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“Sonic Opposition to the Powers That Be” Part-I: Asian Dub Foundation (ADF)’s John Pandit in conversation with NoorAfshan Mirza.

John Pandit/Aka Pandit G of Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) in conversation with NoorAfshan Mirza. Part I.

NoorAfshan Mirza: My first question is about the way you have tried to work with the community to produce music. What has been your process? And what would you say, have been its successes and failures? 

John Pandit: Well, yeah. My answer will be not so much just about music but about any other form of expression or art that I have been involved with over the years. 

Before we start, look I came into this place and it’s a queue and, you know what, they are searching people’s bags. I don’t have a bag and they look at me and there’s this classic kind of crowd control. It was a bit more like what they do at the airport. They see me, an Asian European, and they are like: “Excuse me sir can you go to that table?” 

So, I go over to the little desk and she is looking at me and she said “Donations sir, would you like to make a donation?” 

I am quick as a flash and I say: “No, I have just come to see my history”. She looked at me, kind of quizzically, and then off I went. 

But isn’t it, kind of like where we are? 

It is about how public space is curtailed and is designated for certain people, you know, like tourists or whatever. Here we are, I mean, what was the British Museum is now copying shopping malls. Anyway, its more about buying and purchasing. So, these kind of public spaces – I remember taking my son out here years ago with his prom school class. The whole environment that we got right now is like that for any kind of consumption of art, or history, or culture. And the flipside is also true that any form of expression of art or involvement separates us. And that’s a historic process but more now as we got funding from the state arts council cut back. So, it’s kind of like the innovative projects that we were involved in with the Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) where its free to engage have been lost. 

Now, you have ‘only if you can pay’. It’s not just if you can pay, it is creating that environment where you can’t. So, if you are from a poor young Asian or Black urban community, it is very hard to get into things. Historically, they all used to be, you know, for example, the youth club. Even at its very basic stage the aim was to provide a safe space in a neutral area where people could meet; people who may have had cultural ties or maybe not, but they could get together and maybe something could come out of that. So, things like the community music space where we started the Asian Dub Foundation was a neutral space at the time where you could involve people into making music. And that was a ‘free at the point-of-entry’ kind of a thing. So, that was so important. 

Also, you didn’t have to have icons. In a more general sense, it was not kind of like the X factor where you come and kind of like ‘you are a talent and we will build you or whatever’. Just do it. 

So, some of the kids did it through the education project that we ran for a dozen or so years; didn’t necessarily go back and became musicians but it was, perhaps, the only chance that they had to come together. To make a piece of music and to actually engage in a kind of collective learning environment with adults who weren’t necessarily authority figures like teachers at school. And so, some of the after-school classes, Akhtar went to those. Akhtar Ahmed [Aktarv8r, Aktarvata, MC Aktarvata] and he went off too. He did ADF and then he went off to get a degree in Social Work and then went back to doing ADF again. That was the kind of ways in which we did it. 

Even in our own communities as well, it is very hard, if you don’t have those spaces and institutions, outside say religious institutions, you don’t have kind of those secular spaces, where you can engage people in any form of art, it can be anything in general. That’s some of the difficulties we see now. 

We do still find ways, we obviously do. To find ways of self-expression and music. 

NAM.: Like rhyming?

JP: Yes, rhyming, through poetry, through ways that technology has made easier. Easy for people to get to things. Easier for people now to actually search out poets, artists, hip-hop artists, that you wouldn’t have otherwise seen. You would have had to be in the know. Now, you can search on Spotify and when you go to one link, it sends you somewhere else. 

NAM: You know, I hear you about the community spaces. And the kind of loss of space you have whether it’s the community spaces or queer spaces or women’s spaces or social housing. I mean there’s this whole catalog or an index of spaces that have been lost. You know, because I grew up, I was young in the 80’s, I grew up in a village not in London. So, the street was my community. When we went out onto the street, and I met other sort of like punks and queers and others like me. I was the only brown girl in the village. So, I am just asking you about that loss of space. So, in terms of the music and poetry there has been the space of pirate radio, for example, so that kind of space like also facilitated what we now have…

JP: That has, and that was very important as a consumer of more innovative art.

NAM.: Were you involved in pirate radio?

JP: Not really, no.

It was massive, but I was living in the rural areas at the time, in Essex. In 80/81, if the weather was right, we used to get the broadcasting corporation, coming out of 9 Hill. There was also like this little radio station that sometimes did for a brief while called “Our Radio” which was more of a political and an activist kind of a thing. That was truly tremendous, especially, in the days before the internet and whatever. Also, like to be able to hear reggae groups was incredible; outside of the designated time zones of the established channels like Radio London or Capital Radio when they were not playing. To be actually be able to hear all that stuff and the artists were also everything else at the time. It was great.

