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Coconut Unlimited

Nikesh Shukla

1. Don’t Believe the Hype

It all started when Nishant’s dad bought a turntable so he could play his old Bollywood records, sit in an armchair in the evenings and reminisce about Mombasa, its sultry evenings and the smell of avocadoes and mangoes. He hadn’t played these records since leaving Kenya and the warm crackle of the vinyl reminded him of simpler times.

Once that turntable entered their house, I became obsessed with its potential. It was like this: Nishant’s house equalled turntables, turntables equalled vinyl, and vinyl meant rare Pete Rock remixes, Large Professor 12-inch singles, and instrumentals by Cypress Hill and Gang Starr that I could rap over. The social capital in owning those B-sides and remixes that they didn’t even play on the radio was well worth it. We could make tapes and sell them and make money-money. We could record our own vocals over our favourite beats and put out our own mix tapes. We could perform all the classics with our own personalised touch. 

Only on a hip hop 12-inch could you buy a banging tune with the album version to play loudly when parents were out; the radio edit to play at a respectable volume when parents were in; occasional essential remixes; and finally the gold dust – the instrumental, which you could blast out, get a pencil to use as a microphone and rap away.

As I saw it, we were going to be the first teenage rap sensations from Harrow that the world had ever seen. We would leave the trappings of our suburban safety zone behind. Reach for the stars. Climb every mountain. London, we were coming for you first – search and destroy; then eventually, we’d head over to the South Bronx and impress the originators like Tupac and Biggie, and Grandmaster Flash and everyone. Hip hop was in our blood, blud. 

Being the only three brown kids in a white private school in a white area, we were thought to be stereotypical Asians by our school peers. Meanwhile, our Asian peers thought we wanted to be white. The only way to keep it rugged and real, to do something for ourselves, was to set up a hip-hop band. There was no other option.

I was the frontman, naturally. Anand was going to be the hype-man and Nishant, who couldn’t rap, could be the DJ. Anand couldn’t wait to get started and he was a bundle of feverish learning, absorbing everything he could find about hip hop and top hype men. Nishant, obsessed with Michael Jackson, thought that being the DJ would give him ample space to also dance his heart out. I just wanted to make the girls scream.

Nishant’s dad didn’t play his records till around ten at night, so there was all that time after school when we could spin and spit all together. I’d stick on classics we liked by KRS-One and Rakim and Chuck D, and try to rap along, mimicking the US accents, skipping over the times they uttered the ‘N’ bomb, trying to catch the rhythm… any rhythm at all. 

We had no musical training between us: I had no idea about drum beats or rapping over them, Nishant had no idea of how to beat-match two records, seeing as his dad only owned one turntable, let alone scratch, only Anand felt comfortable in his role, which would amount to not much more than shouting ‘YEAAAAAH BOYS!’ and other celebratory epithets about how amazing we were as a band.

We spent months listening to the same few tapes – sent through the post from my super-cool cousin, Neel – as we hadn’t even progressed to owning any vinyl yet. I certainly didn’t know where to go and buy hip-hop records – Harrow only stocked rubbish indie. But the more I thought about being in a band, the more the idea became cemented in my head as something we just had to do.

In the dying days of summer, feeling lackadaisical about a new school year ahead, about returning to the same fractious relationships we had happily avoided for two months, the same banter and piss-taking and general annoyance at our immigrant presence, the band started to mean everything, although it seemed that the last thing on our minds was actually making any music. We’d sit in Nishant’s room and plan Coconut Unlimited. 

The name came from my sister. She’d laugh at us and would ask questions like, ‘Do you even know who Aamir Khan is?’ We would shrug and she would giggle like a baby, it was so bloody funny that we were unaware of the latest Bollywood hunk. 

‘Shut up,’ I would counter. ‘You’re such a paki. You only like Indian food and watch Bollywood. You’re so sad. I bet you don’t even know who Scott la Rock is.’ 

‘You guys are so white,’ she’d laugh back. ‘You’re white on the inside, brown on the outside… like coconuts.’

