There's an explosive indie hip-hop scene in the country, and more people need to experience it first-hand.
It’s the bounce. The rhythmic electricity of hip-hop leads to an involuntary up-and-down motion the body makes. That nonchalant, careless, reflexive movement in the crowd fashioned a collective energy that was hard to shake. It’s all in the groove. I listen to the occasional rapper or two, but an entire gig of Indian emcees was a new experience, a strange one. In between trying to follow the blitz of words thrown my way, I had a revelation: hip-hop is cool, absolutely and unquestionably.
Khar’s Antisocial, the neglected stepchild of the pan-India pub/co-working-space chain called Social, played host to Hip Hop Homeland on April 27, a gig featuring indie hip-hop heavyweights Divine and Naezy, as well as Prabh Deep, Mumbai’s Finest, MC Mawali, and MC Tod Fod. (In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that the people paying me lots of money to write about this gig are also the brain trust behind the gig itself; make of that what you will.)
Regular pub music was blaring upstairs, with lots of merry frolicking over Tuborg pints for a paltry Rs. 120 and drinks served in mason jars. Standing around and socialising, then feeling hungry and gobbling up finger food. But get yourself stamped, walk into the dungeon-like basement, and it’s a different scene altogether. A couple of hundred people watching on as the lights ran wild, chasing the tempo of the beats, chasing the metres of the poetry. Not everyone, but more than enough people doing the aforementioned bounce; waiters patrolling the venue and supplying drinks. Bouncers guarding the staircase, requesting (ordering) people to not stand there and clog up the stairwell. Get in or get out.
While my own reading on the subject is limited, lots has been written about this recent surge of indie hip-hop. How, unlike a lot of independent rock and electronica, hip-hop seems more local and Indian in its spirit; a lot less bourgeois (don’t worry, we’re not about to go into a thesis on appropriation). Language plays a major role — at one gig alone, I heard rapping in English, Hindi, Marathi, Gujarati, Tamil, and some gibberish too. The lyrical content, from whatever little I could make out, is a mix of both the inward and the outward. Society, politics, otherness, fighting the system, rebelling, being yourself. From themes of not backing down to spitting out a scathing and hilarious — as translated to me by people around — dialogue in Marathi about an overzealous cop mucking about with a person not originally from Maharashtra. Cops took quite a beating on the night actually (figuratively), with multiple chants of “fuck the police” breaking out from time to time. “Inquilab Zindabaad” was another recurring refrain, while there was unreasonable love for Kurla propagated by Divine. Contorted hand gestures were flashed in approval; sing-along cues were followed obediently.
There’s anger and resentment that possibly drives the music and, from the perspective of an outsider, I felt a lot of it was thought out and channelled — it was funnelled through art/humour and directed as opposed to being a misplaced lashing out. The sense of purpose replaced the weary apathy that’s always thickening the air at a regular gig. That could be because this is still somewhat a new-ish scene, and people are excited to be doing what they are, and they’re looking up, not down.
The artists themselves look and play the part to perfection. They overuse the word “fuck”, they say “thas wazup”, they talk in multiple languages, they crack jokes, do routines, stir the audience with talk of revolt. They tilt their baseball caps slightly to the side and wear hoodies (that were hopefully cotton, because the heat in the city is unbearable right now). The lights go with the music; the guy on stage producing the music, or triggering it, has a self-assured groove. They all have their own unique styles of moving around on stage, standing on top of tables and stools, mixing things up constantly to lend dynamism and energy.
The spirit of collaboration runs strong, to the point where you’ll have five, six, seven people on stage rapping and bouncing around — there’s a great sense of respect for each other that seems to come out. (I should add, as an observation, that there was only one woman who performed on stage, Ambika Nayak, collaborating with Prabh Deep. And then she was called back and applauded, which is something I’d probably have to mull over before presenting a personal point of view on).
I’m not saying I love the music entirely. That’s tricky — some of it seemed a little derivative, and a running critique propounded by people around me was that maybe the production needs to be better; that it’s still early days (the last bit seems a little patronising). It all boils down to individual taste, really; but it’s an experience more people should open themselves up to. And then also, Naezy’s set was a personal highlight and this writer was floored by the music: a smooth push-pull developing between the backing track and the words. It was all elevated greatly by his unique voice, one which he manipulates to its outward capacities with effortless dexterity, and his sense of individuality.
As listeners, as gig-goers, maybe we aren’t able to articulate it as such, but we’re often only just hoping that the artists on stage offer us raw honesty. It’s all we’re looking for. That they don’t dick us around and “play” us in any way. If the music sucks, we criticise it and we don’t buy it (hah, I mean download it), and that’s that. But live, in that space, the experience can well be defined by conviction. That show of commitment is what stops us from turning into Neanderthals and chucking overripe plums at the performers. Then again, integrity is a subjective inference — you like the music, then you automatically bestow the tag of “honest” to the performer. It’s all very vague, abstract, and roundabout.
With hip-hop, things get further tangled up because a lot of the craft is about eloquence and articulation. The entire thing is theatrical, and designed to be so — you dress, you talk, walk, act, strut, shoot your mouth off (and hopefully nothing else) a certain way; it’s grand theatre that’s dense, intricate, baroque, yet also high-concept and inclusive. Beyond only the music, hip-hop becomes a complete, uh, “culture”. The spontaneity may be rehearsed, but it seems to fit right into the vision of the sound. It has integrity, and it has the groove.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Akhil Sood
Photographs by Yash Bandi/Ramesh Iyer