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.

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