Then, after hours of naming loads of other qualifiers: Crew; Gang; Clique; Posse; Pakis (a favourite of mine), the name ‘Unlimited’ came out of the air and it stuck. We became Coconut Unlimited.

The name took on a mystical quality: we wrote it everywhere, doodled it on every notebook, library books, bus stops, any surface that would allow a hasty Biro. Margins of paper that I tried to write lyrics on contained elaborate designs for logos, either written as tags or in calligraphy or superheroic Marvel lettering or just plain old-fashioned capitals. Nishant, the only one of us who could draw, would draw hip hop-type b-boys and breakdancers with Coconut Unlimited written in a Wild Style lettering. I was just so excited about the name, it was a statement. Yes we were coconuts and proud – we were Coconut Unlimited.

During one of our many Coconut conferences Nishant said, ‘Do we really want to be Coconut Unlimited with Amit, Anand and Nishant?’

‘I get what you’re saying,’ said Anand.

‘We should have rugged names. I need a dangerous DJ name.’


‘So, what kinda name do you want?’

‘Something street and edgy.’

‘MC Dangerous?’

‘Guys... I have the perfect name for me,’ I declared, interrupting their brainstorm, ‘Mit Dogg.’

They paused and considered it. ‘Definite.’


You just couldn’t argue with Mit Dogg... That was a heavy hitter name. I sat back feeling very pleased with myself.

‘If you’re Mit Dogg, I wanna be MC AP,’ said Anand, using his initials. Anand had recently noticed the overuse of initials in hip-hop names, meaning he needed to do the same.

‘Well if no one’s using Dangerous, I’ll be DJ Dangerous.’ Nishant smiled, glad to reclaim the idea back.

‘Right,’ declared Anand. ‘MC AP, DJ Dangerous, Mit Dogg. It’s probably about time we wrote some raps for Coconut Unlimited.’



2. Rap Tape

The first rap lyrics I ever wrote were with my cousin Neel a couple of years earlier. In fact, it was him who got me into hip hop in the first place.

He lived in Croydon, Surrey, away from the rest of our family who all clustered around the Harrow area. Because of his isolation, he was even more of a coconut than me. Every summer, his mum would send him to stay with our grandma, our ba, in Harrow to learn Gujarati. I would stay at ba’s during the week with Neel, and go home on weekends. I hero-worshipped him. He was a complete nerd but self-assured and confident, in the way that only a white middle-class guy can be. He was an expert at chess and had a labyrinthian knowledge of UK comedy. He could quote ’Allo ’Allo!, Only Fools and Horses, Bottom and everything. There were no limits imposed on how much television his parents would allow him to watch.  

I really wanted to be him. He was everything I aspired to be: self-assured and nearly white. It was a mutual adoration that would benefit us both every summer as we ran around my ba’s house and garden and up to the top of the road where the park was and to the shops to buy sweets and comics. We would lie on our fronts while my ba watched her Bollywood tapes and read our comics together.

If I was caramel-skinned and the darkest was dark chocolate, Neel would have been milk chocolate. He wore glasses, clear plastic brown frames with a lens surface area like the dark side of the moon – compliments of the National Health Service. His pink lips, an oasis in the volcanic desert of his face, were always dry and peeling. His nails were clipped in straight lines, lazily done as a necessity rather than a pride in one’s appearance. His thick black hair was side-parted and messy. God, he was so cool.

I always ended up wearing his clothes about two years after he did, making me look like his little brother. He had no interest in clothes and so let his mum dress him, while my mum took the freebie hand-me-downs and placed them in my cupboard without warning. New clothes, worn and tinged with odd stains would appear on a near-regular basis and I was so accustomed to his scent I found it comforting. Occasionally, I’d end up with cool things like an LA Lakers jacket that I wore till it hung off me in shreds. Mostly I’d end up with T-shirts with bizarre slogans on them. 

