Yashraj Mukhate was done. He promised himself that the video he was uploading, a snippet of amusing dialogue set to a homemade beat, would be the last of its kind. It wasn't that the views weren't coming in, quite the opposite — he'd been getting more traction on these mashups than any of his previous videos. Still, he'd made 10 so far and was ready to move on, maybe create some acapella versions of songs or compose original music. He hit upload on 'Kokila Ben' and went back to work.
You know what happened next.
Mukhate hit 50,000 Instagram followers by the end of the day and crossed 1 lakh by the next. Within a week, his YouTube subscribers went from 6,000 to a million. But once the excitement of watching his follower count rise with each tap of the refresh button faded, the pressure set in. Mukhate knew he had to put something else out, and fast. "I didn't want people to think I was a one-hit wonder," he says. "I made a few dialogue mashups during that week but you could tell that those were very mechanical, that they didn't happen organically." He gave it two weeks and then posted a 42-second clip of comedian Zakir Khan's standup set to a keyboard beat. It now has 12 million views.
In the seven months since, he's crossed 4.5 million YouTube subscribers, collaborated with brands like Tata Sky, Wakefit and Cadbury, and been a guest on talent hunt show L'il Champs. Last month, he found his next big viral hit in 'Pawri Hori Hai', a 40-second accordion remix of Pakistani influencer Dananeerr Mobeen showing off her car and party, which now has 57 million YouTube views. Hours before this interview, he returned to Aurangabad, where he lives, from Mumbai, where he picked up the Mirchi Trendsetter of the Year Award.
Mukhate doesn't seek out amusing clips to set to music, like most would assume. He usually works in reverse, creating a bank of beats that he can retrofit snatches of dialogue into. Sometimes he'll spot videos on Facebook meme pages — like the Kokilaben and Pawri clips — and download them if he thinks they have musical potential. If they don't mesh well with the beats he already has, he identifies the hook line ('Yeh rashi thi'/'Pawri hori hai') and listens to the video on loop until its rhythms suggest a new beat. He works quickly, composing the track, shooting the video and editing it within a day.
The 25-year-old composer began developing an ear for music early on. His father, a businessman, would sing and play the keyboard at home. Mukhate, who grew up listening to him, eventually joined in. The two would share a keyboard, with his father teaching him chords and scales. "Initially, I'd play with just one hand before I learnt how to coordinate playing with both. When I learnt that, dad bought me my own keyboard in Class 8, as a 'graduation' present," he says. He then began trying to replicate songs he knew, recording himself and comparing that to the original to figure out his mistakes. "That's how I learnt before the internet," he says.
When his family did get an internet connection, Mukhate had just finished school and was proficient in the keyboard by then. He turned his bedroom into a makeshift studio, getting a Windows PC and downloading free trial versions of software to figure out how tracks were produced. He had one pair of Seinheiser headphones and a mic, which a friend helped him figure out how to get up and running.
"It was horrible," Mukhate says of his early days. "It was a very, very slow learning process. I used to record myself on my phone and then listen to it on the speakers and the sound quality was terrible, especially compared to the original song. The software wasn't great and the recordings had a lot of noise. I sounded terrible. It was a long process of trial and error and figuring out what to change." When he got stuck using the software, he'd Google it and hope to find solutions.
Mukhate's first YouTube video, uploaded in 2011, is a cover of Green Day's 'Wake Me Up When September Ends'. He shot it with a handicam placed at the other end of the room. The footage is grainy, but the player's talent, undeniable.
As he put out more covers, his audience began to grow as friends and family members shared his videos. Soon, he began getting invites to play at local events and birthdays. He'd show up with his keyboard, stay a few hours and earn Rs 5,000 for his work.
His mother was supportive, but encouraged him to pursue an engineering degree so he'd have a plan B. Mukhate saw her point and enrolled at Singhad College, Pune. "I never liked going to college," he says. "Somehow, I still managed to complete six years of engineering by studying my ass off." Once the day was done, he'd travel back home, 40 km away, to spend at least two hours practising the keyboard. In between, he also learnt to play the guitar ("not that well") and the accordion ("easy once you know the keyboard"). Two years ago, he spent 15 days learning the flute from a local music teacher.
Mukhate's first flash of viral fame came in 2016, when a cover of 'Channa Mereya' he'd uploaded got 23,000 views on Facebook. A few brands asked him to create jingles for them and a local radio station asked him if he'd do voiceover work. By then, he'd learnt the importance of investing in better equipment. "I would watch other YouTubers and try to figure out how their videos looked so good — what kind of lights they were using, how to manage without a light, what camera the video was shot on," he says. While most of his videos are self-shot, Mukhate's mother and sister helped out on 'Channa Mereya', holding the lights out of frame. The video's track shot was achieved by his mother placing the camera on a toy car and dragging it forwards.
After completing his degree, Mukhate moved to Mumbai on the advice of friends. "Everyone in Aurangabad would say: You sing so nicely, why are you here? Go to Mumbai and become a musician. I got influenced by them," he says. The dream was short-lived. Expecting to assist a producer or music director and learn the craft in a formal way, he found that that did not materialize. Friends who were working at studios and had promised to help him didn't follow through. His own music suffered — his cramped Vile Parle apartment was too small for him to set up a studio and record new tracks. After a few months of holding out hope and spending too much on rent, he returned home. That same day, the makers of Marathi TV show Year Down asked him to compose its background score.
Mukhate has no plans to return to Mumbai. "Everything happens online now," he says. To illustrate his point, he talks about collaborating with Vishal and Rekha Bhardwaj on the acapella track 'Insaaf' in January — the couple recorded their portions while in Mussoorie and he sent over his from Aurangabad.
For the past three years, the composer has had the same daily routine. He wakes up, eats breakfast and then heads to a local studio. First, he completes all his freelance work, the branded content and jingles he has to deliver to clients, and then he spends the rest of the day tinkering with his instruments and coming up with new beats. He takes a break once, to go home and eat lunch, and then returns. Everything in a Yashraj Mukhate video, from the concept to the audio mixing to the editing, is something he's done himself, a fact he's particularly proud of.
Since the Kokila Ben video went viral, he's hired an agent and has a friend read and respond to his emails. His parents, earlier familiar with just Facebook, have now learnt to use Twitter and Instagram and update him on his views and send him comments they think he should reply to.
If there's one regret that he has, it's that viral success has come at the cost of his original plans. "There was pressure from people who wanted me to only make the same type of videos," he says. I've been juggling jingles, branded content and these meme songs. Everything happened so fast over the past year that I haven't found the time to make original music."
Sometime this year, the composer plans to put out an album of original songs, which "will hopefully have more longevity than these 45-second videos." He's finished composing two and has written two more. He's also met with a few Hindi film directors, though he declines to name them, and is currently in talks to compose a title song for a web series.
Can Mukhate separate the content creator in him from the musician? He doesn't think so. "As a musician, the only one way to get work is to become a content creator. You have to put out videos so people can see them and want to give you work. You can't store them in your computer and expect people to know how good you are," he says.