The 1984 disco-detective hit Kasam Paida Karne Wale Ki is a story about theft: planned, attempted, foiled and successful. Everyone is intent upon stealing something from someone else, be it jewels, property or dignity.
In one critical scene, Neena, the pure-hearted nightclub dancer played by a young Salma Agha, seduces Chandarbhan Singh (Karan Razdan), a drunken scoundrel and son of the film’s chief villain. After pouring him a big drink mixed with a powdered sleeping drug, she croons an enticing, jazzy number called Come Closer. When Chandrabhan is suitably intoxicated and horny, Neena gets him to talk. She secretly records his boast that his father is responsible for the murder of her boyfriend’s father – an admission that is later used to entrap the villain and exact the family’s revenge.
Like the film’s characters, the movie’s soundtrack, composed by the larger-than-life Bappi Lahiri, too indulges in some thievery.
Jeena Bhi Kya Hai Jeena, one of the several catchy songs in the soundtrack, is an outright “sample” of Michael Jackson’s global megahit Billie Jean from his 1983 album, Thriller. Near the end of the film the song is reprised and this time the borrowing from Jackson is even more overt: leading man Mithun Chakraborty done up in Jackson’s famous red leather jacket recreates the King of Pop’s ghoulish moves in a misty, dark graveyard from which zombies (all those killed in the film thus far) emerge from the ground to attack Chandrabhan Singh.
Lahiri, the disco king of Indian cinema, has never hid the fact that he has built his reputation on free lifting of samples of other people’s music. Nowadays, sampling is a part of popular culture’s DNA. It’s almost impossible to find a track that doesn’t echo, repeat or copy the beats, melodies or even words of another pop song. But in the not too distant past, there were those who believed that unattributed and unauthorised borrowing of other people’s musical creations amounted to stealing.
Among those was none other than Bappi Lahiri himself – at least on one occasion. In 2002, he filed a lawsuit against American rapper-producer Dr. Dre, hip-hop artist Truth Hurts, producer DJ Quik and “the Americans” in general. Lahiri demanded $500 million for the unlicensed use in Truth Hurts’ song Addictive of a 35-second snippet from a melody he created for the long-forgotten film Jyoti (1981). The suit succeeded in getting Lahiri and Lata Mangeshkar acknowledged as the originators of the track, but whether Lahiri collected his millions is uncertain. Nevertheless, his legal action stands as a landmark of sorts in the fascinating history of sampling, cultural appropriation and copyright. When Addictive entered the Billboard Hot 100, Lahiri told an interviewer, “I feel very proud because no Indian composer before has made it to the US and UK top 10 charts. It’s a proud moment for Indian music and for the Hindi film industry.”
Given his suit, this was a bizarre statement, to say the least. But Lahiri made his ironic (and some would say hypocritical and opportunistic) point. He seemed to be happy that the case revived his career and he has never again sued anyone for sampling his tunes.
Let’s have a look at some of the most interesting of these, starting with the 1984 original.
Come Closer (Salma Agha and Bappi Lahiri)
The song opens with a riff that immediately grabs your attention. Clean and crisp guitar chords on a loop lay down the basic rhythm. These are warmed by a reassuring bass guitar and then layered with an intricate electric keyboard melody line. The sound, which would not be out of place on a George Duke album, is finally joined by the breathy yet wide open vocals of Agha. After one seductive verse, Lahiri deepens the sonic atmosphere by easing in some classy electric guitar, the subtlest of sitar splashes and finally some elegant horn charts. Beneath the stumbling catch-me-if-you-can antics on screen, Lahiri manages to create a sophisticated tapestry that is anchored by the opening syncopated rhythm. And it is that reprised sound that has travelled the world.
B1 (Fabio Monesi)
Leading British DJ Fabio Monesi gives the original track a serious bit of dance oomph, and speeds the thing up considerably while scrambling the track to create a trance hall delight. Agha’s famous two words are run through an electronic soundbox but stay buried deep in the mix as if she is in another room altogether.
Come Closer (Guts)
French maitre de musique Fabrice Franck Henri also answers to the name Guts. A cult figure in the deejaying universe, he is beloved for his eclectic mixing and matching of soul, jazz and hip-hop. It was this version of Come Closer from his album Paradise for All (2011) that went a long way in sealing his reputation around the world. Here he adopts a slacker pace than his English peer, but immediately chucks a bit to the bottom line with some grumpy, gutsy bass guitar. He ditches Lahiri’s trumpets for a mellow slide trombone and makes the sitar a mere echo of the original. From time to time, syncopated breaks interrupt the theme, though without much point. This is a very silky and chilled sample, but perhaps just a tad too long.
The Medicine (Planet Asia)
There are more than half a dozen American hip-hop versions of the song of which Planet Asia’s is probably the most famous. There is no doubt where he has been sampling; Lahiri’s repeated chords are evident from the very first second. But unlike his European colleagues, Planet Asia doesn’t build his track around Come Closer so much as on it. He adds lyrics that have nothing to do with seduction but rather tell a story of urban violence and despair. The DJ has no interest in Agha’s vocals or the words Come Closer. In true sampling spirit, he simply lifts a few bars of music and loops them throughout his own song and his own story.
Nieuwe Orde (Spreej, Pasi, Safi, Tiewai, Yello, Nag, Cloos)
It’s a pity I don’t understand Dutch, because this hip-hop crew from the Netherlands seems to know what they are doing. They open proceedings with a nice trombone line which gives a warm, jazzy feel to the atmosphere. As they take turns handling the verses (including one in English), you can hear among the rich background sounds additional Hindi phrases that seem to be lifted from the original movie track. The sound here is complex, with a variety of voices and languages, and a wonderful, strong application of harmony and melody, not just beat. A keeper.
This track takes the cake for originality. It opens with the central casting voice of a White TV presenter introducing a documentary or true crime show. He is immediately interrupted by another narrator who tells us that “this is based on a true story/that is not a true story”, one that reminds him of “reality/not a reality show”. Lahiri’s swirling, dreamy keyboards make it hard to hear what the voices are saying until there is a quick break and we hear: “These are the great adventures/of city life.” The sampled lines become harder, more steely and L*Roneous, a free-thinking radical DJ from California’s Bay Area, relates a tale of what it means to be a Black man on the streets of America. It’s brutal and ugly, but Lahiri’s music seems made for this scene. It’s jerky, it’s relentless, it’s chilly. There is nothing about sex or seduction in this version, but somehow Lahiri’s loop matches the mood perfectly.
Sorridi Per Me/Smile For Me (Fadamat)
Italian turntablist Fadamat gives us a tasteful and tasty version, with Lahiri’s rift reduced to little more than a subtle background aura. Agha’s vocals have been deleted and substituted with some incredibly soulful and contemporary singing by a woman who asks, in the end, for the singer to smile.
Many other versions exist, including a comic Finnish version, Spanish and German versions and several more American urban reinterpretations. And if you check again in a few months, there may be even more. Bappi Lahiri, with his bling, belly and bravado, may have lost some of his audience and star power back home in Bollywood, but he has proven more than once that if he ever runs short of a dollar, he has what it takes to be a mad DJ in Los Angeles or London.