UK chart, while a remix of it by Pulp's Steve Mackey, featuring M.I.A., got picked up by many influential U.S. hip-hop DJs.

M.I.A - Topknot by warrior empire

Topknot now, thankfully minus the M.I.A. rap injection, nestles as one of ten remarkable tracks on the Double-O Groove Of.

It's difficult to define what genre the Double-O Groove Of belongs to but it is very easy to deduce the album is the work of Anglo-Asians. Cornershop may have been hijacked by hipster white guys but its soul, for better or worse, very much belongs the Brit Asian culture it sprung from. Tjinder Singh told John Lewis (The Guardian journalist and not the department store) that in the formative years of Cornershop he was telling his parents he was not in a band and was working in a corporate role at a record label. Singh explained to Lewis: "You need that to protect [yourself] from people, in your own community and in others, who might not like what you're doing. When we started out we got death threats." Singh went on to say: "I think that desire for anonymity is an Asian thing."

Perhaps this explicates why Singh and Ayres seem like protective big brothers to Kaur. So protective in fact that "Bubbley Kaur" isn't actually her real name, but a pseudonym (a random line from Cornershop's 2002 track Wogs Will Walk).

It's hard to figure out why the Brit Asian community reacted with such hostility towards Cornershop. It was around about the same time as Cornershop's inception that pioneering London band Asian Dub Foundation were also starting out and were as equally unenthusiastically received by the Brit Asian community. A few years later experimental Asian artists like Anjali Bhatia and Trickbaby suffered similar resistance from Brit Asian crowds.

This ostensible contempt towards British Asian musicians may stem from an anachronistic attitude whereby pop music in general is perceived as a lowly and not religiously appropriate hobby, which is a remarkable afterthought considering just how intrinsic music is to the Sikh, Hindu and Muslim faiths.

It may also derive from a festering hatred towards fellow Asians who are perceived to pander to ethnically white crowds, hence abandoning their own community's support by creating music that borrows heavily from Indian sounds but cheapens it by allowing English consumers to casually buy in to it.

Ultimately, I think that it has more to do with pockets of the British Asian community not liking the leftfield styles of bands like Cornershop and Asian Dub Foundation, devaluing the music on account of it not being readily accessible to mentally incapacitated joes who find it difficult to handle anything that isn't in the realm of Ja Rule or Beyonce Knowles.

It's hard to think that someone like Byron Davies of metalcore band God Forbid would get similar threats from the African American community, or that Kevin Nishimura of electro pop group Far East Movement would incur comparable intimidation from the Oriental American society. This tradition of attacking individuals who don't conform to set perceptions seems endemic to the Brit Asian community.

Despite never courting the interest of the desi crowd Cornershop may be the most surprised party in discovering that tracks from Double-O Groove Of feature on the playlists of both Sunrise Radio and BBC Asian Network. The very community that was once poised to brutally slain them is now embracing the band. Maybe it's a sign of the times, or maybe it's just the hardened truth that Brit Asians as a collective mass have evolved and grownup. If anything Cornershop's new album is a glorious paean to the community it comes from; beautifully traditional yet completely unlike anything else out there. Perhaps that's why the band was awarded 'Commitment to the Scene' at this month's majorly touted 2011 UK Asian Music Awards.

Much like Lewis argues: "this new expression of [Cornershop's] music isn't about looking outwards for an audience, but inwards to challenge themselves."

Double-O Groove Of is potentially the best album of 2011 thus far. That's a pretty big claim seeing that 2011 has only been going for less than 3 months and already seen big profile albums launched from the likes of Radiohead, R.E.M. and The Strokes to name but a few. Double-O Groove Of is by far the most daring album you're likely to hear this year as it pushes the boundaries of hip-hop in brilliantly unrecognisable directions. Bubbley Kaur sings in a beautifully saccharine voice that is achingly evocative yet teasingly playful. It's a voice that is in equal parts soothing as it is reassuring, traditional yet brilliantly fits within the crafted beats concocted by Singh and Ayres. It doesn't matter if you can't understand what she's singing (which I largely don't) because her vocal skills transcend language. Kaur's melodic tones are gorgeously matched with Cornershop's body-popping production arrangements that may be eccentric but never elegiac. This is a pure feel-good album for these very bleak times.

