In the hip-hop lexicon, “dissing” is an important term. It basically means insulting, even abusing, your contender, but in a lyrical way. Insiders call these mudslinging matches “rap battles”. And such rap battles are held almost once every month in several parts of Delhi these days, a city that, in recent years, has become become fertile ground for what’s known as “underground” hip hop.
Hip hop, in its mainstream avatar, has flourished in India. Punjabi musicians working for Bollywood have even made this genre their stock-in-trade. Yet when we talk about underground hip hop, we are talking of something entirely unrelated to what we hear on TV or on the radio. If you want to hear hip hop that’s true to its old-school spirit, you’d better head over to, say, some subway in Connaught Place or some secluded corner in Hauz Khas, where enthusiasts of underground hip hop routinely gather for their usual battles or for open-mic nights.
Freestyling is at the heart of all this. A freestyling rapper is putting up an impromptu performance, spinning rhymes and spitting out words in an improvised fashion. One of the contemporary icons of the global hip-hop community is a musician called Bohemia, also known as Roger David, who is a Pakistani-born rapper who lives in California. Bohemia is today considered the “desi king of hip hop”, as he chooses to compose his songs only in Punjabi.
“I got inspired by Mirza Ghalibs’s poetry, and it is somehow very difficult for the people to digest it,” he told me on his recent visit to Delhi. “You can get inspired by anyone at any point of time, you know. A kid playing on the swing can actually attract your attention by his innocent gestures. Likewise, Ghalib’s poetry inspired me to pen down the things which used to welter my mind. Music evolves every minute, every second. So hip hop has evolved with time. The art is no more just a medium to give out parables. Old-school hip hop was seen and heard when it was appreciated. When it was needed. Now, people have changed, and so has their mindset. We cannot go ahead with the same approach and mindset which we had 15 to 20 years back. It’s not possible.”
A similar change is taking place within the hip-hop scene in India. Joshua Samuel one of the veteran emcees from the underground circuit in Delhi, as well as a music teacher at the Korean Culture Centre, and a member of the band Alien Sky Cult. “Metal and rap have gone always gone hand in hand,” he says. “Some people don’t get it and they never will. Metalheads howl and yes it’s a talent, and so is rap. Rapping needs a lot of brains, you need to undergo exhausting exercises, especially when battling. Freestyling needs a lot of technical prowess, of how to play with words and break down syllables, how to come up with the cleverest rhymes and on how to pick on your opponent.
But there is a contradiction at play here. Most of the young hip hop enthusiasts in India are confronted with social and cultural values that are strictly at odds with what the gospel of hip-hop is supposed to be preaching.
Old-school hip hop was seen and heard when it was appreciated. When it was needed. Now, people have changed, and so has their mindset. We cannot go ahead with the same approach and mindset which we had 15 to 20 years back.
These Rap battlers having so much of passion for hip hop talked about how they deal with the society, precisely, their parents and relatives who always look up to them with more expectations rather than just wearing baggy clothes, coming out with hideous turnouts and killing time on this art. Most of the battlers face criticism for their language and approach towards the society. For some rappers, like Lakshya Arora (rap name KrazyClip) from Chandigarh, juggling hip hop with one’s family as well as professional lives becomes a serious challenge.
“Man, I’ve been battling for a couple of years now,” he says, “ and it sounds ridiculously mean if someone comes up to me to tell that you really need to focus on your future rather than kidding around with a bunch of people who ain’t got s*** and never gon’ get s***. I’m a student of FDDI, I have done BBA and I do plan to get my career straight and even if I don’t it’s not your business. Hip hop has always been the root cause for me to never give up on anything, be it my academics or my hobbies. I do real hip hop, and it takes hell of a mind to write rhymes which actually make sense and not like some Honey Singh s***.”
Abhishek Singh, another Delhi-based music producer, has worked on a number of hip hop albums with local musicians. The lead singer of his own band, Brothers 4, Abhishek owns a state-of-the-art recording studio in Malviya Nagar. “We all know how music plays an important role in every individual’s life. About the sessions which I’ve had with some of the young rappers from Delhi, they are raw: they are fresh and are ready to learn from the mistakes which they make. All I feel is that our young generation has a lot of talent which is not being utilised properly. There’s talent here. Indian musicians are authentic, no doubt about it, and I feel the same authenticity and passion when these 20-year-olds step up to the booth to deliver their word. Immaturity is there, but it actually provides the space to nurture their thoughts. If every musician comes out perfectly refined with their genre, then where is the room for improvement?”
One of the best-known figures in the Delhi underground is the rapper Krsna, previously called Young Prozpekt, who launched his first album Sellout at the Hard Rock Cafe Mumbai in May this year and proceeded on an album tour of the country. In conversation with me, Krsna recalls how obsessed he was, and still is, about hip hop. “My journey began when I was 14. I did my schooling in London around a rough neighbourhood so the atmosphere was largely hip hop. It was easy to fit as hip hop was what everyone else was listening to. My first lyrics were written on a piece of tissue paper. Then I joined crews and started battling. It became an obsession. I was 18 when I first recorded. I didn’t want it to be a hobby. So I put my mind to it, quit everything and went the right way. Hip hop has always been my passion and I can’t really think what I would do if it was never about hip hop. The 26-year-old says he always had a strategy. “I know what people are looking for. I always had a route in my mind as to how I can get there. Skill is good but what sets you apart in the end is knowing what path to take to achieve success.”
But what of mainstream rap in India? Raftaar, a mainstream rapper here, says: “Rapping is competitive. Even someone who is not particularly fond of my music may claim to be my fan only because he hates Honey Singh. You won’t see fans with Sonu Nigam or Arijit Singh tattoos, but I’ll show you many who have my name tattooed. Because unlike them, we rappers sell a certain aspirational lifestyle to our fans. I was a restless, hyper-energetic Class IX student waiting to explode when a friend gave me a CD with the songs of Eminem and Linkin Park. I knew I had a sharper mind than most others and I had a sense of rhyme. I didn’t even need to sing melodies. I felt like this was the perfect way to make my way out of the gutter.”