Dressed in baggy brown camo pants and a black hoodie, shoulder-length hair spilling out from under his baseball cap, Tony Sebastian, 27, looks like he’s just stepped out of a Snoop Dogg video, an impression that is only reinforced by the lit spliff in his right hand. It’s an overcast July afternoon, and we’re hanging out on the rooftop of a five-storey building in Matunga Labour Camp, just a few hundred yards from the outer fringe of Dharavi, Asia’s second largest slum, in Mumbai. In the far corner, a group of 18-20-year-old boys dressed in 1990s hip hop attire stand in a circle, listening attentively as one of their number spits out a verse he’d written the day before. In the background, a devotional song blares out from a temple loudspeaker, competing with azaan from a nearby mosque. “Yeh freestyle azaan hai," jokes Sebastian, who also goes by Stony Psyko, and forms one third of the Dharavi-based rap crew Dopeadelicz.

2018 has been a marquee year for the boys who, along with hip hop collective Slumgods and independent rappers like Rapture, are at the vanguard of Dharavi’s burgeoning hip hop scene. Just a few months ago, they were hanging out with actor Ranveer Singh and Zoya Akhtar on the sets of Gully BoyAkhtar’s forthcoming film based on the lives of Mumbai rappers Divine and Naezy, a project which some of them are involved in. With barely restrained excitement, they tell me about hotboxing in their vanity van and laugh about the bewilderment of the other junior artists on the set, who couldn’t figure out why “Ranveer bhai" was spending so much time with this ragtag band of stoners. In the middle of a tale about Singh’s attempts at freestyle rap, I catch Sebastian grinning like a proud elder brother as he casts his eyes over the group.

I first met Sebastian in the autumn of 2015, when film-maker Sachin Pillai and I spent three days shooting Dharavi Hustle, a 10-minute documentary on the infamous Mumbai locality’s emergent hip hop scene. That summer, Divine and Naezy, hailing from Kurla East and JB Nagar, respectively, had released Mere Gully Mein, an Urdu and Mumbaiyya slang-inflected celebration of working-class life in the city’s gullies. It racked up millions of views on YouTube and put the spotlight on the city’s underground rap scene. Intrigued, I was looking to dig further into Mumbai hip hop when a music writer friend suggested I check out what was brewing in Dharavi.

Tucked away in the slum’s narrow by-lanes, we discovered a thriving community of rappers, beatboxers, b-boys, and even a masked graffiti artist, going by the name Ganjaman, who took special pleasure in tagging (the act of writing your graffiti name) his pseudonym all over the area’s police chowkis. Led by Dopeadelicz and Slumgods, these young boys and girls—many of them still in high school—had taken the decades-old hip hop counterculture, forged in the racially and politically charged crucible of New York’s South Bronx in the 1970s, and made it their own. What their music lacked in sophistication and production polish, it more than made up for in its raw, perspicacious depiction of the realities of working-class life in the country’s biggest metropolis. Articulate and full of self-confidence, they spoke of hip hop not as a form of entertainment but as a vehicle for social and political change. And unlike rap scenes in cities like Delhi, Chennai or Chandigarh, the Dharavi hip hop movement was taking place right on the streets and laying down deep roots in the community. You couldn’t walk down 90 Feet Road—Dharavi’s main thoroughfare—without seeing pre-teens throwing crew signs, or stumbling upon a hip hop mural.

Tony Sebastian (left) and Rajesh Radhakrishnan of Dopeadelicz. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Tony Sebastian (left) and Rajesh Radhakrishnan of Dopeadelicz. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Three years later, that movement is knocking down the barriers of India’s cultural mainstream. Tamil film-maker Pa. Ranjith handpicked Dopeadelicz to write and perform four songs for his Rajinikanth-starrer Kaala, and the rap crew play themselves in the movie, which is set in Dharavi. Two of the members from 7Bantai’Z, another Dharavi crew, played the role of Tupac and Notorious B.I.G-obsessed rappers in the Anurag Kashyap-produced film Zoo. And the music video for Wassup, the debut single by Enimiez crew member Altaf Shaikh, aka MC Altaf, features a cameo by his new buddy Ranveer Singh.

