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28 Defining Moments In Music That Made British Asians Stand Up And Be Counted (and A Few That Made Us Go Wtf?)

Long before it was normal to see the likes of Zayn Malik and Jay Sean strutting their stuff on music channels, seeing an Asian singing on mainstream TV was the stuff of squeals. Back in the four-channel days of 80s, Asians only ever really burst into song on Blind Date (always viewed cringing from behind the sofa), until all this suddenly started to happen…

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1. Ever So Lonely by Monsoon (1982)

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We knew Sheila Chandra as one of the first regular Asian faces on telly in Grange Hill, but it was her appearance on Top of the Pops in a sari that sticks in the memory of every Asian who owned a TV set in the UK in 1982. Her record company tried to force Sheila to change her name to 'Boo'. She didn't. But she did let them have those godawful camels in the video.

2. Moya/Fatman by Southern Death Cult (1983)

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Okay, not a lot of people know their songs, but anyone watching The Tube would’ve done a triple-take at the drummer of this bunch of scary punks (and this when most British Asians mistook all skinheads and punks for racists). It’s a measure of how hard Aki Nawaz is (who went on to start controversial hip-hop band Fun-Da-Mental) that he did all this with the rhyming slang of a name like 'Aki'.

3. Love Like Blood by Killing Joke (1985)

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When the post-punk band finally cracked the Top 20, its lead singer Jaz Coleman’s interviews were the first time we read a rock star speaking openly about having half-Bengali roots in Smash Hits and NME. Pop fact: Jaz sued Nirvana for stealing the bass riff for Come As You Are from his track Eighties, but dropped the suit after Cobain shot himself. Years later, Dave Grohl made it up to Jaz by playing drums on their 2003 album Killing Joke.

4. Tribute (Right On) by Pasadenas (1988)

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Capital Radio’s legendary Junior Best Disco wasn’t exactly the place to spot brown faces. But on the same bill as Brother Beyond, Wet, Wet, Wet and Bros, we'd often see Hamish Seelochan, brylcreamed and leather jacketed, busting some seriously fly moves. It’s worth noting the mixed black and Asian line-up (now so common post So Solid Crew) was a completely new sight.

5. Strangelove by Depeche Mode (1987)

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Dave Gahan was born Abdul Patel… not really. But at a time when Asian girls were only ever seen on TV serving in cornershops or victimised in some way or another, this MTV-friendly video featuring an Asian girl as an underwear-clad hottie was hugely empowering for the girls, while making the boys who taped this on The Chart Show wear out the rewind and pause buttons on the VHS player.

6. Twist in My Sobriety by Tanita Tikaram (1988)

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Even though the video shamelessly whitewashed over her roots by featuring Native American Indians, here was a proper Asian girl with a proper Asian name, even though she scared us a bit and no one to this day knows what the heck Twist in My Sobriety means. Despite a smiley follow-up with Good Traditions, she soon became known mostly as the sister of This Life and Game of Thrones hottie Ramon Tikaram.

7. I’m Free by Soup Dragons (1990)

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Ecstasy brought previously mistrustful Brit Asians within hug's reach of previously mistrustful black and white working class kids, and while the likes of Brummie Asian MC Magika was uniting the whistle posses loud and clear, the pill-popping Madchester loving Asians were most heartened to see Sushil K Dade here, waving his drumsticks in the air like he just don't care...

8. The Show Must Go On by Queen (1991)

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This was the last single sung by Freddie Mercury and the last track on Queen’s final album, recorded just six weeks before his death. It was only in his obituaries that we found out he was one of ours all along. Yes, Farrokh Bulsara descended from Persians, but his forefathers settled in the Gujarat like countless other Indians did, and he grew up and went to school in Bombay. Indian!

