By now, even if you don’t follow India’s independent music scene, you’ve probably heard of Divine and Naezy. They’re the Mumbai rappers who inspired director Zoya Akhtar to make her new film Gully Boy. Divine has stated, in multiple interviews, that the movie is not based on either his or fellow MC Naezy’s life. While certain experiences and incidents from their rise to fame have been used to tell the story of rapper Murad, played by Ranveer Singh, the film is a work of fiction.
Akhtar and music supervisor Ankur Tewari’s attempt with Gully Boy has been to present an authentic depiction of Mumbai’s “gully rap” scene, of which Divine and Naezy are the flag bearers. To achieve this, the creators roped in sundry rappers from the city to act in cypher scenes and battle rap sequences, and supervise and provide additional dialogue. The film’s original soundtrack includes contributions from a pair of beatboxers, a veteran DJ and producer, and several rappers.
Each of these musicians played a part in Mumbai’s development as the hub of Indian independent hip-hop, which began over a decade ago and flourished with the aid of the internet. Almost all of them were introduced to rap after a friend or relative made them listen to Eminem or 50 Cent before they delved deeper into the genre and gradually starting writing their own rhymes. This small but growing community congregated online on groups such as Insignia Rap Combat on Orkut and India Rap Forum on Facebook to trade verses. The next step for them was facing off in person at events such as the cyphers organised every Sunday by conscious rapper A-List aka Ashwini Mishra at Narali Baug in Dadar, and the open mic and Monster Battles sessions held at now-shuttered Bandra pub I-Bar.
Starring in a hip-hop video with Singh, an opportunity won through a competition, is how rappers Kaam Bhaari from Mumbai and Spitfire from Madhya Pradesh became a part of Gully Boy. Thanks to Singh, Spitfire, whose real name is Nitin Mishra, got to compose and write the soundtrack’s first single Asli Hip Hop and pen the words for all of Murad’s rap battle and cypher sequences.
While some scenesters believe that Gully Boy represents the selling out of an underground phenomenon, most rappers feel that Indian independent hip-hop will only benefit from the mainstream exposure the genre will receive through the film. “Every day, 20-25 kids message me saying they’ve written their first rap,” said MC Mawali, the co-founder of the crew Swadesi. “The youth are learning to express themselves. In school, we’re taught to just repeat what’s in our books. [But] to express yourself, you need to see and observe what’s [happening] in the present. After Gully Boy, there will be more kids who want to express themselves, even if they just want to be the next Ranveer Singh.”
Scroll.in spoke to ten Mumbai-based hip-hop artists about their journey, working on Gully Boy and the road ahead.
Neighbourhood: Malad (West)
English and Hindi rapper Ace aka Abhishek Dhusia was upset when he heard a film was being made about Mumbai’s hip-hop scene. “The first thing that came to my mind was, ‘This is my shit’,” said Dhusia, who co-founded the crew Mumbai’s Finest in 2006, of which Divine was a part of for six years. “There’s no one else who has struggled more than me. I’m the original gully boy. Then I came to know my brothers Naezy and Divine are involved, so I was happy. It would have been very corny if they had made a movie on Honey Singh’s life.”
Eventually, Dhusia got a call from the makers of Gully Boy who asked him to attend a music workshop they had put together, and if they could include his 2015 track Har Gham Mein Khushi Hai in the soundtrack. “That’s when I believed in the law of attraction – I really wanted this shit and finally got it,” said Dhusia, who used to organise rap battles at InOrbit Mall in Malad in the mid-2000s. Mumbai, he says, has become a hotbed of hip-hop because “if you’re from Mumbai, you have to be street smart, you have to be a hustler” – essential qualities for all aspiring MCs.
