Big Bang Music is writing a series of guest columns for Music Ally’s readers to help you understand the latest trends in India. In this latest piece, Music Ally contributor Amit Gurbaxani explains how a Canadian Punjabi hip-hop song became a huge anthem that united a diaspora all around the world.
It’s a sleeper hit that seemingly came out of nowhere: a Punjabi hip-hop track from Canada released in September 2020 that’s gone on to become the most streamed song on Spotify in India so far in 2021 – with over 65 million plays globally so far. In the era of carefully-constructed and minutely-managed marketing campaigns, “Brown Munde (Brown Boys)” by rappers AP Dhillon, Gurinder Gill and Shinda Kahlon and producer Gminxr (pronounced “G Minor”) has done it the old-fashioned way: it became a smash, as they say in industry jargon,“organically”.
If anything, the strategy employed by the trio’s label, Run-Up Records, has been a tad unusual. The track was taken down, without explanation, from Indian DSPs, even though it racked up nearly ten million streams on JioSaavn. While this may have had the effect of driving up streams on international platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music – where it’s still currently in the top ten – what’s more intriguing is the rappers’ no-press policy.
Keeping quite at a time when they’re ruling the charts not only in India, but also the UK where they’ve scored multiple chart-toppers on the Asian Music charts is driving up interest in the group.
“So many people were tweeting me, Instagramming me, direct messaging me, going ‘Who are they? Why haven’t you had an interview with them?’,” says British-Indian DJ and radio presenter Bobby Friction who helped break Dhillon and co. in the UK by regularly playing them on the BBC Asian Network. “They’re not even letting me interview them. I’m saying, ‘Dude, you know how much I love you, you know how much I’ve spread the word’. AP is just like, ‘It doesn’t feel like the right time.’”
Here are three things that helped “Brown Munde” cruise to the top, in spite of their deliberate lack of press.
1) A clutter-breaking music video filled with celebrity cameos
Though they’d released about a dozen singles before, Dhillon and crew were relatively unknown outside of Canada’s Punjabi rap listening community until they put out “Brown Munde.” Its music video caught the attention of South Asian hip-hop fans across the world thanks to a series of celebrity cameos: appearances from Punjabi rapper Sidhu Moose Wala, British-Indian producer Steel Banglez, and a pair of fellow Canadian-Indians – hip-hop heavyweight Nav, and his regular beatmaker, MoneyMusik, who also helmed Dhillon’s album Not By Chance.
“Getting those cameos in the video was the stroke of genius,” says Tarun Nayar, founder of Canadian south Asian record label Snakes x Ladders, and organiser of the Vancouver-based cultural festival 5X. According to him, Dhillon’s performance fee has gone up “at least 10X” over the last eight months after he broke through with “Brown Munde”.
But along with the cameos, the video also depicts a more real side of life as a south Asian immigrant: scenes show Dhillon, Gill and Kahlon as mechanics, staff in a food delivery kitchen and labourers at a construction site. “Every bhangra video has massive cars in it, and guys going ‘Yo, don’t even come near me, I’m so rich you can’t even get through the gates to my house’; these guys are working in a peri peri chicken place,” says Friction.
Adding another important layer of authenticity and appeal is the inclusion of Punjabi farmers and a long-standing symbol of the community’s socio-economic iconography: the tractor. “There’s this [shot of] Sidhu sitting on this tractor in the fields,” says Nayar. “You don’t see tractors in Nav’s videos. In this video, there’s an explicit ‘This is who we are, this is what we came from’. There’s this feeling of really recognising the roots.”
2) Support from Spotify, which was early to identify it as a future hit
Upon its release, “Brown Munde” was placed in “entry level” Punjabi music playlists such as New Music Punjabi and Hip Te Hop on Spotify in India, says Padmanabhan ‘Paddy’ NS, its head of artist and label partnerships. Though it debuted at the top of the UK’s Asian Music Top 50 in September, it only entered Spotify’s India top 200 in November, a good ten weeks after it came out. It didn’t really take off until January when it started rapidly climbing the chart before rising to No.1 in February. The initial surge was on account of its popularity on short video sharing apps among the Indian diaspora.
“Foreigners were putting out these Reels dancing to this track,” says Paddy, “That picked up the diaspora audience [for whom] the number one platform is Spotify. By November, it was already doing so well, it got placed in Top Hits Punjabi and Punjabi 101.” The DSP’s digital ad campaign for Punjabi 101 in December, which promoted the flagship regional language playlist, provided “Brown Munde” a further boost. Says Paddy, “Post the campaign is when we saw the whole boom for the track in India.”
In March, Hindi film actor Ranveer Singh shared an Instagram post which he captioned with the song’s title and in April, Indian cricketers Harbhajan Singh and Nitish Rana celebrated a win at the IPL tournament by singing the tune to the TV audience. When Bollywood and cricket, India’s two biggest obsessions, catch on to a trend, then you know it has fully entered the mainstream.
Talk about being on song 🎶🎶@28anand gets @harbhajan_singh & @NitishRana_27 rapping post @KKRiders‘ win over #SRH. 😎😎 #VIVOIPL #SRHvKKR @Vivo_India
Watch the full interview 🎥👇https://t.co/9hAW2yvm0H pic.twitter.com/DlL6osKbfY
— IndianPremierLeague (@IPL) April 12, 2021
The virality prompted Spotify to put Dhillon on the cover of the Hip Te Hop playlist in February and again in April for follow-up single “Insane”. At the time of writing, both are in Spotify India’s Top 30. On Apple Music India’s Top 100, Dhillon has eight hits including “Insane”, which has been lodged at the top since the end of May, and has only recently dropped to number 2.
