India’s underground hip-hop is no longer confined to the underground. Having come of age over the past few years, the genre spent 2017 consolidating its position at the top of the charts and in the collective conscious of music fans. If its stars spent the early part of the movement chronicling inner-city angst, 2017 was about reflecting on what the music and lyrics have come to signify, and also to take aim at its co-option by big brands and music companies, and perhaps to seek out a new direction forward.
From Mumbai rapper Divine, who made the shift to Bollywood, and Delhi’s Prabh Deep, who in October dropped his first album, which quickly went to number one on the iTunes India chart, here is the journey of India’s hip-hop in 2017.
Hard Kaur, Shah Rule, Ila Straight, Tony Sebastian
All Stars Anthem
One of India’s first female rappers, British-Indian Hard Kaur turned away from her usual club and party rap to produce a mix tape that attempted to show the best that Indian hip-hop artists had to offer. The 11-track album, Rising Mix Tape Vol 1 is, like most compilations, a mixed bag, and the accompanying documentary about what Kaur means to Indian hip-hop artists occasionally is self-aggrandising. But neither takes away from the ambition of the project, which includes 30 rappers of varying lyrical styles and vocal deliveries. The best track on the album, All Stars Anthem, is set to a catchy bass line and has Shah Rule, Ella Straight, Tony Sebastian, Fura, Balan Kashmire, and Kaur herself narrativise underground hip-hop, shouting their rage-filled lyrics from Mumbai rooftops.
The most famous exponent of Mumbai hip-hop has had a busy time since he signed on with Sony Music in 2016. He released Farak in February, reflecting on the journey that got him to where he is. The song had all the elements that made him popular, as well as strong storytelling, something that was missing in the successive singles—City Slums with Grammy-award-winning artist Raja Kumari, and Suede Gully, a video entirely sponsored by Puma, which made a failed attempt to create a pub anthem.
Azaad Hu Mai
Divine’s frequent collaborator Naezy hasn’t yet suffered from the big-label blues. He remains fierce, and his raw vocals affirm the anthem-like quality of his lyrics. The best of the Mumbai rapper’s three singles this year, Azaad Hu Mai, released on Saavn’s Artist Original’s Program, has him attest to the freedom his music provides him and why he refuses to be caged.
Taking My Time
Dee MC is one of the few women in Mumbai’s male-dominated hip-hop scene. With lyrics like, “rap about being poor when you’re really not, rap about being a thug when you’re really not, shake my ass for fame, not my type of chick, give out punches for free, I’m that type of chick,” her tracks focus on women empowerment and gender inequality.
Straight from Tilak Nagar, Prabh Deep has been making waves in the underground music community for the past few years, earning fans for his mix of Punjabi-Hindi lyrics and his acute storytelling instincts. Both of these get a wide showcase on the 23-year-old rapper’s debut album, Class-Sikh, with the two part Kal (Past) and Kal (Future) speak about his fight against bullies in early childhood and his hope for the future. Set to superb beats by veteran producer Sajeel Kapoor (also called Sez On The Beat), the music video takes you through the streets of Delhi reminding you of the talent still to come.
This is My Life
Founded in 2009, Shillong-based Khasi Bloodz comprises of a trio of accomplished musicians, D-Bok, Big Ri, and D-Mon. Their most recent single is musical comfort food—these are musicians who know exactly what they are doing, going back to their origin story and highlighting what their music truly means to them: “This ain’t just a hobby, this is my life, making something out of nothing, just trying to survive.”
Buki & Xenon Phoenix
Sometimes it is the sheer experimentation of a track that keeps you coming back to break down exactly what is going on. Shot on an iPhone with filters that replicate the look of old VHS tapes, Xenon Phoenix and Buki’s Dead Palace separates itself from the rest. Born in Siliguri and currently living in Pune, Subham Ghosh, who goes by the name Xenon Phoenix, collaborates with his college friend, producer Buki, to traverse a wide range of genres, including dance music. The lyrics, too, move away from the usual, and are narrated from the point of view of someone trapped in an apocalyptic future.
Gari-B Ki Kahaani
The diss song found its way from the world of Honey Singh, Badshah, and Raftaar to the underground, as rappers took aim at their counterparts. But none was as pitch perfect as the YouTube spoof channel Tadpatri Talkies’ Gari-B Ki Kahani. The song is not just a hilarious take on the packaging of hip-hop as a story of hardened musicians who suffered in the slums and emerged from poverty but also a call to push past the usual lyrical themes to make room for something more complex, which chronicles something more than the rappers’ anger at their realities.
I Can’t Do Sexy
Sofia Ashraf, the famous rapper behind Kodaikonal Won’t, moved away from her activist routes in her musical career with I Can’t Do Sexy. It’s designed to be viral, has colourful candy-corn visuals, easy lyrics, a dance step that makes you want to try it out, and an earworm of a chorus. It could have easily gone wrong but what emerges is a track that feels simultaneously like having your cake and eating it too.
Mumbai’s oldest hip-hop collective was formed in 2006 and has kept up a steady output of new music. Their latest album, Mumbai Till I Die, is a paean to the city that fostered and birthed their music. Bang in the middle of the album is the funk-laden Beast Mode, which has little to with the themes of the rest of the album, but is a celebration of hip-hop culture with a music video peppered with increasingly complex b moves by the finest b-boyers.