How Spitfire, a Young Gully Rapper Made His Mark On India With Gully Boy’s “Asli Hip Hop”

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How Spitfire, a Young Gully Rapper Made His Mark On India With Gully Boy’s “Asli Hip Hop”

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Picture this: You’re a regular young millennial going about your ordinary life. One day you get a phone call from Bollywood heartthrob Ranveer Singh. He says the three magical words you’ve been waiting to hear. “Chhote, Bombay aaja.” That is how Nitin Mishra, aka Spitfire, a songwriter, rapper, and an OG gully boy from Madhya Pradesh, went on to become the lead writer in the Ranveer Singh-starrer Gully Boy, making his mark in the inner chambers of Bollywood. The “Asli Hip Hop” hook that you’ve been tapping your foot to all this year? That’s his creation.

“I write poems and I overthink,” reads his Instagram bio. His public account is an eclectic mix of pictures with Ranveer Singh and Zoya Akhar, his debut appearance at the Lakme Fashion Week, his many tattoos, and all things expected of a rapper. But a look at his private account, and you know what’s special. An image of an aam-papad and churan stall is captioned “nostalgia”, a freshly bloomed rose from a home garden peeps out, two glasses of tea are queued up on blue PVC tables. This is the milieu that Mishra occupies – and this is the milieu you experience in his verses.  It’s this authenticity that sets him apart.

Mishra’s signature hip-hop style is confessional. I had heard his songs, “Seedhe Midzone Se”, “Jee Le” and the hard-hitting “#Black” and a few minutes into the conversation, I could tell where they were coming from. Like the majority of Indians in small towns, Mishra lived a lower-middle-class existence in an environment that is slow to modernise. In the world that the Mishras occupy, people “don’t understand any art”. The young Mishra too had to contend with the same rehashed views of “doctor ban jao, engineering kar lo”. Very early on, he knew if he were to dive into an unconventional career, he’d have to support himself. His passion had to become his unique currency. Spitfire had to, in a way, embrace who he was if he wanted the world to embrace him back.

Like the majority of Indians in small towns, Mishra lived a lower-middle-class existence in an environment that is slow to modernise.

He was 15 when he was bit by the hip hop bug. A sense of unease, restlessness, and angst, had begun to set in, but back then he was not aware that the “azaadi” he sought will eventually come from his own words. All he knew was that he had things to say. “I didn’t even have a phone back then but I became friends with someone at school who did.” Ayush Khare, who goes by the street name, “Wordsmith” was that cool kid in middle school who owned a phone with an internet connection. “He had studied the global hip hop movement, and literally schooled me on how to write. We were a group of eight boys, six of whom would give us a topic, hook or idea, and the two of us had to produce a rap around that in 30 minutes,” or about as long their class periods.

Even though this would go on to become his personal route to success, this tomfoolery landed him in a lot of trouble. His parents were called. His bag was inspected for suspicious material and having found his journal full of “filth”, he was suspended. “There was no filth,” he clarifies. “It is a common perception that hip hop glorifies alcoholism and sexualises women. But I write about the aspirations, conflicts, or struggles, shared by me and my friends. Even my name Spitfire, came out of those sessions with my friends. One day, someone commented, “Bro jab tu likhta hai ya bolta hai, toh aisa lagta hai jaise aag ugal raha hai” (When you rap, it seems like you’re spitting fire).” These contestations find a resonance in his work, particularly, his single “Midzone se”, where he describes being seen as “Mishra ji ka pagal ladka.”

Through it all, Mishra just clung to words to lift him up.

Koi yahan tere liye na aayega,

Jitna darega tu yeh jag tujhe utna darayega

Toh awaaz utha, tere saath hai khuda

Aur jee le zara

– “Jee Le”

Mishra’s verses encapsulates how he crafted his own mark as an artiste; it describes his intense desire to break out, and speak out against everything that held him back. Mishra and Khare, perform as a duo, and post their songs under the YouTube handle, RAPresent.

Mishra’s verses encapsulates how he crafted his own mark as an artiste; it describes his intense desire to break out, and speak out against everything that held him back.

His big break came through the Jack and Jones commercial “Don’t Hold Back 2.0” in 2017, where the payoff was a chance to feature with Ranveer. Mishra had the words, but there was no recording studio in town. But that was hardly an obstacle big enough to deter him. “So I recorded my rap on a phone and sent it. When the list of selected rappers was released on the website, my name wasn’t there,” he tells me. But as luck would have it, he did eventually get selected on the sheer force of his talent. Such was his effect that the producer of the video, “Anushka (Manchanda) didi agreed to FaceTime with me”.

Historically, hip-hop stands for the voice of the voiceless, forging solidarity through shared experiences of marginalisation. When Mishra first heard some parts of the Gully Boy script, he felt that his own story was being told. The hip-hop movement in Mumbai’s slums, which forms the backdrop of Gully Boy is often compared to the political movement of the 1990s US when socially-conscious rappers spoke about the frustrations of Inner City life. Vivian Fernandez aka Divine’s debut single Mere Gully Mein featuring Naved Shaikh aka Naezy was hailed as an ode to the neighbourhood where he grew up. Like them, Mishra also situates his rap in the same tradition, of speaking to the disenfranchised.

What sets Mishra’s rhymes apart are their linguistically striking features – if Bombay rap has slang, Mishra’s Bundelkhand origins include shuddh Hindi. “Mere gaon mein abhi bhi log kahawaton (idioms) mein baat karte hain.” And that is evident in songs like “Shakkar”. In that sense, the unique, raw style that Mishra brings to the table with his verses can hardly be replicated by any other rapper. He isn’t a template. He is a star of his own making. I ask him if he was now a big shot in MP. “Kind of,” he says shyly. Now that Gully Boy has become one of the biggest films of the year, earning the honour to be India’s official Oscar selection, only one thing can be said about Mishra’s career – Iska time aa gaya.

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