HT Brunch cover story: The right way to rap
Excerpts from a zoom tutorial on hip-hop from one of india’s biggest rap artists - Raftaar
From small pockets of the country to nationwide collaborations and record-breaking deals, the Hindi hip-hop scene continues to swell at a furious pace. Artists hungry to represent the next voice of their generation are met with voracious crowds demanding lyrics of truths and wars of words. The millennial genre of Latin beats-inspired Punjabi pop that contains two-minute autotuned solos with simplistic (and often empty) rhymes seems to be approaching its chapter 25. Even though 2019’s Gully Boy brought Hindi rap a bucket load of limelight, there is still a lot bubbling under the surface.
Lesson 1: Language matters
“It was a conscious decision to respect my roots, and respect the name due to which Raftaar was born,” he says. “If Dilin hadn’t dreamed, Raftaar wouldn’t exist. I want people to acknowledge the fact that I am a Malayali.” On the cover of Mr Nair, Raftaar’s Sean Paul-esque braids, Versace gear and blingy chains somehow fuse well with a white dhoti and chappals.
“I would never ask someone else to write my lyrics for me,” he says. “The emotion might be the same, but the expression will definitely suffer. It’s very important that the emotion and the expression are both mine. I won’t change just for showbiz. Also, what if I am on stage in Kerala and people ask me to freestyle? My image would be destroyed because I can’t rap fluently in Malayalam. And a rapper’s first point is about the truth.”
Lesson 2: The dissing game
He reveals another ‘dissing’ example. “When I came up with Damn, we deliberately went overboard on the autotune for the song’s second half,” he says. “I knew the song wouldn’t do well because of the excessive auto tune. But I wanted people to understand that this is excessive in music today. Now, when any artist goes overboard with autotuning, people will use my song as an example. I will probably get a lot of abuse for this, but there is a lot of good in it for me and other artists. My aim is to educate the audience on how bad this style is, and it is intelligently executed.”
Cool in his Mumbai-based home studio, Raftaar explains the concept of the ubiquitous diss track – a trend that rose to extreme popularity thanks to the rivalry between East and West Coast hip-hop in the US, and has made public headlines for many Indian rappers, including Raftaar and Emiway.
Because truth is so important in rap, Raftaar also explains how concerned the industry is about credit. “If you’ve seen the credit list for any song, you see the singer’s name, the song’s name and the label’s name. Not the mixing engineers and the instrumentalists in the background who are equally crucial,” he points out. “With rap, that trend is vanishing. For instance, the producer also holds a degree of credibility and it is a big deal for an artist to say, I worked with this producer for this song. It’s far from the way people know the hits of Shah Rukh or Salman Khan, but have no idea about the real musicians behind those songs.”
Today, social media really helps musicians, says Raftaar. No more agents, managers and bowing to record labels. All you need is a smartphone and access to the Internet.
Then he grins as he hits back, displaying the buoyant attitude that has won him a shout out from his personal hero, Jayceon Terrell Taylor, or The Game: “But I sound different from everyone out there, which is why I got signed on. Now I still create the same product, but I can add some quality because of the funding. The journey remains unchanged because nobody is interfering with my independence as an artist. But it’s good to afford quality sound engineers and the best producers.”
Even so, he’s learning new things. Between the cooking and cleaning he has to do minus household help in the lockdown, he’s taking masterclasses on producing vocals. “In India, unlike the West, people think they can just leave the tuning and effects to the producer,” he says. “They don’t realise the value of singing in a well-treated room with the right acoustics, the distance from the mike to enunciate or emphasise a word. If the quality of the aloo is good, the French fry will be beautiful to taste.”