Google maps is close to admitting defeat, re-routing every other second, suggesting left turns into side streets where there is space only for a bike to make its way through. The drive to west Delhi from south Delhi has taken the Uber sedan past wide roads that gradually become narrow; electric cables that ran neatly parallel through the city are now intertwined, looped and tucked into buildings like nests. Concrete structures encircle small parks that lie dusty and bare under a dull winter sun. “This is Delhi-18,” says Prabh Deep, when we meet at his home in Krishna Park, Tilak Nagar, after walking through labyrinthine lanes that all look the same. He insisted that we meet in his neighbourhood. The reason is simple: the story of Prabh Deep, the 23-year-old rapper who has taken the Indian hip-hop scene by storm, is the story of Delhi-18.
In October, Prabh Deep released his debut album, Class-Sikh, on iTunes. Produced by Sajeel Kapoor aka Sez on the Beat, it is one of the most exciting, aggressive and self-assured albums to emerge from India’s independent music scene in recent history. Over the course of 12 tracks, rapped almost entirely in Punjabi, replete with R&B-laced melodies and tubthumping basslines, Prabh Deep lays bare his journey of self-discovery, Sikh identity, of growing up in gang-ridden and drug-infested localities. This is not the homely, upper-middle class west Delhi of Queen (2014); it is the grimy underbelly of Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! — Bunty Chor, the criminal whose life Dibakar Banerjee’s 2008 black comedy was based on, lived and operated in Vikaspuri, a stone’s throw from Tilak Nagar. “Look at this place, you can tell that the government doesn’t care. As far back as I can recall, we’ve had a gang culture here; it is not unusual to hear gunshots in the middle of the night; to see kids dazed from drugs, lying in the parks. Bunty is just one of the characters from west Delhi, I can tell you about so many others,” says Prabh Deep.
The opening track, Intro, in Class-Sikh is formed by news reports of the student suicides, namely Kriti Tripathi, who killed herself last year in Kota. This is followed by Suno, where Prabh Deep addresses the rampant drug addiction amongst teens in his locality; how it does not discriminate when it comes to its victims — both the peddler and the addict. This theme follows through in a spoken word piece titled Abu. “Abu was a friend of mine, who lived dangerously. He did two stints in Tihar Jail, and became an addict — heroin, opium, alcohol. He died from an overdose,” says Prabh Deep. In Click Clack, he summarises Abu’s story in the chorus: Click Clack, Aithe hunde ne fire te, aithe hunde ne katal /Aithe hunde ne nashe te, kinu painda ni farak (Click Clack, shots are fired/ Click Clack, and murders take place/ Click Clack, drugs are everywhere/ Click Clack, but it makes no difference).
A high-school dropout, Prabh Deep is critical of the pressures put on students by the education system and their families. “I dropped out in Class XII. I was a good student, I was learning judo and hockey. But I just didn’t see the point of it. I was growing up around people who had such bright minds, but couldn’t make much of themselves. I wanted to create my own path. I was lucky that my mother supported my decision,” he says.
Born into a family where, often, money was scarce and opportunities to make it were limited, a teenage Prabh Deep began working as a salesman in a garment shop nearby. “I earned Rs 3,000 a month. I think money changed things for me, I felt its power. Later, I joined a call centre and earned much more — I left after three years because it wasn’t who I wanted to be. I’d grown selfish and reckless and money was keeping me from making music,” he says. There wasn’t ever any doubt that he was drawn to hip-hop, not after that first time, nearly 10 years ago, when he chanced upon a B-boy crew practising their moves in a park. “It was the summer of 2008, and my best friend and I would go jogging in our chappals. It wasn’t for exercise, we just went to look at girls in the park. I saw the crew and I thought they were performing stunts,” says Prabh Deep, who was immediately captivated by the urban dance form, and began training himself. By 2013, hip-hop and rap had become an extension of that ethos; Prabh Deep began travelling to south Delhi, where some of the first ripples of the capital’s rap/hip-hop scene formed in 2008, and had steadily spread through the city.
“I was trying to make it as a producer first, but the two people who got me rapping were ZaN Twoshadez, who is a half Punjabi-half Sudanese rapper; and Jaspal Singh, an NRI who was in Delhi to research for his PhD on Delhi’s hip-hop culture,” says Prabh Deep, who cut his teeth at open mic nights and other events for more than four years, all the while working on his material.
And just like Eminem found Dr Dre, he too found his partner in rhyme, Sez, in 2015. “He and I were both producing beats at the time, so we got in touch over Facebook. I liked a beat he’d produced. When I found out that we live only 10 minutes away from each other, we started hanging out. On the first day, we made our single, Feel Me. We recorded, mixed and mastered Class-Sikh in my home studio,” says Sez. What connects them both, apart from a pin code, is their shared musical influences and sensibilities; on Class-Sikh, Sez composes the melody and beats, and edits Prabh Deep’s verses to optimise his flow. “What sets Prabh Deep apart are his experiences. I’ve worked with Mumbai rappers Naezy and DIVINE, but Prabh’s an innovative lyricist. He has started with Delhi 18, but he can take his music out of the gullies, and into the world,” he says.
Sitting in his bedroom-cum-studio, Prabh Deep is surrounded by speakers on the wall, and boxes of sneakers on the floor — 18 pairs in sight. It’s two days after his opening act for British rapper and singer, Lady Leshurr, at a south Delhi restro-bar. It’s a far cry from when he had started a funding page for his album, receiving less than Rs 10,000 in donations. Six months ago, Suno was picked as Track of the Week by BBC Asian Network’s Bobby Friction, introducing Prabh Deep to the Punjabi diaspora on either side of the Atlantic. Now, after signing with Azadi Records, landing a deal with Bira 91, another one with Puma (he features in their viral Suede Gully video), he looks set to crown himself the king of desi hip-hop — which is not the same as Bollywood hip-hop. “I want to go commercial like Badshah did, but I’m making music for myself, nobody else. Naezy and DIVINE are my friends, but I can kill them with my verse anytime,” says Prabh Deep, echoing the braggadocious lyrics in Murder, that seem partly inspired by Kendrick Lamar’s verse in Big Sean’s Control (2013).
“When I think of an album, I think of all its aspects: a thread that runs through all the songs. Lyrically and visually, it must represent its subjects. Sez and I spent two years on Class-Sikh till it was perfect. But now it is time to tell other stories,” says Prabh Deep, who has already begun work on his sophomore effort. “The second album is about my father. We don’t have an easy relationship but there’s mutual respect and support. I want to talk about his life, how as a 14-year-old boy, he watched his father killed in front of his eyes in the riots of 1984. I want to name names, and set the record straight about what happened at that time,” he says.