COVER STORY: Ranveer Singh’s Hip-Hop Dreams
Why Bollywood’s biggest star launched a music label and signed rappers Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire and SlowCheeta
At our last cover shoot with Ranveer Singh in November 2017, you could feel the actor had started to ‘become’ more hip-hop. He spoke different, dressed different and casually spat verses by rap poster boys Divine and Naezy between shots. His next film Gully Boy had just been announced and Singh — who grew up listening to Dr. Dre, The Notorius B.I.G, Tupac Shakur, Nas, Eminem — was indulging himself in all things hip-hop.
During our two-hour conversation that followed that shoot, he had rattled off an exhaustive list of dreams. “I want to write film scripts, I want to try my hand at composing music, I want to be a music director and I want to direct a film. I am not a good singer, but I can rap. I want to mentor promising creative talent and I want to be a channel, a conduit and facilitator of creation. I have always wanted to start a scriptwriters’ consortium. I wish to even have a record label. I want to be a multifaceted creative entity,” he said.
Less than 18 months since that chat, Singh has managed to achieve some if not all of those goals. Recently, the actor announced his own hip-hop label IncInk in partnership with friend and filmmaker Navzar Eranee. The first three artists signed to it include rappers Kunal Pandagle aka Kaam Bhaari and Nitin Mishra aka Spitfire (both of who featured on the Gully Boy soundtrack), and actor Chaitnya Sharma’s rap alter ego SlowCheeta.
Says Singh, “My involvement in IncInk is all heart. It is only passion and nothing else. I don’t expect to gain anything — na paisa na naam (I am seeking neither fame nor money). I love the music these artists are making. They have so much to say and the world needs to hear them. And if I can do anything for them, I’m all for it!”
It was in 2016 when Singh and Eranee started to toy with the idea of starting a label while working on a hip-hop song for a brand that required them to audition rappers. Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire and SlowCheeta were eventually chosen to feature on the track. Eranee says, “We’ve had a close relationship with these artists for the past three-four years. Kaam Bhaari — he is the most unexpected guy. He walks in, you don’t see him, but then everyone’s dead! Spitfire — he is a Ghalib, Gulzar, Rumi — whatever you want to call him. I think rap is just one of the things he does. SlowCheeta is like the most distinct character for me. His writing is… you don’t know when he’s being sarcastic, when he’s being angry.”
IncInk has also roped in musicians and sibling duo Shikhar and Anushka Manchanda for production duties. “Shikhar’s music influences combined with these guys — it’s a sound you have never heard before. It’s an original, new, fresh sound that blows my mind. It’s Navzar’s idea and I just want to be part of it”, says Singh. Their first song “Zeher” released last month and has raked in over a million views on YouTube so far.
Considering India boasts of little or no music entrepreneurship, the birth of IncInk is a welcome development. However, Singh admits he doesn’t want it to be a “commercial” enterprise. “We want to create without the pressure of success or failure,” he declares, and when I remind him that making money is actually a great goal to have, as it will in turn help artists, he reiterates that it will be “only an afterthought.”
Any more probing on their business strategy and how they plan to navigate through the rapidly changing streaming ecosystem feels futile then — Singh only wants us to know that IncInk is born of “love and gratitude.” He says, “Over a period of eight or nine years, I have earned the kind of money I could have never have thought of; the kind of respect I could have never have thought of; the kind of opportunities I could have never dreamed of. If I am being given so much, if I have so much gratitude, what do I do with it? The only thing I can do with it is to pay it forward. So this is me just paying it forward.”
“I don’t fear anything.” – Ranveer Singh
Ranveer, what are your biggest creative dreams right now — with IncInk and everything else you’re doing in life?
The thing is: I am really happy with my core work, which is acting. It’s very fulfilling for me — I am getting to do a variety of parts, I am getting the kind of work that satisfies me. And everything is just streaming down from that one big thing which is that I am very happy with my core work. Given that good things have happened to me, I am in the space where I want to give back at every level; give back to the people who contributed toward bringing me to this point. I want to encourage new talent, give new creators, new artists a platform and make their voice be heard. And really just create authentically. Be a part of something that is authentic and just create without the pressure of success or failure, you know. I am telling you, the past year and year and a half, it’s been a real evolution. I am in a very good space! I am also enjoying the role that I am currently getting into tremendously. I am in a space of gratitude. That’s my key driver right now — gratitude.
But with IncInk, you must feel a sense of pressure or the need for the label to do well since you’re involved…
I love music — kal ko success ho gaya, bahut acchi baat hai, failure ho gaya, toh bhi theek hai. At least jo hum dil se chaahte hain karna, woh toh hum kar rahe hain. Jo music humein pasand aata hai, woh hum create kar rahe hain — yeh humara vibe hai. (If we succeed, it’d be great, and if we don’t, no worries! At least we are making the kind of music we want to make. That’s our vibe). We are creating something that is just… free expression. Free expression is rare in today’s age; everything comes with an attachment, you know. Mujhe filmein bhi offer hoti hain toh kehte hain — hum aapko itne paise denge, itne mein banegi, itni iski recovery hogi, itna satellite rights se milega, itna box-office se expected hai, itna overseas expected hai. (When I am offered a film, I am first told about the business it would do — how much money it would make via box-office, satellite rights, overseas collections etc). And I’m like listening but I’m thinking to myself, ‘What have I got to do with any of this?’ I am just acting — talk to me about the character, talk to me about the fears and insecurities, the complexities, the layers, the world-view, the history. Talk to me about what we’re creating.
