ARTIST SESSION #07: Lapgan’s (USA) Musical Journey in Creating Cultural Sounds with a Fresh Spin

ARTIST SESSION #07: Lapgan’s (USA) Musical Journey in Creating Cultural Sounds with a Fresh Spin

Lapgan is the backward-spelled moniker of Gaurav Nagpal. My neuro-divergent self took some time to figure that one out, but what resonated instantly was the first track of his I accidentally came across on Spotify. When I came across his second beat tape, ‘Duniya Kya Hai’, I instantly reflected on the title, which translates to ‘What is this world?’. Over the years, this sense of doom and gloom has grown in a geo-political context. Still, I found myself feeling hopeful listening to this music and imagining how India and Pakistan’s shared musical legacy will be one for the history books (in an ideal world). 

Lapgan is a Chicago-based producer who has mastered the beat-making art by taking inspiration from iconic, forgotten gems from India and Pakistan and helping people understand the nuances of colonialism. I was moved by how these old-school Bollywood samples were merged with such sick beats in a reimagination of what these evocative tunes would sound like now without taking away the compositions’ sexiness or sounding overly intellectual. I began to dive deeper into Lapgan’s work and found myself nerding out on tunes I had such fond memories of from my own childhood - Lapgan samples ‘Nisha Nisha’ from the R.D Burman era in his track ‘My Haveli Is Your Haveli’ on ‘Duniya Kya Hai’.

Nostalgia is a powerful emotion, so I resonate with this form of sampling. We have such vast and rich treasure troves of art forms in the Indian subcontinent - Carnatic music, Bangla music, Rajasthani Folk, Lollywood & Bollywood - and Lapgan is recontextualizing these sounds and bringing these sub-cultures to the forefront. I found a sense of earnestness in his next few albums; ‘History’ and the most recent collaboration ‘Lafandar’ with the legendary “Heems,” who’s best known for Das Racist and Swet Shop Boys with Riz Ahmed. Gaurav very graciously joined us for a chat about his beat-making journey, crate digging, sample selection, and getting to slowly live his dreams in the physical realm:

Akriti: Tell us about your life growing up and your earliest memories of music.

I was born in New York but moved to the Chicago suburbs pretty early on. I think my first memory of music is of my dad playing 'The Yellow Submarine' by The Beatles on vinyl. The second memory is the first piece of music I ever owned: the Michael Jackson ‘Dangerous’ cassette. It was the CD and cassette era, so music was what you would get your hands on. You would think about what CD to buy while listening to the radio and watching MTV; that was a super fun way to learn about music from back in the day. The whole experience of going to Sam Goody and choosing the CD was always a big thing. I'm pretty sure my first CD was ‘My Way’ by Usher. My second one was ‘Big Willie Style’ by Will Smith. I listened to all sorts of music through junior high, and in high school, I went through a vast Indie Rock phase a Pop phase, too. At the same time, I was also exposed to Bollywood movies every month or so and would watch stuff at home. I remember going to see 'Taal' in the movie theatre and hearing that soundtrack was so iconic, 'Dil Se' and 'Kuch Kuch Hota Hain' came around that time. All the mainstream Bollywood and AR Rahman music was one side, and the other was whatever I was hearing on MTV or what people at school were telling me about.

Image: Lapgan 

Akriti: Did you always know you wanted to do music, or is it just something that happened on its own? Assuming you're doing this full-time?

No, I'm not doing this full-time. I've been trying to take breaks from my full-time job to make music. In fact most of the albums I've done, I've been making music all throughout, and then I need time to focus and conceptualize. Usually, when I have a continuous period where I don't have to wake up and do a nine-to-five job, I end up finishing working on them. Even on ‘Lafandar’, I made most of the beats in the month before I went back to work. Basically, for the whole month, I was just waking up and making music, it became almost like a practice. I played piano growing up, but I never really envisioned myself making music or even getting to this point. My cousin was a drummer in this band, and we were really tight, almost like brothers. He put me onto a lot of music, made a CD for their band and they were playing local shows. I remember going to see my second concert ever, and it was a Radiohead concert. His mom and Nani (grandmother) drove us all the way up to Wisconsin and waited for us while we were at the concert. After college, he started listening to Aphex Twin and Brain Dance, started making beats on Ableton, and got signed to an independent label. It was cool to see my cousin doing that, and that's how it piqued my interest in the beginning. Simultaneously, I discovered a new type of music - Beat music. I was listening to Flying Lotus, Blockhead, Dibiase, and all those guys. I was very drawn to the beat scene and what was happening in Los Angeles at the time, so it was the confluence of those two things - my cousin showing me Ableton and then me feeling this passion.  

Akriti: I love how you sample old-school Bollywood and Lollywood samples, as well as a lot of Bangla and Tamil stuff. I want to know why you resonate with these sounds from the past, which not a lot of producers today are experimenting with. I feel like maybe some people think it’s cringe-worthy even though it’s some of the best music I’ve heard personally. What do you think?

I agree. Modern-day Bollywood music is not really something I've listened to too much. The 90s and early 2000s music was really cool. I think Heems said to me once that old-school music is almost like Indian Soul music, and it's programmed in our DNA, so when you listen to it, you feel something profound and unexplainable. That's what the beauty of music is for me: these deep transcendent moments of feeling when music can evoke an emotion. I listen to it and feel like some of the vocal stuff is so beautiful. I just knew I had to sample it. There was no other way!

