When Rap Revolts: Punjab and Hip-Hop
In a state caught in tumultuous times, young Punjabi rappers are revolting against the hedonism glorified by a previous generation
In this year’s most talked-about release Udta Punjab, Tommy Singh, the Punjabi singer cursed with puppy dog exuberance, has one claim to fame, “Asian Underground number three maara hai maine [I’ve ranked three on the Asian Underground chart].” The pop star’s hat tip to his across-the-seas popularity is proof of his on-screen legitimacy, which is admittedly difficult to buy into when you first hear his juvenile “Coke Cock” tirade.
An earnest anti-drug propaganda movie set in the bowels of Punjab’s horrific drug war, Udta Punjab flips the norm of rappers becoming movie stars to movie stars playing rappers. Tommy, the rich face of Punjab’s drug abuse is a successful rapper whose on-stage, high-energy career rests seemingly on his next line of cocaine, and singing about cocaine, or chitta, the street name for heroin.
For years now, contemporary Punjabi singers and rappers have been singing about drugs, fast cars and hot girls. A study by IIM, Ahmedabad showed that 60 percent of the 200 youth interviewed across universities in Punjab listen to Punjabi music that reference drugs, violence and demean women. Punjab’s relationship with rap isn’t new. From the days of Jay Z remixing Panjabi MC’s “Mundian To Bach Ke” (2003) and the UK-based production house Tru Skool producing Diljit Dosanjh’s 2012 album Back to Basics, Punjabi music shares beats, shimmies and even subject matter with hip-hop. Bhangra’s shared soul with old-school NY hip-hop means similar tempos, rhyming, hip-hop’s emcees’ similarity to Punjabi music’s boliyan, and even bhangra dance and b-boying sharing much in common.
But in the last half-a-decade, a new crop of rappers riding the Yo Yo Honey Singh wave, is at the same time distancing themselves from everything associated with that music – the drugs, satanic worship, crashing fast cars and objectifying women – or at least, there’s an earnest effort to do so. Accusations that Singh’s brand of music is too commercial and often even stolen from his former crew members fly fast and furious. Two former members of Singh’s crew Mafia Mundeer, Raaftar and Badshah, have even gone public with their dislike of Singh, and vice versa, including a series of ongoing rap battles dissing each other.
But before all this was the more kosher “Thanda Thanda Pani.” When rap hit Indian TV with Baba Sehgal’s remake of Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby,” it caught the imagination of millions tuned into [popular music show on national TV] Chitrahaar. Since breaking away from Singh, Dilin Nair, known by his stage name Raftaar, has seen unprecedented success in the last few years.
The Delhi-based artist started rapping along to Eminem and Linkin Park, until he realized simply rhyming wasn’t rapping. “Sadly, in India rap started on a comic note – “Thanda Thanda Pani,” Patel Scope by [Indi-pop singer] Devang Patel, parodies of songs in Bollywood. People thought it was funny. With their cross earrings and bikes, we soon realized they weren’t singing, but were just talking! Until Bohemia and Hard Kaur came along,” explains Raftaar.
‘Real’ rappers will tell you it was Bohemia who started the desi hip-hop ‘revolution’. The sulky-faced California-based rapper grew up in Compton and became famous in 2002 when his debut album Vich Pardesan De went straight to the top of the BBC Radio UK charts. For anyone who wants to rap serious, he is god. And today his endorsements mean the world. For the first time in desi hip-hop’s history, Bohemia is now working with underground artists, to produce a mixtape with his production house Kali Denali Music. The album includes rappers from South Asia, like Pardhaan, a Hindi/Haryanvi rapper from Karnal and Young Desi, an underground artist from Lahore.
Today, a quick ride through Google and YouTube confirms that almost no Punjabi song is complete without a rapper’s contribution. Yet, 28-year-old Mohali-based rapper Navdeep Singh aka Nottotune rues songs may have Punjabi rap, but rappers rarely get their due. “Rappers are used as fillers, and they don’t even do that properly. A singer and rapper are equal, even though they aren’t similar in their art.”
However ever since Pepsi MTV Indies came along, artists say their exposure has increased. When they started out, Singh and his younger brother Lucky (Harsimran Jit Singh), would ‘drop’ albums from their bedrooms, shoot videos on DSLRs, upload them on YouTube, and wait for views and likes.
“Earlier, our reach was only in the North,” says Nottotune, adding, “Now our fan base has increased to Bengaluru and even Chennai. We can say we have been on TV!” As opposed to channels like Tashan and PTC that charge artists about 1 to 1.5 lakh to air their songs for a week, Pepsi MTV Indies only asks for a censor certificate to air videos. Some artists don’t even need TV for exposure, what with the fastgrowing popularity of on-demand media from digital media outlets like YouTube (that send artists money every few months) and apps like Hotstar. People are consuming more and more of their music online, making recognition by mainstream channels almost irrelevant
“Ever since we have gone online independently, we are doing pretty well!” says Nottotune. Their video “Shaukeen Balliye,” after airing on Pepsi MTV Indies, hit 72,759 views in under six months, while other videos barely broke past 1, 500 in a few years. These numbers don’t compare when pitted against the success of Raftaar’s “Instagram Love,” which has been watched over 5 million times since it was uploaded in June. That’s when the underground scene crosses over into mainstream – when Bollywood notices you.
