Outta da hoods
TNIE jams with the indie rap movement that has set forth a hip-hop wave in the Kerala music scene.
KOCHI: For an audience accustomed to melodies and classical rhythms in Malayalam films, the opening of ‘’Lajjavathiye’ with English rap by Jassie Gift was a jolty source of amusement. Though some pooh-poohed the track as flippant, it went on to become a pathbreaking hit across south India.
People, especially the youth, lapped up the track. Even today it’s hard to resist grooving to its beat. Thereon, several rap and hip-hop got a mainstream footing, birthing individuals who would transform the way we enjoyed film music.
That does not mean the genre was unheard of earlier. Rap has always had a considerable following in Kerala, right from the Tupac-Notorious BIG days. A senior colleague in Kochi proudly recalls his ‘90s memories of Tupac T-shirts and RATM CDs.
As a genre, though, rap remained subaltern. It always frothed beneath the mainstream. However, over the past couple of years, this has changed, with hip-hop and rap artists in Kerala gaining ‘mass’ popularity. Their funky tracks have dominated social media, and their pumped-up stage performances have redefined the entertainment scene in the state.
It was not an overnight shift. These artists have been grinding, churning out track after track, waiting for their turn. And now, they are erupting. Going beyond music fests and campus gigs, integration into films has been a big boost for rappers. Independent artists are gaining more visibility, thanks to adventurous music directors.
Take the case of Dabzee (Mohammed Fazil). Currently at the peak of his career, he has consistently delivered hits, from ‘Manavalan Thug’ to ‘Olam Up’ and ‘Kotha Raja’. With his music resonating with everyone, from toddlers to the older generation, his is a prime example of an indie artist transitioning to mainstream success.
‘Mallu Rapper’ Fejo (Febin Joseph) is another cool player, who has been rapping for a decade now. So far, he has contributed to over 20 films, including King of Kotha, Ranam, Aarattu, and Operation Java. With his distinctive musical style and skillful wordplay, Fejo has truly arrived.
“Many people don’t see the skill in hip-hop songs because of existing stereotypes,” says the rapper, known for highlighting social issues through his songs. “Initially, those familiar with traditional music may find it confusing; recognising the essence of hip-hop can take time. Appreciation only comes when listeners grasp the depth and creativity of its lyrics.”
In an era without smartphones were a rarity, a group of friends crafted a parody of 50 Cent’s ‘Candy Shop’ titled ‘Neela Bucket’ in 2008. Some still hail the hilarious track as the first Mallu rap hit.
In 2020, ThirumaLi (Vishnu M S) reloaded and relauched the bucket along with popular music producer Thudwiser (Dinesh S), who has been steadfast in backing up several rap artists in Kerala.
‘Blue Bucket Rebirth’, with its ‘naadan’ vibe, became a trending hit. It ushered in more Malayalam rap singles. “Rap, as an art form, is challenging, and delivering it in one of the most complex languages, Malayalam, elevates that challenge,” says ThirumaLi, who has rolled out several hits, including ‘Malayali Da’.
“The youth are getting distant from their mother language. Through my music, I want to reconnect and bring them closer to our language. Through the lyrical composition, I want to show them how beautiful the language can be.”
Right after ‘Neela Bucket’ came ‘Vandi Puncture’ by Street Academics, an alternative hip-hop band consisting of four members – Pakarcha Vyadhi, Mappila, Azuran, and Imbachi. They are considered as pioneers in propagating the hip-hop movement, bringing in serious content when hip-hop and rap leaned towards the comical side.
“The rise of hip-hop artists in mainstream media inspires all indie artists. Ultimately, reaching the mainstream is every artist’s goal,” says Imbachi (Arjjun Menon), who has worked in a few films as well. Imbachi’s electrifying stage presence makes the crowd chant his name all over India and groove to the beat of ‘Pambaram’, one of Street Academic’s biggest hits.
Why triggered this explosion? “During the lockdowns, many people started exploring and experimenting with genres of music,” says Thudwiser. “In the past couple of years, the number of rap/hip-hop listeners has increased manifold. Social media has, of course, played a major role in promoting indie artists. Also, breaking into mainstream cinema introduces artists to a wider audience.”
While creating art might come naturally, securing funding for their projects is a significant hurdle for independent artists. That’s the toughest part.
“There’s abundant talent and creativity in Kerala, but many lack the financial means to showcase their work. Kerala needs music labels to support these artists,” says Marthyan (M S Anand Raj), who struck gold with ‘Thee Minnal’ in Minnal Murali, and followed up with tracks in Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hei, Saturday Night, and Naradan. “Recognising the music industry as a worthy investment can ensure that with proper support, talented individuals can achieve great success. Relying solely on breaking into the film industry for success isn’t a sustainable strategy for independent artists. There’s a need for labels dedicated purely to music.”