Boom boom shaka laka boom boom shak! Street Cat’s gonna knock you back!
This bicycle ad jingle from the ‘90s is, in a way, responsible for the arrival of rap in South India. Suresh Peters, the composer, felt it would be novel to use rap, a genre unfamiliar in India then. The experiment worked.
Inspired by the jingle’s success, Suresh suggested using a rap song for his friend’s upcoming Tamil film album. The friend, a young film composer, found the idea exciting. They, however, decided to make the song more local. Instead of fast-paced English, they went for Madras slang. Words like ghilli , goli , manja and more made it to the song. The song was a mix of folk and rap. It was refreshingly new yet so familiar. It became a pop-culture phenomenon.
Twenty-six years later, Suresh is grateful but also mildly miffed about making ‘Petta Rap’ with his composer friend, AR Rahman. “I have made music of various genres after that. But I am still mistakenly labelled as a rapper because of that one song,” he laughs. Such was the impact of ‘that one song’. Arivarasu Kalainesan (popularly known as Arivu), who is among the leading rappers in Tamil Nadu, says, “That was the first time a lot of us even heard the word ‘rap’.”
Even a decade ago, rap in South India was rare. It was mostly confined to the fringes except for occasional appearances in films. Rahman, Suresh, Apache Indian, Blaaze among others familiarised the genre. But independent artists were sparse and largely invisible.
Then sometime around the beginning of the previous decade, a slow-yet-steady emergence of such artistes, powered by YouTube and social media, began. Now, rap has become a part of mainstream music.
A rythm of cultures
Rap in South India has come untethered from its (bicycle) commercial beginnings and, through various artists, taken numerous forms. Though we are talking about the genre’s evolution in one part of the country, it is difficult and probably unfair to create labels such as ‘South Indian rap’, for it does not exist. The artists come from diverse backgrounds, they tell different stories and have distinct styles.
Eboshi and Contra of the band Cartel Madras call their style the ‘Goonda Rap’. The sisters come from a mix of cultures — they are half-Malayalis, born in Chennai and raised in Canada. They are also among the few brown queer rappers.
“We want our music to come at you with a rush of all the things that have gone into who we are. So when you hear Cartel Madras, you might hear a hint of Ilaiyaraaja’s synth mixed in with 808s [a type of electronic percussion sample]. You might see the rhetoric of [late political activist] Arrikad Varghese mixed in with a nod to rapper MF Doom. You might feel like you’re in Chinatown in Toronto, or somewhere in Chennai in the late 90s,” they say, via email from Canada, about their music.
The Cartel Madras siblings recently collaborated with GWS, a Malayali hip-hop musician based in Los Angeles, for their latest track, Staying Up All Night. GWS expands to Glen’s Work Space — “The (stage) name’s a bit anticlimactic, I know,” says Glen Koshy George. He recently moved to the US for studies. For him, music is a way to relieve stress. It is, however, is more than a mere hobby. “I am heavily influenced by the western hip- hop, particularly the new school wave,” he says, “I found that missing in Kerala. You can find hard bars spitting rappers all around but none that could create a vibe like American rappers Travis Scott or Lil Uzi Vert. So, I see myself as the pioneer of bringing it to Kerala especially.”
Meanwhile, in Kerala, there is Vedan (which means hunter in Malayalam), for whom rap is a tool to talk about social issues. He grew up in a colony close to the Thrissur railway station, where people struggled for necessities. “I didn’t want to be a rap artist. I just needed a medium to express these issues and I found rap,” he says.
Voices of change
Vedan is not alone. There are many young rappers whose works brazenly question the status quo. Arivu, who is a big inspiration for Vedan, is one of them. Arivu’s Tamil rap song ‘Sanda Seivom’ (Let’s Fight), for instance, criticised the Government’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act and National Register of Citizens. An ardent follower of Ambedkar and Periyar, most of Arivu’s independent works deal with socio-political issues such as caste oppression, religious discrimination, and gender inequality.
“Rap, originally, was a music of the oppressed. People in the African-American community used it to express their pain and protest. I, too, use the form to talk about socially relevant issues,” says Arivu, “So, even when I write songs for a commercial film, I try to go beyond the usual hero-worship elements and write about the connection the hero has with his society.”
Telugu rapper Streetviolater’s works evoke a sense of helpless anger. His latest song, ‘Maranam’ (which means death in Telugu), is a condemnation of corrupt governments, media, education system among others. Like Vedan, Streetviolater also never wanted to be a rapper. “I was into music from an early age. I was part of a rock band. But then, I realised that I had a lot of things to say as an individual. So, I started rapping,” he says.
Apart from the socio-political lyrics, another common element of these rappers is their use of regional language. “I believe that music transcends the boundaries of language. I love Arivu’s lyrics which are in Tamil,” says Vedan, “But I rap in Malayalam for two reasons. One: It is the language that I am most comfortable speaking. Two: There’s now an attempt to make one language superior to others. So, this is my way of resisting that.”
People in the music industry say that the following for hip hop music has increased exponentially over the last decade. “Hip-hop has been one of the biggest breakout genres in the country, especially after the release of Gully Boy . It is the music that reflects the current culture of the country/city, be it political, cultural or economic. Hip-hop is coming of age and will grow into being a thriving genre in the country,” says Spotify’s Padmanabhan NS, the Artists & Label Partnerships Head, India.
“While Punjabi and Hindi hip hop still dominate the desi hip hop landscape, there is definitely a burgeoning scene in the South,” says a spokesperson from JioSaavn. Streaming platforms such as Spotify and JioSaavn have been hotbeds for upcoming hip hop artists. With these avenues, it is now easier than before to start an independent music career; sustaining it is, however, a challenge.
Kannada rapper Alok Babu R (popularly known as All OK), for instance, started his independent music career before the days of digital streaming. His Bengaluru-based hip-hop band Urban Lads released its first album Explosion 1 in 2007. “Forget hip hop, there wasn’t an independent music scene in Kannada then. But we hung on, slowly got noticed. From zero views on YouTube [when we started], we got over a million for each song,” he says.
Blaaze has a word of advice for young rappers. “It’s a cycle. You need to hit the mainstream for the world to take notice, then have an already established fan base or audience for your independent work to get recognised,” he says. Blaaze’s independent tracks ‘In My Fathers Words’ and ‘Ban The Crooked Police’ fetched him opportunities to work with Rahman in films. The popularity in films in turn earned him more appreciation for his independent works. “It’s more about creating,” he says, “Whether it’s in films or independently, the process is what you must love and that’s why longevity succeeds.”