The Rise of Desi Hip Hop
Hard-hitting, rootsy and very, very contemporary – Bhanuj Kappal profiles the rise and rise of desi hip hop
It’s a muggy Thursday night in August, and I’m at Blue Frog to watch Naezy and MC Kaur – two of Indian hip hop’s rising stars – perform in front of a boisterous crowd that’s very different from the posh south Mumbai venue’s regular clientele. Indie scenesters mingle with kids in baggy shorts and baseball caps, as chants of ‘Ek Number!’ and ‘Bumbai Sattar (70)’ fill the air. MC Manmeet Kaur – one of the first female rappers in India – plays a well received set of warm, easygoing songs that are heavily indebted to 90s soul/funk rap. But things really heat up when she shifts to the deck and hands over the mic to Naved Shaikh aka Naezy. The 20-something rapper from Kurla combines a mastery of Urdu lyricism with all the swagger and slang of Mumbai’s mean streets. He’s glib, charming and has the rare ability to light up a room with his presence. And as I watch him jump around onstage, his every antic met with wild applause, I wonder if Indian hip hop has finally arrived.
It’s taken long enough. Despite the best efforts of Baba Sehgal, Indian hip hop has been a slow starter. In the 90s, often called the Golden Age of Rap, Indian music fans ignored the genre in favour of rock and electronica. The hip hop scene, if you could call it that, was restricted to small house parties in cities with large student or expat populations like Pune and Bengaluru, where people played records sourced from international visitors or relatives living abroad. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that hip hop started finding an audience in India, thanks to MTV and the global popularity of Eminem’s Marshall Mathers LP.
“The exposure of hip hop in India has a lot to do with Eminem,” says Kolkata rap veteran Ashwini Mishra aka A-List. “His album opened the floodgates to a lot of audiences who normally would not have listened to hip hop.”
Pretty soon, hip hop was a regular presence on party playlists and in the nightclubs of Mumbai and Delhi. Almost every club had a hip hop night and hip hop DJ culture was booming. At the same time, other elements of hip hop culture had started to take root. Graffiti tags started popping up on city walls, and b-boying was also taking off. Self-taught and highly motivated, street dance pioneers like Sumeet Suvarna aka Ninja were initiating others into the world of b-boying and hip hop.
“I think b-boying initiated people into hip hop more than anything else,” says Bob Omulo, emcee for indie-rap act Bombay Bassment, and co-founder of the Voice of Tha People podcast. “It appeals to a wide cross-section of society and is popular in low-income areas.”
“When I started rapping in 2003, there were only a handful of people writing their own rhymes,” says Mishra. The very short list includes Mumbai’s AP and Ace (co-founders of the Mumbai’s Finest crew) and the late Ragged Skull from Kerala. They performed at house parties and college festivals where they ‘battled’ with other rappers performing songs by Eminem or 50 Cent. They would take beats from websites like soundclick and record their rhymes over them, then put them up online for an audience that didn’t exist yet.
“There were no opportunities when we started out,” says Abhishek Dhusia aka Ace. “We had to do everything ourselves. I recorded my first few songs using a headphone mic.”
But the internet would change that, as it did the indie rock scene. The first major development was the rise of text-battling on an Orkut community called Insignia Rap Combat, started in 2008 by a Delhi-based rapper who called himself D’Brassic. Rap lyricists from across the country would write out their battle rhymes and put them up online to be judged by a community of peers. The community had a proper ranking system, and rappers from across the subcontinent would compete for the honour of being top dog. D’Brassic and Insignia were a major influence on the Indian rap scene, with whom many of today’s biggest artists such as Enkore, D’Evil, Sikander Kahlon and Divine learnt how to flex their lyrical muscles.
“The Insignia alumni pretty much dominate the Indian rap scene,” says Mishra. “Not only did they hone their craft on the community, a lot of the crews, a lot of the loyalties came from there.”
Insignia faded into obscurity in a couple of years as rappers started shifting their attention to making their own tracks. But the rap community it fostered has continued to grow, both online and offline. Across the country, new crews and rappers such as Dopeadelicz in Mumbai, Machas with Attitude in Bengaluru/Chennai, and Kru172 in Chandigarh were gaining attention. These new artists dropped the American gangsta rap affectations in favour of more local flavour, with quite a few of them rapping in regional languages and tackling local issues. They also started linking up with local DJs and b-boy crews to conduct regular ‘cyphers’ – jams where rappers and beatboxers performed over breaking beats while others dance and show off their moves. With few venues ready to pay for or host rap performances, these cyphers were – and still are – an important part of the scene’s infrastructure.
With a growing community of fans and artists, the scene just needed an incentive to professionalize. And that came in 2013, in the form of the sudden and unprecedented commercial success of Yo Yo Honey Singh. The Punjabi rapper is quite a controversial figure, but his runaway success made both Bollywood and sponsors sit up and notice.
“I don’t agree with Honey Singh’s music, but in terms of exposure he has taken hip hop to the next level,” says Dopeadelicz member Tony Sebastian aka Stony Psyko.
Soon, Bollywood producers and record labels were on the lookout for the next big Indian rapper. Having honed their skills over the past few years, veterans like Enkore, Divine, Brodha V were well poised to capitalize on the opportunity. The trickle of new singles and albums soon became a flood and cypher videos started to go viral. Indian hip hop was no longer relegated to the margins.
Today, Indian rappers appear on festival line-ups, have their music videos shown on TV and perform regularly at clubs across the country. Artists like Naezy, Sikander Kahlon and Swadesi have developed their own identities and styles that owe more to Kurla and Chandigarh than they do to New York or LA. There’s a slew of new releases lined up for the next few months, and everyone is convinced that Indian hip hop is going to be the next big thing in Indian music. Johar puts it best. He says: “I genuinely feel that we’re making the music that India wants to hear. Hip hop could become the biggest non-Bollywood movement happening in India.”
Artists to watch