Indie hip-hop: How Dopeadelicz, Raja Kumari, Lady Kash and others are shaking up the scene
A new breed of Indian rappers is making waves in the industry with its unique strains of regional hip-hop, which echo socially relevant themes in their lyrics.
It’s not every day that a whole generation rediscovers the art of old-school hip-hop and rap — a genre that runs deeper than the deepest roots and permeates down to the very pulse of a society. From rapping about the system to beating all odds to make it big, rappers from every state in the country are bringing in their songs and swagger. And note, this isn’t just in English. Homegrown rappers in various Indian cities are exploring the intersection between social issues and music. The common man has had a constant battle with oppression and the system. These rappers use hip-hop, not only to break barriers, but also to use it with such fierce passion and resolve that it turns out to be inspirational. In fact, any of these tunes can galvanize into something bigger than they already are. In the West, we’ve seen artistes like Childish Gambino and Jay Z rap about issues plaguing their societies. What are India’s young rappers singing about? Importantly, how are they using their popularity to address larger concerns? We speak to several artistes in South India, to get a glimpse of their viewpoints.
Rapper crew Dopeadelicz come straight from Matunga Labour Camp, of Dharavi. After finding fame through their Coke Studio collaboration with Sona Mohapatra and several other singles, the Tamilian duo, Tony Sebastian and Rajesh Radhakrishnan, also had a plump role in Kaala, alongside Rajinikanth. Whether it’s celebration or a funeral, the rappers have a prominent part to play in the movie. It also goes to show how much directors are banking on alternate genres of musicians, veering away from the commercial side.
“Ranjith was doing his research in Dharavi when he found more about the cultural activities,” says Rajesh. “He heard hip-hop was the core culture here, and they called us. This is the kind of soul music he wanted for his music. He said he would call us and true to his word, he did.”
Rajesh and Tony both feel that music is a weapon you use to not attack, but to make people question the system. “He wanted us to write lyrics that the common people could understand and resonate with. Our rap is always compelling and intense. So we aim for the first four lines to be heart-wrenching to the point where you question yourself.”
The movie uses rap as a means for protest, agitation, fighting for basic necessities like water, protesting against land grabbing and other issues that plague the residents. With music director Santosh Narayanan at the helm, the crew had full creative liberty. Tamil hip-hop, AR Rahman and West Coast influences shape the duo’s verses.
“We are at the heart of many problems,” says Rajesh, adding, “So our music comes from the heart too. We also believe that you need to keep moving and experiencing things to make good music. Music cannot be made sitting in one place.” And, as far as working with Rajinikanth goes, Rajesh says that he was sweating bullets after his first shot with Thalaivar. “I cannot begin to tell you how that first shot with him was. By the time we did the second shot, I was sweating. By the third shot, I was thinking I’ve got to buck up and bring in the swag now.” With the release of Kaala and the much-awaited Gully Boy with Ranveer Singh, it is safe to say that the boys from Dharavi have arrived in true hip-hop style.
For 24-year-old Arivarasan from Chennai, the rap bug bit him back in his school days, when he began rapping without knowing that there was a genre of music called rap. “Even as a student, I loved literature so much, that apart from the regular syllabus, I used to do my own reading in the library,” he says, adding that this is how his interest towards poetry developed. “I simply sang them out loud, without even knowing that I was rapping, at school and college cultural events.” Today, young Arivu is an integral part of The Casteless Collective (a 19-piece band across different genres) and has written and sung Nilam Engal Urimai from Kaala, which he says, is a portrayal of his own personal struggle. “I come from a middle-class family, but my grandfather’s generation was oppressed and they were landless. The stories of their struggle are what I grew up listening to. That is when I realised that educating myself was the only way towards empowerment. So when I wrote the song, it came from a deep dark place,” says Arivu, whose idols in rap include Kendrick Lamar, Stormzy and J Cole. Ask him what message he is trying to convey through his music, and he says, “Art is the biggest tool we have for change. With my music, I want to address issues like inequality. I talk about gender equality, a casteless society, and one without discrimination,” says the artiste, who is currently working on a few film projects and a self-titled EP.
