A dislocated pinkie randomly landed us in the lounge of our local emergency room the other day. There we were mildly surprised to see Will.i.am and some young dude (who turned out to be Cody Wise) performing a new song on The Today Show. It sounded strikingly like an old A.R. Rahman song we both knew: “Urvashi Urvashi.” One of Rahman’s catchiest pre-Dil Se… tracks.
A quick Google search later, and one finds that actually this song (“It’s My Birthday”) is a legitimate recreation, acknowledged by Will.i.am and embraced by Rahman. (Presumably Rahman will be getting a nice check for this one as well.) The song actually came out two months ago, at the end of May, but hasn’t yet had much traction in the American market.
At the time of the song’s release, both Will.i.am and Rahman posted about the track on Twitter and Facebook, proudly proclaiming the “collaboration.” So there’s nothing at all underhanded or secret about the exchange dynamics here.
@arrahman thank you so much for everything…I can’t wait for everyone to hear it…when I go to india you please show me the town…
— will.i.am (@iamwill) May 22, 2014
A predictable joke arises: for once American musicians are borrowing from Indian music. My mother-in-law, hearing the song a little later, presumed that the American songmust have come first, and that “Urvashi Urvashi” was in fact the copy: this has happened so many times. Actually, I pointed out to her, perhaps a little cheekily — since she knows Bollywood much better than me — A.R. Rahman usually doesn’t do that sort of thing.
In fact, over the past 15 years there’s been a fairly well-established Over the past 15 years there’s been a fairly well-established pattern of hip hop producers borrowing sounds from Indian popular music.pattern of hip hop producers borrowing sounds from Indian popular music, whether it’s Jay-Z appropriating Panjabi MC’s “Mundian to Bach ke” — itself a recreation of a Busta Rhymes track, which was itself of course totally built around a sample from Knight Rider. (What’s original and what’s a copy?). Or “Addictive” by Truth Hurts which sampled “Kaliyon ka chaman” and generated a lawsuit (and by the way inspired this Hindi counter-recreation). Or “React” by Erick Sermon.
More directly to the point, Will.i.am and the Black Eyed Peas themselves used some Bollywood samples in “Don’t Phunk With My Heart” back in 2005. The video for that song even had somewhat of a 70s/ retro Bollywood flair. (The videos to “React” and “Addictive” are also rife with vaguely Indian dance moves, color palettes, and a general flavor of exoticism.)
One big difference between “It’s My Birthday” and those Here, the entire song uses Indian chromatic scale.other tracks is that those earlier tracks used Indian samples as a leitmotif in support of what were fundamentally R&B/blues-based melodies and rhythms. Here, the entire song uses Indian chromatic scale. Which means that, to my ear at least, the song sounds intensely desi. It’s not just a sample; it’s the song itself.
Interestingly, the video to “It’s My Birthday” doesn’t have a desi-type flavor at all, though it does all the same have a certain “exotic” quality all the same: the love interest for Will.i.am in the song appears to be an Asian woman. And you have these lyrics in the middle of the song:
Senorita ven aqui
Que bonita, que bonita
I can speak in Japanese
Kawai, kawai, I want your body
Come with me, come with me,
Come with me, girl let’s go party
This is one of those moments I think where you just have to throw up your hands at it all. The exoticism here is just spilling over and feeding on itself in a bit of a polyglot booty call riot. (I’ve got Shakira and the Harajuku girls on the other line; they want their identities back.)
Overall, exoticism or no, I’m down with this track and curious to see whether it will catch on. It’s already hit #1 in the UK, but as of this writing does not yet appear to have charted in the U.S. Will it find a place on the big urban pop stations — I’m looking at you, Q102 — or is it just a little too “other”?
Either way, as long as AR Rahman is getting paid, it’s all good.