Raftaar had been wanting to do away with what he thinks has become the holy trinity of Hindi-Punjabi hip-hop’s themes in the past decade: “Gaadi, daroo, ladki” (Cars, alcohol, women).
The 28-year-old rapper, music producer, lyricist and dancer thinks that he has finally managed to do so with his debut album Zero to Infinity. The eight-track album is a little over 28 minutes. The eight songs traverse a host of genres seamlessly blended into each other: dancehall, trap, bhangra, EDM, all rolled into a radio-and-dance-friendly package.
When Raftaar says that he has tried to move away from Indian hip-hop’s usual elements, he is not far from the truth. The lead single of the album, Sare Karo Dab, revolves around the awesomeness of dabbing – a dance move said to have originated in the Atlanta hip-hop scene in the 2010s, which went on to become mainstream in 2015.
The music video, released on May 29 and directed by Robby Singh, takes place inside a spaceship captained by the dancing rappers Raftaar and Delhi-based Mufaad. The spaceship abducts Indians off the streets, and the rappers rewire their brains to get them to do the dab dance. For Raftaar, who once wanted to be a video game animator before finding his calling as a rapper, getting to make a science fiction-inspired video was a dream come true.
“Since Sonu Kakkar ji [the singer, who lends her vocals to the song] couldn’t dance as well, we used as the artificial intelligence of the ship, like J.A.R.V.I.S in Iron-Man,” Raftaar explained.
The album is not entirely free of the trappings of Hindi-Punjabi hip-hop, however. The first song is titled Baby Marvaake Maanegi which, according to Raftaar, subverts the standard device of the rapper’s ode to a drunk woman at a party who loves fast cars and, of course, cannot handle her alcohol. “Here, only the title seems to be a bit…,” Raftaar trailed off. “But otherwise, the song says that a girl can go to a club wearing a short dress, or she can drink, but she is not your property. If you try to mess with her, she will get you killed, that is what the song’s title stands for.”
Why does the National Capital Region hip-hop scene, associated with names such as Yo Yo Honey Singh, Badshah and Raftaar – who were once part of the same crew, Mafia Mundeer, before they disbanded – have such a bad reputation for being crass, sexist, vulgar and unimaginatively commercial?
“We are compelled to make such music because the market demands it, it’s simple,” Raftaar said. “We take good songs to producers and record labels, and they ask for some masala, some cheekiness, some naughtiness.”
Raftaar cited Honey Singh’s example: “Before he became big, he was creating such good songs in the underground, about his cultural identity, about farmers, and then, suddenly he sees gaadi-daroo-ladki doing well and he becomes a superstar, then, what will he infer from that?
Even Badshah became a household name after a song like Saturday Saturday from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), Raftaar added.
“I sang Dhaakad in Dangal (2016), and nobody cared,” Raftaar said. “And to be honest, we also have to run our homes. We ran away from school and college to devote our lives to this. We have families. We are not Atif Aslam who can belt a hit by singing anything. We have to make the best of what we have within certain limits.”
Born in a Malayali family in Kerala as Dilin Nair, Raftaar was closer to his Punjabi friends while growing up in Delhi than he was to his Malayali relatives. “When everyone got together for family functions, I would stay a bit aloof and separated,” Raftaar said. “Relatives figured me out to be a naughty kid, but they knew I was smart.”
When school ended in 2006, Raftaar and his friends encountered the album Pesha Nesha Pyar by Californian Punjabi rapper Bohemia, who is acknowledged as the originator of Punjabi hip-hop in India. This was the initiation into Punjabi hip-hop, not just for a young Raftaar but for most of his contemporaries.
“No one thought that we could become something outside studies, Indian Idol, Dance India Dance, and all that were new,” Raftaar said. “The internet was not around as much. And we were hooked to hip-hop. Not many people thought we would be successful.”
Raftaar’s rise through the ranks of homegrown hip-hop has been well documented. A passionate dancer, he tried to earn fame in the first and only season of Dance India Dance Doubles as a participant. Meanwhile, he had also formed a hip-hop crew called Black Wall Street Desis with fellow rappers Lil Golu and Ikka. Back in the day, the likes of Raftaar paid out of their pocket for their recordings, and uploaded songs on Myspace and Orkut.
Elsewhere, Honey Singh had achieved moderate success in the underground scene. It was Singh who approached Raftaar and his crew members to join hands and form Mafia Mundeer. The fifth member was Badshah. Together, they belted out hits one after another, including Raftaar’s Main which was well-received by the scene’s small but devoted following.
Trouble began once Honey Singh’s song Dope Shope from his breakout album, International Villager (2011), was released. When the video was released, Raftaar alleged that Honey Singh had rapped all the lines, including the ones he had written, without giving him credit. Likewise, Badshah had written a chunk of another song from the album, Brown Rang, without being acknowledged. In 2012, Mafia Mundeer split, and both Badshah and Raftaar went on to forge solo careers for themselves.
Raftaar has, since, not spoken to Honey Singh at all. “But I pray that he is back in action again,” the rapper said. “Maybe, we [Honey Singh, Raftaar and Badshah] will sit some day and talk about it. When you don’t have complaints in life and you are happy, you will want to forget the old fights. What happened back then was a result of immaturity. Today, I hear that people would advise Honey to go solo because that would mean success, or else we could be taking away his limelight. So, he took that route at that point in life.”