Everything comes with some sort of commercial angle to it, which is why IncInk is a liberating experience for everybody who’s a part of it. Because there is no anvil of ki yeh itna karna hai (that it must perform a certain way), or that it must get a certain amount of views —there’s none of that.
What are your biggest fears right now?
I don’t actually fear anything. I take each day as it comes. I don’t believe in the concept of living in the past, and I don’t believe in the concept of living in the future. I live in the present. So if you’re really living in the moment, you can’t have any fear. You can only fear if you’re living in the future: ki kal kya hoga (who knows what tomorrow might bring), so if you just remove the concept of future, there’s no fear.
But being in the creative space you are in, are you saying you have no ‘artistic’ fears whatsoever?
The past year or so has been a tremendous spike for me in terms of my own growth and evolution as an artist. I started internalizing more and I feel like I am coming into my own as a person. I have figured out my fundas in life, I have figured out my beliefs in life. I have figured out a lot of stuff about myself. So I genuinely don’t have a fear of the future.
I can think about tomorrow at the maximum. For me, I have begun to understand the world in a way that, you know, it’s like — kal ko khuda na khasta (God forbid) I could be driving back home and something might happen on the road and things could take a drastic turn. I don’t want to wish for the worst but gamla gir sakta hai raaste pe chalte-chalte , phir life khatam. (Who knows, I could die in a freak accident!) So given the fragility of life — like imagine all the stuff happening in the world, like terrorist attacks — imagine just randomly getting shot while walking to a place you go to everyday. It’s too bizarre! There’s no worth and no value in living in the future. You’re going to botch up the present. Fears and anxieties are born of living in the future.
“Hum gaane likhte rahenge. Phir nikalte rahenge.”
– Kaam Bhaari
A lot of actors and musicians turn creative entrepreneurs because that’s one way for them to stay relevant and perhaps even leave a legacy behind. What is the motive for you?
No, I am really not selfish. I don’t want ki mujhe koi credit de; woh bhi attachment nahi hai. (I am not seeking any credit, and I have no attachment with it).
It’s hard to believe that you don’t want credit…
I mean, woh hai to hai, nahi bhi hai toh theek hai. (It’s fine either way — whether I get credit or not). We want our artists’ voices to be heard by maximum number of people. That’s why we want to get them out. And this is their primary art — my primary is acting. So they should be able to make a living out of this.
You extend yourself to doing these sorts of things for them because when you can, then why not. But my involvement in this is different — I am in this really just for the love of it. I love these people, I believe in these people, I love what they create and I want to be part of that mix. For me, it’s really only about giving back… Of course, I want them to become big artists, and I will be very proud of that.
How does it feel now that your artists are getting recognition and the song is being talked about?
You know, not so long ago, Kaam Bhaari was just this little kid rapper. And now it’s so amazing to see people swarming around him, screaming his name and taking selfies with him. It feels surreal! It exceeded our expectations. It’s really heartwarming.
And Spitfire and SlowCheeta — the sheer passion they’re working with, they’re really putting their heart and soul. And it’s something that I value tremendously. You know, there’s one thing called talent and another thing called hard work. For me, that’s important — that they value the opportunity and stay true and honest towards it. And yeah, I’ve grown to really love the boys.
“Only bhaichaara, no competition amongst us.”
How does it feel to be part of this new collective?
Kaam Bhaari: Sab bahut mast tareeqe se jaa raha hai. Sab log dekh rahe hain, bahut achha response aaya hai. (Everything is going great, people are checking our music out and appreciating it!)
Pehle main phone pe videos bana ke daalta tha; mere paas das hazaar rupaiye ka phone tha. Par Ranveer sir, Navzar sir, Shikhar bhai, Anushka didi se milne ke baad bahut kuch change hua hai. Bahut support mila hai aur hum log kaafi time se kaam bhi kar rahe hain; ek family jaise ban gaye hain. Best part yeh hai ki humare career mein ab surroundings bahut inspiring hain. (It’s a great feeling to be part of the label. I remember shooting videos on my Rs 10,000-phone back in the day but now with the support of Ranveer sir, Navzar sir, Shikhar bhai and Anushka didi, a lot has changed. We have been working together for a while now and are like one big family. The best part about the team is that it we’re now surrounded by a lot of inspiring people.)
Spitfire: Sab bad raha hai. Cheezein badal rahi hain. Main jis jagah se hoon wahan aaj bhi log hip-hop nahi sunte aur samajhte hain. Thanks mere dost logon ko jinhone mujhe thaame rakha, jinhone mujhe introduce karaya hip-hop se — kaise karna hai, kaise likhna. (Everything is growing; things are changing. Where I come from — people still don’t know about or listen to hip-hop. But I am grateful to my friends who held my hand and introduced me to hip-hop).
