Before he was Nucleya, Udyan Sagar was part of one of India’s most successful electronic acts, Bandish Projekt. One thing led to another and Sagar went solo. His identity as Nucleya, the DJ who revitalised Indian electronic dance music by incorporating street music from across cultures, came about after much introspection and experimentation.
Nucleya’s rise to stardom began with the release of the EP Koocha Monster in 2013. It consisted of six tracks handpicked by Nucleya’s manager Tej Brar from out of 40 songs. If a robot jumped into the middle of a Ganesh visarjan procession and began dancing with the crowd, Nucleya’s music could be the background score.
“I had never heard anything like it and I think to this day there is no one else who sounds like Nucleya,” Brar recalled. “There are a lot of producers nowadays who have been inspired by his sound, but when you hear a Nucleya song, you know it is Nucleya.”
Nucleya began touring. His popularity increased with the release of the albums Bass Rani in 2015 and Raja Baja in 2016. Nucleya’s zeal to perform across small towns and suburban colleges also helped spread his music beyond a certain niche. Some key decisions, for instance, to release his music for free on the internet, also went a long way. The abundance of Indian percussion coupled with the use of local references found takers.
Soon, Bollywood came calling. For Anurag Kashyap’s upcoming boxing drama Mukkabaaz, Nucleya has collaborated with Mumbai’s hip-hop hero Divine to produce Paintra.
Mukkabaaz is the story of Shravan Singh (Vineet Kumar Singh) who has to box his way out of institutionalised caste politics in Uttar Pradesh. The film will be released on January 12. Paintra, a Hindi heartland version of Eye of the Tiger, is a pulsating electro-rap song that channels the protagonist’s frustration and willingness to break free off his chains. Most of the comments on the video of the song that was released on YouTube on December 1 have nothing to do with the film – they are all about celebrating Nucleya.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Nucleya spoke about how Paintra came about, the importance of Bollywood for an independent musician, and the reasons behind his rise to fame.
How did ‘Paintra’ happen?
I got a call from Amit Trivedi, who said Anurag was trying to get a hold of me. I was like “Anurag who?” because I couldn’t believe he was actually talking about Anurag Kashyap, who is probably my favourite director. Soon after that Anurag and I spoke on the phone and he invited me to come and meet him in Mumbai. Tej and I went for the meeting and he was just the nicest, most humble person. He explained the idea of the movie and what he wanted the song to achieve, the emotion he wanted it to convey.
After that, he gave me complete creative control and let me do my thing. The lyrics were initially written by Vineet Singh and then Divine reworked them a little bit. I’ve worked with Divine a bunch before, so I knew he could nail this so I brought him on board.
What was Anurag Kashyap’s brief to you?
Paintra is not really a standalone song, in the sense of a single. It is a song that was written for a specific moment in the film. It was written and composed to encapsulate that moment of real struggle, hence I treated it in a very different way than if I was to write a lead single per se for the film. It serves a filmmaking purpose and is essentially a tool for the film to progress. If you watch the film, it really comes in at just the right moment and serves the narrative to progress.
‘Paintra’ is your third song with Divine after ‘Jungle Raja’ and ‘Scene Kya Hai’.
We have a great relationship. He is an incredibly talented lyricist, MC and performer. We support each other. We have done a number of tracks together because he brings it every time. He always has great content and delivers in the studio.
On top of that, he is an incredibly humble and down to earth person and I really enjoy that. There is no ego when we work together. We just do what will work best for the song and it seems to have really connected with both our audiences.
Is Bollywood glory the ultimate sign of popular acceptance for an independent artist?
I have no interest in being accepted by Bollywood. It makes no difference to me. I am going to continue to make the music I want to make, because that’s who I am. If a project comes along that I believe in, with someone that I look up to and admire their work, I will happily contribute but not because I want to be involved in Bollywood, but because I believe in that specific project.
It’s great my sound has been getting some recognition, but that’s not really what we set out to do. I just want to make music that I believe in and if some of that finds its way into Bollywood – that’s great, but it was never the goal. I’m just happy to be working with people like Anurag who believe in pushing the envelope.
Your music involves a lot of local Indian percussion. Do you travel and record street musicians playing or do you invite them to the studio and record them?
I’ve done both. I have travelled around the country recording regional musicians in their typical environments like temples and villages. I did of a lot of this while I was on Sound Trippin with MTV. I have also had musicians come into the studio and record specific melodies or parts that I need for a specific song. I will hum them the melody and direct them while they are playing in the studio.
A large part of the sounds you hear and actually what a lot of people identify as the Nucleya sound, is actually how I design my drums and percussion using VST [Virtual Studio Technology] plugins on my DAW [Digital Audio Workstation]. I spend a lot of time shaping sounds, and I think those sounds are what people have gravitated towards and identified as unique.
Homegrown electronic dance music has exploded in India over the past few years, with you being the poster boy at the moment. To what would you credit this phenomenon?
I think a massive amount of credit lies with Jalebee Cartel and MIDIval Punditz, who were really the pioneers of getting audiences in India to experience electronic music live. I think it’s also really important to recognise how influential Sunburn has actually been in the growth of electronic music in India. Through their various properties – Sunburn Festival, Arena, Reload, Campus – they have definitely exposed more people in India to electronic music than any other promoter.
Simultaneously, international electronic acts started looking at India as a viable touring option. It’s a country with a massive English speaking population, cheap data and 600 million smartphone users. It just became too big for the international acts to ignore anymore and I think that really opened a lot of people up to electronic music because it was an alternative to Bollywood.
Your music has bridged the gap between the Sunburn-going crowds and listeners from small towns. How is this possible?
I think it’s mainly a combination of two things. First, making the music available for free download. This removes any barrier between the fans and the music. In India a lot of the audience we are trying to speak to don’t have credit cards or iTunes accounts, so we just want to make the music as accessible as possible. Secondly, the way we have approached our live shows. The colleges were really where we focused our attention first and from there onto festivals.
Also, we wanted each show to be large than life. Hence very often, we spent our own money on special effects, pyro, hiring the right VJ, getting visual content created. It’s something we have put a lot of effort into and has developed over time.
What are you working on in 2018?
I am currently touring the SUB Cinema live show, which is an AV [audio-visual] show that combines audio and video bits working in sync with each other. There’s a bunch of SFX and pyro and the shows have all been fairly large scale, so that has been a lot of fun.
As far as music goes, I am working on my next full length album, which will be the follow up to Raja Baja. This will be coming out towards the latter half of the year, and it will be all completely brand new music and feature a bunch of fairly high profile collaborators.