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Hook, Line and Swagger: MC Kaur

How Mumbai-based rapper Manmeet Kaur became one of the most outspoken Indian hip-hop artists with her blistering debut ‘Hip Hop Bahu’

Kenneth Lobo Aug 19, 2015
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"Hip Hop Bahu" Manmeet Kaur. Photo by Prashin Jagger

“Hip Hop Bahu” Manmeet Kaur. Photo by Prashin Jagger

Is this an oscar-worthy moment? Punjab University, 2005. At an all-boys house competition, with parents, siblings and teachers in attendance, there’s a pause between the performances. The host attempts to plug the fidgety silence. He asks if anyone in the audience might care to put their talent on display. Up springs this nerdy 15-year-old; her mother sits her down. All she says is, “Mom, please!” When she’s done rapping her original verse, everyone in the 1,000-strong audience breaks into applause. Everyone, except her parents.

Twenty-three-year old Manmeet Kaur tells her story in the 13th floor bedroom-cum-studio of a producer trio in North Mumbai. The room is traffic jammed with analog gear [synths like Access Virus and Dave Smith Mopho rest alongside the Doepfer A-100 modular system] and Kaur is laying down the vocals for a woozy, off-kilter house tune. Today, the ovation is flying in from all corners of the globe for her debut album, Hip Hop Bahu, a lushly produced 11-track journey through what it means to be an independent married woman operating in the world of hip-hop in India.

In India’s hip-hop pond, Kaur’s conscious rap explores familiar hip-hop tropes like lashing out on wack MCs and misogynists, shout-outs to artists working in the genre [famous Indian graffiti artist Zake aka Prathmesh Gurav appears on “Life of a Writer” and Bgirl Amby (Ambarin Kadri) from Mumbai-based Roc Fresh Crew is referenced in “Art Saviours”] and a nod to her influences, including Detroit rapper J Dilla, whose spirit hangs over every tune.

“Dilla had soul in every beat,” says Kaur. Not surprisingly, her album kicks off with “Made Love to J Dilla That Night.” The lyrics portray an artist confident in her own abilities [“Mumbai pori hit it/ Straight up /Arrived on the stage/Sudden eargasmic wave upon all people/Shaking their asses /Up on his African rhythms”] and writing material that’s sincere and openly acknowledges her sexuality, [“Made love to hip-hop that night / Nobody in the crowd knew what it was like/ I was wet down there/ While I was acting all right.”] all in an idiom fashioned by her experiences from Chandigarh to Chennai via Mumbai.

[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lppAUDFynY0[/youtube]

Her mother features frequently in narration, in equal amounts as friend and foe. “My mother was like that wife you cannot divorce,” she says. “If you do, you’re losing a lot of money. She imposed a lot of stuff on me. I was always at home. She wouldn’t even allow me to go my cousin’s  place to stay over. It was school, home, tutorials, home. When I started doing this [getting into hip-hop], I’d take her phone, download an instrumental and record my vocals and create melodies or hooks. If I was caught, it was like being caught with a boyfriend.”

In this controlled environment, Kaur stumbled into hip-hop. “In Chandigarh, I was a dreamer,” says Kaur. “What I had to talk about was the electricity going off. And which relative would be visiting to loathe me. She thought I was into boys and sucked at studies, both true. The only thing there was equality in at home was beatings. It didn’t matter if you were a girl or a boy, you beat them.” Leaving earlier than scheduled for school, she’d sneak into the nearest cyber cafe and surf the internet to discover the world outside. “I remember the first time I typed the words hip hop and KRS One into Google and checked the Wikipedia entry,” she says. “I was like, ”˜Fuck! This is what I should do every day.’ My mom’s phone’s memory card had room enough for one instrumental. I would prepare a song, download an instrumental, set it aside. And then repeat the process all over again.”

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It’s little wonder that Hip-Hop Bahu’s most somber track, “See You Rise,” is pointed at both her mother and Chandigarh’s equally misogynistic hip-hop crews. The explosion of MCs in the city can be traced to American- Indian rapper Bohemia’s [Roger David] 2002 album Vich Pardesan De [In a Foreign Land] and his 2006 follow-up full-length album Pesa Nasha Pyar [Money, Intoxication, Love]. In the same year, the Desi Beam crew reached out to Kaur, asking her to join their collective.

The teenager rejected the offer, for practical and in hindsight, professional reasons. “I didn’t want to be in a crew knowing the fact that I was not good enough to represent anything,” she says. “I was pretty honest with myself and with them. When I can’t download beats, can’t perform, can’t do a photoshoot, when I don’t have an exposure to hip-hop, how can I be hip-hop? They thought I was creating a [higher] standard for myself.” she says. Kaur’s relationship with one of the crew members, which eventually fizzled, also complicated matters, resulting in testosterone- fueled character assassination. It didn’t help that a close friend with her Facebook password also sent out lewd messages to musicians and promoters across Chandigarh.

