“I have a dream and it’s not to own a condo or cruise. My dream is to see every slumdog with a shoe” – Divine
This quote by Vivian Fernandes a.k.a Divine is a sharp contradiction to what Indian hip hop has been traditionally associated with. There was a time not long ago that Indian hip hop conjured up an image of Honey Singh rapping about the ‘Blue Eyes’ or ‘Brown Rang’ of ladies who appeared in his music videos alongside expensive cars. However, the Indian audience has evolved and accepted a whole new definition of Indian hip hop with artists such as Divine and Naezy.
With the massive success of ‘Gully Boy’, Zoya Akhtar’s film based on Mumbai’s rap culture, the audience has had a glimpse of what authentic and raw street rap looks like. It revolves around the struggles of rap artists who have risen from Mumbai’s underground rap scene brimming with stories of poverty, economic disparities, violence, social and political issues.
The verse ‘Asli hip-hop se milaaye Hindustan ko’ from a song in Gully Boy is in itself a sign of how little the Indian audience has known about real, home-grown rap before today. The small set of music lovers who were looking for some real rap would always turn to American rappers such as Eminem, Jay-Z, Tupac or Dr. Dre. After all, there was soul and meaning in, say, Eminem’s struggle depicted in 8 Mile’s ‘Lose Yourself’.
So, let’s get a better overview of the Indian hip hop culture and how it has evolved over time.
The underground Indian hip hop culture
Mumbai has been a crucible for an underground hip hop movement since years now. However, since artists belonging to this community never came out to commercialize their art, it remained hidden under the wraps. With the emergence of artists like Divine and Naezy and movies like Gully Boy, people are now getting familiar that such a scenario exists in Mumbai’s by-lanes. Mumbai’s rap scene has played a crucial role in the rise of Indian hip hop.
You’ll find the major chunk of the rapper community consolidated in Dharavi which happens to be Asia’s second largest slum. There’s a bustling community of not just rappers, but also skilled beatboxers, graffiti artists, b-boys, breakdancers, DJs and much more. If one researches more about them, one would realize that these guys in baggy jeans or shorts, long hair, baseball caps with a typical Bambaiya slang are not afraid to be themselves. As they address each other as ‘Bantai’ (bro or mate), they exude casual confidence with cries of ‘Ek Number’ filling up the air.
These guys have maintained a unique identity of their own and come across as a rebellious bunch of youngsters who are so talented with their art, it’s hard to believe that they hide it in the comfort of their slums. Their art is a combination of rhythm and poetry, a lot of which is in the vernacular to remain close to their culture. Also, it’s probably easier to express yourself and talk about your struggles if you embrace your regional language.
One of the first rappers in the Indian hip hop landscape was probably, Baba Sehgal in the 1990s with songs like ‘Thanda Thanda Pani’. However, the Indian hip hop culture failed to pick up pace as, I guess, that raw authenticity was missing. The early 2000s is when the Indian audience started showing interest in hip-hop music accompanied by an infusion of Western rap as artists like Eminem, 50 Cent and others began to make their presence felt.
Before that, Indian music lovers were mostly inclined towards hard rock and metal, as was evidently visible in Bombay’s music circuit. Probably Mumbai’s Finest was one of the first hip- hop crews in Mumbai and it was led by rapper Abhishek Dhusia a.k.a Ace. Ace, along with his other band members, used to perform in college festivals and house parties where they would engage in rap battles.
Rap battles are basically spontaneous verbal battles between two rappers as they weave a series of insults, brags as well as simultaneous comebacks. The adrenaline rush is evident in the rap battle scene from Gully Boy as the protagonist Muraad, played by Ranveer Singh, gives a fitting reply to his opponent after he picks on Muraad’s weaknesses.
In India, rap battles found their way in through a text-battling community on the now-defunct social media platform, Orkut. This community, called the ‘Insignia rap combat’ became popular as rappers started posting rhymes and comebacks to engage in online rap battles. This was serious business and a lot of rap and hip-hop artists collaborated with each other through Insignia.
Rappers would also come together in informal gatherings called ‘cyphers’ on the rooftop of a building or city parks to get together and perform. It wasn’t just restricted to that. They would try to record their work using whatever limited means they had, be it cheap headset microphones and would often pick up rhythm and beats from what was available online.
Talking about the rap culture of Mumbai in specific, Dopeadelicz is worth a mention as their rise was an important event in the hip hop movement that was taking place in Dharavi. Tony Sebastian, the founder of the group, wanted to make music that was close to his story, rather than imitating someone else’s style. After a failed attempt at formulating a rap group, he approached Rajesh Radhakrishnan who goes by the name Dope Daddy and Agnel Avinash Benson or Ben Z to form Dopeadelicz.
Initially, they rapped in English but that changed when they composed a song for the local Ganpati pandal and they realized that performing in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi gave them the leverage to try new styles and the audience response was heart-warming. ‘Ganpati Bappa Moriyanu Sollu’, the song that Dopeadelicz performed thereafter became a rage with the locals. Their 2013 release Aai Shapath Saheb went on to be noticed by a new digital media platform Qyuki, which was started by musician A.R. Rahman.
