Kannada, Tamil and Malayalam rhymes replace their English counterparts with these Southern rappers who are going mainstream By Susanna Chandy
PUNJABI rappers Jay Sean and Hard Kaur have taken the Indian rap scene by storm, Honey Singh is raking it in with his dedicated fan base, and Blaaze, one of the most prominent rappers from the South, hit the right notes with topical tracks like Ban the Crooked Police and In My Father’s Words. But Southern hip-hop stars are bringing Indian regional rap into the mainstream along with vernacular rock and pop groups through collaborations like the Indian Rap Cypher, a cyclical rap routine that mixed regional slang and tapanguchi, and went viral on YouTube with 47,000 views and counting. We introduce you to some of the hottest Deccan rappers who work their regional magic.
Meet Sumukh Mysore, aka Smokey, a research scientist with The National Center for Biological Sciences, and Vignesh Shivanand, aka Brodha V, a record-breaking musician, bound by a love for multiple rhyming and a devotion to Eminem. They form the popular rap duo, Machas With Attitude (MWA) — a two-member crew that has taken it upon itself to bring Indian rap into the mainstream.
Like their peers who grew up in the baggy jeans and over-sized jersey times of the Eminem era, Smokey and Brodha V took to rapping at a very early age. They began by venting against teachers, then doing college gigs and underground jam scenes. “We met eight years ago on Orkut that had a big rap scene. Mostly Indian and Pakistani rappers battling it out with text rap,” begins Smokey, who has two distinct rap personalities — “Smokey – emotional and conscientious, and Smokey the Ghost – aggressive and cheeky”. They met and jammed together a few years later, and were joined by Big Nikk from Chennai, with whom they initially formed MWA. In 2010, they became one of the first rap crews from the South to be featured on a film soundtrack – Aayirathil Oruvan (Tamil). Numerous gigs and over 30 films, including Mujhse Fraandship Karoge, later, Big Nikk left the crew to pursue telecommunications, while Smokey focused on academics.
“I decided that this was what I wanted to do professionally,” says Brodha V who soon emerged as the country’s fastest rapper and struck a record deal with Sony Music. He continues to jam with Smokey, making home videos and tracks off their computers.
Winds of change
Winning the best hip hop crew award at Radio City’s Freedom Jam in 2013 was their defining moment. “Vishal Dadlani gave us the award and invited us to work with him on Chennai Express. Suddenly, we were given all of this state-of-the-art equipment and complete lyrical freedom. And we met Shah Rukh Khan!” says Smokey, describing how the three days they spent in Mumbai recording Ready Steady Po changed their outlook completely. “Until then, we just floated from one gig to another, having fun without any real direction. Those three days made us realise how much we needed to do to make a real mark,” explains Brodha V. Their music now carries a deeper purpose — that of ‘educating the audience about the various aspects of rap from concepts like multiple rhyming to its various sub-genres like b boying, graffiti, hip- hop and dance’. “We make our perfor-mances interactive and involve the audience in simple things like the development of our rhythm,” shares Brodha V, while Smokey explains, “I’ll start off with something like ‘rhyme legend’ and then connect it with ‘nine eleven’ and so on, and pretty soon, the audience will pick up the concept of multiple rhyming.”
They warn us that rapping is not as simple as it seems. “Unlike other forms of music, you can’t be trained in it. But key techniques can be picked up,” says Smokey, who candidly admits his dislike of Yo Yo Honey Singh. “What he packages and sells as rap is really a disgrace to the genre. Call him a popstar, but don’t call him a rapper because he is not.” Brodha V adds, “People don’t even know what Indian rap is because those like Honey Singh distort it completely. So we have to first break down this false stereotype and then re-educate.”
On parents and peers
“Our parents believed respectable musicians sang Carnatic, and only as a hobby. They could not digest that we even listened to this music, much less performed it ourselves,” laughs Brodha V as Smokey adds, “Peers used to say, ‘Pick up a real instrument man’ or ‘Rap isn’t even music’”. They share their plans to take the Indian Rap Cypher to places like Mumbai soon because they believe this is the ‘sweet spot for Indian rap’. “What is happening here now is what was happening in the US in the 80s. So we haven’t reached the boom of the 90s as yet, but are at that pinnacle that can take us there,” Smokey signs off.
