For decades, hip-hop in India existed only in the shadows. The small community — comprised of B-boys, graffiti artists, and battle rappers — traded bars over an old messaging platform called Orkut. Initially, mainstream artists released anthemic party starters, which were used mostly as a tool to effect certain scenes in Bollywood movies. Acts like Raftaar and Yo Yo Honey Singh were never really taken seriously; they were often known as a parody. It wasn’t until the relatively unknown Mumbai-based artists Naezy and Divine released their 2015 single "Mere Gully Mein" that hip-hop in India truly took off.
At the time of writing, the video for "Mere Gully Mein" ["In My Area"] currently sits at 28 million views on YouTube. Filmed in a neighborhood similar to where the two rappers (and millions of others) grew up, the song and video celebrate these low-income areas, instilling a sense of pride and belief. Mumbai, home to the rappers and the colossal Bollywood industry, threw open its doors and embraced it wholly. This led to the release of the Bollywood film Gully Boy last year.
A romanticized tale of Naezy and Divine’s lives and their success as artists, direct comparisons can be made to Eminem-inspired 8 Mile. Gully Boy raked in over $38 million globally, making it 2019’s highest-grossing Bollywood movie overseas. The soundtrack became a viral sensation, heard blasting out of taxis and stores across the country. The movie propelled the genre to even further heights, firmly cementing it as a mainstream success.
Now, there are hip-hop focused festivals, labels, and parties all over. This wasn't a direct result of the film, but Gully Boy certainly helped push a genre that was anticipating a seismic moment. With India currently embroiled in protests, coupled with some of the more divisive policies the government has enacted, hip-hop has become a vital form of demonstration. Though some of its early players (most notably Naezy and Divine) have moved away from the genre’s dissenting, working-class beginnings, there is a young crop ready to take their place.
Here are 10 Indian rappers you need to know:
Arguably India’s best rapper at the moment, Prabh Deep’s debut album Class-Sikh, released in 2017, became a marker for Indian hip-hop. It was a seminal project that weaved political rhymes with club-ready production. On the album, rapped entirely in Punjabi, the New Delhi-based artist wore his heart on his sleeve, discussing the pitfalls of drug addiction, losing friends, and jail, all the while growing up as a Sikh in a Hindu-majority country.
His visceral lyrics were laid on top of some of the best production the subgenre has seen, courtesy of Sez on the Beat. Prabh's ear for pulsating beats, coupled with his storytelling ability, has led to festival appearances and international shows, as well as garnering a loyal fanbase both in India and abroad. His latest EP K I N G is more pared-back and soulful while retaining a sense of political activism, showing that it’s hard to pigeonhole the young artist.
So many of the best rappers carried within them a silent rage at the injustices they witnessed growing up. For rising artist AHMER, growing up in Kashmir (one of the most volatile regions in the world) filled him with unparalleled anger. In a short time, he has learned to control and wield this through his music. AHMER’s debut album, Little Kid, Big Dreams, released last year, was simultaneously a critique of the Indian government and an exploration of his identity as a Kashmiri living in a country that continually oppresses, marginalizes, and disregards his people.
The project dropped mere weeks before India announced a communication blockade in Kashmir. Ahmer went home almost instantly, returning a few months later to find that he had shot to prominence: his music was the soundtrack of protests. His new mixtape Inqalab, released at the tail-end of last year, was an honest portrayal of what he had witnessed in Kashmir under the blockade. Ahmer’s future looks exciting, with a potential far surpassing many of those in the industry.
The Northeast of India, comprised of the so-called Seven Sister States, has always had a ferocious outpouring of artists. This particular area has been damaged by the country’s government since its independence in 1947. Solid acts like Kingdom Culture and Borkung Hrangkhawl have kept the Northeast’s flag flying high, but newcomer Meba Ofilia is arguably one of the most exciting artists the entire region has produced.
The Meghalaya star first started making waves in 2016 with her first single "Done Talking," showcasing her skills within R&B and hip-hop. But it was her recently released single "The Journey" that truly showcased the potential she possesses. Switching between Khasi (her native tongue) and English, her arresting lyrical ability proves that her decision to drop out of law school and pursue music full-time was a good one.
Swadesi is a hip-hop crew and community from Dharavi, Mumbai. Their numbers can swell to over a dozen, comprised mostly of graffiti artists, DJs, and MCs. Their unofficial leader MC Mawali always manages to shine. Imagining a sensitive, gender-equal society, Mawali has always stood out in an often misogynistic genre and country.
