I discovered Asian Dub Foundation in 2006 as an A‑Level arts student looking for real Asian influenced dance beats in the climate of commercial “Wannabe R&B” Bhangra that plagued the UK charts in the early to mid 2000s.
Tracks such as ‘Rebel Warrior’, ‘Tu Meri’, and ‘Scaling New Heights’ were refreshingly different and the mix of breakbeats with Indian samples appealed to both the dance music fan and in me and to my Asian heritage. ADF soundtracked my youth and opened the floodgates for my exploration of the Asian Underground music scene, a label which ADF are often placed under but which they utterly reject.
Asian Dub Foundation are a band of two halves, one half being dub influenced, electronic beatsmiths using Indian samples and instrumentation and the other half being a popular live rock band. Whilst this was finely balanced in the punk sentiment of early ADF albums, Enemy of the Enemy with its lead single ‘Fortress Europe’ in 2003 seemed to signal the birth of a more polished stadium rock orientated Asian Dub Foundation, which has been the main modus operandi of the band since.
This is illustrated by noting that ADF CDs used to appear in the Dance and Electronic section of all good record stores and now they appear in the Rock and Pop section.
This new album is also one of two halves and expresses this inherent tension and identity crisis within the band.
Originally announced for a release around June 2017, the new album did not appear then. Instead ADF fans were treated to Core Four, a live project made up of ADF members, which seemed to dispense with Asian samples and instruments entirely and featured ADF taking on the guise of a four piece jazz band. 2019 then saw the 21st anniversary re-issue of their Mercury nominated album Rafi’s revenge from 1998.
Access Denied, the 9th album from Asian Dub Foundation is due for release on 19th September 2020. ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’, The first official single from the album has a refrain that harks back to the Poll Tax riots. ADF were formed in that milieu of political activity and government funded youth workshops of the late 80s/early 90s, with early live performances specifically organised to protest the election of BNP councillor Derek Beackon in Tower Hamlets. ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ is a stadium stomper in the same vein as ADF’s output post ‘Fortress Europe’. With the chorus sung by Ghetto Priest and rap by Aktarv8r.
‘Stealing The Future’, The second single is drum and bass influenced but the beat seems flat when compared to the earlier jungle inspired ADF tracks on Rafi’s Revenge. The main problem is that this track is very similar to the preceding one. Aktarv8r vocals with Ghetto Priest offering the refrain cover pretty much the same territory of ‘Can’t Pay Won’t Pay’ in lyrical content and delivery, “Hands up if you’re a citizen of nowhere” and “They stole the future”. The track also seems unsure of whether it is D&B or stadium rock and plays it safe in the middle of the road.
In ‘Frontline’, The Flutebox an invention of Nathan ‘Flutebox’ Lee, features prominently. It is a hard cut on the album. The Flutebox’s delicacy juxtaposed with the bass and guitar. Aktarv8r is also on the forefront here, pumping out lyrics such as “I’m on the frontline fighting for what’s mine”. The combination of Nathan Flutebox Lee and Aktarv8r is really smooth, the track seems more like an Aktav8r solo joint than an ADF track. The Guitars reminiscent of Rage Against the Machine and provide a raw instrumental but where is the Bass?
‘Access Denied’, is the album’s title track, Ghetto Priest takes on the main vocal duties on this more sombre roots influenced track, “Rain drops from the sky//the tear drops from my eye”. Themes of oppression and isolation which are prominent throughout the album come home in this track. The racial subtext of “Is it skin deep?” hits hard and has been a constant message throughout ADF’s work.
The politics on these tracks seem somewhat generic however, where are the explicit references to Brexit, UKIP and the current government? What happened to the ADF who had no qualms about reading out immigration statistics and calling out current prime ministers on their albums?
