Baba Sehgal to Bantai Boys, how ‘Desi Hip Hop’ is taking over Indian music industry.
The rise of rap music is a relatively new event for India. It is not like India did not have artists rhyming and writing songs syncing with the beats of the music, but never before a musical art-form ever created such a huge wave in India.
Today as I walk on the crowded streets of Mumbai, I hear little kids saying ‘Boht hard, boht hard’ or ‘Samajh Mai Aya kya?’ as if these are the pop culture terms like ‘Savage’ or ‘Lol’ which they would learn from the Insta celebs of the west.
These are the terms created by the ‘Bantai’ gang and various other Hip Hop artists of India. More importantly these are the pop culture terms of India.
Indian artists have started to create their own pop culture which is entering the mainstream quickly. With the rise of internet, India is dependent on neither western media nor Bollywood movies to bring them culture, they are choosing and propagating the things they like now.
Being a marketing and advertising professional, I decided to think about how this will change the Indian entertainment industry. Having launched a radio station myself and worked with one of the world’s biggest Music Label, I decided to deep dive into the Desi Hip Hop.
It all started with this man…
Baba Sehgal is and forever will be the first ever successful Indian rapper. His songs were obviously not the best, but they were funny and they brought something completely new to the Indian music industry. His songs used funny and predictable rhyme schemes, but they sure made all of us laugh in 90s. Sehgal’s first album was Dilruba (1990), followed by Alibaba (1991). Then came his biggest hit album Thanda Thanda Pani (1992), which sold 5 million cassettes, making it the first successful Indian rap album.
After that biggest driver of Indian hip hop was “Honey Singh” who smoothly copied western artists’ music videos and sang Hindi party songs for a decade for millennial generation of India who were just getting out of their Hometowns and entering colleges or were already in grad schools.
Enter Desi Hip Hop…
Members of Desi Hip Hop consisted of many rappers who have been grinding away in Indian music industry for years with little mainstream success. They had their hits, but noone was able to create significant impact on the industry. Until they came together to create the song called ‘Desi Hip Hop’. This song included “Baadshah” and “Raftaar”, who later went on to create greatest hip hop hits which India had ever heard.
But Indian rap was facing a major problem, no standalone rap albums were coming out, even the most successful rappers were going to Bollywood and music labels to promote their music by collaborating with new movies.
Indian movies even brought western rappers to capitalize on this new phenomenon and changing taste of Indian audience.
Obviously Snoop Dogg being Snoop Dogg, showed up in one of the movie promo soundtracks.
To break the spell, the most explosive rapper among the bunch called “Raftaar” launched the following song directly addressing the audience and challenging to do what he does the best. This definitely put him in the hearts of all the rap fans of India, but it also aroused the streets of India to accept the challenge and answer back.
There were multiple reasons for the western rap culture to grow, but the most important of them all was the police brutality and racism against the Afro Americans living in USA. Without having these problems in India, young Indian rappers latched on to the most basic instincts they had to write about.
The streets of Mumbai.
If you have not visited Mumbai, you may not understand what I am referring to, but in the heart of Mumbai there lies a deep array of narrow and dirty alleys which are called “Gully”s in local languages. It is also referred to as “Slums of Dharavi”. Dharavi (with its largest slums in the world) once known for its filth and sheer size of poverty, has now become the birthplace of Indian street rap.
As Detroit had ghettos, Mumbai has gullys. The teenagers of these streets grew up watching and listening to Desi Hip Hop and western rap. These rappers became the “Gully Gang”. Most recognizable of them are the two artists called “Naezy” and “Divine” who led the foundation for this crew to create more songs. All the rap fans in India and abroad are paying attention to this launch of “Gully Boy”, because based on its success (which looks imminent) Indian music industry is going to go through massive shifts which it had never seen or heard before.
These rappers will become the cultural drivers of India because their songs tell stories which are seldom told by Indian mainstream media or Bollywood industry. These artists strike chords with the Indian audience because their songs shout about the most obvious but at the same time the most ignored topics of the country.
And the advertisers know this (😈).
That’s the reason, rappers like “Emiway” (member of Gully gang) are getting featured with multiple branding and promotional campaigns for Indian brands. Bira91 which is newest and most popular craft beer brand of India has already invested millions of branding dollars (rupees) to associate with Hip Hop music on all the possible music streaming apps of India. Other brands are also trying to find their footing in the rap game with little success (as far as I know, do leave comments if you know any).
There is new breed of musicians in India which has never learnt classical music and are neither bound nor trained to stick to the rules of Indian music industry.
On one hand, “Emiway” is rapping about being the true Independent artist to change the perception of Indie artists of India (Indie has been treated as poor/struggling artists’ genre in India); and then there is Raftaar who is launching feature tracks for Indie as well as Bollywood films.
This change also poses a huge question about the Music labels of India, because Indian music streaming app market is already infested with multiple players. The upcoming artists will not only attract smaller and more agile music labels but also fuel the adoption of music streaming habits of Indian music listeners.
Also Spotify is looking to launch its Indian version in this year. Even if India has minuscule penetration of Apple phones, it won’t be easy for the global music streaming giant to dodge Apple Music and stand over the local players to gain significant audience in India.
Spotify will have to maneuver smartly between the Indian music labels and local music streaming apps to actually win the Indian market. It will have to dig deeper into the fundamentals of the industry to actually inculcate the spirit of music creation in India.
One of the most important step towards that is making sure more rappers rise from India to write good rhymes and create stories for Indian audience. Already various rappers from North East, South of India and Northern India are preparing to take the helm of Desi Hip Hop ahead. (Will be covering more about them in my future posts)
Until then I will share this video which really opened my perspective towards Rap:
Shout-out to “Nix Wrapper”.
To know more check out this mini documentary by Vice Asia: