Luck, A-Gan, D₹V, Arivu, K4 Kekho — the next generation is coming up strong with help from mentors and initiatives geared towards amping up the Indian scene
In between selling shirts and trousers at a readymade textile shop in Bhilwara, Lucky Samtani found his calling in hip-hop. It is a passion that began in the eighth standard when the Rajasthani rapper (better known as Luck) was introduced to Eminem and, much later, to Raftaar, one of the OGs of the Indian hip-hop scene.
Luck, 22, began teaching himself music production and rapping online. And soon things began changing for him. Last year, in the midst of the pandemic, he found a collaborator in ace producer Sez On The Beat, re-released his older song ‘Love Again’ on Sony Music India’s imprint Artisttaan, and even got into producing and sound engineering. “After the pandemic hit, business went down and I didn’t have a job. So all my time went into music,” he tells me. He now works at his family-run shoe store, but it’s more to get a “vibe change”, he explains. “You get bored just sitting and doing the same thing. If I get to see and meet different people, I get a new vibe.”
And that helps his music, which is both lyrical and stylistic — think R&B rhythms and AK-47 referencing rap. While he could release two albums worth of material that’s been finessed over the last three years, he’s biding his time. “I don’t feel like it right now — not until I get more fame and reach. I still need to find the right audience for my songs [who will turn long-term followers]. I’m hoping I get a good deal, a scene-changing thing [like a hip-hop contest streaming on OTT],” he says.
You could argue that we’ve had rappers since the early 1990s (does Baba Sehgal even count?). The early 2000s saw crews such as Mafia Mundeer (its five members included names such as Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah and Raftaar). But it wasn’t until a decade later that the actual movement began — when hip-hop went from derivative to original. In 2014, Naezy, aka Naved Sheikh, broke on to the scene with ‘Aafat’. The raw track with its gritty, honest lyrics, gave an impetus to India’s underground scene. Then in 2015, Sony Music India released DIVINE’s ‘Mere Gully Mein’ (feat Naezy), the first time a major record label had released a track featuring Mumbai street rappers. Its breakout success pumped up the popularity of gully rap and, later, inspired director Zoya Akhtar to make her 2019 superhit, Gully Boy, starring Ranveer Singh. Suddenly the masses were eager to understand the intricacies of the hip-hop sub-culture, from the slangs to what battle rap means!
Sez on the Beat
Today, the country’s second generation of rappers — mostly 25 years and under — are reaping the benefits. The older crop, who found the right balance of an accessible sound and their own distinct musical style, are turning mentors. Brands and labels are spotlighting new talent. And even the internet — previously credited for only introducing hip-hop to any young Indian with a connection on their phone — is being leveraged for learning DIY production chops (using free, or pirated, programmes) and finding free-to-use beats uploaded on YouTube.
Sez on the Beat, known for his work with top-tier hip-hop artists, is now focussing on young, raw talent. With his platform, The MVMNT, launched early last year, he took A&R (artists and repertoire, or talent scouting) to another level by almost exclusively betting on rappers, and also began an “artist accelerator programme” called New Kids on the Block. Its debut EP, released last year, featured young rappers such as Luck, Dhruv Rajpal (D₹V), Rawal, Lit Happu and NoNation. “So many of them have that hunger and drive, which is the main ingredient you need because growth is triggered by consistent hunger,” says the producer. “The responsibility is with the overall industry to give them the right opportunities to keep levelling up.”
Dhee in a still from ‘Enjoy Enjaami’
- In addition to brands like Red Bull, we’ve seen Audible invest in a podcast called Gully Se Gully Tak (2019), and FMCG companies and movies adding rap to their jingles and soundtracks. Twenty two-year-old entrepreneur Rohit Ranjan and his entertainment company, Innovura, recently bankrolled a five-episode hip-hop talk show that was shot in Gurugram. Meanwhile, three brothers-turned-entrepreneurs have launched Passionfruit Music, an app that promises to build a fan base for aspiring Indian and international hip-hop artistes. Companies such as Facebook are jumping on board too. It recently released BARS, an app that provides beats for budding rappers to try out (currently in beta testing in the US).
