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Urban Desi Musicians Rap 'n' Roll

August 2008
Urban Desi Musicians Rap 'n' Roll

By Tirusha Dave

Some say it’s rubbish and won’t get anywhere; others say it’s the big new thing with a great future. Judging by recent events, the urban South Asian music scene has reached such a level of acceptance and appreciation that it’s a cause for celebration not only among the artists but also among the scene’s numerous fans.

So here’s a pop quiz question: What exactly is urban desi music?

Ask anyone not wholeheartedly involved in the scene and you’ll get the same vague answer: it’s a new type of music mostly spearheaded by youngsters.

Solution: Go straight to those who create the music on rotation in our iPods!

After sitting down with some of the hottest up-and-coming names in the desi scene, Khabar came up with a lot more information. So here’s a short primer for those who want to explore it further.

Listening to the latest Nivla album, Child of God, one gets to understand and value the intensity of an urban desi performer. The U.K.-based Hard Kaur, to give another example, is teaming up with older and established artists such as Shankar-Eshan-Loy, resulting in some high-profile music ventures. Across the U.S., meanwhile, desis are serving up some of the hottest lyrical music in the rap game. Kentucky-native Nikhil Datta (aka Khil) is one of the most exciting and promising MCs to emerge over the past year. Nikhil, who’s been free-styling since he was very young, has done a lot of live shows at house parties and clubs in Kentucky, Ohio and Michigan, but it wasn’t until he was 16 that he started to write his own music.

Basement Bhangra and Beyond

One could list other highlights—such as Nivla and P. Oberoi’s Superbowl Dorito contest and their recent Interscope Records distribution deal through iTunes. Or write about Kid Skilly’s smash record feat and the excitement generated by Jay-Z. Then there is Blitzkrieg, the Canada-based rapper who charted his last three singles on the BBC and got nominated for two U.K. South Asian Music Awards. Not least, New York-based DJ Rekha, who created a platform for much of the scene through Basement Bhangra, which she’s produced for over a decade, came out with her debut album through Koch Records.

Beyond the successes, though, there are also shortcomings. It wasn’t long ago that older and more successful musicians were scoffing at younger urban desi artists. The public did not welcome this new sound emerging from the South Asian community. There was much denigration from family and friends. To a certain extent, this criticism allowed these young artists to spruce up their act.

“My music has already got the interest of many people, but because I did not grow up around any South Asians, I’ve not had the opportunity to work with them or even know of the progress they’ve made in the industry,” Khil notes. “I feel like I should be a part of the scene because I want to earn the support of as many people as possible. I figure if I want to make it in the music industry, it’s best to first get the support of my own community.”

Raja Wilco, a familiar name in the hip hop scene, believes that our community has been welcoming up to a point. But he also asserts, “Artists have not really been supported as far as CD sales or even tour bookings are concerned. Promoters have to be willing to help expand this for the artists as well.” It’s obvious that improvements need to me made. Many artists have faced instances when people say, “We’ll book you but only if you perform for free.” Some artists are trying to do music as a full-time career, but how can they do that if a promoter will ‘book’ them but not pay for them to perform! It’s because “everyone’s lazy,” according to The Bliz. “No one wants to work for it. Labels need to stop focusing on quick returns and invest in artists that make great music.”

In the U.K., they have the BBC Asian Network, which shows constant support to desi artists by playing their songs and doing live interviews with them and their producers. There are even monthly melas where local desi artists perform and everyone has a good time. Here in the U.S., it seems as if desi radio stations only want to play the big names, although there is so much emerging talent in the local desi music community.

Many think this flawed situation exists because of the way artists and producers present themselves and their music.

“Number one, the quality of the music production is not always there,” Wilco says. “I don’t mean the talent necessarily, but the level of mixing the music and mastering is not at an ‘industry’ (mainstream) level. As far as talent is concerned, we desis do have a lot of it, but somehow, as was the case with DJs at one time, the not-so-talented bunch with the proper funding and connections seem to come out on top.”

Nobody ever said that getting into any industry was easy. It has always been about whom you know and where they’ve been.

They See only Desi

“One of the biggest flaws I see in other South Asian hip hop artists is the stereotypes and labels they place on themselves,” says Khil. “I’ve heard from numerous artists claiming that it’s hard coming up because no one can look past their ethnicity, people can’t take them seriously as a rapper, and they only look at them as another Indian kid—but in reality, these artists’ music revolves around their ethnicity and race. They incorporate choruses sung in Hindi, even giving shout outs to all the Punjabis, Gujaratis, etc.”

Khil elaborates on this contradiction. “Now don’t get me wrong. I support the movement they’re making 100 percent. I like the mixes and the different songs they’re doing and I definitely give them their props. But if that’s what you’re doing, then don’t complain about people not looking past your ethnicity. How are they supposed to look past your ethnicity when your music is, in essence, about your ethnicity? If that’s the music you want to get into, then be proud of what you do and realize what kind of fan base you’re going to attract. You’re not going to get a lot of white kids bouncing and waving their hands in the air shouting, ‘Bale! Bale!’ It just ain’t going to happen!”

