Hindi Film 101: A Brief Incomplete Overview of Hip-Hop/Rap in Indian Film

Yesterday the new Badshah song for Veere Di Wedding came out, which made me think back on how long hip-hop/rap has been part of the Indian film scene in one way or the other.  I know almost nothing about this (like, I’m not even clear on the difference between “hip-hop” “rap” and “rock and roll”), but at least I can put up some fun videos and start the discussion!

Back in the 90s, MTV and Michael Jackson arrived in India.  And down in Tamil Nadu, all of a sudden Tamil breakdancing/rock sounding/rap sounding/hip-hop type stuff became A Thing.  The most famous of course being “Urvashi Urvashi” from Humse Hai Muqabla.

 

Most Michael Jackson looking (to me) is “Muqabla” from the same movie.

 

It took a while for this type of music to move north.  That is, it was super popular in the north, but only the Tamil versions that traveled up, the Hindi film songs were still sort of melodic and all that.  Bombay, the top selling soundtrack of all time, helped with the crossover with “Humma Humma” (remember this song, it’s gonna come up again).

 

And then a kind of stripped down rap/hip-hop version started to come out, often crafted by Vishal-Shekhar, who began their careers as a club band not in classical music.  It’s not the same as the southern stuff, it has more of a Bhangra sound to it (to me). (“Dus Bahane Karke Le Gaye Dil” from Dus)

 

But great songs to shout/sing along to. (“Salaam-Namaste” from Salaam Namaste)

 

And then there was the big catchy hit “Right Here Right Now (remix)” from Bluffmaster.  One of the first times a song was remixed and released with a separate music video to help promote a film.  And which explicitly calls out “those hip-hop fakers”, identifying the origin and goal of the song.

 

This was all happening in the movie industries, this new kind of sound getting more and more popular first in the Tamil industries and then in the Bombay based Hindi industry.  But outside of the movies is where the really exciting stuff was happening.

Rap/Hip-Hop is music for the powerless and voiceless and moneyless.  For one thing, it’s cheap!  You don’t need a whole orchestra backing you up, you can just use your own voice.  It’s also got that kind of rhythmic beat to it that amps you up and makes you feel stronger.  So, all over India, kids from the streets started making their own rap/hip-hop songs. Like this Gujurati one that I love. (“Blood Brothers” by Karmacy)

 

MC Kash from Kashmir (warning: ten million triggers and very upsetting things in these lyrics!) (“I Protest”)

 

Or more recently the “Mere Gully” song from the Dharavi slums which turned into a record contract and now a movie with Ranveer Singh.

 

It’s international too, there’s also Hard Kaur from Manchester and others representing the NRI sound. (“Laung Da Lashkara” from Patiala House)

 

And at the same time, American rappers/singers/artists were being brought in to work on Indian films.  Snoop Dog of course with his immortal “Singh is King” remix.

 

Akon with his two songs from Ra.One.  The first highly promoted one (“Chammak Challo”).

 

And the second surprise one (“Criminal”).

 

What I find really interesting is that, if you listen to these songs where they brought in the outside talent, the majority of the song was written by the at home talent, Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar and others who already came up with their own hip-hop sound and the overseas artist just put the icing on top.  Like, listen to “Phurr” from Jab Harry Met Sejal, Diplo added the super electronic sound to it, but the solid foundation was from Pritam.

 

There is a uniquely Indian sound to these raps and the overseas artists can’t quite capture it, they can only add to it.  But non-filmi Indian rappers can.  The first of these non-film raps to hit it really really big was “Brown Rang” from Yo Yo Honey Singh, first non-film song to hit the top ten list in India.

 

Yo Yo had hit after hit after that, and suddenly movie stars were cameoing in his music videos, instead of him in their movies (“Desi Kalakaar”).

 

Down south there was another viral hit, this time from a film, Dhanush’s “Kolaveri Di” from the movie 3 which he wrote and sang himself.

 

But the independent music scene always struggles to survive against the filmi onslaught.  Soon enough, these new exciting rappers were getting co-opted by the film industry.  Yo Yo’s erstwhile writing partner turned rival (something about credits not being correctly apportioned on albums or something) Badshah suddenly found more success in film than he had had independently, first with “Ab To Party” from Khoobsurat, a fun end credits song to send you out with a smile.

 

Yo Yo too, with his ear worm “Lungi Dance”.

 

Yo Yo is almost all film now (more Punjabi film than Hindi), but Badshah has stayed an independent non-film artist.  He had major hits like “DJ Waley Babu”.

 

At the same time as major hits from film soundtracks, like “Kar Gayi Chull” from Kapoor & Sons.

 

And fully filmi composers also began to create true hip-hop/rap sounding songs.  Like Amit Trivedi’s brilliant soundtrack for Udta Punjab.

 

Or Sachin-Jigar, who made my favorite song of 2017 for my favorite film of 2017. (“Bandoor Meri Laila” from A Gentleman)

 

 

And there’s a new sort of a trend now, mixing the film and the independent artist traditions.  Film song classics are being increasingly remixed by outside rappers, the old and new coming together.  Which brings me back to the 90s and the Tamil hip-hop sound.  “Humma Humma” was one of the first hits in that new flavor of music.  And now it has been remixed, updated, old and new brought together.

