A rap for change: Gully Boy raked in the moolah, but Indian rappers, hip-hop artistes still striving for recognition

By: | Updated: March 12, 2019 6:03 PM

While Bollywood’s first-ever offering on the burgeoning Indian hip-hop culture, Gully Boy, has successfully raked in the moolah, rappers and hip-hop artistes in the country still strive to be recognised by the Indian music industry.

Imaging: Shyam Kumar Prasad

Twenty-five-year-old Prabh Deep, a Delhi-based hip-hop artiste, has been rapping for around five years now. But it was only in late 2017 that his music got the recognition it deserved when his album Class Sikh—produced by Delhi-based hip-hop producer Sez on the Beat (aka Sajeel Kapoor) and released by record label company Azadi Records—became a hit. What followed was Prabh Deep becoming the first Indian hip-hop artiste to have his album released in a tie-up with Apple Music. In August 2018, the Punjabi emcee also became the first rapper to clinch a music award from Toto Funds the Arts, an India-based non-profit trust set up in 2004 to encourage the work of young artistes in India through awards, workshops and events.

Prabh Deep’s journey as an artiste started with writing about his drug-infested lower-middle-class neighbourhood in west Delhi. Ever since, his songs like Class Sikh, Suno, Feel me, etc, have gained wide recognition among the masses for the reality they portray. A well-known name in the Indian hip-hop scene now, he continues to put in great effort in creating music that resonates with his beliefs without prescribing to commercial Bollywood masala beats. “They (people) think that rappers are just lower-middle-class uneducated youth, but that’s not true. I’ve travelled the entire nation on my own, making music and taking it places… I didn’t just randomly start putting stuff online… I worked hard, I had no money to travel for my shows when I started out,” he says. “If you look at most of our graphs right now, they are growing fast, but everything has happened with time. I haven’t got any breakthrough or overnight success… I’m still dropping songs every month… I don’t even have my own house, so I don’t think any breakthrough happened really,” he adds.

The absence of a breakthrough moment in the lives of Indian hip-hop artistes brings a very important but neglected point to the fore. While Bollywood’s first-ever cinematic offering on the burgeoning hip-hop culture in India, Gully Boy (2019), raked in the moolah last month, rappers and hip-hop artistes still strive to be recognised by the Indian music industry. This is in stark contrast to the West, where hip-hop artistes and rappers are not only sustaining themselves financially through their music, but also winning top honours at the Grammy Awards (considered the world’s finest music awards) for years now. Most Indian-origin artistes that Financial Express spoke with, in fact, admitted to having other sources of income, as their passion for hip-hop and rap doesn’t contribute enough monetarily.

The reasons behind this are aplenty. Some cite the absence of proper infrastructure in the Indian music industry. Others say it’s the jaded narrative that drives the Indian music industry which is the cause for poor representation. That is perhaps why Zoya Akhtar-directed Gully Boy does not offer its protagonist Murad Ahmed (Ranveer Singh) anything more substantial than a possible collaboration with a globally-renowned hip-hop artiste and a prize amount of R10 lakh at the end of the film—reportedly much lower than what most Bollywood singers charge for one song.

Hip-hop artistes in India have long struggled to gain prominence in an industry that has never looked at independent artistes with seriousness. It is this gap that indie music record labels such as Azadi Records, Desi Hip Hop, Gully Gang Entertainment, etc, are looking to bridge, giving artistes a dedicated platform where their music isn’t compromised. While mainstream labels like Sony Music and T-Series look at producing music of all types and genres, these indie music labels stick only to artistes from the rap and hip-hop scene in India, helping them manage gigs, endorsements, shows, etc, and aiding the process of creating the right content for different platforms.

When asked about the rationale behind founding Azadi Records in 2017, 27-year-old co-founder Uday Kapur says, “The Indian music industry has been dominated by an upper-class narrative that doesn’t represent the country. We wanted to show that there’s so much more being said. Because these people don’t come from your usual communities that are given a space in the media/entertainment industries, they are ignored. You could say the independent music culture exists as an anti-thesis to Bollywood’s apathy/apolitical stance.”