Pirate radio has played its part. Now, it’s all the internet now but it is all so individualized you see. The listener, so just like performances of art are collective experiences and when you collectively consume, perhaps, its actually more inspiring then when you are just listening on your headphones – which unfortunately is the way. I am not saying it is worse. It’s just the thing that if you are in the audience and you feel like getting on the stage the people on the stage look not very much different from you, and you are half way there. If you get an audience that’s wrapped up around you, you are half way there.

NAM.: Okay I’ll stop this now and this question is about ADF. Something that you have been involved with for a long time. And so, for my generation, it was one of the few cultural representations that hinted at a decolonial politics and a music that spoke the truth to power. So, again, how did that come about? I know you touched on that? But if you could elaborate a bit about how did that come about and if you could just reflect on how we can use music to sort of fight today. Because you know we have been talking about the last decade, like the loss of space but that’s the decade of austerity. So how do we use music to fight today? Or what are the limits of music and cultural production in the political space?

JP: And I got two hours to answer this one, eh? (Both laugh).

NAM: No, you got less than that, you got 10 mins (Jokingly).

JP: Yeah, yeah!

So, it is the question of the moment really, isn’t it? That how we use radical political culture to engage with the activists and to create new activists and to create a debate which is less and less realized through the media. You know now you got various new technologies and various new ways of discussing things but, art in general is closed off from debate.

So, creating music and what the question is about: think about what we were doing. I think we just came together doing a little workshop, and it just continued. And I think it is just that, we didn’t have any plan. It’s just where we were drawn from. Dr. Das [Aniruddha Das] was a teacher, a community-music teacher and also a teacher of media and technology. Originally, it was just a small workshop over the summer in 93. Myself, I was doing youth and community work and I met Dr. Das and the organization that I was involved with was called the Asian Action Group at Haringey, which was a youth and community organization at the time. Deeder [Saidullah “Deeder” Zaman aka Master D] was one of the students who came for one of those summer school scheme projects and we just said let’s keep this going. We had no idea.

Then I was involved very much in working for an organization called CULPA which was Community Lives Police Accountability. It was basically a civil rights organization dealing with policing, dealing with racial attacks and some domestic violence cases as well. So, it was a broad thing but I was very much a case worker. I was running an emergency line for people getting arrested or attacked or whatever. We tried to find the people’s support, whatever support we could. It was again, you could just meet people with similar interests but then you know, being a musician myself, I had the same interests but couldn’t articulate it that well. For me, I was just like a DJ, to be honest. And it always had its benefits.

You know like over the years. This certainly is I left off from, you know, I was anti-poll taxes, anti-racist, I was always doing that and I just got into that. That was my real work. It was actually, to be in a space where I was just as much rallied as everyone else and to create our own little thing, somehow just seemed to happen and just seemed to grow.

NAM: So, for me, I still find it really exciting. It is all of that intersectionality you know like it’s not streamlined and you are in that kind of that space of campaigning, activism, poetry, music, performing, community, all of it.

JP: Yes, and I think, perhaps, the other side of that was you know it was the 90s and the activism of the 70s and the 80s was in decline. You know, to be honest, people like me and many others who were into anti-racist politics were getting quite burnt out. And we found that the world that we were active in, with first the Tories, the legacy of the Tories and when New Labour, 5 or 6 years after we set ADF up, that we were on defense here very much. And so, a lot of the things that we wanted to talk about were suppressed within us. So, when you get an opportunity (through music) to get up and say something, you go out there and better say it. Because you didn’t think you would make something out of it, anyway. You just did. Then again, it’s just the sheer serendipity that you have such skill with the musicians, you find such skilled musicians and articulate lyrical writers like Chandrasonic/Steve Chandra Savale [Steve Chandra Savale also called Chandrasonic] and Dr. Das. Deeder [Saidullah “Deeder” Zaman] as well, (who) was articulating grime in a way – pretty grime. The way he delivered the lyrics, his style, coming out from the dancehall ragga and jungle. Again, the jungle explosion. Jungle was our punk as well. He would go down some of the roads down in Curtain Road & Old Street and it would be a mixture of people from all over, who were far excluded from mainstream house things. And rave it was a bit too drunk and a bit too hippified whatever but you went off to a jungle thing and it matched all of these things and took off. If you were into soul, dancehall or reggae, it took all those and put into a high energy thing. Not very ‘druggified’ I must admit, it was a like a bit of smoke here and perhaps a drink there, some people were drinking champagne there you know I mean. It was a bit like (laughs) the pee business you know what I mean?

NAM: Yeah, because there was the garage as well.

JP: Yeah, the garage as well.

