A Punjabi emcee from Delhi who rhymes about street life in his addiction-addled lower-middle class neighbourhood, a multilingual hip-hop crew from Mumbai that raps about the deforestation in the Aarey Milk Colony, and a female rapper in Bengaluru who writes verses about overcoming depression in English and Kannada. These aren’t the kind of acts normally associated with an Indian independent music label. But then, Delhi’s Azadi Records isn’t the average Indian indie label.

Azadi, declared its co-founders Mo Joshi and Uday Kapur, was established in 2017 “to provide a platform for South Asian artists to release forward-thinking, politically conscious music”. Their debut release in October, Delhi rapper Prabh Deep’s album Class-Sikh, topped several year-end best-of lists. Over the next few months, they will put out sets by Mumbai’s hip-hop collective Swadesi and vocalist Siri Narayan, who hails from Bengaluru.

“We’re trying to piece together the story of the country through each of our artists and present a different narrative to the one we see delivered by the mainstream media [or] political parties,” said Kapur. He was inspired to start the label after writing his undergraduate thesis about Indian protest musicians such as the Delhi folk-fusion rock band Indian Ocean and Manipuri singer-songwriter Akhu Chingangbam, the frontman of the folk-rock band Imphal Talkies and The Howlers. “Whether that’s through talking about songs that deal with politics, economics, discrimination [or] love, it has to represent a narrative from places or people we don’t usually hear from,” Kapur said.

Mo Joshi of Azadi Records. Photo credit: Bobin James.

Also on their roster: Haryanvi-Hindi rap duo Seedhe Maut from Delhi, R&B trio Triangles from Kerala and “horrorcore and dubstep-influenced” emcee Rak from Mumbai. Naman Saraiya, a producer at the media organisation Vice India, who directed the recently-released documentary Kya Bolta Bantai, about Mumbai’s gully rap phenomenon, believes what distinguishes the label is the fact that it isn’t restricted by location or language. “[Their] range of voices is what sets them apart,” said Saraiya.

Kapur, a journalist, and Joshi, a music entrepreneur, said there are a few essential criteria they seek when signing acts. “First and foremost, it’s the story,” said Joshi. “In 15 years, when we look back, did we put out a record that documented a moment in time that will be referred to again and again? For example, Class-Sikh, which is Prabh’s anecdotal, semi-autobiographical [album about] growing up in a refugee community in West Delhi affected by [the] 1984 [riots]. Now in 15 years, when you’re looking at artists who wrote about that, Prabh’s record is going to get referenced.”

Uday Kapur of Azadi Records. Photo credit: Bobin James.

Their intention, they said, isn’t just to have hits, but to leave a legacy. “We try and spend as much time as possible trying to get to know the artist,” said Kapur. “What’s their motivation? What kind of impact do they want to have on an audience or their community?” The other motivation to start a label, he says, was their disillusionment with how the music industry functions in India and their hope to develop “a better, more ethical way to structure this scene in a more equitable and accessible manner”.

According to Joshi, there’s a lack of both education on the part of musicians and ethics on the part of major labels, which has led to a situation where it is standard practice for a record company to own a song’s rights fully. “It’s a complete money grab,” he said. “[The idea is that] we’re investing, we need to own everything.” Those signed to Azadi, he said, also get a 50% royalty rate as opposed “to a major [label where] you’re getting anywhere between four to seven percent”.

Prabh Deep.

Their deals are structured differently too. “Suppose we agree with an artist that we’re going to put X number of lakhs into a project [and that] 50% comes from you, 50% comes from us,” said Joshi. “Obviously we [subsidise] the artist’s 50% but we’re only able to recoup the artist’s 50%, not our 50%. Normally, a label would say, we need to recoup a 100% before we start paying out.”

A further distinction is that Azadi keeps the rights to the masters of recordings for five years, whereas a major might retain them for up to 30 years. “The only thing that we keep is 20% as the original publisher, which is also down from the 50% majors keep.” To make up for the difference, they provide bookings and management services for most of their artists, for which they get a 20% cut every time the act gets a gig or is enlisted for brand endorsements or activations.

Siri Narayan.

Thus far, Azadi’s strongest brand association has been with beer maker Bira 91, which has signed Prabh Deep as one of their artists, and with whom they frequently collaborate on hip-hop-related events. They’re currently in talks with at least three companies that want Azadi’s acts to compose tracks for their projects, says Joshi. They also plan to sell merchandise lines for each of their nine signees, starting with a test run of a hundred T-shirts by Delhi’s streetwear manufacturer DelhiWear for Seedhe Maut. Plus, “there’s a slightly lofty goal of launching a cultural publication in vernacular languages, and training writers from lower-income groups to come and talk about the evolution of culture in their communities”, said Kapur.

Joshi, who used to manage a data processing services company with his brother and subsequently ran the blog Desi Hip Hop, has been funding Azadi himself, while Kapur earns most of his income from writing. While it’s largely a two-person operation, they have “three or four people as ancillary support when we need”, such as a graphic designer who they’ve got on a retainer, said Joshi. He hopes to hire more people who share their passion and philosophy. “I’ve been looking pretty hard for the next member,” he said. “[But] I can’t pay OML [entertainment firm Only Much Louder] salaries.”

For now, income from live shows forms the bulk of revenue for Azadi. In late August and early September, for instance, they staged gigs in Chandigarh, Guwahati and Srinagar. The Chandigarh show was the third instalment of Icon, a monthly gig series they organise that’s headlined by veteran Punjabi hip-hop stars from the “underground scene” such as the Kala Kurta Gang, Kru172 and Desi Beam.

Joshi said that Azadi is working on giving its roster the same kind of longevity, but aren’t looking to create “global pop superstars”, an ambition that would require an approach that’s at odds with their ethos. “We don’t have stupid money,” he said. “We don’t do any ad spends, we don’t pay Facebook and YouTube. I can get one lakh views in two days for ten grand, but it means nothing. I’d rather put that ten grand and make your [video] shoot look better.”

Seedhe Maut.

Azadi’s objective is to enable musicians to make a living doing what they love. “That’s got to be the first aim – can I pay my rent and my bills by music?” said Joshi. What is paramount for them, though, is speaking up when necessary: neither Azadi nor its acts are afraid of calling out fellow rappers when they deem fit. Most recently, Kapur voiced his anger on Twitter on hearing the seemingly casteist lyrics of the new Divine and Raja Kumari single Roots, while Prabh Deep shared a Facebook post rebutting Raftaar’s claim that Indian rappers rhyming about gang violence were speaking about a non-existent problem.

“Staying quiet gives a pass for the ideas expressed to flourish,” said Kapur. “Right now, people might think it’s one song that has a lyric that promotes caste supremacy and it won’t have an impact. But caste is so removed from our education that young kids who listen to these artists will buy into the idea that lyrics like that express, and this is how it’ll become normalised.” Azadi’s model label, Joshi said, is America’s Top Dawg Entertainment, also known as the home of Kendrick Lamar. They look up to the American label for “the family vibe they have” and “the strong identity that runs through every act”.

Joshi said Azadi turns down more offers from brands than it accepts. While the label is a while away from being profitable, the projections are promising. “We’re going to give the label a minimum of three years and assess where we are,” he said. “If we’re talking about revenue, we’ll do more in the first three months of [our second] year than we did in the whole of [our first] year.”