BeatRAW and D-Cypher
Ages: 20, 26
Neighbourhoods: Nalasopara, Virar
BeatRAW aka Roshan Gamare and D-Cypher aka Gaurav Gambhir share a lot in common. Both started out as b-boys, taught themselves how to beatbox by watching tutorials on YouTube, and subsequently became members of the Mumbai hip-hop crew Bombay Lokal. Gamare and Gambhir, who often perform together, were judged the runners-up in the tag team category of the Indian Beatbox Championship in December 2018. Their involvement in Gully Boy happened by accident. Bombay Lokal founder Shaikhspeare aka Aamir Shaikh, who plays a battle rapper in the film, got them to the set to play extras for a particular scene.
“On the second day of the shoot, during the lunch break, people who knew us [told us to] beatbox,” said Gambhir. “Everyone, including Zoya Akhtar, loved it. On the third day, [we were] told they want us to do two tracks.” Those tunes Asli Hip Hop and Jingostan had an immediate impact on the fan base. “In two days, the number of my followers [on social media] increased,” said Gamare, whose alias is inspired by the way his Maharashtrian family pronounces his first name. “They [say] Row-shan [instead of] Ro-shan. There isn’t much difference between [the sound of] Row and Raw.”
Unlike most of the MCs featured on Gully Boy, Kaam Bhaari aka Kunal Pandgale was never a part of Mumbai’s underground hip-hop scene. But the city is a big part of his persona. “I’ve lived [here] my entire life [so Mumbai] influences everything in my music – the way I think, the way I write, [even] my rap name Kaam Bhaari, which is slang for work hard and also means game over.”
Pandgale, who stands out for his rapid-fire rhyming style, has already scored work with a handful of brands, including a jingle for snack-maker Tasty Treats and a launch gig for Honda’s Navi motorcycle, during which he performed with Divine in front of over 3,000 people. The song Kaam Bhaari, which he dropped during the cypher organised by the Gully Boy team and was subsequently selected for the soundtrack, marks his solo debut. Pandgale also supervised the writing of some of the movie’s dialogues and penned the romantic tune Kab Se Kab Se Tak, sung by Ranveer Singh in the film.
Neighbourhood: Andheri (West)
Corruption and income disparity are often called out in Mumbai hip-hop, and yet the genre’s rappers have mostly been apolitical. Among the exceptions is Maharya aka Yash Mahida. His Acche Din is a scathing takedown of the ruling regime. “What I see, what I feel, I write,” said Mahida, who began his career rapping in English and was a member of the short-lived hip-hop band 7th Aayam.
In 2015, he joined Swadesi, whose crew members advised him to rap in “all the languages I knew”. He shifted his focus to Hindi and Bengali. “You should reach as many ears as you can,” said Mahida, whose alias is a portmanteau of his parents’ surnames Mahida and Bhattacharya.
Mahida raps on the Gully Boy track India 91, composed by multi-instrumentalist Viveick Rajagopalan, who has been teaching his Swadesi crew mates, Mawali and TodFod, konnakol or the art of performing the percussion syllables used in Carnatic classical music.
Major C aka Chandrashekhar “Chandu” Kunder, who composed and produced Sher Aaya Sher featuring Divine for Gully Boy, has been immersed in the city’s hip-hop scene for longer than any of the rappers featured on the soundtrack.
The veteran DJ, who has been manning the decks at the city’s bars and clubs since the mid-1990s, is a member of two popular independent acts – hip-hop and reggae band Bombay Bassment and electro-pop group Laxmi Bomb. He met the frontman of Bombay Bassment, Mumbai-based Kenyan rapper Bob Omulo, at one of the reggae, dancehall and hip-hop nights he used to deejay at Razzberry Rhinoceros in Juhu, where he played from 2000 to 2005. “I used to do hip-hop nights at a club called Escape at Andheri from 2003 [to] 2004,” said Kunder. “[The audience included] a lot of people who liked listening to hip-hop and also started rapping.”
