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Bridging the divide


Hip hop is becoming increasingly popular in India both as an art form and as a commercial tool.

Changing the hip hop landscape: BlaaZe

Hip hop may seem to be just a genre of music but it is important to remind ourselves how pervasive hip hop has become, not just in American culture but in the rest of the world. From its roots in New York in the 1970s, hip hop has evolved into a life style, commercial industry and art form.

It has seeped into African, Asian, West Asian and European contexts and has attained a resonance with young people from diverse racial, social, political and economic backgrounds over two generations.

Hip hop in India

India is no exception. Hip hop appeared in a variety of films including Hindi and Tamil. This has raised the profile of the music substantially.

Harris Jayaraj is a composer and has written many soundtracks for Hindi, Tamil and Telugu cinema. He is one of South India’s major film composers. According to Jayaraj, “We were pushed to come up with Indian melodies; now we are open to the global market…when I came into the industry it was ruled by bhangra, Indian melodies and disco.” Now, he says the music scene in Indian film is more versatile than before.

BlaaZe is a well known Indian rapper (born in Chennai but grew up in Zambia) who has contributed to a myriad of soundtracks for movies such as “Ah Aah: Anbe Aruyire”, “Bunty Aur Babli” and the recent Tamil hit “Sivaji: The Boss”. MTV India calls BlaaZe ‘India’s hottest rap star on the block’ and he offers insightful observations about hip hop in India. “With more sounds being created, the more awareness it brings and the more acceptance it gains.” He feels films are a good way to introduce people to the genre, yet “the ‘Yo Yo’ variety of party rap is being overdone now.’

‘Yo Yo’ rap is the most commercial type of hip hop. It shores up the worst stereotypes, has little to do with the art and more with partying than dissecting issues or events. BlaaZe’s diagnosis of Indian rap follows, “There are numerous kids who are into rap and hip hop, but they need to understand that imitating rappers in the West, with concern to the messages they bring, is not what will truly take us to the next level. Hip hop in India can only be justified if we do justice to the art form.” BlaaZe encourages other artists “to bring awareness to society…as Indians have so many issues like religion, arranged marriages, poverty, water crises etc.” BlaaZe seems to reaffirm the huge statement made in December by the acclaimed American rapper Nas, who on his latest release “Hip Hop Is Dead” rapped about the over-commercialisation of hip hop.

Ranidu Lankage is a Sri Lankan rapper based in New York but soon moving to San Francisco. He has been a pioneer in establishing and popularising Sinhalese hip hop and R&B in his home country. To date, he has released three albums and works with the producer Iraj Weeraratne. He says, “We try to blend styles but retain a South-Asian flavour.” He explains how the industry “has grown over the last four years (in Sri Lanka)” and, as a result, the “video quality has gone up”. Ranidu is confident that although the music “is big now”, it will continue “to grow”. But he says the industry has to progress further in terms of its infrastructure. In Sri Lanka, “You have to come up with your own promotion” and there is no proper “way to record the amount of sales. When you say no.1 in Sri Lanka, you do not mean the biggest song in sales but the most popular song requested on the radio”. There are further issues with copyright laws.

Open to experimentation

Ranidu has experience of hip hop in the U.S. and Sri Lanka. He thinks, “America is not as open to experimentation as the U.K, European or Australian markets.” He is sure the US is not ready for a South-Asian Eminem. BlaaZe agrees, “Experimentation… everyone is open to that. I think the deal with American rap is that it represents a way of life and a culture which is so eminent over there, whereas they do not really have a sense of the hip hop lifestyle in Asia; maybe it is not being as clearly expressed in the Asian raps…or as much as it should be.”

Another Sri Lankan rapper who has raised the profile of hip hop in his land but in Tamil is Krishan Maheson. Krishan’s debut “Taking You On A Journey Down Asian Avenue” is an impressive record with sound production complementing Krishan’s delivery. Krishan tackles the political and social issues in Sri Lanka. Arguably, his most heartfelt number is “J-Town Story” (produced by Iraj Weeraratne). In an interview for the website, he was asked, “Are you opposed to Sinhalese people?” He replied, “Absolutely not. I am just against the oppression of Tamils. ‘Asian Avenue’ talks about warfare, its aftermath and many other issues.”

It is not just strictly Indian or Sri Lankan artists who are having an impact in those markets. Jay Sean, a British-Indian R&B singer and rapper, released his debut “Me Against Myself” in the U.K in 2004. It brought him international fame and he sold very well in India. Three songs were chart toppers including, ‘Dance with You’, ‘Eyes on You’ and ‘Stolen’. His newfound status led to a cameo role in a Bollywood movie called “Kya Kool Hai Hum”. Sean does not have Krishan’s hard political edge, yet comparing his sound to Jay Sean’s shows the diversity of this ‘fusion’ music.

Jay Sean.

It is not just hip hop rappers or R&B singers tapping into fusion. The Bhangra star Jazzy B, who was born in Punjab and raised in Canada, has introduced hip hop into his music style. His most recent album “Romeo” features the American rap group ‘TakeOva Ent’. According to the album’s cover, he “clashes a Hip Hop/ Rap look with British-styled music background”.

From an American angle, the last time a major hip hop producer strayed into Indian territory was in 2002 when DJ Quik (working for Dr Dre’s Aftermath label) sampled “Thoda Resham Lagta Hai” by Hindi singer Lata Mangeshkar without permission for “Addictive”. Saregama India Ltd, the copyright holders, sued Dr Dre and Interscope Records for $500 million. “Addictive” was not the first R&B/Hip hop record to use an Indian sound in the U.S. but it was the first to generate controversy. The example is significant because it demonstrates the legal pitfalls hip hop can fall into as so much of it is sample-based. The question in the ‘Addictive’ case is when does sampling become stealing? Is there a clearly marked line between both or is it hard to tell?

Copyright issues

On the issue of production, Jayaraj says that he tries to make his own music instead of sampling. Nevertheless Jayaraj says, “I also want to influence other people and help make fresh sounds.” He also reaffirms Ranidu’s point about copyright laws. “Copyright in Asia is not so strict” compared to the U.K. He thinks, “60-70 per cent of material is pirated in South India including illegal downloads.”

Jayaraj emphasises, “We use hip hop for the drive, the energy behind the beat, not the rap.” He believes music, “needs freshness”; “you can take any platform you want but you need a strong melody line.” He says, “Indian music has the potential to outsell Western records.”

It is debatable whether or not this will happen but one thing is certain. Hip hop with its adaptability to commercial interests and artistic sensibilities has its own part to play in shaping and reflecting India’s changing landscape.

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