How Don Leisure’s Bollywood-Actor Uncle Inspired His New Album

Don Leisure

For every musician, there is a mentor: a person who sparked their interest in music, who made them believe that they could make music, or actually taught them how to play. Occasionally, those mentors make their way into liner notes or thank-you speeches at awards shows. Rarely do they end up on the album cover. But with his new beat tape, Shaboo, Welsh producer Don Leisure put his inspiration front and center.

The album is dedicated to his uncle Nasser, whose photo appears on the cover, and who hitchhiked from Kenya to London before appearing in Bollywood films under the name—you guessed it—Shaboo. When a young Don asked his uncle if he thought he could make music, too, a furious Nasser told him, “Of course you will! It’s in your blood!” Leisure picked up the FruityLoops software a week later, and hasn’t looked back since. And although Nasser passed away before he could hear the fruits of Leisure’s labor, his spirit lives on in the beat tape that bears his name, and in songs that incorporate sounds from all over the world.

We spoke with Leisure about how his family and his global travels inspired one of the more creative beat tapes of the year.

From what I understand, you have a really interesting backstory. Your uncle is from Kenya, right?

Yeah. My uncle is from Kenya. The dude on the front cover, he’s my mum’s brother. He and my dad’s brother were friends when they were kids, and they hitchhiked from Kenya to London. They ran away from home. This was way before he got into movies. After doing that, he went to Canada and started getting involved in the Indian flicks out in Canada. All the pictures and all the videos, they’re actually all filmed in Canada, not India.

Did you actually watch him in these movies as a kid, or was it just sort of known in the family?

No. People in my family spoke about it a little bit, and when my mum mentioned it, I’d always have, like, 20 questions. But it wasn’t something that was spoken about a whole lot in the family. He didn’t achieve great success in the films, so it was kind of like, ‘Oh, yeah your uncle did movies.’ You’d ask these questions, and they would just tell you the short answer.

I didn’t really know about it until I was much older. My mum was cleaning out some of the stuff from the house, and she found photos that she had taken when she went to visit him on a film shoot. She showed me these photos, which later became the artwork for the release. I started showing the photos to the guys, and that’s how the release popped off.

Tell me about your relationship with your uncle. What prompted you to make an entire album inspired by and based on him?

So, the beat tape was done, right? And then I saw the photographs my mum had. Once I saw how good the photographs were, I was like, ‘Yeah we need to make the record about this dude.’ And I dedicated it to him. The reason I wanted to dedicate it to him is because he was the first person who inspired me to start making beats. As well as doing films, he used to play tabla. Back in those days, it was fashionable for Indian people to have these things called ‘music parties.’ You’d get a classical Indian band, and everyone would just get drunk on whiskey and they would listen to these people playing classical Indian music. And I always used to think it was crazy. I didn’t like the music then, I wasn’t really into it. I used to just run around like a little kid and fall asleep in my mum’s lap. I used to see my uncles and these old Indian men crying—crying at this music. They’d be sitting there listening to some guy play the tabla and another guy play the sitar, and they would be crying their eyes out, because it would remind them of their mum, or it would remind them of where they’ve come from, or remind them of their hometown.

These music parties, it was quite mad seeing that. My uncle used to play at these things. He used to play tabla and other instruments, and one day we were driving around, and he was playing drums on the steering wheel. And I was like, ‘Oh man, it’s so cool you play drums at these parties. Do you think I’ll ever be able to do that?’ And he slapped the steering wheel and was was like, ‘Of course you will! It’s in your blood! It’s meant to be.’ And he was shouting, and I was thinking, ‘Fuck man. This guy’s serious.’ And he literally got properly annoyed that I even asked, ‘Would I be able to do that?’ Once he said that, I was like, ‘Oh maybe it is in my blood.’

There was his nerd kid who I went to school with who always used to get pirated software for anyone, and he would get pornos for everyone, he’d download films for people. So I said, ‘Get me some music software.’ He came back with a CD and it had FruityLoops on it, and Cool Edit 1 and all these early versions of this software. That’s what made me start producing. My uncle made me think I could do it, you know?

When my uncle was doing his films, he was never a major star—he was a small role. The way they’ve edited the films for the promotion of this album, it makes it look like he’s a star, which is really dope. It’s a cool thing to put him on the cover of the album, as if he’s the star of a Bollywood soundtrack.