So, all that was kicking off and it was like a space for everyone. They were perhaps the material conditions. That you could do it yourself as well. So, there was the idea that we can take a bit of technology and we can make something else happen with it. We can break and mash beats and we can do something else. So, it was kind of like a punky DIY attitude, you know – independent labels and so on. So, you know it was more than the material conditions that led to the things like the Asian Underground or whatever. In urban areas, this massive secular space for music, you know. You should have talked to anyone and anyone could add their thing to it. So, you could get Asian drum and bass. It was open and it wasn’t like this closed (as it is now).

If you were from the minority communities you didn’t have to try and emulate some highly elevated (music or people) you know maybe (who are) musically kind of like traditional, you know what I mean, which (meant that it) had to be done in the right way or whatever. You could just take a bloody leap from bonger rap and put it on a drum bassline. You could (even) just go absolutely potty. And you know that was it.

NAM: So freeing, so much freedom in that.

JP:  Yes, it was. People could just relate to it and suddenly oh!

So yeah. That was it, that was our environment. And yeah, we did that for about 11 or 12 years in the auspices of community music. The other part of it, that I was very encouraged to do, was to create spaces, so from 2000 to a few years ago I was part of Rich Mix as a board member and that again was just to create a venue. One of the things that we found as Asian musicians was that we can only play in our own environment. Or you can go out; you can out and play in the pubs whatever.

It was okay but even in those days it was hard work. To get an audience and to play for an audience. We fortunately happened to go out to Europe and play on proper stages like state institutes; Say, in France, there was a lot of money going into arts, art centers, after Mitterand or whatever. So, you are suddenly getting on stage trying to perfect your art, and to be able to play in an environment which was conducive to that, you know, with skilled technicians and whatever. It meant that we could improve what we do. As much as it is about any artist, it’s not so much about what they can do themselves, it is the adversity of trying to make it happen on a bigger stage, literally.

NAM: Yeah but also as you said, where you can like hone your craft. But that’s very interesting that you said though, that the spaces weren’t here so you had to go to other places. But then you are also trying to build space back here.

JP: Yes, there’s a lot of issues at stake. Obviously for an Asian band who the hell are we? We were punky because we had guitar and bass you know what I mean! You know we are doing drum and bass. We looked punky and there was energy. Perhaps, that’s the thing (that we) the older members of the band, we took energy out there and pumped that energy. That’s kind of like what made it. Because that’s the thing that we remember. But that’s also (true for) reggae and other things and any and all of the music that has come from the so-called underground.

NAM: Yeah, totally.

JP: But there’s other issues at stake here. For example, when we were in France, we got very big. That is when we signed to a major label ‘Virgin France’. But there was another band at the time that we used to see all the time called Zebda from Toulouse and they were second or third generation Algerian. Pretty much like ourselves. But we used to see them in other places like Italy as well. The point is that they weren’t accepted there (in France) because they were Algerian and so the racism there that they had! However, Asians and South Asians, for the French were a bit more exotic. Because they had lost the battle of Plassey against the British Imperialism. So, their attitude towards the Asians was tainted by an exoticist view of what Asians is. We used to turn up at venues and there would be English bands. I can remember from the time we were in Belgium very well. I was sitting there meditating, cross-legged on the floor. We kind of liked to enter into that sort of a trance. And we would be sitting there tickling our thumbs and drinking our Jack Daniels and looking at them. And they would say “what is this?”

People would go up to Dr. Das and say “where is your umm… (gesturing playing strings) … you know what I am talking about… you’ve got your classical instruments?”

And he (Dr. Das) said: “Well look, I got them all here. They are in this little box, the S950 Akai Sampler. It’s all in this box. It’s in the floppy disks as well, whatever you want on it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it, I’ve got it.”

People had a very closed idea of what we were. Of course, then we were in a very difficult time, as well, where maybe we could cut through or maybe not. It was very polarized time, the mid-90s, perhaps, it was the rise of the National Front [Now known as National Rally]. And they were taking back space, like they were taking back like everything. So, it was very important for us to be playing at those things. It took a long time to set up that one. But they did, in the end. It was very telling that they themselves were not accepted in their own space. Like, hip-hop and rap in France at the time and how it’s coming again, you know. It was because we had become metaphors or the symbols for the communities that we seemed to represent, whether we represented them or not. We were the original signs of that.

NAM: Well this is all perfectly leading on to the next question. Third question is, using the ‘we’ here, speaking for me and Qalandar and you, we have all experienced Racism as people of color. Many of us have noted that in the UK it isn’t as direct as in the US. How have you experienced it operating in the cultural and other worlds of Europe and UK. And what tactics have you used to fight on. You have, kind of, already started to touch on that.

