Kerala rappers spit bars, break into mainstream with a bang

In a two-part series ‘Rap Gods of Kerala’, Onmanorama explores the emerging hip-hop scene in Kerala

Kochi: Kerala has caught the hip-hop fever. Just like how there was a shift to OTT post-COVID, Malayali’s taste in music also underwent a monumental shift. While the underground music scene in the south was alive and thriving for over a decade, it took a pandemic for the Southside subculture to take off in Kerala.
If the trends are anything to go by, the hip-hop scene in Kerala has begun its ascent to the top of Indian music. According to Rolling Stone, Malayalam music is the world’s fastest-growing category from India on Spotify. New stats from the streaming platform say that consumption of releases from Malayalam artists has grown over 5,300 per cent.

The album of the blockbuster movie ‘Aavesham’, composed by Sushin Shyam in collaboration with almost entirely hip-hop artists, was ranked third on Spotify GLOBALLY! A week ago, Dabzee, who is the face of Moplah rap and Malayalam rap in general, crossed one million followers on Instagram. Ocha, a festival exclusively for hip-hop, saw over 4,000 people attending the event. So fan or not, Malayalam hip-hop has arrived and is here to stay.
Names like Street Academics, Fejo, Hanumankind, Dabzee, Baby Jean, Thirumali, Vedan, Marthyan and MC Couper ring a bell even for the uninitiated. Interestingly, Raftaar, who is a household name in Desi hip-hop, is a Thiruvananthapuram native whose real name is Kalathil Kuzhiyil Devadasan Dilin Nair.

‘Rap has always been part of our cultural fabric’
The association with rap had been mostly on and off for the Keralite. A R Rahman’s cult classic ‘Pettai Rap‘ (Kaadhalan), which had the talent of Suresh Peters behind it, was probably the first time a rap song featured in an Indian movie. Jassie Gift shook up the music scene when he rapped an intro for ‘Lajjavathiye‘, a banger for generations, in the 2004 movie ‘4 the People’.

Kochi-based rapper Fejo says rap has been a part of our cultural fabric for a long time. “If we take certain proverbial sayings or poems of Malayalam and add a 4×4 beat to it, that could be interpreted as rapping. Rap is nothing but rhythm and poetry. Ottan Thullal songs raised prevalent socio-political questions. From that perspective, Ottan Thullal can be seen as the oldest form of rap to have existed in Kerala. Moplah songs are another example. Mappilapattu has always had a certain pace to its rhythm and rendition, which can be interpreted as a rap flow. When the internet became accessible to all, this part of the world was exposed to the Western idea of hip-hop. Gradually, when we started blending Western flavour with our cultural references, it found takers and became popular here too”.

Arjun aka Imbachi of Street Academics, the first hip-hop collective in Kerala, says the credit for the first-ever Malayalam rap song goes to Haris Saleem aka Maplah, another member of Street Academics.
“Haris is a political rapper. Over a decade ago, he, along with Muhsin Parari and the late Mamukoya, collaborated on two political rap videos – Native Bapa and its sequel Funeral of a Native Son, which was a tribute to Rohith Vemula (a PhD scholar whose death sparked protests across India), as part of the album Mappila Lahala. But many say it was our song ‘Vandi Puncture‘ that kickstarted the hip-hop movement in Kerala. However, tracks like ‘Rest in Peace’ and ‘Mappila Lahala’ existed before it,” he said.

He also said a lot of Malayalam rap is influenced by Tamil hip-hop. “Artists like Yogi B, part of the Tamil-Malaysian rap group Poetic Ammo, are our biggest influence. We didn’t have anybody to look up to in Malayalam. Till then, we had spoof rap songs like ‘Neela Bucket‘ or ‘Pettai Rap’. I think it is Street Academics who made that clear distinction between hip-hop being a spoof genre and a serious art form in Kerala.”
Imbachi said ‘text battles’ were how hip-hop existed in its early days in India. “Before Facebook blew up, there was a time when Orkut and MySpace were the only social media networks available. In Orkut, there used to be a group called Insignia where rappers like Divine (on whose life Gully Boy is loosely based) Brodha V, Maplah and Azuran (another member of the collective) used to text battle. There were no voice or video calls back then, so text battling verses was how the hip hop scene existed in its early days.”

Even when rap has become a rage, Fejo says there was a time when they used to think Malayalam rap wouldn’t be as effective as Tamil rap because of the difference in flexibility of the languages. However, Imabchi says, rappers like Fejo, Thirumali, MC Couper and Street Academics changed that narrative with their content.