Your uncle was born in Kenya, and he hitchhiked his way to London—which is a crazy story. How do you hitchhike to a different country?

They had the equivalent of £5—so, like, $10—and they snuck out of the house. They said to their families, ‘Oh we’re going to be on TV.’ At the time, the only place that had TV was the one bar in the village. So all my family went to go watch them on TV. They were waiting there all night. Meanwhile, they made their escape and just fucked off to Britain.

From Kenya, they went to mid-Africa. I think they worked their way up to Egypt, and then from Egypt to North Africa, then across Europe. Eventually, they made their way to London. It was a crazy story. My uncle, the guy who was Shaboo, stayed in Paris and hung out for a while. But my other uncle, my dad’s brother, he made it to London and got a job in a market and eventually made enough money to fly his father over, and then the rest of the brothers and sisters. They all came over one by one.

Is your entire family from Kenya?

Yeah, my dad’s side and my mum’s side are all from Kenya. India originally, obviously, but they were all born in Kenya. I’m born in the U.K., my parents were born in Kenya, and their parents were born in India. So it’s a whole mixture.

How did all of these cultures impact how you grew up?

I’m Welsh, and Welsh people are really proud of being Welsh, and I’m proud of being Welsh, too. But I also have this Indian side to my family history. We don’t really have any family left in India, all of my other family members are in Kenya, in East Africa. When we go home to visit family, we wouldn’t go to India, we’d go to Kenya, and I’d see all the places my parents grew up. It gave me more of a global outlook on life, I suppose—not seeing myself as only being from one country, but seeing myself as part of a bigger picture.

I was traveling a lot as a kid. My dad used to do business in the Far East and places like that, so I got to travel around a little bit. I’ve been to Kenya a few times. When I was in my mid 20s, I went to live in East Africa for eight or nine months, just to see if I would like to stick it out and live there for good. But you can’t be out there making music. It’s difficult. Maybe now you can, but back then—I’m talking like 15 years ago—you couldn’t.

Why not?

It would take three hours for us to download one fucking MP3. I was thinking, ‘I could make a track and send it to someone,’ but it’d take three hours to send it to them. The Internet wasn’t great, you wouldn’t get Internet for two or three days. Now they’ve got broadband. My cousins are still there, and my cousins are like, ‘Now it’s fine you can Skype people and you can do all sorts of stuff.’ But back then, you couldn’t do any of that. There was no postal service either.

So I came back to the U.K., and that’s when I met my partner, who I do Darkhouse Family with. When I came back, that’s when we first met and started to build Darkhouse Fam up.

What hip-hop artists were you listening to when you grew up?

The first album I bought with my own money was Black Sunday by Cypress Hill. The Chronic by Dr. Dre was a huge one for me in the mid ‘90s. I borrowed the CD from my cousin and recorded it to cassette, and played it so much that it would chew up the cassette and I’d have to re-borrow it. That seemed to happen four times. I had all of the Death Row stuff, I was a huge Wu-Tang fan and East Coast hip-hop—Mobb Deep, Wu-Tang, Bad Boy’s stuff. Just typical ‘90s hip-hop. Big L, I loved all that as well. That’s the stuff I was listening to when I was 13, 14 years old. I knew all the lyrics—some of the lyrics I didn’t even know what it meant, but I still knew the lyrics.

I thought I heard some J Dilla influence on this album, too.

When I was young, I wasn’t really listening to Dilla. He wasn’t really doing stuff when I was a kid. But when I was working at a record store in London, when I was 18 or 19, that’s when I was hearing Slum Village and the stuff he produced for other artists—Busta and all that. Dilla’s obviously a big influence. I don’t try and make beats in that vein, because you’re not really going to make them better than he did. Madlib as well—I prefer Madlib to Dilla myself, personally. I’m a Madlib fanatic.

Madlib also had that beat tape where he was using a lot of Indian music…

I inherited about 150 or 200 Indian records from my uncle—they were just given to me. A lot of them are classical Indian, not really the funk soundtracks. I was thinking of doing a beat tape using all that shit, but Madlib’s already done that. He killed it with his Beat Konducta in India series, so I’m going to try and top him with Indian soundtracks. He got all his LPs from Germany, which is weird. He didn’t even get them from India. He apparently went into store in Germany and there was like three boxes of Indian soundtracks and he was like, ‘Yeah, ship these back to America for me,’ and he made those India series off that. That’s what I hear, anyway.

