exclusive interview with the Sharaab

interview by dimmSummer
date: march 2004
transcribed by laura
listen: Streaming MP3 40kbs mono
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ET: This is ethnotechno's interview with the great Sharaab. Name means 'drunk,' maybe you guys don't know but now you do. Makes you drunk on tunes. Let's talk about your music. How long have you been making this particular genre of music? What year did you start and when did it really take off for you?

Sharaab: I would say it started about 1993, that's when I started actually mixing tunes and mixing Indian rhythms and vibes with club tracks, house tracks, hip-hop, things like that. '93 is when I really started doing it, or experimenting with it, rather. I would say '95, '96 is when I really started getting into it as far as the production aspect, really learning to produce and put together tracks and stuff like that.

ET: '93, man, that's a while ago. Now how did people respond to it way back then? What was big in '93? I think maybe the Backstreet Boys were pretty big, before Marky Mark was an actor, maybe Fresh Prince and Jazzy Jeff...maybe Fresh Prince was on his own back then. Who else? I'm trying to think pop-wise. I mean, underground...

Sharaab: Underground, as far as Indian stuff, Bally Sagoo was really popular with his remixes, there were DJs definitely doing the Hindi remix thing and bhangra and stuff like that on the underground tip, but as far as mixing Indian classical and folk stuff, I didn't know anybody doing it in the States at all. I randomly found people over the course of time through the internet and stuff like that.

ET: Now you just turn the radio on and you'll hear it on 104, just some Britney desi...they always call it the 'desi remix.' What are your views on seeing it go that mainstream, just the popularity of the 'desi sound'? How do you feel about it always being called a 'desi remix' and it just has a dhol or a tumbi or a dhad sample in there and some Punjabi guy yelling? Do you think it's getting kind of watered down and it's just a fad, or do you think people know there's a hell of a lot more happening with the sounds?

Sharaab: I kind of have mixed feelings about it. As far as individual producers and stuff, if that's their sound, more power to them, they're more than welcome to try and take it as mainstream as they want. If that's where their heart is, then that's what they have to do. But from my own standpoint, I don't really see any depth to that kind of music at all. It's definitely a fad because you saw it with the whole Latin thing for a while. Trends come in and out, I have mixed feelings about it. I like the fact that with the mainstream comes some money, some sort of recognition for what other people are doing and other sounds start filtering in. But at the same time, if that doesn't happen, then I don't think there's any positive [side] to it.

ET: Not at all?

Sharaab: Nah, not really.

ET: Just tell us what you REALLY feel, just lay it down. This is the underground scene, this website's underground, everything's underground, nobody's gonna know. (laughter) Your career's not gonna go down the tubes because you were like 'Oh man, that shit BLOWS!'

Sharaab: I could say all of it sounds awful, but no, some of it sounds really fucking good. Like you hear it and you're like 'Oh yeah,' and you bob your head. Some of it sounds great, some of it sounds terrible, it just depends how you do it. Obviously the producers who are doing that kind of stuff know what they're doing and they got to the top of their game by doing it over and over and over very effectively. So I have no hate or dislike or bad words about any of that type of music, it's just that I feel there's a little bit more depth, like what you hear on ethnotechno, that kind of music.

ET: Thanks for dropping the name, man. (laughter) Here's a scenario, then -- say Britney Spears' label or Wyclef's label comes to you and they're like 'Yo, we want you to do a (Indian accent) desi remix! for our artist, and we're gonna pay you ten grand, but it's gotta be THIS way. We like your stuff, it's cool, but we want it to be more this way.' Let's see you give them the Sharaab remix -- they're like 'Yeah, it's interesting, but we don't quite get it. We want you to do more tumbi, tinka-tinka-tinka, can you put that in there?' What would you do, you got ten grand, what would you do?

Sharaab: Man, that's tough. That's a tough question. At this point I would say as an individual who's just solely trying to exist purely off what I do in terms of music, then I would have to say I'd probably take the money and do some sort of remix. I would definitely try to tweak it out a little bit, try to get as much as I could under the radar, but pretty much I work full-time in music, so I have to be able to live comfortably.