This outlook, alongside a realistic depiction of what it’s like to grow up in one of the world’s largest slums and his criticisms of the Westernization of Indian culture, position Mawali as one of the more thought-provoking artists on the circuit. He’s found the ability to speak truth to power while rapping in English, Hindi, and Marathi, gaining a large following along the way. It feels like, at long last, Mawali is getting his just due.
Artists who rise to prominence in India are usually from major metropolises, namely the big three: Bengaluru, Mumbai, and New Delhi. Grinding in the corner for years are artists who are often ignored. Kerala-based ThirumaLi, though, has commanded attention. The rapper rose to prominence with his song "Malayali Da" and has since racked up hundreds of thousands of views on each of his songs, some of which have easily crossed a million.
Being away from major cities has allowed ThirumaLi to develop a style of his own. Note the fast-paced rhymes he employs throughout his work: words fall into one another like puzzle pieces over staccato drums and screwball hi-hats. ThirumaLi can create both melodic, slowed down songs, as well as thought-provoking fast-paced anthemic trap beats, allowing him to appeal to an audience that spans every corner of India.
Smokey the Ghost
Seen as an elder statesman in the Indian rap scene, Smokey the Ghost has been an integral part of the Indian hip-hop community since 2006. His socially-conscious rhymes may not be to everyone’s liking, but what makes his music so engrossing is the lack of formula that underpins each of his albums. Equal parts satirical, goofy, and cocky, Smokey manages to artfully toe the line so it never feels like what he’s doing is pontificating, but rather educating.
Smokey’s most notable release is arguably his latest, The Human Form, as it re-introduced him to a generation suddenly aware of and excited by Indian hip-hop. Though he may not be the most commercially successful rapper on this list, the former evolutionary biological scientist has seniority in the game and has managed to stay consistent while others have fallen by the wayside.
Comprised of Encore and Calm, Seedhe Maut is a New Delhi-based duo who are bona fide stars in the making. Razor-sharp, incisive lyrics spat in both Hindi and English (over infectious production) made Seedhe Maut sparkle the moment they announced themselves to the industry. Label mates of both AHMER and Prabh Deep — all of whom are signed to the iconic Azadi Records — they're not in anyone’s shadow, but rather carving a path for themselves.
They're political, brash, and unafraid to voice their opinion where it matters most. Plus, they know how to start a party, exemplified by songs like "101," "Kyu," and "Shaktimaan." Their vivacious energy is ever-present in the way they bounce off each other in their live shows and on their debut album, Bayaan. Listening to Seedhe Maut, there’s a definite feeling that they’re going to dictate how the genre plays out over the next decade.
Last year, Park Circus released their eponymous debut album to critical acclaim. The eight-track record announced the Kolkata-based group — named after one of the city's neighborhoods — as a funk-centered, old school crew. Comprised of MC Azad, Joy Roy, National Animal, and DJ Vally, they’re often supported by Rohini Bhose in live performances.
Azad’s laid-back drawl is reminiscent of ’90s era flows, especially when he complements it with laughably dark verses. National Animal’s dense, off-kilter beats are remarkable, and considering how much of their work is melody-focused, their hard-hitting verses seem to penetrate better than they should. Park Circus' music offers an intriguing snapshot of India — a country in unrest — while showing glimpses of joy. Representing a famous city which many had decried as dying, Park Circus are keeping the idea of Kolkata as an artistic city alive.
A criticism that is fairly leveled at most hip-hop communities around the globe, and the Indian one in particular, is the lack of female or non-male representation. There are barely a handful of these artists in the Indian underground. Some, like Pulpy Shilpy, are too experimental to be classified as a rapper, which made Siri’s arrival on the scene a welcome one.
With "Live It," a self-directed and self-funded song and video, she demanded attention from the industry. Thanks to its theme of empowerment and its reveal of Siri's ability to rap across languages — English, Kannada, and Hindi — the song went viral. She oozes confidence with a blasé, nonchalant attitude that has already won over fans in both critics and the industry alike. With an upcoming five-track EP executive produced by the country’s most in-demand producer, Sez on the Beat, 2020 is hopefully the year Siri firmly takes over.
Another Kerala-based outfit, Street Academics are one of the oldest hip-hop groups in India. Having been around for over a decade, the collective defined the underground sound for years. The group's multilingual lyricism tackles difficult topics while expressing their identity, and they were one of the first to rap in a vernacular style.
Though their production has always been a bit lacking (a formulaic boom-bap sound), they manage to insert several other genres like lo-fi, folk, ambient, or R&B, always managing to rap over them with confidence. The group released their latest album Loop last year — long time fans will note that each album has a thematic output and is somehow loosely interconnected in an alternative universe that feels very much like our own.