When NME catches up with Surya Sen he’s like an excitable puppy, having ticked off a bucket list moment two nights before. “I still can’t get over it,” he says in reference to his recent set at Defected Records and Dialled In’s warm-up party in east London. “Realising I’m in Defected — which was a huge part of my life growing up and is arguably the biggest and most reputable house [music] label, and it’s predominantly white, middle-class men but they’ve asked me to come to their basement venue — and I’m screaming a song in Bengali, which the crowd is screaming back. I’m like: ‘What? This is insane!’”
It’s just one of the many unexpected, but very much welcome, situations that the British-Bengali producer, rapper and DJ, real name Rana Ali, has found himself in over the past year, having broken through during the pandemic as part of Daytimers, a collective that’s leading a new wave of British-Asian talent. Having always felt like there was a lack of representation in dance music, finding that like-minded community via Discord groups and Instagram was transformative for Ali. “One of the reasons I wanted to start making music properly was because I didn’t think there was anyone like me; especially in Asian culture, there’s a big stigma about raving,” he says. “I thought that there weren’t that many of us.”
Unbeknownst to him, he was far from the only person feeling that way. Daytimers’ first in-person meet-up at Yung Singh’s now-viral Boiler Room party in August 2021 showed “all the stuff that I thought was missing: Asian people that liked electronic music and liked to rave. Prior to that, I honestly had no-one that I knew that was into it,” he adds.
Having grown up in north London listening to grime and hip-hop, writing joke-raps on the back of the bus and making Madlib-esque beats, before then going to clubbing institutions Fabric and Egg religiously every weekend in his late teens, Ali’s own musical breakthrough arrived in 2020. “Unhappy and fed up” with his office job in finance, he decided to “take the punt” on making music seriously as Surya Sen (named after the Bangladeshi revolutionary who led uprisings against British rule in India in the 1930s).
Aged 26 at the time — the same age Kanye West and Jay-Z were when they released their respective debut albums, he realised — Ali said to himself: “I’m not too late, but now’s the time.” ‘C U Later’, his first song as Surya Sen, became an underground hit after its release in April 2020, propelling Ali from making beats as a hobby while juggling a career in finance to signing with the respected dance music imprint Skint Records.
At that time, Ali wasn’t seeing anyone else who was fusing hip-hop and dance music together quite like Surya Sen, particularly with his own keen focus on sample-heavy beats and basslines. He remembers how not everyone was convinced by his genre-splicing sound at first (“initially, some people were a bit like ‘what is this?’”), but that’s arguably what has helped his music stand out in the crowded electronic scene. “In dance music, messaging is lost — there’s nothing behind it,” Ali offers. “The needle hasn’t shifted in so long. Route 94’s ‘My Love’ could come out now and you wouldn’t know, because the actual synthetic sounds haven’t changed.”
The fact that he’s injecting a sense of political and social commentary into dance music separates him from many of his contemporaries, too. It’s also part-inspired his grooving debut mixtape, ‘At What Cost?’. Set during a post-lockdown night out in London in the summer of 2021, we follow a group of friends (collaborators Bone Slim, Di-Vincent, FELA.Mi, sweetestcape, Emmz and LILO LI) going from a house party to a club (the NME-referencing ‘Jessica’), before the after-party, the inevitable comedown where you hate your life (‘Here We Go Again’) and the even more inevitable build-up to the next big night out.
“London nightlife is sometimes a vicious cycle of escapism,” Ali says. “You go out, get fucked up and, on the face of it, it’s lovely. But then you’re just trapped in this insane cycle, so it’s these two sides coming together.” He’s also keen for ‘At What Cost?’ to be heard by a global audience, partly in an effort to combat the “warped” idea of being British and from London: “People think it’s just scones, crumpets and tea. But, in reality, you’ve got one of the best club night scenes in the world.”
His personal experience of being a British-Bangladeshi person in the capital was also hugely influential on the record. “I’m very proud to be Bangladeshi, but I’m also very proud to be British and a Londoner,” he says. He conveys this by threading the mixtape with deeper lyrics that juxtapose the otherwise upbeat dance-focused production. ‘Skit 1’ talks about the gentrification of London and specifically Brick Lane, the home of the Bangladeshi community. That comes before ‘Buccho Ni Ba Bhai (Grindin’)’, a powerful song where Ali raps in Bengali about the murder of textile worker Altab Ali in east London in 1978, which sparked huge protests from London’s Bengali community. “I want to highlight that part of history and point out that it’s not forgotten,” Ali explains. “It’s our job to build on that.”
He also hopes that his mixtape will make budding producers feel like they are being represented. “I want to shift the needle in some way,” he adds. “I want to show other people from my culture that it’s OK to be into clubbing and it’s not something that should be shamed. To say, ‘Yeah, I do make music, I do really like hip-hop and, also, I’m Bengali’. Not the other way round.”
It’s this inclusive approach to representation that the wider music industry could learn a lot from. Although Surya Sen has broken through in the British-Asian scene, Ali says he can still feel like he’s being boxed in: “For example, when you get on BBC Asian Network, you can’t leave.” He also thinks it’s too easy for promoters and bookers to say, “‘Right, let’s get some diversity in now – let’s book all of the Daytimers on one stage’.” It’s quite clear that this stance misses the point of representation entirely – especially when there is such a wide variety of music being made. “I think it’s the individuality that gets overlooked a lot,” Ali says. “And that’s what I want to change. I want to push things forward for us.”
Surya Sen’s ‘At What Cost?’ is out April 29