Main school bunk karta that, kahin jaake baithta tha aur likhta tha. Chahe homework poora ho raha hai ki nahi iski parwah nahi thi, bas main likh raha hoon iski parwah thi. Bas pyaar deta raha main uss cheez ko and woh ab mujhe pyaar de raha hai. Jab main pehli baar Madhya Pradesh se nikal ke idhar aaya, mere liye woh bhi ek sapne jaisa tha. Yahan par sab logon ne aisa mujhe pyaar diya ki mujhe kabhi laga nahi ki main ghar se door hoon. Aur ab mere gharwaale bhi mujhe bahut bharose ke saath jaane dete hain.
(I remember I used to bunk school and go someplace just to write. It didn’t matter to me whether I did my homework or not, I just knew I had to write verses. I kept pouring my love into my writing and today it is rewarding me. When I first came to Mumbai from Madhya Pradesh — it was a like a dream. And I am so lucky to have received so much love here from everyone. I don’t miss home now.)
SlowCheeta: I want to make music that I can listen to after 20 years and not be embarrassed by it. To be involved with people like these, some of the people I have admired all my life — I think we’ve taken it for granted because we are like family now (laughs). This feels like home, doesn’t feel like work.
As artists, where do you see this venture going and what are you expectations and goals?
SlowCheeta: It’s a big opportunity and a big platform. And it’s unadulterated material that we are getting to put out. About the future, with IncInk, obviously there’s a standard that is set and it [“Zeher”] doesn’t feel like a Kaam Bhaari song, it feels like sab ka gaana hai. (It feels our song). The idea is to play the game and also change the game a little bit. I feel there’s a lot of potential and scope for hip-hop right now but it also feels like everyone’s doing the same thing. So, the idea is to have an individual personality, a very different take, or get our stories out there in a different way and maintain the standard that the label has already set.
“The idea is to play the game and also change the game a little bit.” – SlowCheeta
Kaam Bhaari: Aur gaane ab hum likhte rahenge. Phir nikalte rahenge. (We will keep writing songs and releasing them.)
Spitfire: Hum log bhi gaano par kaam kar rahe hain. Expectations se kaafi upar hai. Aage jo bhi hum release karenge, hum chahte hain ki jo vision hum leke chal rahe hain, wohi vision hum aage logo ko batate rahe. (We are currently working on our songs. Everything so far has exceeded our expectations. We want to stay true to the vision of the label). And thanks to our team for believing in us — nothing is diluted and they help us in shaping our songs just the way we like.
“The one thing I have learnt from hip-hop is to respect each other.” – Spitfire
You three definitely seem to derive a unique strength as a combine. How important is it for you guys to come together as a collective force, and for the artist community generally to organize themselves?
SlowCheeta: If you ask me, this is a very valid question because in every performing art, there’s competition. Healthy competition is always good but among us, bhaichaara itna hai ki competition ka sawaal hi nahi uthta. (There’s only brotherhood and no question of competition amongst us!). I think it’s very important because tomorrow if I write a song or if Kaam or Spit write a song, we bounce it off each other and we know that the other person will give feedback that is very valuable. On the other hand, backstabbing each other will pull us down rather than help us fly.
Spitfire: For me, mere liye Chaitnya pehle hai aur SlowCheeta baad mein hai. Kunal mere liye Kaam Bhaari baad mein hai aur Kunal pehle hai. So hum logo ka ek doosre ke liye personal nazariya pehle aata hai. Hum log bhai pehle hai aur artist baad mein hai. Mere liye aisa hi hai. Aap Kaam se bhi pooch sakte hain, Cheeta se pooch sakte hai. Mujhe ek aur cheez hip-hop se seekhne ko mili hai. Ki hip-hop mein ek doosre ki respect karna humesha se chala aa raha hai.
(For me, Chaitnya and Kunal are friends first and rappers later. We value our personal bonds. We are like brothers. This is how it is for me. Hip-hop has taught me to respect everyone.)
What are the themes that you want to address in your songs and music right now —and what are the things that you think are missing in Indian hip-hop?
SlowCheeta: I feel a lot of rappers are talking about some very important issues but they aren’t getting heard. The first phase of hip-hop right now is main (the self) – the introduction.
Everyone is talking about themselves – main aisa hoon, main waisa hoon, main yahan ka rehne waala hoon, main gully ka hoon. (Who I am, where I am from, where I live). It’s great but I feel the phase of introductions is over.
Photographer: Abheet Gidwani
On Ranveer Singh
Hair by Darshan Yewalekar
Makeup by Mahadev Naik
Styled by Nitasha Gaurav
On Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire and SlowCheeta
Fashion Editor Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair by Faheem Shaikh
Makeup by Laxmikanta Vaishnav
All accessories by Platinum Jewellery for Men
Trousers by Scotch and Soda
Shoes by Adidas Originals
Jacket and joggers by adidas Originals
T- Shirt by Calvin Klein
On Kaam Bhaari
Denims by Jack & Jones
Shoes by Onitsuka Tiger