My aunt summered in Texas with her sister and rather than take Neel out with her, she left him with ba. Neel’s dad was always on nightshifts and my aunt wasn’t going to compromise getting pissed-up in Texas by being followed around by her son. Neel was clingy and she would get annoyed with his constant proximity because she was partial to a gin and tonic and he was partial to bosomy cuddles from his dear mum. So she took opportunities to summer in Texas with her sister, spending it either drunk or hungover. She’d collect free T-shirts from shops and local businesses as presents for Neel, which would eventually silently end up in my possession. T-shirts that advertised businesses like, ‘Tad’s Crab Shack’, ‘Joe’s Distillery’, ‘Angie’s Flaming Sandwich Parlor’, and most disturbingly of all, ‘Bob’s Flop Shop’.

My aunt used to own one of those shops that sold everything you really didn’t need and everything you’d never think existed. Jokes and bric-a-brac gifts for people you didn’t know what to get, like massive white pants with an impressive pose pouch of testicles in them, or pencils with hammers on the end, or flick knives that when you pressed the blade-flicking button, presented a comb instead. They also sold luxury gift cards, ones that were boxed in a clear plastic presentation case with things like a key to signify turning twenty-one, or a rose to signify Valentine’s love, or a condom to signify reaching the age of consent. 

Once the business failed (there wasn’t much call for this brand of luxury and/or hilarious gifts on the Monk Hill estate in South Croydon) and the shop closed, my aunt stored all the excess stock in her attic. Until the age of sixteen when I got a part-time job in order to pay for my own clothes, presents from her were Neel’s old clothes and trinkets from the shop, relics of a failed business that failed on the strength of products that my aunt could barely even give away.

My aunt was always magnanimous though, she was lovely and she was thoughtful. She belonged to one of those book clubs that appeared on the backs of Sunday supplement magazines, the ones that sold Stephen King books for one pound (for the first hit, and thereafter a pound cheaper than shops, plus package and posting). Each month she would get a free choice of book and she always chose a science-fiction book that she thought I would like, either a Star Wars, Star Trek or Buck Rogers tie-in or novelisation of a movie that was coming out soon, and she would send it in the post to me.

The summer after my first year at secondary school, Neel played me this tape he had. It was one of those Maxell C-90 tapes, brown with silver stickering and spools squeaky from overuse. He had written on it in scrawly blue Biro ‘Rap Trax!’ I couldn’t work out if the exclamation mark was his or the album name’s. If it’d been his enthusiasm for the tape – these are My Rap Trax!!- – I think I would have loved the tape more. I was already fascinated by the supplementation of the letters ‘cks’ with an ‘x’. It seemed so exciting, so dangerous, so anti-private school. The streets were coming to Harrow…

There we were, sat in my grandma’s bedroom while she watched television downstairs. She had a tape player in her bedroom that also allowed you to record your own voice. We would sit up there for hours with blank tapes, press record and say whatever came to our minds, only occasionally choosing to script things and give them a proper narrative arc – usually rehashes of our favourite bits from ’Allo ’Allo! or Only Fools and Horses

Then one day Neel held up ‘Rap Trax!’ He put it in the tape recorder and pressed play. We had those first five seconds of tape silence before it spooled into the uneven crunch of a warm vinyl crackle. Our other cousin Nishu, who lived in Southall, with all the real Asians, had decks and records and was about five years older than Neel. He’d recorded this album for him. 
        My ears bled…
               My head exploded…
                     My heart started beating...

There was a fuzzy distorted horse-neigh twisted into a repetitive sample, a booming kick drum thudding against my diaphragm, snares snapping like slaps round my face... ‘DON’T-DON’T-DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE (woooooo-ahhhhhwwwwaahhhh) ... ’

‘Who the fuck is this?’

‘Public Enemy.’


Caught you lookin’ for the same thing
It’s a new thing check out this I bring
Uh Oh the roll below the level
’Cause I’m livin’ low next to the bass C’mon
Turn up the radio
They claim that I’m a criminal
By now I wonder how
Some people never know
The enemy could be their friend guardian
I’m not a hooligan


What the fuck were they talking about?

‘What are they talking about?’

‘Not believing the hype.’

‘Oh right.’

Neel was a master at presenting vagueness as confident commentary.

‘I don’t get it.’

‘It’s just politics stuff. You know.’

‘It sounds amazing.’

