Raftaar: ‘I’m a Paradox In This Industry’
The hip-hop artist talks about the release of his full-length album ‘Mr. Nair,’ why he doesn’t want to play a hero in a movie and how Indian rap can go global
Stuck in Mumbai due to the ongoing national lockdown, hip-hop artist Raftaar is not entirely unhappy but he wishes he was back home in New Delhi with family, his puppies and his studio at his beckoning. “It would’ve been different,” he says over the phone.
A lot would have been different if Raftaar had his way, considering he released his new album Mr. Nair last month, following up 2018’s Zero to Infinity. There were singles released beforehand like “Main Wahi Hoon,” getting Bengaluru-based rapper Brodha V on the mic for “Naachne ka Shaunq” and calling on his label Kalamkaar’s signee KRSNA for “Damn” all released via Zee Music, who have also released Mr. Nair. But Raftaar wanted this to be an album and he’s specifically leaving songs to have their own life, without being given the video treatment that many artists often indulge in, especially when they have label money. He says, “As an artist, we want to make each song count and not necessarily by giving it a single treatment or putting out a video for every song. For example, a song like ‘Proud’ or ‘Down,’ I’m expressing what’s in my heart. I started off as a writer and a rapper, so the core intention is to put everything in my heart out there for people to hear it.”
In his ambitious pursuit of creating a no-skips album, Mr. Nair is woven through personal stories and journeys of the rapper, producer and in this case, what Raftaar dubs “a director.” He explains, “I was directing the entire journey. From the last album to this one and the singles in between, the importance has been on learning. Self-dependency has to increase as well.” Speaking to Rolling Stone India right after the launch of the album online, Raftaar gets candid about film roles, working in Lisbon with producer-DJ Tom Enzy and Indian hip-hop’s global appeal. Excerpts:
Why do you believe in full-length albums?
Because of the legacy. We’re old-school people, we come from the era of CDs and cassettes. What were cassettes? They were treasures for people. They’re still safe. Nothing in the digital world is going to remain for a long time… a server can crash or anything else can happen. I just wanted to leave a legacy behind.
Which album was a no-skips album you would hear from start to finish that made you realize the importance of a full-length?
I have heard every album by The Game, every album by Eminem, I’ve heard Hybrid Theory and Meteora, Linkin Park was incredible. Sean Paul ka The Trinity bohot sunta tha. All these albums had so much to them – there was hardcore rap, fun rap, there was serious stuff, harsh rock and metal. Chester [Bennington, vocalist] was such an ideal vocalist, man. In fact, my first introduction to rap was Linkin Park’s ‘In The End’ with Mike Shinoda. I was rhyming ever since I was a kid, not knowing it was rap. I would just rhyme stuff for fun and send it to my mom or write it down, because it fascinated me. When I heard ‘In The End’ and Mike Shinoda’s part, I thought, ‘Dude! He’s rhyming and I do the same!’
I keep saying it’s very necessary for you to be a wannabe in the beginning, because that is when you want to be in life. Learning over time is the only thing that will take away this wannabe phase.
How did you connect with Tom Enzy and get him to work on this record?
I went to Portugal. I didn’t want to do anything too cliched. I went to the U.S. too. I’ve gone through the process of composing it, arranging it, playing the keys or adding drums. So to not have any block, to give it a new touch and angle I went to Portugal. One of my associates Vivek, who works in the company, got in touch with Tom. I’d produced ‘Delhi Wali Batcheet’ and sent it to him and Tom improved it. He added a bassline and put a little swing on the drums, he understood my vision.
People like different styles of hip-hop. Some people like the Neptunes-style organic hip-hop, woh Pharrell wala style. Some like Timbaland style, or Swizz Beatz, or drunken drums like J. Dilla. Tom understood me as a family-loving guy, so he invited me home and had dinner and met his daughter who was a few months old.
So you get to learn so much. When you sit between people who are very good at their craft, you absorb and learn a lot. We bonded so much, we’re like family right now. In around 10 days, we made eight songs.
You mention in “Delhi Wali Baatcheet” that you got offered roles in films. Does that still happen?
I have got plenty, especially from the Punjabi movie industry also. I’ve got roles and we’d spoken about it, but the thing is, I’ve never had the intention of being the hero (in a film). Mereko hero banna hi nahi hai. I’d love to do a character role. I’ve done a bit of theater, school-vool mein play wagera kiya, so woh interest tha.
But the roles I got offered were somewhat cliched roles and typecast me. Ki ‘Aap ek rapper play karenge and aur uska aisa hota hai.’ I didn’t want to do that, because I’m doing that in real life anyhow. (Laughs) Agar kuch accha hota… if that rapper in the role was doing something that I associate with, I would have definitely do it. Waisa wala scene hai.
