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The Rise of Indian Hip-Hop

Once at the margins of the music scene, hip-hop is now going mainstream, driven largely by the angst of singers in languages other than English


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(Clockwise from extreme left) Ace, Naezy, Bobkat, Divine and Stony Psyko. Wardrobe by Aeropostale; Styling: Peusha Sethia; Hair and makeup: Tenzin Kyizom, assisted by Anuradha Raman

The tea-shop outside Khalsa college in Matunga, Mumbai would, a couple of years ago, be mostly infested by a bunch of young guys narrating their lives in rhythmic verse, as crowds slowly gather around. They were called the Schizophrenics, a hip-hop crew Naezy (Naved Shaikh) started with Neykhil Nayak (N-Cube), the only other guy in his classroom who used to listen to hip-hop at the time. “We were supposed to go there to study, but we’d just bunk classes and do ciphers all day,” says Naezy. A cipher (or cypher) is a DIY, almost-impromptu gathering of artists and fans — on the streets, at corner shops, in cafés — where rappers take turns freestyling, playfully dissing each other from time to time, often accompanied by a beatboxer. “With hip-hop,” he says, “all you need is a beatboxer and the story of your life.”

When I get in touch with Prabh Deep Sagar, or Prabh, he’s at a studio in Hauz Khas Village in the capital, getting two full sleeve tattoos on his arms. On one sleeve, there’s going to be a rose, a $100 bill, a gramophone, a microphone. The other follows a warrior theme. The overarching concept, he explains, is of a musical warrior. Prabh raps in Punjabi and English now, but his journey in hip-hop began via b-boying (breakdancing), and he recounts one of the first ciphers he went for several years ago, held in a temple auditorium, where hundreds of people showed up. He has set up a couple of road jams in the past, and he tells me about another thing he’s planning: “I’m organizing a block party in my gully, where I’ll invite everyone in my area; people will get together and talk. We’ll have a jam. It was different when I was growing up; these days, neighbors don’t even know each other.”

Prabh collaborates with Sez (Sajeel Kapoor), a producer in Delhi who has provided the music for a host of artists, including Divine and Naezy, the two young rappers from Mumbai who’ve pretty much exploded in the past couple of years. “Mere Gully Mein” (by Divine and featuring Naezy), arguably the breakthrough song from this scattered movement, also features production by him. Sez, who runs Stunnah Sez Beats (an online beat store) along with fellow producer Stunnah, tells me about Indian Coffee House, an inexpensive rooftop café in Connaught Place where people get together and discuss music, communicate, learn from each other, hone their skills. Hive, in Green Park, hosts an afterparty-esque hip-hop evening curated by Prabh and DJ Karma each Thursday.

Today, underground hip-hop has turned into a big deal. Divine (Vivian Fernandes) has signed on to Sony Music, which has been pushing his music heavily. Brodha V was also, until last year, signed with the same label. Naezy is being managed by OML. Guys like Sikander Kahlon in Punjab, MC Kash from Kashmir, Borkung Hrangkhawl (BK) from Tripura, they’re all doing their own thing. Movements are sprouting across the country, with rappers using local and regional languages to connect with audiences (Tamil, Gujarati, Marathi, Punjabi, Hindi), lending a sense of identity to a sound that has been adopted — and adapted — from the west.


Mera gig tha, merko hi entry rok diya. Stag nahi chalega (I wasn’t allowed to enter my own gig because I was a single guy!)”- Prabh


Frequent gigs at popular pubs are the norm, with artists I spoke to citing the Humming Tree in Benglauru as a particularly welcoming venue, while High Spirits (Pune) is also spoken of fondly. It’s different from just a couple of years ago, where venues were opposed to vernacular rap because they associated it instantly with the more mainstream strains of commercial hip-hop popularized by the likes of Honey Singh and Badshah. In fact, Prabh recalls a gig where he was supposed to perform, but was denied entry at the gate. “Mera gig tha, merko hi entry rok diya. Stag nahi chalega [they weren’t letting me enter my own gig because I was a single guy!],” he laughs.

