On the Cover: Prabh Deep, India’s Most Fearless Rapper
New Delhi’s moshpit-starting, soul-searching star is now thinking beyond hip-hop in 2020
On Christmas Day, Prabh Deep premiered the video for “Amar,” a super-smooth horn section-aided track in which he’s actually talking about preparing for his death, his soul’s journey to immortality and even a fleeting reference to the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.
He outlines the most important things to him in life on the song: “Iss duniya ch pehla pariwar mera/Duji meri neend mainu pyaari/Teeja mera kamm naale/Chauthi meri maut jiddi kara mai tyaari.” Family, sleep, work and a death he’s preparing for – that’s perhaps where the New Delhi-based firebrand hip-hop artist and producer’s priorities lie at this juncture. Despite the reference to ’84, there’s a separate album (tentatively called 84-18) that he’s working on, whereas his latest EP KING is “very personal.” He adds, “I got bored of rap, man. I wanted to try some soul and I suck at it, but I’m still trying. I’m not scared of experimenting and changing my sound. Some artists they’re really scared of changing their sound, because they fear they’ll lose their audience. With me, it’s different. Whenever I change my sound, I gain a new audience.”
Recently turned 26, Prabh Deep was heralded as the next big thing in 2017 itself, when he and producer Sez On The Beat worked together on the former’s debut album Class-Sikh, the first big release on New Delhi/Mumbai-headquartered label Azadi Records. He might be a total braggart and ready to throw down on songs like “G Maane” and “Suno” off Class-Sikh – which even won him the Toto Funds the Arts Music Award in 2018 – but Prabh’s socially conscious verses and stance taken on issues like drug abuse and the world’s increasingly right wing bent has been a much-needed elbow to the face of mainstream (and largely superficial) Punjabi music. He leveled up in 2019, from start to finish. With the One Eight Project at Bira91’s April Fools Fest in New Delhi early last year, a live band featuring saxophone, drums and singers made the rapper think beyond just beats and words. With help from synth-bass artist Hashbass aka Harshit Misra, keyboardist Archit Anand and more, songs like “Amar” and “Maya” began to show off Prabh’s production chops, which leaned on soul, R&B and pop. In July came his collaboration with Srinagar rapper-producer Ahmer and Sez, “Elaan.”
One of the most important songs of 2019 that almost foretold the ongoing lockdown in Kashmir, Prabh Deep proved why he’s one of the country’s most fearless rappers with his verse. He questions, “Apne aap kolo puch/Twaade dil vich paida kitti kinne nafrat?” (Ask yourself, who created such hatred in your heart?) KING was mellower than this, but it didn’t stop Prabh Deep from pulling no punches on the closing title track, in which he mixes references to Pokémon as well as Indian prime minister Narendra Modi and U.S. president Donald Trump. He says with a laugh when he’s asked about it: “I love to mix and match and bringing two different cultures together and see how people react to it.”
Excerpts from the exclusive interview:
When you’re producing and rapping and in control of it all, how much self-doubt is involved in that process?
There is no such thing as self-doubt for me, particularly. I know when a song is not finished yet, so I’m not going to put it out. That’s the only thing… the next album is a solo project and I’m mixing and mastering it. I learned how to play keys, synth-bass and all that stuff. Self-doubt toh nahi hota, so I keep working on songs until I know it’s finished.
The title track off KING opens with Pokémon references and Modi-Trump references. What is your thought flow in terms of pop culture references and tying them together?
(Laughs) I love to mix and match and bringing two different cultures together and see how people react to it. People reacted to it pretty crazily. The same people who like Pokémon are the same people who don’t like Modi (laughs). I thought, ‘These two things are my favorite!’ That was my whole point. You see what’s happening in the country right now and it’s pretty fucked up. I’ve said it, like, six months ago, what’s happening now.
There’s a soul music influence on KING and I think that goes well with how philosophical you get on this record. What’s the objective?
