The same streets — A meditation on Indian hip-hop

I

In which language do you dream, express your innermost fears and desires?

In which language do you do business?

For me, the answer to those two questions is English and Hindi respectively. For many Indians, it’s probably the other way around.

Despite my having a more-or-less equal level of comprehension of both languages, each of them comes with it’s own library of emotions.

For example, I find it easier to relate to romcoms narrated in the language in which I think, and sports dramas narrated in the language in which I seek professional success.

Dangal had far more of an impact on me than Invictus did, and I was more moved by When Harry Met Sally than I was by Wake Up Sid.

For me, hip-hop lies in the intersection of these two libraries — a combination of the emotional burdens and the functional realities of getting through day after day of a life of challenges.

Consider a standard hip-hop trope — selling dope and pimping to make dough to buy food for your baby daughter.

The functional elements of that narrative — selling dope and pimping — are seen as bad things for an individual to do just to make money. If that’s all rap was about, it would be hard to relate to it.

By the way, it’s these types of songs that most ‘rock purists’ take as an example when they want to say hip-hop is somehow inferior to ‘real music’. Like white rock musicians never made a song that was only about women and drugs. It’s not called sex, drugs, and hip-hop, is it?

Back to the point: selling dope and pimping may be bad, but it’s something you can understand if it’s the only way the guy can feed his baby daughter.

Besides, most rappers will try and convince you they don’t condone that sort of living; they only prefer it to poverty, their only other option.

They want to get out of that lifestyle. They can’t imagine what they would do if anyone would try and hurt their baby daughter. But the system is rigged — the cops, the gangs, the ghetto.

The only way out is to be the best at ‘this rap game’.

Is it any wonder that rappers are obsessed with being the GOAT?

And that that claim sounds so inauthentic coming from Drake?

Hip-hop was born in New York, at a time when inequality between rich, usually white, New Yorkers, and poor, often black, New Yorkers was becoming increasingly visible. It was made in cramped lanes overrun with poverty city officials refused to address, while being set against the backdrop of a city that was seeing an unimaginable prosperity boom.

Hip-hop was born out of a need to speak to this reality.

II

In this context, Mumbai seems a natural home to India’s hip-hop scene. Nowhere else in India is the partial growth story so typical of today’s developing economies more obvious.

Mumbai has more slums than any Indian city, and more highrises than any Indian city.

It’s India’s capital of commerce, media, and entertainment.

It has some of the world’s most expensive real estate mere feet away from tarp-roofed houses.

Delhi, in contrast, is the nation’s administrative capital, with wider roads, fancier cars, more houses, fewer apartments.

Assertion, pure speculation: Its poverty is not as visible, since Mumbai’s stronger inclination towards free market capitalism leads to more visibly unequal ends.

Assertion based on reality: Delhi has the same number of people as Mumbai spread over ten times the area, which means the poor and the rich live further away from each other, and hence ‘the other’ is easier to ignore.

Conclusion: In Mumbai, the interplay between functional and the emotional is more a constant.

Despite this, Indian hip-hop has, for the longest time, found a safe home in Delhi, and, to a certain extent, Chandigarh and other Punjab cities.

III

There has been a decade-long proxy war in Delhi’s constant struggle to wrest cultural control from Mumbai.

I remember becoming aware of this trend in 2006, the year Khosla ka Ghosla was released.

The trend continued with Oye Lucky Lucky Oye, Dev D, and other ‘Delhi’ films.

Consequently, since the late ‘00s, the number of Bollywood songs that are 100% intelligible to me on first listen has dropped.

A year or so ago, it seemed like every Hindi song was a Punjabi song.

I could propound several amateur socio-theories to explain this, but I’m no expert. Not even close to one. Even in the sense of being acquainted with one.

I will, however, make some observations.

The artistic centre of gravity has moved Delhi-wards at about the same time that the sociopolitical centre of gravity has moved in the same direction.

India is increasingly run from the centre, as evidenced by the seemingly national lionisation of Modiji, his government’s implementation of a uniform central consumption tax code in the form of the GST, or last year’s demonetisation.

If a nation’s popular art is a representation of its cultural preoccupations, then it’s no wonder that the average song on the radio appears to be in Delhi’s Punjabi-laced Hindi rather than Mumbai’s Marathi-laced Hindi.

Or maybe its because bhangra is incredibly catchy.