ET: With that answer, would you ever consider having a pseudonym, a ghost producer name, and do that kind of stuff, get paid, but then have your other name, Sharaab. You'd be like, DJ Dhol-Man or something like that, and then Sharaab does the dope shit and Dhol-Man does the desi remixes. Would you EVER consider that? You're getting paid over there, but you still get time to do your other stuff, the stuff you really want to do.

Sharaab: Yeah, that's certainly a possibility, I have no problems with that. But at the end of the day I want my name, the Sharaab name, to be out there and I want people to know it for what it is. And whether I go off and do one kind of random project over here doesn't mean my music is diluted in any way. It comes down to how much you're willing to sell out. If someone came to my studio and said 'Change this and this and this' and I didn't feel like it was following their purpose -- they say their purpose is to sell as many records as possible -- if they're doing certain things that are not within the pop format or whatever, then I would advise them against it. So it's all a matter of circumstance, where you are at a certain point in time and what you feel like doing. A pseudonym is possibly a solution to that, but I kinda like the Sharaab name, I've had it for a while. People have told me to change it and I haven't, so, oh well.

ET: Why would people tell you to change Sharaab?

Sharaab: It has some negative connotations among Hindi and Punjabi native speakers. So for purposes of selling music in India, for example, Sharaab is not a common name, it means 'alcohol' or 'alcoholic' or whatever, which is totally different than what it means in my native tongue, Bengali. So people take it for what it is. I sort of explain it as that my music is intoxicating, a lush blend of music.

ET: What does it mean in Bengali?

Sharaab: (laughter) It's pronounced differently, it's pronounced 'shorob,' it means 'the scent of flowers.'

ET: Is that how you say your real name?

Sharaab: My real name is Saurabh, yeah.

ET: Just spelled differently. It looks like the way you say it, the way it's spelled in your...there's an H in there somewhere...

Sharaab: Right. There's an H at the end but how I got Sharaab was that people... the H belongs at the beginning because we say our Ss like 'sh' and people just started saying my name as 'Sharaab' and I was like, 'Uh, sounds cool. I like that name, it kinda fits.'

ET: Did you know when they were calling you 'Sharaab' that it actually meant alcoholic or drunk in Punjabi?

Sharaab: I figured it out pretty quickly. (laughter) But I was like, you know what? I don't have an aversion to alcohol, by any means.

ET: You dropped a really really dope set at Kush Kollektiv on Wednesday night and the house was just rockin'. You really took it where it needed to go. I was talking to Ajay Naidu at the back -- I think Talvin was somewhere in the States and it was after his OK CD was released, I'm not sure if it was before he won the Mercury Prize or right after or whatever, but I think he came to a show of yours and it was the biggest show that any of these guys have ever been to, even thus far. They were like, Sharaab threw this big-ass party and the first time Talvin met any of those guys was at your party, and a year later ('99) everybody's at Anokha. The Punditz, Karsh and even Rekha was out there. It seems like you've been holding it down in Atlanta for quite a long time. Do you have any aspirations for leaving Atlanta, going to a bigger pond, or are you really just really gonna be the guy in Atlanta? And also, can you tell us more about that show where Talvin came by?

Sharaab: Sure, I'll start with the Talvin show. What happened was that I'd been doing some stuff in Atlanta for a long time so I was really well-known there. This organization called SASA, which is the South Asian Students Association, they do a big party every year for South Asian college students, they brought me in on their entertainment committee to bring some cool stuff to the event. They fronted the whole thing and I just stuck as many cool people I knew as I could to get them down. So I'd met Talvin, he'd come through Atlanta once or twice before that on the Anokha tour, I just DJd, so I met him through that and he knew who I was so he sort of made it happen. This was before OK came out, he was recording OK. And I knew Karsh and Ajay through the Bhom Shankar stuff that they were doing in New York at the time, so I got them to come down and we were trying to book Joi too but we couldn't make that happen. But yeah, that was the first time Talvin ever met those cats in New York and it just sort of became a connection and it was really cool to see that happen, because you could see the birth of a movement almost happen right there. It was very cool to be a part of it. It was an awesome concert, we did two shows, one was a live show with Bhom Shankar, Talvin just came in and dropped some bols, introduced the band, stuff like that. The next show, we did a DJ set with everybody and that was really cool as well, 2000 people just jamming. And this was before people even knew what Asian Underground was, it was just starting to catch on. Most of the people were very taken aback and didn't know what to do with it, but some people knew what it was. I'm just glad I got to pull it off, because it's very rare that things like that happen. It was cool, I'm glad that happened.