The year Mafia Mundeer split into half, Raftaar released a hit solo track called Bottle with Punjabi singer Deep Money. But it wasn’t until his series of collaborations with Manjeet Singh Rai, popularly known as Manj Musik of the erstwhile British Bhangra group RDB (Rhythm Dhol Bass), that he went mainstream and became a name big enough to get Bollywood knocking. Manj Musik, as singer, composer and producer, collaborated on several songs with Raftaar, one of the first of which was Swag Mera Desi (2014) which instantly put Raftaar on the map.
“Surjeet paaji [an RDB member] was mostly handling management, and Manj paaji was always writing, composing and arranging, so he and I spent a lot of time in the studio,” Raftaar said. “After the death of Kuldeep paaji, Manj paaji left RDB and took me along with him. In those days, I wore Manj paaji’s old jackets, jeans and shoes. I didn’t have the money to get clothes for my own music videos. He is like family to me, he was like a father and a brother, and he is the first to listen to or comment on any track I make.”
The duo are soon coming together for a new track called Revolution – “about the change in the hip-hop scene” – for MTV Spoken Word.
Raftaar has, since, delivered hit singles (Instagram Love, Teri Wargi Nai Ae, Gall Goriye), been featured on MTV Coke Studio, and lent his rapping skills to Bollywood songs of films featuring such stars as Salman Khan and Aamir Khan. Work led him into the studio with AR Rahman as well, a memory he is fond of. But Raftaar agreed that while Hindi film music continues to make rap mainstream, it is true that rappers are just used for a token verse or two. Does it bother him?
Raftaar responded that while America has had hip-hop for five decades, it has only been a little more than 10 years since hip-hop really blew up in India, if one looks at Bohemia’s Pesha Nesha Pyar as the starting point. To percolate into the mainstream, hip-hop has to make its way through the Bollywood sound, Raftaar reasoned. Comparing hip-hop in the West with India would thus be unfair.
“It took as little as 10 years for us to come here, and in another 10 years, there will be pure rap songs with no melody verse at all,” Raftaar said. “Now, we are slowly moving away from movies and doing our own things. Slowly, the concept of a person speaking free verse over a beat is being considered as an artist.”
And as hip-hop will expand, Raftaar said, the imagery, the tropes, and the borrowed “swag” associated with it will change since rappers will discover their own identities.
“Why the loose clothes, baggy jeans, gold chains, caps, cars?” Raftaar said. “Because we grew up seeing Eminem and 50 Cent, and even before we could become artists, we wanted to achieve that lifestyle. We were amazed by their words, their personality, their shoes, etc, so we wanted that. Everyone has to start somewhere, and they do by picking up these things first. You will find Honey Singh caps, Badshah and Raftaar sunglasses in Palika Bazar and Lokhandwala. All this is meaningless, actually, the art is important.”
Raftaar predicted that just like hip-hop entered the mainstream of America’s pop culture in the 1990s, with the rivalry between the West Coast and the East Coast scenes, there would be a possible clash between the NCR and the Mumbai scenes pretty soon.
“The moment someone comes and says Bombay is number one, you will have someone say Delhi is number one, and that is how it begins,” Raftaar said. “You can already see the rappers saying, I am from Delhi-18 or I am from Bombay-70. Rap has the ability to charge up local cultures, and it will happen, in due time. When it does, the market will erupt.”
Raftaar envisions that one day in wedding ceremonies, rappers, and not singers, will be invited. “When we heard Bohemia, we were in school or college,” Raftaar explained. “Now, we are successful. The kids who grew up listening to us have purchasing power today to attend our shows and concerts. These kids bring their young siblings with them. Ten years later, their kids will listen to only rap because that is what their parents grew up with.”
But while Raftaar is hopeful about the exponential growth of hip-hop in India, he does not see a bright future for hip-hop tackling on serious social and political issues. He doesn’t think that the West is any good at it either. “Sure, Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, Pusha T are doing political rap, but the best-selling track is still Gucci Gang, Gucci Gang, Gucci Gang right?” Raftaar said.
“The reason there is political rap in the West is because there the concept of freedom of speech is actually respected,” Raftaar added. “Kendrick Lamar can rap against [Donald] Trump but I can’t say something about Modi ji. You try saying anything about Modi ji, you will be picked up from your house, because it’s cyber crime. It’s not like we don’t have opinions. We have a lot. But we can’t say them because people take it personally.”
In 2015, Raftaar, along with Manj Musik and Punjabi singer Jashan Singh, performed the song Allah Veh on an Independence Day Special episode of the fourth season of MTV Coke Studio India. The song’s pro-peace message, asking for peaceful relations to be established between Pakistan and India, led to Raftaar being trolled on the internet.
“People don’t understand government propaganda,” Raftaar said. “How will governments be of use if there are no wars, no sense of fear, no army, no tension at the border? How will taxes be collected?”
He also expressed contempt for Indian listeners tolerating and enjoying crassness in the form of sexism and objectification of women in English songs, but criticising Indian songs when homegrown artists do the same.
“As far as I am concerned, I understand why artists don’t want to get political,” Raftaar said. “It’s because there is no one to listen and no one wants to listen.”