Four new artists from the city’s bustling hip-hop scene talk about tapping into the sound of the streets to make music that stands out
Photographs Yusuf Lokhandwala
Junior Fashion Stylist Nishta Parwani
“It’s all about that moment when your track kicks in and you hear people say”Aree, yeh ladka kaun hai?’ (Who is that boy?).” These words from Gully Gang rapper Altaf Shaikh aka MC Altaf echo the ethos of a whole new generation of Bombay hip-hop. What is this post-Ravine Boy class of rappers we believe in is simple: using standout beats to tell stories that are as personal as they are universal. For these artists, music is a mere medium, a vehicle for their masterfully crafted stories.
“Sure it should sound good, but that doesn’t mean you’re doing songs you don’t want to do. What works and what doesn’t is out of your control; it’s ‘I love Dino James ‘ today and ‘f*ck Dino James’ tomorrow. All you can do is confidently place your head on the guillotine and look them in the eye as they pull the string,” explains rapper Dino James.
IN THE WOODS
In its formative years, Shaikh’s now famous neighborhood, Dharavi, had already been bitten by the hip-hop bug. The children in his neighborhood had heard of the revolutionary phenomenon that was B-boying. Amid all their daily troubles, the slums fostered a thriving hip-hop culture that gave young children a chance to dream of a better world than their own. “It’s like Tupac’s (Shakur) poem,” Shaikh says. “It was the rose that grew from the concrete.” Shaikh started saving up to fit in some funkier new clothes. “I want to be as ‘fresh’ as those children I saw. Their Tupac and Biggie t-shirts and baggy pants were more than just clothes to me. It was a way to stand out. »
Once Shaikh was able to get his hands on the clothes, a deeper question arose: What was his place in the culture? Surely he couldn’t dance like the others, so how would he make his mark? “I wanted to be different. Also, dancing was never really my thing. I was more interested in the songs they were dancing to. It was then that a friend introduced Shaikh to the enfant terrible of American West Coast hip-hop, an artist who would become one of his biggest influences. “He just asked me to go home and Google ‘Fifty rapper’. In the club was one of the first songs I heard and I was immediately hooked. It got to a point where I stood in line at the local internet cafe to get a printout of the lyrics.
Fifty Cent (rapper Curtis Jackson) became Shaikh’s claim to Dharavi fame. “I just started rapping every time they played a Fifty song in a dance battle. People started noticing; he’s cool, he’s a rapper,” they said. soon after, he began to write his own verses, measures that spoke of his life in the slums.
“People like Honey Singh and Badshah were already great at that time. We knew there was a market for rap but we also wanted to have a different sound. That’s why the boys of my generation started borrowing from West Coast rap. We wanted to take that courage and ferocity and tell our own stories. Shaikh believes his music works because of his innate ability to tell true stories about the places he comes from. “We are not a country of luxury cars and Gucci jackets. Most of us hang on to local trains to get to places every morning. All I want is to be faithful to this fight.
When 22-year-old rapper Yashraj Mehra first started making music, it was out of a constant need to find his way, even if it meant having to separate himself from the sea of people he was constantly engulfed in. “Everyone talks about the Bombay dream but they don’t quite understand how monotonous it can get sometimes. It’s so easy to get lost in the crowd of “do what everyone else does and have a stable life”. Everyone who comes from a middle-class family like me goes through the same thing, they confuse being grateful with being complacent. For me, struggling to get out of the ordinary; and finding the beauty in that struggle was the challenge.
When Mehra first started, his sound was admittedly more “smooth and pop-heavy” than it is now – a phenomenon which he says was simply indicative of the music he grew up with. “I admit that I started out blind. I knew I wanted to do something but I didn’t know what. I realized that I was making music that was just as well crafted, but not that close to me. As a 20 year old kid, it’s hard to find your sound. But he found it soon after, during the epiphanic metamorphosis he believes he has undergone during the pandemic. “It was a time when I felt like I was changing. The angst I had built up along the way and my own inhibitions, it all started to float up. It felt like the parda (curtain) was coming down. slowly detached.