Some like SirD, Ankit Chahal have taken the underground scene into their own hands. “What I have in my mind for Indian hip-hop can’t be started with any label here. I have been trying to encourage the scene for years, and so finally I along with a few partners have started a new label which is called Dirt Records.” The label will focus on prompting the new, young talent easily available in India, and have already started recording, and shot what they call “high-end videos”.
However, what rappers don’t lack is content, and much of it, in the words of Nottotune is “bandukein, chitta or ladki chedna [guns, drugs or pursuing women].” In 2013, while researching a piece on contemporary music in Punjab, Singh told this author that he earnestly believed “rap was poetry”. Raftaar says rappers should really only rap about their real lives, not those they see on TV.
One of the few underground voices making a mark with their music, Singh’s crew KRU172’s has to their name “Chandigarh Mera Shehar,” a song about the city they love. The track even visits parts of the city that aren’t developed, where Singh grew up and where drug peddlers and shady deals abound. “We wanted to show people the Chandigarh that other people are afraid of showing.” Their other song “Shaukeen Balliye” is about loving the good life without “daru, drugs or chedoing girls [alcohol, drugs and girls]”. He says, “[It’s a happy bhangra song about the bump in your ride while on your gedi [drive]. Second-grade lyrics nahi hone chahiye [lyrics shouldn’t be second-grade]. We didn’t want anything demeaning girls; we aren’t going to disrespect anyone.”
Kahlon’s songs resonate with the struggles young boys and girls feel growing up in Punjab obsessed with quick money
At 27, Raftaar has seen unprecedented success in Bollywood, but he says it’s his much stronger underground fan base that makes him come back to his music, and is really the reason he exists. With songs on climate change, Raftaar seems wise beyond his years. He tells me how his underground fans even have tattoos of his name, “It’s through my underground songs that I explain my story. I’d be amazed if anyone has a Yo Yo Honey Singh tattoo,” he ribs playfully. “He made people dance, but he is not an influence. But now the culture is changing.” Despite his Bollywood-given popularity, even his film songs are chosen responsibly. While, “Toh Dishoom,” a track from the John Abraham-starrer Dishoom may have a catchy club beat, it’s not a party track, says Raftaar. “Allah Vey” meanwhile is about brotherhood across borders.
Chandigarh-based Chahal, who was last seen recording an album of club tracks for an album that was to be a “mix of club, house and dubstep” — songs about the motherland, break-ups, partying, fast cars and gangstas — tells me his latest rap is more about the “universal aspects of hiphop and music.” Chahal’s new avatar is more meta. “My content is about basic things that go around but nobody talks about. I feel connected to every emotion that I have, whether it’s anger towards what’s going on around me or love for the beautiful world I see. I am venting it all out through my songs. For me that is music.”
In the midst of all the noise made by dance anthems, there is much introspection. Artists are rapping about about brotherhood, glasses of chai and even about rappers who don’t rap in English. Kahlon, another Chandigrah based rapper, who has just been signed on by the Canada-based label giant Munj Musik raps, “Punjabi hoke angreji vichh karde ho rap kyun/ Tahde varge breadan layi haiga ni eh jam yo/ Mein haiga ni par kha lenda mein pig kaka/ Mein underground sare karan menu dig kaka/ Paadu tenu box ch zara ja tu ve tick kaka/ RIP eh rappera nu eh gaana phaaru RIP kaka. [Being Punjabi, why do you rap in English/This jam is not for breads like you/I’m not one, but I do eat pig/Everyone in the underground digs me/I’ll put you in a box, wait for a while/ RIP to rappers, this song is going to rip them].” And where SirD’s “Aukaat” is about how artists are affected by piracy, Raftaar’s first solo earlier this year is about falling in love on Instagram where its “filters” are an allegory for life.
Like Raftaar’s poetry on women empowerment, Badshah too made it a point to tell me that he had written a song for women. All in a clear move to distance from Honey Singh’s controversial song glorifying rape. Where many rappers go wrong is in not realizing that “rap was about real life,” not, as Nair says, about “Bohemia’s life and struggles growing up on the streets of America.”
“When Bohemia came onto the scene, he rapped about drugs, guns, jails and enemies. That doesn’t happen here. His subjects are not the same as ours. We don’t have the same pain. My dad was a janitor. My mom was a typist. She sacrificed so much for me! Those were my hardships,” says Raftaar, adding that it’s rappers like Kahlon and Pardhaan who aren’t talking drugs and guns. “Pardhaan is from the doodh-dahi culture [dairy-loving regional community], and he talks about breaking bones and beating people up. But he is from Haryana! That’s what they do there!”
In keeping with the Udta Punjab subject, Kahlon responds to Punjab’s war on drugs with an amateurish video superimposed on a drug documentary, where he talks about the terror drugs have inflicted on the state. His songs resonate with the struggles the youth feel growing up in a Punjab obsessed with quick money, a fight for swag and a yearning for the motherland they’re all so eager to leave behind. Raftaar feels that’s where rap has gone wrong in India. “People started liking the same songs about girls and bars. People wanted to follow that life. But you don’t know what’s going on behind the scene!”