Subcontinental sampling: Indian sounds in hip-hop, disco, and beyond

India’s traditional instruments are famed for their vivid, captivating textures. Unsurprisingly, open-minded beatmakers from around the world have long been turning to the Subcontinent in their search for new sounds.  Despite being a pretty regular occurrence nowadays (laptop production has created a wide world of sonic overlaps…), stumbling across instances of this always feels somehow fresh and unexpected. Here, we sample a few unique uses of Indian timbres in sampled music.

Missy Elliott – Get Your Freak On

Hip-hop’s resistive, countercultural spirit takes many musical forms – often including such things as heavy basslines, powerful kit drum loops, and forthright, politically-charged (and yes, sometimes grossly violent and misogynistic) lyrics. From its earliest origins in late-70s New York, DJs were rejecting the sounds of the Billboard charts in favour of sampling from jazz, funk, soul, and other African-American music. By the 1990s, producers were expected to search far and wide for their inspiration, with fans lionising those who took the art of ‘diggin’ in the crates’ seriously.

Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott’s Get Your Freak On, a latter-day hip-hop anthem, found mainstream success in 2001. Timbaland, who produced the record, came across Punjabi bhangra music while travelling through India, and instantly knew he had to use it on the album somewhere (hip-hop and bhangra have a few other affinities too – the name of the folk style may derive from bhang, an edible cannabis preparation popular in the region).

It’s unclear how exactly the final beat was created, but it seems to be a blend of sampled and live elements. The tabla plays a stuttering, looping pattern (roughly ‘TaKe TiReKiTe TaKaTaKa‘), as a tumbi (one-string Punjabi lute) sharply outlines a repeated six-note phrase. The simplicity of the vocal refrain gives the rhythm even more importance – to me, the beat is just as iconic as the chorus.

Charanjit Singh – Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat

We should not forget that musical sampling has been a global art for many decades. Even styles such as disco, with such clear roots in the socioeconomic struggles of 1970s urban America, were quickly taken up with aplomb by innovators from Italy to Indonesia.

Charanjit Singh fell in love with his synthesiser very early in disco history, using it to create his bold, extraordinary fusion work Ten Ragas to a Disco Beat in 1983 – only a few years after disco itself had started to find a wide audience. Drawing on his background as a Bollywood composer and local wedding band leader, he programmed his synths to correspond to the scales of ten classic Hindustani ragas, backing them with thick, pounding drum samples.

Though largely ignored at the time its release, the album is now revered as an ‘accidental classic’ among many acid house fans – Singh’s characteristic combination of the Jupiter-8 keyboard and Roland TR-808 and TB-303 drum machines was absolutely unique for the time, coming a full half-decade before the first acid house records broke, bringing the sound to the world.

When it was reissued to acclaim in 2010, rumours circulated that the album was actually an anonymous release by beatmaking genius Aphex Twin (…in a sense, there are few greater compliments than that in the whole world of electronic music). But Singh himself remained strikingly matter-of-fact when discussing the album: “There was lots of ‘disco’ music in films back in 1982…so I thought why not do something different using disco music only? I got an idea to play all the Indian ragas and give the beat a disco beat – and turn off the tabla. And I did it. And it turned out good.”

And of course, there’s a lot more Indo-sampling…a few interesting ones that come to mind:

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