Rhyme and reason
Indian rappers talk to Anjali Jhangiani about the rise of rap, how it has become the collective voice of the nation and whether it is an economically-viable career today.
Back from Baba Sehgal who became a sensation in the ’90s because of his amusing verses which were a few sandwiches short of a picnic, to the current blue-eyed boy of the genre, Divine who raps about his life in his city, Mumbai — Indian hip-hop has certainly come a long way. Though Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, loosely based on the lives of Divine and Naezy, caused a rapid boom in this genre, which then led to a rise in audiences as well as artists, Indian hip-hop still has a long way to go. Reality shows and competitions are encouraging the rap scene too. From the outside, it seems like everything is working in favour of rap music right now, so we speak to Indian rappers to get an insider’s perspective on the present scene and discuss the course it is most likely to take from here.
Putting one’s concerns, troubles, thoughts and ideas into verse has become the thing to do. Brands too are wasting no time in jumping onto the hip-hop bandwagon. From rap reality shows to off-air competitions, the genre has been proven to be profitable in the literal sense as well as enriching the hip-hop culture. Naved Sheikh aka Naezy, who performed at the Pune stopover of Breezer Vivid Shuffle recently, says, “I am delighted, excited and honoured to be a part of Breezer Vivid Shuffle. The competition is more than just rap. It is a platform for B-boys, MCs, DJs, graffiti artists, everything and everyone who is a part of the hip-hop culture. We are educating the public about how hip-hop is not just about partying and dancing, but also about being the voice of change.”
Rapper Ankur Johar aka Enkore talks about how the democratic nature of the genre is vital in making it resonate with widespread audiences. “Rap is supposed to be raw and honest. In my head, it is about anti-establishment, of any kind. This rap trend happening now is more democratic than any other fads we’ve seen. People can connect because the artists are not talking about California and Queens, but about Mumbai and Khar,” says he.
The Chance Hi Nahi maker doesn’t like being categorised for his style of songs. “People are trying to box us into categories. Earlier they tried calling the music rap from the North desi hip-hop. Now that a certain style has emerged from Mumbai, they are calling it gully. They must realise that all these tags are just different flavours of the same kind of music,” says he, adding that the chorus of his recent track Dheet goes, Main bas dheet jaise likhte raho geet, bulaye usse galli ya desi. Is he more club or is he more street?
Rahul Dhande aka Blunt, who has been collaborating with Enkore for over a decade now, also echoes the sentiment. “Everyone is looking for that gully rap with local slangs and stuff because they probably don’t have exposure to how hip-hop culture is much more than this. There are rappers who come from the gully background, but there are ones, like Enkore and I, who do not. And rap is all about being true to yourself. When we perform, many people suggest that we should incorporate such slangs in our verses, but we refrain from it because it will not be sincere. Rappers need to express themselves with genuineness and not just go with what people want. Verses should not be pretentious, but genuine,” says the rapper.
Making a living
The mainstream has now opened many doors for rappers. Enkore, who quit his day job a year-and-a-half ago to focus on his art, says, “Now we are getting opportunities and it is up to us to see what we do with them. Conversations with brands and labels do happen. But it really comes down to each deal, and whether it works for me as an artist or not. I don’ think artists should wait to get signed by labels. Labels are not the culture, they work with the culture. You should just try and do justice to your art.”
Blunt believes that upcoming rappers need a day job or a regular gig to make sure they can pay their bills. “Only a few rappers are on top, the rest are struggling. They are doing shows or advertisements for free so they get exposure, and even if they are getting paid for gigs, payments hardly come on time. There is no concept of royalty here, so artists are cheated out of it when bigger companies use or sample their work. Artists should get royalty when their work is used, whether it is for movies, ads or even TikTok. Everything happens on verbal agreements, there’s no written contract most of the time. I have been cheated, my payments have been delayed for over six months sometimes,” says he.
For Naezy, it’s always been about the art. “But now I have become serious and I want money from it, because, why not? During my first two-three years as a rapper, I worked without paying attention to how much I was earning from my art. Now as I am growing up, I am learning the business side of things. There are hundreds of ways you can earn money from hip-hop, and it has become easier for upcoming artists to get gigs, promotional advertisements, online posts and so on since we have already educated society about the genre. Brands, venues, promoters — everyone knows what is gully rap because we have been doing it for a few years now,” says he, adding, “But you should know that an artist’s income is not stable. As a rapper, you have to hustle. When you earn a good chunk of money in one season, you have to keep it safe because you don’t know if your calendar will be full in the next season too.”
Every piece of art is in some way a representation of the artist. And the way they process and execute their inspiration is a big part of it. Naezy claims to have a drive to write about new things. “I am a regular guy. My ghisi-pitti story defines me. But when I’m writing, I come out of myself and take a look at Naezy and see where he’s coming from and where he has reached as an artist. I get inspired with the journey and come up with new content,” says he.
Though his songs voice the common man, the artist himself is not just another face in the crowd anymore. Rising to fame, travelling across India to do shows, and having a media presence has given him celebrity status. But still the rapper claims to stick to his humble roots to keep his creative fire burning. “Even after all this popularity, I haven’t changed myself. I still have the same issues in life — my parents are still against me, I still live with my mother and grandmother, I still eat the regular dal-roti-chawal. I don’t eat Tandoori Chicken everyday. I still have hurdles to face, and this inspires my best work,” he says, confidently adding, “In this period, there won’t be anything better than I am writing, there won’t be a better MC flowing to the beats and rhythm than me.”
Blunt points out how a few years ago, there was a boom of DJs and EDM, and how there was one at every nook and corner making their own tracks. But that fad died down and only the best survived. But this might not be the scene with rap, as the genre is inclusive and accommodating. “There are activist rappers talking about social issues like drug addiction and there are those who are making party tracks too. Hip-hop is all of this,” says he.
Supporting Manchester United is perhaps the only mainstream thing Enkore’s ever done. He shares, “I’ve always felt that the things which are popular are not always the best. Someone like Jay Z never had commercial success like Lil Nas X with Old Town Road now. As rappers, what we are aiming for is representing the culture well, and delivering something great instead of something that just ‘works’. There are shortcuts and some artists are using them to create a stink, but the onus of educating people about real hip-hop and what it stands for, is on us.”
Doing the work
Having reached a level of success that makes him a mentor for aspiring rappers, Naezy says that he teaches through his performances. “My energy, the way I deliver my verses and all the technicalities that I display on the stage during my 30-40 minute performance is like a lesson for budding rappers. That’s enough mentorship for them I feel. I too learned from watching different MCs around the world perform live. I would travel internationally to go and see them, adopt their ideas of performance, their style of delivering their verse, the way they communicated with audiences and so on,” says the Aafat! hitmaker who plans to release a few songs, about getting up every time you fall, very soon.
After releasing his second album last year titled Bombay Soul, Enkore is now working on a list of singles he plans to release in the form of an EP next month. “Bombay Soul was intense because I was then disillusioned by society, the government, the people in general. It’s not a sad album, but serious. Now I’m in a happier, lighter space and the verse too comes from there,” says he.
Blunt, who studied sound engineering in the UK and also performs as a DJ, raps about the way he was raised, belonging to a scheduled caste community and so on. “I’ve been back in India for two years now, and am working on my EP called Game Seven. The title is inspired by a basketball reference — game seven is where you have to prove yourself or go home. It’s time for me to release my music and be out there,” he says.