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The rise of Indian hip-hop: ‘There’s going to be a huge opportunity…’


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From labels to streaming services to brands, they’re all saying the same things: hip-hop is the hottest independent music genre in India in 2018, and it’s only going to get bigger.

Hip-hop is the fastest-growing genre for streaming service Saavn. Major label Sony Music and indie label Azadi Records are each negotiating deals with more than half a dozen new hip-hop artists. Beer brand Bira 91 wants to double the number of hip-hop gigs it stages annually to 50.

And on Valentine’s Day 2019, Bollywood film Gully Boy, which is inspired by the lives of Mumbai Rappers Divine (aka Vivian Fernandes) and Naezy (aka Naved Shaikh) will open in cinemas around the globe.

Around the same time, Red Bull will release a documentary about Divine, who is widely acknowledged as the forerunner of Mumbai’s ‘gully rap’ scene – which was itself the subject of a short film by Vice India this June.

All this activity – and the rise of independent Indian hip-hop more generally – has followed an overall growth in the listenership for English-language music in India, according to Akhila Shankar, associate director of brand and communications at Saavn.

“If you look at our streaming trends in 2014, the split was about 90 per cent Bollywood and other kinds of Hindi [music], and 10 per cent English, regional [languages], independent, all of that put together,” says Shankar. “Right now, 20 per cent is English by itself. English hip-hop is a gateway for people to discover desi hip-hop.”

Shankar pinpoints 2016 as a tipping point for the genre. “Every Bollywood movie was starting to have at least one hip-hop track,” she says, adding that 2016 was also the year when one of India’s most popular independent music festivals, the NH7 Weekender, had a substantial hip-hop lineup. It was also the year the Hip Hop Homeland show was held in Mumbai.

Hindi rappers Divine and Naezy were on the latter’s bill, along with multi-lingual crews Mumbai’s Finest and Swadesi, and Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep. The concert got its name from youth-culture website 101 India’s series of video profiles of the country’s most prominent b-boys, graffiti artists and MCs.

Gaurav Vaz. Photo credit: Sammy Adams Photography

“Hip-hop acts, right from groups in Tamil Nadu to a bunch of rappers from Mumbai, Bengaluru, Punjab are getting millions of views, which no other independent genre has really had,” says Gaurav Vaz, vice president of artist management at Only Much Louder (OML), the Mumbai-based company that manages Divine.

What Vaz and other experts will tell you is that the ascent of independent Indian hip-hop has a lot to do with its perceived authenticity. Many of the country’s best-known rappers hail from lower-income backgrounds, and their rhymes narrate stories of struggle and triumph that are filled with a realness missing in the music of their rock and metal counterparts, who are often accused – frequently falsely – of being derivative and imitative of western stars.

“[We’ve been] waiting 30-40 years for the non-Bollywood scene to emerge, and it will only emerge if you have a bunch of artists who want to say something,” says Shridhar Subramaniam, president of Sony Music India and chairman of industry body the Indian Music Industry.

“[In] metal and rock, there was a certain anger, but there was nothing unique about it. Whereas now with these kids, what they’re saying, it’s a very personal experience, very culturally unique to where they come from, and the place and position that India and our society is. For the first time, the lyrics are relevant, compelling, different, unlike anything anywhere else.”

Analysing the top 50 songs on Saavn in July, Shankar said that hip-hop is its third biggest genre after Bollywood and electronic/pop music. With a 65 per cent increase in streams in the first quarter of 2018 as compared to the corresponding period in 2017, it’s now also Saavn’s fastest-growing genre.

The growth has come on the back of a campaign Saavn ran between January and April 2017, which included launching an Indian hip-hop channel; producing a podcast on the sub-genre; staging performances by rappers for Live at Saavn (the series of gigs at their Mumbai office that are streamed live on Facebook); and releasing a hip-hop track, Naezy’s ‘Azaad Hu Mai’, as the first of Saavn’s Artist Originals – its set of exclusive, independent music singles, EPs and albums.

Along with social-media posts, in-app ads and audio banners, the campaign was promoted with billboards that featured international stars such as Jay-Z, Eminem, Drake, and Kendrick Lamar; more mainstream Indian rappers like Badshah and Raftaar; and indie MCs Divine, Naezy and Prabh Deep, marking perhaps the first time the up-and-comers were given such a large marketing push.

Sony Music has been similarly bullish, with Subramaniam claiming the label is “probably the most heavily invested, engaged and committed to hip-hop than any other genre”.

In 2011, it started Zomba, a two-year initiative through which it organised b-boying workshops and competitions. It was the work with Zomba that led to Sony coming into contact with Divine and Naezy, whose duet ‘Mere Gully Mein’ it released in 2015.

The song’s video went viral and is considered a groundbreaking moment for the Indian independent hip-hop scene, which until then was populated by rappers rhyming in English with a style heavily influenced by American MCs.

‘Mere Gully Mein’ served as the introduction for many to the phenomenon that has come to be known as gully rap, a sound identifiable by the heavy use of Mumbai street-slang, and descriptions of life in the bylanes (or gullies) of the city.

