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MC Heam’s Afterschool of Hip-Hop

The rapper talks about the artists of Dharavi, the precariousness of the Indian hip-hop scene, working with A.R. Rahman and more

Jessica Xalxo May 20, 2019

Meet MC Heam aka Hemant Dhyani - India's first freestyle rapper. Photo: Courtesy of the artist

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If you didn’t go to a private school in Mumbai, the walls of this classroom will ring familiar. There are tiny etchings on the wooden benches, minuscule enough to go unnoticed, while a green chalkboard hangs empty, waiting for the first inklings of writing to meet it. There’s a strange power thrumming through the place, a vibrancy at odds with the dark stories that dominate the narrative of Dharavi. Here, in the classroom of The Dharavi Dream Project, you learn that there is power in the spoken, especially when the words are paired with a beat.

Co-founded by digital media firm Qyuki and Universal Music India, The Dharavi Dream Project is the epicenter of the neighborhood’s youth cultural scene, offering classes across hip-hop’s elements of breakdancing, beatboxing, rapping, emceeing and graffiti art. We’re here to participate in a lesson of the rap branch of the school’s hip-hop wing, led by freestyle rapper MC Heam aka Hemant Dhyani.

There’s a good chance you’ve heard him belting bars on the “Marvel Anthem,” the 2018 “Jai Hindi India” hockey World Cup anthem and “Eyy Chhote Moto Chala” from the Bollywood film Beyond The Clouds. Having worked with the legendary music director and composer A.R. Rahman on all three songs, the rapper knows a thing or two about improvisation, crediting the maestro for honing his artistry and discipline.

Class is in session at the afterschool of hip-hop.

His crew (as he likes to call his students) started small with only 2 children in 2017, growing to a force of 30 spitfire rappers today. Afzal (MC Sky), Franky (MC Younglord), Joshua (MC Josh), Siddhu (MC Siddhu), Kritesh (MC Bunny) and Anish file into the classroom eagerly, taking their seats. MC Heam then proceeds to engage them in drills on how to design a track, questioning their placements of verse, bridge and hook, while simultaneously engaging the kids in a pop-quiz on hip-hop theory. It’s safe to say that this crew has all their bases covered.

MC Heam with his crew at The Dharavi Dream Project. (From left to right) MC Siddhu, MC Younglord, MC Josh, Anish, MC Bunny and MC Sky.

In this interview with Rolling Stone India, MC Heam talks about the beginnings of the regional rap scene in India, mentoring the future of hip-hop and the effect of Bollywood on the genre. Excerpts:

Your journey has been more than 12 years in the making. From the Slumgods of Khirki Extension (New Delhi), to Slumgods Mumbai, to The Dharavi Dream Project and Bollywood. What made you want to stay in Mumbai?

Main 28 ka tha jab main idhar aaya tha 2017 mein (I was 28-years-old when I came to Mumbai in 2017.) Ek hi hafta hua tha Mumbai mein and then Dolly Rateshwar ma’am, my manager called me for a meeting (It had been only a week in Mumbai when I received a call from Dolly Rateshwar who is now my Manager at Qyuki.) She said, “We have a job opening for a rapper. Kyonki hum logon ko ye section bhi kholna hai (because we want to open this section too) at The Dharavi Dream Project. Agar hum hip-hop sikhayenge toh hum pura hi sikhayenge (We will teach all of hip-hop or none of it.”)

Ek mahina hua, do mahina hua (Months passed) and I started loving it because I was earning my hardwork’s money. Meri aadat pad gayi and then bacchon ke saath chill karte karte, kaam karte karte (But soon coming here became a habit and after chilling and working with the children,) I became responsible and then I realized that actually, I’m a teacher. At the same time, working with the children was a beautiful experience for me. Main shaayad isi ke liye bana tha (Maybe this is what I was born for.) Isliye maine shaayad music bhi seekha tha (Maybe they are why I learned music too) and that’s how my teaching job started. I’m looking at it as my future job and I love it ‘cause this is what I know.

I want to make this place and the kids big — for them and for me also.

Where do you want to see your students go in the future?

They are amazing writers and some kids are amazing when they go onto the stage. Once they go out into the world, I think they will create great music. Abhi bhi woh hi kar rahe hai (That’s exactly what they’re doing now too.)

And mera plan inko bahar lekar jaane ka hai (My plan is to take them places). Agar mera international laga na (If I get the chance to tour internationally or work on overseas projects), some of these kids are going with me. They are more like my crew and not my students. I treat them like they’re my crew.

And within one or two months, I’ll release their tracks and I’ll sing in their tracks too (gestures to Afzal, Joshua and Franky.)

So we can look forward to tracks from MC Sky, MC Josh and MC Younglord in the very near future?

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Will MC Heam feature in these songs too?

I am like they will feature me in their songs. They are going to feature me. I was also planning to work with them on a track I’m planning. So yes, this is the plan and mujhe inko best se best sound dena hai (I want to give them the best sound).

What kind of stereotypes do the kids face because they come from Dharavi?

Mujhe yeh cheez sabse ganda lagta hai jab log kehte hai ki (I hate that this happens and when people say,) “Arre yeh Dharavi se hai (Oh they’re from Dharavi.”) There are a lot of people who are struggling in their life to be something. Koi bhi ho sakta hai — raeez baap ka baccha bhi, jhopde mein rehna wala baccha bhi (Anybody could be struggling — a rich man’s child and even a child who lives in a hut). I had  everything in my house but I wanted to learn something. So yeh mereko ek woh cheez hatana hai (So, this is something I want to put an end to.) People should treat them like an artist. I tell the kids, “Tum jaa rahe ho na, [yaad rakho] (You are going there, remember,) you are an artist. Tu bahut bada hai (You are big). Tujhe joh judge kar raha hai, uske mooh par bol (Whoever is judging you, say to their face) – don’t look at me like this.”

Dharavi is just a place. Main isse bure, isse bhi gande mahol main raha hoon (I’ve lived in worse and even dirtier environments than here.) But you know people, for the marketing, made it so ki arre Dharavi hai, gareebi hai (that if it’s Dharavi, it’s about poverty.) Aapki soch badi haina, aap wahi ameer ho (If your thinking is rich, you’re rich.) Yes, these kids have a struggle. But they have something good in them too. They are business minded. They can create amazing content.  Yeh sab cheez na main in baccho ke liye nahi chahta hoon ki koi unpe Dharavi ka stamp maarle (I don’t want for a stamp of Dharavi to cast a shadow over the kids.)

What does Bollywood’s representation of the genre mean for the future of Indian hip-hop?

It’s like yin and yang. Kisi bhi cheez ka accha bhi hai aur bura bhi hai (there’s a good and bad side to everything.) 2011 and 2012 mein, Mumbai ka metal scene bahut accha tha, rock bands ka bahut naam hota tha (Remember how in 2011 and 2012, Mumbai’s metal scene was big and the rock bands were famous?) But since the time rock came into the Bollywood, rock khatam ho gaya (But since the genre entered Bollywood, rock ended in India.) Woh genre hi nahi raha hai, aur woh jo baja rahe hai bilkul underground ho gaye hai (It’s now underground.) They get the gig aur paanch logon ko paisa pay dena hota hai, samajh rahe ho? Aur ek yahan pe rap ke scene mein kya hota hai? Ek aadmi ko paisa pay karna hai bas. Toh woh prefer karte hai rap artists (Gigs are being passed on to rap artists because payment has to be given to one artist, as opposed to five artists or more in the case of rock bands.) Aur now rap is into the Bollywood, mereko yehi dar lagta hai ki dheere dheere kahi rap bhi vanish na ho jaaye (And now rap has entered Bollywood and I’m scared that it will vanish.)

Chal firke marketing business nahi leke aata asli rap ke liye (Because at the end of the day, even marketing doesn’t bring in business for real rap.)

Bollywood mein don tarike ke rappers chalte hai (Bollywood can work with only two kinds of rappers.) Ek joh dikhaata hai ki uske paas bahut kuch hai. So he’s selling a lifestyle, a rich lifestyle (One is who presents a rich and powerful lifestyle.) Doosra hota hai woh — jo yahan use hota hai — ki aaccha ladka gareeb hai and uski struggle ke vajah se woh pahuncha hai success tak (The other is one who — think of the marketing that is employed for musicians from Dharavi — is poor and has achieved success due to his immense struggle.) Toh Bollywood lifestyle bechne wala scene hai and I hope uski vajah se kuch bura na ho (So, Bollywood is a scene where lifestyles are sold and I hope that this does not affect people negatively.) But accha yeh hua hai ki ab logon ko pata chal gaya hai ki rap kya hai aur log rap kar rahe hai (On the positive side, more and more people now understand rap and many have begun to rap too.)

Apart from theory and performance, is there any other learning ritual that you employ in your classes at The Dharavi Dream Project?

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During class, I start [rap] battling with the kids.

Chalo mere se karo, mereko haraun (Battle with me, try and make me lose.) I have a little thing in me which they don’t, but I let them know ki tere paas bhi woh cheez hai andar jo mere paas nahi hai (that they also have something unique in them which I don’t.) So every time they lose hope, woh mere se puchte hai ki (they ask me that,) “Sir, kuch ho payega (Sir, can anything happen for us?”) and main bolta hoon ki tum logon ke paas ek alag hi cheez hai, woh dhundon, sab set ho jayega (and I tell the kids that each of them has something within them that sets them apart – find that and they’ll be set for life.)

I also tell them to not focus on being famous, focus on what you can create.

What do you look to cultivate in your classes?

Aap dekhte hai na, gaana jab bajta hai toh musicians vibe kaise karte hai (You’ve seen how when a song plays, a musician vibes to it?) They give their energy to you and then you feel it. In the same manner, musicians give energy to other musicians to create something. Sabse pehla mera yeh test hota hai ki (My first test is) are they vibing with each other. Once they do, sikhaane ki zaroorat hi nahi hoti (there’s no need to teach.) Woh khud aate hai (They come forward themselves.) After that, mera job start hota hai ki uske vocals pe kaam karoon, iska bass clear karna hai, yeh kya hai, yeh tune kyon likha hai, iska lyrics theek karna, usne yeh word galat likha hai, koi word ko double-time pe kaise likhna hai, waise (After that my job starts — his vocals need work, his bass isn’t clear, finding out why he wrote the tune he did, he has written this word incorrectly, how to write a word in double-time and so on.) Tab mera technical cheez chaalu hota hai (That’s when I get into the technical nitty gritties.) But first, jo baith gaya, woh seekh gaya (who sits, they learn.) Jiske andar patience aa gaya na (They have to be patient enough to learn) — because it takes time, everything takes time. So yeh mera school ka aisa hai (That’s how I run my class.)

How important do you think having a mentor is when pursuing a career in hip-hop?

It’s very necessary. Mere paas hota toh main bahut upar hota abhi (If I had a mentor, I would’ve reached the heights of success.) Koi Hindi rap nahi karta tha baara saal pehle (Nobody used to rap in Hindi twelve years ago.) I’m from the first generation that started the Hindi rap. Main Hindi mein freestyle karta tha sabse pehle (I’m the first kid who used to do freestyle Hindi rap.) I knew Hindi and it was the language I was comfortable in. One should only rap in the language that they are comfortable in.

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