Or maybe because when trends form, they’re typically nostalgias of the youth of the day — the newest and most enthusiastic consumers in the market. Indian millenials were children the last time bhangra captured the nation’s imagination with Daler Mehndi, Gurdas Maan, Sukhbir, etc.

Whatever the reason, the balance of artistic power has temporarily appeared to shift away from Mumbai towards the north.

This is just as true of music as it is of movies, and just as true of hip-hop as it is of other genres of music.

Streets, clubs, and cabs in Mumbai now sound a lot like streets, clubs, and cabs in Delhi.

IV

This write-up is not intended to be a knock-piece on Yo Yo Honey Singh or Badshah.

Yes, it’s true I prefer the music of DIVINE or Naezy to the music of Honey Singh or Badshah. But there’s no reason why both DIVINE and Badshah cannot coexist.

That said, please consider my hypothesis of Mumbai being a more natural home to the sort of hip-hop about which I was speaking.

V

From this point on, I’m going to be unabashed about my love for suburban Mumbai.

I may make some absurd assertions.

I may not back up my claims.

Forgive a romantic.

The average Mumbai hip-hop track, like Aafat! or Mere Gully Mein, is an exploration of the intersection of the emotional and the functional on the streets of Mumbai’s suburban slums — specifically those of Govandi and Vile Parle.

It’s what you would expect hip-hop in Mumbai Hindi to sound like — brash and wonderful.

And because many of it’s highrise listeners’ repertoire of functional phrases is built around Mumbai Hindi, it does a wonderful job of highlighting certain everyday challenges to which us highrise Mumbaikars would have been oblivious.

For a lot of its highrise-dwelling audience, Mumbai’s hip-hop manages to communicate certain universal truths about life on the streets that even the best of American hip-hop cannot — Mumbai Hindi is the language of our streets.

It’s an essential part of the message, just as ebonics was an essential part of early American hip-hop.

Unlike a lot of hip-hop in the Punjabi-Hindi hybrid, it doesn’t seem to be overly preoccupied with money/cash/hoes.

This is not to say I don’t like the Punjabi-Hindi variety of hip-hop.

I wouldn’t have added Wakhra Swag to the list if I didn’t.

This is a question of preference.

The Final Sketch // An Inflection Point — 4:44

I. Why write about someone else’s art?

Criticism about music criticism is common.

Those who argue that it’s deserved because critics aren’t building sculptures themselves, but tearing down sculptures built by others must contend with this: just as much criticism is levied against critics who are also musicians themselves.

For instance, when was the last time an artist’s honest appraisal of another artist’s work was not seen as a dig?

Also, in some ways, at least, isn’t a critic also a sculptor?

And the critic of a critic too?

Why must music criticism exist?

I will parse through art-school explanations — they are academic — to arrive at the reason I want to believe is most true.

One. Listener-readers went to know what to listen to next.

Two.They want the appraisal of someone who has put in more effort than they have to glean meaning from a work of art.

Maybe a critic can help them articulate why they liked or disliked an album.

Or maybe the critic can predict what they might like in future based on what they have liked or disliked in the past.

Or maybe a critic can deepen their liking for a work of art by revealing depth they didn’t know it had.

Three. I suspect it’s because of our desire to relate — not only with the critic, but also with the artist.

An artist’s perspective of his/ her art is subjective.

A critic’s perspective helps the audience connect better.

As with any interface with other people — business, interaction design, conversation — a critic is engaged in a battle between two desires. One, to push his own agenda. Two, to address someone else’s need.

This is where seeing music criticism as an art similar to either music or fiction-writing is dangerous.

When it come to criticism, the balance between these two desires lies closer to the audience.

That is, a critic is more in service of his audience than a musician or fiction-writer needs to be.

II. 4:44

When Beyonce released Lemonade, the music press was buzzing with news about Jay-Z’s alleged infidelity.

The music press is now buzzing with news about Jay-Z’s response to the buzz about his alleged infidelity.

The liberal news outlets I follow were quick to celebrate Beyonce’s courage, and just as quick to deride the world’s willingness to give Jay-Z an equal shot.

This is an opportunity afforded only to powerful men, they said.

If Jay-Z’s infidelity was the only factor in play, there would be no need for two albums addressing it.

Some might say it isn’t my place to question the ulterior financial motivations of two billionaires fanning gossip-flames with multi-platinum selling albums.

But I would argue that Lemonade and 4:44 have granted me the right.

Plus, I’m making a larger point.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Jay-Z’s 4:44 is at least partially a ploy to monetise infidelity.

