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.