Tracing the roots

The hip-hop culture and movement originated in the 1970s in the West out of sheer disappointment and disillusionment faced by African-Americans in many parts of the world. The earliest instances of hip-hop evolution can be traced to Bronx in New York City, where the oppressed found a way to voice their opinions and give vent to pent-up anger and frustration by way of rap and hip-hop.

The situation is no different in India currently. The music that most Indian hip-hop artistes and rappers produce is born out of their need to vent and create something meaningful out of it. Take, for instance, Mumbai-based DIVINE aka Vivian Fernandes and Naezy aka Naved Shaikh, the two rappers whose life stories were the inspiration behind Gully Boy. Both started around eight years ago by writing and rapping about their lives in the slums of Dharavi in Mumbai. In 2015, their first joint collaboration, Mere Gully Mein, became an instant hit on YouTube. “I wanted a better life for myself and hip-hop gave me the hope and the skills to do that. Hip-hop tells the story of the common man that resonates with so many people, especially the youth,” says 27-year-old DIVINE, who recently found his own record label company, Gully Gang Entertainment.

Their story is somewhat similar to Prabh Deep’s, whose inspiration was not just the neighbourhood he lived in, but also financial constraints at home and the absence of a father figure, which gave him the inspiration to create music that everyone could relate to. “I was just telling my story, how I felt about what was going on around me… How I lived my life… I grew up around lots of social issues, difficulties, etc, and I started talking about that only by way of hip-hop,” he says.

For Mumbai-based Ankur ‘Enkore’ Johar, on the other hand, rapping and music originated from heartbreak, as well as a desire to do something offbeat. He got recognition after his album Bombay Soul (which released a few months ago) struck a chord with the masses almost instantly. “It was basically sabki story (everyone’s story)… the album has a kind of self-aware, world-aware perspective… People are now trying to be less ignorant, so it struck a chord. Also, the album signifies my journey to become a better person, so I think that worked too,” says the 26-year-old.

Money matters

At a time when a film inspired by the lives of rappers has made good money, it’s ironical that the community itself has to rely on alternate sources of income to further the passion for music. Sadly, even record labels that help these artistes with content creation, endorsements, gigs, etc, aren’t cash-flow-positive either. The primary reason behind this is the country’s general lack of interest in the independent music scene. Be it artistes themselves or platforms that seek to promote their work, the independent music culture in India is far from where it should be.

“Unfortunately, a lot of venues in this country look at music as a value-added entertainment service and the bottomline is that they only look at who is coming to their venue and spending on F&B, so that their sales increase,” says Azadi Records’ Kapur, who, along with co-founder Mo Joshi, foresees a long journey ahead before their venture begins to generate profit. “We take 20% of the fees of all projects (gigs, endorsements, etc) that we undertake with our artistes and, so far, we’ve been putting it all back in the business. Mo and I have other jobs as well—he runs his own business and I freelance as a journalist,” says Delhi-based Kapur.

Not just the recently-found Azadi Records, even record labels established a decade ago are struggling financially. Take the case of Desi Hip Hop, a platform for south Asian music, which was founded by rapper and hip-hop artiste Hardik Dave aka iQ nearly a decade ago. “Our major sources of income would be premium content, OTT video-streaming platforms… we’re also going to launch merchandise soon. But having said that, we’re not cash-flow-positive even today. We’re making money, but we spend more than we make, so we’re not in the green. But that’s not our aim either. The mission is to grow our user base,” says San Jose-based iQ, who was born and brought up in the US.

Hip-hop artistes, too, rue the lack of money. “I didn’t become successful overnight. I remember when my performance used to be a filler between two acts at college festivals. Today, I headline those same festivals, but that journey took its own time,” recounts DIVINE. “It took me a few years before I could command a price. Like any other struggling musician, I had to constantly walk the line between exposure and opportunity,” he adds.

Enkore, too, had a full-time role as co-founder at ATKT.in—a Mumbai-based talent hunt and content-creation platform that caters to younger audiences and aspires to bring together a community to promote the arts—till March last year. “Even though there is some money in this business, it isn’t enough to sustain… definitely not enough to throw all my eggs in the basket,” says Enkore, who is now focusing on his music full time.

Then there is rapper and hip-hop artiste Slyck Twoshadez aka Prashant Verma whose 2018 track Main Kaam Karta Akela gained massive popularity. Slyck, who moved from Gurugram to New Jersey around two years back, works as a pharmacist to fund his passion.