It’s changed now. Divine received heavy circulation on the BBC Asian Network, landing him a spot at a gig in London, the Asian Network Live. Naezy contributed a song for the T20 cricket world cup held this year, and another, “Tragedy Mein Comedy,” for All India Bakchod. Most major festivals will have rappers headlining a stage or two. Antisocial in Mumbai hosted a grand evening called hip-hop Homeland a few months ago as well, a culmination of a series of short films documenting the rise of hip-hop in India made by the online youth portal 101India. The gig was packed to capacity, featuring a range of artists including Mumbai’s Finest and Swadesi, a couple of popular crews. Further, there were literally hundreds of kids who’d gathered there that day, blocking the road outside the venue. They were denied entry because they were too young to buy a beer, and yet they refused to leave, just sort of hanging around until they were chased away by cops. The press has shown interest, both Indian and international. Music videos have made their way to TV sets. There’s also a film that Zoya Akhtar is working on, inspired by the stories of Divine and Naezy (although, given past dalliances between Bollywood and the underground, it’s best to reserve judgment until later).

All these occurrences, though, are merely happy consequences. In truth, the underground hip-hop movement in the country has been built from the ground up by the artists themselves. Without getting too emphatic about it, the attention and praise being heaped is a natural outcome of the thought and hard work that has gone into establishing it.

According to Divine and several others, the Internet has been instrumental, and anyone with a smartphone and a 3G connection can now hear the music. The early days of this movement started off as a truly DIY thing: in the case of Naezy, his first song, “Aafat,” was put together with the help of his crew; he even made the video on his own, using an iPad. Being notorious in his area — Kurla, Mumbai-70, which he references often — being the guy who was always up to no good, helped. The 100 or so people who knew about the antics of Naved Shaikh checked it out and began talking about it. Those guys would then go to other ’hoods and share the song with their extended friends circle, eventually spawning a legitimate fan following through word of mouth and internet hits. Divine’s first video was shot on a cell phone as well.


 

This wave of homegrown hip-hop we see now is about three or four years old, but the form has been around for far longer. Bob Omulo — MC Bobkat at Bombay Bassment — has been a vocal champion of the scene (having also contributed columns for this publication). Originally from Kenya, Omulo has been part of underground hip-hop in India for over a decade, and speaks of the massive impact the b-boys had well before the breakout acts of today. “It’s a culture, and the b-boys exemplify it the most. They form crews, and they’re like a family,” says Omulo. “They look out for each other.” The first wave, in the mid-2000s or so, included a lot of people rapping in English: “That stage was a spurt of interest, and now you have people who’ve grown up with the music. They’re not talking about hanging out with ‘bitches in the club’ or rolling out in cars. It’s stuff people can relate to. The homegrown acts have adapted hip-hop to vernacular, regional languages. This is what’s necessary, in my opinion, for hip-hop to really take root in any society. All the things that are here right now… I attribute that to the kids who’ve been ciphering and rapping for years for absolutely nothing except the love of it.”

Mumbai’s Ace (Abhishek Dhusia), a veteran of the scene at the age of 28, tells me about starting Mumbai’s Finest with AP and Top Dawg back in 2006. The first song they wrote was “Shake It,” where they picked up a headphone mic to record, mined Soundclick.com for a catchy beat to set the words over, and put it up. “That song became a Bluetooth viral thing. We’d go eat bhurji pao at 3a.m. near Andheri Station and people would be bumping that shit. We were like, ‘Oh, that’s my song,’ and they wouldn’t believe us,” he laughs.

Divine used to be a part of Mumbai’s Finest as well, and the crew functions as a large collective of rappers, video DJs, b-girls and b-boys, skateboarders, beatboxers, football freestylers. “We were always around, a lot of brothers like us,” says Ace with unmistakable pride, “but people are only discovering us right now. Hip-hop is about unity, about brotherhood and loyalty.” He’s in the process of setting up Worth Itt, a startup digital platform and label through which he wants to help push young artists with potential, to guide them and provide them with resources. It’s an ambition Prabh shares, with plans of running a dedicated hip-hop label at some point.

