This Wednesday evening, as the rest of the city prepared for the imminent Ganesh Chaturthi festivities, I was chilling on a Dharavi rooftop with Tony Sebastian aka Psycho — founder of up-and-coming stoner rap crew Dopeadelicz — as he played me a demo of the group’s latest single. I’d spent the past two days hanging out in Dharavi and being constantly amazed at how well hip-hop culture had taken root in a locality that is best known (wrongly) as Asia’s largest slum. Twelve-year-old kids threw gang signs at Sebastian as we walked down bylanes littered with graffiti tags. I watched a tall, gangly teenage b-boy showing off some ridiculous power moves inside a tiny, dingy community hall before declaring that he’d be a part of hip-hop till he died. Later, a couple of shy, quiet 15-somethings picked up a mic and started spitting fire with all the swagger and self-assurance of Biggie and Tupac. And as I watched the sun set over Dharavi while sharing a smoke with Sebastian, I found myself thinking, “This Indian hip-hop thing could be really, really big!”
That’s probably not news to anyone who follows Indian pop culture. The past couple of years have seen a rapid rise in the exposure and popularity of Indian rap. After a slow start — at least when compared to its rock and electronica cousins — and a few false dawns, Indian hip-hop is finally making its presence felt. And I’m not just talking about the comical hedonism of the Yo Yo Honey Singh brigade, though his popularity does have a lot to do with the rap scene’s newfound momentum. Having spent the past few years perfecting their craft, a new generation of rappers are knocking down doors and pushing their way into the cultural mainstream. Today, Indian rap — ranging from Sikander Kahlon’s Punjabi battle-rap to Naezy’s playful, socially conscious Mumbaiya-Urdu hip-hop — has made its way to TV screens, festival line-ups and your friendly neighbourhood hipster club. My indie friends like to compare it to the rock scene a few years ago, just before it exploded and became an “indie” culture industry. They’re mostly right, but I think Indian hip-hop could become much, much bigger, leaving the indie scene trailing in its wake. And the biggest reason for that is class.
Indian hip-hop in 2015 cuts across class lines, with some of the most promising artists coming from the streets of India’s many urban ghettos. While there is plenty of party-rap and gangsta posturing, there’s also a breed of rappers whose rhymes and experiences are authentic to wide swathes of urban India.
Indian indie, despite its best efforts, still exists largely within a small bubble of India’s social and economic elite. It’s rich kids going on stage and performing for other rich kids, even if most of us like to pretend that we’re actually middle class. If you disagree, then take a look around you the next time you’re at Blue Frog or NH7 Weekender, or look up the ticket prices for Magnetic Fields. It’s the same faces you’ll find brunching at Cafe Indigo or (mis)quoting Derrida at a Colaba art gallery — members of a cultural elite that feels more at home in London than in Dharavi. Indian hip-hop, on the other hand, has been much more successful in breaking down the class and language barrier. The scene I saw in Dharavi isn’t unique, it’s being played out all over the country. Indian hip-hop in 2015 cuts across class lines, with some of the most promising artists coming from the streets of India’s many urban ghettos. While there is plenty of party-rap and gangsta posturing, there’s also a breed of rappers whose rhymes and experiences are authentic to wide swathes of urban India. They’re aware of hip-hop’s origins as the music of New York’s disaffected black youth, and their music plugs into the same vein of discontent and anger that inspired the early rap pioneers. The hip-hop narrative ties in with the aspirations of Indian youth a lot better than the grandiosity and upper class arty pretensions of rock music or electronica’s hedonism and abstraction. Its values of realness and authenticity, its focus on socio-political testimony and basic message of empowerment resonates with contemporary India. Its tradition of individual myth-making appeals to lower-income kids trying to fashion an identity that goes beyond the labels applied to them by society and their environment. And most importantly, it allows and encourages them to speak truth to power, something that neither indie music nor Bollywood has managed to do.
There are also more practical reasons for hip-hop’s ability to go where rock and electronica couldn’t. You don’t need expensive guitars or production equipment to be a good rapper or b-boy, just some talent and the will to work hard. Hip-hop’s rich history of sampling and its slang-heavy language makes it much more open to localisation in terms of sounds and content. And its focus on words ties it in with a rich oral folk tradition of balladeers and people’s poets across the country.
All of this adds up to the potential for hip-hop to be much bigger than anyone imagines. In a recent interview, Mumbai rapper Enkore told me that he thinks hip-hop could be “the biggest non-Bollywood scene in the country.” He’s right. So I’d advise my indie rocker and electronica producer friends to keep looking over their shoulders. Indian hip-hop is tired of waiting in the wings, it’s hungry for success and it’s coming for you.
Bhanuj Kappal is a freelance music journalist who likes noise, punk rock and mutton biryani.