The Indian rap scene is here to stay. The independent rap movement has had an explosive journey over the last few years with many standout artists with dedicated followings.
The latest attempt to further the cause of rap music in India is MTV Hustle, a new reality show aimed at finding and nurturing the next generation of rappers. The show features three judges in artists Nucleya, Raftaar and Raja Kumari (who also played one of the judges in the final rap contest in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy).
When the three sat down to talk to me about the show, there’s a genuine sense of camaraderie and comfort between them. They all seem proud to be a part of it, speaking with an almost child-like excitement about the world finally getting to see the talents they’ve discovered.
The three artists spoke to me about their hopes for the show, the impact of Gully Boy and why it’s an exciting time to be a rapper in India.
Being a great artist and performer vs being a judge who can recognise talent and provide great feedback are two very different skillsets. When you signed on, were you nervous about whether you’d be able to mentor and guide other artists?
Raftaar: I’ve had first-hand experience with it. For most of my life, I’ve been teaching, ranging from dancing to taking home tuitions. The only new thing was I’ve never taught anyone how to rap. So that came as a challenge.
Raja Kumari: For me, I came here with the intention of wanting to be a mentor for the youth of India. I wanted to make sure people saw somebody strong in that position. So when I was asked to be a part of this, I was like ‘this is what you were asking for.’ When I found out it was with Nucleya and Raftaar, then I was like yeah, I trust us to do the right thing and we have to do this for the people.
Nucleya: I think it happens with me kind of subconsciously. It’s part of my process where, if I’m making a sound with someone, I have to give them feedback in terms of their vocals. So I am guiding people, but I do it very subconsciously. I haven’t done it in a way where I have to sit formally on a panel of judges. So, I’m genuinely just listening and what I feel, I tell them.
When I heard about the show, I immediately pictured that scene in Gully Boy with the three judges as a part of the rap battle. What kind of impact do you think that film has had? Is it seen as a gamechanger for the rap and hip-hop scene?
Raftaar: It’s had a big impact. It reached the masses. It reached the mothers and fathers of kids who want to rap. And when they saw that this art form has a movie on it, they knew that means it’s big.
Raja Kumari: You know what’s so funny, even though my face is on this show and out there, my dad will still be like ‘You know you can still go back to medical school’. It’s a constant thing. So anything that can help Indian parents understand their kids as artists is important. I think it just introduced it to the masses in a way that was palatable for them to understand that rap music is art. And there were people who auditioned who were like ‘after Gully Boy I realised that maybe I could do it too’.
Raftaar: You’re now a surgeon of rap (laughs)
Nucleya: If you talk about other reality shows where the singers are supposed to sing songs which are composed by people in the past, those lyrics are written by someone else. With this show that’s not true. The nature of hip-hop is different. We ask them to be themselves. They write their own lyrics, they compose it themselves. This creativity needs to be nurtured and this should be replicated everywhere else with the other music reality shows where they’re talking about just singing. Don’t ask them to sing those songs. See where they come from, don’t cage their creativity.
Many reality shows get a bad rap because they’re far less about discovering the next generation and more about blind entertainment and putting on a show. How do you ensure this show makes a difference in supporting the scene?
Raja Kumari: We care about the music. We’re not on TV just to be on TV. This is a show that’s documenting us in the search to find the next artist. I know when we’re doing auditions, those are our real emotions. No one’s in our ear telling us who to pick and which person needs to get through.
Raftaar: Yeah, in all honesty, because I do another show as well (Dance India Dance) and that doesn’t happen to us there either. Because I’m a judge on a show where I’ve been a contestant, I used to think these guys get told what to do and it’s not the case. It really boils down to the judges. Because me, Bosco (Martis) and Kareena (Kapoor) throw a fit and put up a fight saying this is not done and it isn’t going to happen.
Nucleya you once said in an interview ’International artists have been coming to India and headlining shows for a long time now… I now see us slowly moving towards having our own Indian headliners. Indian music will have grown when International markets open their doors to Indian artists.’ Do you feel we’re closer to that now?
Nucleya: I have my own perspective on this, I could be wrong, and you can judge me, but I genuinely don’t give a fuck about it. I have to fix things here first before looking abroad.
Raja Kumari: I can speak for Indians that are growing up around the world that are coming home to India like me. Right now, India is a place of opportunity for music. I have multiple friends that lived abroad but decided to come back home again and I think that music is a powerful tool to combat many of the problems here. So we will see Indian artists at festivals worldwide. He’s (Nucleya) performed at EDC in Las Vegas. That’s like one of the biggest festivals ever. I’m going to be at Singapore F1 opening for The Red Hot Chilli Peppers. So, we are doing it. And there are many people abroad who are fans of Indian hip-hop. People are watching.
Is Bollywood still seen as a bad word for independent artists? Do you still need to be reliant on it today to reach a wider audience?
Raftaar: I’ve always told people a simple thing – Bollywood is an industry. It’s not a musical genre. It is a place where all genres can survive. And when you do independent stuff, if you don’t get noticed, you automatically blame it on Bollywood.
Raja Kumari: I always say that if they’re going to put rap in it, it’s better that we come in and do it rather than something that they find randomly that’s not going to represent us worldwide.
Nucleya: I can do so many songs in the film industry and I purposely don’t because I know the moment I start making music for them, there will be a lot of interference. And till it’s coming from someone in the creative space, then it’s still fine. But non-creative people taking those decisions is fucked up. All the songs in films that I have composed, my only thing to them is they have to use the song the way it is. I’m not going to change anything.
Raftaar: And now if you are able to create this unique sound for yourself, then these people come to you in a way that they want your stuff. They don’t want to tell you to do it in a different way. You give me your take.
Do you wish a platform like this show had existed back when you were just starting out?
Raftaar: No man. Then how would we become legends? I’m glad it all started with us because every time Indian hip hop will be remembered down the line, they’ll speak about us. That’s what we get to keep.
Nucleya: I don’t know, I mean if I can bypass ten years of my struggle, I would really appreciate it (laughs). But I feel like if a show like this existed back in the day, I would’ve had a much wider audience. Or at least the audience would have had more of an awareness and people like me would have bypassed years of struggle.