Shridhar Subramaniam

Shridhar Subramaniam of Sony Music

Subramaniam has witnessed the rise in indie hip-hop’s popularity first-hand. “I remember earlier with Divine, it was so hard to get a song played on the radio, to get his track featured on a Saavn or Gaana,” he says.

“Now all we’ve got to do is say ‘here’s a single from Divine or Raja Kumari’ and everybody thinks it’s the coolest thing since sliced bread, be they streaming platforms or radio stations.”

Thus far, Divine has appeared on soundtracks to movies such as Mukkabaaz and Blackmail, indie Hindi films catering to a niche audience. Gully Boy, which is helmed by hit-making director Zoya Akhtar, stars two of Bollywood’s biggest stars, Ranveer Singh and Alia Bhatt. Many industry folk believe that it could be the tipping point for Indian independent hip-hop.

For now, YouTube is the main medium through which rappers are building their audience, which is why almost every new release is accompanied by a music video, published on the act’s own channel.

“In India, 200-250 million people have access to YouTube whereas each of these streaming services,” says Subramaniam – a number much bigger than the 100 million thought to be using the audio-streaming services. It could also be that Indians, the majority of whom have grown up consuming music through films, associate audio content with a visual accompaniment.

“Indians prefer visual media to pure audio,” says Vaz. “I know people who people who [put] a YouTube playlist on, minimise their browser and leave it running through the day to stream music instead of doing the same thing on an audio-streaming app.”

Yet streaming services are considered vital for raising an act’s profile. “We try and get all our artists playlisted on Apple, Saavn or Spotify because it adds legitimacy to what you’re doing and to discovery by new fans,” says Mo Joshi, the co-founder of Azadi Records, the indie hip-hop label that released Prabh Deep’s critically acclaimed debut album Class-Sikh.

“Prabh’s average listens are going up every month just because he’s on these different playlists and people are finding him and are looking at his catalogue.”

While the likes of Divine and Prabh Deep play a fair amount of gigs, the live scene is under-explored for many hip-hop artists, say industry insiders, and among the reasons for this is the composition of the audience.

A large proportion of fans are under 21, the legal drinking age in India and minimum age for entry into a bar or club where most shows take place. For somebody like Divine, said Chaitanya Kataria, his manager at OML, “the idea is to do more festivals [and] concert-format shows where he’s headlining.”

In contrast, Indian indie rappers’ youth appeal and ability to tell a captivating tale has led numerous brands to collaborate with them.

“Branded content is where the urban guys are scoring a lot more because they have a sharp, clear identity [and] don’t have the shadow of Bollywood,” says Subramaniam.

“Bollywood rappers and songs are in some ways subsumed by the film, by the actors or the narrative where as the independent hip-hop artists, the only image they have is one of themselves. From a brand perspective, that’s a very compelling idea.”

There’s also the all-important fact that somebody like Divine has the numbers to show for it: most of his videos tally over five million views. The last one to do so was ‘Kaam 25’, which has been heard across the world in the Netflix original series Sacred Games.

“We’re able to strike [deals] for Divine that most indie acts could only dream of,” says Vaz. “That’s only because of the audience he commands. Traditionally with indie music in India, over 90 per cent of your revenue is from live. With hip-hop and especially with Divine, we’re now seeing that number coming down to close to 50 per cent. [The rest] comes from sync, licencing, brand sponsorships [and] associations, music videos and [product] placement. These are all avenues non-hip-hop artists were struggling to get.”

Over the last year, Divine has released tracks for Puma, Hero MotoCorp and Bacardi Breezer. Most recently, he was announced as one of the musicians who will be part of OnePlus Playback, a new collaborative property by Chinese mobile manufacturer OnePlus and YouTube through which they will produce videos for non-film releases by popular musicians.

Additionally, Divine has a long-standing association with Red Bull, which produced the video for his single ‘One Side’, and is also in talks “with OnePlus for placement within music videos”, says Kataria who spoke to me from the location of a photo shoot Divine was doing with GQ magazine.

Income from live performances makes up 80 per cent of revenue for Prabh Deep but it’s only a matter of time before the branded element increases.

“The trendier brands look for that fresh sound to promote a product with,” says Joshi. “We can’t say yes to everything because [some of] it doesn’t align with what we want to do but when it works, there’s a decent amount of money in it.”

Joshi adds that Azadi is currently working on deals for track-related projects by three of its artists for three different brands. The projects include a hip-hop-based fictional TV series that’s slated to be out by the end of the year.

Prabh Deep’s strongest association is with Bira 91, which signed him as an artist they endorse in 2017 and helped fund the video for his track ‘Vekhi Ja’ that prominently features the brand’s logo.

The beer company has consciously chosen to associate its brand with hip-hop because the genre shares “traits we hold very close to us – being bold, irreverent, playful and fun”, says Rohit Pillai, associate director of events and partnerships at Bira 91.

