Raftaar: ‘I Need to Set the Right Example’
The popular rapper on stardom, saying no to “cheap, dirty lyrics,” and whether Bollywood’s brush with hip-hop is just a phase
How do you describe a Malayali boy who grew up in Punjab? Dilin Nair aka Raftaar, brings it home as soon as we ask: “Bro, it’s simple. Sambar ke saath aloo paratha, Punjab Sindh Gujarat Maratha.”
Raftaar is on the phone with us from a studio somewhere in Navi Mumbai and he drops a hint about his upcoming solo album, but almost in casual passing. Maybe that’s because the rapper doesn’t just have a full plate; it’s more like he’s got a whole buffet to himself. In addition to working on his debut album, called Zero to Infinity to reflect his career trajectory, Raftaar is among the go-to rappers for Bollywood composers who want a quick verse in their songs, whether it’s the defiant “Dhaakad” for Pritam’s Dangal (2016) or Rajesh Roshan’s EDM re-do of Kishore Kumar’s evergreen Eighties hit “Sara Zamana” for Kaabil (2017). Both songs are definitely going to be part of his setlist when he gets on stage at Bollywood Music Project in New Delhi later this month, performing alongside film music’s best – from Amit Trivedi to Vishal & Shekhar.
Also on the lineup is Badshah, a close friend and former crewmate from Mafia Mundeer, a collective led by Punjabi hip-hop’s enfant terrible Yo Yo Honey Singh. Raftaar always teamed up and made the right moves – at least eventually. He says, “The best part is I’ve been with the wrong people in the beginning. I knew what wrong was. Then I actually met the right people.” The “right people,” as he explains, are the likes of Brit Punjabi band Rhythm Dhol Bass (RDB)’s founding member Manjeet Ral aka Manj–one of the first to introduce Punjabi hip-hop into Bollywood music a decade ago–and a fellow performer at the upcoming concert.
In fact, Raftaar’s rise came with being the protégé on Manj productions – be it Bollywood songs or independent releases like his breakout “Swag Mera Desi” (2014, whose video is now closing in on 10 million hits). The fourth suggestion from YouTube India when you type in “Instagram” is Raftaar’s Vodafone-pimping 2016 hit “Instagram Love,” which has about 6.6 million views.
But now, he’s not really looking for any more cutesy songs or a few verses that prove he’s all about rap. In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India, Raftaar talks about how he’s made it so far, keeping to his morals and how his upcoming album is all about women’s empowerment.
You play alongside DJs like MojoJojo and with Bollywood artists at festivals. What is that like?
It’s been insane. There’s a recall value. People are calling me to different cities. Even after doing it for the independent scene, it’s nice to see that interest. Especially for an artist who hasn’t done that many singles – I’ve only done collaborations with people. Raftaar’s only single is “Instagram Love” that I did for Vodafone. It wasn’t my single per se.
So my album is going to come now. At this level of fame, still no single – respect, that’s what keeps me up.
You mentioned in an earlier interview how you used to pick up projects in the beginning even if it meant singing cheesy lines. Do you pick your projects more carefully now?
See, that’s what it is. You know you have made it as an artist when you have the power to say no. That is the reality of artists in our country. You are a powerful artist people love if you have the power to say no. Now I’ve received that power. I tell people, ‘No man, I can’t do this, because this is just not me.’
My album is called Zero to Infinity and none of my songs are going to have cheap, dirty lyrics. Every song, in a way, is a women empowerment song. Every song, even if it’s a dance track, you’ll be dancing on it, but it’s the right thing.
This is my gift to the new generation. I’ve come to realize that there are so many people following me, learning from me, it’s not that ‘trend’ kind of fan-base. People are getting permanent tattoos of my name. It’s madness. People come and touch my feet. Initially it was really weird, but now I think people see me as an inspiration. So I need to set the right example.
How difficult is it to keep it real? Especially now?