It stretches beyond the music — contextually niche as it may still be, hip-hop , fundamentally, functions as a cultural revolution of sorts (as an aside, gigs will often feature chants of “Inquilaab Zindabaad” [Long Live The Revolution]). The b-boying, the graffiti, the underground ciphers, the beatboxing and spitting rhymes, the slang, the look — all the assorted frills — bring about a sense of community. As Naezy says: “Sure, a little bit of ‘swag’ comes into it — topi tedhi hoti hai [the cap is always tilted sideways], you walk a certain way. But hip-hop becomes a lifestyle, a state of mind.”

An abstract notion of authenticity becomes intrinsically tied up with what hip-hop means. It’s where the ‘Indianness’ is paramount. The aesthetics of the term are a little suspect, but ‘desi hip-hop’ then becomes a legitimate tag. The sonic quality is borrowed largely from American hip-hop — Omulo ascribes that to a natural process of creative evolution — but the lyrical content is inherent to the Indian experience. Mainstream hip-hop, probably closer to pop music drawing from elements of rap, is rejected in this space because of its derivative nature. The emphasis there, in a nutshell, is on glorifying materialism — the sex, drugs, the excesses of fame and money — an approach often dismissed as dishonest or lacking integrity.


The defining characteristic of underground hip-hop seems to be the focus on actual, lived experiences


Divine doesn’t quite agree with the thought though. “I don’t get this definition of ‘real’. It’s different for everyone. The commercial rappers talk about cars or money or women because they see it every day; it’s around them. What else will they talk about? You have to be true to yourself in such a situation.” He accepts that, who knows, maybe if he were in the same situation, similar content would make its way into his music too.

That said, Divine is clear that, with his own music at least, he wants to preserve the idea of spreading a social message. It’s something he’s pushing forth in the new music he’s working on as well. “It’s very important — we have to give back, we have to speak the truth. I try to say things I feel should be said, what I’ve seen, what’s going on.” The music functions as a way to help kids feel comfortable in their own skin: “We are not ashamed of being ourselves.” Talking about the words and their influence, especially in Mumbai, he says: “A hawker, an office guy, a rickshaw-wallah, a guy working in the stock market — they’ll all understand what we’re saying.”


 

The defining characteristic of underground hip-hop seems to be the focus on actual, lived experiences, as a way to reach out and effect meaningful change. On things that might matter on a socio-political level. Prabh lives in Tilak Nagar, in west Delhi, and a lot of the lyrical material he tackles is about the things affecting him, and those around. He recently lost a childhood friend to a drug overdose, the eighth such incident he can recall in the past year. So he’s writing about these issues affecting his area, trying to motivate people. Naezy uses a carefully constructed fusion of Hindi, Urdu, and Bambaiya slang in his verses — even in conversation, he’s articulate, thoughtful, and rat-a-tat, shifting from a throwaway “Ek number, bantai” to poetic Urdu monologs effortlessly — to connect with listeners who can relate to his words. Corruption, bribery, police brutality, moral decay in forgotten neighborhoods: these are all themes covered in the music. Naezy, specifically, has had frequent run-ins with the authorities — gang-related, drug-related, petty crimes — so the subject matter is often deeply personalized. “It’s helping break class barriers,” he says, discussing the impact of the words in this movement, drawing a direct parallel to the US.

When he was in the eleventh grade, there was one fateful ride on a Mumbai local that he took with a friend. The friend, as it turns out, had been following a girl around, and the duo were arrested as soon as they reached the station. “Mere dost kaand karein, mujhe kya pata? (How can I know what shit my friends are up to?)” is a line from a new song he’s working on. They were beaten up a little, eventually finding themselves at a police chowki in Mulund, some 30-40 km from where he lives. His friend’s father, an influential man, paid the requisite fine and got his son out, but there was no one that Naezy could call, given that his father was working in Dubai at the time.

It was a watershed moment for him, realizing that he was heading down an unpleasant path. Eventually, he sought a distant uncle to help out, but he remembers how the behavior of the policemen changed considerably once they looked at his ID card and saw his name, even though he wasn’t the prime culprit in this situation, but more an accomplice (unwitting or otherwise). The discrimination, for Naved Shaikh, was first-hand, and it makes its way into his words too — an outlet for the anger he has.