Radio stations in India, which barely played any independent or non-film music until the pandemic put a pause of most big-ticket Bollywood releases, have taken notice and started airing Dhillon’s songs. “Brown Munde” topped Fever 104 FM’s Originals countdown in June. Big Bang Music worked with Run-Up Records to promote its catalogue across India on radio, TV and Triller where they ran a challenge around “Insane”.
“The campaign got over 14 million hits within the first week and the tune peaked at No.2 on Billboard‘s Top Triller Global chart,” says CEO and co-founder Gaurav Wadhwa. Next on the agenda is putting the music back on Indian DSPs with “better marketing support” and connecting the label with local short video sharing apps. “The aim now is to track and monetise their success,” adds Wadhwa.
3) The creation of a rare anthem of Brown pride
Perhaps the biggest factor that has contributed to “Brown Munde”’s sensational run is that it’s a rare anthem of Brown pride, of which there is a surprisingly small cannon. Run-Up Records, which declined to answer most of our questions, told us that the goal “was to celebrate Brown culture and identity”. It’s one that seems to have been summarily achieved.
“The phrase is so simple that anyone can understand it,” says Friction. “‘Brown Munde’ [refers to] all the Bangladeshi kids and the Pakistani kids and the Tamil and the Sri Lankan kids, the Sikh kids and the Hindu kids across the West, it’s a unifying anthem for us. Every time any Asian guys got together and partied over the last year, they filmed a Reels or a Tiktok [with the tune].”
In India, it has crossed over into the non-Punjabi listening audience in a big way. “It’s gone outside of the whole Punjabi box,” says Paddy. “Which happens to a lot of Bollywood Punjabi tracks because of the actors involved and the grandeur but never because of the lyrics. Anyone from India can connect to it.” Right now, only one of the ten cities with the most streams for “Brown Munde” on Spotify India is from Punjab. Ludhiana ranks fifth after metros such as New Delhi, Pune, Mumbai, and Ahmedabad.
Back home in Canada,“the general feeling in the [South Asian] community is one of intense pride,” says Nayar. “I know that every kid in Surrey without exception is a fan of AP Dhillon even though he’s not from Surrey, he’s from Victoria.”
What its success could mean for the future of Indian music on the international stage
Run-Up Records says that Dhillon’s next goal is “to shift the perception of Punjabi music and help the culture as a whole break through barriers that have traditionally held back Punjabi artists from entering into the mainstream.”
Indeed, Friction believes that “Brown Munde” stands apart from most of the commercial Punjabi music out there because of its distinct sound. “The vocals are sung with an almost laissez-faire attitude,” he says. “It’s the entire opposite of what most Punjabi music is, [which] is very in your face and very, very urgent. They sing in western melodies, but they’re using the Punjabi language. That’s coupled with production on par with American hip-hop tracks. It’s absolutely unique.”
That’s not the only thing that makes Dhillon and his team so different. “They’re very confident as artists, and about what their vision is, [which] is to go beyond being singers and rappers, and to impact culture,” says Wadhwa. For now, that vision does not include going down the Bollywood route even though that door is wide open. “A couple of very big Bollywood actors wanted me to help them get “Brown Munde” for their films, for like a recreation and synch. They sweetly rejected those offers because they’re very clear about what they want.”
If anybody can make the jump for Punjabi music without the crutch of Bollywood, it’s Dhillon, says Nayar. “I don’t think anyone would disagree at this point that he is the next big thing. He’s in with Nav’s crew, he’s taking pictures with Nas. It’s very exciting for all of us.” The presence of Nav, in fact, could be the game changer. “His involvement really lends credibility,” Nayar says. “Nav sells stadiums in North America. Having his co-sign is huge. Aside from supporting the farmers’ protest, he hasn’t really engaged in a deep level with [his] Punjabi [heritage]. He’s not doing collabs with Punjabi musicians. This is the closest we’ve got to seeing an actual mainstream acceptance of Punjabi music so far and I’m sure it’s a sign of things to come. I have no doubt that there are going to be collaborations coming within the next year, maybe in the next six months that will push the needle. ”
That said, “Brown Munde” hasn’t quite crossed over into the non-diaspora audience. “I would say for the most part, your average Canadian/north American kid who is not south Asian has no idea who AP Dhillon is.,” Nayar told us. “I’m not putting it on the same level as [Panjabi MC’s] “Mundian To Bach Ke” yet. [I remember going] to some club in Mexico City and they’re playing “Mundian To Bach Ke”. That hasn’t happened [with “Brown Munde”].”
However, that isn’t justification for the Canadian music industry’s historic lack of recognition of south Asian artists, adds Nayar. “AP’s not getting radio airplay or mainstream press [despite the fact that] Punjabi music is super-important financially. If you look at the YouTube top 40 for Canada, there’s always Punjabi tracks in there. Show me a couple of other Canadian artists that are doing 250 million streams besides The Weeknd and Drake and Justin Bieber. I’d really like to know.” Hopefully, “Brown Munde” is the first of many hits that will eventually make the global acceptance of Punjabi hip-hop, and Indian rap as a whole, undeniable.