One of the newer platforms helping upcoming artistes is Majjaa. Co-founded by AR Rahman and launched this January, it aims to amplify South Asian indie voices. “They have plans to platform 30 artistes across the world. Dhee and I feature in the list,” says rapper Arivu, 27, who is part of their latest project ‘Enjoy Enjaami’. The song — which also features Colombo-born singer Dhee (of ‘Rowdy Baby’ fame) and composer-producer Santosh Narayanan — has already raked up over eight crore views on YouTube, and can be heard everywhere, from malls and cafes to local markets. In it, Arivu raps about caste atrocities, environment issues and the pain of the landless labourers. Stars such as Dulquer Salmaan and Siddharth have tweeted about listening to it on loop, while Netflix made it part of a meme.
While most of us are hard-pressed to find positives in 2020, the pandemic did give many people the luxury of time. For potential hip-hop stars, this meant everything. Take MBA student and Chennai rapper A-Gan, aka Anbu Ganapathy. The 21-year-old is the winner of rap competition Red Bull Spotlight, which is now airing on MX Player. Among eight finalists gleaned from preliminary college rounds, he clinched it with a song called ‘China Soup’. It highlights the pandemic but also his own introverted nature. A-Gan says caste and religion-based oppression are among the main themes he wants to write about.
The song is yet another example of how themes are changing. Lyrics today reflect the socio-cultural realities of living in India, as well as escapist fantasies of fame and power. The Gen Z of hip-hop are looking beyond emulating veteran stars like DIVINE, Emiway Bantai and their ilk. For instance, D₹V’s music — informed by the Atlanta style of laidback, sometimes hedonistic rap — is starkly different from the steely stories off the street that made Naezy or Prabh Deep famous. “People have knowledge of this art form now, that hip-hop is used to communicate and tell stories,” says Naezy, one of the pioneers in shifting the desi hip-hop vocabulary from women, alcohol and showbaazi to showcase the true essence of the culture — of surviving against the odds and calling out systemic injustices. “Right now, it’s going in the right direction and I hope that it continues to grow,” he adds.
- While more and more hip-hop artistes are coming up, there is still a divide when it comes to cashing in their talent. Top-tier names such as Raftaar, DIVINE and Emiway Bantai get paid lakhs of rupees for commissioned work and gigs, but for Gen Z, the figures are still in the thousands. So, many have their own backup plans. Young rappers like D₹V also talk about meeting sharks and vultures in the game, and having to tackle long-employed exploitative practices of the music industry, whether it’s about cutting out royalties or delayed payments. “An artist has to navigate managers and labels smartly because they will eat you up if you let them,” he says.
Doing what they love
The pandemic has also increased output across the country. Earlier this year, New Delhi-based hip-hop artiste Aditya Guglani, aka Qoini, released his single ‘Ghissey Jootey’, a haunting track on the year gone by and its chaos. In Jammu, rapper-poet-producer Shen B released 10 songs in 2020 — a time when he was reeling not just from Covid-19 lockdowns, but also the clampdown on 4G internet. “I began creating more and more to fill the emptiness and sorrow within,” he told Rolling Stone India a few days ago. “Whether I have to ask someone for Internet connectivity for half an hour to upload a video or borrow a mic or camera from someone, I was willing to do it all to survive in the game.”
Over 3,000 km away, in Arunachal Pradesh, 25-year-old rapper K4 Kekho has just received news that he will be part of the upcoming Varun Dhawan-starrer Bhediya’s soundtrack, contributing to two tracks. Director Amar Kaushik wanted to sign him on after coming across his rousing Hindi-English tunes such as ‘I Am an Indian’ and ‘Yoksa’. It’s happy days, especially since the club shows and music festivals, such as Ziro, that earned him income (which he pumped into music videos) have dried up.
But he says, “I’ll be doing it again and again until I am exhausted. We’re all struggling artistes right now. I have done a lot of songs, but I’ve got to do more in order to build a bigger fan base.” He is currently setting up his own music studio in a bamboo house in Ittanagar. “Hip-hop is not something I can live without,” he adds.
As hip-hop comes of age in India, more entrenched investors like Sez already have an eye on the next generation. The 15-year-olds coming up in five years who will discover the artists who define their generation. “So for me, it’s a matter making sure that hip-hop in India continues to win and stay on top. I want to do as much as possible to support and shape young rappers and producers, so that we can all collectively keep winning in the future as well,” Sez concludes.