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.

My Month in the Doldrums — The Heart Part 4 and HUMBLE., and a fortnight later, DAMN.

1

I remember so many drives spent listening to Good Kid M.A.A.D City and To Pimp a Butterfly. I would say these albums mean a lot to me, but that would be insufficient praise. Luckily, to some of the few reading this, I won’t have to explain.

K-Dot is an international phenomenon. When he signed off on The Heart Part 4 with ‘yall got til April the 7th to get yall shit together’, the internet started buying pooper-scoopers. This included my friends. That day in March, several thousand miles away from Compton, a few of of us reached for our phones and pinged each other ‘Yo new Kendrick’, ‘so good’, etc. A bunch of Indian dudes listening to an American hip-hop millionaire is not at all new, but this sort of anticipation among those with whom Kendrick shares almost no part of his landscape is a sign of some sort of sorcery. At least that’s what I think.

Anyway, The Heart Part 4 comes, The Heart Part 4 goes; I like it, but don’t replay it too much (sorry god). A week later, HUMBLE. drops, and I’m reaching for the shit-sack. If March was a month in the doldrums, all of April was guaranteed to be about ‘bich bihombo’ and ‘my left stroke just went viral’. Every day between HUMBLE. and DAMN. was hype day, checking for updates online, reading comments, the Great Disappointment of April 7th when we realised there was to be nothing more than a pre-order button until the 14th, and then finally, DAMN.

Ten-odd days later, I can confirm that DAMN. has repeatedly blown my mind to bits. I keep discovering new favourites. I’m currently tripping on LOVE. (FEAT. ZACARI.) (downtempo, haunting, autotune). Before that, DNA. (banger, spare, raw). ELEMENT. (james blake, groovy, macho), FEEL. (slow, fast, self-centred), LOYALTY. (rihanna, pop, summer song), and of course HUMBLE. have all occupied the position of favourite. I’m certain DUCKWORTH. (climax, sing-about-me-i’m-dying-of-thirst-y) will be next. XXX. (FEAT U2.) is close too.

2

A friend told me about the number of reviews he has seen on his twitter feed talking about how difficult it has been to review DAMN. He’s so good, most of those reviews explain, that it makes the job of reviewing it difficult, especially in the context of the zeitgeist, other albums that form a part of it, his previous efforts included. Something similar has been on my mind. Truth is, you don’t need a review of a Kendrick Lamar album from me. Those who wanted to listen to it already have. Those who haven’t are probably not that interested in listening to the album, and my saying how good it is musically, lyrically, thematically, &c., won’t convince them. So something of this sort is unlikely to lead to some sort of discovery.

Maybe you’re looking for critical analysis. And that ends up being troublesome too. I think most music-savvy people online, including music journalists and music enthu junta like me, just don’t have the capacity to be objective when it comes to a Kendrick Lamar album. By this point, all the good times I have had listening to his music, all the bad times that have been made easier listening to King Kunta, or Hood Politics, or i, or Sing About Me I’m Dying Of Thirst, or Backstreet Freestyle, or Money Trees, or any of his other songs, all the hype articles and #hype comments, have made it hard for me to be objective. So I can’t even pretend to ever write a critical review of DAMN.

3

In a world where refreshing the news usually leads to head-scratching, anger, or outright sorrow, it’s great that once in a while refreshing the news means you read something along the lines of ‘New Kendrick Lamar single out’.  On the 14th of April, every corner of the internet was occupied by fans of music talking about how much they loved music. And how lucky they were to be alive in a time when they got to see DAMN. drop.

The internet, or at least my internet, is not an optimistic place. So often it feels like we, and when I say we, I mostly mean I, don’t recognise how lucky we are to be alive, as humans, with opposable thumbs, and intelligence, and for most people reading this, no landmines, sarin gas, superpredator, active war zone, or immediate threat anywhere near us. Truth is, when soldiers are killed, or civilians are bombed, we don’t ‘all suffer together’, we simply aren’t ‘all bereaved’. Some suffer more than others, some are more bereaved. It’s self-centred to claim otherwise. It’s naïve to refuse to see that we are lucky. Being progressive-minded doesn’t change that. And it doesn’t change the fact that calling conservative-minded people assholes online is a bad thing to do.

When I saw how optimistic my corner of the internet was when DAMN. dropped, it helped me realise how whiny that corner has made me. It’s the same corner of the internet that moans about everything Trump does. It’s a corner with little about India’s troubles, or what we’re getting right. I’ve heard the words ‘bubble’, ‘echo’, and ‘chamber’ so often now, but all those clichés turn out to be true.

On those lines, a parting thought. Despite reading every comment about DAMN. for a week, relating to Justin Hunte, Big Quint, or Complex or whoever else when they spoke about the album, I feel I truly enjoyed DAMN. most on two occasions: one, when I was listening to it on the highway, far away from the internet, and two, when I listened to it later that day with a couple of music-nerd friends who were as excited as I was to listen to it for the nth time.

There’s a whole world out there. The internet is just a part of it. So maybe there’s another reason to read this. This isn’t a review. This is just a way for a few of us to acknowledge that we were all alive when DAMN. dropped, and it was great. It’s the same reason I watched all those videos online, and read all those comments. To relate. That’s the optimism I want to add to my corner of the internet.

Maybe everybody knows these things already. Maybe I’m the only moron just discovering them. Some camels take longer to reach the water. I hope I have.

