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COVER STORY: Raftaar Comes Clean | Rap Beefs, Creativity and Entrepreneurship

Indian hip-hop’s seasoned, snarling hero can bring the heat, but says he isn’t easily provoked any longer

Anurag Tagat Apr 18, 2022

Raftaar aka Dilin Nair talks entrepreneurship, rap beefs and his label Kalamkaar. Photo: Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Wardrobe: Helicat Shirt; Trigger T-Shirt And Cayden Jeans, All By Pepe Jeans London.

On his ride out after our photoshoot, Raftaar is talking about his most recent battle scar – his leg got twisted while he was performing a stunt in a video shoot. He says it’s a constant reminder to pick out the right shoe, but also brushes it off with perspective. “It’s victory scars, bro. Every time it pains, I remember what the sacrifice was worth,” the artist says.

Through the course of a half-hour chat, it feels like India’s most ferocious rapper is in Zen mode. “I don’t get angry anymore,” he says at one point. This is 33-year-old Dilin Nair, the same rough and tough, Thiruvananthapuram-born, Delhi-bred launda who worked his way up through the Hindi, Punjabi and Haryanvi music world, worked with Yo Yo Honey Singh in the Mafia Mundeer Crew and RDB’s Manj Musik, released songs like “Swag Mera Desi” and hopped into Bollywood with tracks like “Dhaakad” [from Dangal] and a remake of “Haseeno Ka Deewana” [for Kaabil]. Much later, he even got locked in a vicious [and audience-earning] beef and created “Sheikh Chilli” for rapper Emiway Bantai.

That last name remains completely unmentioned throughout the interview, but Raftaar addresses “the current situation” several times because it’s flared up again following their 2018 skirmish. He’s not angry, but the rapper doesn’t care for being bad-mouthed. He’d rather focus on his work as an entrepreneur with the label Kalamkaar, which he co-founded with film producer Ankit Khanna in 2019. Raftaar says, “The idea with Kalamkaar was that there was no complaining, we’ve stopped. Any diss or anything happens, I’m really not caring for it. I’m going ahead with my own work.”

Working closely with Khanna – whose label and YouTube channel AK Projekts in 2017 was a key building block for Kalamkaar – Raftaar has become a brand unto himself. One who can appear on rage-fueled, adrenaline-junkie reality show MTV Roadies, be the tough-love judge on hip-hop talent show MTV Hustle, and even land endorsements for toothpaste, mobile games and more.

The music projects run on in tandem, because Raftaar always ensures he’s never too far from his songwriting and studio setups. Plus, there’s Kalamkaar who are now plotting out tours across the country and also getting booked for corporate gigs. In this chat with Rolling Stone India, Raftaar talks about working at the intersection of commercial music and joints for the hip-hop faithful, building Kalamkaar, quality checks, divisions in desi hip-hop and whether he’ll beef again. Excerpts:

You’ve always been one to break the stereotype of what a hip-hop artist is in India – you’re acting, rapping, appearing on T.V. shows.

I’ve always been someone who’s an artist. I’ve never quoted myself as a rapper. Rapping just turned out to be something I’m the best at. There were always other things I did. Once I started rapping, I made sure it became my podium, my pedestal. I’m going to use that platform to showcase my other talents. You have to utilize your other opportunities and add a little extra flavor, that’s how people will recognize what you do. I was always dancing around, playing the roles – all that caught on.

When the whole world was saying, “Rappers don’t dance,” I was literally dancing on and on. Those who do, they get the work, don’t they?

The work you do, it’s at the intersection of mainstream and indie. What kind of creativity drives that?

I’m still the kind of guy, who when he hears a beat, I’ll get writing. I’ll put my headphones on and I’ll be writing anywhere – in pitstops, in the midst of a billion people. If I’m at a party and an idea strikes me, I’ll be in the corner writing. You might be talking to me and I might be looking at you, but trust me, I don’t even know what’s happening. It’s like a black void at that moment. My creativity, to me, is this self-isolated space that I create myself. That’s how it comes to me, and it can come at any time. It’s never about waking up and going to an office.