9. Desert Storm by Joi (1991)

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Joi Bangla Soundsystem was a collective of East London Bengalis with their own pirate radio station, hip-hop jams and underground raves. The ensemble included Sam from State of Bengal, Deedar from Asian Dub Foundation, MC Mushtaq of Fun-Da-Mental, and forgettably, me (I can only bear to show you 45 seconds of this embarrassment from late night show Bhangra Beat). Anyhoo, the brothers Haroon and Farook had the greatest success as Joi, and while many shapes were thrown at acid warehouse raves to Taj Ma House and Funky Asian, the hugely influential Melody Maker naming Desert Storm Single of the Week was a seminal moment and paved the way for the Asian Underground movement

10. Boom Shack-a-Lack by Apache Indian (1993)

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Coach-boarding Asian clubbers had been going nuts for the original bhangramuffin since way back in 1989, but the mass cries of jubilation screamed out on every street from Handsworth to Hounslow the day Stephen Kapur’s Nuff Vibes EP stormed into the top 5. The track went on to feature in no less than 70 ads in the UK alone, most memorably in this

11. Everlasting Love by Worlds Apart (1993)

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If you thought Zayn Malik was the first British Asian in a manufactured boy band, say hello to Sylhet-born Schelim Hannan, although judging by the way he spelled the very Bengali name 'Salim', he probably didn't want too many people to know that...

12. Great Things by Echobelly (1995)

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Despite Britpop being a laddy movement, some of its biggest players were women. Along with Elastica and Sleeper, Sonia Madan’s Echobelly was one of the best loved. Those of you who remember seeing her sing this dressed as a schoolgirl on TOTP, here’s where you let out a collective sigh of ‘aah’. Echobelly still boast one of the cleverest album titles of all time. Everybody’s Got One. Ego, geddit?

13. Spaceman by Babylon Zoo (1996)

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Everyone of a certain age remembers where they were the first time they saw the Levi’s ad featuring this mistakenly speeded up slice of madness. It shot straight to no 1 one in 23 countries. Main man Jas Mann, the Chungwit the Biff Boff and the Puff Pastry Hangman, never did manage to follow-up the record’s immense success, instead keeping the tabloids amused for many years to come by virtue of being a raving madman.

14. Dil Cheez by Bally Sagoo (1996)

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‘Bhangra is dead, Hindi remixes are on their way out’, announced Eastern Eye newspaper in 1995. A year later, Hindi remix Dil Cheez by bhangra producer Bally Sagoo hit the charts. ‘Bhangra is back, Hindi remix rocks’, announced the paper. I know this because I was the Music Editor of Eastern Eye at the time…

15. Walk Like a Champion by Kaliphz feat Prince Naseem (1996)

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Asian Dub Foundation may be the most prominent British Asian hip-hop act ever, but the once-terrifying Kaliphz were the first to taste chart success with this track featuring the then unstoppable boxing champ. They promptly got turned into the sugar pop act Kaleef by Stock, Aitken & Waterman. Everything went wrong.

16. Don’t Speak by No Doubt (1996)

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Tony Ashwin Kanal from Kingsbury, London, moved to California, started No Doubt with Gwen Stefani, dated her for seven years, dumped her. She wrote this song to tell the world she was still in love with him, compete with the bindi on her forehead in honour of their love, and all the while he stood behind her, rocking out. Dude.

17. Your Woman by White Town (1997)

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Frequently listed as one of the best one-hit wonders of all time, Jyoti Mishra’s reworking of Bing Crosby’s track went straight to no 1 and was one of the most-played tracks of the year, despite him being too shy to appear on TV to promote it.

18. Buzzin’ by Asian Dub Foundation (1997)

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It wasn't until 2004 that British Asians swapped the rain-soaked mela for the rain-soaked field, when Glastonbury had a dedicated Asian tent featuring Jay Sean, Raghav, Rishi Rich et al (you’ve never seen so many white trainers in a muddy field in your life!), but long before that, the global festie circuit had two solid Asian players: Johnny Kalsi (Transglobal Underground/Dhol Foundation), and Asian Dub Foundation. When NME put ADF on its cover, we knew we’d arrived in a big way.