It’s happened before, it will happen again. We are suckers for gossip. I know I am.

I would be kinder if Jay-Z himself didn’t keep glorifying the need to make money through whatever means necessary in 4:44.

For instance, he brings up selling dope to make money in The Story of OJ.

And in Marcy Me.

And in most other songs in his discography.

I will not comment on race. I will not comment on his alleged anti-semitism. Not because I don’t believe I’m entitled to an opinion about these issues, but because, as an Indian in a racially more-or-less homogeneous society, I do not believe I have the required context.

I will, however, comment about Jay-Z’s lyrics about relationships and money.

My crib with Jay-Z’s music has always been that he’s been about money, cash, hoes, and not much else.

The same cannot be said for Notorious B.I.G., Tupac, or other nineties hip-hop. They often had more substance.

In 4:44, however, Jay-Z lays digging deeper than ever to tell us why women and money are really that important to him.

Financial freedom is his only hope.

He can’t wait to give his money to all of his children.

He doesn’t want to lose the world’s baddest woman because he couldn’t be faithful.

But it just isn’t deep enough.

For example, his final point is undermined by his demonising Halle Berry’s ex-husband not for cheating on her, but for ‘losing’ Halle Berry.

With that attitude, it’s hard to argue that he doesn’t look at relationships as acquisitions.

Another example, the hammy LGBT+ support song, Smile, which sounds quite forced, to be honest.

Most of 4:44 can be summed up in a single regressive viewpoint —

Get rich quick. Marry well. Leave as much as you can to your kids. Everyone else be damned.

There’s some merit to that viewpoint, but not much depth. I could have got that from any of many stern lectures.

But then again, this is the same Jay-Z who bragged about calculating how poorly he should rap in Moment of Clarity

If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be
Lyrically Talib Kweli
Truthfully, I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did 5 mil’, I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.

So maybe he’s okay with that criticism.

Maybe it isn’t about rhyming.

Or regret about his infidelity.

Or any of that mush.

Maybe it’s just about the topline.

III. Why I write, why I make music.

There’s a voice in my head. It says:

Maybe you’re no good, and will wallow in obscurity.

Maybe you’re no good at self-promotion, and will wallow in obscurity.

Maybe you should’ve taken the first zeppo out of here to the promised land like everyone else.

While you were sitting on your desk, the party outside your window was winding down.

Nobody reads anymore. Why should anyone write?

When was the last time you heard an Indian artist’s album?

You, the music nerd.

Okay, you’re a bad example, brown-white-boy.

I need to demand more from those I know.

The question should no longer by why I write. It should be why others don’t read.

Why does anybody write?

Writing is better than drinking.

Most things are.

I’ve never been writing and stopped to think: I’d rather be drinking.

Back in my drinking days, I would’ve often rather been writing than drinking.

I’m terrified my drinking days might return.

I’m terrified I’ll never make a new friend again unless I start drinking like that again.

Who am I kidding; ‘friend’?

I’m afraid I’ll never meet another girl again unless I start drinking like that again.

There’s solace in seeing it written.

Or hope —

Maybe I’m the not the only one.

Ultimately, I’m engaged in a battle against my mind.

I win, every time I express myself — even if approximately.

IV. 4:44, or why I listen to music.

So…

Should I keep listening to 4:44?

The beats are great.

The lyrics are okay.

Honestly, I’m addicted to the flow in OJ.

But all of this thinking has put me in a tight spot.

Should I just enjoy the music?

Would I just enjoy the music if I didn’t think so much?

Or do the negative aspects of this appraisal paint a truer picture of how I would feel.

I think it’s like what I wrote earlier about music criticism.

I’m just trying to articulate the discomfort I have felt with 4:44 right from the get-go.

And now that I know what it is, I’ll find it harder to enjoy it.

And I probably would have anyway.

But now, I also get to cherish other works of art that aren’t as cynical.

There’s no shortage of good 2017 hip-hop out there.

I’d much rather listen to Vince Staples.

Sketches — Lost Time // Brutalism

It’s customary for us sky-dwellers to bring a narrator along for our journeys to the ground, and put our stories up for sale underground.

When I say ‘underground’, I mean like the samizdat of the sky.

I’m sure you’re wondering what samizdat means.

It’s what underground literature was called in Soviet Russia. Most of our literature in the sky-world has been pushed underground.

It’s not by law or anything. The underground is the only place populated by people who care about out stories.

Sky-dwellers don’t care.

