Where Does ‘Gully Boy’ Go Next? India’s Hip Hop Avengers Gather
After hip hop’s mainstreaming with Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’, the battle for Indian hip hop’s future has begun.
YEH RAP WAALA GAME BHI TO KHATIN HAIN [This Rap game is difficult] GARMA GARAM JAISE MUMBAI KI CUTTING HAIN [It’s steaming like Mumbai’s hot tea]D’Evil, Gully Gang Cypher
The sharp fluorescence of the elevator light is interrupted with the bold letters ‘PRAY FOR BIGGIE’ embroidered on a baseball cap. Its owner is clad in a gaudy yellow and red Hawaiian shirt. His companion shifts his weight inside knock-off Nikes and stares straight ahead as we ride up cloaked in an ominous silence.
We enter the bar level of Raasta Bombay, one of the city’s nightly watering holes. A restless bevy of 20-somethings shuffle their feet and toy with their drinks. Before long, under the intermittent glare of strobe lights, DJ Proof lowers the sound level on a mix tape of hip hop’s greatest hits to shriek ‘Divine in the House tonight!’ and the assemblage yells their longing approval.
Here, at the launch of the Gully Gang Cypher, a throng of Mumbai’s hip hop fans jostle. They’re readying for a first look at the new slate of acts who will stream onto a stage on the mezzanine level that seems suspended in mid-air. Smartphone cameras create a momentary electric flash in a hurried attempt to freeze-frame the future of Indian hip hop as its acts trot out.
On stage today is the four-member crew of Aavrutti, rapper producer Shah Rule, and rapper D’Evil. Music producer Karan Kanchan rounds out the roster with his Japanese inspired trap beats.
The audience gallery faces the stage so squarely, the adoring mob can almost leap across on the stage to join Mumbai rap’s latest super heroes. They don’t know it yet but this is less a concert and more a fight for the future of Indian hip hop’s existence.
It’s the kind of unprecedented fandom that has rarely, if ever, wrapped itself around Bollywood independent music genres in India.
This might be a unique inflection point in a country where various musical genres have only served as the hand-maiden of Bollywood.
First, the wave of post-liberalisation ‘Made in India’ pop. Then, the rock bands that helmed concerts and cut albums. Then, the contemporary Sufi refrains that launched many a Mahesh Bhatt multiplex movie. Then, the gradually dissolving into the moviedom’s jukebox with their artistes eking out an eventual living as reality show judges and playback providers.
It’s at this crucial time that Indian hip hop’s opening gambit has come in the form of an unprecedented attempt to organise a musical genre as an enterprise rather than just entertainment.
The launch of Gully Gang Entertainment by Indian hip hop’s original son of the soil Divine, and INCINK, the Ranveer Singh-sponsored record label, signal a different era for Indian music.
The first enterprise, conceived as a ‘for the artistes, by the artistes’ grooming ground hit playlists when it launched the Gully Gang Cypher (a Cypher is a collective of rappers that rap taking sequential turns).
Divine aka Vivian Fernandes offers the same piercing insight as his lyrics:
“I started this cause I feel that the younger crop of artists, while supremely talented, need to channel their creativity… It’s quite easy to get lost in the music industry, so learning from my own experiences I want to act as a bridge which connects them to their potential.”
Seen by many underground fans as the authentic ensemble, Gully Gang appears to have used Bollywood as a catalyst rather than a calling card.
Could this time be any different? Indian hip hop’s mainstreaming with Zoya Akhtar’s hit movie Gully Boy has seen the springing of two simultaneous evolutionary arcs. One that presaged the coming-out party of an underground movement with the glossy Gully Boy cinematic sheen. The other, a spooling out of less-heard-of artistes on playlists across digital platforms that has unleashed raw, gritty tracks echoing the hip hop underground’s seething aggression and wordplay.
Peeking out from behind the dance-fuelled, filmy rap songs of the Honey Singhs, Raftaars and Badshahs is a teeming breed of homegrown rappers battling to keep the genre alive and independent. Now that the first flush of film-fuelled popularity has played out, an audience keen to listen to its own voice – verbalised as hard hitting bars laid to pulsating beats – is waiting, watching and listening.
Here now, assembling with its own survival endgame in mind, is the new breed of rappers staking their claim to Indian hip hop’s spiritual home.
