After many years of being co-opted by rich NRIs based in London, Canada and the US, Indian hip-hop finally found new meaning a few years ago with what we now popularly understand as “Gully Rap.” Ranveer Singh-and Alia Bhatt-starrer Gully Boy – further breathed momentum into the asli hip-hop movement– with the rap song Apna Time Ayega from the movie becoming an anthem for fledging rappers. Suddenly, Gen Z in India was grooving to artistes like, Naezy and Divine – the most prominent artistes to have emerged from the “scene.”
For some, it might have been mind-boggling – how did impoverished, young guns from Mumbai’s slum manage to not only reclaim the hip-hop movement, but also rise to fame? But if you know even a little bit of hip-hop’s history, you would understand that this was natural progression. After all, hip-hop was born in America’s ghettos and the culture has been entwined with stories of struggle from day one.
It is no different with Dharavi United (DU), a hip-hop collective that represents several multilingual crews of hip hop from Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, in Mumbai. The collective, founded by Tony Sebastian (Stony Psyko) in 2017, features now-popular artistes, all of whom grew up on the grotty streets of Dharavi.
In conversation with LF, Sebastian lets us in on their collective musical journey, outlining how he, Rajesh Radhakrishnan (Dope Daddy) and Altaf Shaikh (Mc Altaf) joined forces with Yogesh Kurme (Yoku BIG), Siddesh Jammi (Sid J), Aditya Vatkar (Crack Pot), Nishant Mohite (Bonz N Ribz), David Klyton (Mr Scam), Abhishek Kurme (Beatslayer) and Nitesh Patel (Mc Notez) of 7Bantai'Z, whom you can catch live in action on the third episode of Mast Maharashtra, hosted by the ever-so effervescent Maharashtrachi mulgi and show host, Prajakta Mali.
The genesis of Dharavi United
Most of DU’s members belong to (what they call) the first generation of rappers from Dharavi. In a manner of speaking, artistes like Sebastian, Shaikh and Radhakrishnan, are like the big brothers of the mohalla. Sebastian echoes this when he says that young kids from Dharavi, aspiring to become hip-hop artistes, look up to them. The core sentiment behind DU, thus, was to help provide direction and guidance to the new clout of rappers. But the genesis of DU can be traced back to an exact moment.
“A few of us were playing a show together in Mumbai in 2017 and at one point, we were all performing together on the stage. The public reaction to it was like I had never seen before.” This, Sebastian says became the starting point for DU and they decided to join forces in a bid to support more up-and-coming talent from “the hood.”
Since then, DU’s members have been working with each other and new artistes to weed out the right sound designers, mixers, producers and studios and the ultimate goal, he reveals, is to consolidate DU into a music label of sorts - for, of and by Dharavi. “Right now, we are a crew and we try to teach younger artistes how to go about recording, mixing and shooting videos for their music, so that they don’t get lost in the way, but we’re trying to build our own studio eventually,” he adds.
Back to the basics
Their journey however, lacked the smooth and groovy rhythm that defines their music. “When I started out, many people tried to indicate that this [hip-hop] was not for me. It was hard for me to explain to my parents as well. But when I appeared on TV for the first time, alongside [popular Indian playback singer] Benny Dayal, for an award show, I still remember, it was 9 pm and the streets of Dharavi were empty because they were all watching me on TV,” Sebastian remembers, resonating the emotions of many young artistes from Dharavi pursuing hip-hop today.
For most of them, the story begins with a phone. Sebastian says that the pandemic has somehow catapulted them back to those first few years. “It has been a difficult time for us, especially here in Dharavi, because so many youngsters in this locality are looking to pursue hip-hop as a career. So much so, that we have a school for hip hop here, called The After School of Hip Hop co-founded by Universal Music India and a digital firm called Qyuki, which was established by the late Sameer Bangara, who recently lost his life to a deadly accident in June. So, it’s a culture here. But in the past months, there have been no events, recordings or rehearsals,” Sebastian laments, adding that this is an additional challenge for artistes like him, and all other members of DU, considering that music is their full-time job. “We have been encouraging people to stay safe and not gather in crowds, so it won’t be correct for us to not follow the same,” he says, explaining why recording and shooting has been impeded.
As it were, Sebastian and team are now back to recording and shooting music on their phones in the absence of full-fledged music recording services. “It’s depressing, because it reminds you of those first few months…” he shares.
Give it up for Dharavi
Be that as it may, the pandemic hasn’t been able to dampen their spirit. Holed up inside their elbow-room homes, members of DU have been writing and composing like never before. “We have about 11 tracks ready and are planning to drop our debut album under the Dharavi United banner, called Straight Out of Dharavi.” Expect songs about life in Mumbai with a focus on the essence of Dharavi. Elaborating on this, Sebastian says, “Dharavi is like any other locality in Mumbai, but still when you mention the place people seem to have misconceptions and assumptions about people from here.” The idea is to offer a glimpse of what Dharavi is all about.
But what is Dharavi really? Sebastian says, “It’s a city of its own. We have so many small-scale businesses out here, whether it’s leather, goods or eatables. Dharavi contributes heavily to Mumbai’s economy. It is a hub of tourism. In fact, it is the most visited place after Gateway of India. Even an idli vendor who travels to South Mumbai provides a service to Mumbaikars, and yet, its people are neglected by the authorities. It’s hard not to talk about these things.”
At the heart of collectives like DU and 7Bantaiz, or the music emerging out of Dharavi, lies the desire to be perceived in a new light, stripped off preconceived notions or simply put. There's a longing to be heard. Well, what better way to do that than through music.
Image: Dharavi United