Indian hip hop hitting mainstream success
Initially, Indian hip hop artists never managed to get a commercial push. As rapper Ace puts it, in the beginning, artists did not have a direction to turn to. They didn’t know where they were headed and will success ever come knocking at their door. Mumbai’s Finest, for instance, has also seen a time when people used to not take rap seriously and they were often made fun of in public.
But the course of Indian hip hop music changed with rappers like Divine hitting mainstream success. Especially in 2017, the genre became visible as it hit jackpot when a few songs went up the charts. It evolved from being underground to being recognized by some big brands and music labels along with rappers having their own YouTube channels. Here are a few Indian hip hop artists who deserve to be talked about.
Vivian Fernandes a.k.a. Divine was the face of the rising success of Indian hip hop. But the success did not come easy as back in early 2000s Vivian had a broken family life as his abusive father had left him, his mother and brother after which he shifted to the slums of Mumbai’s JB Nagar. He’s risen from the ashes of the grim realities of Mumbai’s chawls and gullies. However, his journey with Indian hip hop started when he stumbled upon someone wearing a 50-Cent Tshirt.
His big break came when he released ‘Yeh Mera Bombay’ in 2013 which was shot in its most raw forms in the streets of Mumbai. Little did he know that the video would hit a million views and receive an award from Rolling Stone India thus charting fresh territories for Indian hip hop. However, fame chased him down when he collaborated with co-rapper Naezy for the song ‘Meri Gully Mein’ which came out in 2015. It was the same year that he hit the mainstream when he was signed up by Sony Music after which he released ‘Jungli Sher’ and ‘Farak’ under the label.
He was an integral part of Gully Boy as he’s lent his voice to some of its tracks and it is often said that the movie is based on his life. Right before Gully Boy, his work was also seen in India’s first original series on Netflix, Sacred Games where he performed the title track ‘Kaam 25’.
Naved Shaikh has become famous by the name of Naezy in the Indian hip hop circuit and has a close connection with Divine. The two rappers together released a track called ‘Mere gully mein’ that has also been adopted by the mainstream Bollywood film Gully Boy. The track redefined hip-hop in the minds of people as it talked about the harsh realities of Bombay slums, corruption, the indifferent attitude of politicians, family discord and more.
Emiway Bantai has lent his voice for the song ‘Asli Hip Hop’ in Gully Boy. His real name was Bilal Shaikh and he derived his name from rappers Eminem and Lil Wayne. His first song ever released was called Glint Lock and he released it when he was just 18 years old. However, it did not receive a very warm response from the Indian hip hop audience and the rapper turned his focus towards rapping in Hindi.
During this time, Emiway worked hard as a helper at the ‘Hard Rock Cafe’ as he wanted to gather funds to make music. He came out with his first Hindi rap song, ‘Aur Bantai’ in 2015 which became an instant hit. But when Emiway made a diss track called ‘Samajh Mein Aaya Kya’ directed at Raftaar, it shot him to fame as the track has a whopping 64 million views to its name and managed to make a mark in the Indian hip hop scene.
If we move away from the Mumbai rap scene while spanning the Indian hip hop culture, we come to the National capital Delhi and meet none other than Prabh Deep. Displaying a striking resemblance to the underground rap scene in Mumbai, Prabh Deep grew up in the narrow lanes of Delhi-18 where the use of drugs and gang culture was quite prevalent. He collaborated with producer, Sajeel Kapoor aka Sez, to drop in his first ever album Class-Sikh in which he raps about subjects like the undue pressure on students to perform and drug addiction.
Vighnesh Shivanand aka Brodha V is a Bengaluru-based rapper and producer and an English rapper in the Indian hip hop circuit. He started out as a founder of South Indian rap group Machas With Attitude. He was recognized for his rap battles on Insignia and band hunt competitions while he later got a chance to work with Raghu Dixit for the movie ‘Mujhse Fraaandship Karoge’ and also with music directors Vishal-Shekhar in ‘Chennai Express’. If you listen to his track ‘Aathma Raama’, you’ll find a unique combination of English verses blended beautifully with a devotional music piece straight out of a Bhajan.
the Indian Hip hop’s rise has been visible in the north-east region since the late 1990s. Youngsters in Shillong and Aizawl were rapping verses even before the streets of Mumbai saw guys rapping on the streets. Khasi Bloodz is one of those names that pop up when we talk about rap in the North-east. Ritik Roy Malngiang or Big Ri, Lamonte Pakyntien or D-Mon and Donbok Kharkongor or D-Bok got together in 2009 to form Khasi Bloodz. The band expresses about grim subjects corruption, drug abuse, violence that they have grown up witnessing around them.
Divine, Prabh Deep, Khasi Bloodz and Madurai Souljour were also a part of Puma India’s Suede Gully campaign, which was basically designed to celebrate the spirit of street artists and the genuineness that they bring to the table. The evolution of Indian hip hop has overflowed to regional artists too and the momentum is only set to continue.
Niharika Datta is a Content Writer at Vidooly. She started her career as a Human Resource professional but is now pursuing her love for writing. Though she writes about a myriad of ideas, her personal favourite is writing about the latest trends in the content and digital marketing world. An ambivert by nature, she likes to grab a snack with a warm cup of coffee in the company of a good book or a close friend.