“Earlier, they used to say that Dharavi is the heart of Mumbai," declares 18-year-old 7Bantai’Z member Siddesh Jammi, aka Lil Damn. “Now it’s the heart of Indian hip hop."

The Dharavi sound

In the early 2000s, rappers and hip hop crews started popping up all over Mumbai. These early pioneers would pen down rhymes and post them on online rap communities like Insignia Rap Combat, or perform at “cyphers", informal gatherings of rappers, beatboxers and breakdancers in city parks. They recorded their rhymes using cheap headset microphones, over beats stolen from the internet, and shared them with each other—and a small contingent of local rap fans—using platforms like Orkut and ReverbNation. In 2007, two Dharavi crews called Outlawz and Sout Dandy Squad started putting out songs that spread through the neighbourhood from phone to phone.

“Everyone in Dharavi thought making music was this really big thing," remembers Sebastian, who—like many Indians—was first introduced to hip hop through 50 Cent’s global hit In Da Club. “You had to go to classes, buy instruments, have access to studios. And then suddenly a guy from your neighbourhood has made and released a song. At home!"

Sebastian tracked down the Outlawz and convinced them to let him join the crew as a DJ. But just as they started making their presence felt in the city’s fledgeling rap scene with a string of performances at college events, one of the members quit. The Outlawz quickly fell apart.

“By then I had failed out of junior college," says Sebastian, the youngest of three siblings whose father works as a technician at the Cable Corporation of India Ltd.“But I didn’t want that failure to define me, so I started focusing all of my attention on hip hop." He teamed up with Rajesh Radhakrishnan, aka Dope Daddy, and Agnel Avinash Benson, aka Ben Z (currently working in Saudi Arabia), to form a new crew called Dopeadelicz. In 2012, they released their first track and music video, titled D-Rise, a somewhat amateurish attempt that suffered from being too heavily indebted to the sounds and stylings of American gangsta rap. “In the early years we were just imitating American rappers. They rapped in English, so we also rapped in English, even though our rhymes and accents were whack."

That changed when a local Ganpati pandal group approached Radhakrishnan later that year, and asked if Dopeadelicz would write a song for their pandal. The crew started writing in English, but quickly realized that it would be a much better idea to rap in Tamil, Malayalam, Marathi and Hindi, the languages that their audience were most comfortable in, while also incorporating the street slang they used in everyday conversation. Ganpati Bappa Moriyanu Sollu became a local sensation, earning the group invitations to perform at a number of neighbourhood pandals. “We’d walk down the streets and people would sing it back to us," remembers Sebastian. “That had never happened before. We realized that this was the right way to go."

Much like their contemporaries in other parts of the city and country, Dopeadelicz discovered that rapping in their mother tongues not only opened up their music to a wider audience, it also allowed them to explore new rhythms and vocal stylings. Their multilingualism—a reflection of the multicultural, demographically mixed sprawl that is Dharavi —only meant they had more to play around with. Tamil, Kannada, Marathi, each language brought with it its own unique rhythms, cadences and flow.

In 2013, Dopeadelicz released Aai Shapath Saheb (Me Navtho), a Marathi track based on the true tale of Sebastian being caught with a bag of weed by a local policeman, and his efforts to talk his way out of a night in the lock-up. The song quickly went viral, appealing not just to stoners but to anyone who’s had to deal with the overbearing arm of the law.

