ROCK / Tales of the wild West Midlands: Ragga, bhangra, pop, fame, fortune, a Brummie accent - Apache Indian has it all. Ben Thompson meets him

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Apache Indian is a lot more handsome than he lets himself look on his fly-posters. There, he stands body skewed sideways and features marshalled into a grimace. In reality, padding about his London hotel room in red-stockinged feet, 26-year-old Steven Kapur is a graceful figure, exuding what New Faces used to define as 'star quality'. His genial friend and minder, top-flight boxer Kid Milo, is in attendance. When Apache gets up to answer the door, you can see that 'Nuff Vibes', the title of his current EP, is carved into the short hair on the back of his head.

This man is a major pop star now, and he approaches the responsibilities of fashion leadership in a conscientious manner. 'I've got a very good jacket that cost me pounds 400,' he reflects ruefully in a soft- spoken West Midlands accent. 'I wore it on Top of the Pops and a few other TV programmes, then I was wearing it on the street and someone shouted 'Get a new jacket]' so I had to hang it up in the cupboard and never wear it again . . . but I love that jacket]'

The song which has confirmed him in the big time is 'Boom Shack-A Lak': a classic summer dance- number cut from the same ear-catching 'rock'n'roll ragga' cloth as Shaggy's 'Oh Carolina', the spring hit which spearheaded reggae's spectacular breakout from the commercial ghetto. The gentle ex-US Marine, named after Scooby's buddy, stormed the charts, with the lubricious Shabba Ranks and Canada's Snow snapping at his heels. The Jamaican ragga (short for raggamuffin) dancehall style - an exuberant blend of rough and rugged vocals, big tunes and, as a rule, outrageous sexism - has made reggae a global force in a way it has not been since Bob Marley's heyday.

Apache had been in the pop charts before: first duetting with Brit-reggae stalwarts Maxi Priest, and then with his first big solo-hit, 'Arranged Marriage'. This beguiling piece of chat was a celebration, not a lament, of the conflict between old and new in Asian communities, with Apache proclaiming his respect for his parents' traditions, but worrying 'When is the time to tell my girlfriend?' He is not afraid to ask awkward questions. A song on his album, No Reservations, addressed the thorny problem of alcoholism among Asian elders, and his current EP features a daring assault on the caste system and a taboo-shattering Aids discussion, as well as 'Boom Shack-A Lak'. Apache's interest in social issues sets him apart from his hedonistic ragga peers even more dramatically than his ethnicity.

Of Punjabi stock, but born and raised in Handsworth, Birmingham, Apache grew up surrounded by reggae. As a youth, he liked Elvis and Bob Marley. He wanted to teach but ended up welding, and now he combines these two arts - his stated aim being to create 'a crossover style that reflects the multi-cultural background that most city kids like me grew up with'. To this end, Apache's music combines traditional Eastern instruments with ragga's state-of-the-art digital crunch, and his language is a spectacular collision of British Caribbean and Punjabi street-slang - 'Straight from Delhi on a flying carpet, with a million watts of hockey stick'.

His rise has not been quick or easy. A fraught but triumphant appearance on ITV's late-night, black talent show 291 Club ('I was nervous - if I had my way I would never have gone out on that stage') was just one of many occasions on which Apache has faced and won over audiences whose scepticism about his reggae credentials has bordered on the hostile. A succession of big Caribbean names has been only too pleased to work with him, from singer Frankie Paul to producers Sly Dunbar and Bobby Digital, and this has done him no harm. 'If so-and- so says he's all right,' says Apache, wryly, of himself, 'then he must be all right.'

If Apache is big in Britain, he is massive in India. His album has sold nearly 200,000 copies and his tour in June, with all proceeds going to India's National Association of the Blind, threatened to make sense of his questionable sobriquet 'The Gandhi of Pop'. There was the occasional dissenting voice - 'Most of his songs have almost an identical beat,' carped Delhi Midday; and the Pioneer railed against 'insipid lyrics, canned music and nonsensical rap' - but for the most part Apache, his girlfriend (now his wife) Harjinder and their seven-year-old son Kalvin were treated like royalty.

Apache was 'mindblown' - not so much by the reaction from the fans as from the politicians and media. The President of India wanted to meet him, so did Gandhi's granddaughter, and the Governor of Bombay called him a national hero. This must have been daunting for a man who 'hates politics'. 'I had to give a huge press conference in Delhi. I was really nervous and the first question was: 'What do you plan to do about the present problems in the Punjab?' I thought it was a joke, but what wasn't funny was that they were expecting an answer.'

Did he feel like a foreigner in India (he had been there once before, aged seven)? 'Yes. I thought I knew a lot about the place, but I was completely wrong. You get the impression that they are not going to be in touch with the rest of the world, but that is just not the case.' MTV is hugely popular in India and Apache provided a much-sought-after link between Asian and Western pop culture. The image of a British Asian, named after a Native American tribe, telling Indian pop groups to stop imitating Bon Jovi and start doing their own thing made a happy mockery of traditional notions of cultural colonialism.

Back home, Apache is rubbing shoulders with Sting and Suede on the 10-strong shortlist for the Mercury Music Prize, to be awarded on 8 September. A chart-busting collaboration with Mick Hucknall looms, and his next single will give him the chance to prove that the lurch towards trad-ragga sexism in the 'Boom Shack-A Lak' video was an aberration. He'll go back to India in November, and maybe in December, when he is pencilled in to support Michael Jackson in Delhi. There will be some doubt as to whom the crowd have come to see.