My heart was trying to burst out of my chest but I didn’t want to display too much uncool emotion in front of my cousin. Then I noticed Neel was tapping his foot between the kick drum and the snare, so I followed. We stumbled into an awkward rhythm with each other. Then KRS-One, then Eric B. and Rakim, then Whodini, then Kid’n Play … Neel was lost in a trance, his feet tapping and his head nodding independently of each other, and the beat. I stole looks at what he was doing and tried to focus on the words, what they were saying in the strange spoken lyrics, the rap.

‘We should write our own,’ said Neel.

‘Okay, but I need to record this off you.’

‘Yeah, no problem, got a tape?’ 

I always had blank tapes with me, just in case I needed to blam something off the radio. I pulled it out. It was one of dad’s old tapes that he didn’t listen to anymore. It used to have old Bollywood on it and I hadn’t heard him listen to it in ages. I handed it over. The tabs were broken meaning it couldn’t be recorded over. Neel pulled a tissue out from next to ba’s bed and tore off two bits, rolling them into balls, filling the tape gaps. He put the tape in the second deck, rewound ‘Rap Trax!’ to the beginning, put the volume down so it wouldn’t interrupt the new scheme we were planning, and pressed record. ‘Rap Trax!’ was ninety minutes away from being mine.

‘We should write our own,’ said Neel, repeating himself a bit more urgently this time.

‘Yeah, cool. Definite.’

‘I’ve been studying beatbox.’

‘What’s beatbox?’

‘You don’t know?’


‘You’ve got a lot to learn.’

I nodded apologetically.

‘Beatbox is where you make the noises of the drum in your mouth. Like this... Pu-tu-pitpit-pu-pu-tu-pitpit... Get it?’

He continued his demonstration.




He stopped.

‘Aren’t you going to rap over the beatbox?’

‘I don’t know how to.’

‘Oh dear. So much to learn.’

While ‘Rap Trax!’ recorded on to a tape for me, Neel found some scrap paper and we started writing our first rap lyrics. Bandying about subject matter and title, we got stuck on the idea of cool, so my first rap song became ‘Pretty Cool.’ Our song, ‘Pretty Cool’ involved us going to school, being pretty cool, loving a girl but she’s going out with someone else. Pretty textured stuff. 

Neel pretty much wrote the whole thing, and I sat there as his nodding agree-machine,

Me: My name’s Amit. I go to school
I got loadsa friends and I’m pretty cool
Neel: My name’s Neel, I never steal
And I’ve got the real deal
Me: There was a girl I used to like
She was fine she was just my type
Neel: Then I found out she told a lie
She was going out with another guy
Me and Neel: We’re pretty cool, don’t be a fool
Don’t go to school, don’t be a fool

We had this uneasy recording of it, which involved Neel beatboxing during my bit, then during his bit I had to tap-tap-tap on a chair near the speaker, and when we did the chorus, we both tap-tap-tapped on the chair for double emphasis. I couldn’t beatbox. Well, I thought I could but Neel didn’t have much confidence in my abilities.

The recording went OK, but neither of us felt satisfied. Neither of us wanted to say anything though. We played it back. The tap-tap-tap sounded like someone was flicking the speaker with their nail and was dominating the sound, pushing Neel’s vocals to the back of the mix. He screwed up his nose.

‘Sounds good man,’ I offered.

‘No it doesn’t. It sounds shit. Really shit. No, this won’t work. We need to have me beatboxing all the way through otherwise the bits without it sound whack, homeboy.’

‘Yeah we do.’

‘Otherwise it’s whack.’

‘I know.’

‘How are we going to make it less whack?’

‘Well...’ I thought hard. I needed to be the one with the solution so I looked pretty cool. ‘What about... ba has another tape recorder downstairs. What if we record you beatboxing on to one tape and then we play it on the other tape recorder and rap along and the recorder’ll pick up both of us and the beatboxing.’



‘That’s dope. Except …’

‘Except what?’

‘We need another tape.’


‘We’ll borrow one from ba.’


