The tastemakers bank on an Asian music uprising

British record labels have traditionally lumped all South Asian-inspired pop into a one-size-fits-all category. But now, says Ian Burrell, that could be about to change
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The Independent Culture

Seven years ago, after a night out with Jay Sean, Rishi Rich and Juggy D culminated in that trio performing to a heaving and euphoric crowd at Ministry of Sound in London, I was convinced things were finally about to change for Britain's Asian music artists.

And, indeed, much has happened since. Jay Sean, then primarily a rapper, has gone on to top the US Billboard charts as an R&B singer. But he achieved that extraordinary success only after splitting from his British record company, starting up his own Jayded label, and then being signed by the American outfit Cash Money Records. Meanwhile, BBC Asian Network, which in 2003 was a year-old adventure on national digital radio, has been earmarked for closure.

After that night at Ministry, I wrote of my bewilderment that artists such as Tarsame "Taz" Singh could be selling three million copies of his album worldwide and be virtually unknown in his native Warwickshire. It was, I concluded then, a question of the British music industry failing to understand how to capitalise on the talents in its midst.

It was also a problem of a music press obsessed with bunching artists into "scenes", so that the multi-instrumentalist Nitin Sawhney was crudely labelled as a bhangra artist and acts as disparate as dance group Asian Dub Foundation and indie band Cornershop were bracketed in the "Asian underground". But scenes are inevitably transient, saddling artists with a shelf life – so it is that 38 years after Sheila Chandra of Monsoon first made it onto Top of the Pops with a No 9 hit "Ever So Lonely", we still lack a British Asian musical superstar.

Will that ever change? Yes. The talent base is broader and stronger than ever. Standing on the threshold of a door opened by MIA are a succession of female Asian British artists from the singer-songwriter Sonna Rele to the rude-girl Birmingham rapper Hard Kaur. Male vocalists range from the experimental and genre-defying North Londoner Jai Paul to the slick pop of Arjun. Naughty Boy, the hot producer on the grime scene, boasts a background that is Pakistani, via Watford.

But importantly, at long last, the infrastructure of the music industry is starting to respond to a demand, for the music of such artists, that stretches across the South Asian diaspora from Dubai to the United States and is at its noisiest in the United Kingdom. Key radio tastemaker Nihal Arthanayake has risen to become an established member of the BBC Radio 1 team, and a string of music industry executives from South Asian backgrounds (Rak Sanghvi at Sony Music, Shabs Jobanputra at Virgin Records and Sonny Takhar at Syco) have climbed to influential positions in the UK music industry.

Significantly, Universal, the biggest record company in the world, this summer set up a new label Desi Hits!/Universal, which will be based in Britain and attempt to solve the problem of tapping into the existing worldwide market for Asian music while allowing the same artists to have mainstream careers by not branding them as part of an Asian fad.

The chief executive of Desi Hits! (already a successful entertainment website) is former Middlesex University student Anjula Acharia-Bath, who will run the label with her husband Ranj Bath, and Arun Sandhu, co-founder and head of A&R.

Sandhu, who also produces the popular UK club night Desilicious, wants the label to become the powerhouse for Asian music talent that Def Jam was for African-American artists.

A decade ago the music business seemed convinced that black British urban artists could never break out of their musical ghetto. Now artists such as Tinie Tempah and Taio Cruz are the industry's new meal-ticket. It's time for Britain's Asian music talent to get its place at the table.