Empty Room: Rap In India (Or Lack Thereof)
Meet AP. AP works at a well-known music webzine. His job is to make artist pages for every band mentioned on the site. In order to make these pages, he has to collect paragraph length bios of just about every band or artist that has performed in India – from college bands to festival headliners. His job introduces AP to some obscenely obscure musicians who often remain ignored by indigenous music writers. If there’s one person likely to know about rappers too underground to be noticed outside their own backyards, it’s AP. But on the phone, when I ask him if he has heard any interesting underground rap of Indian origin, his tone is pessimistic. “There are just not enough people making this kind of music,” he says.
“I was talking to Heems about this after an interview,” says AP. “We concluded there weren’t many Indian rappers because not enough Indians grew up listening to rap. Think about it: why is our metal scene so strong? Because enough kids were listening to that shit growing up. So they were inspired to play in bands as they got better with their instruments. Most kids who were into rap didn’t dig deep enough. They never went beyond Jay Z and Eminem because they were only superficially into those artists. They couldn’t fully relate to that shit: they were neither rich nor resentful toward their mothers. The inspiration was just not strong enough.”
He has a point – especially because listening to rap is very different from listening to more traditional forms of music. Rap is akin to electronic music in some respects: it is young and unguarded from the constraints of tradition, offering practitioners immense scope for experimentation. But its unconventional nature can sometimes work against it. should be “A lot of people who don’t know much about rap often scowl at the genre, either because they’re listening to the wrong artists or don’t understand it at all.
Most hatred against rap is born from a problem of perspective.
It’s much like the problem faced by electronic music. There are lots of people who think “it’s the same thing over and over again for six minutes.” They fail to realise electronic music is more about the character of the sound than its movement or melody. What electronic music has to offer that other genres don’t is the ample textural variation that digital equipment allows. In electronic music, composition is only half the picture. The other half is sound design. Apart from arranging several elements within the framework of a track, an artist has to sculpt these elements from scratch. Only when people overlook the richness and the subliminal motion of the sounds is when they begin to find the music ‘repetitive.’
Likewise, in rap, the music is in the words. A rapper has to arrange words within the confines of a beat, letting syllables drop on the square, bounce off a measure or compressing them into double time It’s the unison of beat and flow that makes rap music. Sure, it can be catchy and danceable, but you’ll get more out of it if you pay attention to what’s being said. If electronic music is all about sonic texture, rap is all about verbal texture. But unlike electronic music, rap is restricted by context. You don’t need to understand what knobs are being twiddled to truly appreciate the result of the twiddling. However, you do need to understand slang and far-fetched references to truly appreciate lyrical ability.
Rap is, at its root, for better or worse, literary art. And most literary art, if not all, risks redundancy if it doesn’t address anyone. Most rap from elsewhere addresses its immediate social context, so Indian listeners can often get lost. It talks about topics with which an average Indian listener is unfamiliar and hence, is hard to relate to. As there is no full-time rap artist who is directly addressing the Indian listener, it is hard for enough Indian listeners to find inspiration.
Sure, the likes of Microphon3 and Bombay Bassment have been trying and there have been interesting experiments like Gandu – a film by Qaushiq Mukherjee – which is a ‘rap musical’, boasting an all-original soundtrack of excellent Bengali rap. Yet, neither have managed to make an impact strong enough to get people to pick up the mic.
Bollywood further fuels derision against rap. At the turn of the century, a lot of Bollywood music directors simply thought: “Let’s add a rap verse in here to be current.” Their take on the genre lacked lyrical depth and led to rap being perceived as a novelty. These ‘rappers’ hadn’t been exposed to the nation’s underbelly to truthfully speak about it. They don’t have a concrete blueprint or any foundation to build on, which is precisely the reason why they still don’t bother.Besides, most rap listeners are an internet-educated minority belonging to the upper echelons of Indian society.
And minus the aforementioned privileged minority, most Indian listeners just don’t give enough of a fuck. It’s surprising how often the ‘rappers aren’t musicians because they can’t play instruments’ argument comes up. But for how long can people afford to be dismissive and shut themselves off from an entire culture? For how long can they keep fondling their own elitism? And for how long can our artists shy away from staring the majority in the eye? India is an unique country with unique problems; there’s no shortage of content. Why isn’t anyone putting it to use?
written by Ritwik Deshpande
Illustration by Mohini Mukherjee