The Indian counterculture milieu is in the middle of a metamorphosis. A perennially fertile landscape, the Indian underground has always been a hive of activity that has spawned everything from rock bands and heavy metal juggernauts to DJs and electronic artists that have made beaches and nightclubs come alive with the sound of music.
This vibrant vista is now booming with a beat that is insistent and clearly intent on imprinting itself on the collective consciousness of an entire generation of music lovers. It is a rhythmic statement of intent born out of a sense of belief that brooks no argument.
Strident, clawing at the boundaries of mainstream recognition, Indian hip-hop is poised on the brink of a massive breakthrough and it has all the potential to be bigger than anything which has preceded it so far.
Music, like all art, needs an emotional connection with a section of the community to thrive. This is where hip-hop in India has the biggest advantage because its core comprises an identity that is proudly Indian.
There have been innumerable iconic moments in underground and independent music in the country over the years but there does not seem to be any musical movement that has quite the grassroots appeal which this avatar of hip-hop seems to be enjoying.
Rap music is not new to the country. It arrived at our shores in the early nineties bearing a fun, good times lyrical agenda. The grimy underbelly of urban existence which typifies most rap music was decidedly missing.
The transformation of that aspect of rap borders on the unbelievable these days. Hip-hop is hugely personal right now and it reflects in the immense diversification of the genre in the country.
A cursory look at the rap landscape in India throws up sub-genres such as Odisha rap, Jat rap, hip-hop from the Northeast, Marwari, Marathi, Kannada, Tamil and so many more. Rappers are throwing down their rhymes in rapid fire Hindi as well and it is almost like this is the medium of expression that has unprecedented resonance with artists.
Making a Name
Fazilpuria has found great success in the Indian film industry. His hits include ‘Chull’ and ‘Pallo Latke’ but the pride he takes in his Haryanvi rhymes is evident.
“There is a lot of difference between Haryanvi rap and Punjabi rap,” he says. “My intention is to put my language and my state on the map through my music.
That is the reason I chose Fazilpuria as my stage name. I belong to Fazilpur and so I call myself Fazilpuria.” Apropos of nothing, ‘Bhai’ is the standard Indian hip-hop greeting and exclamation. Nearly every statement either begins or ends with this sibling-y shout-out.
It might be an appropriation of the archetypal ‘bro’ but that is probably the only parallel with other hip-hop styles across the world. The Indian rap narrative is a genre unto itself in terms of the factors that fuel it and the issues it addresses. Take Rapper Dule Rocker, for instance.
A migrant worker from Odisha’s Kalahandi district, Dule, whose real name is Duleshwar Tandi, has emerged as one of the biggest voices for migrant workers, many of whom were forced to walk back home following the Covid-19 lockdown.
The humility with which Dule talks about his journey as a hip-hop artist is in stark contrast to the intensity of his rhymes in songs like ‘Me Hun Aam Aadmi’ and ‘Sun Sarkaar Sat Katha’.
Music director Vishal Dadlani described him as ‘fire’ in one of his tweets and the scorching intensity of Dule’s words bear testimony to the fact.
Rapper Dule Rocker is a voice from a muddy hut in a village called Borda. The impact it has, however, resounds across the nation and may soon be global. All this without access to any recording studio, production techniques or other accoutrements that any artist anywhere in the world would take for granted. “I have been through a lot of hard times,” he says.
“But I have never left hip-hop. I have an old laptop and I make my beats on it.” He then records it on his mobile phone and uploads it on YouTube and other social media platforms. The world stops and listens.
Fuel to Fire
There are three key factors fuelling the hip-hop phenomenon and individuality is perhaps the greatest of them all. The intensely personal nature of the music allows every artist to tell their own story, completely unfettered by genre trappings. “Hip-hop is modern poetry,” says Borkung Hrangkhwal. “It becomes very personal. Unless you feel it, you cannot write it.” The rapper from Tripura gained recognition with his song, ‘Chini Haa’, which translates as ‘Our Land’. People really got behind the track and it became something of an anthem. Hrangkhwal also talks about racism in his songs.
It is a subject he has experienced, painfully, firsthand. “This goes back many years when I went to stay in Delhi for the first time,” recounts Hrangkhwal.
“I had stepped out for an after-dinner stroll when suddenly three guys came out of nowhere and stabbed me. I think they may have acted on the spur of the moment. I survived.” It is an incident shocking in the extreme so when Hrangkhwal puts his themes of racism and alienation to a massive beat, it becomes compelling beyond description.