Ground-dwellers would have better things to read in a randomly selected archive or library.

So we’re consigned to an above-ground underground.

You’ve probably been wondering how I, Ms. Peacock, know you’re watching me.

First of all, it’s Akara. Ms. Peacock is what Grully called me.

Secondly, you followed me here.

I know you don’t remember, but you did.

I’m sorry things got a little out of hand, and I had to boot Grully.

You’re happy he’s gone. You don’t remember why, but trust me.

You can’t speak to me.

Let me rephrase… You could, but I wouldn’t be able to hear you. That’s not how this ‘time’ thing works.

YOU CAN’T BROADSMIT ON THE SAMIZDAT LINE WITHOUT A NARRATOR, <MS. PEACOCK>, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED ABOUT THIS BEFORE. THIS IS YOUR SECOND VIOLATION. DEAR VIEWER, <MS. PEACOCK> IS A REPEAT OFFENDER AND THIS PORTION OF HER ‘SMIT HAS BEEN DELIBERATELY REMOVED TO DISSUADE REPEATED RULE-BREAKING.

Ms. Peacock, I did tell you I need to be here with you.

Yes, Grully.

We will be monitored henceforth. So please do not interact with me for the rest of our journey. Pretend I’m not here.If you break the rules again, you will be reported to the Party Police, and I wouldn’t like that. I like you, Ms. Peacock. I wouldn’t like to see you dealing with the likes of the Party Police.

(…)

Ms. Peacock?

I thought I was to pretend you didn’t exist?

Yes.

Hi, dear reader. I apologise for the confusion.

Let’s start afresh.

Sketches — Iteration // Mister Mellow // Thickfreakness

You’re judging him for making a Com Truise album?

What did you expect?

Of course he made a Com Truise album.

He’s Com Truise.

The rules on the ground are simple, she says, facing you, zipping up as she makes her way around the back of her Aztec. If he’s wrong… she opens her door and steps in.

Slam.

…then fine, you win. But if he’s right, then what does that make you?

Ignition on.

It makes you wrong. But does it make you happy or does it make you sad?

If it makes you sad, you’re saying he’d rather be wrong. And as you yourself noted, his being wrong is a big deal. It’s a matter of life and death for us all, right?

If he’s wrong, we’re all done-fur, according to you. So shouldn’t you be praying he’s right and he wins?

If you don’t, don’t you then, by extension hate this country?

Just think about it.

She steps on the accelerator. There’s no-one else in sight. She’s lucky to have picked a good spot to stop.

You won’t always be so lucky, homes.

The marauders here are twomb-slacked. If my memory serves me right, I’ve seen them gruggle myself. With my own two eyes, I’ve seen them —

Shut up, Grully.

Sorry Ms. Peacock.

You’ll need to pardon him. He forgets I can hear him every time he pictures me naked. All he has to do is never picture me naked, and he’ll go back to just being your ‘humble’ narrator. You’d think he would keep that in mind. But no.

Don’t listen to her. Let’s get back to what (— I think he understands what —) think something about the marauders. I’ve seen them gruggle the spirit with my own two eyes. (— but I don’t think —) Hey. Don’t listen to her.

In the thirties, when they vacated the ground-world, only a person of a certain type would have had any interest in staying back in old Mumbai. All the old property-hoarders, squatters, protesters, these were the ones who stayed behind. This motley crew of the most-educated and least-educated. And somehow they manage to be almost half of the population.

What does that say about the ground-world, she asks.

Don’t listen to her.

It says the ground-world is a dangerous place. A place of scummy scamsters and supporters of scummy scamsters. Of course her mother doesn’t want to go. What mother would?

I can’t hear him anymore, thank goodness for that too. Here’s the thing you need to know. Grully has a penchant for exaggerating. I wouldn’t trust him and his story entirely, if I were you. Grully is right about one thing. There aren’t nearly as many ‘ground-dwellers’, I think called them, anywhere else on earth as there are in India. And Mumbai is where they dream. Can you just dismiss them all as no-good. Fifty percent of your own blood.

This is Washed Out.

Not Com Truise.

Oh sorry.

It’s ok.

Anyway, I’m Shruti, hi guys.

Arun.

Arjun.

Has Rahil told you all about me?

Yes, yes, of course.

(I don’t even know her name!! Laughtrack!!)

(She’s into me, I’m sure she’s into me.)

So as I was saying… Arjun.

Yeah Arun, sorry.

So the book I was telling you about? Sketches for my Sweetheart the Drunk.

