Punjabi Wave: Why AP Dhillon Is Betting On Himself
The global superstar has hit countless milestones in just three years, and in this interview he talks about how he's paving the way for the next generation of Punjabi-Canadian artists.
AP Dhillon started at the top. Now, he’s figuring out how to go even higher.
In just three years, he has become one of the major Punjabi stars in the streaming era. “Brown Munde,” his 2020 viral smash with Gurinder Gill and Shinda Kahlon, turned him into an overnight viral sensation. The song, which translates to “Brown Boys,” resonated not only with Punjabi-speakers, but listeners all over India and in the diaspora all over the world. Over a hypnotic trap beat, Dhillon built a blueprint for a budding global movement.
Today, he’s a star in South Asia and North America. His songs consistently rank among Spotify’s top tracks in India and he recently graced the cover of Rolling Stone India, while his glossy lovelorn ballad “With You” debuted at No. 42 on Billboard’s Canada Top 100, bumping out Travis Scott. That song accompanied AP Dhillon: First of a Kind, a Prime Video docu-series about his rapid rise and debut Canadian tour at arenas throughout his home country.
It’s rare for such a new artist to be the subject of a documentary about their life, but Dhillon’s is a rare story. It’s a story of an artist who built his own studio, played for crowds of more than 10,000 right away, and surpassed the industry gatekeepers on his own terms.
BROWN MUNDE - AP DHILLON | GURINDER GILL | SHINDA KAHLON (Official Music Video)
He takes some inspiration from Fred VanVleet, the former Toronto Raptors point guard who famously opted out of being drafted to sign for an NBA team on his own terms. “So far, we are betting on ourselves,” Dhillon says.
Talking to Billboard Canada from New York City, where he’s hanging out for Fashion Week, he says the gamble is still on. “Our first goal is playing stadiums,” he says. “Second, is taking the music global.
In your new Prime Video documentary AP Dhillon: First of a Kind, you talk about how your father was a major influence on your career. What kind of music did he introduce you to?
I grew up listening to a lot of different styles of music. It wasn't just from India. It was Sufi music from even Pakistan, or neighbouring countries, and music from India. So I did not grow up listening just to Punjabi folk music. That inspired me to make this sound that I have.
After some initial shows in India, you started your live music career in Canada with an arena tour. Having started on that high note right from the very start, does it make it hard to figure out where to go from there?
There's more pressure. And we wanna do bigger and better. We want to scale it up. So there is definitely pressure. But again, we're gonna bet on ourselves and just go with the flow. We're planning our world tour. And we're dropping a whole lot of music. I'm probably dropping the album at the beginning of next year, and a few singles [before that].
You’ve played in Canada, the US, and India, but now you’ll be going to even more places. Is it important to you to spread the music further across the world?
Yeah, we’ll probably do one show instead of doing a lot of shows in India. We wanna up the production. We wanna add more theatrics. Give the fans a better experience. A lot of things that we have learned so far, we wanna work on them. We wanna go to Australia and go back to UK. It's been a minute. And then Dubai. Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and then again Canada, America.
One of the things that makes your music resonate so well across borders is the way you speak to the diaspora experience. Do you find that helps universalize your music?
The lyrics and the flows are simple, easy. So I feel like people from Canada and States and the UK, they can understand it. If it's too traditional, then it's kind of hard to grab on for that. But in India, what’s interesting is it's not just Punjabi-speaking audiences, it’s a lot of different states in India as well. We only did one show in Punjab, but we did shows all around India.
There’s another dimension if you do understand the language and the lyrics, but what do you think is hitting for the people who don’t?
I listen to Latin music. I don't understand a single word, but I vibe with it. So I feel like the same thing applies to our music. As an industry, we're still growing. And we're in this stage where eventually, the crossover is gonna happen. This is the next big thing. A Punjabi track, top 10 on a global Billboard [chart], that's the next goal. Hopefully, we can achieve it.
When you played in New York, Nas came up on stage and called you the “newest, greatest artist in the motherfucking world.” What did that mean to you?
He's such a credible artist, and he's been here forever, and he's still making music, and he's one of the greatest. So it was good for me, but it was also good for our culture, for our people to get recognized. I felt like that was even more important than just boosting my confidence. People from the other side of the world showing the love — even if they don't understand the language, they're with the movement.
You’ve been doing everything independently with your small team of people at Run-Up Records. Now, there seems to finally be some buy-in from the industry side and the label side, especially in Canada. Do you feel like now they're catching up?
Not even just Canada, even in the States. I felt like when we were talking to them a year and a half ago, nobody was paying attention. After they’ve seen ‘oh shit, look what these guys have done,’ I they're after every artist now. Every brown artist, not just in Canada or States, even in India, is getting managed or getting signed by the labels from this side of the world.
Do you feel like you forged the path? You said in the documentary, you want to pave the way for the next 20 AP Dhillons, so do you feel like you’ve done that?
I don’t really talk about it, but I think we did. There wasn't anything like this before. I feel like [our tour and our documentary] has inspired a lot of other people in a way that they can say ‘look what they did without a label. I can do this too.’ And now you see more and more and more artists doing it independently.
With You - AP Dhillon (Official Music Video)
You blew up with a hip-hop influenced sound, but now your latest song “With You” is a poppier love song. Is it a purposeful decision to push yourself in different directions?
When I dropped “Toxic” and “Excuses,” after that a whole synth wave came. A lot of other artists who were working before me and after me, they got on to that. We're just not putting ourselves in the box. We're trying different genres, different sounds, different flows. Someone can take that little piece of pop or house or whatever it is, and they can make their own career out of it.
When you’re making different genres and sounds, do you feel like there's some specific element that really still makes it sound like you? Like, this is the essence of what I'm doing?
It's just our style. Our compositions, the visuals — it's our style. The last two music videos, I edited them, I shot them, put them together. So that was another thing too. I tell people: we're more than just singers, we have a full vision behind it. And that can show people, you don't have to be dependent on like 20 other people to get it done. If you wanna get it done you'll get it done. If you’re confident enough to do it, you can make it happen.
This article is part of Billboard Canada's digital cover story on Punjabi-Canadian artists. Head here for interviews with every artist featured.