Cornershop - United Provinces Of India by TLOBF

Cornershop ft Bubbley Kaur - The 911 Curry by cornershop

This is the kind of music that brings people together, not kill each other. The arrival of Cornershop & the Double-O Groove Of is a licence for Tjinder Singh & co. to walk the streets of Southall, Handsworth and Belgrave in the absolute confidence they won't get decked by thuggish Asian music haters. Instead, we now hail them as paragons of quality musicianship.

Cornershop ft Bubbley Kaur - Once There Was A Wintertime by cornershop

Saturday, 12 March 2011

When ‘R’isky Movies Attack

Question: What do Paul Verhoeven's blood drenched battle epic Crusade, Martin Scorsese's period gangster flick The Irishman and Oliver Stone's controversial dramatisation of the brutal My Lai Massacre Pinkville all have in common?

Answer: They are all hugely anticipated movie projects, largely violent in content, which almost got made but stumbled at the last minute due to studios getting cold feet and withdrawing their support, fearing the films too risky to greenlight.

Now added to that list is Guillermo del Toro's long gestating adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft's horror tome At the Mountains of Madness which tells the story of a post WW1 expedition to Antarctica where a team of explorers encounter a malevolent alien civilianisation that can manipulate both physical and psychological matter, also having the power to control time and space.

Mountains was ready to start filming this summer but Universal Pictures crushed it this week by informing del Toro they felt uncomfortable investing $150 million on an R-rated esoteric monster movie. It was another blow to del Toro's already fraught efforts to realise his dream project, initially having planned to film the movie in 1998 when Dreamworks optioned the adaptation rights for the director. The project has since fumbled along, bouncing from Dreamworks to Universal. (Del Toro had in fact been actively developing Mountains independently since 1993.)

After bailing on The Hobbit due to studio inconsistencies, del Toro announced last summer that his next project will finally be Mountains. Universal was keen to associate itself with the visionary director and encouraged him to package it together. (The New Yorker suggests that del Toro was in fact fired from The Hobbit in order to facilitate Peter Jackson as director who had wanted to redeem his filmmaking career after making flops King Kong and The Lovely Bones.)

Adam Fogelson, chairman of Universal Pictures, was excited about Mountains, telling the New Yorker's Daniel Zalewski ― a journalist who has been following the Mexican director's attempts to get the ambitious movie greenlit ― that he was amazed at del Toro plans for the film saying: "The kind of movie Guillermo is looking to create is not something there's been much of in the recent past ― we think great films make great business."

The conditions were set. Don Murphy and Susan Montford were brought in to produce the picture. James Cameron, having just come off Avatar, signed on to exec produce and Tom Cruise was in final negotiations to come on board to star in the lead role of William Dyer (although the studio was initially pushing for the younger James McAvoy as he had starred in Universal's successful action film Wanted). James Cameron even sat in on creative meetings with del Toro at Universal where he convinced the director to lens the film with the same 3D technology he utilised on Avatar. This was a project where all the essential elements were cosmically aligned ― all they needed was the studio greenlight.

That optimism went to seed this week. In an e-mail to Daniel Zalewski last Monday, del Toro wrote: "Madness has gone dark. The 'R' did us in." Bizarrely this confirmation of cancellation on Mountains came shortly after producer Don Murphy had mistakenly informed io9 that filming was scheduled to begin in June but he later retracted his comments. (Does anyone in the film industry know what they are doing?)

It seems the suits at Universal were seriously uncomfortable with del Toro wanting to make the film for $150 million and insisting that his contract include the finished movie be allowed permission to risk an R-rating. Deadline reported that despite a stunning visual presentation that met the studio's budget specifications, Universal just couldn't risk banking so much money on a largely unknown period horror property that could prove to be a hard sell to mainstream audiences.

So it is at this stage the blogosphere erupts in aggressive vitriolic tones, berating Hollywood's aversion to funding original ideas and not respecting the esteemed vision of a gifted film auteur like del Toro. That is sort of true, but is there really any surprise in Universal's decision? Can they be blamed for not wanting to take a risk on a project that will probably backfire? The intelligent answer is that no one can wag their finger at the studio because it seems Universal made a sensible decision.

