Can’t stop, won’t stop: the rise of Tamil rap

Meet some of the Tamil rappers using language as a musical tool. (Clockwise from top left): Stony Psyko and DopeDaddy from Dopeadelicz, Lady Kash, Arivu, Yung Raja, OfRO and Yogi B   | Photo Credit: Akashik, Ravi Balineni and Special Arrangement

At around the same time that AR Rahman tapped singer Suresh Peters for ‘Pettai Rap’, a humorous and infectious rap song from the 1994 Tamil film, Kadhalan, Malaysian artiste Yogeswaran Veerasingam aka Yogi B started getting global recognition for rapping in Tamil. His songs addressed themes like racial harmony in Malaysia and the struggles of everyday life. “He’s basically the godfather of the genre,” says Tony Sebastian aka Stony Psyko, from Dharavi-based hip-hop crew, Dopeadelicz.

Cut to May 2019, when Kabali director Pa Ranjith presented ‘Snowlin’, a rap track performed by Arivu and OfRO of the Casteless Collective. The song, he tweeted, was “in memory of the voices silenced by the bullets of power and apathy” [a reference to the Sterlite protests of 2018], and is from the duo’s album, Therukural.

Making a point

Today’s Tamil rap community forms a diverse cohort. Some, like Singapore-based Lady Kash and Sri Lanka’s Krishan Maheson aka King South, flow easily between languages, while others like Arivarasu Kalainesan aka Arivu are taking over with just Tamil as their lyrical weapon.

These rappers are also not shy about their politics or their activism. Last year, for instance, Lady Kash — who performed in AR Rahman’s Enthiran soundtrack — released a single called ‘Villupaattu’, as an ode to indigenous art forms that she wants to help save. In Tamil, she raps, “Like the arrow was fired/We used love to string our words and music together/Why can’t we use the same music to join hands today?”

Going ‘mass’

Then there are those artistes who are firmly ensconced in mainstream popular culture, like Hiphop Tamizha. Comprising Adhithya Venkatapathy aka Adhi and R Jeeva, the duo’s repertoire includes the 2016 ‘Takkaru Takkaru’, a case for keeping jallikattu legal.

More recently, Adhi played a leading role in Natpe Thunai, a Tamil sports comedy film, with music by the composer duo. With millions of followers and praise from composers like Anirudh Ravichander, they lean towards commercial pop and fusion, relegating rap to just one or two songs. Yogi B, who was an advisor to Adhi in 2006, says, “He started representing hip-hop as (the band) Wattabottles, whom I love, but today, there is no hip-hop in that Tamizha. It’s watered down, skewed and I’m very disappointed with what he’s doing.”

Reasons to rhyme

That being said, there’s a lot more music that represents the Tamil identity vibrantly. Composer Santhosh Narayanan, for instance, has been particularly adept at striking the right balance, calling on Yogi B and Dopeadelicz to give a real feel of Dharavi in the Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala, and has worked with singer, lyricist and director Arunraja Kamaraj for stand-out trap bangers in Kabali and Bairavaa.

On a global scale, Singapore-born Yung Raja has had his share of fun with ‘Poori Gang’, a reimagining of American rapper Lil Pump’s hit ‘Gucci Gang’. His version lauds the Tamil culture he was raised on. “I wanted to be who I grew up as — this boy who speaks Tamil at home and English outside. My music became an avenue [to share that],” he says.

But there is still untapped potential. “The complete essence of rap is yet to be accessed and displayed in cinema, in a wholesome way,” says Lady Kash, who, at age 29, has been working in the industry for over a decade. The reception to her own music, though, shows there’s space being made for women. Her gritty delivery, which reflects influences of American rappers across eras, like Tupac and Kendrick Lamar, has found many takers.

Can’t stop, won’t stop: the rise of Tamil rap

Arivu too counts Lamar as an influence, but he was introduced to the American rapper only recently. The Casteless Collective’s début album, Magizhchi, features lyrics about poverty, discrimination and Tamil identity that grew out of Arivu’s love for traditional folk music styles like oppari and gaana. While he’s also contributed lyrics and his voice to Hiphop Tamizha’s Natpe Thunai soundtrack, Arivu’s resolve remains clear. “We want the next generation to be politically aware.” He and OfRO began work on their album, ‘Therukural’ in April last year, and true to form, they are socially-driven songs. The first single to drop was the ‘Anti-Indian’ song (in April), ahead of the Lok Sabha elections. OfRO says the album is releasing song by song because “times and opportunities keep changing.” It also features Malaysian-English rapper Roshan Jamrock and fellow Casteless Collective artiste, Tenma.

Verse for everyone

Where do these rappers, as diverse as they are, showcase their music? Dopeadelicz, for instance, gets invited to perform at music festivals and club gigs alike, but Stony Psyko says they feel most at home when they’re in Mumbai localities like Malad and Dharavi. Part of the reason is the diversity of the audience. “When we perform at Tamil community events in these areas, even older ladies get excited about it,” he says.

Like Dopeadelicz, Arivu and OfRO take to public spaces in Chennai for their own event series, Therukural, bringing together rappers, dancers and artistes for rap battles. “Arivu's hip-hop music knowledge is [recent] but he knows his culture and represents the artform, thanks to the guidance of his mentor (OfRO) and the larger unit,” Yogi B says.

While Sony Music India’s South Repertoire head, Ashok Parwani, feels Tamil rap is still nascent, he admits that the label is keen to work with “two or three” Tamil rappers on upcoming projects, including the hugely successful 7UP Madras Gig, the digital music series. Meanwhile, the first single from Dopeadelicz’s album, Mapulz, which features Tamil verses in six out of seven tracks, released last month. Yogi B is releasing his latest album, Manthrahood (which he describes as “commercial as well as nutritional”), later this year as well.

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Printable version | Nov 23, 2020 6:12:14 AM |

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