“The problem across genres is that between the bottom and the top there is a huge hole, where middle-class artistes should have been. Unless you have the PR skills and resilience, you can never make it match your day job income. We are at the greenshoots stage… hopefully, one day, music won’t just be a side hustle,” says Saurabh Kanwar, co-founder, ATKT.in.

Bollywood vs rap

‘Catchy’ and ‘peppy’ are considered to be golden words for the commercial music industry in the country. If YouTube hits are any parameter to gauge the popularity of songs, then Prabh Deep’s Class Sikh, which released around 10 months back, has only around 203K views, whereas Tareefan from the hit Bollywood movie Veere Di Wedding, which also released 10 months ago, has a whopping 187 million views. Similarly, Naezy’s Aafat, which released five years ago, has around 5.5 million views on YouTube, while Kareena Kapoor Khan’s item number Fevicol se from the movie Dabangg 2, which released six years ago, has 125 million views.

“In India, there is the Bollywood scene and then there’s everything else. Whether it is rap, Bengali rock or electronic music, traditionally, you aren’t a ‘thing’ until you are on a Bollywood soundtrack. Not even regional will do… look at Blaazé, the rapper who killed it years back on AR Rahman’s mega-hit soundtrack for the Tamil movie Boys. But he only become a star after his Rang De Basanti track,” says Kanwar of ATKT.in. “Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to make real money without a Bollywood plot. But the story is changing rapidly now. With streaming revenues from non-film music starting to look juicy over the past couple of years, most of the big labels are doubling down on all manner of new sounds, including, of course, rap and hip-hop,” he adds.

The earliest traces of recognition of rap as a genre in the music industry came for Yo Yo Honey Singh who incidentally made music objectifying women, but became a favourite of musicians to collaborate with because his catchy lyrics appealed to the masses. Then came saner voices such as Raftaar (aka Dilin Nair) and Badshah (aka Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia) who continue to ride on the path to success following their triumphant stints in Bollywood. But it’s only recently that hip-hop artistes like Naezy and DIVINE (who worked on Gully Boy’s music), and Prabh Deep (who had a track in the 2018 movie Manmarziyaan) have managed to attract the attention of Bollywood musicians and composers.

“One of the reasons we (rappers and hip-hop artistes) are not taken seriously is because of the kind of ‘not-so-great’ music that Indian audiences have been introduced to in the form of rap,” says 28-year-old rapper Slyck. “My parents were opposed to the idea of me rapping because they heard Yo Yo Honey Singh first. Similarly, with Indian audiences, their first tryst with rap was inappropriate. But the first impression is not the last impression in this case. People are approaching rap differently now,” says Slyck, who now plans to start his own record label company, Kalakaari Records, to empower rural and authentic talent.

Road ahead

Many artistes and record labels have credited Gully Boy as a sort of gamechanger, which has led to them getting greater attention and recognition. “Platforms like Saavan and Spotify are seeing their metrics being driven by hip-hop. So it’s only a matter of time before we see the Indian hip-hop scene take centrestage,” says artiste Dave.

Agrees ATKT.in’s Kanwar: “Sub-cultures have always flown below the radar before the mainstream takes notice. Now, digital and social media allow trends to thrive, helping connect communities, artistes and fans. The hip-hop/rap scene has already reached a fair bit of maturity and depth… in fact, the regional scene is very rich too… the industry is already hard at work getting these new sounds out.”

Prabh Deep, for one, says he will continue making meaningful music irrespective of the returns. “I make music because that’s what drives me… even if I fail, I will continue to do it. I don’t want fans… I want a family and that has consistently been building,” he says.

Apna time aayega, one of the tracks featured in Gully Boy, has become the anthem of the country’s youth, waiting to break through despite being bogged down by circumstances. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the men behind the powerful lyrics were none other than DIVINE and singer/composer Ankur Tiwari who has experimented quite a bit in his music career himself. While the youth might still need to wait for their breakthrough moment, the time has perhaps come for Indian hip-hop and rap artistes to be acknowledged and recognised. “When people hear and understand how we make rhymes, what we talk about, they will stop saying we’re not serious musicians,” says DIVINE.

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