As far as being in Atlanta, I can say for a fact that Atlanta sucks in several ways, but it's home. I've lived there for a good 11 years now, and I've tried to move away to New York several times, but it just sucks me back in. There's always something holding me back -- work, job, family, school, whatever, there's something that happens that usually keeps me there. It's a pretty fat setup there in terms of where I live, my studio, my work, everything is sort of coalescing there, the only missing aspect I would say is a really solid support for this kind of music. There's no audience for it. Every time we try to build an audience, it's really a very difficult struggle and it's really time-consuming. I don't know, it's a conundrum.

ET: How about remixes? Do you enjoy doing remixes more than creating your own tracks just because the elements are already there and it's less work, or is it a lot more work involved because they want a certain kind of remix? Or do you have a lot of leeway to do it up the way you do it up and that's it?

Sharaab: I like doing remixes, I don't think they're any harder or different than original tracks because most remixes I've done have been because they wanted my flavor, so I do it just like an original track except it has elements of the person's original work.

ET: So where do you get your inspiration for your work, the Sharaab sound? Where does that come from? Is it from being in Atlanta for so long and being stuck there? Would you see the sound of your music changing if you did come to New York, for example, or if you moved to the West Coast, where everything's always going to be different than anything that comes out of New York? The Sharaab sound, is it indicative of Atlanta, being there, because you could say a lot of things that come out of New York tend to be more cold or more gritty and on the West Coast they're going to be warmer, more airy, you know what I'm saying? So where does your sound come from, does it come from being in Atlanta or does it come from just being you?

Sharaab: Nah, I think it's more of who I am rather than where I am. Atlanta doesn't really affect my sound. There's a big hip-hop sound down there, Southern rock, there's all kinds of stuff going on down there but I take more of my influences from how I grew up and I've been doing this for so long it's sort of just from me. If I hear something I like I do tend to get influenced by the sound but in general my sound palette doesn't change too much, it just will expand by bits and pieces here and there.

ET: What kind of music do you listen to right now, if we were to get the top 5 in your iPod?

Sharaab: I don't listen to music, man, I transcend music.

ET: Wooooow. (laughter) Interview's done, thank you for listening.

Sharaab: I'm just kidding. Someone really pretentious told me that once so I had to repeat it. What am I listening to now? I'm listening to all kinds of stuff. I really like Dhamaal stuff, San Francisco, the crew out there, and the Nasha compilation from the UK. I've been listening to this artist who used to be from Athens, Georgia named Dangermouse who did sort of a hip-hop thing mixing the Beatles' White Album with Jay-Z's Black Album, it's called the Grey Album, I just think it's brilliant. I listen to all sorts of stuff. I've been really moving towards a more retro-electro sound recently just because I have an affinity for that sound, I grew up in the '80s, so...

ET: Yeah, I noticed that in your recent remixes you did for Ryukyu Underground, the track you gave me for that comp, I noticed a definite '80s electro synthline bassline type of thing. It was cool because you see a lot of that also in popular culture coming back. I don't know who decides when that shit comes back but you always see someone does it somewhere, it's underground and eventually it comes up overground and then it's like, all right, we just gotta go to the next thing. It's interesting because I think a lot of people just do it because they want to do it and they just happen to do it when other people want to do it, and then it becomes a movement, kinda like going back to something. It's really interesting how stuff like that works. Let's get back to talking about this genre of music. I think a lot of people now see it as a genre and not just a fad or not just something that died out or should have died out in the late '90s. I think if you go to some record stores you will see an Asian section. Where do you see this music in five years?

