"I was making music, being creative and recording skits way back in secondary school," says Asim Chaudhry, who you definitely know best as West London wideboy Chabuddy G off the BBC mockumentary People Just Do Nothing.
"Honestly though – back then my parents thought I was being a moron."
After five seasons and a stack of awards the show is on pause – at least until (gasp) the movie comes out next year – but in the meantime Chaudhry, the series' standout star, is putting out some tunes.
‘Brown Skin (Drown Him)’ is a gut-wrenching examination of the British Asian experience set to a banging beat and a natty video that Chaudhry hopes will start a long-overdue conversation.
It’s doing well on Vimeo – staff pick this week, no less – so we caught up with him for a nice long chat…
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How have the last few months been for you dude? Was rebranding yourself as a rapper your lockdown project?
Compared with a lot of people I was quite lucky with lockdown, so many have lost their jobs but I could still earn. Even though it might not seem like it, I’m a bit introverted so I worked on music. Without the lockdown, sure, I might not have found the time to make music in this way.
Were you a rapper before you 'made it'?
Yeah, the Kurupt FM guys all met through music. I was the local battle rapper in my college, so we would get together and make stuff. But because we were all potheads we spent most of our time messing around filming, doing stupid voices and sketches. That’s where People Just Do Nothing originally came from.
So you were just a bunch of stoned lads pissing around?
Yes, nowadays kids who make music and stuff online are seen as innovative or creative, but people thought we were a bunch of idiots.
Is it weird transitioning from comedy to music – especially as ‘Brown Skin’ is quite a serious tune?
Yes, but Chabuddy the character never really rapped. Watching Grindah [Allan Mustafa] and Beats [Hugo Chegwin] MC during the show was sometimes a bit frustrating, because I knew I had musical ability, but it wasn’t in my character to do that. Now though, weirdly, it would be harder for those guys to start making serious music, because they’ve made such a career out of comedy.
Do you ever think of yourselves as in the same tradition as, like, Tenacious D, or Bill Bailey – artists who’d never make it via the conventional route, so used comedy as a springboard?
The act I always compare us to is Spinal Tap. The thing is, there’s an art to doing something bad, well. If you want to make rock, or cheesy pop, or garage funny, you need to know how to do it well first. The beats, the flow, the execution. I know that the problem I’ll have now is overcoming the ‘wow, Chabuddy can rap?’ question. But I’m honoured to have created a character who is so hard to shake off.
I actually spoke to Steve Coogan about this, when we did a film together last year – Alan Partridge is probably the most successful long-running British comedy character ever, but he could come back tomorrow and still get millions of views. Coogan told me you have to respect the character, and be picky what you do with him.
So despite the panic people have nowadays about being 'visible' I'm okay to slow down as Chabuddy for awhile. He's evergreen, everybody knows somebody like him, and because I've done the groundwork people will welcome him back when the time is right.
The song 'Brown Skin' packs an extra emotional punch now the news is so focussed on asylum seekers being repelled at our borders.
You have to understand – the only difference between refugees and us is blind luck. I could be in their situation. We hear a lot about ‘all lives matter’ at the moment, but refugees don’t seem to meet the criteria. Just look at Priti Patel, there’s so much shame and self-hatred there – she even says that under her rules her own parents wouldn’t be allowed in. Like, how can you even stand up and say that?
The sad thing is that 'Brown Skin' could have come out any time in the past few decades. All the current crisis shows is that apathy rules, and that there’s a scary lack of empathy in this country.
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For you, what is the song actually about?
It’s about finding self-worth. About facing truth, and history, in a violent manner. I’m forcing myself to go through my history, to drown myself in it... and it’s painful, there’s a lot of trauma, things we don’t widely know about. Compare it to the black American experience – they’re taught about slavery in school, it’s in the curriculum.
For us, if our country was colonised, and/or they brought our parents over as economic migrants to help the country build, or help them in the war… then as a young person you’re in this country but you don’t really know why.
It's weird. There’s a vast amount of history around the British Empire, the Raj, that we’re not taught, it’s a huge nasty part of our past that they refuse to teach, because if they did teach it people would get angry and it would force us to question things. It’s healthy and normal to question how Great Britain became ‘great’ – in Germany they don’t skim over their past, they make sure people know about it, and they’re very progressive as a consequence.
My dad came here for economic reasons, my mum got married at 19 for financial reasons, grandma was a single mother with three kids on a council estate. Growing up I felt ashamed of my own culture, there was a lot of that self-shaming. Most people back then didn’t know anything about Eid, they didn’t know about the silly clothes we would wear. If my mum wore a headscarf people would laugh at her in the street.
How have you noticed this situation changing over time?
It’s only really since 9/11 that most people have been forced to learn about Muslims, the brown people, because now we’re the new enemy Back in the day the enemy was the Jews, then Black people, or before that the Irish. There’s always an enemy, a person to blame.
And post 9/11 the enemy looks like me – a brown guy with facial hair. I can look a bit Arab, a bit Iraqi, a bit Pakistani. In some ways things are better NOW, in terms of education and knowledge, but I think of some of the racist experiences I had, violence, from when I was a kid, Brexit and all the rest of it has made a certain type of person feel validated in their racism.
And with this tune you’re on a mission to combat that.
Exactly. That’s what I’m fighting for. For education. Because if you understand something, you don’t need to be scared of it. Without being preachy, it is an educational video, I want a young Asian boy to watch it and be like, I didn’t know this. And go and do their research. But first you need to give them a banging tune they can bop their head to, and then be like, let me learn about what he’s actually saying.
The video is banging too, what’s the story there?
A lot of my friends are animators, but the demand for animation was so high because of lockdown. Everybody was at it, because nobody could shoot, so a lot of music videos came out animated The team at Golden Wolf was recommended, we were both mutual fans, we did a skill swap thing where I voiced some stuff for them and they worked on this, they were so brilliant, two meetings a week on Zoom, bouncing ideas, really collaborative.
It starts with a quote from [Czech writer and activist] Milan Kundera, what made you choose that?
A brilliant Instagram account I follow called @brownhistory, that features lots of South Asian stories, stuff you’d never normally hear about – stuff about brown people’s involvement in World War Two, for instance, fascinating stuff that everybody should know about.
What other tunes have you got in the works?
My music career isn’t about charting, and going to number one, it’s a form of expression, it’s something I feel is important.
Will the other songs be bangers, or love songs? Of course, I’m a human being, I have different sides to me. I could have made my first tune a straight up banger, with punchlines, appealing to the masses. But I wanted to put out something with a bit more substance.
You’re so famous for Chabuddy, do you worry people won’t take your music seriously?
When people say I can’t do something it drives me on harder. Just like Chabuddy – who thinks he’s a player, a hustler, a ladies man – I’m the eternal optimist.
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'Brown Skin' is out now.
Words: Andy Hill
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