By Nita Balani
TORONTO: ‘Diamonds are a girl’s best friend’ so goes the Gentleman Prefer Blondes song. But this Diamond is extremely rare to find. British-Indian Diamond Duggal a.k.a. DJ Swami, the two-time winner of the UK Asian Media Award, was recently in Mississauga for MOSAIC festival where he gave me a few moments of his precious time.
On growing up: Diamond grew up in Birmingham, England, a melting pot of multi-culturalism with Jamaican-Indian beats in his blood. Mix that in with the city’s history of rock guitar sounds and you have a music producer far ahead of his time. From guitar player touring with pop acts Boyzone and Robbie Williams, to DJ as the popular DJ Swami, Diamond’s first venture, as a music producer with Apache Indian was a first on the international pop scene. “It was a breath of fresh air for the ‘90s” he says, “and a much needed one at the right place and time. We never expected it to explode internationally when we were recording reggae and bhangra in the studio.” It had an appeal that swept from the Caribbean to the UK and even to India. His viewpoint of music has never been just from the Indian perspective, but one that appeals to all cultures.
First big move: Diamond moved on to produce and sign the first international artist Stereo Nation to the newly formed Times Music label in India in 1999 at a time when international fused South Asian pop music was starting to explode. At this time, together with his brother Simon, they also developed their own group Swami (So Who Am I) to experiment and channel their own styles of South Asian and western electronic music. Invitations from across the mainstream to do collaborations from Erasure to Maxi Priest were becoming the norm for this new hot sounding production.
The Call: When Diamond and his brother Simon got the call from Shania Twain and Mutt Lange (producer of albums for AC/DC, Def Leppard, Bryan Adams and Celine Dion) to work on Shania’s album ‘Up!’this would be the most challenging yet rewarding time of his music production career. Although Mutt is rarely seen in public, he invited them to spend time with him in Switzerland, where they would spend almost a year living, breathing and philosophizing music in the Lange and Twain studio. He says, “Mutt Lange is a mentor, a guru to me. He gave me some of the best advice on making and producing music. One of the best pieces of advice he gave me was ‘to make music that women like’. That was the secret to making successful songs. ” Diamond views Mutt as sheer musical genius. On making music with Shania Twain he says “it was the best and most exciting time of my life making purely organic music with such humble but very famous people – mixing her beautiful country vocal tones with Indian folk and pop music was natural for me. It was fascinating to overlap the genres and we often worked long hours up to 16 hours a day without even thinking about it. It was a demanding but a very enjoyable process.” ‘Up!’ went on to be Grammy nominated and sold over 25 million copies. Working at such a high level of production was a pioneering first for any South Asian music producer.
Return to the UK: After the success of Shania Twain, Diamond now had a desire to express his musical freedom representing his own musical identity. This was when he started work on the new Swami album DesiRock. It was not an expected bhangra or reggae album – just a crazy mix of sounds together in beautiful blissful harmony that felt right. He played it to friends DJ Nihal and Bobby Friction at BBC Radio One, who immediately recognized DesiRock’s groundbreaking potential and immediately adopted the title track as the theme to their new prime time national radio show. Within 6 months of its release DesiRock was being used in Bollywood, Hollywood, TV shows, advertising and even the EA Sports 2006 FIFA World Cup Soccer game. “This,” Diamond says, “was the turning point for me. It was a time when CDs were going out and music downloads were coming into the scene. It was one of those pinnacle music moments where everything was changing and we had a massive international hit that was taking us into the future.”
On His Brand SWAMI: Diamond’s personal project Swami is a journey of self-discovery through music. The album that followed DesiRock, EQUALIZE in 2007 became a bigger musical journey with experiments in sounds from further around the globe – South African, Jamaican, Indian, French and Haitian and he goes on to say that “you have to continue to push boundaries and make new sounds to test your audience with and sometimes you have to travel as far as you can with your imagination too”. His work is meant to be an expression of himself through music and his quest for identity in the new world diasporas – an inspiration to young artistes and musicians around the world to believe in your own style and brand and share it with the world. Swami have recently completed the brand new album UPGRADE due for release in late 2013, which he describes as“a journey of further adventurous and progressive musical surprises, but more international pop sounding.”
Diamond is known for working with pioneering South Asian artists from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan’s Redfined album in 2000 right up to more recently with Canadian Indian fusion band Delhi2Dublin. However, having hits outside of his South Asian identity is also very important to him. His 2013 number one hit production in Hungary ‘Fire’ with Viktor Kiraly, which he describes as ‘Bruno Mars meets electronic pop’ is testimony to his belief that “the most important thing of all is really just a great song”.
Future works: Diamond has always been working in and out of the maximum city of Bombay since his early success with Apache Indian. This year that is definitely on the cards again, as he prepares to produce a Bollywood pop album for Zohaib Hassan (brother of the late Nazia Hassan of ‘Aap Jaisa Koi…’ fame). Zohaib himself was a first on the South Asian international pop scene and was hugely popular until the sudden and early demise of his sister Nazia.
Diamond is constantly traveling, having just returned to Toronto from LA where he is producing and collaborating with a new generation of artists for major labels. He also loves the fact that today you literally need a pop-up production studio in a box and set up shop and travel to different cities making and mixing your music practically anywhere! “You have to be ready to write, produce, mix wherever you are these days, especially if you want to stay at your creative best”, he says.
(Nita Balani lives in Mississauga)