In an inside lane in Delhi’s Ashok Nagar lies Sez’s home. A gracious host, he’s waiting outside the gate, dressed in a green sweatshirt with the original Adidas trefoil logo and track pants. “My room is very messy,” he warned, a little embarrassed. The room is actually just fine. Sez has that avuncular quality of a warm, welcoming person. He’s tall and stout with a beard best described as intimidating, but he speaks in a soft voice and remains impeccably polite.
He’s Sez, Sez On The Beat, best known as the hip-hop producer who has worked with the likes of Divine, Naezy, Badshah and Prabh Deep. But there’s no hint of arrogance, no conceit. “This was the vibe around my house, my family,” he said. “I inherited this quality from my grandmom. She was like that, always made me feel comfortable.” There’s a conflict tugging at him, though: his understated personality placed against the formidable body of work he’s done, and the recognition he feels he deserves. While the rappers have rocketed into the limelight, the producers making it all possible aren’t quite being appreciated in the same way.
“The thing is, I feel people should discover me, rather than me going out and…I believe producers don’t get the shine they deserve, they don’t get the credit,” he said. “Everything sells on face value. People just know me as the guy who produced [Divine’s] Mere Gully Mein, Jungli Sher…that I produced [Naezy’s] Asal Hustle. That’s not true. I made a lot of songs with them.”
Sez, also known to family and friends as Sajeel Kapoor, has been indelibly linked with the rise of homegrown hip-hop in India, or “desi hip-hop”, with its roots in the American form and a lyrical emphasis on societal structures and obstacles, often delivered in regional languages. The genre has reached the mainstream now – with the release of Bollywood’s Gully Boy amid accusations of co-opting the subculture – but has been steadily growing for the past few years. And Sez has been at the heart of it.
At just 25, he’s practically a veteran of the movement, having a hand in all its obvious breakthrough moments – from Mere Gully Mein (2015) and Asal Hustle (2016) to Tragedy Mein Comedy (2016) and Prabh Deep’s Class-Sikh (2017), to, most recently, the Seedhe Maut debut record Bayaan (2018).
“I think what started this Hindi rap wave was Yeh Mera Bombay by Divine, which I co-produced with Rjv,” he said. “Everybody was already doing Hindi rap then, but the wave that came about was from this.” He’s produced more albums and EPs and songs than he can recall. He estimates his personal output in a year to be greater than the catalogues of most rappers in their careers. “A shit-ton, bro,” he said. “I’ve produced more than I even know about! EPs and EPs and EPs.”
Sez was only 15 when he got involved in Delhi’s hip-hop scene in 2005. Those were the “childhood days of Indian hip-hop”, when kids would interact and exchange ideas on an Orkut community called Insignia. The Underground Music League would host events, often inviting rappers from Mumbai too. By around 2010, the Indian Coffee House in Connaught Place became hip-hop central. “Everybody from the Delhi scene would go out and meet there and have a good time, do cyphers and stuff,” recollected Sez. “I would just be sitting there. I wasn’t a rapper. I was just chilling, observing people. I was part of the scene; they wanted me there.” Sez would produce music for any rapper who would hit him up, all for free. He wanted to learn, to get better at his craft, and to build a scene from the ground up.
He became immersed in the culture. In his room today, there are a couple of baseball caps – he’s often spotted in one at gigs – lying alongside his PlayStation console. The big TV is next to a wall adorned with floral-patterned Versace wallpaper, and he’s got a chair with matching upholstery. He enjoys buying jewellery and, he admits, almost embarrassed, that seven shelves in the cupboard are filled with boxes of sneakers, many of them Yeezys. His speech, too, is inflected by both Hindi and English slang, sprinkled with yo and bro. In fact, Sez is at his most comfortable when he’s talking about the form, and the artists and producers who’ve influenced him.
He recalls the time when Delhi’s DIY community started to change shape. As hip-hop took off with the rise of Naezy and Divine in Mumbai, money entered the equation by 2013 or 2014. “Egos came into play,” he said. “The community scene started to die. Thoda hip-hop ko bhao milna shuru hua. Everyone was getting brand projects...it wasn’t much, but if someone got Rs 10,000, it was like, ‘Bhagwaan project hai ye, isse upar kuch nahi ho sakta.’”
