Diljit Dosanjh - Back to Basics [Album Review]
When the unexpected news came about earlier this summer of Panjabi superstar Diljit readying to unite with one of the UK’s titan music directors in Sukhjit Singh Olk, widely known as “Tru-Skool”, we were instantly on tenterhooks about the results this plethora of talent could conjure up.
With Diljit’s contentious follow-up album to ‘The Next Level’ alongside Honey Singh scrapped, the artist has looked to get back on the straight and narrow and give his music a reboot. With his acting career blossoming, the services of a certain folk architect from Derby were called upon and the journey Back to Basics began. We put the collaboration through its paces and have attempted to dissect the inner workings in order to find out if this move has done the trick.
B2B’s lead track Kharku is a downright earth-shattering starter that sets the precedent for Back to Basics. In his opening gambit Diljit marks his intent in unequivocal style, unencumbered by instruments and indeed rubberstamps the hefty, combative chorus penned by the tremendously talented Veet Baljit. The brooding nature of Kharku is relayed by Tru-Skool and as such sets the tempo at a positively bruising 82 beats per minute. The producer elects to use a punishing variety of percussion as his weapon of choice on the opener and boy does it inflict damage coupled with the matching no-holds-barred bassline! Nonetheless, the spectacle is only enhanced through timeless sarangi bites, perceptive mandolin pieces and swarming tumbi which all combine to harmonising effect.
The dramatic visuals directed by Gifty see our protagonist administer a first-hand lesson in respect to a bunch of trifling goons. Though the adaptation of the concept lacks in imagination, it does seem to sell and does cater to Dosanjh’s growing acting credentials.
Quoted within the inlay “Back 2 Basics… is an attempt to return to a bygone era of distant history” and you’ll find no better demonstration of that than the exemplary Truck. Paying homage to the living legend, maestro and king of all Panjabi producers, Charanjit Ahuja, Tru-Skool finds the ‘same line and wave length’ with Diljit to accomplish quite an astonishing three and half minutes of history.
We were taken aback at the rustic vocal effort mustered by Diljit and the true skill involved to not be overwhelmed by such a finely-tuned, uncut composition. Reminiscent of the sound first created by Ahuja decades ago, Tru-Skool delves into the old school collating the sounds of his tumbi, his harmonium, his tabla alongside mandolin sections performed Amarjit Singh Hayer (Kaos Productions) and the signature Ahuja signature Spanish-style guitar executed by another, often unsung uber-talented UK musician, Pammi Singh Sahib (Sahib G). Moreover, the impeccable harmonium performance is one element to listen out for with its beautiful intricacies and ability to create a real sense of occasion, a truly memorable one at that!
Having been transported to a sepia-toned, golden era of Panjabi music, Sukh swiftly brings us back into the 21st century albeit strewn with vintage sounds which personify the definitive, east-coast sound Sukh is renowned for. The curiously titled Strawberry is the peppy number of the album and one that will stick in your head purely for Diljit’s eccentric pronunciation during the chorus! Here Tru-Skool’s knack of slotting consistent western sounds is clear; from the subtle, funky wobble riff and offbeat chords to the trumpet interjections, the producer digs deep into his far-reaching library to perk up the song no end.
Matters are toned down on a rather melancholy setting stemming from the profound Veet Baljit lyrics on Chunni, which Diljit delicately conveys through a wistful vocal delivery that paints quite a picture in the minds of the listener. At times, when executing his extended notes, Dosanjh sounds remarkably alike Gurdas Maan on the similarly heart-wrenching Sajana Ve Sajana, underlining the singer’s versatility and innate class. In keeping with the lyrical content, a harsh bite prevails throughout with the snare drum, grumbling bassline and scratching performed by Gurpreet Singh Sanghera (Derby) reinforcing the chilling, surreal ambience while the reticent synths and weeping flute amplify Chunni’s depth.
Diljit picks up where he left off on Chunni when it comes to his unreservedly sincere rendition on the spellbinding and enduring folk tale Ranjha. The acoustic nature of this four and a half minute journey comes in the main from the innocent, unadulterated percussion played by Tru-Skool but even more so the solo string sections played Pammi Singh Sahib (Sahib G). His pristine mandolin and guitar exploits cannot be underplayed on this gem of a track as they tell a story on their own through their organic transitions and breaks. And that’s not all; flute pieces and ornate harmonium arrive to apply an additional diamond coating… Sheer brilliance at work!