I feel like when people change from within, there’ ll be a bigger change in society as well. If you change someone’s mentality with your songs, just on a personal level, then there can be a bigger change in society as well. People start thinking differently. Have you seen that with people who come up to you after shows? For sure, man. People come up and say things like, ‘We used to support BJP’ and ‘We had fucked-up opinions.’ But after understanding somebody else’s perspective, they have a clearer mind about what’s right and wrong. Shit really changes.
In addition to your own stuff, you featured on “Elaan” by Ahmer. What was it like contributing to that song?
“Elaan” is a very close to my heart. I remember writing this verse in different locations – I was in Bombay one time with Uday [Kapur, Azadi Records co-founder] in a hotel. I wrote half of the verse there, I wrote another half in a metro when I saw uncles talking about politics and thought about how fucked-up their ideology is. I wrote some of it at home and at the studio. That’s why it came out so hard hitting and powerful. When Sez played the beat and I heard Ahmer’s verse, I was like, ‘Fuck, I need to add this verse to this song. This was meant for this song’. It fit perfectly. Ahmer and Sez had to stop me because I was writing too much. The original verse was much longer.
So there could be a part two of the song?
There could be an extended version of the song, with more from me and Ahmer.
Do you sit down and write every day?
Nah, man, I don’t follow that process at all. I don’t have any rapper processes and I don’t even consider myself as a rapper anymore because I just… I’m in a zone where I just sit down with my mic, hit record and spit. The thoughts come naturally to me and I sit down and write, but otherwise I don’t force myself to sit and say, ‘I have to finish this song today.’ If it’s coming from the inside and I really want to, then I’ll do it.
Amidst this constant cycle of touring, writing and recording, where do you feel most comfortable when you want to write something, whether it’s angry and even soul-searching?
I think it’s in my bedroom. I’ve had the opportunity to sit in a big-ass studio in different countries but when I come back home, this is my zone where I can just create. It just comes out naturally, I don’t have to think about any concepts or anything. The words just fit perfectly. I don’t have to worry about how people are going to react to it or how much money I’m going to make from it. The whole KING EP had songs close to my heart. It’s still very close to my heart, because everything I wrote, every word is straight from the heart, it’s coming from a real place.
Earlier this year, you had Beebay TV with [singer] Lit Happu and Sez, which was a riot in terms of taking down terrible desi hip-hop but also encouraging people to check out the good ones. What happened to it?
We stopped, we’re not doing it any more. Sez is going in a different direction, Happu is going in a different direction and so am I. We’re just focusing on our own stuff. It was fun while it was on. But you have to understand, we haven’t even tapped into one percent of the population right now [with our music]. We have to work hard and drop more music. Maybe when we get really famous, we’ll come back to this and then everything will be smoother.
People asked ‘Why are you making fun of other rappers?’
People aren’t open to ideas here. Like the Beebay thing, for example, it’s everywhere in the States – hip-hop runs on that funny shit. There is a comedy aspect to hip-hop as well, which is what people don’t understand in India. That’s what we tried to do but kaafi hate bhi mila usse [we got hate for it].
People were really hurt?
Yeah man, really butthurt. These guys were like, ‘Give me your address, I’ll come to your house.’ I’d say, ‘Here’s my address, come to my house and I’ll beat you up’ (laughs). People acted really funny, man.
You were trying to promote good rap too. You have this sub-label coming up soon. What was the starting point?