The experiences of the young urban Indian woman are bound to be radically different from that of the male rapper, which in turn affects the musical direction that rappers such as MC Kaur (Manmeet Kaur) and Dee MC (Deepa Unnikrishnan) take. The spirit remains the same — a thread of rebellion and self-expression giving life to the music — but the words reflect a different perspective. MC Kaur has an album called hip-hop Bahu. “Post Wedding Blues” is about her life after getting married — the expectations one faces and the fear of living up to them.

On “Art Saviours,” which places a shuddering beat atop Indian-sounding samples, she raps: “But don’t buy the crap they serve on TV/ That show of reality/ That saas–bahu–biwi, get off that!/ Fabricated news on a repeat, that’s wack!” Dee MC again explores the challenges and obstacles of gender inequality, from independence to the difficulty of traversing hip-hop in India. “Don’t you know that deeva is the female version of the hustler”, she says in “Deeva”, before moving on to: “Only queen in the scene to give you a checkmate”, alluding, perhaps, to the suspicions that Indian rap is still a bit of a boys’ club.

There’s a popular market in Greater Kailash – 1 in Delhi called the M-Block market. It’s a refuge of the privileged, frequented by people who live nearby, where real estate has flourished — let’s say Rs. 40 crore for an average-sized plot. The market goes through periodic overhauls every five to 10 years. Right now, it’s a mix of expensive boutiques and shops, some hippy-dippy urban wellness and healthy living shops, a few ‘funky-trendy-hip-cool’ new-age clothes stores, coffee shop chains, and a clutch of bars and restaurants. And Prince Paan Shop, a bona fide Delhi institution. The people walking around are advertisements for luxury brands, as also a fleeting glimpse of what one does when we have more money than sense.

In this market, I meet Uday Kapur, a journalist who’s been writing extensively about the hip-hop movement in India. Kapur previously worked at OML as a writer before moving on to manage Naezy. These days, he occasionally performs live with Naezy (besides being a DJ himself), triggering his backing tracks and, on occasion, “hyping him”, i.e. filling up any empty spots in the rap as Naezy — who has a fairly frantic, rapid-fire delivery on stage — takes a fraction of a second to catch his breath.

Our primary goal at the time is to talk about hip-hop in India. Soon, though, it quickly turns into finding a bar cheap enough to accommodate our big hearts and small wallets. We settle on My Bar, originally a small pub in the rather less gentrified locales of Paharganj, and now a popular city-wide franchise of sorts. A beer there costs a pitiful Rs. 120.

Kapur provides me with a comprehensive background of hip-hop: the Punjabi scene; the kind of stuff that’s happening in Delhi; Mumbai’s recent over-documented eruption; rapping in the Northeast, and the absence of venues there; the scene in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai, and the role the regional film industry plays. Eventually, we reach the abstract, the hypothetical, the academic and the speculative. We speak about authenticity.

Most often, artists here bring about a mix of autobiographical narration and an insistence on tackling the real-life struggles of youth around, which resonates across different audiences. Old school rappers in the US have devoted considerable stage time to their experience on the streets, to gang violence and drugs and murder. That template has been adapted, tailored to an Indian context for the sake of honesty and realism, as Indian rappers sing about their life on the streets, in the gullies, on matters of oppression and discrimination.

It’s an Indian idiom being applied to a concept that already existed — the artists are adding a new layer, creating a new kind of vocabulary within the existing aesthetic of the form. They want to say the things they believe in, and do it in a way that rings true, instead of merely aping their heroes. Ace says: “Lafda hoyega, then you won’t say, ‘F**k you, mother**ker’. You’ll say, ‘Teri maa ki ch**t’. So why not do this shit in your regional tongue?”

