Indian music needs to steer in a ‘more cool direction’: KSHMR talks about rap music, album KARAM, Bollywood and more

KSHMR recently launched his hip-hop album 'KARAM' in India
In frame:  KSHMR
In frame: KSHMR

Indian-American DJ-Producer KSHMR (Niles Hollowell-Dhar) recently launched his Indian hip-hop album KARAM with some of the most talented Indian artists like Raaftar, Rajesh Kava, Karan Kanchan, KRSNA, and others. We talked to KSHMR about this latest album, the Indian music scene, his love for Bollywood, and more.

Tell us more about the journey that led to the birth of your latest album — KARAM.

I learned about the hip-hop scene in India when I watched the movie Gully Boy in the theatres back home in the States, which led me to investigate more and learn about Divine (the Indian rapper). I had also made a song with Divine called Lionheart before this album, and I realized I didn't want to just stick a toe in the water, I wanted to dive into it, come out to India, work with as many artists as I could, and put together the beginnings of the album.

For each song, I asked the collaborating artists to think about the story that was overarching in the Alamo. The story is told by interludes of a young boy who starts a gang with his friends to escape poverty, like your typical gangster stories, like Scarface, or one of those movies that is told with voice actors and sounds like an old Bollywood movie. Then each song comes after an interlude, so it's set up with a certain context. I asked the artists to rap and sing their parts, thinking from the perspective of the character at that time in the story. It led to a really diverse selection of songs where the emotions are very different from song to song. And I think it challenged the artists to go outside of their comfort zone and stick to a particular concept.

How did you select your co-artists for this album?

I knew that I just wanted to work with certain big names, but then also learn about some of the smaller up-and-comers. And that was something that took place as I visited India, getting to work with them. In the case of Riar Saab, he just happened to be in the studio next to me where he was still working on the tracks for Obsessed. So, I asked him, ‘Why don't we work on something together?’ Some of the songs in ‘KARAM’ were very incidental and organic like that.

Among all, which was your favorite artist to work with?

It's so hard to pick, but Rajesh Kava is a good friend of mine. He's so versatile. And he's not so big yet that it becomes difficult to work with him. He's still down for whatever I present to him, and he always kills it. So, if I were to pick anyone, I think I would pick him. He is up and coming, and I think he needs more attention. Eventually, he'll get the attention he deserves.

How was it working with Raftaar?

We worked over Zoom because I was in America and I had sent him some beats and he had a lot of ideas about how the beats should sound. So we went back and forth. And in fact, at one point, I even gave him a project that he could work on. And I didn't realize he's a great producer, too. So he added his ideas and the back. And slowly it became the beat that is legacy, a collaboration.

For being as big as he is, Raftaar is one of the most down-to-earth, very communicative, just like somebody that I would enjoy working with, a true collaborator. When it comes to the music, he puts everything aside, he wants to make the beat, be the best production, and then the best verses, and he would send me his verse before he had fully recorded it. And then together, we went into the studio when I came to India and recorded together. It's nice to see someone who reaches that level but doesn't lose sight of how important it is to be grounded and hands-on when it comes to music and take it seriously.

You come from an Indian lineage. Your father is a Kashmiri Hindu. That's where you get your name from. This album is also about legacies. How would you describe your legacy in music? And what legacy would you like to leave in the music industry?

When I think about my legacy, I think about the most important thing to me, which has been music and production. And I want to give back to that word that's been so important to me, with good music that people enjoy and also tools for the next generation of producers to make their music with. So, I make sound packs, I make tutorials, and I do other things that I think would have been nice for me when I was getting started with producing. In dance music, my legacy has largely been bringing Indian and cinematic music into the dance music scene. In India, just being someone who, although American-born, has tried to do a lot with the incredible artists that are here, and to leave a legacy in India of someone who brought good music to the table and helped to lift up the scene in some ways,

What is it about Indian music and elements that you love the most?