Sharaab: Hmmm. That's a very interesting question.

ET: Where do you see yourself in the music in five years?

Sharaab: That's a tough question. I can't really predict the future. I really hope this music grows. It's been around for a little while and sort of waxes and wanes. I see it as a genre right now with really strong roots but I don't see enough label support for it, first thing. Not enough artist support, really, to support new burgeoning artists coming out. Because at the end of the day, if you want this music to survive then there has to be artists getting paid for the work that they do. So if that doesn't happen, I really don't see it getting any bigger, per se, as far as audience size. Hopefully there'll be some more labels that come out, more money being put into this music.

ET: When you say 'this music,' you're talking about obviously stuff that Karsh does, Talvin, you, all these people -- it's more on a serious tip, there's a lot more electronica involved, there's a lot more complex rhythms involved. Do you see that music competing against what has already taken a strong foothold? If you look at just the media in the past two weeks, you've got the Newsweek article, then you had TimeOut New York which just had a huge 15-page article, really in-depth, about SANYs, they call it, South Asian New York. And then India Abroad had a huge article on Basement Bhangra, and you just see this stuff over and over again, and there's always a tiny paragraph about Karsh and Kollective and that's the only mention about that. They say 'It's an alternative to the desi remix bhangra hip-hop fusion stuff!' but that's really saturated the market right now. I'm wondering, do you see the stuff that you do as competing with that music for attention? Because if you look at the media, people are really looking at South Asian music, but it's only that one big part of it.

Sharaab: I don't know if it's necessarily competing. I mean yeah, it is sort of put on the back burner somewhat. If you look at this genre, most of the serious artists have emerged from this genre. I haven't seen any mainstream desi producers producing bhangra. I mean, there's been a couple, Rishi Rich and Zeus and a couple other cats in the UK, they're of course taking it to the next level over there, but in America, I really don't see that bhangra music as taking over in any sense. Not to say that we don't have any humor or we're totally humorless people, but we're definitely more serious about what we do. We make more serious music and we study music as a lifelong thing. It's not just a fad where we go out and party one night and listen to some stuff. I would really like to see more coverage of it and hopefully it won't become a competition, it'll become more of a celebration of your South Asian...you listen to everything, you listen to hip-hop, you listen to drum and bass, you listen to whatever.

ET: Do you think that the reason it's not as popular is because it's less song-based material, that this kind of music is just music? You could put lyrics to it but you rarely see lyrics. If there are lyrics, it's in Hindi, it's in Urdu, it's in Bengali or some language that people here are not going to understand. It's kind of like, the people just focus more on the music and less on the actual lyrical content. So do you think that is a stumbling block? Are you working on music that has more lyrical content yourself, or do you see that happening with other Asian artists in this genre?

Sharaab: Yeah, it's say definitely it's the songwriting aspect. I have a lot of friends who are like, 'I don't really like music or I don't understand it unless I can sing along to it,' which is a legitimate concern. But overall I think our music tends to transcend that in some aspects. Because if something is musical, it transcends all languages, which is why I think our music has a broader appeal worldwide.

Yeah, lately I've been working on stuff that has been more song-oriented, but I wouldn't call myself a songwriter. What I tend to do is I work out several different versions of tracks and if I find the right vocalist for it, if I know a track I want to work with that has vocals, I'll try and find the right vocals for it and do it. I'd still say that 90% of my stuff is not vocal-driven. Nitin Sawhney has had great success with vocal music and I applaud him for it. It just depends on how you do it, you know?

ET: Take the UK, for example. South Asian culture in the UK is the dominant culture, they're not the dominant people, but it's everywhere there, there's a lot of South Asian culture and flavor going on there. People like Talvin come up, and State of Bengal, and all these really talented people, but then you get a lot of other people coming up, they make a track, or one or two tracks, and it's like a 17-year-old kid in his mum's basement or whatever. You start to see a lot of this stuff coming out, and a lot of labels are encouraging it because they just want to make comps and put comps out, so an Outcaste CD will come out and it'll have five or six people you've never heard of, maybe even some of them are in-house productions, you have no idea where this stuff is coming from, but there's a lot of it there. Do you see that happening in the U.S.? Do you fear it happening, or do you say all is welcome?