BeFunky Collage

(Clockwise from top left) Naezy (left) and Divine in the video of “Meri Gully Mein”; Bob Omulo (extreme right) with his band Bombay Bassment; The artwork of Mumbai’s Finest’s new album ‘Mumbai Till I Die;’ Stony Psyko (centre) with his group Dopeadelicz

It’s a delicate subject — the matter of originality and authenticity, of placing your own imprint on to a form — that’s become much discussed. Rishu Singh, Mumbai-based promoter and founder of events agency Ennui.Bomb, has been organizing a regular series of gigs called Hip-Hop Bomb Thursdays since early 2015, showcasing young hip-hop acts to pub-going audiences in Mumbai. While his prior work has been mostly by way of independent rock ‘n’ roll, Singh admits a deep fascination for the culture of hip-hop. He has an interesting analogy about the insistence for social messages within the music, and the DIY spirit that runs through it: “The whole vibe is very ‘punk rock’, in its own way. You’re trying to do things differently, by your own standards, your own ethics. These boys were just doing it on their own; it was all very ‘anti’, very in-your- face; kya bolta, bantai. I could identify with it.”

The theme of local pride is ever-present. It’s a kind of acknowledgement of where you come from — the streets, the ’hood, the gully, the ghetto, the ilaka, call it what you will — and also a sincere attempt at capturing a snapshot of that life. Dissecting Divine’s lyrical flair on “Jungli Sher,” Kapur points to the third line of the song – “Mere daal mein nahi tha tadka.” He says, “It can’t get more Indian that that, and by using a common, simple food item such as dal which cuts across classes, Divine manages to paint a picture of where he’s from and what kind of life he’s had. It’s a lyric that can only work in a South Asian context, and that’s something you’ll find is a common characteristic across Indian hip-hop.”

Ace emphasizes the competitive nature of hip-hop: the incessant need to be at the very top of your game, dissing other rappers, improving your own skills, trying to outdo each other. This competition becomes as essential as that sense of loyalty, but that’s where the purity of intentions comes into it. Personal growth is an aspiration, which leads to positive one-upmanship. Hard work, he feels, can lead to that skill level, but that it’s ultimately about being relevant. “Anyone can be on top,” says Ace. “Survival is more important. How every time you’re down, you learn and wait to come back up, never giving up. If you have that conviction, you’re a rebel, and, no matter what the world says, you’ll always be one.”

A self-awareness runs deep into the thought process of the artists. You hear “Mere Gully Mein” and you understand that Divine is attempting to bridge some kind of a gap between his experience, and the resentment of countless others like him. There’s research, dedication, cultivation of skill, inborn talent, all topped off with a healthy sprinkling of brutal honesty and self-expression — and, of course, humor. Naezy waited some six months before releasing “Aafat,” spending time to study the scene and figure out a plan. He deliberated over the technical aspects of rapping and the intersection between the origins of the form and the context of Indian culture. How he added Bambaiya slang, multiple syllable rhymes, catchy beats, a rhythmic flow and incorporated new trends in hip-hop.

Underground hip-hop — desi hip-hop — is on this radical upswing right now. Leaving aside the social relevance of the music, there’s seemingly a high level of quality that exists, although there’s some disagreement to that aspect when it comes to the new crop finding an original voice. That’s a creative concern the artists have, coupled with the constant rebellion against the flippancy of mainstream hip-hop. Beyond that, it merely boils down to logistical concerns. Rishu Singh tells me how the obstacles mirror the problems the independent rock community faced at its onset: “The kids who come for a gig don’t have enough money to buy a beer for Rs. 400. It makes it unfeasible for a venue to host hip-hop gigs. But that’ll change as the kids who come today, who’re in college right now, grow up and start earning.”

Sez points to the importance of marketing the music. Underground hip-hop will get 1,000 plays, even 10,000 plays, maybe even more. But that’s nothing compared to a video on YouTube of a song by, say, Badshah, which will have some 50 million hits. “People don’t understand the value of investment in their own art right now, which is very important.” Omulo speaks of an absence of large-scale outlets for vernacular rappers, who’re forced to compete against the might of Bollywood and only have one TV channel, Pepsi MTV Indies, that’ll air their videos.

But, from the outside, hip-hop seems to be looking forward, not back. There’s grand ambition all around, from setting up labels to performing all over the world to making it to Bollywood. Naezy says: “An underground fan base is great, but why should I limit it to that? It’s important to reach out to more people to spread the message. Who knows, maybe it’ll just go thapp in a couple of years. But once you make it to the mainstream, kuch toh bhala hoga. Samaaj mein kuch toh badlaav laana hai.”

 

All the action from behind the scenes of our #RSIndianHipHop cover shoot.

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