JP: I think there is a lot of the stereotyping, to begin with. I mean to be honest yeah, Britain is very much … I mean we are in the British Museum, three quarters or even 99 percent of the art you will see has been taken from elsewhere.

NAM: Looted!

JP: So, that’s why I made that remark in the beginning:

“Basically, I have come to see my art”

“Want to make a small donation?”

“Do I need to make a donation? I think we have already, really we have.”

And so, but yeah, the liberal tradition has very much to show off around the world. A lot of it (injustice) is historic. It’s the difficulty of Britain to come to terms with this: why we are in this mess that we are in, the whole history of colonialism and imperialism. And who are and who aren’t acceptable in this society!

To go back to your question, you do sort of see now you know, the right’s involvement. We are in the first or second week after Johnson’s made his victory. And this idea of no deal Brexit became dominant and synonymous with Brexit. Then, further than that is this notion of taking back controls, however legitimate even some on the left thought, leaving Europe was. We knew and many other people knew that underneath it all was an opening of the door to racism, which had been fought back somewhat successfully throughout the 80s and 90s. So, you know it is about ‘us’ and ‘our ways’ of everything. And the nonsense like ‘white traditional working class’, taking the working class as something homogenous. We are back to old imperialistic nonsense. There is no idea where we are going in the future but we can have illusions in the imperial past. We can dedicate this to queen up here, you know what I mean, I am still quite amazed by it.

NAM: There is an exhibit here that is about how the West is influenced by the East. I mean, you have got to pay for it to go in.

JP: How the West is influenced by the…?

NAM:  The East!

JP: Oh Yeah! (Laughs Dismissively)

NAM: How the East has influenced the West, you know. It’s a paid exhibit!

JP: How many rupees do you have to pay to get in?

NAM: I bet you, it’s going to be…

JP: Well of course, it is an appropriation of culture. It is something that we are seeing in India now and we are seeing it in Pakistan, too. We are seeing it all over. It transcends and it becomes this: how the very people who are destroying any notion of nationhood are the very people who pretend that they are promoting it to a great degree. It’s classic in Britain, you know, ‘we are going to take back our borders’. But by the way, we sold a defense company to the Americans. Well you know it’s been a couple of days. It’s all spoken like that still. And it is very hard.

This is point where art comes in, we can make this slowly but we need to have the nuanced arguments. They only come in through sophisticated ways. It is sophisticated, art is, because of the way we listen to it; the way we listen to art and the way we listen to music. We don’t just take yes or no answers, we absorb it and it becomes something that lives with us and grows within us. And that’s the kind of thing that we need. That is what the activist space is. It is not just music or whatever, protest music or whatever, its actually just a mirror to where we are. It is not going to lead. It’s not like, revolutionary music is going to lead us to the promised land. What it will do is buoy us up and support us and help us – and also allow other issues to be talked about. If it is used right, and if we can encourage the young.

I have heard some great ones recently. Who do I love at the moment? Like there is Shareefa Energy! I went to her book launch and which makes me so pleased. She had a Punjabi singer [Amrit Kaur Lohia] there. You know what I have come to see this and she was doing a book launch and I am like, you know what, after spending 17 years looking at spreadsheets and going up to board meetings, all I really wanted was to look at some good art. I am really happy this is going on here. And then there is Potent Whisperer.

Its Sunday morning and I have moved from Zone 5 to Zone 1, and I’m depressed. I am depressed and we are depressed. There was a small chance, a hope. I went back to the Labour Party. Bloody long time, going back after the 80s. And it is a setback, and it is not just to say yeah okay it is in the Labour Party or whatever. Even outside the Labour Party as well and all the activists involved in this or cultural activism or whatever, we know the right time for us to vote again, you know what I mean? It can now spur us on or we can just stay lost in our own depression, that is what it is. And I am, for the last couple of years asking myself why do I do this? I have illusions every bloody 20 years, and then they are crushed.


John Pandit is one of the original founders of the Asian Dub Foundation, found in 1993, alongside the bassist Dr Das. DJ John Pandit is one of the most relevant figures in bass music and alternative culture of the last 20 years in UK

Asian Dub Foundation (ADF) are a UK based band, described as a “genre unto themselves” owing to their unique combination of tough jungle rhythms, dub bass lines and wild guitar overlaid by references to their South Asian roots and militant high-speed rap. Pioneers of the ‘live film re-score performance’, they have performed musical interpretations of such classics as La Haine, THX 1138 and Battle of Algiers.

NoorAfshan Mirza is an activist and artist based between Istanbul, London and Karachi. As a community activist she co-founded and ran the artist collective called, which was transferred to the next generation of artists recently. Mirza and her long-term collaborator Brad Butler framed their art practice in a fictional institute called the Museum of non-Participation to confront the obligation for (non) participation in neoliberal society.

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