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Panjabi MC finds inspiration in bhangra

Panjabi MC
Panjabi MC

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(CNN) -- Coventry, England's, Rajinder Rai, also known as Panjabi MC, is experiencing a wave of attention in America with the recent release of his U.S. debut, "Beware."

The MC mixes traditional bhangra -- a style of music that originates from the northern Indian state of Punjab -- with modern club beats for a crossover sensation.

On top of this East meets West combo, rhymes from American rapper Jay-Z pump up the profile of the single, "Beware of the Boys (Mundian to Bach Ke)." The breakout song even incorporates a sample of the theme song from the 1980s cult TV show Knight Rider.

TMR sat down with Panjabi MC to learn a little bit more about his unique treatment of bhangra and how Jay-Z got involved with his album.

TMR: Can you summarize how Punjab music spread from northern India to the UK?

PANJABI MC: Yeah. Well bhangra started in the UK. Originally it came from Punjab, which is in north India on the border of Pakistan and India. And it was brought over by the last generation -- like my father's generation. And originally it was called Punjabi music. And so, like in India Punjab is one state ... so Punjabi music is very small, it's just a minority, very specialized music.

So when they brought it over, it was like we had our Bollywood films and big Bollywood actors already in the UK, making small appearances and stuff. 'Cause it wasn't that many kind of Asians around. And bhangra was like another form of music Punjabi people played -- at Punjabi weddings and stuff. So they wanted to hear like some of the old school stuff, what they were used to hearing at the weddings anyway. So that's where that kind of bhangra started. ...

So with me now, I started basically taking that traditional sound into the studio and using samplers and R&B, hip-hop techniques on that. And that's because like really, I started off on the hip-hop side, you know, rapping and MCing and using certain amounts of vocals from traditional Indian singers. And people kinda really liked the Indian traditional side of it so they, other singers, started asking me to kind of use their vocals, remix their tracks and stuff. And that's how it all sort of kicked off, the whole sound.

TMR: When did you start to decide to make bhangra music such an integral part of your life? Did it start in the clubs initially?

PANJABI MC: Yeah, I was originally into MCing and stuff. But in those days like Eastern people -- like Indians who had traditional music and that -- they didn't want any Western music in their tracks. It's all fine having drummers but these bands used to use this stuff in like very traditional ways. They used to have the Indian songs and then the drums would literally just add a beat on top of what they were doing.

But like with me, I started rapping over the beats and stuff. They weren't really into that style so when I did get hold of the whole thing was like ... I've always been doing my sound but it's never been part of the bhangra industry or anything directly. People aren't really associating me with the mainstream bhangra or anything 'cause they've always said "P's stuff is not keeping the true roots and we wanna keep it raw, traditional."

But in recent times now, you know, the last few years, everybody's really been kinda jumping on that vibe. And even Asian underground artists and everyone's just on bhangra now. And now we've got R&B/hip-hop artists who are kinda getting onto the bhangra side as well. So it's like recently I've been getting everybody on a positive vibe.

TMR: How did Jay-Z become involved with "Beware of the Boys"?

PANJABI MC: Well, he heard the track blowing up in Switzerland. It was already released for Europe and he was in a club here and seeing the reaction. It was like crazy. He said that he'd never ever heard a track blow up like that or get a reaction like that. So he got his management to contact us straight away. I was on the verge of finishing off my tape, which was in mastering stages by this time.

So I had to contact him, send him the parts, he sent me the parts, we got it done real quick. I've never met him; we've never actually met as yet. But the track was done quick. His album needed to be done quick as well, so we just waxed it out real quick. But for me it was crazy, the whole experience was crazy because it'd never been done before. We were on the forefront of bhangra. So yeah, it was a really good experience.


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