Mehra’s song 2020 Kanipattu was a full left turn from his previous sound. It was a fiery, flamboyant love letter to Mumbai and its many stories (just like hers), which so often get lost in the crowd. “It got to a point where Gully hip-hop became synonymous with Mumbai hip-hop. are always intrinsically Mumbai.This is the side of Mumbai that I have seen very closely and I think it can be beautiful if you stop to take a look around once in a while.
Mehra credits his enlightened and culturally hyper-aware upbringing with instilling in him a thirst for the original and unique. “I remember my dad telling me stories about how Micheal Jackson did a gig here and he had the Thriller jacket custom made just so he could wear it to the gig. I’ve always been exposed to meaningful music that belongs on elaborate records that do more than just entertain people. They are unreplicable works of art that define entire generations.
For RAK, the maverick rapper from Azadi Records, hip-hop is a unique way to stay connected to his heritage while venturing out into the world and making a living for himself. “In a weird way, it’s hip-hop that brings me closer to my people and my culture. Rapping in Tamil allows me to explore deeply cultural concepts and stories that I was not aware of before. It’s how I keep my feet on the ground while dreaming of a bigger life.
Growing up in Andheri’s Anna Nagar – a predominantly Tamil region, RAK heard songs and fables from back home that continue to inform and influence his musical sensibilities. “I could never say that I grew up in a place where my family is not from. All I have ever heard are Tamil songs and fables. Every story, every lullaby taught me something new about my culture.
When RAK finally decided to get into music, he chose an iconic Tamil song as his backdrop. “There was this song called Vaazha Meenukkum Velanga Meenukkum Kalyanam (a marriage between two different species of fish) that I just couldn’t get out of my head. I decided to change that for a marriage between medu vada and masala vada with the oil pan bubbling as a backdrop. It was all fun and games back then, but it encouraged me to write more in Tamil, a language that was closer to me than anything else.
For RAK, his language and culture are not barriers but a bridge to establishing deeper connections with his audience. “As long as it’s good music, it’ll work. We castigated Punjabi songs that we didn’t understand at all just because they were earworms. As long as it’s serious and fun, it will work.
DREAMS OF BOMBAY
The ever illustrious world of Bollywood lured rapper Dino James to Bombay nearly a decade ago. “Everyone wants to be in ‘the industry’ because it’s a platform. There are other ways to be heard and seen, but cinema is and always will be king. It’s a numbers game, and no one rakes them in better than the movies.
After a few years in the city, however, James understood the importance of keeping all ten toes on the ground and telling stories that were as authentic as they were personal. “There’s no point doing things you don’t believe in. Sooner or later, people promoting your music will stop listening to it if they don’t find it relevant or fresh. It’s all about to stand out, to create things you want to do. And that’s what he did. James describes his early work as “expressive and irreverent, a rebellion against what he saw as a bastardy of the craft.” I wrote a song about my dog’s death because I wanted to. That’s the beauty of independent music. You don’t have to put your art through these filters that take everything out of it. If you want beef, you beef, no mercy. Everything is real.
However, this rebellion against the mainstream comes at a price for James – feeding pent-up angst. “You will get angry sooner or later because that’s how people act. If you’re a truly original artist, there’s only a little bullshit you can take from labels and producers about marketing and whatnot. I think the key is to breathe deeply, stay out of harm’s way and channel all that energy into making new music and telling new stories. These more recent stories, as he says, are much more balanced in their treatment but still extremely personal. “It’s always something I want to do, but I guess I’m also trying to get some perspective now. I understand it’s not a sermon, people want you to sound good so you give them that, but the stories still have to be yours.
James thinks our inclination towards Western hip-hop is the biggest obstacle to telling and listening to stories like these. “We think hip-hop was born there, so it must be like that, but it’s not true. Hip-hop left Compton and evolved a long time ago. There are so many things you can do with Indian instruments; you have to be willing to give them a chance,” says James. For example, a flutist friend made some drill music with the flute the other day, and I was taken aback. It made me realize there was so much to explore.