Meanwhile in Bengaluru, the foundations of rap artiste Karthik Gubbi’s career were based in text rap battles on the now-defunct social networking site, Orkut. He takes us back to how it all began. “It was completely text-based, not verbal and in English. This was back in 2007. It died out in a year and post that, I started making my own tracks, again in English,” shares the 28-year-old. During one of his recording sessions, an off-hand comment by a producer saw him making the decision to jump headlong into the world of Kannada rap. “He said something that implied that rapping in Kannada was next to impossible. And I wanted to prove him wrong,” says the artiste, who has a degree in Mechanical Engineering. His signature style sticks to grammatically correct, poetic Kannada and refrains from the use of slang and informal words. “The aim is to foster a love for the language. And I prefer keeping things classy,” explains Karthik, who has also done tracks for Kannada and Tamil films. Some of his most famous independent numbers include love song, Mungaru, which was released in 2009, Nadamaya, a crowd-sourced song, and Amma, a collaboration with Tejas Shankar from Bengaluru-based folk band, Lagori. Currently, the artiste is working on a single that will be released by August, and another Kannada film, titled Aidhu Adi Yelu Angala, set to hit theatres later this year.
The artiste Eminem is a definite inspiration for many youngsters in India, just as it was for 22-year-old Aditya Parashar, another college poet turned rapper and musician. “I have been writing poetry since childhood. Writing comes naturally to me. And, when I started listening to Eminem, I felt like experimenting with rap, and I started working on my lyrics,” he says. Nearly five years since then, Aditya is now among a growing clan of locally-evolved Kannada rappers. He is also the rapper-writer behind the recently-released film Humble Politician Nograj. Aditya earnestly tries to mirror society’s evils and regressive approach to changing times, but his biggest USP lies in the fact that he uses Kannada literature. “I am hugely influenced by the Kannada culture. I consciously write lyrics that represent change. I also tend to incorporate Vachanas (verses) by Kannada poet Basavanna and the Ugabogha (series of poems) by Purandara Dasa,” he says.
Though he became a professional rapper with the film U-Turn in 2013, Aditya has not stopped composing and producing singles. His next single, expected to be released online this July, is titled Nanna Kathe (My Story). Aditya promises an inspirational song, drawn from his own personal journey.
“Hip-hop thrives on originality and we have kept the culture moving forward by being ourselves,” says Vineet Nair, better known as Poetik Justis. Making sense of this 25-year-old’s rise to fame doesn’t merely have to do with him finding expression through verse.
But his verse gains importance in the light of the revolution that took place in the working-class neighbourhoods of Mumbai that was often shunned by mainstream media and culture. An active member of Slumgods, one of the first hip-hop collectives based out of Dharavi, Poetik Justis’ music spotlighted stories of the disenfranchised and the alienated, and did so in the vernacular. “My music deals with themes of injustice, rebellion and the systematic dismantling of society around us, but I am only a messenger. I can only speak the truth as I have observed it.”
As a first generation local hip-hop artist, Poju (as he is known among friends) agrees that while he, alongside his contemporaries, did adopt hip-hop from America, the subculture and its music are now their own. “We now have reached a point where we no longer emulate the West or try to copy their stories or lifestyle. We tell our own stories, the ones that matter to us as Indians. This transition called for the use of local dialect and slangs,” confirms Vineet, saying that it not only allowed the opportunity to showcase the diverse culture of the region but affected how an issue was perceived. “I am not downplaying English rap or lyricism, because that still remains my strength. But I choose to switch over to a regionallanguage, because my message can reach a wider audience. That’s the beauty of it, hip-hop is not a constricted art form.” Currently working on his next project under a new persona, TRXP POJU, Vineet is creating an experimental trap album that is predominantly in Hindi.