Rule Number One
It’s a few weeks before the Gully Gang Cypher launch and I’m seated in front of artist-producer Shah Rule’s console.
“This is like me coming back to my roots – @#*k! I’m home!’ exclaims the rapper who has lived in three different continents and grown up imbibing everything from Michael Jackson to Stevie Wonder in Hong Kong, Russia and London before he settled in India. Now famous from his battle rap scene with Ranveer’s character in Gully Boy, his real life journey traces the rough and tumble of trying to earn credibility and confidence in the fragile world of performers and artists that is Mumbai.
It’s easy to stereotype him as the moneyed kid who made it to rap celebrity-dom as he tinkers with his sound system in a tony Bandra neighbourhood.
But that is belied by his wistful recounting of the hard knock life rappers like him were meted out before Gully Boy. Brands squeezing you for songs, acquaintances dodging payments, and gig venue owners who would condescend were all par for the course until now.
It’s something that has made him understand the importance of being recognised commercially and managed professionally by people who’ve done it all before. “Divine believes in me and he knows my strengths…he’s in it for the legacy!” he says with the same fun-loving, street smart optimism that lace his tracks.
Being a rapper of no fixed address for the better part of his youth means that his sound knots a variety of influences. As a technical wizard, his songs meld a composer’s ear with an artiste’s ‘feel’. Most of his tracks move from a minor key to major, creating a haunting quality woven with smartly constructed verse and bilingual wordplay. Something that he has worked hard on, sometimes collaborating with writers, to absorb Hindi. Tracks like ‘Smoke’ sizzle with forbidden urging and ‘Lakhs’ has the velvety touch of hip hop’s traditional bragging.
He speaks, almost emotionally, about a Grammy being the ultimate goal and pure desire tinges his voice.
As we part, I ask him about the merchandise he’s donning – a baseball cap with RULE emblazoned on it. A wide grin is followed by a self-deprecating jibe about his proud Sindhi heritage and his zeal to emulate Rap’s global moguls like Kanye and Eminem.
The movie script may have made him throw the battle to its hero, but in the real world, Shah Rule is ready to go toe-to-toe with the best of them.
The Fierce Foursome
I’m guided through a narrow alley and staircase to the terrace of a redeveloped building. The scent of detergent mists off garments hung to dry and the Aavrutti crew of four are accompanied by Chang, their videographer in residence. If the balmy weather of Mumbai’s heat in the city’s small-scale industrial district of Kurla is baking under their sweatshirts, you wouldn’t be able to tell.
Eyeballing the iPhone I am using to record them, they engage instantly in the inquisition into their lives.
We’re talking about that epic night where reputations were forged on the street. A club gig gone wrong when the venue owner suddenly decided to raise the prices. Their rebellious act of performing as a cypher with beatboxers on the street is reminisced. An audience of adoring peers who immortalised the episode in a grainy video uploaded to Youtube.
“Kuch karna chahiye jis se family ko garv ho!” says taekwondo fighter-turned-rapper Sledge. “Mere sister ne ghar pe logo ko samjhaya ke main kya karta hu” chimes in Frenzzy, with an intensity characteristic of his Punjabi rapping. There’s a simmering passion to prove to the world that their chosen path leads to respect and success.
“Family mein jo bhi hain, unho ne yeh sab cheez nahi kiya hain” offers Sammohit in a surprisingly mature insight for a 20-year-old.
“Maine bola ‘chal! mujhe jhoota nahi banna hain!” guffaws the unusually confident Saifaan, recounting a relative’s advice to pursue a career as a lawyer. All the while Chang, the video wizard who stumbled into this when his father bought him a camcorder, gazes watchfully.
This isn’t the careless banter of rebellious youth. It’s the confidence of artistes who have each released original material to the harsh scrutiny of YouTube’s unforgiving audiences – and prevailed. Each of them has ventured solo tracks before they came together as a fellowship on the same frequency (Aavrutti means frequency in Sanskrit) on their 2019 release Galtiyaan (Mistakes). The track is an ode to their coming of age as well as the thoughtful inspiration that life’s lessons lend to their lyricism.
Elated and introspective about the comments their videos get on YouTube and Instagram, the foursome is encouraged by what they see in their neighbourhoods.