The backlash followed her to Mumbai, where she moved in 2011 to study at National College in Bandra. Greeted as a ”˜bitch and whore,’ Kaur found membership to the Young MCs Association tough to come by. At her first performance at a terrace in suburban Mumbai, the male-dominated crowd of 20 refused to make way for her to get on stage. The politicking and the petty feuds further steeled her resolve.

What Mumbai gave in return was everything that she expected, and more. Dedicated internet access [“I filtered the hip-hop out of YouTube for a year”], access to unlimited arts and culture events [“I went alone to anything listed in the papers”] and kindred hip-hop spirits in BGirl Amby, Los Angeles-based rapper Mandeep Sethi and hip-hop DJ Uri. Kadri invited her to join Cypherholics, an open jam for boys in the city, and by extension, introduced her to the larger hip-hop family in the city.

The two got along famously and bonded over being outsiders in the scene. “I had never heard an Indian female MC,” says Kadri. “And she’s passionate about hip-hop. Whether it’s a girl or a guy is irrelevant to me, the person should be hardworking, give it all for the culture and keep it real. People’s reactions are mixed when it comes to Manmeet because of her outspoken nature, which is fine, at least she isn’t faking it.” Sethi, who Kaur had befriended online from her days in Chandigarh, pushed the MC to work on her skills. He encouraged her to look outside the box, to make connections with rappers from America. Seven of the 11 tracks on Hip-Hop Bahu are produced by beat-makers in California ”” from the Chamber Records crew in San Gabriel to Kazi from LA hip-hop legend Madlib’s Lootpack crew, the latter a major coup for the artist.

Coincidentally, Sethi was also in Mumbai the same year Kaur moved, and invited her to perform at a now-defunct club in the city. That show changed her life. “I, kind of, eloped with my pen drive,” she says. In a cathartic moment, she unleashed the angst of her repressive upbringing. “I told my mom – I’m either coming back at 2am or I’m never coming back home. She was scared. But when I got back, both my parents beat the shit out of me.” The incident made Kaur “shameless.” For the next four years wrote 35 songs, and most importantly, sourcing beats from international producers.

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[youtube width=”640″ height=”480″]https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJvpMXN_bvY[/youtube]

Mumbai also handed the MC a get-out-of-jail card in the form of Bigg Nikk [Nikhil Padmanabh]. The Chennai-based co-founder of the M.W.A [Machas With Attitude] rap crew befriended Kaur after a performance at Worli’s Hard Rock Cafe in 2011. He was smitten by her take-no-prisoners attitude and brutal honesty. After a two-year courtship, they married to escape her parents. “I knew if this is what I have to do for my freedom, then it is what it is,” she says. “We thought about a live-in relationship, but then our families wouldn’t be all right with that.”

Nikk is Kaur’s biggest critic but also a pillar of support. “Another Old Monk Day” is a laid-back, rum-doused celebration of their friendship [“I poured myself a large in/ Slightly above the margin/ Moment I grabbed my first sip/ My husband barged in/ certified alcoholics/ They call us”]. In typical fashion, rappers began tumbling over each other to welcome Kaur to the fold. “It’s fucked up how people started respecting me just because I got married,” she says. “I don’t want to be associated with people who were not with me when I was alone. Now that it looks like I have Bigg Nikk behind me, fuck Bigg Nikk that way, Manmeet is Manmeet.”

Fresh challenges included moving to Chennai in 2013 and for the first time, getting a taste of corporate life, working in the customer service department for a resort company. On “Post Wedding Blues,” Kaur recalls the year-and-a-half when “All day/ Every day/ I’m settling”. On a stringinf lected, melancholic beat, she raps, “I explore relationships/ I know I just can’t quit/ So I relax a bit/ Make myself to fit/ In the situation of high expectations/ I don’t wanna mess it up/ I bless shit/ With a smile on my face.” The track is closest to her heart, and she says it “inspires me to stay me”.

But Hip-Hop Bahu would never have seen the light of day, if it wasn’t for Dee MC from Mumbai. The female MC dissed Kaur on a track: “Calling yourself hip hop bahu / Please, I’m hip hop’s daughter / Turning brothers into foes / That’s what happens / When man meet’s a ho.” Her friends, furious with the accusations, egged her to return the favour. “Instead of responding, I started finalizing beats and verses,” says Kaur.

Kaur packed a bag full of clothes and another full of instruments and headed to Delhi last year to finish the album. The rapper gave herself a month’s time to wrap it up. But before she left, she turned in her resignation at the corporate office she worked at. Recalls Kaur, “The head of the department said, ”˜It’s too early for you to quit on all this. But it’s okay.’ I told him, ”˜You know, sir, the great die young. And I can’t afford to not do this. I’ll meet you when I’m famous.’” Perhaps that is the Oscar-winning scene.

Manmeet Kaur will take the stage at this month’s edition of Pepsi MTV Indies Ribbit on August 20th, 9p.m. onwards.

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