An Interview With Lapgan

Pranav Trewn speaks to the producer about the depths of his crate digging, leaning into his South Asian heritage within his music, preserving the essence of historical source material and more.
By    August 22, 2023

Image via Neil Narang

Show your love of the game by subscribing to Passion of the Weiss on Patreon so that we can keep churning out interviews with legendary producers, feature the best emerging rap talent in the game, and gift you the only worthwhile playlists left in this streaming hellscape.

Pranav Trewn finds peace in his vinyl record collection.

Several years ago, my friend and I fixated on an idea: to do for the rich traditions of classical Indian music what hip-hop has long done for jazz, surfacing through samples the undersung earworms and singular timbres that largely go unheard by contemporary listeners. Then we discovered Lapgan, who in his ornate beat tapes inspired by ancestral modalities and laced with echoes from across the subcontinent, we recognized a better realized vision of what we thought did not yet exist. On his 2019 and 2021 albums Badmaash and Duniya Kya Hai, the producer born Gaurav Nagpal (his stage name is his last name backwards) cooked up an aromatic feast of found sounds that ranged from the sandy tip of Kerala to the hill stations of Punjab. Some tracks rearranged fluttering Bengali flutes into the frenetic bounce of a Just Blaze banger; other songs transformed Tamil film music in the most inspired way since M.I.A.’s Kala.

Since Duniya Kya Hai, Lapgan has continued traversing the world, both physically and sonically, expanding his rolodex of musical references as he moves. He gathered his growing collection of vinyl records back to his hometown of Chicago to patiently piece together his next project. Then in the last few months, Lapgan made a serendipitous yet seemingly inevitable connection with Heems, who was in the midst of preparing to launch his forthcoming Veena label and brand. Lapgan’s dissident instincts and his fusion-focused sleight of hand fit precisely the mission statement of Heems’ new platform, and thus Lapgan’s History – dropping this Friday – is slated to be the first release on Veena Sounds. Not only that, but the producer is working with the ahead-of-his-time Das Racist rapper on his comeback record for next year.

“It’s so full circle to have one of your musical idols, someone you look up to, f*ck with and validate what you’re doing,” Lapgan tells me over Zoom from his home studio earlier this month. The vote of confidence inspired a new period of bountiful creativity for the producer, and now artists from across his record collection are starting to show up on his beats, a cast of names he can’t publicly share yet but includes several staples of the contemporary rap underground. More important than those star-studded collaborations have been the connections Lapgan’s music has allowed him with other creatives in the South Asian hip-hop beat space. “Only recently have I been making friends from music,” Lapgan says. “To be able to talk to people about music I like and share ideas and production tips, that’s a community that I feel like I never had and that I’m really grateful for and value.”

History will enter the early canon of this burgeoning scene, and is Lapgan’s most definitional statement yet – an attempt to decolonize what he sees around him as suppressed artistry confined to Western norms at the expense of a broader tapestry of available sounds. Fittingly, History reads like a documentary, cataloging forgotten worlds of music in its crate digging (done in partnership with his affiliate Digging In India) while mixing in sly vocal snippets of both nostalgic warmth and cutting bite (see: the imperialist as hell monologue on “Police, Police”). Dusty fragments from Bollywood and Lollywood snap into step with funky drums on opener “Ek Do Teen”, named after the simple recitation of Hindi numerals kids learn in school. “Heems’ friend Linde basically got a whole bunch of footage of South Asians in American media from the past 50 years,” Lapgan tells me of the song’s video, premiering today. “It’s kind of like the history of South Asians in American media.”

The “Ek Do Teen” video follows in the path of several prior visuals for the album that complement the music’s hat-tipping gratitude. He pays tribute to Bollywood icon Amitabh Bachan with the clip for “Background Music,” which doubled as Lapgan’s reintroduction after a couple years of staying quiet. For “Oh Pyar”, he compiled archival footage taken in Rishikesh and Delhi and had his friend Kauchki directed and edited it into a slice of life sequence.