Yeah, what about it?

My friend illustrated it, you should chat with him. He’ll be able to guide you through getting a book out.

Sure man, that would be great.

Rahul and Shruti tonight, huh?

Probably da. Like bunnies.

Sketches — Big Fish Theory // AM

Hello all,

Thanks for coming in today. I know you didn’t have to come to this session. So we’re glad you could make it. Today’s Liberals’ Handbook chapter is about cultural appropriation, how to spot it, how to avoid it, and how a liberal consumer can ensure a commensurate response to cultural appropriation.

We’ll start with an example in modern advertising.

“I’m here to tell you the good news about the latest Shüs.”

“I was up ‘late-night ballin’ with the hunnys’ when this idea struck. This concept. Half dark-arts, half light-farts. All inspiration. Presenting the latest in shoe-tech.:

Shü — Rack Stack Edition.

Simple as simple can be. A dimple for your feet. A treat for your eyes. Sky-high thinking for the sky-high generation.

Sketches For My Sweetheart The Goth

Journal entry no: 3

Reader count: 8

“If you really are at peace with your station in life, if you really have achieved ‘existential equilibrium’, as you call it, there’s no way to tell through your writing,” Akara said today, rather dismissively.

Well fuck you too, Akara. I have no patience for condescension.

I’ve seen the worst minds of my generation revel in the failure of others, waiting for them to fail so they can whisper dirt in their direction.

My new-found misanthropy ends in resurrection. I can feel it coming, in the air tonight, on a flight of stairs, a fright.

But first, a crucifixion.

How fitting that the atheist with a messiah complex, and nothing to save but his fragile ego, has himself killed, only to return a changed man. I can see it already:

> A montage

> Girls ruing their poor choices in soulmates

> Me punching sheep carcasses in a barn in the Tundra

> Me thrashing a racist white American in the ring

> And the heavyweight champion of the worldddddddddddd…….

The progression of Arctic Monkeys’ career parallels my relationship with self-obsession:

Become more LA, somehow more obsessed with yourself than you were in 2006. Somehow more obsessed with yourself than women, which is really saying something. But somehow still be capable of pulling off something like No. 1 Party Anthem when you give someone else even as little as close to a percent of the mindspace you devote to yourself.

In writing as in the bedroom, things start getting troublesome when your brain overtakes your fingers.

How will this end, your brain asks.

As Akara says so sarcastically, “how do you think this will end?”

Bitch.

xoxo

So…

I’m giving you a take home assignment, optional of course, but it would be great if you could do it. “When is it appropriate to call a woman a bitch?” Think about it, and we’ll have a conversation about your perspectives next week.

Thanks for attending the Liberals’ Handbook. I hope to see you all next week. As always, you can use our app to give us thorough and honest feedback. I encourage you to do so.

 

Sketches — Reflections of a Floating World // Agharta

Sketches For My Sweetheart The Goth

Journal entry no: 2

Reader count: 3

Most people associate spiritual awakenings with wild swerves; mine has been a gentle realignment. This body is too old to do swerves.

Enough about me. Let’s talk about Miles Davis.

Whatever happened to good old-fashioned discipline?

xoxo

When she found Sketches For My Sweetheart The Goth at Crawford Market, she was intrigued enough to shell out a bunch of rupees she probably should have saved. Turns out it was a good investment, this obscure e-vel, a relic of the ‘digital age’. She’s really enjoyed this lunatic’s ramblings. It’s help her put things in perspective — this lunatic, if alive, is probably as old as her mother is today. And is what the-opposite-of-her-mother would sound like. It puts things into perspective. For a yuppie afraid of turning into her mother, the fear of turning unhinged is a good counterweight.

Within a week of buying Sketches, she had read its hundred thousand words from start to finish. Twice. Even now, more than a year later, she returns to it every now and again. It’s the second best thing to being back in Old Mumbai. A window into another world. A rawer world.

The second best thing

Driving through the desert on a full moon night being the first. This is so much better than a floating world. There’s nowhere I would rather be than here: alone, in the Aztec, in the desert.

I don’t ever want to stop

Hope there are no marauders here, she says to herself, looking out of the window. 

Shrugs.

Screeches her Aztec to a halt.

Stumbles out of the car. Looks left, looks right, fixes her flannel top. Rounds the back of the car, keeping an eye out. Laughs.  What good is that going to do? Kill them with a stare?

It’s a full moon night. A great night for marauding.

Crouches. Wees.