Asian Dub Foundation
Rafi’s Revenge
FFRR/London Records

The original iteration of Asian Dub Foundation dates from a different time and place.  And this album always serves to remind me of that.

Asian Dub Foundation, or ADF, formed in 1993 in Farringdon, London, when Deeder Zaman went to an educational workshop put on by Aniruddha Das and John Pandit.  Zaman was all of 14 years old, but they formed a band with Das on bass and Pandit mixing.  The following year, Steve Chandra, aka: Chandrasonic, joined on guitar the following year, along with mixologist Sanjay Tailor.  ADF was comprised of young men of South Asian heritage.  A few years later in London, this wonderful scene which saw South Asian DJs and musicians meld classic Indian music with techno took hold, with the likes of Talvin Singh, Nitin Sawhney, Karsh Kale, and DJ Cheb I Sabbah, amongst others.  But AFD didn’t fit there. Nor did they roll with the BritPop that dominated the mid-90s.  So they toured Europe extensively, and gained a huge following on the Continent, particularly in France.  On the backs of this, their début album, Facts and Fictions, was released in 1995.

ADF benefitted from the constant and consistent support of Primal Scream, a band that had got famous mixing dance music with the Madchester sound in the early 90s with Screamadelica, and who, over a series of releases in the 1990s, became increasingly political due to frontman Bobby Gillespie.  Primal Scream not only talked up ADF at all opportunities, but the young Londoners also toured with Primal Scream, exposing them to a much wider audience.  This is how I heard about them.

With that support, and with an evolving sound mixing jungle/reggae and punk (one that Primal Scream also came to explore most notably on their own magnum opus XTRMNTR in 2000.

At any rate, in 1998, Asian Dub Foundation dropped Rafi’s Revenge on an unsuspecting world.  It exploded in the UK, going gold and being short-listed for the Mercury Prize (1998 was not a year that the juries of the Mercury Prize should look back upon fondly, as not only did they ignore Rafi’s Revenge when it came to hand out the award, but they also ignored landmark albums from Massive Attack, Pulp, and the Verve.  Instead, something called Gomez won, with an album allegedly entitled Bring It On).

At any rate, the late 90s was not exactly a time of optimism and great hope, but it was an era where it seemed the sun still shone.  ADF were angry, and not surprisingly, given the ingrained racism against South Asians in London and the UK as a whole.  But, there was still this beautiful hope embedded in this furious set, largely due to Chandrasonic’s guitar and Zaman’s hyperkinetic vocals.  He made Zach de la Rocha look like an amateur.

Rafi’s Revenge opens with a nasty little ascending guitar riff from Chandrasonic, Zaman announces that ‘This is called Naxalite’ and then the song explodes on us, all bass and drums and that vicious guitar.  The song, ‘Naxalite,’ is a shoutout to the Naxalite movement in India, which arose from a peasant revolt in Naxalbari in West Bengal in 1967.  The song is all sound and fury, and Dr. Das’ bassline is thick enough to walk on.  Chandrasonic was a product of the post-punk school of guitar, all reverb, and cold, angular riffs.

My favourite track is the next one, ‘Buzzin’,’ another one that starts slow with a funky guitar riff and drums’n’bass.  Zaman outdoes himself here, his vocal delivery is downright fucking furious, he spits out his words, he nearly strangles himself, almost gasping for breath.  This is his manifesto, his call to arms

Can’t live my life with no rhythm or rhyme
Done enough chilling got to organise my time
You now see I ain’t standing still
Just watch me now I’ve got a lifetime to fill
‘cos I’m buzzing
Yeah jump up, jump up cos you know we’re buzzing
Any time we come we shock and sting.

And it’s hard not to believe him.  He delivers his rhymes over another massive dub bass line from Dr. Das (this is a theme for the album as a whole), some jungle beats, and Chandrasonic, his guitar, man.  In fact, during the guitar solo, Zaman is rapping, ‘Chandrasonic, you are mad-mad-mad-mad!’  And with guitars like this, it’s impossible not to believe.

And my god, is Zaman ever young-looking in this video.

