My lockdown experience (similar to the mass public’s) invited hours of inevitable scrolling through Instagram and Tik Tok. We witnessed a whirlwind of coffee-whipping, brush-passing, and dance challenges. Digital media became the new form of escapism allowing the rise of increasingly diverse content, from an array of international talents. Triggered by protests against police brutality and the prejudice that affects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Colour), these platforms are finally recognising the importance of representative creators. In particular, achieving true diversity and inclusion within the arts and culture industry, became a priority, not just a pipedream. There is an optimistic movement towards a more inclusive algorithm – one that celebrates all content creators for their unique skillset and talents.
This was the summer I encountered Canadian Indian artist Tesher; who pleasantly surprised my continuous scrolling with the opening melody of Bole Chudiyan. Kareena Kapoor’s introductory lyrics are suddenly disrupted by a strong catchy beat that was exclusive to Tesher™ remixes. I got five hundred dollars in cash; in case they don’t take Amex; the opening declaration is melodic yet punchy. This is Young Shahrukh, Tesher’s musical homage to the iconic Bollywood actor that has championed the big screen for more than thirty years. Shahrukh Khan’s style, demeanour, and cultural impact inspire the song’s chorus:
“Worldwide Don, yeah I feel like Shahrukh Khan.”
Hearing this recognisable tune may not inherently seem like a big deal, but for Desi kids everywhere, it’s celebration of the Bollywood Silver screen and pop-culture scene from our childhoods. Celebration is exactly what Tesher advocates through his music, which fuses Latin and classic Bhangra beats, with catchy rap verses. This is international music for a global party everybody is invited to. Tesher breaks the mould by repurposing songs like Drake’s Toosie Slide or Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, combining witty lyricism with a voice that goes viral. In his ‘LIVE at PopShift Housefull’ feature, one viewer declared, “THIS is finally something new in Indian music!” Although Bollywood-Latin-Urban remixes have been wildly popular since the early 2010’s, Tesher has effortlessly surfed the waves of virality with songs like Yummy Jalebi Remix and Old Town Road vs. Ramta Jogi, proving that seemingly cultural specific music is truly transgenerational, versatile, and popular.
With Young Shahrukh amassing over 5 million views on YouTube and reaching #1 on the BBC Official Asian Music Chart, it is a formidable ‘beginning’ for the growing artist. I (digitally) sat down with Tesher to talk about musical success, recognition beyond the South-Asian community, and the nuances of social-media virality.
Q: Your music has a great deal of Latin, Bollywood, and Middle Eastern influence – how does the combination of different cultures inspire you?
Tesher: The first remixes that I was making were mostly fusing Bollywood and Western music, just because that was a reflection of my own life. Being Indian and living in Canada, (and I’m sure it’s the same for you guys living in Europe) there was a balance between two worlds. Essentially, your life is the mashup. Then, as time went on, I expanded my music taste and thought, ‘you know, I could mix Bollywood and rap music, then I can put Bhangra music in there; RnB, Pop, Reggaeton, House, Salsa music. It was easy to just keep building!
Q: You mentioned in another interview that you have grown up singing and dancing with Bollywood / Bhangra music. Do you feel as though you are introducing a younger generation to that through your music?
T: I never thought of it like that, actually! I don’t think I am, although, it is weird. The Bollywood songs I remix, and sample are songs I grew up with. For example, the Yummy Jalebi track has the song Jalebi Bai, and that song has probably been out for 10 years much like Bole Chudiyan. It’s interesting that you talk about introducing it to other people because for a long time, when that song first blew up on Tik Tok, there was a ton of uploads on YouTube of people reuploading with the phrase “tere bin jiyo naiyo lag da” versus “I got 500 dollars” because they just thought it was a remix of two different songs, which I understand! The most interesting thing was that there were a lot of people who didn’t know what the Bollywood song was! They were Indian people too. This made me think, that movie (Kabhi Khushi Kabhi Gham) came out in 2000; it is now 2020. I think of the younger generation who might not even know Bole Chudiyan or the hype about Shahrukh Khan.
Q: Artists often get typecast into a certain genre or style – can you label yourself as a remix artist, Bollywood artist, or a rapper?
T: Obviously, people are going to judge you from what you’ve made the most of, or what content you’ve been the most successful from. For the past few years, it’s mostly been remixes and mashups. Sometimes I get the odd person saying, “Hey DJ Tesher!”, and it makes me laugh because I’ve never labelled myself as a DJ. I think you just have to keep going in the direction you want to go with, and the world will follow. For example, from 2012 to 2014, I was mostly known as a guy who makes country remixes, and most people now don’t even know that! It taught me that people might think of you in one way, but you have to continue doing what creatively stimulates you. If people think enjoy it, they stay on for the ride.
Q: Identity is a huge theme in the discussion of the South Asian diaspora. Your music tends to reflect how two musical cultures can blend together really well. Why do you think an English / Hindi / Bollywood remixes are so significant?
T: It’s literally just because it is the blending of our lives. It is the most accurate representation of the lives that we are living. Only now, in recent times, has Bollywood been able to musically adapt to this as you can hear hip-hop style hi hats and EDM influences. I know Bollywood has its own distinct style and it’s cool, but the reason fusion works so well is because everyone loves to see different things come together.
Q: And it’s not just Bollywood, you use Latin sounds as well to create such a diverse blend. Why is this sort of representation important?
T: The reason I involve Latin music in my remixes is because I think it’s super dope. To be honest, these days I’ve only been listening to hip hop and Latin music. In particular, Brazilian music – I just love it. I really like looking at the Latin scene because their music is so close to Indian music sometimes. That’s the whole reason I created the Yummy Jalebi track off of a Latin vibe is because I thought there was a definite way to make it work! Also, I think the Latin scene is deservingly gaining more recognition and success in the mainstream American and U.K. charts. I think ‘if they can do it in Spanish, we can do it in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil, and all the other Indian languages’! I truly believe that you don’t always need to understand the lyrics (the language) to appreciate the music. I listen to everything. If you look at my playlist, I literally go from 50 Cent, to BTS, to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan!
