India Needs Hip Hop Right Now

In February of 2016, the ‘JNU incident‘ rocked India, and laid bare, among other things, an insidious campaign by the government to clamp down on voices of protest and dissent – voices such as that of Kanhaiya Kumar, Umar Khalid and more. In the aftermath of their own struggles against the system, support poured in from multiple avenues, including one that hasn’t been prominent since the days of the freedom struggle – the protest song. Local producers Dub Sharma and MojoJojo turned the slogans and speeches of the movement – by Kanhaiya and Umar, respectively – into revolutionary anthems. The songs were earworms, with appropriately rousing production, which went viral and turned into protest tools themselves. The sampling and instrumental reminded one of the foremost anti-establishment musical genre of our times – hip hop.

 

Hip hop is rooted in sociopolitical struggle, as a way for minorities and the disadvantaged to express themselves. Spoken word legend, Gil Scott Heron, whose work is often credited with laying the foundation for hip hop, and rap’s lyrical themes, had explicitly political pieces, such as the seminal The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. 

 

Possibly the first ‘conscious’ rap track, the classic The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, continued this tradition, relaying the reality of the ghettos millions of Black men and women were stuck in, to the radios of White America. Groups such as the unapologetic Public Enemy were far rawer and angrier, directly speaking to the powers that be, and vowing to tear them down – sample this lyric that’s gone down in hip hop history:

I got a letter from the government the other day
I opened and read it, it said they were suckers

 

This represented a blunt attack on the institutions that sought to blur the line between patriotism and toeing the government line. It refused acquiescence to the majority view, of false nationalism. This is a stance that many in India can relate to right now, despite the prevalent fierce authoritarianism and majority-appeasement. And in such an environment, musicians are a critical voice, one that can represent, and reach large sections of the population. And fortunately, unlike Scott Heron’s time, the revolution need not be televised for it to reach the masses – social media, YouTube, SoundCloud and more have democratized the spread of music.

Luckily, Indian hip hop has taken advantage of this ecosystem to develop a grassroots movement that is slowly but surely seeping into the mainstream. Way back in 2007, Blaaze put out Ban The Crooked Police, an indictment of the corrupt police force that was a singular political moment in Indian music. Unfortunately, the song never gained the traction it should have. But it was an important moment, and one that many familiar with the Indian rap community recognize as a classic.

 

Fortunately, two of the biggest names on the scene right now, Naezy and Divine, belong to a breed of rapper that rep the communities they come from, and present intricate details of their lives, while continuously working their way upwards. This parallels the rise of rappers in 90s America, whether it be Nas, Biggie, Jay Z on the East Coast, or N.W.A, Tupac and their like on the West Coast – who told gritty tales of the environments they were a product of, and hence vividly brought into the public consciousness the lives of people who were glossed over for decades. They were angry, they had something to say, and they wanted to claim glory. Take the song that is largely responsible for Naezy and Divine’s status in music, the stellar collaboration, Mere Gully Mein. 

The language employed is important – the vernacular is straight from the streets they’re from, and is a lyrical trip through the narrow gullys and tiny houses they grew up in, and refuse to abandon. There is pride in what these places, and the people in them, have given them, with the occasional nod to the institutionalized corruption; a favourite line is

Chor mere gully mein, woh toh saala mantri hai

The music video enhances the verbal imagery, providing visual context to the music, with glimpses of everyday life, as well as shots of celebration of how far they’ve come, hip hop dancing and all. It’s an honest representation of the rappers’ lives, in a manner reminiscent of the roots of the genre in sound and theme, such as the classic Nas track, NY State of Mind. What Nas accomplished was an exercise in lyrical painting, presenting imagery that rang true for the communities it came from, while challenging the preconceptions of the white majority in the rest of America. Similarly, Naezy and Divine are fresh young voices for people that were subject to one-note stereotypical representation in popular culture. It’s only when these tropes are broken and rewritten that the monotone narrative of governments and privileged voices can be challenged, and attacked.

These new narratives are being written right now – Naezy’s latest track, Azaad Hu Mai, is an aggressive declaration of freedom from oppressive forces, with a stunning flow and lyrical acrobatics that put him among the best, irrespective of language, rapped over production that harkens back to the glory days of NY rap. But possibly the most important of this release is its form, as part of the popular music streaming app, Saavn’s Artist Original Program, of which Naezy is the first to be a part of. This represents a merge of his music into the mainstream, a blow to the grand old forces of generic Bollywood music, thus making for a fierce, revolutionary statement. Remember, this is a guy that started off recording music on his iPad just a few short years ago. Naezy has come a long way, and it’s an essential rebuff of the status quo – a role he acknowledges and owns, with lyrics such as

Vyaktigat koshish se bhi kraanti ka aagaz hu mai

Divine, meanwhile, is firmly grounded in the streets, and his Gully Gang, his music expressing the passion of someone who’s had little to his name. This music is released through Sony Music Entertainment India, one of the biggest record labels in the country, and one that usually restricts itself to Bollywood. This integration of underground hip hop into the mainstream reflects the rise of major label hip hop in the US in the 90s; mistakes were made then, but with that precedent, it seems likely that Divine and his ilk will fight to retain creative control. It’s heartening, then, that his latest songs stick to his roots.

