Tamil rapper Paal Dabba on his Chennai roots, camp costumes and cryptic clues in songs

Rapper Paal Dabba wants to challenge his audience. There are words from Yoruba words, cryptic puzzles and wonderfully camp costumes in his songs. What inspires him?

Published - May 15, 2024 05:19 pm IST

Rapper Paal Dabba

Rapper Paal Dabba | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Amidst the crowded streets of Sowcarpet, lies a house with a spiral green staircase that leads to rapper Paal Dabba’s haven — his best friend’s house. It is retro, sparse and full of nooks — the perfect setting for his hit independent single ‘170cm’, a video game within a song, full of trippy colours and a beat that beckons you to move.

“We had to paint the walls back to white because my friend’s father wanted it so. In the video, we had all sorts of odd colours. Today, it looks tame in comparison to all the chaos,” says Anish, laughing.

Even a cursory glance at the videos of Paal Dabba’s songs scream ‘fresh’. The vivid, stylish costumes, use of words from Yoruba lyrics, cryptic clues and an innate irreverence for life, are probably reasons why the 23-year-old shines in today’s indie rapper scene. It also helps that he is a dancer with a natural penchant for beats and rhythm. “As long as the first four lines are cracked, I am good. The rest just flows,” he says.

Rapper Paal Dabba

Rapper Paal Dabba | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

On the terrace where the song was shot, Paal Dabba seems like an antithesis to his videos. “I don’t really step out too much. I only go to the houses of my friends. You may have heard references to places like Pulianthope, Otteri and Sowcarpet in my songs. These are the places where I have spent most time,” he says.

Over the last year, Paal Dabba has been riding the wave of five hits. He has released a number of independent songs, and has also sung ‘Galatta’ for music directorSushin Shyam in the recent blockbuster Aavesham and ‘His Name is John’ in Harris Jayaraj’s Dhruva Natchathiram. None of this was part of the plan though.

“I began with learning dance reluctantly, and stopped when I was in school. But the interest returned many years later when I began watching reality shows. I eventually joined Bfab (a dance crew that has represented India) and took part in some reality shows. Rap was an eventuality only because I enjoyed listening to Afro beats and artists like Rema (of ‘Calm Down’ fame) and Omha Lay. It was an experiment,” he says.

Paal loves the idea of easter eggs in his songs. You will find that there are lines and words that you cannot make sense of like ‘Ek’aro’ or ‘Bawo Ni?’ which means ‘good day’ and ‘how are you’ in Yoruba, a Nigerian language. More importantly though, you will be challenged with figuring out what the first few lines of ‘OCB’ means. “I tell a short story of moving between locations after having stolen a bike. The words ‘Vya to Anna AC bi tako’ is actually Vysarpadi to Anna Nagar, Assistant Commissioner of Police’s bike thakko adichikittu (stolen).. it goes on. I end with ‘Purile la?’ (you didn’t understand, no?) because it is a puzzle,” he says.

He says that the onomatopic characteristic of words excites him. He likes the names of areas and silly rhymes. He does not write songs with a theme in mind. It is usually an amalgamation of everything and nothing.

Success has been an odd bag that he is still learning to grapple with. This is not to say that he does not like it. While there are obvious perks, people still ask him many questions. A common one being one about his name. “I just really enjoyed drinking cold milk after dance practice. My mother and grandmother would often keep one or two packets aside for me,” he says. He adds that there are other strange questions. “My relatives and friends sometimes say that I have become a big shot. They have never spoken to me in that tone before. It is so odd,” he says.

Rapper Paal Dabba

Rapper Paal Dabba | Photo Credit: Thamodharan B

Paal says that he wishes to work with music director Santhosh Narayanan soon, but mostly wants to represent the indie scene of the South across the world. Directing his videos and giving them interesting colour and flavour, are all important steps towards achieving this goal.

“My mother is a huge support but often asks me what I am doing with my life. I started out with dance, went on to rapping. ‘What is next,’ she asks. I am not sure. For now, I want to make great songs that retain my style,” he says.

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