How British Asians broke into London’s club scene

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British Asians in the clubbing scene – Photo: BBC
By Kavita Puri | BBC NEWS |

One evening in 1993, Mits Sahni was standing in a queue in Leicester Square in central London. He was trying to get into a nightclub – but when he got to the front of the line he was turned away by the bouncer.

It wasn’t the first time this had happened. He’d tried different approaches – bringing along female friends or wearing smarter clothes. But the result was always the same. “The doorman would make up excuse after excuse. And after a while you figured out it was due to racism.”

Mits had always been into music.

As a 10-year-old in Ealing, west London, he’d take his boombox and a sheet of lino into school and breakdance to hip-hop in the playground at lunchtime. On Saturday afternoons he’d take tapes he’d edited on his mother’s double-cassette hi-fi system to Ealing shopping centre and play them full volume on the stereos in Dixons. Then he’d go to a fast food joint and breakdance for customers in return for a bag of chips.

His first experience of clubbing came in 1987. It was a Friday and, now 14, he had bunked off school to go to a daytimer – a music event for British South Asians held in the middle of the day.

About 10 of his friends had left the house that morning in school uniform so as not to raise their parents’ suspicion. They met outside a nearby supermarket and went as a group to the Empire Ballroom.

It left a deep impression. There were live bands playing bhangra – traditional Punjabi folk music reworked with new electronic production techniques – and DJs who mixed bhangra with reggae, soul and hip hop, creating a new sound. “You just saw them rocking out a place of 2,000 people,” Mits says. Another revelation was that divisions in the British South Asian community disappeared. Seeing the younger generation, whatever their backgrounds, moved by the music on the dance floor, he realised: “So this is how you bring people together.”

But Mits’ real love was hip-hop. He bought his first set of turntables with money he saved up from a part-time job at his uncle’s luggage shop, and formed a group called Hustlers HC with two friends, Paul and Mandeep, from the gurdwara – the Sikh place of worship he attended on Sundays. Punjabi Sikh men in turbans rapping with politically conscious lyrics on subjects such as racism raised eyebrows on the Asian music scene, where audiences generally expected bhangra, but these songs helped give Mits and his friends “a sense of identity”, he says.

By the time Mits was standing in the queue in 1993 trying to get into that big London nightclub, he was 20 and had already had some success as a DJ. He was putting on his own events at colleges, which were proving popular. He was also DJ-ing at different locations across the capital. But there still wasn’t a regular club night at a well-established venue specifically for a British Asian audience.

“They didn’t think that British Asians drank, so they were worried about lack of revenue from alcohol,” says DJ Ritu, another popular British South Asian DJ. “They just didn’t think that the events would be successful.” And she thinks there was possibly an undertone of racism too.

But then suddenly the Wag Club in Soho, having seen the popularity of daytimers and student union nights for British South Asians, made it known that it was interested in running a weekly British Asian night on Tuesdays. This was a world-renowned club, which attracted stars like Grandmaster Flash, Afrika Bambaataa and Sade, and welcomed guests such as George Michael, David Bowie and Neneh Cherry through its doors. The Tuesday Asian night was an exciting opportunity, so Mits and his friends, Mark Strippel and Matt Thomas, offered to run it.

Read the full story, ‘Bombay Jungle: How British Asians broke into London’s club scen’ (BBC, 9 Jan 2021), here.

 

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