Q: Music production and video editing seem like a totally different ballgame from just rapping. Do you find that all these skills are similar? How interconnected are they?
T: It all requires different energy, I think. I think when it comes to music production, and the differences between performing and mixing, most people look at it as the vocal performance being the more spontaneous part, and the back production being the more methodical part. However, I think it just depends on the person and style. I am equally as methodical with performing and recording vocals, as I am with mixing vocals or creating beats. I once read an article about Dr. Dre and how he would tell an artist to do 100 takes of the same verse just to get the best possible performance. I don’t always do that, but there have been records where I literally do one bar of a verse many many times. I think it depends on the person, their style, and how they approach music.
Q: It feels like musical achievement in 2020 is validated by virality on platforms such as Tik Tok and Instagram. Songs like Young Shah Rukh and Old Town Road vs. Ramta Jogi have accompanied the milk drinking challenge and have even inspired original choreography – how significant has social media recognition been for you?
T: It’s been a very interesting and evolving relationship. For the first, maybe ten years that I made remixes, I didn’t release anything on the internet. Finally, I thought, ‘let’s try to put this out’ and one of my very first remixes was retweeted by Punjabi MC! I thought it was so amazing. At the end of the day, you don’t want to make music with the sole aim of gaining social media recognition. At least, I don’t. I have just found that when you try to specifically make something for social media, it doesn’t always work. Virality is an organic thing, you’re just better off making authentic music. I need to find the music I’m making cool, and then if social media and the rest of the world finds it appealing too, of course it’s a super super added bonus.
My music being popular in the U.K. is so surreal as well. The existence of platforms like Lyca Radio or BBC Asian Network allow South Asian artists to receive mainstream exposure. I know Canada will get to that level eventually, because there are so many amazing artists making great work.
Q: Inversely, it is difficult to manage the virality? I expect audiences react to some songs better. Can an artist “hack” the algorithm to achieve recognition? Or is it a more organic process?
T: I think you can definitely be smart about it. Like, when I did the Yummy Jalebi song, the viral part of the song was actually my favourite part of the song. I was really iffy about it though, because I just thought people weren’t going to respond to my original vocals. It is branded officially as a Yummy remix, but it actually has my voice in it. Up till then, I hadn’t done a lot specific vocal work. The part that blew up was the part that had me in it, which came as a surprise. I did think this: if people see what I see in the song, they would come back to it continually. I kept my vocal part short on purpose. If people like it, they would keep coming back to it, and if they didn’t like it, hey, at least that part’s short! They would be able to move on with the song.
Q: Speaking of recognition, in Miss India 2017, actress Alia Bhatt performed to your remix! What was that type of acknowledgement on a Bollywood stage like?
T: It was so cool! The weirdest thing about getting the recognition over social media is that I found there’s such a huge disconnect between my life and the life of my music. I think I wasn’t even at home and my mom and sister were watching TV. Suddenly, the Miss India pageant was on and Alia Bhatt came out to perform, and she performed to my remix. And the funny thing about that remix is that it has a snippet of my sister’s voice, so she was like holy sh*t! It was definitely cool but interesting; I was an average guy living in Canada, making music on the side, but on the other side of the world, a superstar Bollywood actress is dancing to my music. It’s honestly two worlds - it’s so surreal!
Q: Quickfire Round ‘For the Culture’ - In the Yummy Jalebi remix you list these classic sweets: mithai, kulfi, rasmallai, pista barfi – what’s your favourite Indian sweet?
T: It’s a different choice every day. I’ve always been a fan of the mithai that’s diamond shape with silver on it! [We consequently googled to find the name: Kaju Katli.] Honestly, jalebi is too sweet for me so probably not that.
Q: What is your favourite SRK film?
T: When it comes to films, hands down it’s Don. That movie was honestly a formative experience for me. I saw it when I was in the 6th grade. There’s something about seeing the movie in your adolescence because I think you’re searching for role models to look up to. I’ve had a lot of time in the past few months to reflect on my relationship with SRK, and I really think his movies helped me grow up. I wanted to emulate some of his style, and how he conducts himself on and off screen with so much professionalism. My favourite song of his, right now is probably Main Yahaan Hoon from the movie Veer Zaara.
Q: It’s impossible to ignore our current socio-political climate and looming health crisis – what will the musical landscape look like in the near future? Will it change dramatically going forward?
T: We’re in a time of rapid change, but I think that music has always been able to evolve and adapt to change. Songs will probably get shorter, because the way songs are blowing up are in these short 15 second clip format. I predict songs will get shorter because why make it longer if people are only going to be listening to 15 seconds of it. I think as always, people are going to be influenced by the times we are living in, and the social movements happening around them.
Q: Finally, what advice can you give to aspiring musicians at university and young creatives everywhere, who want to create unique content and break into industries?
T: Just do it! Don’t wait for anyone. People think they need to make music only up to a certain point: when they get discovered. It happens and you might get lucky. However, a majority of people that actually make it, made it because they hustled hard throughout the highs and lows of their careers. It’s all about consistency. Another piece of advice would be to drop your music yourself – produce, record, and market yourself. The world’s eyes are on the same apps: Tik Tok, Triller, Spotify. Know how and where to advertise your work, because it deserves to be heard!
[Photos of Tesher, By Neha Sharma, Design by Ella-Mae Earnshaw]
To follow Tesher’s musical journey:
@Tesherrrr on Instagram
Tesher on YouTube