But even when grounded by specific geography, Lapgan’s work always nods in the direction of greats from both hemispheres. He conjures the image of a bhang-drunk Madlib on the tingling and percussive cuts “Under The Bodhi Tree” and “Namaastay”. Elsewhere, he comes across more like a cosmic-minded classicist a la DJ Premier, spinning meditative loops with soulful grooves like on “Mughal Sh_t”. No matter the impression, the whole album reads like the ideal for the tradition of beat tapes, introducing listeners to exclusive game while simultaneously recontextualizing the past in ways that feel like the future.

What gets Lapgan most excited over the course of our chat is simply talking about the music he loves. He humbly deflects when I trace him back to a pantheon of forebears he absolutely deserves to be in conversation with, but he goes long on describing all the elements of their work that opened his mind and inspired his craft. Between digressions into Madlib, Yaasin Bey, Ilaiyaraaja, Preservation, Baalti, and many of his other favorite artists, we talked about the intricacies of his creative process, what you owe towards your source material, and producing for his hero after growing up on his records.

Let’s start at the beginning. Tell me about your upbringing.

Lapgan: Born in Queens, grew up in the suburbs of Chicago – a few different ones. You know, immigrant household. My parents were born in India, so I came up in that typical two world thing. Went to a predominantly white school, so at home it was a different culture – eating like aloo paratha and daal sabzi every night. It was that common first generation experience I think a lot of people had.

When did you first get interested in making music?

Lapgan: I played piano growing up, so I started to compose a little bit when I was in high school. But nothing serious. My cousin was in a band and I thought that was super cool. I was always going to his shows. And then the year after graduating from college, he got signed to some indie label making this crazy dance music. And I was like, oh man, this is cool. He showed me Ableton and showed me some of the basics. And after that I just got Ableton and I started messing around with piano and drums. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was fun. After working at a job I didn’t really like, I would come home and spend three, four, five hours on it – you know, from like 8 PM to like 1 AM every night just messing around.

This was around a time – Los Angeles and Cosmagramma had come out recently, Tokimonsta was putting out some of her early beat stuff that I really liked, tracks like “Fool” and “Cigarette Lust” – like the Low End Theory scene was very inspiring to me. And so I started just listening to hella beats, and then messing around with samples. The first time I sampled something I was like, oh wow, this is so damn cool. That was the door. Then I sampled stuff for probably four years, none of which ever really made it to anything that I’ve put out, except for one track that I put on my first album called “Naoko.” I had got this Indian record from some store in Chicago, I don’t even remember where, but making that song was like an aha moment for me. It was one of my favorite things I had ever made. I made it, listened to it a whole bunch, and I sent it to my friends. I was like, “this one feels right.”

From those early experiments in sampling, what then led to your current style and approach?

Lapgan: It was just watching interviews of like Flying Lotus, and through Flying Lotus I found Dilla. I had listened to Madvillainy when I was a kid, but I didn’t really understand the role of a producer. I mean, I was almost always listening to hip hop for the beats at that time. But I didn’t really know what the process was of making beats until I was watching like Rhythm Roulette or stuff like that on YouTube. The idea of going and getting a record and listening to it and taking a piece from it – that whole process was very appealing to me, so I just did that for the first time.

Digging for records was something that was just very romantic. I had records before I started sampling, but going to a record store with that purpose was a different kind of adventure. So I started doing that a little bit, up until my first trip back to India in like six or seven years. I went to Chandni Chowk in Old Delhi on this journey to this famous record store, out in the gullies, and spent like two or three hours. That was a beautiful, happy, fun moment for me, just buying all these records. I came back with a stack of like 30 records. That was the beginning of the style I think that I’m currently working on.

Transporting those records back from India must have been a pain.

Lapgan: Yeah, the first time I didn’t really know what I was doing. I just put them in a suitcase. But then the last time I went I came prepared with a record case and treated them a little better.

When you’re listening to records, what are you looking for? How do you start to find something, and when does it click as something you could use for a sample?

Lapgan: I am always searching for the perfect loop. I definitely am following in the path of some of my biggest inspirations – you know Madlib, Dilla, Alchemist, Preservation – these guys are just master loop diggers finding these beautiful little pockets. But I think I am also just looking for emotion. In a lot of the old Bollywood stuff that I started sampling, there’s an unexplainable feeling, you know? I didn’t grow up listening to too much of the old stuff, moreso the nineties stuff. But it was weird how much I connected with some of the older stuff once I started digging. Like, it’s instinctual. Some of it I didn’t even understand, but just the sounds…when you feel something, that’s worth holding onto and repurposing and building something around.