Quite like the whirlwind frenzy of ‘Ayo Burn’. The track finds the fantastically multi-dimensional Anushka Manchanda taking on a brand new identity and spewing vitriol on gender discrimination, marital rape, corrupt politicians and people that disrespect the environment. The song is a livewire of intensity and hits you squarely between the eyes. “I have been the sort of musician who keeps asking for feedback constantly,” says Manchanda who morphs into the fearsome lyrical warrior Nuka for ‘Ayo Burn’.
“But for this song I felt completely fearless.” Nuka is joined by rapper Kaam Bhaari on the track and together they weave a tapestry that is a series of body blows and ear candy, simultaneously.
Rapper Big Deal from Odisha is a big star.
So luminous, in fact, that he hit the road with the Chief Minister of his state, Naveen Patnaik, for a series of electoral rallies. He had the crowds eating out of his hands as he stomped the stage with songs like ‘Khanti Odia’ and ‘Khussi Ta’. The beginning of this road to stardom, however, was not without its scars. “I was a bullied kid,” says Big Deal. “I had to deal with a lot of those issues while growing up. But when I found rap, it was almost like I had discovered my superpower.”
Bridge Over Troubled Times
Rap, at least in the Indian context, is the great enabler. It is the ultimate personal statement and allows everyone to tell their own stories the way they want to. That is perhaps the reason why rappers are so prolific with their recorded output.
While most of the nation went into a state of inertia following the pandemic, the hip-hop tribe showed no signs of taking its foot off the accelerator.
7Bantai’Z, a multilingual hip-hop crew from Dharavi, Mumbai, have released ‘Kitaab’, a video that is doing the rounds on VH1.
They are also part of a huge message called ‘Stay Home Stay Safe’, which has mega Bollywood stars like Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Suniel Shetty syncing lines written by MC Altaf, 7Bantai’Z and Dopeadelicz.
The Bantai’Z, which translates into ‘crew’ or ‘brotherhood’, are also working on an album, which will be out very soon. Rapper Big Deal has been busy finalising details of a major label deal that should find him going even more stratospheric and Manchanda created a master flourish when she conceptualised and released Mehfil-e-Hip Hop.
At the risk of stepping out on a tangent just a wee bit, like rock music has its concerts, and jazz and blues have their clubs, the meeting place for hip-hop MCs is called a Cypher. It is a place where MCs hang together, trade rhymes and perform live for audiences. It is the definitive congregating point for the hip-hop scene.
With the lockdown rendering any kind of physical gathering impossible, Manchanda had this idea of creating a cyber Cypher. Sure enough, Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire, SlowCheeta and Devil The Rhymer have collaborated on Mehfil-e-Hip Hop.
It is a fabulous recreation of what Cyphers actually are with each of these MCs bringing in their own style to the track. This is not song in the strictest sense of the word with a defined verse-chorus format. It is a free-flowing rhyme-fest with each artist adding his own flavour to the verbal potluck.
The Local Touch
Another major catalyst in hip-hop’s climb out of the underground is that it is not looked on as a concept imported from the West and then adapted to an Indian sensibility.
It has seeped into the very fabric of our society and feels home-grown and organic. “One of the first songs we composed was ‘Ganpati Bappa Morya’,” says Dopeadelicz, arguably one of the founding pillars of the Mumbai scene. “Then we played at seven Ganpati pandals and the crowds there got into our music in a big way.”
Listen to the Dopeadelicz track ‘Aai Shapath’ and one will be convinced that this is not an Indian band doing hip-hop. It is a class rap act anywhere in the world. Period.
That is probably the reason why Indian hip-hop is expected to create major waves at the global level. Universal Music Group has signed up with Mass Appeal, the urban culture focussed entertainment company to launch Mass Appeal India.
The new entity will work towards amplifying India’s growing hip-hop culture to the world.
Mass Appeal India will sign and work with the most promising artists in the Indian hip-hop fraternity and leverage Mass Appeal’s global network to showcase Indian talent to a worldwide audience.
Iconic rapper DIVINE is the first signing on Mass Appeal India. The inspiration behind the smash hit, Gully Boy, DIVINE’s credentials are etched onto the foundation stone of Indian hip-hop.
His incendiary flow on songs like ‘Meri Gully Mein’, ‘Jungli Sher’ and ‘Kaam 25’ pioneered the Gully Rap movement with hip-hop taking on a firm indigenous route in terms of style, delivery and language. “I was first introduced to DIVINE’s music through the brilliant film, Gully Boy,” says Nas, one of the greatest rappers in the world and co-founder of Mass Appeal.
“I am proud to announce the launch of Mass Appeal India with DIVINE as the first artist on our roster.” This is just the kind of impetus rap music in India needs.