Tell me a bit about these road trips that you used to take, from Wales to London.

Back in those days, Wales to London was about three-and-a-half, four hours. My friends in school wouldn’t believe that I had been to London. I grew up in a tiny little town in Wales. For those guys, going to London was a big deal. It was a holiday or something—a vacation. But my grandparents lived there, my dad’s parents. We used to go every month. After school, just leave, hit the road at four o’clock on a Friday and get up there at seven or eight o’clock. We would just chill in the house, I’d watch Indian films with my grandparents and listen to Indian music. They would be drinking whiskey, playing cards, smoking cigarettes, and eating wild curries and that. That’s just how I grew up, doing that every month.

Every month we’d go up, and I’d listen to my Walkman on the way up, and my mum would always interrupt me and try to talk to me on our journeys, because they would listen to the Indian radio station called Sunrise Radio. For them, living in Wales, this radio station was the only radio station that had Indian music on it. We’d be getting near Reading on the motorway, which is a town outside of London, and we’d just be listening to static for 15 minutes, radio static until we got into the zone. And once we got into the zone we’d be like, ‘Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, turn it up, turn it up.’ These people had crazy fucking adverts, commercials on their radio station. A different uncle gave me loads of cassettes—he gave me a suitcase. The same guy who gave me all the records gave me a suitcase full of audio cassettes, and one of the cassettes had pretty much all the adverts you hear on Shaboo. All from one cassette tape that I found that my uncle was sitting on for 30 years.

When I was in London, I had older cousins there, and they would be introducing me to hip-hop and making tapes for me and letting me have CDs and stuff. So I’d come back to Wales with this music which I didn’t have the means to access in those days. You’ve got to understand, this is the early ’90s. There’s no Internet, there’s no way to get this music, and I was 14, so I didn’t have a job. I had no money. So this was one of the only times I could get new music. Those trips to London to see my family, they were a real big deal. Even if I didn’t realize it at the time, I know now that they were quite big for my formative years. Especially because they would be playing me jungle music as well—like, drum & bass. Now that’s a huge global music, but in 1994, that was real new, and I’d be hearing all that stuff, which also had a big impact on my production style.

OK, this tape—where are all of these sounds from? How do you integrate that many sounds into one record?

They were from all over. A DJ for my partner in Darkhouse Family has to go abroad to get access to a whole bunch of different records. A bunch of them are from Estonia, a country that used to be part of the Soviet Union. We went and did a couple of really weird gigs there, and got to crate-digging there. I’ve been digging in America, Amsterdam, all over the U.K., Portugal, Istanbul in Turkey. Me and my partner, we’re pretty serious with it, and everywhere we go, we’re looking for record shops. We’ve been lucky enough to go farther out of our own country, so these are just weird records that I’ve collected that I’ve flipped into these dirty beats.

Did you intentionally integrate music from so many different places? Or was that just how it turned out?

That’s just how it turned out. I could have done it all off ‘70s soul records or ‘80s soul records, but that’s kind of been done before, and I didn’t want it to be like, ‘Oh, I’m only going to use Indian records,’ or, ‘I’m only going to use Turkish records.’ I was just going to do a freewheeling mix of beats I felt worked. My DJ sets are like that, too, where one track will be from Thailand, the next track will be from the U.K., the next track will be some old American funk thing, then it’ll be Indian disco. I like jumping around, doing different things. Maybe it speaks to my upbringing, thinking I’m part of a global thing. It’s my DNA, man. It’s in my DNA to do that. I’m like it with a lot of stuff. Food, as well—I’m eclectic with that. I try and be eclectic and varied with different stuff. Variety is the spice of life.

Is your uncle still around?

He died about 10 years ago, maybe more. He’s been gone for a while, man. But his daughter is still around, and obviously my mum is still around. His brothers and sisters are around, they’re all bugging out. They didn’t really know about the record in the run up to it. They only knew I was doing it once the artwork was done. When I showed them some pictures of the records, they were like, ‘What the hell is this?’ And they’re getting pretty emotional about it, man. Especially his sisters and his daughter. I’ve had a few tearful phone calls, where they’re quite emotional that I’ve done this for him. But he’s the one that shook the apple out of the tree to get me making music in the first place.

Will Ketchum

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