strike (a hard surface) with a series of rapid audible blows, especially in order to attract attention.
“he stood up and rapped the table”
|synonyms:||hit, strike, bang, thump, knock|
talk or chat in an easy and familiar manner.
“we could be here all night rapping about spiritualism”
It is a conversation. It is an audible blow. It is easy and familiar. It demands attention. Rap is older than Eminem and Missy, Hard Kaur and Honey Singh. It dates back centuries, as West African & Caribbean storytellers, beat on their traditional drums, matching their words to their rhythms to create a hypnotic narrative about their lives and land. In India, it is embedded in oral traditions like Andhra’s burrakatha, where gypsies beat on skull-like drums or villupaatu of Tamil Nadu, where stories are told (and sang) to the rhythmic twang of bowed instruments.
When we first opened the Khirkee Recording Studio, we didn’t expect rap to emerge as the most popular mode of self-expression and performance. We waited for singers or perhaps a comedian to walk in. Yet, week after week we saw a steady stream of rappers begin to trickle in, all of them young men. It was rappers like Mic Killer who wanted to test out their original material, who returned again and agin to diligently review and improve on their verse. It was the prodigiously-gifted Ravi, who used our tiny space to not just create one of our most popular videos but to soak in creative energy from fellow rappers and musicians. It was Khirkee 17, a hip-hop/B-boy group, that brought its local star power into our space. It was Yves, whose impromptu performance gave us seering insight into his country’s colonial history and how that anger still runs like blood through his veins.
Then in the sweltering heat of the studio, we began to have experiences that impacted the project and us beyond the performance.
Rap battle: Ravi vs Mic Killer
The battle began in a lighter vein with plenty of camaraderie in the room. Soon enough, it took a more competitive turn as the rappers found their feet. Both had something to prove: Mic Killer wanted to follow in the best tradition of his hip-hop idol – ‘8-mile’ Eminem. Ravi’s spontaneous verses brought the streets of Khirkee into our studio, with all its grit and rage. Mic Killer invoked Britney Spears as a marker of his Hollywood ‘swag’. Ravi slammed back – Do you think these streets don’t know who Spears is?!
To us in the audience, it was more than just a battle of verses. It was a tug-of-war for acknowledgement as artists and truth-tellers. It also seemed like a tussle between Khirkee’s English speaking world and that of Hindi & Bhojpuri. As the battle approached a climactic high, the scales tipped clearly in favour of one of the rappers. Just then, Ravi broke the tension with an impish grin, rounding off his rap with a decisive ‘yehi hai life, real!’. There was no harm, no foul as the two warriors laid down their arms and extended a warm handshake against the backdrop of whoops & applause. We’d not only witnessed an honest-to-god spontaneous throw down but also an exhilarating show of sportsmanship.
By the time Mendes Baba introduced himself to us in the street, we’d already experienced the rap of Khirkee 17, Ravi, Mic Killer and Yves. Their original material opened a window to their lives and allowed us a glimpse of their truth. Mendes Baba too had original rap songs in Bhojpuri and Hindi, yet they were markedly different from what we’d recorded so far. They had the macho, ‘big-bucks’ swag of Honey Singh or Badhshah, revolving around cars, shopping, discos…and violent misogyny that included revenge scenarios. Admittedly, the women who run the studio were not impressed! But, he returned next week to review his recordings and get feedback. The session evolved into a wider discussion about his rap, the discomfort it created amongst us as women and the deeper implications of what he was trying to express. The conversation forced both sides to introspect about where the lyrics came from and how they made the listener feel. At one point, Mendes Baba exclaimed that if his rap was creating a stir before it was even distributed to the outside world, what would happen once the public heard it? The conservation carried on well after the shutters of the studio came down, extending to how we curate material for our YouTube channel and what kind of discretionary limits we might or might not apply to distributing the recordings. Above is a harmless rap in Bhojpuri of a Bhojpuriya’s journey from his village to Delhi, and his conversations with his loved one 🙂
Aged 14, Dean Swag is the youngest to rap in our studio. He has begun to write his original compositions but decided to cover a Badshah track called ‘Inception’. The performance, hiccups and all, was very well received and for me it was even more of a joy, having known him since he was 12 through the Community Library Project close by. At first, he began unaccompanied but was soon joined in by musicians Romeo (you might recognize him from here) and Zoom who provided impromptu background percussion. The studio was buzzing with collaborative energy between mature musicians and young turks, with Dean Swag soaked it all in. Then came time for his friend, Lavish to perform. This teenager chose a song that left the adults (who understood Hindi) quite rattled. The rap (a cover of a song by the rapped Li’l Golu) was about the aftermath of a party, flush with binge drinking, hangovers and women lying in their own vomit. As soon as he finished, our first question was: Have you ever experienced this situation first hand? He replied yeah, sure, he knew women who had done that. We asked, only women? He admitted no, not just women. We took a pause to take in that nugget of information delivered by this young man, no, child.
This session was memorable for other reasons too. Romeo delivered valuable lessons to the boys about confidence being the hallmark of a good performer. And the phone-editing collaborative process had everyone leaning in to create a dark & atmospheric video that is now Dean Swag’s debut as a bonafide recording artist.
You might have already seen Yves’ rap, if not do read my earlier blog article on it above! All in all rap has led to many explorations in the Khirkee Recording Studio. It has become a conduit for the larger issues that occupy our locality. Youth angst and rage of the oppressed, tension between English-speaking and vernacular worlds, head-on engagement with misogyny, class conflict and the unsettling prospect of teenagers straining towards adulthood with an incomplete understanding of the world. Throughout it all, the spoken word, rhythmic explosions and poetic collaborations of our rapping community continue to reveal Khirkee in a way that non-rap musical performances haven’t done so far. Rap has acquired a life of its own in the studio so much so that the principal artist, Swati also found herself drawn by its grip. Check out the video of one of our regular performers Mic Killer tutoring her on how to express yourself through a rap song using an original composition of his!
– Purnima Rao, collaborating artist at the Khirkee Storytelling Project