Mass Appeal India has gone into action mode straightaway. Its YouTube channel provides the perfect spectrum of the diversity of Indian hip-hop with videos dropping regularly, and showcasing emerging and established artists to an audience that is clearly gorging on it.
There is an incident Rapper Big Deal narrates which encapsulates the hip-hop phenomenon in India to a nicety. The musician doesn’t live too far away from the beach in Puri and every morning there are people from the Nolia fisherman community who arrive at that beach. “They are a BPL community and have not been exposed to global rap music in any way,” he says. But when Big Deal cues up his music, everybody starts to groove.
“There are kids that are just five or six years old and they understand the vibe of the music completely.” Rhyme is the language of the new generation and it is in perfect sync.
The India Scene
There is a school of thought which stands steadfast in the belief that India predated the most widely accepted date of the birth of hip-hop by a decade.
Documented history tells us that the rap movement began in 1979 when New Jersey trio Sugarhill Gang released their chartbusting single, ‘Rapper’s Delight’.
But some folks at home would have us believe that it was actually ‘Dada Moni’ Ashok Kumar, getting all breathless on the track, ‘Rail Gaadi’, from the 1968 movie, Ashirwaad, which birthed rap. Be that as it may, here are some milestones that shaped hip-hop in India into the burgeoning phenomenon it is today.
1991: Apache Indian stirs up the vibe with ‘Arranged Marriage’
1992: Baba Sehgal releases ‘Thanda Thanda Paani’. It becomes a huge sensation.
2002: Bohemia brings it into the new millennium with ‘Vich Pardesan De’
2008: Mafia Mundeer, which featured Yo Yo Honey Singh and Badshah, gains prominence
2011: Honey Singh releases his solo album, International Villager
2012: Badshah breaks out with ‘Saturday Saturday’
2013: DIVINE releases ‘Yeh Mera Bombay’
2014: Naezy launches his debut single, ‘Aafat’
2019: Zoya Akhtar makes Gully Boy. The film sweeps 13 Filmfare awards.
2019: Universal Music Group India signs up with iconic hip-hop label Mass Appeal to launch Mass Appeal India
Indian hip-hop is poised on the brink of a massive breakthrough and it has all the potential to be bigger than anything which has preceded it so far.
10 Indian Rappers You Need to Know
His debut album Class-Sikh, released in 2017, became a marker for Indian hip-hop. It was a seminal project that weaved political rhymes with club-ready production.
Little Kid, Big Dreams, his debut album released last year, was simultaneously a critique of the Indian government and an exploration of his identity as a Kashmiri
The Meghalaya star first started making waves in 2016 with her first single ‘Done Talking’, showcasing her skills within R&B and hip-hop. But it was her recently released single, ‘The Journey’, that truly showcased the potential she possesses.
Swadesi is a hip-hop crew and community from Dharavi, Mumbai. Their numbers can swell to over a dozen, comprising mostly graffiti artists, DJs, and MCs. Their unofficial leader MC Mawali always manages to shine.
The rapper rose to prominence with his song ‘Malayali Da’, and has since racked up hundreds of thousands of views on each of his songs, some of which have easily crossed a million.
Smokey the Ghost
Smokey’s most notable release is arguably his latest, The Human Form, as it re-introduced him to a generation suddenly aware of and excited by Indian hip-hop
The Delhi-based duo are bona fide stars in the making. Razor-sharp, incisive lyrics spat in both Hindi and English is their calling card. They’re political, brash, and unafraid to voice their opinion where it matters most.
With ‘Live It’, a self-directed and self-funded song and video, Siri demanded attention from the industry. Thanks to its theme of empowerment and its reveal of Siri’s ability to rap across languages—English, Kannada, and Hindi—the song went viral.
Last year, Park Circus released their eponymous debut album to critical acclaim. The eight-track record announced the Kolkata-based group as a funk-centred, old school crew.
The group released their latest album, Loop, last year—long time fans will note that each album has a thematic output and is somehow loosely interconnected in an alternative universe that feels very much like our own.
There are three key factors fuelling the hip-hop phenomenon and individuality is perhaps the greatest of them all
Here is a fun byte
Did You Know Their Real Names?
Badshah: Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia
Hard Kaur: Taran Kaur Dhillon
Raftaar: Dilin Nair
Bohemia: Roger David
Brodha V: Vighnesh Shivanand
Emiway Bantai: Bilal Sheikh
Sukh-e: Sukhdeep Singh Dayal
J Star: Jagdeep Singh
Jazzy B: Jaswinder Singh Bains
Yo Yo Honey Singh: Hirdesh Sing
Rap, at least in the Indian context, is the great enabler. It is the ultimate personal statement and allows everyone to tell their own stories the way they want to.