Around this time last year, Pradip Kashikar left the judges of India's Got Talent first befuddled, then amazed with his Marathi rhyme. The 23-year-old architecture student had the audience roaring with applause at the end of his performance and has raked up about 60,000 views on YouTube since. Kashikar is not the only one rapping in a regional Indian language, though. Punjabi rapper and California-based producer Bohemia hit the UK top 10 in 2003 with his debut album Vich Pardesan De. In 2009, Tamil rapper Sufia Ashraf sparked a wave of intrigue as she branded herself 'The Burqa Rapper'. Recently, we've got Quashik Mukherjee (who likes to call himself Q) and Neel Adhikari, performing under the name Gandu Circus, pushing the envelope with provocative Bangla rap on the soundtrack of the controversial film Gandu.
"Hip-hop is a unique medium and it only makes sense that it resonates with people here," says Q. The genre grew out of ghettos and has been the voice of the disenfranchised African-American people for many decades. "There is a strength to the genre, an aggression that perhaps makes a statement, one that's about being heard, feeling empowered," he adds. Gandu's protagonist dreams of being a rapper and strikes an unlikely friendship with a rickshaw-puller who is as intrigued by Gandu's music as Gandu is by the man's love for Jackie Chan. Set in Kolkata the movie makes the genre accessible to people and cuts across boundaries of class and ethnicity. Gandu Circus has been taking their unique band of sexually provocative Bangla rap to various festivals across the world along with the film.
As a genre of music coming to India from the West, hip-hop is the first to break barriers of class. While rock, electronica and western classical remain niche and elite, rap has the potential to appeal to larger audiences. Hip-Hop as a lifestyle and it's reach can be seen in the B-boying culture taking roots across the country. An example of this is a recent story by Now Delhi, a video Web-zine on counter culture, on B-boy Heera and his work with underprivileged kids in Delhi and Mumbai.
The politics of rhyme increases exponentially when word play is placed in a regional language, whether it is Punjabi, Khasi or Hindi. Chandigarh-based Punjabi crew D-beam's debut video on Youtube has hits that run into six digits. A few months ago, they collaborated with Bohemia on a track called Bandookan, rapping about Punjab's gun culture and rap in Hindi, English and Punjabi. Another rapper causing a mild storm in the online world is Mumbai-based Krishna Kaul, known as Young Prozpekt. He first got attention for his response to AR Rahman's CWG anthem, titled Yeh Kaisa Mera Desh (Anti-corruption anthem). The video on YouTube went viral around the time of the Commonwealth Games and Kaul has just released a new track and video called The Lokpal Freestyle which has raked up 500 views in just two days.
"I rap about things that affect me, everything from the CWG to illiteracy and child labour to the Lokpal bill", says Kaul. And he feels he can best express himself in a combination of Hindi and English. "My generation has grown up on a cocktail of languages. English is almost as good as our first language but there is still an unbreakable connection to Hindi for those who've grown up in cities and towns" he adds. "Plus, Hindi has mass appeal. It doesn't restrict your audiences to a specific language, like English restricts it to an elite section of society."
Although that is true in many instances, we find that India is discovering the lighter side of hip-hop at the while finding a strong political voice in the genre. For instance, two teenagers calling themselves MC Vikram and Ludakrishna shot a video with a lo-fi camera, in what looks like a teenage boy's bedroom, rapping about mango chutney and toothbrushes. The video is almost a cult viral video and is referred to as The Mallu Rap.
Rohtak-based DJ Devil runs an event management company and fancies himself the Indian Akon. His Haryanvi version of Black Eyed Peas' Bebot shows close to a lakh and a half hits. "I Just want to entertain people and sing about the life we live here in Haryana everyday. It's pimped out, and we have a lot of fun. We drink, go out with girls and hang with the high rollers", says DJ Devil. "I rap in Haryanvi because my brothers , who I sing about, relate to it. The language is a part of who I am and I can't disrespect that", he adds.
They've got the swagger down, but do they have the rhyme to make the movement last beyond a few tropes? The jury's still out on that one.