The box office success of Gully Boy, at over Rs 100 crore, has propelled a different kind of music which is making the West sit up and listen. Shalini Saksena speaks with rappers from India who say that the new genre — Indian hip-hop — is on a march
In the movie Gully Boy, Ranveer Singh aka Murad aka Gully Boy says ‘Apna Time Ayega’. Whether it will throw up more rappers in the ring only time will tell but what one thing is definitely there — it has given birth to a new genre — Indian hip-hop. So much so that American rapper Nas, a songwriter, record producer and entrepreneur collaborated with Naezy and Divine for a new track NY se Mumbai.
Naved Shaikh aka Naezy, the inspiration behind the movie, Gully Boy, tells you that he was 13 when he heard Sean Paul’s Temperature. That got him hooked on rap even though he didn’t know anything about the genre.
“My life has always been exciting. Since childhood, life was different from that of other kids in the city. The place from I come from, the environment is very different. I would get into mischief and got into bad company for a while. But then I got introduced to rap. That changed my path. I started writing about things that touched me. I felt that these things were not right. I studied about other rappers from the Bronx and found that their life was similar to mine. They used to rap about real things like their life’s story and issues that affected them on a daily basis. I started relating to them,” Naezy says.
He was 17 when he had all the albums of rappers like Tupac and Nas. He started writing his own story instead of copying others. It was tough to pen down his life on pen and paper. To begin with, he would rap in English with a beat boxer at a tea stall. While a few people would stop and listen to what he was rapping, it was only when he started rapping in Hindi, Urdu and Bambaiya. “It was very difficult to start with. Rap is a very western concept. People wouldn’t understand it. We wouldn’t get a large crowd. But when we switched our medium, people would stand is large numbers to listen to us. What was tougher was to convince people that rap was beyond what Badshah and Yo-Yo Honey Singh did. We were bringing a new kind of music. But slowly, people understood our kind of music, that it is worth listening to,” Naezy tells you and explains that the main difference between their kind of rap and what the likes of Badshah do is that they make music to sell it.
“Our hip-hop is a rhythmic way to tell a story. We pay a lot of attention to technicality. Commercial rappers tell a story jo chatpati ho — which is easy to sell. Our motto is not to sell music. We want to tell a story,” the 26-year-old says.
For him, there should be balance in art. A good artist, according to him is the one who is able to strike a balance between classes and masses. This means that if a rapper is doing 10 raps, at least five-seven songs are for listeners and the rest are ones for the market that are saleable.
The changes that Naezy has seen since he started rapping is that today people know about the root of rap. “Bollywood is after us. People understand the meaning of rap. People are interested in the kind of stories we want to tell. This is the best time for rap. We are getting the recognition that was long over due to us. There is so much happening today and Gully Boy is part it. While the movie has helped many of us to push our art, many of us have been doing good even before the movie was released. The digital platform is so strong that we don’t need a crutch to lean on. We were doing shows and had the backing of brands. What the movie has done is to reach out to people who were unaware of rap. This has opened new avenues for us and things will only get better from here on,” Naezy says who was part of the script-writing of the movie.
He tells you that he and Divine did their best to keep things as authentic as possible. “The movie has been able to do justice to the rap culture in India. Given the mentality of the audience and market demand, the film has has struck a good balance. If it was too much indie people would not have been able to appreciate it. Hence, there was need to add fiction element into the movie to sell it,”Naezy says and explains that it is wrong to call what they do as gully rap.
“It is a term coined by people. Mumbai hip-hop is more accurate. This music is from people who have seen a struggle. Other people can’t do it. Also, the difference in what is happening in Mumbai as compared to rest of the country is that here in Mumbai is underground while in the rest, it is mainstream. Also what happens in Mumbai is an entertainment and cult city. Whatever happens here becomes a trend,” Naezy opines and says that he will never forget his roots.
Rap music is different as well. “Rappers don’t need a beat to put their hearts out. They don’t need a third person to tell them what they should and shouldn’t do. But to make it more acceptable to the masses underground rappers use platforms from where they can get free beat loops. What matters here is the lyrics, the story they tell, how good their flow is and how well it rhymes. Spoken poetry matters in a rapper’s life,” Naezy says and tells you that even gestures of a rapper are different and that it something that comes naturally to him and can’t be copied.
Thirty-year-old rapper from Delhi, Krishna Kaul aka Krsna, who has been rapping since he was 16 tells you that there is a lot of hype around hip-hop today, even though it has been around so many years. It has been building slowly and exploded only in the last five years. The actual attention is on gully rap which is an intricate part of Mumbai rap. But that doesn’t mean that Delhi rap is any less but the scene here is different from Mumbai.
“When one scene picks up, it motivates others to join. This makes means that there is little filter. Even people with less substance come to fore. In Delhi, since there is no such hype, the filter system is better. This means the general rap is better in Delhi. Mumbai has great rappers who have contributed to the scene. But a lot of young rappers 15-16-year olds who may not necessarily be good have grabbed eyeballs. Also, in Delhi, rap is grittier and concentrates on the art,” Krishna tells you who got interested in rap listening to it on the MTV channel back in the late 90s.
According to him, the angst and anger as a subject for rap stems from the origins — the African American community who used it to talk about their issues and bring about a revolution. “They were fighting against racism and claim an identity for themselves. There was a movement and it formed a basis of hip-hop where you could say what you had to. No other genre allows you to do this,” Krishna says who tells you that India is late on the rap scene because was in English.