What I’ve done to nurture this is to have a studio wherever I go. Whether it’s Delhi or Mumbai, I create a full-fledged studio and it has everything to create a good quality record. It’s almost like this banter I have with myself, like, “Yeh kya kar raha hai yaar?” [What is this guy up to?] If someone were to capture me in my studio in the course of a day, people would see and think, “Yeh aadmi pagal hai, apne aap se baat karta hai.” [This guy is crazy, he talks to himself]. I think that’s how most creative people are.

Raftaar seated and smiling
“With Kalamkaar, I’m trying to build the sanctum sanctorum of hip-hop,” says Raftaar. Photo: Kunal Gupta or Rolling Stone India. Wardrobe: Maxwell T-Shirt And Jeans By Pepe Jeans London

What about when you’re collaborating? Do you have to adjust your style or tone it down?

When you’re a rapper, you’re a fact-teller. When you add ‘entertainer’ to rapper, you have to be a storyteller. If you tell me a story, I’m going to visualize a thing in my head.

For example, if you don’t have food to eat or have a broken heart, I’ll guess what you’re going through. I’ve learned to narrate in whatever I do – getting in a zone is easy for me. If somebody calls me for a movie or web series, they ask me to audition – they don’t just take me based on my name, they’ll at least check. The use of that is they narrate a story and I have to get into character.

Most rappers in fact keep forgetting we’re playing characters. That’s the reality of it. There’s a kid sitting in some corner of India, talking in a way that is not even rap. People will say, “Raftaar se punga mat le, woh tereko thappad maarega, tu zameen mein mil jayega.” [Don’t pick a fight with Raftaar, he’ll slap you and you’ll be buried in the ground]. None of that has happened and they haven’t seen that happen. They’ve heard me in a song and they know I’m a real one. That impression makes you talk about people in a certain way. Apart from musicians, people see us as Raftaar the rapper, the character. I understand this difference, that’s why I’m able to create and narrate in different ways.

Always try to be the provider and not the receiver, and all your problems will be solved.

Raftaar

Has your persona sometimes intimidated people too much? Do you have to then tell them, “I’m not really like that”?

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I’m not going to lie, bro. Put me in the right situations and I’m exactly the person you hear in the songs. I’m the guy who has been kicked out of five schools, there have to be reasons. I was good in my academics, that too. Reaching where I’ve reached and going where I’ve gone, I’m not the guy who will go out and ask for a fight, or someone who will fight at the first given opportunity. I always take my time now.

I’ve had my spontaneous decisions in the past. If someone said something, I used to react immediately and justify myself. Now I’ve reached the point where I don’t need to justify or clarify to anybody. Since I’m not doing this, I don’t get angry anymore. For real, I hear a lot of stuff [said about me] and I don’t get angry at all.

It sounds like a level of Zen you’ve achieved.

100 percent. It’s necessary. But I know that given a situation, I can defend myself if I have to.

What has it been like growing Kalamkaar and putting a piece of yourself into it?

Kalamkaar is not a part-time job, man. It’s not like we took a bit of time out from our day or put together a bit of small change and created Kalamkaar. It has been given everything. We have quit other things we’ve been doing to perfect this. I’ve left projects so that my artists get presented everywhere. It’s not a barter, it’s necessary. I’ve been trying to create a place that I felt was lacking. I’ve always said that in interviews.

I’ve never been the guy who says, “Yaar kuch ho nahi raha hai.” [Nothing’s happening here]. I’ve been the one who gives when there’s nothing. Always try to be the provider and not the receiver, and all your problems will be solved. That’s what I wanted to do, rather than complaining. Why do you need anyone to do anything for you when right now, there are places like YouTube and Spotify, DistroKid – chhatis karod technique hai yaar.

I wanted to make a specific hip-hop system – the core of Kalamkaar stays the same – signing and getting signed to Kalamkaar is going to be a big deal because I’m not going to let people into my circle all that easily, with all my experiences. You have to be a good rapper and a good human being as well.