 

And there are the rappers who are using music purely as an activistic tool, such as the indomitable Sofia Ashraf. Since her most famous song, the anti-Unilever Kodaikanal Won’tSofia has taken a stand on multiple other political issues, including most recently, the infamous Sasikala.

 

Sofia and her band take their message against divisive politics literally to the streets outside Sasikala’s residence, before they’re stopped by a cop. It’s a small, yet powerful moment – it’s hip hop as protest, a voice for those deemed voiceless. It’s a testament to the necessity of music existing outside traditional avenues of music, away from the privileged avenues of movie industries that forced political correctness into Indian music. This is art at its truest, its purest.

Indian hip hop is just beginning to come into its own, but it has already ensured that it’s a force to reckon with. There are dozens more rappers other than the ones mentioned here who are making their presence felt, and will continue to contriubte to the burgeoning scene. Their very act of creating music for their communities is political, and as their music evolves, it is sure to find ways to make far more explicit statements. There is hope that our rappers, in the words of the Mighty Mos Def, will take

Hip-Hop past all your tall social hurdles

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India Needs Hip Hop Right Now

Five Songs for the Weekend – III

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

#1. Slide ft. Frank Ocean and Migos by Calvin Harris

The excitement for this unlikely collaboration has been extremely high since it was first teased, and thankfully, it delivers. Backed by shimmering retro-pop production courtesy of Calvin, Frank Oceans delivers some fantastically smooth vocals – think sipping on some rum in a hammock by the beach – before the track transitions seamlessly to the melodic rap of Quavos and Offset. It’s reminiscent in parts of of 90s/early-00s rap-RnB collabs, with some distinctly trap stylings. Summer it is not, but it’s one of Calvin’s best songs in a while, and perfect for the summer. (Find the full song on Spotify)

#2. 2 Lovin U by DJ Premier and Miguel

This was unexpected. Premier hasn’t lost a step with the beats – the funk on this is crazy with some rich guitars, the scratched vocal samples adding that signature Preemo touch. Miguel lays on the silken vocals, floating over the production with unmatched swagger. Everything about this song screams a hit.

#3. Incredible by Future

Damn, Future went from underground trapper to straight up alt-RnB superstar in a week with HNDRXX. A true tropical jam, the synths are vibrant, with just a little edge, and the bass-heavy drums give this a deep house vibe. Future’s vocals are at their cleanest, crafting a trap-RnB ode to his woman in a way only he can. This has the potential to be in heavy rotation in the coming months.

#4. Anoxia by King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard

King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard is decidedly one of the weirdest bands out there, and thankfully, also one of the most prolific. No two of their albums sound the same, and their latest, Flying Microtonal Banana is no different. Finding a strange middle ground between desert and psychedelic rock, Anoxia sounds like a snake charmer on acid. Coupled with their lo-fi vocals, esoteric lyrics and impeccable mixing, the track sounds like one’s stumbled into a dimension that straddles the nomad and the shaman. What could they possibly come up with next?

#5. Walk On By ft. Kendrick Lamar by Thundercat

Thundercat is possibly one of the most creative purveyors of the new wave of RnB, and his collaborations with Kendrick are always phenomenal – Walk On By is no different. While Bruner reflects on the disorientation following the end of a relationship, Kendrick continues to paint striking images of the lives of the disenfranchised. The hazy production is an appropriately melancholy backdrop to their verses, and ties together a track that would be a perfect soundtrack to a plodding, sad walk.

Five Songs for the Weekend – III

Life Will See You Now by Jens Lekman

My introduction to Jens Lekman came with the first single to this very album – What’s That Perfume That You Wear? – a discovery that instantly made me regret not finding his music earlier. The catchy, upbeat track with vibrant production masked a wistful recollection of a lover past. The remainder of Life Will See You Now adopts a similar formula, with production that is guaranteed to  (at the very least) get you moving in your seat, contrasted with lyrics that contemplate losing one’s people in shades of melancholy, hope and nostalgia.