“Mere chhote cousins ko rap karte dekh kar lagta hain – Yeh continue hone wala hain!” Saifaan interjects while adjusting his product-infused hairstyle. Sitting huddled close to each other, they finish each other’s sentences, knowing that their job is far from done.
“Gully Gang se ek platform mila hain – un log bohot real hain, un log bhi artist hain” they hasten in a chorus as I ask them what happens if a rap career doesn’t work out.
“Ab yeh hi karna hain, rap likhna hi hain hamesha,” Sammohit presses on.
As I take the stairs, they quickly return to their huddle, as if plotting their next move. Merely rapping on Mumbai’s roads is not enough, they’re here to own the streets they’ve come from.
“I don’t want to rap like a Rapper Bro!” he says as he ferrets out an old mixtape from the 90s. I am at veteran rapper D’Evil’s home in one of Borivali’s housing complexes. A ceiling fan whirs as it strains against Mumbai’s sweltering summer stillness.
The older, more heavyset member of Gully Gang’s roster, D’Evil’s tenure in the rap game is decorated with movie appearances, stage shows and features with other artistes.
With a body of work that has now evolved into a signature voice he describes his goal vehemently. “Snoop, Eminem, they rap in a particular style… you would know it was them even if you can’t see them!” outlining the goal for his own rap persona.
After an adolescence obsessing over hungrily procured cassette tapes and attempts at writing verses, D’Evil’s musicography is an ode to the urban milieu he has sprung from. Growing up in the chawls (community dwellings) in Mumbai’s central district, he raps about the poverty, hardships and tribulations he saw there. From this honest appraisal of what it means to survive the big city has come its own version of fame.
Whether it’s people picking him out at a crowded railway station, kids asking for selfies or passers-by on a bike yelling lyrics from his song ‘Chal Bhak’ when they see him – “It feels good”.
“I want Indian hip hop to have its own sound!” insists the rapper who describes his rap persona as the “Big brother who comes to save you in any fight”. I ask about his unusually large phone and its stylus. He grins impishly and pulls out a folder to treat me to a set of signature doodle art he pursues on paper and digitally. It’s a labour of love that belongs to his alter ego Mr Doodlekar whose t-shirts featuring the art are available on Flipkart.
(Photo Courtesy: Nair DA)
(Photo Courtesy: Nair DA)
(Photo Courtesy: Nair DA)
The fact that his many talents are now going to be represented by friend and mentor Divine is cause for great comfort.
“No matter what, I know he will be there,” he says appreciatively of his compatriot and now record label owner.
The son of a veteran Marathi stage and film actor, D’Evil’s repertoire of creative skills is hard to classify. He is at once, actor, director, artist, stage performer and all-round entertainer. Did we mention rapper? As part of an artist collective, he is acutely aware of how important commercial success has become if he wants to create a legacy. Now, he’s laser focused on leaving a mark as inedible as the prominent tattoos adorning his forearm.
Assembling For the Endgame
“Hip hop bajega, toh sab ki bajegi!!” (If hip hop plays on, everyone will enjoy and/or be kept honest) bellows D’Evil as he prowls the stage at Raasta back at the Cypher launch. The Gully Gang Cypher has debuted its debut track and D’Evil is staring down an audience whose glowing affection is bouncing off him. An announcement is screamed and the talismanic Divine takes the stage in a burst of high octane energetic rapping. The sudden incursion on stage detonates hysteria and the crowd starts yelling lyrics in unison.
As the night winds down, I await my turn in the men’s room. A rapper from another collective is wetting his hair and volunteers his observation about Divine’s latest venture – “He’s the face of rap in India, phir bhi woh doosro ko aage la raha hain”.
The Gully Gang’s opening gambit attracts an unmistakable admiration as it readies to capture hearts and minds across the world, earning Indian hip hop a firm place in the genre’s pantheon. For India’s brazenly bilingual rappers who must fight off fleeting memories and feeble loyalties, that battle has only just begun.
(The author Nair DA muses about all things that secretly shape the mind of biped mammals. Wary of arm-chair, expert opinions and enthused by on-ground observations because truth grows the strongest at the grassroots. Unlikely to save the world anytime soon but all proceeds from writing go to charity.)
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