Aside from that, every artist I see who’s good and is sounding great, we’re going to be putting money behind them because they deserve to be heard and seen. We want to give them at least one shot. Then, it’s up to the people and up to them to take that drive forward. When someone major helps you, it boosts your confidence in a major way. It’s not just getting your first numbers but getting cosigned and realizing you’re someone worthy. The rest of it, your mind does on its own. I’m trying to build that place – the sanctum sanctorum of hip-hop.

Raftaar is now on to creating soundtracks for Bollywood films via Kalamkaar and more screen appearances. Photo: Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Wardrobe: Style Tross Teeshirt; Style Bertie Mens Jacket And Style Rodger Denims, All By Pepe Jeans London

What have you picked up from your business partner and friend Ankit Khanna?

I have to tell you, that guy never stopped me from doing anything, because he understood one thing – I’m a source of untapped energy. The more energy that comes out, the better. He was the first person who understood that. People used to tell me, “You should calm down a little bit,” or, “You shouldn’t rap in front of that person, they’ll get jealous.” They tell you these sorts of things in the industry to tune you up.

Ankit just says, “You do whatever you want. Get everything out.” He taught me my worth, a very important thing. I wanted to create and make art and make some money. He told me what I am worth, and what my craft and my time are worth. If you look at it, the one who showed me my value was Ankit Khanna. That’s why I owe a lot to that guy.

“For the first five or six years of your life, you’ll hear a lot of ‘Chance de rahe hai. Platform de raha hai.’ [We’re giving you a chance, a platform]. Fuck it, ask for money from day one.”

Raftaar

It feels like when an artist knows their worth, they also begin thinking as an entrepreneur. Musicians often have a tough time reaching this point, right?

Anybody who tells you they make music simply because it’s their ‘passion’ is lying to you. I would like to challenge anybody and everybody out there to just make music and give out all their funds to charity every time they receive their cheques from YouTube or any place.

It’s a lie, bro. If you’ve gotten into it and say, you’re in your 30s, trust me, it’s your only career option and you’re not going anywhere else. Because you’ve built yourself in a way that it’s the only thing you know. Most people who have built themselves and say, “We’re not entrepreneurs, we’re not businessmen,” are people who are lying. At the end of the day, everyone’s making money. It’s important to know you’re a business and handle it in that way. Otherwise, in the name of giving you an opportunity, plenty of people will take you for a ride.

Those people aren’t paying you, they’re just giving you a chance. For the first five or six years of your life, you’ll hear a lot of “Chance de rahe hai. Platform de raha hai.” [We’re giving you a chance, a platform]. Fuck it, ask for money from day one, even if it’s Rs 20,000 for your writing. Don’t get them used to manipulating you. A lot of people will say yes to it, and that’s the problem. A lot of people run after that chance and end up making it difficult for others who are in here to take this seriously.

It’s the same thing with people who say you’ll get exposure. That doesn’t pay the bills.

This is 14- and 15-year-olds today. They see something online or on TV and when reality hits, there’s responsibility hitting them, then they understand what’s necessary.

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I used to justify this. I used to be pissed off about the fact that I ran after money [laughs]. You know about this, right? “Paise ko khayega kya?” [quoting “Giraftaar” by Emiway Bantai]. The very next song, my brother says, “Meri automatic car, meri automatic brush.” [Laughs]. Instead of saying, “Your favorite rapper also does this or they also say this,” I’ve stopped justifying. I’ve begun to say, “Haan bhai, mein aisa hun.” [This is the way I am].

I’ve come to earn. I will not get it twisted.

Given that the number of people listening to Indian hip-hop has really grown, it’s allowed for a lot of voices to be visible. The audiences eat up a lot of stuff, even if it’s terrible. How do you feel about this?

I keep thinking about this and the reasons for it. Of late, I think I’ve begun to understand it. I might be wrong but I kind of feel like people choose their entertainment, their content based on their own IQ. To each his own, man. Listen to what you understand. I have no complaints. In fact, it makes it easier for us to understand who our clientele is and where we should be targeting.

They create the demographic for us and we analyze it and go forward. That is always going to be there. A guy walking beneath Ambani’s house is always going to say, “He fucking doesn’t deserve what he has. Rich people are disgusting.” That’s the real world, man.