Before any further elucidation it must be highlighted that I am a fan of H.P. Lovecraft's original 1931 novella At Mountains of Madness and have also read del Toro and Matthew Robbins screenplay for the film, though it has surely been superseded by subsequent drafts since. It's a great story, though not to everyone's taste. The same can be said of the script, replete with rich atmosphere, crazy pacing and arcane sense of plotting. Much like Lovecraft's original story, the script lacks digestible character relationships and there is little in the way of emotional pull. Added to this is a lack of comprehendible horror context and bizarre imagery that makes the project difficult to anchor. The screenplay remains faithful to the original period setting of the novella which may have further perturbed Universal as the screenplay's characters, tone and dialogue signal prestige horror picture rather than a contemporary scary movie.

This brings us on to the question of studios stifling original projects because of 'unfeasible' apprehensions. Making films is a business and an expensive business at that. We're living in a time when the studios know what is more likely to work and those projects are often not adult in tone. With ever greater mollycoddling, studios are weary of making anything that will offend parents and guardians who may not permit their kids to watch even nominally violent content. (In America, R-rated films can be watched by anyone as long as they're accompanied by an adult, unlike here in the UK where 15 and 18 certificated movies cannot be watched by anyone younger than the age specified.)

The film consumer landscape of now is vastly different to 25 years ago when studios gave the greenlight to majorly expensive violent fare like Total Recall, RoboCop, The Silence of the Lambs, The Fly, Predator and Die Hard ― products designed to shock as well as entertain. Nowadays it's impossible to make those types of films as the costs are too great and directors are contractually obliged to deliver films within a safe classification rating. All this hints at economics and societal pressures dictating the current model for the types of movies getting greenlit. 20 years ago you were more likely to see your first violent film before your 13th birthday than what you are today. Added to this is the actuality it's hard to come by higher rated pictures as studios don't tend to make them anymore.

Furthermore, we can't be too hateful to Universal Pictures. Deadline noted that Mountains would need to take in $500 million worldwide to break even. It would have to be the most successful R-rated movie of all time or do Transformers and Harry Potter box-office to keep investors happy. R-rated films of late have been low or mid-budget films where the risk is offset by manageable budget and affordable viral ad campaigns. Del Toro's envisaged proposal for Mountains would have required massively expensive P&A (prints and advertising) that would have further exacerbated its bottom-line.

Plus it's not like Universal hasn't taken gambles and got its fingers burned recently. Last year the studio banked films like Green Zone, Robin Hood, and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: expensive director driven projects that failed to find a satisfactory audience base. The studio also released a $90 million remake of The Wolfman which was an R-rated period horror picture that seriously underperformed. If anything The Wolfman was an easier sell than what Mountains will be and it cost 40% less than the former. Considering the entire data available one can't blame Universal for not wanting to proceed with Mountains.

Yes, it would be grand to see del Toro's hugely expensive treatment of Mountains but it was not meant to be. To be honest, it's surprising that a project like this managed to get as far as it did in the development process. As del Toro eloquently explained to Zalewski, Hollywood is "the Land of Slow No," with studios dragging out their decision to ultimately suspend further support for movie projects they were initially keen on. It's flummoxing how del Toro can invest 18 years of work in a film and then just walk away from it. I find it difficult to understand why he couldn't trim the budget to a less alarming figure or at least limit the depiction of violence, but then again I suppose for us people who don't actually make movies we cannot gage the difficult processes involved in balancing creativity with fiscal control.

It's like when director Mark Romanek, who was originally hired to helm The Wolfman but bailed due to budgetary issues, claimed: "[People argue] 'he (Romanek) couldn't figure how to make a movie for a hundred million dollars', well you know what? If you are 30 or 40 or 45 million dollars shy of what you need that's on the page and there's a strike and you can't change anything [in the script], what the fuck do you do? That's a problem. It's very easy for people that actually don't make films to say 'Oh, he couldn't figure it out for a hundred million dollars'."

Maybe a similar line of defence will ring from del Toro in future interviews about Mountains. Much like Romanek, del Toro didn't want to bargain his vision, thus choosing to abandon it because by reducing the budget it wouldn't comply with his goals. This was a passion project for the director and he was not willing to compromise his dreams. Perhaps it is exactly that kind of thinking that separates creative geniuses like del Toro from the rest of us.

