With warmth and an infectious smile, Yogi B, inarguably the pioneer of Tamil hip-hop, speaks about how excited he is to perform in Chennai. “There’s just something about coming back to my motherland that makes it soulful and refreshing. Even if it is just about sitting with a friend and sipping chai.” This time, however, it feels like stepping into a different world, says Yogi. “Coming here after the pandemic feels like a reset; to my life and the world as I know it. Seeing how people are living now, after surviving the pandemic, makes it feel like a new world to me.”
This Thursday, Yogi is performing at Phoenix Marketcity, Chennai, along with Emcee Jesz and Dr Burn. Popularly known as Yogi B & Natchatra, the Malaysia-based ensemble is returning to perform in Tamil Nadu after almost 15 years, and Yogi says that it was the music consumption trends during the pandemic that gave them the push to do this. “There is a demand among fans to see artists they grew up with; it’s a retro wave that’s happening all over the world.
“During the pandemic, when there was silence all around, people thought ‘ mavane, what is valuable in life? Which music kept us going and captured those valuable moments?’ And there came a value in looking back. We, Yogi B & Natchatra, are lucky to still have a place in the hearts of people.” There’s another reason for the concert as well, one that is close to Yogi. The artist rightfully wears it on his sleeve — and on his T-shirt with ‘Original’ written on block letters — that he is called the godfather of Tamil hip-hop. “That comes with a lot of weight to carry. An artistic responsibility. Tamil is as big as a galaxy and hip-hop is a vast art form. So bringing them together for a fusion is something complex and I want to make sure that there is a balance.”
In his 30-year-long career now, Yogi has seen the popularity curve of rap music grow exponentially. “The turbo boost in technology and the lifestyle of people merged, and it has made everyone a content creator; there’s a tsunami of content out there and this has given a lot of opportunities to rap music talents.” The growth of music streaming, however, has birthed a new argument that has divided music lovers — that the loss of tangibility has reduced ownership of music among listeners. Gone is the generation that carried music cassettes or music players with painstakingly-curated tracks on 100MB SD cards; the curve of the Vinyl-cassettes-music device turned towards something intangible. Yogi says he stands with those arguments and that this is due to commercialization without understanding the cultural values of the trade.
“When socio-cultural values are disregarded during commercialisation, it becomes plasticky. When you physically own music, there is a realness to it; but a stream is an illusionary thing, something akin to a wave. The tangibility of music is something that key players of the industry are not bothered about because they don’t have a cultural centre in their organisations.” If these corporations do value those cultural aspects, Yogi says, they would offer both streaming and physical products. He also points to a discrepancy among generations of music consumers. “There’s a big generation gap in music consumption because we don’t have good documentation or insights into this culture, especially in India. We have viral icons, but not many socio-cultural music icons. Nobody taught the youth what the highest resolution of music listening is and why streaming cannot offer what CDs can.”
Technological advancements can’t be blamed altogether. Yogi cites examples of how the United States, a country synonymous with technological advancement, still has Vinyl sales. “An artist like Adele sold millions of CDs in the past few years. The demography of her audience is mostly women over 30s, and most of them go to this particular supermarket where a big stall of Adele’s CDs is installed. Once they start buying, they start realising the value in the tangibility of music.”
Being a musician who has always juggled indie and film music effortlessly, Yogi is happy to see the two schools intersect and find mutual respect. “People now understand what indie music is. When I started, I had to repeatedly explain that to people. The youth are more aware now, and I have been waiting for this ‘woke generation’ that likes to feel with their heart, think with their mind, and not take conventional ideas without questioning them.”
The Katravai Patravai-rapper also stresses the importance of social activism in rap, and he roots for the rise of artists like Arivu, OfRo, and Da-Lit boy. In fact, he is even critical of his own repertoire for not having more social activism. “These artists are much-needed for the culture of the form because it is all about quality and fighting against injustice. I sit down and listen to them because they speak of a world, and suffering, that I might not know of.”
Yogi now hopes to put out new music. Not having enough new music is also why Yogi gets tired of the tag — ‘the Madai Thiranthu singer’ — that looms large over his head. Madai Thiranthu, which featured in Yogi B & Natchatra’s debut album Vallavan, was their breakout track, and like is the case with artists who find tremendous success early on, Yogi has been fighting to come out of his own shadow. “I do agree that it gets tiring. I don’t blame the fans, but I am trying my best to break it.” And his upcoming album Manthrahood is an attempt to do that. “This year, I am definitely releasing a single. This new album will be a huge leap from Vallavan.” Yogi, however, isn’t focussing on film music for now. “When it comes to film music, I have a few terms and conditions: I won’t do any songs that glorify violence, alcoholism, or anything negative. Naan uthaman nu solla varala (‘I don’t claim to be a great person’), but I am an independent artist, and if I say something negative, it can become a mantra of sorts.”
Catch Yogi B & Natchatra live at Phoenix Marketcity, Chennai, on January 26 from 6.30 pm onwards