The entire album is this massive collision between the punkrock energy of Zaman, jungle, and dub.  And that’s the thing, they just don’t give in, they don’t give up.  The entire album is this constant pounding, listening to it, even now, 21 years later, in middle age, it’s impossible not to get energized listening to this album.  It’s also impossible not to imagine the better future we never got.

ADF, which continues to this day, though Zaman after the third album, Community Music, in 1999, is an inherently political band.  Each and every album is full of ragers against the machine, about corruption, migration, climate change, racism, and everything else.  But in on Rafi’s Revenge and Community Music, a different tomorrow was still possible.  We could still imagine a less racist future, a collective response to climate change, and inclusive democracy in the UK, in the US, and in Canada.  In fact, in ‘Black White,’ Zaman raps:

And as the world is getting smaller ans smaller
We can only be getting closer and closer
Building this community of sound
Celebrating the unity we’ve found
And we know this is the model to follow
For all the dub children of tomorrow
As they grow under shifting skies
We’ll see every nation in their eyes

Now, just over two decades on, I’m not so sure anymore.  I was at a diversity and inclusion workshop last week at work, and as we discussed and processed and strategized with how to confront racism and exclusion, I couldn’t help but be a bit depressed, despite the invigoration of the session.  We are talking, in 2019, of the world we want to live in, but this is the same discussion we were having in the late 90s.  Hell, it’s the same thing the activist generation before us, those much-maligned Baby Boomers, wanted.  Plus ça fucking change.

On ‘Assassin,’ Chandrasonic does his best Daniel Ash impersonation with the guitar, musically, this track sounds like Bauhaus meets dub and jungle.  Despite my imaginations of a better world in the 90s, this is an angry song, as Zaman spits out his rhyme about the abuses of India and Pakistan at the hands of the imperialists.  And, of course, there is the fact that the band emerged from the capital of that empire that unleashed the ravages of imperialism on South Asia.  This duality, which was always present in ADF’s music, became outright explicit on Community Music, in the opening track, as Zaman demands a new Great Britain stand up, one rejecting imperialism and the ways of the past.

‘Free Satpal Ram’ is another banger from Rafi’s Revenge.  Satpal Ram is a British man of South Asian descent who, in 1986, was convicted of the murder of Clarke Pearce in Birmingham.  Ram’s case, though, was rife with irregularities, racism, and mistreatment by the investigating police and the justice system of the UK most notably that his barrister spent all of 40 minutes with him in ‘defending’ him, to say nothing of all kinds of evidence that might have exculpated Ram was never even shown to the jury.  Allegations of Ram’s mistreatment in prison only added fuel to the fire.  And thus, a Free Satpal Ram campaign emerged in the UK, with ADF at the centre, even before this absolutely killer track.  Ram was freed on parole in 2000, though the Home Secretary of the Labour government, Jack Straw, overturned that decision.  Ultimately, he was freed in 2002 by the EU courts.

‘Dub Mentality’ is also one of my favourite tracks on this album, as Zaman imagines dub as a location, a place where he and his crowd gather, to hang out, play music, argue and debate.  And smoke copious amounts of ganja.  This is an almost classic dub track, centred around Dr. Das’ huge basslines, which draw here on the legendary Jah Wobble, and a reggae beat.  And whilst Chandrasonic takes a bit of a back seat here, there is this beautiful violin riff that washes over the track.

Taken altogether, Rafi’s Revenge is this beautiful statement of defiance and a demand for a better future.  And ultimately, it may be more than two decades on, but this album is not just an historical document, it is a manifesto for today.

As for Asian Dub Foundation, they carried on after Zaman’s departure, as he returned to work in his community.  He released a killer solo album, wrapped up in dub and punk, in 2008, Minority Large.  ADF returned in 2003 with Enemy of the Enemy which, being deprived Zaman’s hyperkinetic vocals, relied instead on a vicious fury of punk and dub musically and a more sedate vocal approach.  It was also their most successful album.  ADF remain a going concern today,  a band of activists and revolutionaries, who continually put their money where their mouth is, involved in any number of leftist causes in the UK and Europe.  Their most recent album was 2015’s More Signal More Noise.