FOR THE CONSCIOUSNESS OF THE NATION
THE SOUNDS OF THE ASIAN DUB FOUNDATION
I can’t recall exactly how I found out about the Asian Dub Foundation. I know that at some point in the Summer of 2010 while I was hosting a radio show on WIUX in Bloomington I caught a listen of the collective’s greatest hits compilation, and the music just continued to ooze into my life. Despite how undeniably accurate and descriptive their name is, the Asian Dub Foundation have stayed with me because of how seamlessly they seem to have melded a myriad of sounds and ideas.
Though biographies of the band are maddeningly vague, confusing, and poorly edited, it is known that the Asian Dub Foundation grew out of a youth organization in East London called Community Music. In the early 1990s bassist Dr. Das began working through this venue to recruit teenagers into a an electronica collective with an emphasis on live music and punk ideologies. From the South Asian immigrant communities of London Das found rappers, instrumentalists, and activists to fill out the Asian Dub Foundation. Making their name as a live act performing electronic music, the group began touring throughout the U.K., mainland Europe, and eventually worldwide. By wearing both diverse musical influences and pan-Asian anti-racist political views on their collective sleeve, the Asian Dub Foundation rose to the perfect level of prominence for a band with its social goals: never superstars, but engaging enough that those who came into contact with the group walked away having learned something.
The sounds of the Asian Dub Foundationbring together an impressive array of musical and cultural influences. While the music has the hallmarks of early 90s dub, trip-hop, and electronica music, the Asian Dub Foundation is set apart by the pastiches of its members’ South Asian heritage and punk sensibilities brought to the music. Drum machine beats are interspersed with dhol rhythms and tabla solos. Guitars swirl in imitations of sitars and chop staccato punk lines. Bass lines vibrate heavily underneath everything. On songs such as “Collective Mode” string arrangements are pulled from Bollywood films and thrown over raggacore beats. Falling in line with the outfit’s goals, the music makes it instantly recognizable that this is a sound meant to render Asian sounds no longer exotic through their juxtaposition with both danceable electronica and socially-conscious punk rock.
Further complicating the musical pedigree that the Asian Dub Foundation expresses is the fact that vocalist Deeder Zaman is rapping frenetically over most of the group’s songs. Using rap lyrics as a vehicle for social activism and as a subversion over the colonial attitude that Asians ought to be considered racially “black”, Zaman’s vocals make the songs (and the political stances taken therein) more aggressive and “in-your-face”. Zaman’s rapping also is frequently used as another instrumental line, percussively punctuating the more rounded sound of the bass lines that drive the music with impressive speed. With his unique Indian-via-East-London accent, Zaman is unmistakeable as an MC.
Given their political bent, the collective has taken up a number of causes as deserving of banner-waving songs. The group has come out against European immigration policies (“Fortress Europe”) and in support of South Asian separatist groups (“Naxalite” is the name of an Indian militant group) and Asian immigrants who may have been unfairly tried in court cases (“Free Satpal Ram” calls for justice for an Indian man convicted of a 1986 murder after his racially-directed mistreatment by Britain’s courts, while “1000 Mirrors” features guest vocals by Sinead O’Connor to tell the story of Tsoora Shah). On broader strokes, the Asian Dub Foundation campaigns for racial harmony and understanding (“Black White”).
In the mid-2000s a number of the collective’s original members departed for solo projects and/or retirement, though the loose nature of the group has allowed the Asian Dub Foundation to continue performing and recording. By 2007’s release of the greatest hits compilation Time Freeze, the Asian Dub Foundation had performed or recorded with such artists as Sinead O’Connor, Chuck D of Public Enemy, and Tuvan rockers/throatsingers Yat-Kha. Though recordings on that compilation were the last to feature original members Dr. Das and Deeder Zaman, but have since released two full-length albums in 2008’s Punkara and 2011’s A History of Now. The Asian Dub Foundation is also still touring, with upcoming dates throughout Europe, and can be found online through their official website and on twitter. From their roots in a community center for South Asian youth to a dynamic and motivated electronica group with punk ideals performing anti-racist agit-prop, the Asian Dub Foundation has married their deep groove with an indelible message. Nobody is listening to the Asian Dub Foundation now, but their unique sound and important perspective on social issues makes them a group that I would heartily recommend.