Like many Mumbai rappers, Altaf Shaikh was a b-boy before he became an MC. He switched to rapping after he realised that though he couldn’t perform many b-boying stunts, he was great at storytelling. He felt inspired after watching Stony Psyko from the Dopeadelicz crew at a Ganpati mandal near his home in Dharavi. “He was the first Indian rapper I heard,” said Shaikh. “I found [that he was] so different and relatable. Then I thought – I write stories anyway, I just need to make them rhyme.”
Shaikh was part of the crew Enemiez from 2014 until it disbanded in 2017. For him, his music is all about representing his hood. “[Some] people say [to me] you’re a great rapper and your style of dressing is also good, why do you keep mentioning Dharavi?” said Shaikh, who opens the track India 91, and supervised and co-wrote the dialogues for the film. “They think that if you get the tag of Dharavi, people associate [you] with poverty. But I’ll never be ashamed of Dharavi. We’ve changed [perceptions] so much in the past two years. The last time I told some people where I’m from, they said, ‘That’s the place where there’s a lot of hip-hop.’ I felt so proud hearing that.”
Neighbourhood: Andheri (East)
In 2012, MC Mawali aka Aklesh Sutar co-founded multilingual crew Swadesi because “there was nothing Indian in what people were calling Indian hip-hop”. At the time, the scene was dominated by English rappers whose sounds were derivative of international MCs. Sutar, who initially rhymed in Hindi and then Marathi, was encouraged to rap in these languages based on the response he received. “Kids would tell me that they actually understand what I’m saying,” said Sutar, who wrote the hook for India 91.
It’s not just the variety of languages, but also the range of subject matter that distinguishes Swadesi, which grew out of the b-boying troupe Funky Disorders, and is today arguably Mumbai’s most popular conscious rap group. Their recent single The Warli Revolt is a collaboration with activist Prakash Bhoir that aims to raise awareness about the fight to save the forest in Aarey. “We used to write about ourselves,” said Sutar. “But when you realise how much power there is in words, you start writing about your surroundings. You can make songs [that will] play in clubs [and write about] drinking or you can go and meet a farmer for half an hour, learn about his problems and write about grassroots movements.”
If it wasn’t for Indian-American hip-hop group Karmacy, MC TodFod aka Dharmesh Parmar would not have become one of the most well-known Gujarati rappers in the country. It was only after he heard the multilingual act from Oakland that he was certain he would be able to write convincingly in the language. Parmar, who decided to become an MC in his early teens after watching the 50 Cent biopic Get Rich Or Die Tryin’, used to write in English until he joined the crew Swadesi about five years ago. He was encouraged to pen rhymes in Gujarati by the crew’s co-founder Marathi MC Mawali.
“The first Indian rapper I heard was Mawali,” said Parmar, whose skills are showcased on India 91. “I was like, ‘Dude, what is this style of writing lyrics?’ It was so different from the rest of the shit you see on TV. It was too real.” His time with Swadesi has also changed his ideology: he released the infamous track Cows in support of the beef ban, but says he doesn’t agree with the ruling anymore. Much of his music is about “Bombay, the life over here [and] what we see around. As I stay in BBD chawl, [I observe] the difference between [my neighbourhood] and the [kind of] people I’m meeting now,” said Parmar, who is planning to release a solo album sometime this year.
Noxious aka Achint Marwah is among those rare Mumbai rappers who don’t want to “represent an area code”. “My vision has always been to represent India on a global level,” said Marwah, who sings the closing Punjabi verse on India 91. His shout-outs, he says, are reserved for his crew Elsewhere, which has been around since 2013 and organises the rap battle gig series Battle Bars Bombay.
Marwah, who is also a theatre actor and is part of the Hindi troupe Ekjute, raps mostly in English. But the appreciation he has received for India 91, which was his first attempt at writing in his mother tongue, has encouraged him to work on Punjabi singles. “My idea with any language is to talk about something that’s real,” said Marwah, whose upcoming English album will feature tracks about things such as “ego clashes and how ego is going to kill you and get you down to earth”.