“Main Wahi Hoon” is sort of self-deprecatory at times, which you don’t see a lot of Indian rappers do. Is it because they’re afraid of making fun of themselves?
It’s about being honest. You don’t need to think twice about your pride or ego or anything. Dekho ego aur self-esteem mein bas thoda halka sa margin rehta hai. With me, self-esteem is about being honest. When I’d started working on the album, the intention was to create every song different from the other one. I didn’t want any two songs to be the same.
It’s not like I got a box and I had to fill in the contents. I wanted to create different jars which had different labels on them for people to enjoy. It’s also my duty to pull in people towards hip-hop by giving them what they like and then they start listening to what we have to offer. That’s a good way to offer.
When I did ‘Main Wahi Hoon’ – my best friends are the still the same guys from Standard II – that has never changed. Those guys wouldn’t have supported me back in the day. I was a South Indian, we had a lot of bullies and these guys were always out there for me. I had to give them back the love. They’re still very dear to me. I was still speaking to one of them just 10 minutes ago, in fact.
There’s something hidden about the track in that we were four best friends and we lost one of our besties in 2011 in a car accident. He’s in a happy place. I was in Dance India Dance when this happened, as a contestant. I didn’t have the money or no resources to run back to him. I wouldn’t have been able to do anything, but I could have been there. That makes a difference. Every time I do a song about friends, I’m actually quoting this friend but I don’t mention it.
“Drama” has a bit of a Latin music vibe, kind of like what’s topped the charts recently. There’s a lot of talk about how Indian hip-hop can be the next global thing just like Latin music. What do you think?
(Laughs) ‘Drama’ is not dedicated to anybody, it’s just a created vision of how I always like independent women. Every song I’ve done in that vein, I leave subliminal messages. Fun song banao but bina kisiko demean karke. They will feel empowered and if they like that track, they’ll move on to the next one. It might be very different for them but I think they’ll diversify their tastes and hip-hop will gain more audiences.
There is no language barrier. As long as the language sounds melodic, it’s going to play. Before J Balvin and all these guys blew up in the world, the language that people knew was [Panjabi MC’s 1997 bhangra hit] ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ – people used to jump on it, because it’s melodic. They don’t know the lyrics, but they know how it goes. It’s the same thing that can happen in Indian hip-hop too.
We can offer two things: the hospitality we’re famous for and these guys are not used to it. They’re used to just being professional and not anyone saying, ‘Welcome, do you wanna eat or drink or something?’ Secondly, we can give these guys the numbers they want. Nobody can touch us in numbers in the world. This is the only plus we can get from it.
You reunited with Manj Musik for “Superman,” about six years after “Swag Mera Desi.” What has your association been like in these years?
He’s like an elder brother to me, or almost a father figure. I don’t have any problem in acknowledging somebody for who they are for me. Manj paaji in the initial days supported me and showed me the way of how I can produce. Sitting with him, I got the gist of how I can produce something commercial as well. It rubs off on you.
We could have easily done a commercial track or another one like ‘Swag Mera Desi’ but growing up and ageing, doing something legendary like that song – people know me for that song – I wanted something that could be a tribute to my elders. Like, I wanted to say thank you to my mom. Everybody keeps saying, ‘Baby main tera Superman ban jaunga’ or ‘You’re my Lois Lane.’ I’m my mom’s superman, because she made me who I am today.
When we made that track, it was actually about a girl, I changed it to being about a mother. It was a joint effort and when it came out, everybody loved it. Funnily, it’s the first time I’ve received no negative response for songs off the album.
Mr. Nair was released with Zee Music – how do you navigate these kind of deals when you you’re your own label, Kalamkaar?
I’m a paradox in this industry, honestly. Either there are independent artists, or there are artists signed to a label. I’m an independent artist signed to a label.
Nobody stops me from releasing Kalamkaar stuff, nobody stops me from putting my own stuff out via Kalamkaar or my own page. Brands, labels… all of them have allowed my YouTube page to grow as well. But now they’ve given me the freedom and attached themselves to my music channel. When you go to my YouTube channel, you might think I’ve re-uploaded some songs but it’s not like that. That is the kind of equation you need to have.
When you sign to a label, you’re making a business deal and you need to get them profits. While you give them profits, you can use the rest of your resources to put out what you like. Your ends and their ends meet and you can create opportunities.
It’s about creating a sustainable environment. We do advance royalty deals with labels. We get that money that we can invest in videos and audio but what I do, along with that money and what I get from shows, we can channelize it in a way where we can support these guys (through Kalamkaar) as well as put our music out. If people call it being a sell-out, I can say that I had to be a partial sellout so that these other boys don’t need to. But I don’t feel like I’m a sellout.