Deadline's Mike Fleming reported on Wednesday that del Toro has since announced he will shoot Warner Bros. creature feature Pacific Rim this September as his next movie, for which he is contractually obliged to turn in a PG-13 rated cut. When Fleming quizzed del Toro about his feelings regarding the current state of studio film commissioning the director said: "What is really dramatic to me is that most decisions are now being taken by comps, and charts, and target quadrants. All these marketing things we inherited from a completely different system, in the 80s, it has taken hold of the entire industry. Marketers and accountants seem to be running things and less and less of the decisions are in the hands of filmmakers." He went on to say: "I've been offered four or five times at different studios the chance to make [Mountains] in what I think was the wrong way. With $20 million or $30 million less than what I need, with a contractual PG-13, and I don't want to do it that way.

There will always be fantastic movies that were so near yet so far away from getting made. It will probably become an even commoner phenomenon as time goes by. The market isn't like what it used to be even 15 years ago when MGM made the NC-17 rated Showgirls, New Line bankrolled grisly serial killer film Se7en and Warner Bros. released gloriously senseless violent thriller Natural Born Killers.

Expensively violent movies for grownups are pretty much dead. Just like Roger Waters of Pink Floyd sang in his jaded lyrics about the film industry: "Who knows what it's about, as long as the kids go.

It makes you want to punch someone, and not in a PG-13 way either.

Saturday, 5 March 2011

The Next Big Thing in Music... if only you’d give it a chance

As previously mentioned, Britain's urban music scene is a formidable cultural movement. Just put on any music channel, switch on the radio, pick up a magazine, or simply walk down the street; chances are you'll encounter the popularity of indigenous hip-hop in some form or another. It's humbling to see a minority underground movement that was once abjured for being too hostile is now a commercial success story many pay heed to.

That's great news for proponents of British urban beats, but what became of the UK 'desi' music scene? Why didn't it take off in the way some of us thought/ hoped it would?

Chances are you might not give a hoot, but it seems important when you consider that desi music pertains to the sounds created by the largest ethnic group in Britain: its Asians. That's right, black people may be ostensibly cooler than Asian people, but Asians love their music just as much. Yet the Asian creative community's music output has been  largely ignored, unable to penetrate the mainstream barriers that 'grime' music was able to conquer.

Desi refers to the peoples, cultures and products of the Indian subcontinent; increasingly linked to its young diasporas residing in Europe and North America. For over 30 years British Asians have created a desi fusion culture in which foods, fashions, movies and music of South Asian origin are amalgamated with elements of Western culture. This protean collision launched the desi genre of music; formed by the fusion of traditional Indian folk music and Western sonic styles. The genre has recognisable godfathers like Alaap and Kumar Heera who began paving the way for British bhangra music back in the late-1970s.

More recently desi music had momentary glimpses of success; most notably with hits like Punjabi MC's track Mundian To Bach Ke which was a top 5 charting song in 2002. Within the last decade desi acts like DJ Swami have played at the Glastonbury Festival; the Kray Twinz have produced songs with major U.S. rapper Twista; Rishi Rich has mixed tracks for Britney Spears; Punjabi Hit Squad got their Hai Hai video on to MTV; and buff Asian girl band Rouge almost managed to position themselves as Britain's answer to Destiny's Child. Also within the last decade Missy Elliott's Get UR Freak On was an international megahit that incorporated a wholesale desi spin. Even hip-hop powerhouses like Dr. Dre, Truth Hurts, Busta Rhymes, Method Man and, to a much lesser degree ― the Black Eyed Peas, have all toyed with desi beats, though perhaps only delivering evanescent popularity.

Despite the few successes mentioned above, desi music has lost its way and that's a real shame when you consider that at one time it looked like it could be the next most popular genre of music swinging nationwide. It would be more understandable if the desi music scene had failed anywhere else in the world but Britain, yet it hasn't. The growing demand in America for South Asian themed pop culture made MTV Networks launch their own desi television channel, imaginatively titled MTV Desi. In contrast, the lack of support for desi themed material in Britain has led to the BBC announcing plans to shutter its titular Asian Network digital radio station within the coming year.

Things look bleak for British Asian music and it's not going to get better anytime soon.

