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Young South Asians' Love-Hate Relationship with Hip-Hop's New Indian Beats

"There's a massive world of lyrical style that people need to be educated on," says Panjabi MC, who calls bhangra the hip-hop or reggae of Indian music. (Incidentally, PMC, a/k/a Rajinder Rai, isn't the voice you hear in "Beware of the Boys"; he's actually a producer, DJ, and rapper. The guy singing over the Knight Rider theme is Labh Janjua, a Punjabi vocalist.) "Indians haven't really had any contacts in the industry, or any idols, or anyone to direct which way to go. So perhaps I can open the door."

That's why DJ Rekha and others are excited that artists like Panjabi MC and Timbaland's new protégé, Raje Shwari, an Indian American from Philly—are breaking onto the charts. Timbaland, the self-proclaimed creator of this new hip-hop hybrid, says he spends five grand on Indian albums every time he steps into Tower Records. (Somebody should tell him about Raaga in Jackson Heights.) "People getting into the beats now don't know the history. They play-toy with it," says the Grammy-nominated producer, who researches the culture. "These people have a voice that needs to be heard. We're trying to make 'world hip-hop.' "

Tim says he doesn't think this sound is a passing fad: "It's different enough to last." Even Truth Hurts, who initially didn't know India was in Asia, is sticking with the Indian rap game. "I think us just sampling Indian music and trying to make it our own gets cheesy after a while," says Truth. "That's why I'm working with the new U.K. bhangra producers, the Krey Twinz. And I'm definitely going to have Indian people in my video and show the culture." She's even set to appear in an "America meets Bollywood" film. Sermon, who says he didn't know his song was offensive until now, promises next time he'll be more aware. "With Panjabi MC's song there is going to be a surge of people asking questions and learning more," he assures.

Basement Bhangra revelers
photo: Staci Schwartz
Basement Bhangra revelers

Tower has already reported a huge increase in the number of Indian albums sold. "Now I have rappers asking for beats," says Jay Dabhi (formerly Lil' Jay), a New York DJ for 12 years who, during non-Indian gigs, never used to play the vinyl his parents lugged here. "Now it gets the biggest reaction," says Jay, who just quit his 9-to-5 job to produce. Like many other DJs in the Indian party scene, he's been mixing Indian music into hip-hop for years.

Raje, singing on both "The Bounce" with Jay-Z and Slum Village's "Disco (Remix)," definitely feels the responsibility to represent. "When the R. Kelly video ['Snake'] came out, everybody called me," she says from the studio at 2 a.m. "One minute R. Kelly is holding a sitar and the next minute they're belly dancing with a veil across the mouth. My answer to that is I'm coming out to let them know what the Indian culture is."

And we haven't heard the last from Panjabi MC, who says he's getting a lot of requests from both top hip-hop artists and Indian artists. "One of my main goals is to fuse the two worlds," says the DJ. "I would love to link everybody up, for sure."

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