I mean, there’s so much crazy shit in old Bollywood stuff. A lot of the soundtracks have this title music or dance music track where it’s just full of wild instrumental sections of five different genres. Crazy drums, crazy synths. I don’t even know what they were doing, but they were doing some really cool stuff. So I think with those sections, there’s always something to mess with, whether it’s the percussion or a cool break or a weird synth sound.

Tell me about what you started to delve into for the first time with this new project.

Lapgan: The first project, Badmaash, I was just a kid with Indian samples that didn’t know what he was doing. The next one, Duniya Kya Hai, was really inspired by a combination of new sample source discovery and an emotion that I was feeling at the time. That was a weird time of life in general. You know, Trump on his bullshit, Modi on his bullshit, the BJP on their bullshit. I felt like, oh shit, I’m Indian American and both parts of my identity are going to shit. At the same time, I stumbled across a bunch of Lollywood records on YouTube. There’s a channel called Hindustani Vinyl or something like that, and they had this crazy collection. I just started listening to it and it was a clicking moment similar to when I first started listening to old Bollywood stuff. Like holy shit, I didn’t even know Lollywood existed. I didn’t know that there’s a whole movie industry in Lahore, where like half of my family is from.

So it was a very interesting moment for me. I was just thinking about Partition, and the rivalry of India and Pakistan. I was on some “damn, why can’t we all be nice to each other?” type of shit. I know it’s a lot more complicated than that, but the similarity of the music from Lollywood and Bollywood was like, “Yo man, these people are making such tangential, beautiful stuff.” And they had also banned each other’s movies in the past! So I wanted to intentionally combine sounds from both places, imagining a world where Partition might’ve happened differently. Forcing people to listen to stuff that maybe they had rejected in the past.

Leading up to this new record History, I was going back to India and have always had this persistent, constant desire to know more about my family’s history. My ancestors, our people, our lands – that’s always been calling to me. And so every time I go to India I’m trying to get stories, trying to learn, trying to visit places. This last time I went to India, I sent a cassette to the artist who made the artwork for Duniya, Sachin Bhatt in Bangalore. He posted something on his socials, and then Nishant, who goes by @DiggingInIndia on Instagram, DM’ed me and asked where he could get one. Crazy story, he literally lived like 10 minutes from my Nani’s house in Delhi. So we started chatting. I didn’t know who he was before that, but going through his page I saw he was a collector of Indian records. So I went over to his place, handed him the cassette, and spent a couple hours there.

There was this idea with History of me wanting to know more about my country’s history, and then Nishant not only Bollywood records, but a really wide array of different genres from different parts of India. That was the “oh shit” moment, like there’s all this other stuff that I can work with. It was the combination of that access to all that Bengali religious music, like Maharati stuff, some more classical stuff. I don’t know – he’s got such a wide collection. That’s where the idea started to come together, where I could do a little bit of this, a little this, a little that, and create that history class that I never got – that might not even exist. I was reading about Winston Churchill, and then reflecting on my own high school education of Winston. I was like, they totally glorified him as some hero and don’t even talk about the other shit that he did.

A lot of us who are born here but still have close family ties to India, or anywhere in the continent, learn very late and in a slow, gradual process by digging backwards through our histories and these genres of music you were describing. I’m only just starting to scratch the surface on some of them. Like I knew Bollywood, then I started to intentionally rediscover all this rich Punjabi music my family used to listen to – all this Bhangra music – and that would lead me to exploring more deeply the region, learning about things like Lollywood, and then eventually moving south to Karnatik music and all these different styles that informed the dances my friends used to do growing up like Kathak and Bharatnatyam.

None of us are learning this in a formal way. Unless you are going back and reading Indian academic textbooks, you are just picking it up as you go and discovering it in the most random places.

Lapgan: Tollywood and Kollywood too. Like Ilaiyaraaja, who is another prolific producer, has a collection that goes up against anyone else’s. He’s a genius, and another producer that I’m studying.

