Interview: Ali Kaz, from watching wrestling with his grandad to creating Jinder Mahal's epic theme song
The night of May 21st, 2017 was historic for professional wrestling. Jinder Mahal beat Randy Orton at Backlash 2017 to become the first WWE Champion of Asian descent. As Mahal hit the Khallas to shock the WWE Universe and win the title in what was arguably the biggest moment of his professional career, another Canadian of Asian descent was having a good night – Canadian-Pakistani rapper Ali Kazmi or Ali Kaz, as he likes to be referred to.
A big part of Jinder Mahal’s ‘Maharaja’ persona is the theme song he comes out to – ‘Sher’. We caught up with Ali to chat about how he got the opportunity to rap for Jinder’s theme song, the process, and more.
A lifelong WWE fan, Ali started to watch wrestling with his grandfather, his favourites being Hulk Hogan, Undertaker, The Rock and Rey Mysterio.
“I used to watch wrestling religiously with my grandpa (he has passed away now) as he was a huge fan of WWE as well. I wish he was alive to see my song playing for Jinder Mahal that would have made him so proud.”
A fan of hip-hop music for many years, Kaz always had a love for writing poems and he soon found out that rapping came naturally to him.
“Eminem was my favourite and I started memorizing all his tracks and rapped to them, then I found more about hip-hop as a genre and started dressing up like those artists with baggy clothes and learned some hip-hop dance moves. I used to work with a band back when I was in China. I used to perform Eminem and Linkin Park tracks with them in local nightclubs and I used to write my own stuff too, but I was shy of releasing any of it at that time.”
How did Ali get the chance to perform in Jinder Mahal’s theme song? It all happened on a sunny afternoon in his office when an email from Jim Johnston -- a music composer who's worked with the WWE for over three decades -- gave Ali his big break.
“I was sort of shocked because I thought it maybe was a prank by one of my friends. But when I looked at the domain of the email it said WWE and I was confused because I wasn’t expecting a Punjabi Rap song in WWE.”
After a little bit of research on the project, Ali found out that the song he would be performing was for a Punjabi-Canadian wrestler from Calgary, Jinder Mahal. Little did he know, that in less than a year, Jinder Mahal would be WWE Champion.
After realising how big an opportunity he had on his hands, Ali dove head-first into the project.
“I still had a bit of a fear in my heart while writing lyrics of this song. What if Jim or Jinder or WWE rejected the track because this was a golden moment for me to show my shine and get paid for my grind of years. I had mixed emotions. I was excited, proud, scared and confused at the same time, but I stayed focused when I grabbed my pen, notebook and the headphones.”
Locked inside his office, Ali worked furiously because Jim Johnston had given him just two days to write and record the track.
“Jim only gave me two days to get this done and he mentioned the topic of lyrics and said that I had to write it and send it so as to check lyrics with translation and description of references.”
He explained the process of being an independent artist recording a theme for WWE. It was especially different for him because the track was in Punjabi.
“I started writing lyrics of this song and within 1 hour I was done with the first half of the track and the rest of it I finished when I got home after work. Took me 2-3 hours to complete writing lyrics and then I sent them with translation and description to Jim in an email. Jim sent me a 4-bar loop to record the full track on, and he said that the music beat he was going to make was around my vocals, but the same tempo, so I recorded that the next day and sent him my vocals via email.”
To Ali’s delight, Jim Johnston loved the track and forwarded it to Jinder Mahal, who loved it too. Ali went on to explain what inspired the lyrics.
“I used a lot of Punjabi/Hindi traditional references such as naming the five rivers, referring bravery of Hanuman, giving a reference to Sarkar Raj movie and used metaphors that show the viciousness when someone has adrenaline rush through their body and has no control.”
“Sher” now has almost 2.9 million views on YouTube and the biggest hit of Ali’s career thus far. However, the number of views wasn’t what is important to Ali today. He has played a major part in sculpting the character of a current WWE Champion, and along with it, he relished the chance to be able to showcase Punjabi culture and Indian culture as a whole to the world.
“Honestly speaking, 2.9 million views is one thing, but what really made me excited was when Jinder Mahal won the championship followed by the full-out Punjabi celebration in the WWE arena, which made me extremely happy. Because as a Punjabi myself, I felt proud of having the Punjabi culture being glorified in a WWE arena. I wish I was there to watch it live.”
Before we finished with Ali, we asked him how he would feel about collaborating with another Indo-Canadian sensation, Arjan Bhullar – who recently made a victorious debut in the UFC.
“I see Arjan Bhullar as a future UFC Champion and I wish him the best of luck in doing so. If Arjan becomes a UFC legend that will create a big hype for desi fighters in the UFC and there are over a few billion desi's across the world ready to become UFC fans. I would love the opportunity to create some fire for his entrance, if given the chance. I have some crazy ideas about a new theme track."
Jinder’s music is perfect for his current ‘Maharaja’ character and it shows how Indians and Pakistanis working together can create magic. I asked him how he felt about being a Canadian man of Pakistani origin coming together with an Indo-Canadian Superstar to help create something that is enjoyed by the WWE Universe.
“I have lots of friends that are from India and Pakistan, we play cricket together as one team, we hang out together as one group of people and we never think of each other as Indian or Pakistani. Borders and labels are just to create a divide between people so it's easier for the politicians to rule them. To me, humanity is what's more important and I believe in people rather than where they are originally from. It honestly doesn’t matter where they are from because a good person is a good person, (it) doesn’t matter which country he or she was born in.”
You can listen to more of Ali's music on his YouTube channel here.