 

The uniqueness of Jens’ songwriting lies in his ability to wring humour out of often sad situations and instances – Evening Prayer, for example, begins with an anecdote about a 3D printed model of a cancer tumour (you can’t make this up) and evolves into a rumination on emotional intimacy.  Wedding in Finistère is bittersweet, painting a (very possibly real) scene of a bride unsure of her future, and the uncertain territory of marriage, juxtapositioned with an instrumental that would sound right at home at a beach wedding’s dance. Album closer, Dandelion Seed, is possibly the most heartfelt and downtempo song here, contemplating the pace of Jens’ life, paralleling an actual journey.

Jens Lekman perfectly encapsulates the saying, “brevity is the soul of wit,” his music offering meditations on life that are assured to bring a half-smile to your face, while taking you to times and places in your memories, all while setting a summery groove to the words. Life Will See You Now is sure to be a 2017 favourite.

 

Life Will See You Now by Jens Lekman

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

A weekly series where we pick 5 songs that we think you’d like to listen to over the weekend

1. Keep it Low by Generationals

An indie pop-rock gem driven by lo-fi vocals and serrated guitar licks, this track has a catchy melody that keeps its edge intact. If you like your pop music with a bit of a punk aesthetic – a la The Strokes – this is worth a listen.

#2. Cool Your Heart ft. Dawn Richards by Dirty Projectors

From the first album to come out since Dirty Projectors basically became David Longstreth’s solo project, this dynamic, vibrant track is, in his own words, “an anti-co-dependency anthem.” The production is by far, one of the most intriguing pieces to come out this year – minimal, with blocks of sound moving around and snapping into each other like Tetris pieces. Dawn Richards fits into this puzzle perfectly, her vocals a perfect foil to David’s deadpan delivery. Quite the satisfying concoction.

#3. Shining by DJ Khaled, Beyoncé and JAY Z

DJ Khaled keeps outdoing himself. After a supersized – “major” – 2016, he brings together the power couple of music, Beyoncé and JAY Z, for a toast to success, the black tie variety. The production is appropriately luxurious, and Bey is at her swaggering best, soaring with confidence few rappers have the right to. Jay’s verse is short, but as he is wont to do, carves his niche with cool assurance, and deftly hands the mic back to his woman. This is the suave anthem.

#4. Kinda Bonkers by Animal Collective

The wonderfully weird Animal Collective return with a psychedelic-pop beauty, the production slightly glossier than than one is used to from them, but with their trademark irreverence. The background vocals add another interesting layer, while the primary vocals themselves are fun, with esoteric lyrics and an insanely catchy hook. This one’s going to be playing in your head for a while to come.

#5. Mask Off  by Future

Future cannot lose. After a 2016 where he saw his profile rising, but also had his detractors saying he’d lost touch with his original trap sound in favour of a more pop-ish sound, 2017’s self-titled Future album is enough assurance he’s always going to be a trapper at heart. Mask Off is one of the best tracks off the project, with an audible sneer and chest-thumping production to accompayny Future Hendrix’s boasts. You know he’s going to be around for a long time.

Five Songs For the Weekend – II

The Grammys & the Plague of Inoffensiveness

Art is inherently political. Now, of all times, the very existence of music that goes against the grain, or is created by communities that continue to be suppressed, is a truly political statement. However, the distribution of music as such is structured like a business – and like most businesses – it attempts to play things safe so as to retain large sections of its consumer base.

The Grammys are one such institution whose facade is of the promotion of the arts, but whose racial bias shows its true colours, of which there is only one – white. This discriminatory tint to the most prestigious awards show in the Western music industry is a little more complex than pointed racism.

Continue reading “The Grammys & the Plague of Inoffensiveness”

The Grammys & the Plague of Inoffensiveness

The 59th Annual GRAMMYs – A Rundown of the Nominees

grammy-awards

The GRAMMYs, till date, remains one of the biggest musical events of the year (even though it has its fair share of detractors) making it a good time to take stock of the biggest artists and music of the past year. With that in mind, we’re doing a quick rundown of the major nominees and their chances to take home that golden gramophone.

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The 59th Annual GRAMMYs – A Rundown of the Nominees

Big Sean Is the Underdog on ‘I Decided’

– Prem Sylvester

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Big Sean is an uncommonly positioned rapper – by all metrics, he’s a commercial success, familiar to even casual listeners, but he hasn’t been accepted into the elite of rap; his rapping skills still have plenty of detractors, and he doesn’t have that singular body of work to prove them wrong. This is, in his own eyes, Sean’s biggest hurdle – feeling like the underdog despite his success, like he has something to prove – a hunger that has driven him from his earliest days as a musician.

Continue reading “Big Sean Is the Underdog on ‘I Decided’”

Big Sean Is the Underdog on ‘I Decided’