Adhi Ramachandran Venketapathy, better known as Adhi, pioneered Tamil hip-hop when he released Viswaroobam Aarambam in 2008 – the first Tamil hip-hop mix tape from India. He went on to form Hiphop Tamizhan, an organisation that he says strives to promote artistes in various styles of hip-hop. Having steered the direction of Chennai’s hip-hop for over half a decade, he has also managed to garner the admiration of his contemporaries from the South. And their latest anthem, Club la Mabula, that released last month, put them back on the radar. “Back in school, I used to write lyrics but I never knew it would become my career,” he reminisces, going on to explain that the genre here is not “about gangs, girls and guns like in the west”. ‘‘I take inspiration from Bharathiar and old Tamil poems as well as artistes from the West. We are not wannabes and our songs are based on the problems we face in India.’’ Club la Mabula, he continues, is based on his observations. ‘‘I have also tried to incorporate Coimbatore Tamil in my songs. We say vanakamunga (greetings) and always give respect, be it a small child or an old man. I also think Chennai Tamil is attractive and will have a good audience.’’ Adhi works closely with music director Anirudh Ravichander and has sung two very popular tracks, first in Ethir Neechal and the second in Vanakkam Chennai, with a film based on Hiphop Tamizha in the pipeline in which he is to essay the leading role. The duo had previously collaborated to compose the song, NA NA NA that was used to promote The Smurfs 2 in India, earlier this year.
Xstacy Sash and Charles Dickenson, the other half of the Indian Rap Cypher, are part of Bangalore-based Low Rhyderz that also includes King Jassim and Main E Yak (their alternate names are secret). Like the Machas With Attitude, they met on Orkut in 2006 and have been jamming together ever since.
Invited by NH7 and Hard Rock Cafe to play at their venues, King Jassim and Main E Yak have worked on Kannada films like Yaksha.
Sash feels that the key to their success lies in embracing their own culture and language. “Rap music is all about representing yourself and the place you come from. And so, the only way we can be authentic is to stay true to our roots,” says Sash.
The crew, with a slew of albums up for release online, also believes rap music needs to be redefined in India and the best way to do that is to incorporate familiar references into their music. Speaking of preconceptions, Sash feels that the instant linkage between rap and profanity is unfair. “I feel it can be easily avoided and should only be used in context. Like the time we wrote a song about the rape in Delhi that used some harsh language only because there was so much angst within us,” he shares. With influences that range from 2pac and Damien Marley to Diana King, Apache Indian and Lucky Ali, the crew hopes to one day collaborate with Dr Dre and perform in front of the Taj Mahal in Agra.
Five rappers and a DJ-cum-producer. In their 20s, from different walks of life, they share a common love for rap and are the Kerala-based outfit, Street Academics. “All of us were really into slam poetry even before we got into the indepen-dent underground hip-hop scene. We were exposed to hip-hop during our school days and were drawn to the beauty of lacing rhymes over beats and making sensible poetry that makes the crowd move as well as think. That’s how we became lyricists and rappers,” begins Abhimanyu Raman, better known in hip-hop circles as Earth Grime. Along with Haris Saleem aka Maapla, Rajeev aka Pakarcha Vyadhi, Amjad Nadeem aka Azuran, and Vivek Radhakrishnan aka DJ Viv3k, he composes tracks in a mix of English and Malayalam that are ‘fresh, easy to sing along and dance to. With some good music videos that grab your attention.’ “We come from different parts of Kerala and so bring in dialects, styles and audiences from each of these places,” shares Raman, adding, “An easy way to reach out to people in our state was to rap in our mother tongue.” The crew that focuses on releasing singles with thought-provoking ideas and well-made videos to “familiarise their audience with the culture of rap and hip-hop”, have also taken rap into the Malayalam film industry with the yet-to-be-released, Third World Boys. Their previous single, Trapped In Rhymes, focuses on street graffiti, and their upcoming tracks include comments by Swami Vivekananda and a poem by Ayyapan, a riveting commentary on modern day slavery and a jibe at the ‘narcissistic youth of our times’.
■ Trapped In Rhythms, Madhouse, Kozhi Pangu, Bilal, Chilakkande Poda
■ Sacrifice, Life In A Ghetto, Clear Yo
Hip Hop Tamizha
■ Iraiva, Excuse Me Kathali, Club Le Mabbu Le