By Nair Da Dec. 30, 2019
Even as India registers a low rank for starting a business, and millions of micro-firms struggle to stay afloat, a new species of internet-enabled artist-entrepreneur is thriving. Unburdened by corporate or political bureaucracy, Indian hip-hop’s army of ardent creators have hooked our youth to a quality product.
Ab mann ko lagti shanti hai
Jeb main jab Gandhi hai
Hum ko chotte lana aandhi hain!
– Divine, “Gandhi Money”
The blueprint has been laid
12,524 kilometres. If you wanted to put a number on how far Indian hip-hop has travelled in 2019, the distance between JFK International and Mumbai’s CST airports, serves as a metaphor and milestone. After checking into India’s popular consciousness, Mumbai’s son-of-the-soil Vivian Fernandes aka Divine’s collaboration with his guru, East Coast hip-hop legend Nas in New York, marks the genre’s undeniable arrival on the world stage.
It also marks the manifestation of another, related phenomenon — the Hype Cycle. Like “gravity” or “virality” or “probability”, the Hype Cycle is an idea that has seeped into everyday life. A phenomenon coined by technology firm Gartner, it describes the beginning, sharp ascent, intense blossoming, and eventual normalisation of a technological trend. To some, this cresting of the hip-hop Hype Cycle might be the natural outcome of the “Gully Boy effect”, named for India’s Oscar entry that catapulted homegrown hip-hop into the mainstream. To others, this notion risks authoring an inaccurate history.
“Gully Boy introduced an entire audience to a new sub-culture that was developing for years and years,” points out Chaitanya Kataria, business head, Gully Gang Entertainment. Kataria represents the new breed of independent entertainment entrepreneurs. Partnering with Divine to found a business based on Indian hip-hop’s emergence as a legitimate commercial venture came naturally to someone who began a career managing artists. It’s a background that’s made him acutely aware of the plight of talented artists who have to contend with earning a living even as they seek commercial glory.
“Is this the thing for me to do?” That’s the question Gully Gang made its roster of talent, that include acts like D’Evil, Shah Rule, and Avrutti, ask themselves. In Kataria’s own words, it’s a strategic approach, uncommon in a world where putting out YouTube videos and chasing streams is an aspiring artist’s primary goal. His passion for helping artists monetise their talent with a multi-pronged strategy stems from his belief in the need to manage music with the same savvy technology companies apply to their product. Crafting an identity untethered from Bollywood meant pulling stunts like organising a ticketed concert for the launch of Divine’s debut album Kohinoor — an unprecedented achievement for a maiden venture in its infancy.
The mindful publishing of online content, saleable merchandise, and brand collaborations mark the maturing of entertainers into entrepreneurs. Despite ambiguous intellectual property laws, disorganised artist management, and immature ticketing infrastructure, India’s music industry still holds promise. To Kataria and forerunners like him, hip-hop’s versatility — the ability to be the lovechild of art and commerce while still influencing society — is an inescapable opportunity. “If the promoters, labels and players in the game… all the musicians, if they’re not earning, the ecosystem dies down,” he says zealously of a genre that has transcended geographies – and yet, has only just begun its journey in India.
The hood, its heroes, and its hype-men make their mark
All journeys are emotional ones. That’s the sense you get when, seated cross-legged by the sea in Mumbai, filmmaker Navzar Eranee joins his head of music Anushka Manchanda to talk about their venture, INCINK. As collaborators, a brand-funded assignment to seek out aspiring rappers, led to the idea of an artist collective. Their review of 1,500 entries done, Anushka and musician sibling Shikhar (also the joint head of music) defied conventional choices to pick a handful of worthies. With his palms facing his chest, part boxer, part beat poet, Navzar speaks of the creative cocoon they set out to build for budding artists. “I said I’ve got to do something, I want to touch this… Who else wants to be part of it?”
Seated languorously, Anushka completes the thought. “I think we were already in that flow”. She’s recounting with incredulity a time in 2017, after they finished the assignment: “I was crying — how can this be it?! These guys are so talented and this is it?!”.
This sentiment sprouted into an organisation intent on including and incubating homegrown hip-hop artists. Rappers like Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire, and SlowCheeta were soon launched to helm the INCINK roster. “The first seed comes from authenticity… That is the basis of who we are,” Navzar explains. “Once we got a whiff of that, and the content itself… What they were writing about… We were like ‘wow!’”.
The artist-entrepreneurs soon found their force-multiplier — in childhood friend and actor Ranveer Singh, Navzar had the consummate hip-hop-head and hype-man. Singh’s obsession with the genre, high-octane energy, and affection for the artists have created a musical starburst no independent genre has ever seen in India.