 

 

 

Okay, now tell me all the things I have missed!  Because I know I have missed a lot of stuff.

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17 thoughts on “Hindi Film 101: A Brief Incomplete Overview of Hip-Hop/Rap in Indian Film

  1. I have such mixed feelings about R&B, hip-hop, rap, elements in Hindi movies. Where are the lines between appreciation/homage, co-optation/theft, and insulting mimicry/stereotyping? Would love to hear thoughts and feelings about it from from African-American fans.

    I think of how white rock n roll musicians in the US and England totally ripped off whole catalogues of African-American blues and gospel musicians. Many of these were poor/working class white folks too, but that didn’t erase their ability to find an audience where Black musicians couldn’t. Bringing in the class, caste, communal, and regional issues in India makes it even more complicated.

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    • What makes me feel better is the knowledge that rap/hip-hop spread in India through those same struggling oppressed communities as the African-American community in America. I can’t imagine that American rappers would have a problem with oppressed Kashmiri teenagers writing raps to tell their own stories. Of course, then those oppressed rappers in India were co-opted by the film industries, and you just get into a different cycle of potential exploitation.

      On Thu, May 3, 2018 at 12:14 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Yes. I really like the points you made in the post about rap/hip-hop being a good medium for poor and oppressed communities–especially young people from those communities.

        Outing myself yet again as an older white lady–there is a song in the musical Hamilton where Lin-Manuel Miranda basically shows the superiority of rap over traditional musical forms in terms of wit and getting information across. (I didn’t figure this out myself despite being a huge Hamilton fan–I read it in a music critic’s review.) Here it is if anyone is interested.

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  2. I can understand confusing rap with hip hop, but confusing Rock with rap and hip-hop? Those are almost opposite sounds.

    Rock starts in the 50s with people like Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry, then through the 60s with the Beatles and Beach Boys, the 70s with Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac, the 80s with Journey, U2, and Van Halen, the 90s with Nirvana and Coldplay, and sorta ends in the 2000s with Fall Out Boy and Muse. Of course that’s a gross oversimplification but I was just calling out some well-known examples . It’s very guitar forward, poetic angsty lyrics about love relationships and death, and tends to be drum heavy as well but not always. It’s middle class music as opposed to Street Music because it requires at least a guitar and a drum set so at minimum a group of three including the singer or other instrument, and a garage to practice in because it’s loud and noisy, and doesn’t sound good until it sounds good. And except for a couple of black standouts in the 50s and 60s, this music is by white people for white people, despite its obvious African American roots.

    One thing that I find fascinating is that while rap and hip-hop have shown up time and again in Bollywood and South Indian and Punjabi movies and music, and increasingly so, Rock barely even made its presence felt in Indian music and film. Some distinct exceptions are the Rock On movies, Life in a Metro, and the recent Arjun Reddy. Nowadays you sometimes hear instrumental Rock in the background score of modern films, but almost never in the actual film songs. Indian film music, once it strayed from classical and folk and religious traditions, seem to skip Rock and move directly into disco then R&B (so many famous Indian songs are direct copies of American R&B songs) and then rap, EDM and Hip Hop. But Jasleen Royal is bringing the indie rock singer songwriter vibes to many of her song contributions.

    The upbeat over-produced party music sound that dominated the 2000s and typified by the salaam Namaste song, well I don’t really know what genre that is but it’s certainly not rock music. I think that’s why people call that genre Bollywood. Whereas the 2010s music is more heavily influenced by EDM and Hip Hop.

    Rap is to hip-hop as lyric is to song. So rap is the the lyrics to a hip-hop song, and it also describes the way that the rap is, well, rapped in a hip-hop song. If you describe a song as a rap then it’s probably very lyric forward with the lyric being basically the entire point for the songs existence. Where as hip hop is a little more Musical the lyric is very important but it’s not the only thing that matters. So the Bunty Aur babli song Above is rap, the bluffmaster song is rap but starting to move into hip-hop, and the recent bom Diggy song is definitely a hip hop party song, or a party song with a hip hop refrain.

    The modern running joke is that the hip-hop refrain has replaced the guitar solo in popular song 🙂

    No discussion of NRI music, nor of the early influences of hip-hop on Indian film and music, can be complete without mentioning Mundian to Bachke = Beware of the Boys. It samples the Knight Rider theme song for its bass beat, lol, Punjabi MC released it in 1998(?) to become a worldwide phenomenon that still basically represents Indian Music globally. Go to the Whitest nightclub in America, where they’ve never even heard of Bollywood, and at least one point in the evening, every night, they will play Beware of the boys, just like they will also play Gasolina as their one Latin song. It’s still on every Indian wedding DJs playlist. It’s been remade with Eminem and with Jay-Z contributing to the rap. And it finally 20 years later got it Bollywood introduction in the new baaghi 2 movie. Just a super pale imitation, I hardly see the point of why they remade it if they weren’t going to add something or twist it somehow.