Aai Shapath Saheb also brought the crew to the attention of Qyuki, a new digital media platform started by musician A.R. Rahman, film-maker Shekhar Kapur and entertainment industry executive Samir Bangara. Impressed, Qyuki started working with the group to produce professional quality songs and music videos, including stoner manifestos Legalize It and Stay Dope Stay High. They also commissioned a short documentary on the group titled Dharavi Meets Hip Hop, and facilitated performances at the 2015 GiMA Awards and the YouTube FanFest the same year. That was followed up with an invitation to appear on MTV Coke Studio, where they collaborated with composer Ram Sampath on a track called Bharatiyar Trap Rap. Just a few years earlier, Sebastian was selling weed to his classmates to pay for studio time. Now, he was working with some of the biggest names in Bollywood.

Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

“Everyone in Dharavi saw us on TV back-to-back and they were going crazy, because apart from Abhijit Sawant, there weren’t any big musicians in the area," says Sebastian.

Aai Shapath Saheb did more than just launch Dopeadelicz’s professional music careers. It also made them local heroes in Dharavi, inspiring many younger boys and girls—including the members of 7Bantai’Z and Enimiez—to form their own crews and try and follow in Dopeadelicz’ footsteps, though curiously the girls are largely restricted to the breakdance scene. True to hip hop’s each-one-teach-one ethos, Sebastian and company took these aspiring rappers under their wing, freely sharing their knowledge of rap techniques and hip hop history, finding them gigs to perform at, and even helping them shoot their own music videos.

While Dopeadelicz songs focus on marijuana legalization advocacy and police troubles, crews like 7Bantai’Z, Dog’z and Enimiez use their music to tackle broader issues of corruption, crime and the ways in which local and state governments have failed Dharavi. They take inspiration from the likes of Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Nas, drawing connections between American inner-city ghettos and the slums of Dharavi.

“We can’t connect to Arijit Singh’s love songs, because that’s not our life," says 7Bantai’Z member David Klyton, aka Mr Scam. “Our lives are all about the daily hustle, hanging out on the street. Also, it’s very satisfying to be able to express my anger and frustrations through my rap. If I want to talk about something the government is doing wrong, I can’t go and speak to the chief minister or the prime minister. But if I rap about it, people will listen," says Klyton.

In January 2017, Dopeadelicz, Enimiez, 7Bantai’Z and artist manager Karan Amin, aka K9, teamed up to start Dharavi United, a new collective that provides an independent platform for up-and-coming Dharavi rappers. The initiative is financed by their earnings from gigs, appearances in Bollywood and regional film soundtracks and ad jingle work, as well as the profits from the small video production house that Dopeadelicz runs with a couple of their friends. Each crew is currently working on their debut mixtape, alongside a collaborative Dharavi United full-length album. “Collaboration will help us create new sounds, new styles of hip hop," says Sebastian. “We’re fusing hip hop with classical music, (Tamil folk form) gaana, rock and metal. This album will define Dharavi hip hop."

My next question is drowned out by a peal of thunder as the skies open up, drenching us all in the sudden downpour. Everyone runs to the building stairwell, huddling together in the narrow doorway. Despite the temporary discomfort, the energy and optimism of these young rappers is infectious. “My parents used to tell me that there’s no future in music, but we’ve proved that we can make it in hip hop," says Radhakrishnan. “My songs have gone from being played on my friends’ phones to YouTube screens to TVs and now the big screen. Abhi aur aage le ke jaana hai (we have to take it further)."

Students practising their dance moves at the After School of Hip Hop. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Students practising their dance moves at the After School of Hip Hop. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Back to school

In the courtyard of the Sri Ganesh Vidya Mandir Primary School, next to a purple and black mural of Bhagat Singh, a few boys aged 10-17 are discussing their lyric-writing homework assignment. In one of the school’s four classrooms, rapper Hemant Dhyani, aka MC Heam, is leading a class of nine boys and one girl through a series of vocal exercises, teaching them to stay on-beat as they rap. In the next room, another group is doing push-ups, lumbering up for their advanced b-boying class. This is the After School of Hip Hop, an initiative by Dharavi hip hop collective Slumgods and The Dharavi Project—a trust set up by Qyuki and the CSR arm of Universal Music—that provides free education in the various elements of hip hop culture to the children of Dharavi.

