While many are talking of the rise of Indian hip-hop over the past couple of years, moreso after the release of the film Gully Boy in February last year, the fact is that the genre has been around in this country for nearly three decades. Yet, there is a major difference between then and now – while hip-hop became part of the mainstream earlier, it’s now considered a parallel genre.
Let’s flash back to the beginning of the 1990s. The upsurge in local Indian rap music came slightly after the time Tupac Shakur, aka 2Pac, was rising to fame in the West. Hip-hop was becoming popular abroad, mostly rising out of the American ghettos. Though the US already had big acts like Beastie Boys and Run DMC, it was 2Pac who gave the genre a major fillip. He released his debut album 2Pacalypse Now in 1991, igniting an international interest in the musical style.
In India a few months later, Bali Brahmbhatt released the song ‘Patel Rap’. The following year, the success of Baba Sehgal’s Thanda Thanda Pani boosted the genre, becoming the biggest-selling album of its time. Though his base was bhangra and reggae, UK-based Apache Indian’s music used rap elements too. When remixes became popular during the second half of the 1990s, it was a common thing to include a rap portion in the middle of a song. Very often, these portions seemed totally out of place, but the trend became fashionable.
Thus, those days, Indian rap music was part of the mainstream Indipop movement. It was just a sub-genre, like bhangra-pop or Hindi rock, but fell under the overall umbrella of Indipop. Style Bhai’s self-titled 1994 album went mainstream. Film songs like Devang Patel’s ‘Meri Marzi’ (from The Gambler) and the Bali Brahmbhatt-Alka Yagnik song ‘Amma Dekh’ (Stuntman) used rap parts. Later, rapper Blaaze became regular in Hindi and Tamil films, and worked a lot with music director A.R. Rahman.
An interesting feature was that while western rap used a lot of street language and protest lyrics, Indian rap focused on the fun element. Songs like ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’ and ‘Meri Marzi’ weren’t meant to make listeners angry or rebellious, or provoke intense thoughts the way 2Pac’s 1995 album Me Against The World did.
However, beyond a point, desi rap never really took off, and played a very small role in the overall scheme of things. There were a few reasons for this. One, only a handful of singers turned to rap – most artistes chose either melodic pop, bhangra or pop-rock. As Brahmbhatt points out, “Artistes like me and a few others began experimenting with other styles.” Secondly, by the end of the 1990s, the overall popularity of Indipop had waned, and rap was naturally affected.
Thirdly, a lot of rappers began by blindly copying western stars like Eminem, Jay-Z and 50 Cent. There was no distinct identity or Indian dialects at that time, and that’s something that only came later. Finally, with Bollywood being a more lucrative option, many rappers focused on getting film songs, rather than working wholeheartedly on creating albums.
For almost a decade, Indian hip-hop had nearly vanished, though thanks to the efforts of music labels and the Grammy awards, youngsters were exposed to the latest international artistes. But around 2010, it slowly made a mark in select pockets, starting out as an underground style.
For any genre to make it big, a few things are required. One is that it needs its own individual sound. In the case of Indian rap, this came through the use of local jargon and even regional languages. The term ‘gully rap’ was used to describe rap music emanating from the slums and blames. Dharavi in Mumbai was one area which had many local rappers trying to make it big. Tamil and Bengali rap artistes came up in small numbers.
The second requirement is the presence of known names. While Yo Yo Honey Singh became a household name, others like Divine, Badshah, Naezy, Raftaar, Emiway Bantai, Brodha V and producer Sez On The Beat attracted their own fans. After Gully Boy was released last year, more and more artistes became serious about rap.
The third is that the genre requires a certain level of backing, either through record labels or financiers. Over the past year, Mass Appeal India, a tie-up between Mass Appeal and Universal Music, has released Divine’s album Kohinoor and now Raja Kumari’s single ‘NRI’. Big Bang Records, a collaboration between Sony Music and entertainment agency Kwan, released Naezy’s album Maghreb. Azadi Records put out albums by Ahmer and Tienas. Ahmer, like his mentor MC Kash used lyrics that talked of the Kashmir issue. “In rap music it is important to speak in a language that people identify with. So besides Hindi, we also had Kashmiri rap songs,” he says.
Initiatives like Gully Gang Entertainment, Dharavi Dream Project and Haq Se Hindustan are doing their bit to promote Indian hip-hop. Recently, rapper Raftaar independently released his album Mr Nair.
While things are happening, a few challenges remain. One is that since the audience for hip-hop is restricted to those under 25, the appeal is limited in comparison to film music and Indipop. Secondly, while Divine and Honey Singh have their own fan following, it is nowhere compared to that of 1990s pop stars like Alisha Chinai, Daler Mehndi and Lucky Ali.
Finally, the lockdown has affected this genre just when things were showing promise, and a lot of rebuilding may be necessary. But as Raftaar says, “The main thing required is consistently good writing. And for that we musicians need to make the effort. It’s our responsibility to keep producing good music which carries a story and strong message.” Let’s rap to that.