Next up is the steamrollering Band Bottle that actually begins in modest fashion with Sahib G providing a guitar-filled setting before a full-on eruption lead by the dhad drum and later punctuated by a devastating algozey display (Master Tara Chand, Punjab). Diljit attempts to give it some welly behind the mic but somehow Band Bottle doesn’t quite compete with its predecessors, possibly due to its similarity to Kharku in terms of its ambling pace and limiting lyrics.
From its opening moments one is already sold on the premise of Radio such is Tru-Skool’s nous for masterminding instantly engaging intro sequences. Promising to “set it off one time” brisk chords and swashbuckling tumbi ignite this raucous number as Diljit lays down vocals with real purpose yet all the time retaining a silky charm and eloquence.
Music director Tru-Skool too is at his fluent best here and showcases the full-blooded essence of his individual take on Panjabi folk. The command of the east-west percussion relationship is a joy to behold and is central to setting up a chorus drop of nuclear proportions. To top things off, ad-libs are thrown into the blender for good measure and hip-hop enthusiasts will recognise the Crooklyn Dodgers being sampled to offer Radio extra ammunition! This one has all the hallmarks of a proper Tru-Skool thoroughbred and it’s a pity there were not a couple others that also went for the jugular. We suspect he had to tone down or produce with the handbrake on so as to not alienate Diljit’s core fans as this is after all Dosanjh’s album.
As if mega corporation Apple needed a boost to their marketing campaign, Diljit decides to name track 8 after its flagship product, the iPhone and its video recording capability! On the lyric front there is a resemblance to the Bhinda Jatt classic Nachdi Di Video which fit quite snugly into what sounds akin to a Chak Dhen Geh composition; a deadly composition crafted by Tru-Skool for Gurbhej Brar which works here as well but doesn’t quite create the fresh impression we expected.
Following in the footsteps of the rip-roaring Radio, iPhone is more steady than sensational although gets its second wind towards the tail-end. More specifically, the steadying breakdown/outro oozes vintage Tru-Skool through its pure dholki, pinpoint snare and unruffled keys and is an intelligent way to close it out as it in actual fact primes us for the send-off.
Track 9 posed a surprise for many with Tru-Skool handing over the baton to little-known Derby-based Tajinder Singh Lahel or Tee L for short, who pilots the enchanting Poh Di Raat. Among the drama are pulsing kicks, wondrous synths, sensitive hi-hats and an exhibition of the highest sort on piano; these factors are integral to the dazzling backdrop to this ballad. The tender vocals are full of grace as one would expect from a singer of Diljit’s calibre and caps a thoroughly professional outing for the artist. Despite being thrown in at the deep end, Tee L is already well versed when it comes to a mainstream western sound and we look forward to how this talent is nurtured working under the guidance of Tru-Skool.
What feels evident after this album is the attention to detail Tru-Skool has applied to his percussion. Armed within his arsenal of playing the dhol, dholak, harmonium, tumbi, drums, keyboards and bass, Sukh has showcased a particular attention to create compositions and arrangements that fit within his own style of playing each instrument. The common notion that every producer doesn’t need to play instrument is in some cases true but for a Panjabi producer, having the talent to play the majority of instruments on your own production only staples to the consumer that this is your interpretation of how you perfectly want to present your music to the consumer. It is typical for producers to look across the sea for a musician to play sections of music, but without the connection of knowing the musician, his/her history or where the pieces originate from, the producer is limited which is where Tru-Skool has excelled.
Gaining knowledge whilst continuingly developing his signature sound, he correctly applies his learnings to further fortify his stance as one of the most visionary and unique British producers. Now that his music has swept through Panjab, we have no doubt that the stage is set for Sukhjit Singh Olk to reign supreme in Panjab and attract further top artists keen to receive the Tru-Skool stamp of success!
For Diljit, he proves that he is able to hit the ground running from the start and sustain a powerful level throughout. This is a return to grace for the singer and B2B is proof that honest folk music can not only hold its own in the face of vulgarity and the formulaic but be so popular it filters deep into the heart of the mainstream chart.