Bombay Bassment is winning over audiences with their squeaky clean lyrics and inimitable sound
It’s 6 am on a nippy day in Mumbai. The four bleary-eyed band members of Bombay Bassment and their manager settle down for a three-hour drive to Pune to live out their dream as they open for American rap star Snoop Dogg. “Are you guys carrying alcohol?” asks their manager Aloysius Lobo. Lobo, who displays phenomenal drinking capacity all through this trip, is being ambitious. “We’ve still got alcohol in our blood from last night,” snaps drummer Levin Mendes. It’s been less than a couple of hours since the band wrapped up a late night rehearsal session after which their Kenyan frontman Robert Bob Omulo, begged off to go home, while the rest of the group headed out to a private bash for Dogg at a Mumbai club. Bob grumbles that he had a valid reason for not showing up at the party: “I don’t have a mother at home cooking me my dinner. I have to go home and cook.” Bob has more reason to complain en route to Pune. The band was promised a bigger, more comfortable ride, but are instead packed into a smaller car with their gear. At over six feet, Bob needs his leg room, but Bombay Bassment isn’t new to roughing it out on the road.
In two years, Bombay Bassment has opened up the stage for hip hop in the country, having toured all major cities and playing their first gig in the North East India in 2012 at the Ziro Music Festival in Arunachal Pradesh. The 22-hour interstate road journey from Guwahati to Ziro in a shabby van isn’t one that the band will forget too soon. “I tried to sleep through it,” recalls Bob. Despite the less-than-comfortable road journey, the band rocked the gig in Ziro later that evening bringing the crowd to their feet for the first time at the festival. Bombay Bassment’s discernible mix of hip hop, reggae, rap, funk, and drum and bass has been a hit since their first gig in 2010 at the Mumbai restobar Bonobo. While bassist Ruell Barretto credits the band’s standout sound to Bob, the rapper believes that their music is a coming together of influences. Chandrashekhar Chandu Kunder, the band’s tubby DJ, favors reggae, Mendes and Barretto, who formed a band named Aftertaste before they set up Bombay Bassment, have strong funk rock leanings and Bob has been a hip hop loyalist who cites The Roots, Ice-T, NWA, Nas, Common, Talib Kweli and Digable Planets as his influences. Electro rock band Pentagram’s guitarist Randolph Correia, who is producing the band’s upcoming 10-track debut album says, “I think it’s their technique of bringing reggae and hip hop together. It’s party-friendly hip hop and dance hall, and no other band has done that before. Their strength is the fact that they are a band and not a bunch of MCs. There may be DJs doing that kind of stuff with reggae, but never has a band mixed hip hop and dancehall as beautifully as they do.”
Bombay Bassment crafts a captivating performance with Bob taking the spotlight as he paces across the stage in his bright, oversize tee and baggy pants, only stopping to let bassist Ruell Barretto work a groovy bass solo. Mumbai-based music label head Jayesh Veralkar, who was instrumental in bringing Bombay Bassment together and also managed them for over a year, says of the band’s frontman, “Bob’s energy on stage — whether there are two people in the audience or 3,000 – is the same.”
Former manager and event organizer Veralkar recalls that when all four band members met in 2010, they took to each other immediately. “These guys nailed two tracks “Hip Hop [Never Be The Same]” and “King of The Bongo [Bombay Bassment Mix]” in just two jams, it felt like these guys were meant to be together. After almost five or six months in the jam room, the band was ready to deliver a 40-minute set,” adds Veralkar, who had been plotting to put a genre-defying band like Bombay Bassment together ever since he booked Brazilian band Instituto to perform in Mumbai in 2003. “I have known Chandu and Bob for almost a decade now and have always been a fan of their music sensibilities. So when Levin introduced me to his drum n bass project with Ruell and we discussed filling up the sound, I knew Chandu and Bob could take it to the next level.” Their genre-bending sound posed as much of a challenge remembers Veralkar. “It was very difficult to get gigs, venues, promoters and programmers to make them understand their sound,” he says.
But within just a year of getting together, the band won competitions such as the Converse Original Band Hunt and Hard Rock Café’s Battle of the Bands. “My approach is to experience the show as a listener. After I create something, I try to listen to it and imagine if it’s gonna make someone wanna move,” says Bob, who is also the band’s songwriter. Mumbai has plenty to inspire a rapper – underworld dons and their molls, the thriving film industry and a stark disparity between the rich and the poor – but for an artist who points to Snoop Dogg as an inspiration, Bob’s lines are pure vanilla compared to the expletive-punctuated tracks of West Coast rappers such as Dogg. “I don’t like violence,” says Bob, “When I started listening to hip hop there was all this stuff about guns and whores. But in time, I took the decision to stay away from subjects I don’t relate to. There’s no reason for my audience to listen to me doing a Snoop and “Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang.”
If they weren’t on their way to the show in Pune, it would have been a regular working day for the band. All four members of Bombay Bassment balance full time day jobs and catch up to jam once a week, mostly on a Friday after work; bassist Barretto is a banker, drummer Mendes works at Sony Music’s digital team, Chandu is a veteran DJ who has served as the resident spinner at Avalon, Black Out, Razzberry Rhinoceros and Club Escape and is currently busy producing music for ads and Hindi films and Bob has also turned to Bollywood lending his vocals to possibly every recent Hindi hip hop film track released, besides running an online hip hop forum called Zomba. “It’s very difficult managing the two. I’ve missed a couple of shows because of it. It would be my dream to become a full-time musician,” says Barretto. But they know too well that musicians in India are far from being financially secure. “This way we aren’t under pressure and the band won’t collapse if we don’t get paid,” says Bob.
Minutes before we reach Amanora Park, the venue for the Snoop Dogg concert, the band shakes off party fatigue and gets into the groove. Mendes slips in a rough scratch of their upcoming debut album into the car’s stereo system and the lines from the track “Bombay Blues” blast out of the speakers: “That’s what you get in Bombay city/ No sleep for all the 24/7/ No sleep for all the 24/7,” they begin singing in unison as the chorus comes in: “City of joy, city of pain/ City of dream, city of nightmares. Who cares? We share the love for the city”.
Ahead of the soundcheck, Bob begins shooting a candid video of the band prepping for their first big international show. “I have started recording our tours regularly because I’ve realized that this way I can improve my shooting and we carry the memory of people interested in our music with us wherever we go,” says Bob, who also directed the band’s first video “Hip Hop (Never Be The Same)”, a song celebrating the golden days of old-school hip hop, shot on a meager budget of Rs 10,000.
Once the show begins, the band seems unfazed by the poor turnout. Unsurprisingly, the audience yelled out for Bombay Bassment tracks such as “Mo Faya.” On the band’s set closer, “Show Me What You Got”, Bob does his booty-shaking “fertility dance” that has the audience hooting for more. When I meet them backstage later, I tell them that barely 400 people made it to the venue by the time they were on stage, Bob shrugs it off with a “Was that so?” By the end of the night, their vanity van may be a repository of hash and Antiquity whisky. They have managed a picture with Snoop Dogg, but it’s too soon to call it a night. Bob will soon want to shoot a video of his band mates’ inebriated take on Snoop Dogg’s “Young, Wild and Free.” “These are things that stay— with us and the fans.”
This article appeared in the February 2013 edition of Rolling Stone India.