Kalaivani Nagaraj too was playing with words well before she began rapping, and took on her stage name of Lady Kash. “I was good at poetry and writing, and I soon realised I was naturally drawn more to rhythm than towards melody,” says the rapper, who started writing verses in Tamil since elementary school. While there are enough similarities between Lady Kash’s early music and a transposed version of Western hip-hop, the Singapore-born artiste now describes herself as more of a conscious rapper offering the world a different perspective of rap that originated from the East, through her latest single, Villupaatu. “Much like rap, Villupaatu is a musical form of storytelling that requires an element of style and a persona.” By drawing parallels between the art forms, Lady Kash believes that this indigenous art form from Tamil Nadu is the Eastern seed of modern day rap. “I first came across Villupaatu in Singapore as a child, and as I pursued rapping seriously, I became convinced that this is indeed the seed of regional rap.” Calling it a journey back to her roots, the artiste who has worked extensively with the likes of AR Rahman and Benny Dayal, says she uses her regional tongue to keep things real. “I believe that you’ll never know where you are going unless you know where you are from.”
While multiple collaborations are on the cards for Lady Kash, the singer is now dedicating time to develop her independent label AKASHIK, and also to discover her musical roots, and explore indigenous music forms.
The movie Kaala was a life-changer for popular Hyderabad-based rapper Pranav Chaganty, who is riding high on success after composing fourrap songs for the film (in Telugu). A firm believer in music a catalyst for change, Pranav began his journey of composing only four years ago. “My emotions drove me to become a rapper. When I read about the Nirbhaya case in 2012, it disturbed me, and that’s when I wrote my first song,” says the 28-year-old. Pranav has indeed carved a niche for himself in the music industry with his pure Telugu rap, influenced by classical Telugu poetry including Potana Bhagavatam Padyalu. With over five lakh views on YouTube, Pranav’s songs cover everything from drunk driving to Sunrisers Hyderabad and Irani chai. “Rap has been in our roots and is a result of oppression. Although it’s a form of entertainment, I prefer using it as a platform to spread awareness about social issues, our language and culture,” he says. A huge fan of Sirivennela Sitaramasastri, Pranav has his hands full with songs in two Telugu films including Tharun Bhascker’s Ee Nagaraniki Emaindi.
For Hyderabad-based Noel Sean, writing songs makes him quite the multi-tasker, even lending him the moniker, ‘the first rapper of Tollywood’. After he quit his corporate job, the 31-year-old has tried out a number of professions including being an RJ, VJ, actor, singer, and lyricist. “I always loved films and music. Being a part of the film industry means I can do both together,” says Noel, who debuted as a rapper in Vikramarkudu (2006), directed by SS Rajamouli.
Having been around for longer than a decade, Noel doesn’t mince his words when he says that there are not many opportunities for rap in the regional cinema. “We have not had one full-length rap song till date. We’re still in a nascent stage,” he adds. High on the success of his recent Telugu cover of Despacito, which garnered more than one million views, Noel has his work planned for the next few months — a rap song on Telangana and a couple of Telugu movies.
In Febin Joseph’s eyes, powerful rap, like most great art, is a sign of the times. It’s also his escape from a life replete with financial uncertainties. The Kochi-based artiste, whose YouTube channel currently has over two million views, developed an interest in rap nine years ago. Better known by his moniker, FeJo, the 26-year-old eventually started creating tunes out of a basic home studio.
“Rapping is my weapon of choice to talk about my surroundings and society,” shares the engineering graduate, who is currently a local TV channel’s programme producer. With time, his Malayalam verses matured, as is apparent on underground hits like Koottilitta Thatha (Caged Parrot). Now, this self-taught rapper has finally been heard in Mollywood. Music director Sushin Shyam, impressed by FeJo’s potent lyrics on Bhoomidevi Porukkane (Forgive us, Mother Earth), roped him in to write/rap a song called Aparaada Panka for an upcoming film titled Maradona.