Absolutely. We all start to exhaust the music we listen to in this country – I mean, there’s an endless reserve of it – but if you’re the type of person who’s constantly looking for new sounds and new rhythms and new ways to piece it all together – when you start going to another country, it’s like oh wow. Almost like discovering you’ve been listening to solids and liquids your whole life and then you discover a gas for the first time. You’re like, what is this? It’s an entirely new way to think about it.

Lapgan: Yeah. It’s the beauty of sampling, I think. It’s like discovering new sounds, new countries, new thoughts.

In the process of making this type of music, what has the feedback been from your family members? When they hear this stuff that is referencing what they might have grown up listening to, do they receive it positively? Is there anyone like, “how dare you touch these classics and warp them” or whatever?

Lapgan: I mean, my parents are very supportive. They’re just happy that I’m happy. They definitely like it, but I think they’re almost surprised? Because they came to America, and a lot of their friends’ kids were not as interested in Indian history or going to India.

Do you think about it when you’re taking a sample that has a rich history attached to it in some way? These samples might be from India or Pakistan, but they have some distance from your own experience or cultural history. So how do you think about approaching that source material thoughtfully, with whatever dignity or respect they might deserve?

Lapgan: That’s a good question. I think it depends on the sample. A lot of times with sampling, especially when there are lyrics involved, I think it’s about preserving the essence of the track, whether it’s the emotion that you’re feeling or that it evokes. Almost like amplifying the message or meaning, that’s sometimes what I try to do. But sometimes it’s about breaking rules. Like on “Pray With Your Neighbor,” I was taking Hindu chants and Muslim chants and putting them together. I was trying to be and do something different.

Sometimes it’s just about making a fun beat to vibe to, and sometimes there’s a deeper meaning behind it. But a lot of it is instinctual. I do think a lot when I’m making this music, but I don’t try to overthink it or intellectualize it too much. When I’m doing my best stuff – people have used the word before, but I think it definitely rings true – I’m like a vessel. Just letting shit happen, like here I am, here’s this music. I’m interpreting it however I’m doing it.

History is coming out on Veena, which is a new brand and label from Heems. How did you connect with him?

Lapgan: I mean for the past like 10ish years, he’s been kind of an icon, you know? Kind of a hero. Before I even started making music, I was a fan of his stuff – his stuff with Das Racist, his solo stuff, his stuff with Swet Shop Boys. I had basically been following his career for so long. I’d seen him in concert like four or five times, met him at the shows. I’d started emailing him some beats, like multiple times, to no avail.

But the universe does things in weird ways. And so finally, randomly, he just reached out to me on Instagram one day. I think my friend, and now manager Sean, showed him Duniya Kya Hai at a show or something. And Heems was like, “Wow, this is awesome. Let’s hop on a call. Let me know how I can promote your music and get it out there.” That was right when I was in the process of pitching History to labels. And so we talked on the phone and I sent him History, and he listened to it and loved it. I was like, damn, there’s no other label I really even want to release it with. I think it’s so full circle to have one of your musical idols, someone you look up to, f*ck with and validate what you’re doing. And then even moreso that they want to put it out.

That’s beautiful. What has it been like working with an artist who you grew up listening to and is now releasing your music?

Lapgan: It makes the world feel smaller, or maybe it feels more like anything is possible, you know? Because to me this is a dream. Like my whole dream when I first started making beats was like, “if I can get one beat with Heems and one beat with Yasiin Bey, then I’ll be retired.” Just the fact that it’s happening is crazy. And you know, I mean, he’s still got it. He is still spitting amazing bars, and it’s different, but it’s still dope. Whenever I hear what he sends back, I’m just like damn.

He’s a great person, I love the guy. I mean also it’s been more than just a music thing. He has been a friend, and I appreciate just talking to him about life and shit. I’m just grateful to have him in my circle.

Not happy to hear that you’re halfway to retirement then.

Lapgan: [Laughs]. Yeah, halfway there.

Although your second goal sounds even harder than the first one.

Lapgan: I know, but that’s another one of the big influences. Like Heems was a big one, but like that track “Auditorium”? I think that’s probably my favorite hip hop track of all time, and maybe my favorite beat of all time. I think that’s another inspiration for why I’m doing the sort of shit that I’m doing.

