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The journey of a desi hip hop revolution from cyphers to studios

From Baba Sehgal to Badshah, India has seen hip hop through different perspectives. But there’s one that is slowly gaining momentum in mainstream platforms – the desi underground hip hop scene. This includes: The Punjabi scene (Bohemia, Raftaar and Prabhdeep) that was also the inspiration for Tommy Singh from Udta Punjab; The stuff that’s happening in Delhi (Seedhe Maut, Sun J) ; Mumbai’s recent overly documented eruption from Dharavi, Nalasopara, Kalyan, Antop Hill, Kurla etc. (Divine, Naezy) i.e the Gully Boy rage ; Rapping in the Northeast (Meba Ofilia, K4 Kekho), and the absence of venues there; The scenes in Bengaluru, Hyderabad, and Chennai.

But what I’m going to discuss is not all of this. I’m going to write about the overly documented slumdogs who have now unabashedly become slumgods. I’m going to write about how the ghettos in Mumbai which shelter 51% of the city’s population have given to us 100% raw and progressive talent.

This is a revolutionary story that began through cyphers. But what are cyphers? A word like that will instantly make you think of some shady guy wearing a black hoodie, hacking computer systems while sipping on his 99th Red Bull. WRONG. In the most relatable instance, it’s just a bunch of guys standing at a tea stall outside say, Khalsa college in Mumbai narrating their lives in rhythmic verse, as a crowd slowly gathers around them as hype men. Well, this is what a cypher looks like:

According to The Rolling Stone magazine, A cypher (or cipher) is a DIY, almost-impromptu gathering of artists and fans — on the streets, at corner shops, in cafés — where rappers take turns freestyling, playfully dissing each other from time to time, often accompanied by a beatboxer. Naved Shaikh, better known by his stage name Naezy, is an Indian rapper from Kurla, Mumbai, who is also one of the early pioneers of the hip hop revolution in the city. With hip-hop,” he says, “all you need is a beatboxer and the story of your life.”

The underground hip-hop movement in Mumbai has been built from the ground up by the artists themselves. The attention, the appreciation and all the glory that comes with their success is entirely accredited to their strong passion and dedicated hard work. Artists like Divine, Naezy, Emiway and several others, say that the Internet has been very influential, and anyone with a smartphone and a 3G connection can make as well as hear the music.

Naezy, who raps in Hindi, Marathi and Urdu, says: “No other genre allows you to tell stories authentically and in as much detail as the way hip-hop does.” His first song, “Aafat,” was produced and executed by his crew; he even made the video on his own with an iPad. In an interview with Rolling Stone India, he said that being notorious in his area — Kurla, Mumbai-70, which he references often — being the guy who was always up to no good, helped. The 100 or so people who knew about the antics of Naved Shaikh checked it out and began talking. Those guys would then go to other ’hoods and share the song with their extended friend circle, eventually spawning a legitimate fan following through word of mouth and internet hits. 

Emiway Bantai, a rapper you just saw in a cypher above is also a YouTuber with over 5M subscribers. He preaches independent music and claims to have no label delegating him. He feels that true hip hop isn’t about commercial hits, but real issues and real feelings. He has gained popularity through his fanbase on Youtube and incidentally started off with shooting videos on his phone too. He has won the Radio Mirchi People’s Choice Award for three consecutive years. Today he continues to write, record and produce all his music videos while touring around the country for hip hop gigs.

Divine (Vivian Fernandes) has signed on to multiple labels including Sony Music and TSeries, which have been pushing his music heavily. In February this year, he started his own record label called Gully Gang Records – that manages and discovers desi hip hop talent. Naezy has been managed by OML and now, YRF music. Emiway too has started his own record label called Bantai The Studio.

There are many other rappers and hip-hoppers like Swadesi Nation, 7Bantai’Z, MC Altaf, Dee MC, Brotha Hood, Mumbai’s Finest and Dopeadelicz who render a rich diversity and bring in many new types of tunes and topics to the hip-hop scene in Mumbai, making this city the biggest hub of hip-hop in India. Check this video out if the you’re already as inspired by this genre as I am:

Besides being a legit academic course in Mumbai University, a musical genre encompassing rhythm and poetry, hip hop is also a subaltern cultural revolution that began in gullies of Mumbai.

In an interview with News 18, Deepa Unnikrishnan, a middle-class girl from Mumbai who is now an internationally known rapper Dee MC said that she couldn’t attend a lot of gigs because her parents did not permit their daughter to be going to clubs at night. Taking simple economics into consideration, she says that females have better opportunities in the hip hop scene simply because female artists in this genre are very few.

Talking about female artists, Meba Ofelia, from Shillong won the EMAs for Best India Act in 2018 for her contribution in Indian Hip Hop. The paradigms of gender equality drastically shift in this industry since it appears to be super empowering for women.

This journey from cyphers to studios is a long one. It’s also a journey from helpless poverty to hard earned success. From close knitted orthodox beliefs and preconceived notions to open-mindedness. From songs about drugs, money, women to songs about society, economy, and politics. It’s more than just music or success, its a revolution.

I’m going to leave you now with a little glimpse of what the future of hip hop will probably look like:


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