Akriti: Do you feel you have to make it a bit ‘palatable’ because your beats still have that essence of old school, but at the same time, they do feel super new and interesting?

I think that's the thing with sampling. Some of these old songs are kind of in major key and maybe even a little cheesy, but with sampling, you can listen to a whole song, and there might be a couple of pockets that are really cool to work with. This is how I approach it - on one hand, there's the actual emotion of the music, and on the other, there are a lot of cool sounds, textures, and feels. There are a lot of weird basslines, core drum brakes, and cool little melodies. Another thing I love about that old school music is a lot of the albums had the title music, which was these crazy opening instrumental pieces with a bunch of different sounds, some of them upbeat basslines and drums, some weren't even linear: they’d go in different directions so there's definitely a lot of sampling gold there.

Akriti: What is the importance of music’s preservation and progress, or do both go hand in hand for you?

I think archiving this music is important, but the truest intention of making these beats was for myself as a form of therapy - I honestly didn't know anyone was going to hear my music until recently! I was just making what I thought was beautiful, putting it out there, and if people hear it, that's cool. If not, whatever. I think all the Indian and Pakistani music is so beautiful so if this encourages people to listen to that music and dig into it, that's great because there's so much beautiful music from both countries.

Akriti: Tell us how crate digging started for you. Tell us about working with Nishant Mittal, aka Digging In India, based out of New Delhi. How did you both connect?  

This is a pretty crazy story because the first time I went crate digging in India, I went to Shah Music Center, Chandni Chowk in Delhi, and that was really cool. In 2021, after I released 'Duniya Kya Hai', I went to India and made some cassettes. The artwork for 'Duniya Kya Hai' was created by an artist in Bangalore called Sachin Bhatt in collaboration with Avneesh Bacha. I sent him the cassette, and he posted something on Instagram. Nishant saw it and DMed Sachin about where he could get it from. Sachin told him to DM me, and when he did, it turned out that he lived 10 minutes away from my Nani's (Grandmother's) house, of all the places he could be in India! I asked him about his records, and he invited me over to his place. He showed me some really cool stuff. When I went to Shah Music Center for the first time, I didn't know exactly what to look for. I was just excited to access older Bollywood records because you don't get that in the US. Nishant had a curated selection and has an ear for samples, too. 

Akriti: Tell us about ‘Duniya Kya Hai’, how did it happen?

‘Duniya Kya Hai’ was released in 2021 on electrocaïne, a label based out of Mauritius. They're a really cool label doing really cool things, run by Avneesh Bacha. They have two labels: one is called electrocaïne and the other Babani Records. Babani focuses on music from Mauritius and Reunion Island and electrocaïne is more about people from all over and the music they're curating.  

Image: Lapgan

Akriti: What about working on ‘History’, releasing it on Heems' label Veena Records, and also collaborating with him on Lafandar? How did this journey with Heems begin? 

It's been crazy getting to slowly live these dreams I’ve had! Heems reached out to my manager, Sean, who’d passed on some of my music. At that point, he was just trying to help me out. He wasn’t trying to sign me or anything but just genuinely wanted to help share my music. I’d just finished making ‘History’ and was looking for labels to release it on, so the timing of all this was perfect. He listened to it, liked it, and signed me on Veena Sounds, which he was just launching - it all happened so fast! Heems wanted some B-sides from ‘History’ to put on his upcoming record ‘Veena’ which is coming out in May. We did a couple of tracks that sonically didn’t really fit on there, so I had these tracks sitting around then, towards the end of last year, we just started working on more and more tracks. 

Akriti: It’s so refreshing to see legends collaborate with all kinds of artists, old and new!

Yeah, somebody described the album as an ‘art rap party’, and that was the perfect description because it was so much fun, lots of cool artist features on there, and it was cool to see them rapping over Indian samples. 

Akriti: How has being a part of a large diaspora shaped your approach to using references from home?

I definitely try to keep up with what's happening in the region. ‘Duniya Kya Hai’ was a political album because, seeing what was going on in India with the CAA (Citizenship (Amendment) Act), I felt like we’ve got to do better. Heems has also been quite influential in this aspect. He had put Arundhati Roy in one of his songs on ‘Nehru Jackets’ as an intro, and I had been reading a lot of her political essays while working on ‘Duniya Kya Hai’. I think art is compelling, and human beings have the power to make the world a better place; the album was hopeful that one-day things could be better. ‘History’ was also political in the sense that it was about reflecting on colonization and history. It was literally about things I was taught and how so much was left out since I grew up in a Western country.

Akriti: Now that people are absolutely loving ‘Lafandar’ and you’re getting so much love for it - what’s next? 

I’m in a space where I’m creating a lot. I’ve been making more upbeat dance tracks that I’ve been playing at shows, and it’s fun to see people vibe to that. I definitely might do a compilation of sorts with that. It’s going to be weird and different. I’ll just put it out into the world and see what happens. I have an idea of what I want to do in my next project. I won’t talk about it in too much detail, but it’s more about the universal, transcendent, healing type of music I want to create. I have a lot of cassettes that I want to sample and experiment with. I think to be able to make a fantastic beat, cool sample and jam to it - that’s a great day for me!

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