The dynamics of the community were fundamentally altered. Sez had previously worked for free. But upon gaining some traction and winning a Radio City Freedom award for his early work with Divine, he too started charging. This led to some resentment – people he had supported began looking at him differently since he wasn’t doing it for free anymore.
In 2013, Sez’s father passed away. It was a difficult time for him. He’d been an exceptional student at school and had studied computer science in college. Despite his academic leanings, his family had always been supportive of his music. With his mother’s blessings, he decided to do music full-time.
“By around 2015, everything stopped for me,” he said. “I made a lot of songs. I began to confine myself to my room. That helped me a lot – not getting human interaction for a while, just focusing on my shit.” It was then that he took a leap of faith and set up StunnahSezbeatz, with Stunnah, a producer and rapper from Guwahati.
StunnahSezbeatz is an online store where the duo puts out beats and instrumentals that rappers can lease or purchase exclusively, to rap on top of. They tend to focus on whatever’s currently “popping”, and make beats along similar lines.
StunnahSezbeatz has cultivated a loyal following online. It took a while to get going, but, after a sustained effort, it has now become Sez’s primary source of income. Beaming with pride, he points to the myriad production and music gear in the room, talking about how it all was made possible through StunnahSezbeatz.
It raises a question we must confront sooner or later. What does a producer even do? Not many people realise the value of this most crucial individual in hip-hop, which remains a massive grouse for Sez. “I’m not a beatmaker, I’ve never been just a beatmaker,” he insisted. What he does, in effect, is translate the rapper’s concept and vision into music. “Whenever I’m working with a rapper, I want him to be here, sitting right in front of me and sharing the concept. What the song is about. I talk to them, start getting behind the scenes, ask them why. I’m just painting a picture with my beat, to go with what’s happening in his head. To support his words, to support what he wants to say, to make sure he shines.” He creates a beat, picking an appropriate sound that’ll work, composing all the music using FL Studio. He mixes and masters the songs too. (Just to ensure his works don’t get misused, every Sez composition has his watermark: a childlike voice that proclaims, “Sez on the beat, boy.”)
Sez is now part of the independent hip-hop label Azadi Records. Much like an executive producer, he keeps an eye on young talent and oversees the label’s output. He collaborates frequently with his close friend, rapper Prabh Deep. “We’ve seen shit together, struggled together, worked together, eaten together, chilled together.” Brotherhood is important to Sez. He recounts endless days spent chilling with the Azadi crew, playing the FIFA video game, and how that helps him understand the creative direction to take with the music. He speaks of the Seedhe Maut guys, and of how he prefers to work with people with whom he can strike a connection.
His genuine warmth for these collaborators is in stark contrast to his recent views of Sony Music. In January, he put out a statement on social media about the use of Mere Gully Mein on the Gully Boy soundtrack. He claims he wasn’t aware of the usage and hasn’t been paid royalties for it. Something similar, he alleges, happened with the use of Jungli Sher on Netflix’s Sacred Games too. “I’ve produced those songs, I played an important part,” he said. “I deserve to know that stuff. At least I can be happy about it, even if I’m not getting paid. It was disrespectful in so many ways. I was like, ‘Yehi aukaad hai kya producers ki is country mein? Yehi hota hai?’”
He’s apprehensive to go into details, given that conversations are ongoing. He’s not too fond of the Gully Boy soundtrack, but he’s happy the movie is coming out. “Some of the beats [on the soundtrack], I was like, ‘Yo! Why would you do that?’” he said. “But I understand there must have been constraints. I’m happy for the Mumbai hip-hop family that they’re getting the limelight they’ve deserved for so long.” His recent experiences have left a somewhat bitter taste, but Sez remains positive.
The success of StunnahSezbeatz, and the fact that even well-known international names have picked up their works, has given him confidence to go a step further – setting up base in the US or Canada. Meanwhile, his work with Azadi keeps him creatively engaged. Next up for him is Beebay, a project he’s working on with Prabh Deep and Happu Singh. Also in the works is One Eight Records, a sub-label of Azadi Records, which he plans to run with Prabh Deep to push local talent, the kids around in their area. That’s really what it’s all about for Sez: supporting his friends and crew, as he becomes and bigger and more recognised. “No one else is going to help the scene, yo. Itna hona chahiye. Itni feelings honi chahiye.”