The prolific Spitfire’s debut EP “Paathshala”, has parlayed his poetic flair into intricate rhyme schemes. Kaam Bhari’s singles “Aala Re” and “Mohabbat” channeled his prodigious flow. Already, young rappers who were posting early efforts on YouTube are beginning to metamorphose. Whether it’s being coached for stage performances, having concept art created for them, or linkages to other remunerative work, they are now embarking on pathways into a broader ecosystem.
Ever the pragmatist, Navzar is quick to admit, “There’s no business model for it. We’re creating the business model. It requires major patience and compassion.” Fortunately, Indian hip-hop’s scene gushes with mutual goodwill. “Look at all the stuff that Swadeshi and Azadi are doing! D’Evil is a super good writer too!” volunteers Anushka.
As their trio of talents carve their own paths, the new keepers of the flame seem determined to shine an intense spotlight on an underground that has journeyed in the shadows for too long.
Feet underground, standing proud
Industry maya jaal tode kaise kaala jadu?
Chaaro taraf hai aag, bhagu to main kaha bhagu?
– Dee MC, MC Altaf, Sense, “Piece of Mind”
“It grew in the Kannada and Tamil industries way before Bollywood!”.
If we needed proof that hip-hop lives outside Mumbai, the diminutive poet, scholar, writer, singer Dee MC serves as an eager evangelist. We’re seated in a sparsely decorated suburban Mumbai apartment and her exultation draws you in.
“Adhi, Brodha V, Waterbottles…” She reels off the names of South Indian first-movers with a storyteller’s flair. In a year that has seen the work of artists like Prabh Deep and Seedhe Maut (North), Street Academics, Arivu & ofRO, and Smokey The Ghost (South) lead an explosion of linguistically versatile rap, her emphasis is understandable. This, in addition to releases by the West’s Naezy, 7Bantaiz, Swadesi and self-styled bad boy Emiway Bantai, has unleashed a sonic storm.
Cut to a month earlier, at Raasta, a Mumbai club that regularly hosts hip-hop shows. As the lights dim, a voice rings out, “Where’s Sense? Where’s Sense?” For the second time during the launch of Dee MC’s debut album (Dee=MC2), her fellow artist Sense jogs back on stage. Clad in a black sweatshirt, hair worn like an Aghori Sadhu, Sense hunches over the mic. Joining Dee MC and fellow Dharavi rapper MC Altaf, the trio perform “Piece of Mind”, a scathing take from a strong-willed independent artist on protecting their art from dilution. It’s a scene that caps a remarkable year for Dee MC, who featured in Gully Boy, performed in Canada, and collaborated with UK-based Sunit Music to produce an album.
These milestones have been punctuated by an avalanche of shows and brand collaborations across the country. “The number of gigs is off the charts,” Dee says, talking about how more popular acts have pulled others into the spotlight. These performances precede a fire hose of content that racks up millions of views online. Dee smirks as sardonic nostalgia takes over. “Even until two years they (the big labels) were the biggest naysayers of the Gully scene, saying, ‘who knows whether it’s going to blow or not?’”. Now she commands her price as organisers scramble to get known acts on stage.
“Gully Gang, and INCINK and labels are taking steps to map the road of hip-hop in India,” says the MC who traded a corporate career and a Commerce Masters to make a living doing what she loves. But commercial considerations aside, she’s also quick to insist that independent artistes should also have a say in how the genre evolves. As we conclude our conversation, Apple music notifies me that Khatarnaak, a Delhi based rap crew has just dropped their latest album Kha se Khatarnaak. Another ping announces that the debut EP of the trio Triangles, has been released by Azadi records.
Rap’s renaissance year in India is marked by a fascinating medley of factors. In an industry where commercial ventures can either be a trampoline to greatness or a trapdoor to oblivion, young, enterprising entrepreneurs are trumping a system sometimes stacked against them. Even as India registers a low rank for starting a business, and millions of micro-firms struggle to stay afloat, a new species of internet-enabled artist-entrepreneur is thriving. Unburdened by corporate or political bureaucracy, Indian hip-hop’s army of ardent creators have hooked our youth to a quality product. Its content lends it gravity. Its social currency ensures virality. And a generation of commercially savvy impresarios has just increased the probability that the hype is here to stay.
Nair Da muses on all things that could pre-occupy the urban male mind in 21st century India. The country's cultural jigsaw is his ceaseless source of inspiration in a quest for the bigger picture. He'd do anything for his love for writing but he won't do that.