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March 19, 2019 // The Genres

From galli cricket to Gully Rap: How Mumbai became the center of Indian Hip Hop

From the streets of Compton to the gullies of Dharavi

Once replete with makeshift stumps, the streets of Mumbai are now seeing another phenomenon. From the slums of Dharavi, to the biggest movie screens the world over, a new new wave is now taking over the country. Featuring gritty lyrics, cyphers, and the counterculture of street art and b-boying, this is the story of Gully Rap, and how it came about.

The seeds were sown

Long before Divine, rap was used for satire and comic relief, probably best by 90s Indipop legend Baba Sehgal. But beneath all the schoolboy rhymes and lighthearted puns, a new movement was brewing.

Baba Sehgal

Things started getting serious

Inspired by the likes of Eminem, NWA and Wu Tang Clan, early rap in India featured cover acts and crews. Hip-hop nights were making their ways to clubs. DJ Sa and DJ Uri, already well-known spinners in the 2000s, began to program rap shows that slowly started to gain popularity. Bobkat, who’d soon end up forming Bombay Bassment, was one of the first to create a community of hip-hopheads in Mumbai by doing club shows in the city in the early 2000s. But rather than derivatives of the streets of Compton, it was the gullies of Dharavi that helped Indian crews become a force to be reckoned with. Today, “Asia’s largest slum” is the hotbed of giving hip-hop a true Indian face – something other genres like rock have struggled to do. And of course, the internet helped – but from an unlikely corner.

A kvlt Orkut group (that’s right)

While the rest of the world came to terms with (and chose to collectively forget) one of the first social networks, more known for scraps and ‘fransip’ jokes, a group called the ‘Insignia Rap Combat’ gave a community of rap fans in India a platform to freestyle, battle and meet up with other hip-hop heads online. Before you knew it, the likes of Mumbai’s Finest, B3, Divine and Enkore started to gain cred and fame. Thanks to this now-defunct site.

Mumbai’s Finest

Word spread, beyond borders

International acts were taking notice. 50 Cent and Chamillionaire made appearances in Mumbai in 2007 and 2008, with some of the best city rappers getting the change to open. The community grew and evolved: Beatboxers and producers got together to make cyphers, and rappers off the internet began to make music in whatever way possible. Studios not available? Tablets would do. The scene was now churning out well-produced music with lyrics that represented life in the gully.

Yeh Mera Bombay

Becoming the ‘next big thing’

A breakout track during this time was Yeh Mera Bombay by DIVINE. Having grown up in the chawls of Andheri, he wore his influences on his sleeve and it showed. The video went viral, and soon, more rappers followed.

Aafat

Naezy’s Aafat followed the same mould, but he brought with him a kind of flow that was not seen before in the scene (did we mention he wrote and produced the whole track solely on an iPad?).

Tony Sebastian

A year later, Dopeadalicz, who were perfecting the art of stoner rap, featured on Coke Studio. In a collaboration with Ram Sampath, Tony Sebastian showed the appeal of regional languages (by spitting fire in Tamil). They also worked on the music for the Tamil movie, Kaala, starring the superstar himself – Rajnikanth.

By 2015, rap was prominent in the independent Indian music circuit. At this time, the mainstream woke up to another subgenre that soon paved the way for everyone else: Punjabi rap. Just like no wedding party is complete without Sukhbir, the story of Indian rap cannot be told without fully acknowledging the role of artists like Yo Yo Honey Singh. With releases like Blue Hai Paani and Lak 28 Kudi Da, despite all the controversy, it made Bollywood producers get up and take notice of the scene and genre – and with this commercial appeal, the scene just needed someone at the right place at the right time to make the crossover.

Enter Naezy and DIVINE. The two got together and made what is now probably the most iconic tracks in Indian rap: Mere Gully Mein.

Mere Gully Mein

Cut to two years later. Rap is a force to reckon with. Apart from DIVINE and Naezy, the scene is enjoying the spotlight, inspiring more youngsters to pick up a mic and freestyle. Hip-hop now features prominently in everything from ads and jingles to singles in Hindi.

The time has come.

What better endorsement of how far rap has come in the past two decades than to have Bollywood’s biggest names reenact your breakout hit word-for-word (and dare we say, frame-by-frame). Apart from covering Mere Galli Mein in Gully Boy, DIVINE also penned lyrics for a majority of the film’s soundtrack. With vocals from Ranveer Singh, an anthem, whose iconic line would make its way into countless fake t-shirts, was born.

Perhaps it’s finally time for rappers in India to say: Apna Time Aagaya.