Canadian rapper and composer ishQ Bector explains how he hit the big time in Bollywood

He's one of many artists of South Asian ancestry at this month's Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts in Vancouver

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      It's a long way from Winnipeg to Bollywood. 

      But for 39-year-old Manitoba-born songwriter, composer, singer, and producer ishQ Bector, the journey transformed his life.

      Since 2005, he's been involved on projects with the biggest names in Hindi cinema, including acting superstars Ranbir Kapoor and Shah Rukh Khan. He's discussed songwriting over dinner with Indian musical genius A.R. Rahman. And one of Bector's songs, "Aye Hip-Hopper", became a global hit.

      "That's my calling card," Bector told the Straight by phone. "I still get work today because of that song."

      Bector, who now lives in Vancouver, shared his remarkable life story with the Georgia Straight in advance of a Zoom workshop that he'll present on Wednesday (August 4) at the Monsoon Festival of Performing Arts.

      "It's a very simple format that I want to do with the artists," Bector said by phone. "They submit their music to me in advance. And then in the session, we listen to the music all together."

      Bector will offer his review and pass along as much knowledge as he can about the process of creating and releasing music on various digital platforms. 

      In addition, he plans on sharing best practices and even his personal contacts with playlist creators.

      "I am just trying to get the community of independent artists to really understand the space that the industry is in now," Bector said.

      "Before, when I was growing up, the gatekeepers were the record companies, right?" he continued. "Now, the gatekeeper is actually the audience because we're the record companies—the artists are the record companies."

      That's because nowadays, artists create their own digital properties and market themselves through social-media channels like TikTok and YouTube.

      Check out  the video for "Aye Hip-Hopper".

      Nightclub singing opened doors

      In Canada, Bector graduated from a traditional Chinese medicine school, completing the required number of clinical hours.

      Afterward, his father rewarded his efforts by offering to pay for a six-month acting program to enable him to make contacts in the film industry.

      Because Bector dreamed of making music for the global Indian community, he made a beeline for Bollywood, which is centred in Mumbai. The biggest songs in India in those days invariably came from cinema.

      "All prestigious Indian musicians have to go through Mumbai some time or another," Bector said, quipping that he was "young and dumb enough" to take the chance.

      At nights, he would go to clubs and approach DJs. He would tell them that he was a rapper and ask to use the microphone.

      On one occasion, he was rapping in a bar and, in his words, "turning the place upside down".

      A music director, Salim Merchant, was in the audience and called him the next day. (Salim Merchant and his brother, Sulaiman Merchant, compose music for the Hindi film industry under the name Salim-Sulaiman.)

      "I worked with him on a song ["Shaadi Jo Kiya"] for a film by Suneel Darshan," Bector recalled. "It was called Barsaat. It had Bobby Deol, Bipasha Basu, and Priyanka Chopra."

      Chopra is familiar to North American TV viewers for her leading role in Quantico and for her marriage to singer Nick Jonas.

      After doing the song, Bector returned to Canada for his sister's wedding. That's when he received an invitation to travel to a film shoot in South Africa to make a music video.

      Once he arrived, he would hear calls to get the NRI [non-resident Indian] rapper into the DJ booth. That was him.

      During the filming, Bector approached the director and respectfully pointed out that he felt underutilized behind the DJ booth. The director responded by offering him an audition on the spot.

      "He's like, 'Okay, he doesn't belong behind the DJ booth. Put him on stage.' " Bector said. "From there, I started making more contacts with choreographers and the production unit in that movie."

      The lead choreographer on Barsaat was Raju Khan, son of Bollywood choreography titan and director Farah Khan.

      Watch ishQ Bector's "Dakku Daddy" video, filmed in 2008.

      Dakku Daddy and Aye Hip-Hopper

      Around that time, Universal signed Bector for his first album, ishQ De, which tanked after being released in 2005. His follow-up, Katputtli, didn't fare exceptionally well, either.

      But then, an angel investor brought in famous Indian female playback singer Sunidhi Chohan to sing on his song "Aye Hip-Hopper", which was a huge hit.

      "Then at the same time, I had 'Dakku Daddy' with Shakti Kapoor," Bector said. "We just literally showed up at his house. The director knew him from a small project that he had worked on for him."

      Bector sang the title track on the short comical film, which also featured Hrishitaa Bhatt.

      Bector competed in MTV's DJ Hunt, making the finals. But in the end, he said that he was told that he was "too New York or London" for the Indian market.

      "I was not as Indian as they needed at that time, but I wanted to make a product that was very Indian," Bector said.

      This experience was still valuable, enabling him to make more contacts. And in 2013, he wrote and sang the title track in Besharam, which starred Ranbir Kapoor.

      More recently, Bector contributed a song, "Har Gham Mein Khushi Hai", to the 2019 film Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt.

      Video: ishQ Bector's title track from Besharam, starring Ranbir Kapoor, was released in 2013.

      Meeting A. R. Rahman

      The producer, songwriter, and singer forged some of his contacts as a result of his knowledge of sports rehabilitation. The angel investor who helped him launch "Aye Hip-Hopper" owned a gym, which was frequented by some of Bollywood's most famous stars, including Salman Khan and Hrithik Roshan. Another person who visited the gym, cricket star, Yuvraj Singh, was in need of help to deal with an injury. 

      According to Bector, his treatments enabled Singh to delay having surgery so that he could compete in the Cricket World Cup.

      But a meeting that left an even greater impression on Bector was with A. R. Rahman, who has won six National Film Awards, two Oscars, two Grammy Awards, and 15 Filmfare Awards. A hitmaker extraordinaire, Rahman's ability to combine Sufi-inspired music with lyrics that tug at the heart has made him a beloved figure in many countries.

      So when Bector was invited to visit Rahman's studio in South Mumbai for a recording session, he jumped at the opportunity.

      "When Rahman Sir calls, you drop everything and go, right?" Bector said.

      But there was a problem. It was rush hour in Mumbai and Bector lived in western area of Andheri, which is where the film industry is concentrated.

      He was too far away to reach Rahman's studio by car, so he hopped on a train.

      "I'm used to riding the train, but on that day I got pickpocketed," Bector said. "So because I got pickpocketed, I had to report it. And because I had to report it, I got late for the recording so I was only able to have dinner with him."

      Nevertheless, Bector described this as an "amazing experience". That's because he was able to learn how Rahman interacts with artists.

      The master lets the artist lead the discussion, performing their music and explaining why they've done it a certain way. Only then does Rahman respond, in part because he wants to learn as much as he can.

      Later, Bector composed music for a 14-episode YouTube reality show, ARRived, created by Rahman. He used it to find singers for a movie called Zero, in which Shah Rukh Khan played a mischievous dwarf involved in a love triangle.

      Bector emphasized that he didn't write the songs performed by the contestants; rather, he created all the other music used on the program.

      "It was a great project for me," he said.

      Musician, composer, rapper, and producer ishQ Bector is releasing one track every two weeks on his independent label.
      Nishta Doshi

      Nowadays, Bector is remaining busy, working on a film that's being produced by Ali Abbas Zafar. Among Zafar's hits is the 2016 blockbuster Sultan, starring Salman Khan.

      In addition to that, Bector is releasing a song every two weeks on his independent label for the next two years.

      He pointed out that the popularity of independent music has grown dramatically in India, which is a monumental change from when he began working in Mumbai more than 15 years ago.

      Back then, he added, there was hardly any real stand-alone music industry to speak of, apart from the music being created through cinema.

      "I have so many songs in the bank—like, in my hard drive," Bector said. "I'm just ready to get them out."