I think it was something that I grew up with and have a little bit of an attachment to it. As an adult, it is such a rich wealth of inspiration—the instruments, the history of Indian music—to draw from and to find things that are still cool to this day if you can recontextualize them a bit. In particular, I love the strings of Bollywood. It's crazy how much of it is very distorted, like all the music my grandpa would listen to. It sounds like you were recorded through a tin can or something. But the melodies were always really great and addictive. And even on this album, in the interludes, it is supposed to sound like an old movie, so I had to learn how to make things sound like very old and classic Bollywood. But it's fun because it evokes a very nostalgic appeal, and it makes me feel warm and nostalgic when I listen to it.

What do you like the most about Kashmir?
The cold air that hits your face. You look around and it's paradise.  

What is the one place apart from Kashmir that you loved or would love to travel to?
Japan for Cherry Blossoms.

One food Indian food that you love.
I used to love my grandma's cooking. She used to make yellow chicken with ghee. If I'm at a restaurant then Tandoori Chicken or Kashmiri naan.

One artist you would call your biggest competitor.
I will say that there are artists that I hear and I wish I made that. Like Karan Kanchan when he did the 'Baazigar'. It might sound cheesy, but I am competing with myself.

Which is your favorite Bollywood song?

I have a really fun memory of the Kajra Re song from the Bunty Aur Babli movie because I used to sing that with my grandpa all the time. When I was young, Dhoom Machale was also really big. I'm honestly not that much into proper Bollywood music, like the modern stuff, a lot of it is a bit too poppy for me. But then also, you're seeing movies incorporating some cooler music, hip-hop,, and things that sound more like what I would listen to, like the Doobey song from Gehraiyaan. That was really nice. I don't want to write it all off, but I guess I wouldn't call myself a Bollywood superfan.

Seeing India's rising indie, hip-hop culture and a lot of up-and-coming independent artists, do you think India will also be sharing the global stage soon?

Getting the rest of the world to listen to Indian music is a lot to ask. The world has gotten used to some music of language they don't understand, like Spanish music, which has become popular everywhere. Indian music, I think would need to steer in a'more cool direction’. Like, there are a lot of Bollywood numbers that are really big. There's a certain sound that could be perceived by other countries as being a little bit cheesy. Spanish music sort of snuck its way in there by being sexy like Despacito.

Anytime you have a song not in English, it's very difficult for other countries to get on board. I think it's difficult, but it's not impossible. And there are some guys with enough talent that they can do it. I think King (an Indian rapper) is absolutely one of them. AR Rahman, he's had songs that have crossed over. The rap scene—that's another tough one. Because now you're not just talking about melody. Sometimes melody doesn't matter if you understand the words, but with rap, it is pretty important. So, it's hard for me to imagine a Hindi rap song, for example, becoming big in other countries. But it can happen and with enough time, I'm sure it will happen.

What is the one thing about Indians—culture, food, etc.—that you would want to take out of India and make it a part of your lifestyle?

Well, you know, my grandparents would have this room that was just for sitting down or lying down. I want a room like that in my house. Not for meditation. Just to not be on your feet. Just to be lazy.  My grandparents are a bit older and so are their friends. They just go there, lie around, and relax.

I think Indian people, may be hard to see from the inside, but on the outside, they are really pure of heart. The way people express themselves, especially young people, like my fans, it's just without any ego and it's really sweet. It's almost disarming because somebody comes, and they're just pouring their heart out to you. In other countries, there's a little bit more of a proclivity to be cool, so maybe not put yourself out there. I think it's really beautiful to make yourself vulnerable in that way. And if you really respect somebody and want to express your adoration for them, I think people in India have less ego when it comes to that. In India, when I was young, I saw young boys holding hands with each other. It wasn't a sexual thing. It was just very sweet. And then in America, they say, ‘Oh, you're gay’, or something. There's a purity of heart here, which is really amazing.

The word ‘KARAM’, means deeds or fate. Do you believe in what you sow and reap in the same life? Do you believe in Karam?

Yeah, a hundred percent. If I'm going to do something that's not nice, like leave trash on the ground, there's a voice in my head that says, ‘You're going to pay for that’. I'm not a mystical person, but I just think that somehow it all comes back to you.

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