‘Realignment’ – An instrumental track with Indian instrumentation is reminiscent of ‘Speed of Light’ from the album Punkara of 2008 and also of the track ‘Scaling New Heights’ from Community Music of 2000. This instrumental provides the album with a beautiful moment of reflection. Such delicate tracks are major highlights in the ADF canon, nostalgically referencing Indian classical music and the things that 2nd generation find in their parents record collections, evoking home.
‘Coming Over Here’ featuring Stewart Lee, is an electro collage in the style of ADF’s debut album Facts and Fictions from 1995 and the band Headspace (A project by Dr Das and featuring Chandrasonic that was a precursor to ADF). The track features Sterwart Lee’s famous stand up comedy monologue on the Anglo Saxons stealing British Jobs. Whilst the politics of the track is very much relevant, I don’t think sampling a comedian caricaturing the far right has a much bite as when Fun Da Mental actually sampled a voicemail left at their offices by the National Front on the track ‘Dog Tribe’ from 1994. The instrumental itself however is a solid sound collage.
‘Human 47’, featuring 47 Soul, is more of a 47 Soul track but it is a welcome inclusion and looks set to be an anthem if released as a single. A very danceable track with an infectious beat!
‘Mindlock’ is another instrumental track. This seems like a hark back to ADF as beat makers. Guitars come in midway turning the beat into a mosh pit track. But again, where is the bass?
‘Swarm’- The third single form the album is a track about the hive mind it featuring a pumping bassline.
‘Lost in the Shadows’ has existential pondering echoed in its instrumentation but this goes nowhere and is a bit flat for my liking. The flute is great to hear here and plays well with the guitar.
‘Youthquake Pt 1 – Greta Speaks’ was released as a free download in May 2019 and was the first Asian Dub Foundation single in a long time that made me stand up and take notice. Sampling Greta Thunberg months before Fatboy Slim gained much critical acclaim for doing so. The track was engineered by Pandit G. A strong political message with tablas and possibly a bassline by Dr Das, this is pure old skool Asian Dub Foundation. Greta’s speech mentions “Stolen future” which thematically connects it to the album’s second track. The sirens add a nice touch and sense of urgency to the track. Why couldn’t the whole album be like this? A political electronic art collage, the track is amazing yet it feels somewhat out of place here.
The final three tracks of the album are remixes of ‘Re-alignment’, ‘Frontline’ and ‘Stealing the Future’ respectively.
Hearing ‘New Alignment’, brings to mind the instrumental of the track ‘Strong Culture’ from 1995. This could become as iconic as ‘Strong Culture’ and I predict that it will be a future ADF anthem.
ADF are no strangers to electronic instrumental tracks but it begs the question as to why there are no Dhangsha mixes on this album? Dhangsha being Dr Das’ new electronic project which is much more progressive and in the spirit of the original Asian Dub Foundation than anything that appears here.
‘Frontline Santiago’ features Ana Tijoux of Makiza, an artist whose work does not shy away from the political. The vocals complement the Flutebox nicely and I much prefer this mix of the track.
‘Smash and Grab the Future’ by DUB FX, is a hard hitting D&B remix which harks back to MC Navigator’s collaborations with ADF.
It’s a massive problem when the main highlights of an album are on the tracks featuring guest artists. The contributions of 47 Soul and Ana Tijoux deserve to be released as singles in their own right. Whilst the instrumental tracks and sound collages are good to hear, it appears the ADF are stuck in the mindset of releasing ‘Fortress Europe’-esq, stadium rock tracks over and over again.
A recent Facebook post mentioned that Pandit G is in the On‑U Sound studio working on the official batch of remixes for the album with Adrian Sherwood. I look forward to hearing these and wonder what electronic dub experimentation they will contain.
A shorter version of this article appears in Rhythm Passport. Please check it out for more world music reviews.
DJ Isuru is a music journalist and broadcaster on SOAS Radio. He also runs the Mishti Dance event series featuring the best in Asian Underground, the next party will be announced shortly by Poplar Union.
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