Hip hop started as an underground movement with marginalized kids trying to find meaning and self-expression in the South Bronx in 1970. Although it has since grown to garner mainstream popularity in the US and subsequently around the world, it seems to have now come full circle in India – where it has become a subversive, counter-narrative for the socially disenfranchised.
Commercial hip hop was at its peak back in the 1990s. For most of us from the subcontinent, that’s when it came into our living rooms through Channel V and MTV. Through the ages, we had the odd hip-hop artists from Baba Sehgal to Apache Indian until we saw the coming-of-age of Punjabi rap in mainstream Bollywood. Every Hindi movie had a ‘party anthem’ written by either Yo Yo Honey Singh or Badshah. While this wasn’t strictly hip-hop, it did give the Indian audiences a taste of rap. Hip hop had become commercially popular, albeit severely lacking in talent, and more importantly originality.
This has and is continuing to change dramatically though. The genre now features many diverse, talented artists using it as a medium to tell their stories, in a voice that is uniquely Indian. From Mumbai to Kashmir to Madurai and Shillong, underground hip hop in the country is shaping up to be an edgy, authentic anthem chronicling the diversity, culture, deprivation, fractured history, and rich stories of India. Here are five you simply can’t miss.
Born and brought up in Singapore, Yung Raja has stayed true to his Tamil roots by including a lot of Tamil in his rap. His breakout hip hop single ‘Mustafa’ is a tribute to the iconic shopping complex in Singapore and to the gumption of its founder Mustaq Ahmad, a Muslim immigrant in Singapore whom Yung Raja deeply identifies with. As a first-generation Singaporean whose father is a tuition teacher and mother a homemaker, Yung Raja’s music is all about articulating his feeling of ‘otherness’, as well as his burning desire to succeed.
Dee MC aka Deepa Unnikrishnan is one of few female rappers in India. Unlike many other underground artists who talk about the struggles of marginalization, Dee MC represents another narrative. She owns her life and journey as a middle-class Indian woman, where the struggles are very different but no less real. The best part about Dee MC’s music is that she stays true to herself in all her music, and her latest single ‘No More Limits’ that deals with the taboos around menstruation is no exception.
Castless Collective is a 19-member band put together by Tamil filmmaker Pa Ranjith. The band includes 4 rappers, 7 instrumentalists, and 8 gaana musicians. The reason the band came together was to use music as a medium to eradicate religious and caste-based discrimination. Some of their more popular songs include the Bhim Rap, which talks about BR Ambedkar’s life and work, and Madrasin Magizhchi, that talks about the simple joys of living in Madras, even in poverty and deprivation.
Shillong-based hip hop group Khaasi Bloodz epitomizes the hip hop culture in the North East. For many young hip hop artists in Meghalaya, Khaasi Bloodz are pioneers. They rap about brotherhood, feminism, social justice and peace. One of their most popular songs is called ‘This is My Life’ and is both a homage to and a takedown of the world of hip hop.
Although still in its infancy, Indian hip hop has managed to transcend caste, community, state, and religious boundaries like very few musical genres. The inclusiveness of hip hop has allowed a diverse set of artists to express their conviction, angst, pathos, and ultimately, their identity.
Dharavi, Mumbai’s most infamous slum, is often credited with being the hub of the underground hip hop movement – nurturing crews like Slumgods and Dopeadelicz. Today, streets and lanes across the country are home to songwriters, rappers, B-boys, beatboxers, graffiti artists and MCs; all contributing to a rich and authentic uniquely-Indian rap culture. And we only hope it grows.