Hard Kaur: ‘I Need to do This for Hip-Hop’
The rapper talks about working with 30 artists for her new mixtape, pushing hip-hop outside Bollywood and her exclusive release with Apple Music
When Taran Kaur Dhillon first started listening to hip-hop back in the early Nineties, she admits it was a lonely thing, not only because were so many male rappers but also because the desi hip-hop scene was nowhere near as explosive as it is today. More than 20 years later, Dhillon aka Hard Kaur is one of the leading figures in hip-hop, has established and leads the Hip-Hop Association in India and has seen the rise of several rappers in the country. But she still feels there’s a lot more work to be done.
The rapper says, “When I first came to India I know that people accepted me for my real hip hop, but then it just all changed.” She explains that while she did start out with the intention of carrying forward ‘real’ hip-hop, the success of her 2007 Bollywood track “Ek Glassy” changed it all. “I feel blessed it was an overnight hit and I started introducing hip-hop through Bollywood.” But she adds that the success came at a price; a loss in authenticity. More people started flocking to the party-culture hip-hop propagated by Bollywood and Hard Kaur, before Honey Singh and Badshah had a big part to play in it. Now however, it’s something she wants to remedy. Titled The Rising: Mixtape Volume 1, Hard Kaur’s latest project releases August 2nd exclusively via Apple Music and features 30 different collaborators, possibly the biggest collaborative project in Indian hip-hop so far. “I know nobody goes out of their way to spend their own money and get 30 artists to do this, but it needs to be done,” says Hard Kaur. “For me, I need to do this for hip-hop.”
While a lot of tracks in Hard Kaur’s repertoire, even as an independent artist, have been about partying and alcohol, her more recent work has taken a different path. Her 2016 single “Sherni,” for example, was a feminist anthem written in the wake of the several cases of rape and abuse against women in the country. Having said that, the rapper keeps it real, admitting that her widespread initial success has indeed been built from rapping about party culture. “It’s not like I haven’t sold tracks on that,” she says matter-of-factly. “Come on, all my tracks are about alcohol in Bollywood. That’s me trying to make my bread and butter.” However there was a point of creative stagnation which prompted her to pull away from it all. “I haven’t done a lot of tracks in the last two years because all the stuff I’ve been asked to feature on is so shit,” she says. “ I did this years ago, why’re you making me do this now? I don’t think I’m going back there.”
When it comes to Bollywood and the constant tussle between the industry and independent artists, Hard Kaur isn’t blind to its power as a platform– it did work for her, after all. But is it truly the only way to get recognized? “I think Bollywood has a big hand to play, definitely, in getting to a wider audience, but at the same time just because a movie is going to be made about hip-hop, doesn’t mean it’s going to change anything for us,” she says, adding that hip-hop isn’t just music, it’s a lifestyle. Although a film on Indian hip-hop helmed by filmmaker Zoya Akhtar is in the works, Hard Kaur is doubtful that it will make a difference in the long-run. “Like Udta Punjab— they said, ‘Okay there’s drugs happening in Punjab, let’s make a movie on that.’ But did it really make a change? That movie did not bring any change. Don’t use [hip-hop] as a fashionable subject because it’s not something that’s going to go out of fashion.” While she is glad desi rappers like Divine and Naezy are channels through which hip-hop is spreading, it’s not enough. “Everything is still watered-down.” More artists need recognition and need to be signed on to labels to start establishing the culture of hip-hop in the country. She explains that there needs to be more authenticity and work towards representing real people, real problems, rappers who can be role-models. “You can’t just go rhyme ‘cat’ with ‘hat’ and be like ‘aaja tujhko star bana doon, baby tujhko car dila doon’– That’s not where we are pushing the kids.”
The rapper explains that there is definitely a space for what the team involved with The Rising is trying to bring to the table. “What about J. Cole? What about Kendrick Lamar? Are you not listening to people like that? There is intelligent hip-hop around and that’s what we’re doing,” says Hard Kaur. “Bollywood is definitely a tool, but it’s not something we depend on. Hip-hop is here to stay. We’re here to stay.” The fact that a massive company like Apple Music is supportive of the project could show big labels that there are indeed audiences and potential investors who have faith in independent hip-hop. The streaming giant has previously shown their support for indie talent, pushing the likes of electronica duo Madboy/Mink and singer-songwriters Kavya Trehan and Prateek Kuhad on their platform. Apple’s support has gone an extra mile this time, with the music video for the mixtape’s lead single “All Star Anthem” exclusively shot on an iPhone 7 Plus, making the entire thing more budget-friendly yet high-quality. “Of course we had to get lighting and stuff, but that’s all jugaad,” says Hard Kaur with a laugh, adding that the entire experience was fun and liberating in comparison to working with massive cameras. With hip-hop’s slow but steady rise in the country, both the company and Hard Kaur have confidence in India’s talent.
“To tell you the truth, I was only going to make a five-track album with four-five MCs,” Hard Kaur reveals. “But it just kept growing and growing.” Her collaborators kept suggesting more artists she should listen to and everyone she called was keen to work with her. We talk about the several prominent underground rappers on her mixtape and she assures me each of them have brought their A-Game. “I’ll tell you something about [rappers] Borkung (Hrangkhawl) and Big Deal especially; they’ve brought something on this album they don’t even do on their own songs.” She shares that sound-wise, the mixtape is an expansive collection of reggae, old-school Nineties hip-hop, trap, electronic hip-hop and much more to give audiences several options. The rapper will also dabble with jazz and R&B if the presence of vocalists Apeksha Dandekar and Suzanne Demello on the mixtape are any indication.
The Rising will take on several societal topics and comes from real stories and struggles. But will it appeal enough to divert audience? “I don’t care if it sells or not– that’s not the kind of artist I am,” says Hard Kaur, adding that the main goal is to get the music out there. The mixtape is currently available for pre-order on Apple Music and the lead single “All Stars Anthem” is a powerful taste of what’s in store; sharply produced yet backed by a simple beat, it allows the artists featured (MCs Shah RuLe, Illa Straight, Tony Sebastian, Balan Kashmir & Fura) to truly shine, putting the focus on delivery and lyricism. A the end of the day, it’s the message about authenticity that matters, a path she has had to walk down the hard way. “Wake the fuck up,” says Hard Kaur. “It’s 2017. Stop the bullshit, be yourself and don’t let people put you down.”
Click here to check out the digital edition of Rolling Stone India.