I’m here to meet Slumgods co-founder Akash Dhangar, aka b-boy Akku. Dressed simply in a black T-shirt and loose-fitting navy blue slacks, Dhangar is the elder statesman of the Dharavi scene, the Afrika Bambaataa to Sebastian’s Snoop Dogg. He answers my questions with a serenity that belies his 27 years of age, thinking carefully and measuring his answers. Born and brought up in Dharavi—apart from a brief stint in the far-off suburb of Nallasopara—Dhangar had been interested in what he calls “hip hop dance" since he was in his early teens. He and his brother Vicky would watch dance crews from Nallasopara on TV talent shows, intrigued by the energy and vitality of this strange, contortionist dance form. But without the money for expensive dance studio classes, or the resources to learn by themselves, they had no idea how to act on their curiosity. Then one day they met Netarpal Singh, aka HeRa, a 30-something b-boy with an American accent from New Delhi, who had come down to Dharavi to spread the gospel of hip hop.

“We went to these classes for computers and spoken English, and one day the teacher asked if we wanted to go for a free dance class," remembers Dhangar. The brothers signed up immediately, and showed up the next day, eager to learn. “HeRa told us about how hip hop and breaking originated in the Bronx, showed us a lot of documentaries and videos. That was the first time I saw dance in a different way. Once I knew what hip hop really was, it felt like a revolution."

Under the guidance of Singh, the Dhangar brothers and a few others threw themselves into mastering the intricacies of b-boying (or breaking). If they weren’t practising their freezes or power-moves, they were thinking up new variations to try out, or immersing themselves in hip hop history. “When I’m on the dance floor, I’m able to express myself, my emotions, my anger," Dhangar says. “It’s cathartic. After that, I feel free and peaceful."

Inverting the pyramid

Early in 2009, soon after the release of Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire, Singh and Dhangar were walking down 90 Feet Road when the discussion turned towards what Dhangar thought of the movie. He said he loved the film, but there was something about the word “slumdog" that rankled. “I realized that the word ‘slumdog’ had become embedded in everyone’s mind," he says. “If you say slum, they’ll add dog to it automatically. We’d been having a discussion about all this, and then one day our friend (San Francisco Bay Area rapper) Mandeep Sethi came up with the idea of inverting it and making the name Slumgods."

For Dhangar and other members of the newly formed crew, the name represents the positive change that they want to bring to Dharavi through the medium of hip hop. “A lot of people here are very creative, but they’re not interested in the mainstream entertainment industry," he says. “They need something that’s raw, and also something that they don’t have to spend money on to learn. And hip hop was exactly that."

Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Initially founded as a b-boy crew, by the time I met them in 2015, Slumgods had evolved into a collective that also included beatboxers, graffiti artists and socially conscious rappers such as Vineet Nair, aka Poetic Justice, and Aby Thampi, aka ABY. Even back then, they avoided the temptations of the mainstream music industry in order to focus on their mission of spreading hip hop to the masses by providing free classes in breaking, rapping and beatboxing to the children of Dharavi. “We try to motivate the kids through hip hop, to make them strong so that they can deal with the ups and downs in their lives," he says. “Hip hop can’t make everyone crorepatis, but it can make them strong mentally. I try to get these kids to take the anger and frustration that leads them into violence and gangs, and channelize it into creative activity instead."

It’s that mission that convinced Qyuki—then a young start-up that could barely afford to sustain itself—to team up with Slumgods in 2013. The partnership began on a modest basis, with Qyuki picking up the rent for a small space for the crew to practise and teach in. But things picked up in 2015, when Qyuki brought in Universal and formalized the relationship as The Dharavi Project. The basic idea was to see if, given the necessary infrastructure and resources, Dharavi’s children could turn their passion for hip hop into a viable career. The After School Of Hip Hop was the first step in that process.