Covid and Gully Boy
When the world halted, rap music got a move on in Kerala. The Covid-induced lockdown saw a lot of artists finding their voice and creating fresh content.
“For me, I got some time to write. Everything was just condensed within the four walls of our household. It allowed me to find ways to express myself,” says Sooraj, an English rapper from Malappuram who goes by the name Hanumankind in the hip-hop circuit.
Imbachi believes ‘Gully Boy’ did the trick more than lockdown. “The scene in the north was already flourishing when Gully Boy came out, with rappers like Divine and Naezy at the top of their game. The movie did a lot for rap in India in pushing it to the mainstream. Of course, the lockdown did help. Artists like MC Couper, Marthyan and myself used to jam a lot during the lockdown. We even came out with individual tracks during this period,” he says.

A launch pad
Suhail Backer, director of ‘Manavalan Thug’, the viral song that made Dabzee a household name, says the Para Hip-Hop Music Festival 2020, organised by the Kochi Music Foundation, of which Aashiq Abu is a part, was a huge launch pad for a lot of the artists. “For artists like Dabzee and Marthyan, Para was tremendous exposure. As someone who associated with the event closely, I know how the show proved to be a break for a lot of these artists,” says Suhail.
Aashiq Bava, executive director of Saina Music Indie, one of the partners of Ocha Music Festival, feels ‘Manavalan Thug‘ from Thallumala was an indication of the winds starting to change in Kerala in terms of the music being consumed. “The track, which was identified as a Tovino Thomas song, later came to be known as a Dabzee song. That was a sign of people starting to link the song to the artist,” he says.

Politics or perspective?
The artists do not subscribe to the common notion that rap songs should always have a moral at its heart. Hanumankind, who picked up his love for hip-hop music during his high school days in the US, says that is a huge responsibility.
“I would not like to box myself as an artist who only talks about social issues. Yes, I have touched upon it. But I do that sort of content only when I feel strongly about it. Rap doesn’t have to be only about social commentary or politics. I enjoy listening to music that has substance and it speaks on certain values, issues and topics. But that’s my preference. If someone forced me to do only that kind of music, that would be a big no,” he says.

Fejo too believes rap is not just a political tool and that it is always based on the artist’s perspective. “For rappers like Vedan, socio-political commentary is the soul of his music. Dabzee brings his lived experiences and Malabar influences into his content. When I rap, there will be a lot of Kochi in it as I am from there. Art gets acceptance only when we blend it with our culture,” he says.

Wider acceptance, but still a youth genre?
Though there is wider acceptance for hip-hop, it still seems like a genre for the youth. Fejo says there is a certain speed that drives this generation. Everything needs to be in a ready-to-consume form for them. “There is a generational shift in how we enjoy and relate to content. Back in the day, metaphors and figures of speech made up the majority of songs in Malayalam. If a man wanted to express his love for a woman, he would sing ‘Chakravarthini ninakku njan ente shilpa gopuram thurannu’ (Chembarathi – 1972). Please don’t get me wrong. That was and still is beautiful. Today’s generation likes it to the point and much simpler, but that does not mean rap is devoid of world plays and rhyme schemes,” says Fejo.

Imbachi says holding the attention of the viewer is key. “The shift is visible in the length of the tracks coming out these days. Three minutes is the sweet spot.”

Divide blurs
With composers like Sushin Shyam and Vishnu Vijay coming into the picture, the divide between underground music and mainstream music has blurred. ‘Aavesham’ had nine tracks, of which at least four had independent artists, including Hanumankind, MC Couper, Malayali Monkeys, Paal Dabba, Dabzee and Sreenath Bhasi, collaborating with the composer.
“Hip-hop has been making some noise and though it’s been a relevant form of music worldwide for a long time, the genre hasn’t had its time in Malayalam music and now it is and everybody is milking it. The Aavesham album, which collaborated with independent artists for the majority of its tracks, was number three in the world, only below Taylor Swift. Imagine what that does for our artists in terms of exposure,” says Hanumankind.

However, he is concerned about the art losing integrity with increased exposure. ”Some artists change their voice after getting exposure. Of course, artists should evolve and it’s cool if they find it on their own. But some change their sound to make the best of what’s popular and trending at the moment, which is sad,” he adds.
Imbachi believes the community has gotten wider acceptance because of the exposure it got through mainstream music. “For Street Academics, that song was ‘Pambaram‘. When the YouTube channel ‘Karikku’ team used the track in one of their web series, it went viral.” However, he says, while working in a movie, the director gives you a blueprint of what he wants for the movie, but when in the underground, it’s the artist’s call.

With mainstream welcoming rap music, shell time for artists has reduced. “Earlier, it was at least five years of being in the underground before an artist was noticed. Today, the shell time is a lot less. Ibnu Kopz, MC Mushti and Kavo, all of whom performed in the first edition of Ocha, are examples,” says Fejo.

Part 2 – How rappers made their way through reels and ready themselves for the global scene

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