“People who had access to it were upper middle class and the rich. While they may be great listeners, they had nothing to contribute to the art. These classes don’t really encourage their children to pursue music as a career. Most of the rappers come from lower middle class who have seen struggle and hence have things to say. At the point where people have nothing to lose, hip-hop emerges. Therefore, most of the hip-hop is from the streets and not urban class. Since hip-hop in India was in English, there was no large movement. Rap has to be grassroot. Only when a few people started rapping in Hindi did it get noticed,” Krishan explains.
While many rappers say that rap is underground, Krishan tells you that this is no longer true since it become part of mainstream music. “I would not say that it is underground even though there is a section that is. This is because these rappers are not part of mainstream music, hence are underground. Hip-hop has not been underground for a while. Bollywood has been incorporating it in films with artists like Badshah, Yo-Yo Honey Singh and Raftar. They are essentially making hip-hop even though some of it may be commercial and is part pop,”Krishna says who started rapping on socio-political issues with Kaisa Mera Desh back in 2010.
“That was perhaps one of the best rap of my career but I realised that people don’t alway want to listen to rap that is heavy. Rap which is issued-based dies once the issue is over. One has to move to the next one unless one is rapping about global issues. Even then hip-hop has many versions. This is even true in the US,” Krishna tells you and opines that hip-hop is special since it has the ability to evolve including what is happening in India.
This is making the West look to India and rappers abroad want to work with local rappers here. According to an 18-year-old rapper, David Klyton, a Tamilian, who has been rapping since he was 14, the answer is simple. “Rap in India especially Mumbai is unique. Every rapper who emerges from here is different. In other States, rap has come of age in the last 10-15 years. But rap in Mumbai is older. Rappers like Naezy and Divine are doing so well for themselves. The minute Divine came to the conclusion that if he rapped in local language, it would find an instant connect and people would love it, there has been no looking back. The use of slang has helped as well. When I used to listen to rap, I just loved the music but once I heard local rappers use our language — Bambaiya—, I found an instant connect. I felt and if they could do it, I could do it as well. Divine was doing gully rap and people from the streets found a connection. I would never get inspired from his words because his world is different from mine. But when Divine does gully rap, he is telling our story. I find a connect,” David explains but he is quick to point out that there is no bar and fast rule.
“There are many people in Mumbai who love to listen to rappers from Delhi and vice-versa. It depends on people’s taste. Music inspires people, how it does depends on what attracts them. If I had a fancy car, money and girls, Honey Singh would inspire me,” David aka Mr Scam tells you who is part of a crew called 7 Bantai’Z that includes Yoku BIG, Crackpot, Beat Slayer, Lil Damn and Bonz N Ridz.
There is an interesting story how they get their names. They take their pet names and then play around with it or Google it and within minutes, they have their stage name. For example, a teacher used to to refer to a member as crack. From there came Crackpot. David got his stage name when people used to tell him that he had the ability to scam his way through rap.
“People used to say that I could impress my listeners through jhol-jhaal. When I Googled this word I found that in English is means scam. The name stuck,” David says who lives in Mumbai’s Dharavi No 17.
Elaborating on his collective — Dharavi United, he tells you that the other crew members are Dopeadelicz and MC Altaf. “The three of us decided to come together and started Dharavi United. The aim is to represent Dharavi is a positive manner instead of people looking at us like dirt and a place where you just dump garbage,” the first year student of Bachelor of Mass Media from Kirti College says.
He tells you that he was 13 when a friend of his asked him to pen down a few words in Tamil. “At that time rapper Sean Paul’s Temperature was popular. Almost everyone used to have the song on a loop back then. It was cool to listen to rap. But I didn’t know that the genre was called rap. A friend, Yoku, came to me and told me that they were planing to form a crew and if I would be part of it and write a few lines in Tamil on corruption. I told him I didn’t know anything about it. He told me that as long as I managed to rhyme it was good to go. I also met Dopeadelicz. I learnt everything about hip-hop, it’s history, music and what kind of music was popular in the West,” David says.
Though he earns from rapping it is not a fixed amount every month. There are months when he doesn’t earn anything, then there are other months when he is making tens of thousands. All this did not sit well with his parents who wanted him to stick to studying and get a “proper job”.
“There were times when I used to hide from my parents what I used to do. I would lie about where I was going. I would hide my clothes in a bag and slink away. But slowly when I started making money, my parents came to the conclusion that since I am not doing anything illegal, they are happy. Also, I am young, still studying, it is not as if I can get a proper job. If I get older and rap doesn’t bring in steady income, yes, they would insist that I look for a steady job,” David tells you for whom rap is life.
His crew has a YouTube channel where they put up their songs. To being with, they would put up one song every two months but since August 2018, it has become more regular. “There are some videos that get 20,000 videos and some that don’t grab many eyeballs. But now that Gully Boy is out, things are going to look up,” David says who had jammed with Jasleen Kaur in Tamil for the movie Hichki and while he is open to working for Bollywood and make money, he doesn’t want to dilute the hip-hop culture.
“Rap is religion to me. I am sure that I will manage to take it up professionally and make money. But making money is not the aim. If this was the case, we can do so many things to make tons of it. But you don’t sell your religion. Yes, money is important but not at the expense of diluting your religion,” David says.