But I think I’m also messing around more, and those original goals are kind of changing. I think that was my initial goal as a beatmaker, to reach certain milestones, but now I think I’m trying to use art more as a way to express different parts of myself. Not just working with Indian sounds, but also trying to experiment with some other things. Music is such a beautiful thing for self-expression, and also just getting through shit in life. You can’t imagine life without it. So I think my relationship with music is changing. My goals now are just not having a time limit, just forever being a student, contributing to the practice, and trying not to have too many expectations. Just do it out of love and then let the universe do the rest.

You’ve talked a bit about some of the tracks and artists that inspired you growing up. What’s inspiring you these days? What are you listening to that is feeling new and fresh?

Lapgan: I know I was just saying I am trying to get away from Indian sounds, but really a lot of the South Asian artists and DJs. Not only diaspora music, people from India and Pakistan also, they are doing some fresh shit and that’s getting me excited. Like Excise Dept? Man, they’re putting on some really interesting hip hop but are singing also. Pretty much every track that they’ve put out I’ve been really messing with. I recently saw Slowspin live, and she put on a really beautiful show. And then Nishant pointed me out to one of her old albums that’s not on Spotify, but on Bandcamp called Biome that I’ve been messing with a lot. On the Indian side, Ilaiyaraaja. And then the Baalti guys have been inspiring, also MALFNKTION out of Toronto.

From my perspective, this idea of a South Asian sample-focused beat tape, you were a first, or at least an early mover on. But you just named a couple more folks, and it seems like there’s some sounds brewing more widely. Do you feel like there’s a scene beginning to form around this style of music?

Lapgan: Maybe I was the first mover. I’d say Madlib was the first mover. I mean, there’s a lot of roots to the trees. We’re all standing on shoulders of giants. But I guess definitely an early mover on putting a new spin to it, of approaching these samples a little bit differently. But yeah it seems like there is a movement going on with it, which people are definitely taking in interesting directions. Baalti for example, they’re definitely very focused on samples, but they’re taking a totally different direction and it’s beautiful.

How’d you land on “Mushal S**t” as the lead single?

Lapgan: It was hard to choose one, because honestly with a beat tape, a lead single is not necessarily a thing. I guess that’s one of my favorite ones – it feels kind of transportive to me. Every time I go to Delhi, the mughal influence is pervasive. I’m always visiting mughal art, mughal architecture, and it’s so beautiful and inspiring. That song just took me back to that era. It was me imagining what life would be like in that time, like the romance and drama and all that shit. And it kind of feels like a multi-part epic.

What was your approach to sequencing the tape to sit cohesively as an album?

Lapgan: My initial idea was literally to learn as much about Indian history as I could and do a beat for each chapter or era, or something like that. But that ended up being a little too restrictive sample source wise and in terms of timing. Like the shit that I was making, it didn’t necessarily fit. So I wanted it to be loosely chronological, almost like a history class.

The first two tracks are old sounds, but not necessarily historical. So it’s this intro to the class, you know? And then “The Unknown” is like one that’s an older track, the vinyl crack was really there, and it’s kind of mysterious. That was kind of like the early Harappa in the Indus Valley, what is now modern day Punjab, like shit before civilization was really established. Going forward with “Stolen Heirlooms,” that one just kind of felt noir and like, thinking back on the Koh-i-Noor diamond shit. Like get that shit back, you know? I mean, not the biggest issue right now, but I was reading about how the British really just siphoned so much of India’s economy out of India. We used to be one of the world’s biggest economies and the British came and were just like, Nope, we’re gonna take all your shit.

Then the last four tracks are kind of modern history or whatever. They are a play on spirituality, specifically the western view of Indian spirituality. “Namaastay” is the whole yoga thing, everybody jumping on the commercialization of yoga, almost like new age colonization. And then “Under the Bodhi Tree” was like a chanting one, and it felt like a contrasting style to”Namastaay” where you could be in a yoga camp and pretend you are achieving enlightenment.

What I love across the whole album, as well as your other projects, are the track names. With a beat tape you can have as much fun as you want with those, and a lot of them feel like, especially for History, little Easter eggs for South Asian listeners. Almost an “if you know you know” type of naming convention.

Lapgan: It’s like, yeah if you know you know, but also if you don’t know, go read about it.

If you don’t know, get to know.

Lapgan: Exactly.

We rely on your support to keep POW alive. Please take a second to donate on Patreon!