I was sent downstairs to speak to ba. My pidgin Gujarati was better than Neel’s and I could communicate without getting flustered, unlike Neel. Gujarati, as a regional dialect, had never been updated to include more modern words like toilet or internet or hip hop or fork, so you could form the sentences around English nouns with ease and ba would understand you. As long as the verbs and gender-specific addresses were fine, she had no cause for complaint.

 I ran downstairs. I always felt like ba had a soft spot for me because I was the son of her youngest and favourite daughter. Also she knew I was only on the cusp of coconut. I could be brought back from the brink with the right nurturing. Neel was lost to her and they could only communicate through mealtime ‘mmm’ sounds.

My sister and cousins from Harrow all spoke thorough Gujarati and watched Bollywood and could sing the songs and had interests that never extended beyond their cultural heritage. Me? I was caught between the two worlds. I still liked Bollywood actors like Amitabh Bachchan, but I was more likely to be caught listening to Michael Jackson or the Beatles than Mohd Rafi. And now, hip hop was about to blast its way into my life.


‘Ha, beta?’ [Yes, darling?]

‘Mune tumaro tape recorder borrow kuru che?’ [Can I borrow your tape recorder?]

Amazingly, the Gujarati word for please doesn’t really exist as there’s never a cause to use it so you just say,


‘Sena mate, beta?’ [What for, darling?]

‘Ooopur, recording kuru che.’ [We want to do some recording upstairs.]

‘Su?’ [What?]

‘Hip hop nu song.’ [A hip-hop song.]

‘Aa hip hop su che...?’ [What’s hip hop?]

‘Ba, mane tape recorder borrow kuru che!’ [Ba, I want to borrow the tape recorder!]


I ran upstairs with the tape recorder. Neel was waiting for me at the edge of the bed gargling some spit in the front of his mouth to keep his teeth moist so he could rock the beatbox. I placed the tape recorder on the bed and plugged it in. Neel pressed eject.

‘There’s a tape already in here.’

‘We should ask first.’

‘No, we’ll just use two minutes of it at the end. She’ll never notice.’

‘You sure?’

‘Just blame it on me, I’m used to it.’

After a quick scan through the tape we found that the end of side two had about ten minutes blank. Neel moistened his lips. I hit record. He beatboxed his heart out, wavering in and out of time, struggling to keep enough moisture in his mouth to get through it. I managed to hit stop at the end of the beatbox before he erupted into coughs. It was the same pattern throughout the song but we recorded it with enough time and space so the beatbox would start with my first line and end with the last line of the second run-through of our chorus. It was going to be awesome. We then had to record the rest of the vocals in one take.

We got through the recording and listened back in anticipation. Up until this point, my life never got more exciting than receiving a new toy I really wanted or being allowed to buy a comic by my mum. Now, life had reached a new pinnacle. I felt so fucking cool.

And so went my first ever rap record, ‘Pretty Cool’ a rabid run through why I was awesome, and like the braggadocious masters like Kool Keith or Rakim, I knew I had soul.

By the next time I saw Neel, he’d moved on from hip hop and had placed his interest in writing plays and films and making stop-start animations with toys and the family video camera, and doing song parodies by ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic or Morris Minor and the Majors. I’d bought Yo! Bumrush the Show by Public Enemy, and an album by the relatively safe DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. While hip hop continued to explode my head and make me want to bust loose and dance righteously, Neel’s minor excursion into beatboxing became a footnote to his geekiness and he soon turned his nose up at my musical tastes.


3. Coda

Every Monday evening, ba had the local Gujarati community round her house for prayers. They would sing tunelessly to the gods and take stake in the customs they had brought to England. The night usually finished with a tape recording of the Hanuman Chalisa as recorded by supreme Bollywood superstar Amitabh Bachchan, while those praying would whisper along, in rapture to his deep voice.

The day after we put ‘Pretty Cool’ to bed, ba played the Hanuman Chalisa. As the final verse faded out, we heard the chewed crackle of a new recording on top of it … and then Neel’s voice boom-bapping into a room of middle-class Gujaratis desperate to pray:


Neel and I listened from the top of the stairs, giggling hysterically to ourselves.