Sharaab: No, I think the whole compilation thing is burned out, and this is from someone who loves compilations. The Anokha compilation was probably THE turning point in my life, as far as the direction of my life. It was a pivotal moment, and I loved that compilation. But lately you see all these compilations coming out, just tons of stuff, and I think it's not going to get anywhere without labels supporting specific artists, growing artists, nurturing artists, and that used to happen in the old days of the recording industry. Up until very recently, actually, it used to be that sort of method. And it's only recently where people decided to make a quick buck, a glut of money off certain things that they've decided 'OK, we're gonna put these compilations out one by one' and half of them are useless, pretty much. Where I see compilations are good is when one artist or one person is directing the compilation, someone who knows the music, Lelonek or someone like that putting together compilations. But these random business owners, more than musicians, they tend to get their hands on stuff that's not too great.

ET: Has anybody heard your CD and said 'Hey, we wanna grab this' or 'I'm gonna grab that'?

Sharaab: No. People have certainly suggested it but I don't have any contracts on the table or anything. For me this CD was just something I wanted to put out, and I'm actually working on my next CD which will come out in November, hopefully.

ET: Now another artist in the field is Kaushik also known as Brown Sounds and he's also Bengali, so you guys got some sort of Bengali connection going there?

Sharaab: Yeah, yeah. Kaushik is a good friend of mine. He actually played bass on one of the tracks on my album and he remixed one of the tracks from my album which is on the album itself. He's a great artist, he's really up and coming and he's got a lot of talent and I really hope he gets some stuff out there. He's working on an album right now, so I hope that comes out soon.

ET: Your website is probably the best website out there, it's really wicked. Why don't you tell us about it? Where did the idea come from? Was it mostly their idea or your idea or a conglomerate?

Sharaab: The concept sort of came from me as far as what I wanted. Most of the design specifics came from my two business partners, we have a company called Undo and they sort of came up with the ideas of how to put together the site. I just wanted a really awesome Flash website that would draw people into my world, and so I wanted to make it really engaging and really huge and crazy.

ET: It's a pretty heavy site because of all the Flash involved, and it's one of the heavier sites I've seen, but are you worried about anybody in India who's on a pithy little 14k modem trying to reach your stuff and they just can't get to it because it takes a day and a half to load the site? Is that an audience you're reaching, or do you even care about them? Because India's starting to show a lot of interest in this genre of music and is that a concern for you? Do you ever plan to draw up a light site just for them?

Sharaab: Possibly in the next version of the site I would like to address that aspect because I know there have been complaints about bandwidth and the site text is kind of small so people have trouble reading it, but for me the art and the music will always supersede any kind of commercial enterprise or commercial aspect, so I'm not going to dilute anything because I think I'll make more money in India selling records, that's not what it's about.

ET: When you go back to India, is that to get more elements for recording your next CD, or is that just to go to hang out and see family?

Sharaab: Probably an element of both. I do want to go to West Bengal and Calcutta and record some more traditional Bengali folk music and stuff like that, which is why I'm really excited about the State of Bengal thing. I think there's been a lot of focus on Punjabi music and when people think of bhangra they think of that as Indian music in general, and there's just so many different aspects of Indian music that are beautiful and out there. I want to go to Nepal and go to the mountains, I just want to travel a bit more and record everything. Bring a big firewire drive and just turn the mic on, that's it.

ET: Nice. Sounds good, man. Is there anything we didn't talk about that you want to talk about?

Sharaab: I really hope that more people who are in positions of power will put some more money into this music. If you love this music, start a label. If you have the means, just do it and sign artists. You can do it. Start a website, like you did, that puts this music out for everybody to hear. Just do something. There's too much of a separation between consumer and producer of culture and you don't have to just sit there and buy CDs, you can become a part of this, this experience, this sound, this culture, this music.

Fade into "Bidrohi" -original composition