19. Brimful of Asha by Cornershop (1997)

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When big beat was clubland’s banging sound, Fatboy Slim took the forever grumbling alt rock band’s lo-fi homage to Bollywood playback singer Asha Bhosle and turned it into one of the most instantly recognisable dance remixes of all time. Cornershop hate the song and refuse to play it at gigs or even talk about it. They are still quite bonkers, mind.

20. Anokha by Talvin Singh (1997)

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The Asian underground scene deserves its own article, but it was around this time that the likes of Talvin Singh, the ridiculously-talented Nitin Sawhney, Bobby Friction, Nihal, Shiva Soundsystem et al normalised it for us to see British Asians headline sets, work with mainstream artists like Madonna and Bjork, appear on the cover of magazines, win shedloads of Awards (Talvin, Nitin and Shusheela Raman have all reigned supreme at the Mercury Prize), and become regular fixtures on the radio.

21. My Star by Ian Brown (1998)

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It is cos he is Brown, innit? No, but Ian Brown has given Brit Asian musicians the widest platform on the indie scene than anyone. Most notably, playing to a Reading Festival Crowd as The Stone Roses while daring to swap the irreplaceable John Squire with guitarist Aziz Ibrahim. The ex-bhangra band Alaap and hip-hop collective Detrimental's percussionist Inder Goldfinger still bangs the drums for Ian. Watch Aziz and Inder jam here.

22. 21 Seconds to Go by So Solid Crew (2000)

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Asian gangs, once only known to fight NF types, got a stylish street-smart Asian posse makeover with this epic tune. With Mr Shabz at the helm of the number one smash, this was one of the first and definitely biggest examples of the urban black and Asian collaboration that’s the norm these days.

23. In Too Deep by Sum 41 (2001)

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You can count the number of Asians playing electric guitar in rock bands with few fingers, most notably the very cool of Som Wardner of My Vitriol in the UK, and across the pond in Canada, Dave Nizam "Brownsound" Baksh of Sum 41. With this, an Asian made his mark in the whitest shade of pop music.

24. Come Away with Me by Norah Jones (2002)

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Lounge music was always the reserve of the white middle class, so when it turned out the dulcet tones to this belonged to the lovechild of sitar legend Ravi Shankar, It helped a lot of Asian women come out of the sidelines and step into the middle. Albeit middle of the road...

25. Dance With You (Nachna Rere Naal) by Rishi Rich Project feat Jay Sean (2003)

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2003 was a seminal time for British Asian R’n’B, (Raghav scored a top 10 hit with So Confused this year), but Jay emerged from it all as British Asian music’s biggest ever star, with his 2009 single Down selling four million copies in the USA alone, making him the most successful British/European male urban artist in US chart history. But this was the point where all those Asian kids started to pick up the mike and practice that all-important Usher spin.

26. Mundian To Bach Ke by Panjabi MC (2003)

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Bhangra fans have been rocking to this since ’98, but it went on to become one of the original success stories of Internet downloads, following a campaign by Radio 1 DJ Tim Westwood that saw the track top the charts everywhere. Have you been to a wedding where they don’t play this?

27. Paper Planes by MIA (2008)

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This infectious dancefloor killer, released on the XL label made her the only artist ever to be nominated for an Academy Award, Grammy Award, Brit Award, Mercury Prize and Alternative Turner Prize. It's since been immortalised in Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire. Time magazine named her one of the world's 100 most influential people. We have no idea what she’s on about though.

28. Everything by Zayn Malik (2010-present)

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Since Zayn and Siva Kaneswaran of The Wanted came along, having an Asian cutie is now almost obligatory in teeny bop bands. Even if you can't name a single One Direction song, you can't argue he's singlehandedly doing more for American/Muslim relations than any other British Asian has ever managed…

• Shihab S Joi is the editor of Daily Racist and Broken Songbook

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