“I’ve come to earn, I’ll not get it twisted,” Raftaar says. Photo: Kunal Gupta for Rolling Stone India. Wardrobe: Quinton Shirt; Tarell Jeans, All By Pepe Jeans London

You’ve often gone on social media to assume this role of quality check in Indian hip-hop. Will that stop then?

That’ll continue to happen, for sure. I tell people that they should unashamedly flex. It’s a mark of your success. Most of your listeners are passionate people, folks who are ambitious. They look at you and see not just the jewelry but how far ahead you’ve gone in life. Collecting these materials is just part of what you do. I could give a home to my mom and dad. I could provide Kalamkaar for others. But it happened because people saw me as someone they could follow and see my life change in front of them.

All of this is part of necessities. You have to make it real and authentic. You have to create from reality. Don’t create that fake aura around you, because if, god forbid, anything goes sideways – like this pandemic for the last two years – you can tell who’s flexing and who’s fake. I’ve seen people who were always rolling out with big cash reach out to other people for work. It humbles you.

Just flex about your real shit, that’s about it.

What do you feel about camps and cliques in hip-hop? As much as there’s often a united front, there are always some divisions, right?

There are divisions for sure. I’m open to work with anybody but given the fact that I should relate to their work. If you go back to look at my work, I’ve mostly worked with people who are not bigger than me. By bigger, I mean the positioning in the industry. My reality is that I’m just a very blunt guy. I just tell it like it is. I’m an artist, I can’t go to a place and say, “Mujhe Shah Rukh Khan jaise vanity [van] chahiye.” [I want the same treatment as Shah Rukh Khan]. People will be like, “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Or if I say, “Shah Rukh doesn’t want to work with me, he thinks he’s such a big shot.” [Laughs]. He doesn’t probably vibe with me, man! You know what I mean? It’s the same stuff. People will always complain.

The idea with Kalamkaar was that there was no complaining, we’ve stopped. Any diss or anything happens, I’m really not caring for it. I’m going ahead with my own work. My boys [on the label] don’t care. Those guys are actually busy. Somebody’s doing work with a brand, somebody’s working on a track for a web series, somebody’s going to Punjab for a shoot, there’s someone writing for someone. There are shows that are happening, a bunch of corporate ones. My guys and girls and I – we’re a busy family and that is the only idea we have.

The rest, whatever complaints people have, let them do it. Freedom of speech, man.

“There’s no reason I’m finding as to why people are dissing each other right now.”

Raftaar

Does that mean Raftaar doesn’t want to beef anymore?

No, Raftaar will definitely beef on facts, man. If it’s a real beef, I’ll whoop your ass, turn Delhi into a no-landing zone for you. Every time you land in Delhi for a show, you’re going to get beaten up. It will be on record that I’m going to do that shit.

But I don’t think I need to, though. Whatever the current situations are, I don’t need to. But if any real shit happens – if in the future somebody comes and touches my fam or does something that really hurts me, that’s a beef. All of this that’s happening is not a beef. This is like aunties in the gully and their tiffs. Like, “Why are you buying this last piece of this suit? I had reserved it!” There’s no sense to it. There’s nothing that’s happening.

There’s no reason I’m finding as to why people are dissing each other right now. They’re just upset at each other. I think the world is a bit depressed, they should start listening to Kalamkaar [laughs].

This gully wala launda I have in me, I’ve put that aside. We can’t get into quarrels. If people have a problem, they can speak. We don’t have a problem with anybody. Why should we have a problem anyway? That’s the actual question. Tell me one thing we’re not doing in life.

What’s coming up through 2022?

We produced music for a movie, Sangeen. That, finally, since the theaters have opened, it’s getting ready for release with the music being tightened up too. We’re doing a couple of tours. We have a lot of shows. I have my private gigs. Life is busy and I’m just doing my job, to tell you the truth.

In a practical manner, that too. I’m just one of the lucky few whose passion is their job. What else will Raftaar do? He has to get up and deliver some kind of content, for people to have fun or have something to go on. I’m doing everything possible.

Creative Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Brand Director: Tulsi Bavishi
Photographer: Kunal Gupta
Make-up: Swapnil Haldankar
Hair: Sonu Bhatia 

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