“We thought that if we could actually give them the financing, training and basic infrastructure, as well as access to a recording studio, marketing capability, video-making capability, then we can turn them into stars," says Qyuki managing director Bangara over the phone. “And once you had a star emerging, then the machinery would take on a life of its own. It would become its own ecosystem."

If the experiment proves successful, Bangara hopes to take this model to other places in the country, giving underprivileged youngsters the opportunity to fulfil their creative potential. The plan is to scale the project up to 300 students in the next couple of years. At the moment, they’re gearing up for the release of the first professionally recorded and produced track by a graduate of the After School of Hip Hop.

“There are a lot more content initiatives that are already underway," says Bangara. “In the last two-three months, we’ve started doing five times the stuff that we were doing before, and that’s been a function of both sponsors giving the trust access to more financial resources, and also the collective clout of Qyuki and Universal."

The insider view

A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting for Sebastian outside the Labour Camp Irani Restaurant when I noticed a man staring at me from across the street. Dressed in heavily starched white pants and an orange shirt unbuttoned halfway down to the waist, his gaze had an intensity that was unsettling. He had at least four gold chains around his neck, a gold watch on one wrist, and a thick gold bracelet on the other. He looked like Bollywood’s most egregious fantasies of the stereotypical Dharavi gangster made corporeal.

Stereotypes are something that everyone in Dharavi has to struggle with. For decades, Dharavi has been an empty canvas for the overactive imaginations of outsiders, the unwilling subject of our reductive gazes. For Bollywood, it is an incubator for the gangsters that populate its crime noir films. For generations of Indian and foreign photographers, it is the perfect setting for their award-winning poverty-porn images. For the city’s upper and middle classes, it is an eyesore that must be “redeveloped"—read demolished—or failing that, hidden away behind the city’s shiny new high-rises. “Dharavi has been used and abused by hundreds of documentaries, by thousands of tourists who come in every year to see the ‘poor people’ of Dharavi," says independent rapper Sameer Inamdar, aka Rapture. “But Dharavi isn’t poor, not anymore."

The rappers and b-boys I’m speaking to aren’t immune to the toxic effects of such stereotypes. Everyone has a story of being discriminated against because of where they come from —being barred from entering a fancy club or restaurant, becoming the butt of jokes for their more wealthy classmates, constant harassment by policemen who instantly assume they’re up to no good.

“In school, one teacher told us that not everyone can be a doctor or engineer, we need sweepers and cleaners too," remembers Radhakrishnan. “The implication being that we were only good enough to do that."

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of Dharavi’s thriving scene, then, is the fact that it finally allows the locality’s young residents to have a say in how they’re represented to the world at large. Through music, dance and murals, these young artists are recasting Dharavi as a site of immense productivity and creativity, the hotbed for India’s next big youth culture.

“Now when people think of Dharavi, hip hop is one of the first things that pops up in their minds," says Sebastian. “Rahman came here, Rajinikanth came here, Ranveer Singh came here. Suddenly, everyone wants a piece of Dharavi."

For his part, Dhangar is much more interested in the change he sees in Dharavi than in how outsiders see it. “A documentary film-maker once asked me what my dream for Dharavi was," he says. “I told him that I want to see a Dharavi where every street has a rapper or a b-boy or a beatboxer, and there’s graffiti tags all over the place. And that’s actually happened.

The Dharavi hip hop playlist

Three songs that showcase the diversity of the Dharavi scene

Dopeadelicz
Vayee pothu da

Dopeadelicz team up with Dubai-based producer and vocalist Jasim on their latest track, a Tamil rap banger that is their best song yet.

Rapture
Pain

Veteran battle rapper Rapture takes shots at the education system, political violence and extremism in this slow-burn ballad.

7Bantai’Z
Achanak bhayanak

The six-member rap crew trades bars in Hindi, Marathi, Tamil and English on this braggadocious rap anthem.

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