Among its hip-hop related activities are sponsorship of the hip-hop channels on Saavn and a series of live gigs, including tours by international acts, that culminate in the April Fools’ Fest, a hip-hop festival held in Delhi on the April Fools’ Day weekend, the inaugural 2018 edition of which drew 10,000 attendees over two days.

It also runs a hip-hop stage at the Magnetic Fields festival in Rajasthan and this February backed the Backdoors festival in Mumbai and Bengaluru, which was headlined by Anderson. Paak. During the 2018-19 concert season, Bira 91 plans to take it up a notch.

“If we did 25 gigs last year, our goal is to do over 50 this year,” plus offshoots out of the April Fools’ Fest in Mumbai and Bengaluru, said Pillai. Bira 91 will also increase the number of artists it endorses to six.

While the most popular indie rappers are those who rhyme in Hindi, the next crop of hip-hop stars is very likely to include those who drop verses in regional languages.

“The next phase of hip-hop is a lot of regionalisation,” says Shankar. “Guys like Swadesi rap in multiple languages. There is space for Marathi, Tamil and Punjabi hip-hop.”

Sony is looking to sign “four to five artists” who rhyme in Hindi, Gujarati and Bhojpuri and is even keeping an eye on the diaspora. “The vision for this is not just acts in India but south Asian origin acts worldwide,” says Subramaniam.

That’s also the agenda at Saavn, which recently released under its Artist Original platform works by two hip-hop acts of Indian origin, a track by UK-based rapper Raxstar and the debut album by US-residing MC Deep Dollas.

Neal Sarin, director – A&R and Artist Originals at Saavn, believes that Indian hip-hop is on the verge of breaking through to a wider audience. “I feel there’s a real movement that’s been bubbling up for a while and come next year, with the Gully Boy movie, there’s going to be a huge opportunity where this music is really going to grow and evolve,” he says.

But for the market to grow, the scene needs more than just a handful of stars and that’s why OML has in place a forward-thinking strategy. They’re working with Divine to curate “specialty showcases” that will spotlight the talents of up-and-coming rappers who haven’t yet had the chance to hone their live performance skills.

“The big challenge with Indian hip-hop is that a lot of really great artists haven’t been groomed through the system,” says Vaz. “When a band gets formed, they already have a pre-set route they know they need to take, clubs, college festivals, music festivals, private shows possibly.”

Venues aren’t programming some rappers because they lack a substantial body of work. “There are artists in the gully rap scene who are incredible but they have 15 minutes of content,” says Vaz. “Beyond that they don’t know what to do next so they never get booked. Because they never get booked, they start to lose interest in doing this further.”

OML’s first hip-hop showcase called Gully Fest will be staged this month. Spots for the free event, which is being organised in collaboration with Red Bull in Mumbai, were booked out within hours of it being announced earlier this week.

It will then be taken on tour sometime in 2019. The concerts will be supplemented by “a lot of ancillary content, some behind-the-scenes [videos] and after-movies” so that the artists reach audiences wider than just those that were at the gig, added Kataria. “Other festivals need to find out what these kids are doing.”

The trajectory that Indian independent hip-hop takes will be determined to a large extent by the fate of Gully Boy, the soundtrack of which has six tracks by Divine as well as tunes by other lesser-known, unsigned rappers.

“Hip-hop has not yet [got] mainstream acceptance and awareness,” says Vaz. “It’s seen as something that the kids do. The movie, documentaries, a bunch of brands will really make a big difference. This time next year it will be a very different conversation around the market that hip-hop commands in India.”

DATAPOINTS FROM INDIA

100m
The number of estimated monthly active users (MAUs) for music-streaming services in India. Industry body IMI wants to quadruple that number by 2020.

1%
The percentage of those MAUs who are actually paying for a music-streaming subscription, according to industry insiders.

$33.7m
The amount generated by music-streaming subscriptions in India in 2017 according to the IFPI. That’s 26% of total recorded-music revenues last year.

1,500 crore rupees
The amount lost to music-piracy in India every year due to torrent sites, stream-ripping and side-loading according to IMI. That’s $211.7m.

13%
The percentage of Indian music-listening time that’s spent on illegal downloads, compared to the global average of 7%.

Mo Joshi

Mo Joshi of Azadi Records

COMPANIES TO WATCH

Azadi Records
www.azadirecords.com
Year-old New Delhi-based label Azadi Records was set up by co-founders Mo Joshi and Uday Bhatia with the aim of releasing “forward-thinking, politically conscious music”. Their debut release, Punjabi rapper Prabh Deep’s semi-autobiographical album Class-Sikh, about street life in his neighbourhood of Tilak Nagar, was the most critically acclaimed Indian independent release of last year.

Only Much Louder
www.oml.in
Formed as an artist management company in 2002, Mumbai-headquartered Only Much Lower has grown into one of India’s leading entertainment firms. Today, OML is known equally well as the promoter of the Bacardi NH7 Weekender, among the country’s most popular music festivals, and as the producer of successful comedy web series such as Amazon Prime’s Comicstaan. Among the few music acts on their comedian-heavy management roster is hip-hop star Divine, widely acknowledged as the forerunner of the “gully rap” scene.

Amit Gurbaxani

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