So then, are we or are we not supposed to label ourselves South Asian artists? Maybe rappers shouldn’t label themselves ‘Indian rappers.’ Orlando-based rapper Ajaxxx believes that. “I just make hip hop,” he asserts. “I don’t consider myself doing urban desi or whatever.”

Well, if this is how artists feel, what about the South Asian community as a whole? There have been many times when elders in the community, deeply distraught by this music, exclaim, “What is this hip hop nonsense?” They’re happy if they see them in the typical role of a doctor, lawyer or engineer—something which is stable and not frowned upon by other family members and friends.

New Jersey-based Punjabi singer G-Deep sees another problem in the scene. “The main flaw is that South Asian artists don’t support their own desi artists. We need to encourage everyone to support the scene.” And that encouragement not only has to come from friends and family, but also from all members of the South Asian community. It’s easier than ever to buy this music from websites like Unfortunately, not everyone is open to the fact that kids from the desi community want to pursue a career in music.

The Bilz emphasized, “[It really] depends which generation. The elderly don’t quite accept the music art form as a career. So only a few will appreciate it, but the new generation is really receptive to this new genre. They’re growing up listening to it in their iPods. We also face a dilemma because our community is very Bollywood-driven, although since Bollywood is moving a lot towards an urban feel, it’s gaining more attention.”

When asked if he thought that the South Asian community was open to hip hop music, Kaly responded, “Certainly not. I’d say they’re receptive to R&B, but the minute the term ‘rapper’ is brought up, people scrunch up their faces. They’re just so incredulous that any person of South Asian descent could possibly have the hardships that they assume being a ‘rapper’ requires. I’d even venture to say that it is easier for a South Asian MC to get respect from black hip hop artists and fans than they can from South Asian ones.”

Diffusion through Fusion

Point noted! As stated earlier, Bollywood producers such as Shankar-Eshan-Loy are teaming up with young urban desi artists—such as Hard Kaur—to bring forth a different genre and sound to the ears of music enthusiasts. “Hip hop is a part of life,” G-Deep notes. “[You can fuse] it in so many different ways with South Asian music and still be liked. So the only way to change their perspective is to fuse it with desi music.”

The Bilz also states, “Once you set yourself up right, they will come knocking on your doors. We’ve already licensed ‘2 Step Bhangra’ (a song) for an animated Bollywood movie that features Firoz Khan, Fardeen Khan and Gulshan Grover. We also have Kashif appearing in a semi-Bollywood movie.”

Jay-Z, Nelly Furtado, Timbaland, Redman and Eric Sermon are just some of the many artists who have injected a South Asian “flavor” into the music; so why aren’t all the aunties and uncles getting up to dance when this music is played at parties? If mainstream artists are so hooked on working with South Asian talent, why haven’t many desi artists been listed on Billboard charts yet?

“Getting on Billboard isn’t only about talent; it’s also about marketing,” says The Bilz. “We’ve charted on Billboard and R&R charts for a remix we did. Master-D produced a track for an artist that reached number 14 on the U.S. Dance Billboard charts. So it’s all about working to make the moves!” And making moves is what this scene is all about! Punjabi singer G-Deep adds, “Desi artists such as Jay Sean definitely have the potential [to be on the charts].”

The Bilz asserts, “Well, U.K. artists like Jay Sean and Raghav have major potential and should have broken radio here with their last album, but I guess their label was scared to market their sound in North America. It’s all about believing in your artists and marketing them right.”

Having said that, there are desi artists who have had an impact in the mainstream. Kid Skilly recently recorded a track with R&B superstar Akon, and Jay Sean was the first South Asian artist to reach the number 1 spot on the U.K. Billboard charts with his hit single “Stolen.” New York’s top radio station Hot 97 seems to appreciate the music from our scene, since they’ve kept tracks by singing diva Thara on rotation. She’s collaborated with Fat Man Scoop and Fabulous; also, her album features heavyweights such as John Legend. At the end of the day, it’s all about making the right marketing moves, but that article can be for another time.

Unsurprisingly, some aren’t dumbfounded that desi artists haven’t really made it to the top. “It takes hard work to make it in this industry,” Khil points out. “South Asians are definitely making their mark and coming up in the game. It’s only a matter of time before we’re listed on the top charts.”

For making it in Hollywood, it’s evident that ‘sex sells,’ but what about music? Is it the ‘look’ or the ‘voice’ that counts more? Or is it a bit of both? The Bilz think that having the right look and the perfect voice “are both important. These days, only talent doesn’t cut it. Major labels don’t have time to develop artists; they want to market, put you out and sell records.” And unfortunately, that is what this industry has come down to. Khil doesn’t dispute that. “I think that in this game you have to have the complete package. Your music has to be the best it can be, and you have to look the part, talk the talk, and walk the walk. If you can’t bring it all, then you shouldn’t bring anything.”

But that doesn’t mean one should be discouraged from pursuing a career in the music industry. “Never stop grinding until you reach your goal,” Khil advises. “Be the best you can be. Be true to yourself. Don’t try to be something you’re not. Keep it real all the way.”

The Bilz agrees. “Stay focused, stay humble and keep working on your craft.” As Kaly notes, “There’s far too many people in this business that have no clue what they are doing and they will try and run you and turn you into something you’re not. You get one shot at this and there’s no point in letting somebody else live through you.”

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