It is hardly surprising then, to find rap verses become the new guitar solos of hit singles and tracks today — almost every chart-topping song has a verse or two tossed in for good measure. Artistes like Justin Beiber and Taylor Swift have often roped in the likes of Chance The Rapper and Kendrick Lamar to hurl, spit and shout out their rhymes, thereby widening their market reach. All of which is a far cry from hip-hop classics like Ice Cube’s It Was A Good Day or even recent hits including the political whiplash that is Eminem’s The Storm (BET Hip-Hop Awards Cypher).
Rap with thought-provoking lyrics about life experiences is what listeners can connect with. And, UAE-based Darwin Dev is hoping to recreate that old-school vibe. “Sadly, Bollywood is emulating the worst aspects of Western rap/hip-hop which revolve around songs about women, money, and fast cars,” shares the 33-year-old aeronautical engineer turned rapper. All four of his recent tracks, including Dear Maa, feature Punjabi, Hindi and Malayalam lyrics alongside extensive use of classical instruments like the sitar and flute. For the past few years, Darwin, who traces his roots back to Kerala, has collaborated with Dutch music producer Elz Bowe to devise well-structured tunes that have received wide airplay on stations like BBC Asian Network (UK), Songdew TV (India) and Hit FM (UAE).
One of the earliest flag bearers of folk rap, Chennai-based Paul Jacob has been promoting musicians since the early 1990s. After the band he was part of, Nemesis Avenue (which also featured AR Rahman as keyboardist) broke up, Jacob formed Bodhimuzzik in ’98, an organisation dedicated to the integration and promotion of traditional Indian music, primarily folk artistes. “Rap is nothing but rhythmic storytelling. The birth of rap can be traced back to the heart of Africa, where it was used as a teaching methodology. A lot of stories told in the villages may not have a melody, but they do have rhythm. This is why rap is basically rhythm in poetry.” Jacob contends that the genre has both positive and negative impacts. “This is a rare chance for most rappers voices to be heard. There are a few in South Africa using rap as a tool for change and dealing with issues like bridging racial divides, healing the wounds left by apartheid, etc. But, the rap movement in America was built on mafia and drugs. To a large extent, that still is their reality and they are singing it. It exposed a darker side of what this movement can do. Now, rap has a gangster image,” he says. One of the main things that Jacob wants to highlight is that until now, not just the musical community, but the audience also has not taken rap as a serious musical genre. “People need to look at rap as mainstream, serious music, that serves as a tool to deliver a strong message. Look at how Tupac Shakur changed the world. That is what we need to aspire towards.
Cross-cultural powerhouse and Grammy-nominated songwriter Raja Kumari is all about the West Coast swag and desi derring-do. Her new single I Did It, is Raja’s quest to assert the values of her culture with her visionary melding of West coast swag and desi daring. I Did It peels back the curtain on her fearless ascent with potent authenticity. To put it simply, Raja gets it done. Says the artist about her self-esteem boosting anthem: “I have always had to fight for my art. Instinct, faith and perseverance have been my greatest weapons. I Did It is an anthem written to remind myself that I can do anything that I set my intention on. It’s a song about believing in yourself at all costs while finding a way to stay authentic to who you are.” While, her ferocity and spirit is evident in her rapid rapping style, there are strong semblances of her Indian leanings and inclination for global pop motifs.
Her track, City Slums, featuring Bombay rapper Divine has racked up an over 7.3 million YouTube views to date and more than 269k Spotify users. On the global scene, she has become a vocal champion of homegrown expressions of angst and self-determination by marking her territory by extending her style from Mumbai’s streets to LA’s upscale hip-hop scenes. We ask her how she sees rap progress on a global platform and she says, “I believe that Indian hip-hop has developed authentically into its own unique sound. In the next few years, we will be hearing it streamed all over the world.”
With inputs from Nandita Ravi, Rashmi Rajagopal Lobo, Ayesha Tabassum, Anoop Menon, Rebecca Vargese and A Harini Parsad.