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    • Okay, this is where I am at in my musical knowledge (in addition to being truly almost tone deaf despite 10 years of piano lessons): I did not recognize any of those musician names after the Beatles. So yes, Rock vs. Rap vs. Hip-hop is all a bit fuzzy for me. And thank you! That was a super super super helpful summary of the past 50 years of popular music that somehow passed me by entirely while I was listening to my Mom’s Broadway records and my Dad’s jazz albums and then falling in love with early 2000s Hindi film music.

      However, if you want a debate on Glenn Miller versus Benny Goodman versus Harry James versus Kay Keyser, or Jerome Kern versus the Gershwins versus Cole Porter, I have THOUGHTS. And then everything after about 1955 just gets confusing for me.

      On Thu, May 3, 2018 at 1:47 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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      • Hmmm, you also said a few months ago that you haven’t seen a HW film in 30 years, but then you’ve subsequently commented on Nolan films and many other modern day HW outputs. So I’m not sure if you are exaggerating…

        Ok, then two simple take aways from my post above

        1. Why does BW have almost zero rock music, whereas it has plenty of Rap, hip hop, salsa, disco, r&b influences, even though rock dominated the western world for 50 years? My guess is that those other forms lend themselves to dance, but rock does not. This might be fodder for a good 101 post -the history of rock in Indian film, and the lack thereof.

        2. Regarding the NRI section, Panjabi MC is the earliest and most significant NRI influence on BW hop hop music.

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        • Sometimes I cheat and comment on stuff I haven’t seen straight through based on reviews and clips 🙂

          In all seriousness, I’ve vaguely heard some of those band names you mentioned, but if you asked me to name one of their songs, I couldn’t. There’s another post in there somewhere about how maybe there is some kind of connection between my lack of knowledge/interest in music and my enormous pleasure in visual input. Because a lot of the stuff in American culture that “everyone” is supposed to have experienced (favorite band as a teenager, buying your first album, rebelling against your parents’ taste, etc.) for me translated to visual inputs instead.

          One thing I do know and find fascinating is that at the same time the Beatles were discovering Indian sitar and stuff, RD Burman was discovering electronic guitars. It’s just funny to me how globalization works, that RD found the mainstream popular music of the West while the Beatles found the classical version of the East.

          For your 2 points:

          1. One thing I have noticed about Indian culture in general is a willingness to participate rather than observe. Like, playing Cricket games in the park, or performing at a wedding, instead of leaving that to the “professionals”. So perhaps rock didn’t catch on because it doesn’t lend itself to dancing and therefore both there was no dance to be done by the characters onscreen, and the audience at home wouldn’t enjoy the records as much without being able to dance along. Or maybe that’s what you already meant?

          2. I will conscientiously try to remember that name, and possibly succeed because it is such a simple one.

          On Thu, May 3, 2018 at 3:49 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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          • I posted the video up thread to Punjabi mc famous song.

            Good point about dance music being participatory, both for three actor and the viewer/listener.

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          • Going back to my music home ground, that was one thing you could really see in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movies, they always put in one dance number that was essentially an instruction video, even the lyrics would be “and then you spin, and then you jump, and then hands out” like that. It was clearly for the audience to watch, buy the sheet music and dance guide, and enjoy at home. And with a lot of the popular Hindi songs, it feels kind of the same, there are one or two simple steps that anyone could imitate, it is meant to be danced and enjoyed by people watching, instead of just watched like a classical performance, knowing you could never do that.

            On Thu, May 3, 2018 at 4:04 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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  3. I feel like the Pettai Rap song was the first time I really saw rap in Tamil films but then again that was in the same movie as Urvasi and Muqala. I think the biggest rap and hip hop songs in Tamil (at least initially) came from Malaysia. Which goes to what you were saying about rap acting as a voice for the disenfranchised. I can’t really draw a straight line between Pettai Rap and the Malayasian Tamil rap/hip hop artists but I would guess both A.R. Rahman and they were inspired by the same sources at the same time. I went through a phase where I was a little obsessed with Malaysian Tamil rap and hip hop songs. There was a lot about poverty and discrimination but also lots of religious overtones. You could see a lot of the Tamil movie industry influences and, most oddly for me, many classical Tamil poetic references. There’s actually this interesting paper about how poorer Tamil people in Malaysia often didn’t get the opportunity to learn to read and write in Tamil and how properly you spoke Tamil was a clear class demarcation. For many of the artists, including classical Tamil literary references and rapping in ‘pure’ Tamil was rebellion.
    Now, its all more commercialized; many of the artists have worked with the film industry. There’s also more artists from India and the rest of the diaspora. There’s actually a pretty active independent Tamil rap and hip hop scene.

    Also – cause songs are nice, one of the Malaysian Tamil songs I find myself drawn too. Very religious but also very poetic in its lyrics.

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    • Oh right, I forgot about the Malaysian Tamil rap! Which I only know about from Kabali, essentially my source for everything Malaysian related. But I saw something about how it was a really really big deal that they made an effort to include actual Malaysian rappers on the soundtrack as part of that whole voice-for-the-voiceless overall message, telling a story of people forgotten by the greater Tamil community.

      On Thu, May 3, 2018 at 9:33 PM, dontcallitbollywood wrote:

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