I always wanted to start my own thing. I was just waiting for the right time and for someone to sign. I was waiting for the opportunity. I had heard a lot of demos from a lot of artists, but I never clicked with any of it. But then I met this crazy soul/jazz singer Arshia Saxena from Bombay just last week. She blew my mind in the booth, I fell in love with her voice. She’s a reflection of me, in a sense, like how fast I work and how I am. I just go on the beat and kill it in one hour. That’s what she did in front of me and I was like, ‘Damn, this is crazy.’ I had to sign her. I signed her as soon as we finished the song. I told her the deal of sub-label and told her the plans I had and she was on-board. It’s really exciting for me. I’ve been talking to this girl and heard her stuff but wanted to see what she could do under pressure in the studio, because that’s where the main game is. She’s killed it there and that’s when I thought about signing her. There’s also Harjas Preet aka HRJS, who’s a rapper, I like him so much and I’d love to sign him. This is not a political, hip-hop space [with my label]. It’s a very soul, jazz scene. We’re taking it in a different direction.
You’re putting out material constantly. What side do you stand on? Rappers being prolific because people are following them, or taking time with a record?
I believe in both things. I believe in consistency. I’m really fast, I can make three songs in a day. I’ve done it and I can do it again. What I do is, I see the kind of projects that aren’t fitting into the record and put them out as singles. On top of that, I’m working on another record. The new one should be out in February or March. I’m still finishing a couple of songs. You have to keep making music. Some artists just put out two singles and make their fans wait, which is a cool thing to do and then drop an album. It could go wrong as well, though, when people wait for too long and then the album… (laughs) it’s a very tricky thing. People wait years for your album and then it’s just 30 minutes of the same shit you’ve been putting out before. What’s the point?
What has changed in terms of your live shows in the past year?
2019 has been a roller-coaster ride for me in terms of shows. The KING EP tour was perfect because that was our own production and everything was in our own control. When we got other shows, though, I realized there’s no structure in India when it comes to gigs. Nobody is solving any shit, everyone is going on with their own drama. There are certain rules to this, basic necessities for artists. Sometimes when it’s not fulfilled, it just pisses you off. Very little things, like when you’re on stage sound-checking for 40 minutes and you’re on the last five minutes of it and suddenly there’s feedback. It just pisses you off, because you’re like ‘Yo, I’ve been sound-checking for 45 minutes and this is the first thing you should do, cut the feedback.’ From now on, we made the decision that from Delhi only, we’re traveling with our own party, with a full crew. Otherwise, we’re not doing a show.
People might say you should be more accommodating.
Yeah man, but they don’t understand. I don’t want to do six shows a week. I want to do one show in a month and give people an experience. A good 90-minute set that people can go crazy and feel, ‘Oh shit, we saw something crazy today.’ Good production, good visuals and ambience, all these things matter to me, because people pay good money to see me and I don’t want that experience to go to waste. I have material for like two hours and 30 minutes. Name one rapper who has that much material.
And you’re ready to perform it?
Yeah of course, I’ll do it. I don’t like to sit on it. I have a third album coming out and a couple of singles, a few more collaborations. There’s lots of material that’s already out and the strangest part is people know the new songs too.
You also have a fashion line that’s about to start, called FLY. What can you tell me about that?
It’s not a clothing line or a merch kind of thing. It’s more of an artist thing, where there’s a designer on board and I’m getting into fashion now, competing with (brands like) Off-White, Supreme. My designer Shaurya Vir Singh and I, we manifested it for so long, we talk so often and knew we didn’t want to do it on a smaller scale. That’s the ideology we follow with music too – let’s go big and make it huge. That’s the reason when you check the analytics and the graph between October 2017 and December 2019 – from when Class-Sikh released to now – it blew my mind, to see the craziest growth in two years and it’s all organic. We didn’t spend a single penny on promotions. It’s going to be a proper brand. Kind of how you hear about Beats By Dre used by every artist in the West, we want to give out clothing to every artist in this country, release their music videos and support the system and make an economy out of it. Indian economy’s shit right now (laughs), so we want to bring this in.
Listen to Prabh Deep’s “Amar” below:
Prabh Deep photographed by Ashish Sahu for Rolling Stone India
Styled exclusively in UNITED COLORS OF BENETTON
Art Director: Tanvi Shah
Fashion Editor: Neelangana Vasudeva
Hair and makeup by Make Over By Anuj Dogra