So who is to blame for this catastrophe? Why is it that the UK's Asian minority culture ― the culture that probably won Britain its Olympic bid by promising to liven up events through offering Bollywood sizzle instead of drab morris dancing ― is being so shamelessly undervalued by powerful music executives? Is it racism or is it something to do with British Asians not being able to develop their brands as effectively as what the urban black community has accomplished? Chances are that it is a mixture of all these things.

The biggest hint signalling that things were going wrong for UK desi music came in summer 2006 when Ian Parkinson, BBC Radio 1's head of specialist music and speech, moved Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake's weekly desi music show from its primetime window to its current midnight-2am graveyard slot. Surprisingly, Bobby Friction and Nihal Arthanayake's audience always hovered around the half-million mark which was a fairly respectable number for its kind of show. Parkinson pontificated that it was important the Radio 1 schedule "keep[s] evolving to keep pace with the musical passions of our young audience," but his actions were a severe knock for the UK Asian music community. It was a blow because British Asian music had lost its biggest mainstream platform. As with any emerging music scene, it needed to reach a wider audience in order to grow and improve. Nihal Arthanayake told Asians in Media that Parkinson's decision was short sighted, saying: "You could ask the question whether the BBC had expected too much out of Asian music and then found it lacking."

Then again, perhaps the BBC realised that it had jumped on a sound and scene that is too niche in terms of impacting on the mainstream, discovering the extensive support needed just wasn't there. Still, one can't help but feel the powers that be have undercut the British desi scene by drowning it before it's had a chance to breathe. British Asian music has not had the access or the opportunities that other UK minority groups like the black community has enjoyed in recent years. The British media has ghettoised Asian talent and failed to promote key desi DJs, production staff and presenters in a way where there can be movement for them across a range of mainstream platforms. After all, you are more likely to see a cool black presenter hosting the weekly chart rundown rather than an Asian host who is not readily deemed hip enough for the job.

The British record labels are as much to blame too. It's comforting to read that Sonna Rele is being described by Zee magazine as the "Asian answer to Alicia Keys," with Universal Music signing the then 15 year old Sonna on the spot after hearing her demo (she's now signed to Sony/ RCA), but the industry's track record with Asian artists is pretty bad.

Universal Music dropped Preeya Kalidas from the label pretty much as soon as they had signed her on and Virgin Records regretfully parted ways with Jay Sean after the artist failed to score big with his desi sounds, though Jay Sean has now gone on to major Stateside success by signing up with Cash Money Records who realised the futility in trying to shoehorn Jay into making ethnic sounding records when what he really wants to do is sing smooth transatlantic pop songs.

Even British Asian hip-hop queen M.I.A. has found that the American market has been far more receptive to her inventive music than what the UK has, most likely because the UK sees her as a marketing nightmare: not street enough for the Brit urban crowd and not Asian enough for the desi camp.

Plus, it seems that the North American market has a better idea of the desi music framework and knows how to best market it to the broadest audience possible. After all, American desi artists like Nadia Ali and Das Racist are not pigeonholed by a particular ethnic sound, with the former nominated for a Grammy award at last month's ceremony and the latter featuring in Rolling Stone magazine as a band to keep an eye on

So what happens now? The desi scene still exists in the shadows and crevices of British popular culture but how can we get the average non-Asian punter to take it seriously? The truth is although mainstream broadcasters have not supported desi music as well as what they could have, the Asians who developed the scene have also failed by creating music that lacks innovation and freshness. The beats largely sound repetitive and stilted, with little progress made in terms of evolving its sonic style. Even some of the most successful crossover tracks attributed to the desi scene were produced by African American producers who were merely dipping their toes in the Asian beats as means of experimentation with no real intent on making it their signature sound.

In order for the British desi scene to have a real chance at flourishing, producers and artists may need to consider how they can make their sounds more tantalising for too cool for school hipsters desperate to latch on to the next big trend in music. British Asians are in an enviable position, sharing a dual heritage that's rife in colour, sound and texture. We can take the established music styles of the host nation and blend it with the sonic traditions of the old country, in turn, creating music trends the world has never heard.

Sure, Asians are not conventionally cool in the way that the UK urban black crowd is, but we have better educational attainment and greater affluence than the former. It's time to put those qualities to good use and think about creating and launching a new brand of commercial desi beats that will change British music forever. It will be a case of developing new production methods and business models that rely less on pernicious mainstream executives and more on grassroots support.

To put it simply: We need to think about how we can make something big out of thinking small.