My Month in the Doldrums — Madvillainy (1)

Do we need another dude on the internet talking about how ‘dope’ a rapper MF DOOM is? I’m going to say yes, because by the time this series is done, there is going to be quite some DOOM in it. Madvillainy holds a special place in DOOM’s discography. One, because it’s a combo of DOOM as emcee and Madlib as producer. Two, because it’s just so good. MF DOOM’s discography, and Madvillainy and Mm.. Food in particular were a great escape from thoughts about my self-important self.

How DOOM going to hold heat and preach non-violence?

I think about myself often, so much so that post- and self- are staple prefixes in my life. Post- because I keep inserting myself into stuff and equate my views on stuff with those of all of culture. Self- is pretty self-explanatory.

I often hear unknown voices in my head saying things like ‘he’s grown into a fine young man’, and imagine myself smiling proudly. It’s embarrassing, this self-love / self-hate dialogue in my brain.

I’m afraid I’ll alienate my friends if I don’t get with the programme, insecurity and all. I’m twenty-six and self-obsessed. What’s the point of empathy if it isn’t directed to outwards? Am I not either too young or too old for this level of introspection?

What’s the difference?

Get on this ride with me. Trust me; it’ll be fun. It’ll be like a roller-coaster. Here’s one aspect of that cliché nobody explores. No matter how many ups and downs a roller-coaster goes through, it always ends where it began, therefore intersecting heavily with another cliché — the cyclic nature of life.

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

Segue: I hold myself to high standards, which would be great if I actually met them. It’s safe to say it’s impossible for most to meet those standards. So I set lower, more achievable standards for myself to meet, while being constantly aware of the ‘true’ standards I don’t and can’t reach. Those around me see me flailing, at war with this imaginary adversary. They just look on, confused. Classic bi-standard effect.

Is he still a fly guy clapping if nobody ain’t hear it?

I wonder what a human is worth? This isn’t just some academic question. A lot of those old introspective questions come from a feeling of worthlessness. The d word? The not-so-great? The not-feeling-so-great?

Does a human have objective worth? If the right to life is inalienable, does that not mean that a human’s life is invaluable. But if a human being is killed due to a government’s negligence, does the government not owe the human being’s family a specific amount of money commensurate with the value of that human life (and the ability of the government to pay)?

I find it so much easier to obfuscate than to deal with the issue head on, which is why all this pseudophilosophical psychobabble. I was dealing more with questions of self-worth, especially as it relates to societal checkpoints such as income, wealth, relationship status, etc.

The argument for moving to a new (read: Western) country is that the parameters on which the worth of an individual is measured might be more holistic. But as long as the poison is within me, I can’t blame any society for my false conclusions.

I bet she tried to say she gave me her all; she played ball.

The identity question has always been front-and-centre for me. If my life were an album, what genre would it be? Maybe experimental. Maybe post-punk of the art-punk variety. Almost certainly adult alternative — the sort that plays in cafés at 5 pm. I’m just a middle-of-the-road kind of guy at heart, I guess, like the grape in Mr. Miyagi’s long-winded analogy. Just like that grape, I’ll probably go ‘squish’ if I’m run over by a car.

I’m not done milking this analogy. Whenever I step onto either pavement, the other starts to entice. So I always find myself crossing the road, often just stuck in the middle between clowns to the left of me and jokers to the right. I go from clown to joker then back to clown again. And then repeat, just like a spinning record.

(That’s right. I don’t just have an alogy. I have two alogies.)

This brings me back to my original thought. If this cyclic life of mine were an album, I have no idea what genre it would be. That said, it would probably be like Madvillainy. I’ll spend the first few spins terribly confused, getting most of it wrong. After a few spins, things will start to make sense. After many, while most of it will make little sense, it will start to become increasingly rewarding and highly enjoyable.

If not, at least I’ll have this album.

All bets off; the villain got the dice rigged.

That’s the one thing I hope to take from these doldrums to tide me over the next — there’s no hurry to get anywhere if you’re running around in circles. It then becomes more important to remain constantly engaged. As King Kendrick said in The Heart Part 4, there’s a difference between accomplishments and astonishments.

Told ya; on some get-rich shit.

If there’s anything being part of a startup ecosystem should’ve taught me, it’s that you are allowed to make your own way, to define your own worth. That’s the sort of free-thinking such ecosystems are supposed to promote. Of course, most of them, this one especially, end up having their own twisted hierarchy — the poison.

The poison is within me too, and I see ladders everywhere I look. These ladderes don’t exist, mind you. It’s just that my cataract makes them up, and my schizophrenia imagines me on them. I should make a collaborative album with myself and call it Sadvillainy.

Probably kissed her that evening; I should be hurling.

Or maybe Radvillainy.

I was feeling mighty blue, and everything looked black.

I don’t even know what the point of all of this is. I made it through March, and the grass is os much greener on this side. Lessons have been learnt. Ladders have been climbed. Not too many lessons, clearly.

I carried on.

I guess I’m like Meg Ryan in You’ve Got Mail, throwing questions out into the abyss. That must make you Tom Hanks. He had Meg Ryan. You’ve got male.

Looks like it’s going to be a great day today.

All I hope is that as time goes by, I’ll be plagued with fewer questions of identity. The signs are positive, and as a long as I proceed with cation, an identity should crystallise. Meanwhile, all I can do is drop the weight of self bit by bit, become a little less than I (I minus), and bond with someone positive.

Forget about myself for a while.

And what a great way to start — with a little bit of autobiographical asphyxiation.