Not for them, the chaar botal vodka quaffing YoYo Honeys. Not the Dj waley babu either, because these underground rappers from Mumbai are rooted in their own contexts — of hanging out of overcrowded local trains, decrepit chawl homes and the dysfunction of suburbia. A brigade of young hip-hop artistes from the city are set to be featured in what they hope will be their breakout event, a digital music platform for India’s best underground talent in rap. Called Hip Hop Homeland, the show is currently featuring hip hop from the west zone before it travels across the rest of the country.
“We’re interested in talking about reality, about issues people like us relate to,” says Dharmesh Parmar, 18, aka Tod Fod, his underground name. Parmar, who lives in the BDD Chawls of Naigaum in central Mumbai, writes and raps and has an opinion on everything from gai-mata to shauchalayas, to the long-overdue redevelopment of his chawl building. “Rap is about rebellion, there are obviously deep similarities between our lives and that of the blacks of the ’70s America who began to rap because they had no freedom of speech,” he says.
Deepa Unnikrishnan, 21, is known in the rapper scene as Dee MC. “I rap because it’s my free zone, I can sing and write about anything, and be who I want to be,” says the resident of Kalya, about 40 km from Mumbai. “When people introduce me as a Mumbaikar, I don’t even know if I really am one. My upbringing was quite typical — good grades and studies were important. So now I’m working towards my dream, which is to be an entrepreneur and an artiste,” she adds.
Hip Hop Homeland is the brainchild of Cyrus Oshidar, former creative head at MTV, who has come up with memorable properties such as Bakra and One Tight Slap, which were as much about celebrating Indianness as about taking an irreverent look at serious issues. “For me, it’s not a music piece. It’s more about a very democratic form of expression,” says Oshidar, who launched youth-focused portal 101india.com last year, on which Hip Hop Homeland is being featured. The promos of his programme grabbed 30,000 hits within days of its launch. “For 50 years, we have had Bollywood, and the idea that Indians are not rebellious. Now finally, there are kids taking on things going on around them and these performers really have street-cred,” adds Oshidar.
Political views among the rappers are strong. Sahir Nawab aka Kinga Rhymes is opposed to genetically modified foods and broiler chicken. He’s an agnostic on the beef debate, and has no problems jamming with Parmar, who sees merit in Hindus eschewing beef. “I was drawn to rap because unlike other forms of music, it requires no investment in a guitar or drum set. All you need is pen, paper and your groove,” says Nawab. At 21, he is now a full-time musician, rapping and beat-boxing with his crew and also performing with two bands.
“We’re not rappers because it’s cool, but because we have a lot to say,” he adds. That it required no investment was perhaps key to Parmar beginning to rap. Having flunked his Class XII, he was taking science tuitions in Andheri and ended up bunking those to hang out with a crew in his “hood”, on the terraces of a crawl building.
The underground hip hop movement in India has been growing slowly over the past few years. “But there has been more rapid activity in B-boying and graffiti than in rap,” says Deepa. “Rappers are blooming right now,” she adds. All these artistes have been participating in “cyphers” since 2012, informal jam sessions among different crews. They follow one another’s work, hoping to collaborate with other artistes, even Bollywood, because that’s where acceptance finally lies. As Oshidar says, “It’s now about the spark catching the fire.”