[Laughs]. The trick of the trade is, first give listeners what they want to hear. Once you have their attention, you start giving them what you actually are. Initially, I did those cheesy numbers, because that’s what people wanted. But now, I do Coke Studio stuff, “Mother Nature” [his 2014 single addressing global warming], because now I have the power. Now, whatever I throw out, people are going to take this and it’s going to mean something. If you start preaching, who’s going to listen to me?
Your background has always been interesting – your mother was a typist and your father, a janitor. You were born in Kerala but raised in Punjab. What was it like growing up?
I’ve always been a curious kid. The only people I have a problem with are those with low IQs. You got the same education I got, or other people got, and have the same morals – you’re not deaf or dumb and you know right and wrong. But if you still choose to be dumb, that’s not somebody I like. That’s how it goes with my music. Compared to other rappers, you must have seen, I retaliate a lot. I have a basic moral understanding. That’s where I stand. That’s all I fight [for].
I did just see a tweet you put out about the “censor wale sir ji” – Central Board of Film Certification head Pahlaj Nihalani. Do you ever think twice before hitting that ‘tweet’ button over these matters?
Stupid shit, that is. Now I can speak because people will listen. Oh man, I don’t think twice. I only deal with people I know I can deal with.
Where you are right now as an artist, do you have to maintain a glamorous image?
I’m not a materialistic person, to be honest. I’m all about the energy, man. I never had anything growing up, so I don’t know what it means to lose anything. That’s why I don’t worry about it much. I keep it soft and sober, that’s my stand. Again, it comes down to the fact that people are watching me. I know I have to keep it a bit stylish to look different. Kyunki yahaan pe sirf kala nahi, akaal bhi dikhti hai. It’s not just talent, it’s the way you look and your personality. People don’t follow you for the songs you’re making, but they follow you as a whole, the personality that you are.
Is that something you’ve learned the hard way?
[Laughs] I’ve had my ups and downs, highs and lows. I met RDB, Maanj-paaji, basically to name one. And my manager Ankit [Khanna]. These two people have shaped everything up for me. I used to get salary from them, so that I don’t get lose it out and start doing things just because I’m getting a little money out of it. I always knew I was made for something big, that way. They trusted my vision.
What is it like making it as an independent rapper right now? Do you earn mainly through shows and recordings or do you also take up endorsements?
As of now, by god’s grace, everything is commercial. Everything I do, somehow, I can make money off of it. Till time allows (laughs). Just as god allows us. Shows are constant, I try to bring in artists, now I started a company of my own with my manager and we’re signing up artists. I want to give out to the same… I know what it’s like, so I would like to do it for others like me who have that fire and passion.
Do you think hip-hop is just a passing phase in Bollywood music?
It’s a big debate. I’ll tell you why. Because the people who are fighting in our country about how hip-hop is a culture and they say, ‘Don’t destroy this culture by putting it in Bollywood’, forget to understand that India is our motherland and the reality is, Bollywood is our culture. We didn’t have hip-hop in our fathers’ times.
We didn’t grow up with hip-hop. We got hip-hop after we grew up with Bollywood. It’s a fight. If Bollywood is accepting hip-hop, it will always start off with the cheesy commercial easy-to-sell stuff. They won’t start with the stuff I’d do for the underground, the stuff that people like Divine and Naezy do. That’s the reality.
So first – and I repeat – we do what they like first and they get used to us and then we do what we like.
What can you tell me about your album? Who’s producing it?
Yeah, there’s a surprise producer, but he’s not from India. It’s someone really big from a really big production, somehow I got a hold of him and he really liked my stuff and wanted to produce it. There’s one more producer who has worked with tracks that have gone on Billboard. Both these producers, actually, have done stuff that’s charted Number One on Billboard. My first music video is being shot by Remo D’Souza.
I’m going to start throwing singles out in March, I’m doing MTV’s Spoken Word – the last time I did “Swag Mera Desi Hain” – and this time it’s a song called “Revolution.” It’s about how rap has changed now and it’s getting serious.
Raftaar performs at Bollywood Music Project at Jawaharlal Nehru Stadium in New Delhi between March 25th and 26th. Event details here.
Watch the video for “Instagram Love”: