Swagga Like Us

The unstoppable boys of Punjabi Pop

(Left to right) G Frekey, Mojo, Pardhaan, Parv and Guru, members of Desi Beam, a crew of rappers based in Chandigarh. COURTESY DESI BEAM
01 November, 2013

ONE EVENING IN LATE JUNE, the crowd at Chandigarh’s Elante mall, a 1.15 million-square-foot complex in the centre of the city, which is said to attract more than 35,000 visitors a day, suddenly went wild. It started out as a hum, which continued to build steadily for a few minutes, until it achieved the volume of a plane taking off. I rushed out of a store on the ground floor into the large, marbled atrium, and found myself confronted by a sea of turbans and hands extended aloft, holding mobile phones that struggled to capture the sight before them. “Diljit! Diljit!” the cries ricocheted around the building.

At the centre of the crowd stood Diljit Dosanjh in a crisp white kurta, pyjamas that ended above his ankles, bright pagdi and deck shoes, impervious to the chaos around him. He was surrounded by an entourage of excited men, similarly dressed. The local heartthrob was attending the premiere of his latest movie, Jatt and Juliet 2, at the PVR theatre on the top floor of the mall. His friends were soon riding up and down an escalator (up the right way, and down the wrong) to the cheers of fans. I struggled through the crowd to get to the next floor to catch the screening, for which I had a ticket. Upstairs, a double-ringed barricade of guards watched for gatecrashers and desperate fans.

Elante, whose publicity material bills it as the largest mall in all of Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, and Chandigarh, opened this April, and has since given Chandigarh’s thriving marketplaces and favourite recreational spots much to worry about. With its water fountains, landscaped plaza, and a profusion of upmarket restaurants and international brand boutiques, Elante can be said to symbolise everything the city, and Punjab, today aspires to be.

Life in Le Corbusier’s city may still take place largely at its modernist gol chakkars, neatly segregated by sectors, but its wide, tree-lined streets have never seen more luxury cars than they do today. Elante is a short drive away from the city’s “geri route”, a set of streets spanning four sectors in the north of Chandigarh, along any stretch of which street parties can ignite at any time. On these notoriously wild roads, young men with Land Rovers and Lamborghinis join those with Hero Hondas and Hyundai Santros on a temporarily levelled playing field to drink beer, smoke pot or just exchange a day’s worth of gossip. Drunken brawls are routine; so is police intervention. The geri route rituals make a frequent appearance in new Punjabi movies and music videos, many of which are about the crisis of Punjabi identity, caught between reality and aspiration.

SirD, a 28-year-old rapper who is recording his first album—a mix of club, house and dubstep—for Universal Music. COURTESY ANKIT CHAHAL

This includes Jatt and Juliet 2. In the film, Dosanjh’s character, Fateh Singh, is a head constable who makes the inevitable journey to Toronto, where he meets a Punjabi-Canadian policewoman, and after the requisite I hate you-I love you drama, brings her back to the motherland in a salwar kameez. Jatt and Juliet 2 riffs off the origin of the series, a smash hit which resurrected the dormant Punjabi box office. Jatt and Juliet (2012), in which a village boy and an urban girl similarly make the journey to Canada, only to come back to Punjab to live happily ever after, made Dosanjh, a singer with several popular albums to his name, a legitimate film star. Now, Jatt and Juliet 2 has emerged as the biggest blockbuster in the history of Punjabi cinema, having collected, according to some trade estimates, Rs 20 crore within a fortnight of its release.

Diljit Dosanjh’s breakout hits were co-produced by Speed Records from Jalandhar, a music label that picked up on a recent tendency in Punjabi film to cast popular singers in lead roles to boost the movie’s popularity. Some of these artists—Dosanjh included—are barely known outside Punjab and Haryana, but within the states, they exercise an unparalleled hold over the public imagination. This makes them the safest bets in the region when it comes to drawing audiences to the movies. It also makes a career in music the surest road to film stardom in Punjab.

The Rs 100-crore Punjabi music industry, currently in recession from the Rs 600 crore it was pegged at in the 2000s, claims about a tenth of India’s entire music business. Punjabi-language music channels, which number around a dozen, make up half of all music television viewership in the country. Big record labels in Punjab claim to launch up to a hundred singers a year, mostly male, with many of them investing their own money, starting from Rs 1 lakh, in an album. According to Speed Records’ estimates, the industry releases approximately 35 albums every year in the category A+, which means an average production cost of Rs 50 lakh, 25 in the category A (Rs 25 lakh) and 50 in the category B+ (Rs 10 lakh ). It also brings out over 40 singles, each taking between Rs 1 lakh and Rs 7 lakh to produce.

“They say in Punjab every second [person] born is a singer,” declares the website of PTC channel’s Voice of Punjab, the local version of American Idol. The money is no hurdle for families across the state who have, in the last decade, suddenly found themselves with enough to spare from the large-scale sale of agricultural land to real estate developers. Others stake everything on one chance. While travelling through Punjab, I heard, off-hand, a story about a man who had made a few lakh rupees working odd jobs in Dubai, and had come home to cut an album, which failed. The man lost all the money he had invested, and then some more; he ended up having to mortgage his house, and now his wife works as a domestic help in neighbours’ homes and he as a daily-wage labourer.

Not everyone takes the same route to recognition. While some turn out UK-style club remixes to suit a fashionable young population, others channel the romance of folk for audience groups such as Punjabi expatriates, nostalgic for the glorious past. There are singers who thrive on fusion and others who live to rap. The differences in what they seek to represent are just as sharp, whether it is urban swagger, agrarian charm, a celebration of riches, or the bleak realism that comes with financial uncertainty. The criteria for saleable music change every season, but performers are constantly struggling to define themselves as different from each other. In their battles, Punjab becomes a society torn between pride in its rustic past and promises of material progress.

A FEW DAYS AFTER THE PREMIERE of Jatt and Juliet 2 in Elante mall, I was walking through a garbage-lined corridor in Jalandhar looking for Speed Records. The offices of Punjab’s largest record label are located in a shopping complex overlooking the gold-rimmed domes of a gurdwara. Speed Records was launched in 2005 by the brothers Satwinder Singh and Balwinder Singh, aka Ruby Singh, former distributors for music labels TIPS and T-Series, and their business partner Dinesh Auluck. Speed Records came in intent on “modernising” a market largely focused on folk and bhangra. The idea was to introduce local listeners to sounds from the UK scene, where artists like Bally Sagoo and Panjabi MC have been mixing bhangra with disco, soul, reggae and pop for over three decades. Among the first artists the label signed on were Sukshinder Shinda, a Birmingham-based record producer and singer, and Jaswinder Singh Bains, aka Jazzy B, the “Crown Prince of Bhangra”, also based in Birmingham, both of whom came on board with Speed Records as investors. Today, the label boasts artists like Dosanjh, Gippy Grewal and Honey Singh and launches an average of 50 singers every quarter. The label wasn’t keen to disclose its annual turnover, but Universal Music’s offer to buy it over for Rs 40 crore earlier this year indicates its current value.

Regardless of the criticism he faces for his rap, several people in Punjab’s music industry consider Honey Singh a marketing genius. YOGEN SHAH / INDIA TODAY GROUP / GETTY IMAGES

Across the corridor from Speed Records is the office of Jazzy B, the walls inside covered with large graffiti-like paintings of the singer in a turban, waving a sword. And as befits successful singers in Punjab, Jazzy B, who made a guest appearance at the end of Jatt and Juliet 2, was introduced as a leading man with another Speed Records’ film titled Best of Luck in July. His co-actor in the movie was Gippy Grewal, another singing sensation associated with the record label.

The latest singer to be launched by Speed Records in a film is a young man called Raja Baath, whom I had come to the office to meet that day. I sat with the company’s manager, Bunty Bains, who had been assigned to meet me in the absence of the label’s big bosses, by a large, blue, crescent-moon shaped sunmica table that divided the room in half. Two empty executive chairs faced us on the other side. Baath was supposed to arrive from a shoot somewhere in the city.

Bunty Bains is a handsome, bearded man in his thirties, with a slight frame and a nervous air, dressed in a shiny shirt and trousers. He was officially the manager at the record company, but an internet search on him reveals more. His Twitter bio proclaims him to be a songwriter, composer and artist coordinator, and links to a website where Bains, in makeup and spiked hair, introduces himself again as songwriter and composer. His Wikipedia user profile lists songs he has written for artists such as Jazzy B, Honey Singh and Miss Pooja, a duet singer famous for albums like Romantic Jatt and Jattitude.

Over the deafening roar of an obsolete air conditioner, I asked Bains why so many new Punjabi films had singers in lead roles. “For long, films were just about Jats. Wohi ladai jhagda (the same old scuffles). People were tired of watching them,” he replied.

Some days later, I was at the Chandigarh office of 9X Tashan, which, according to its proprietor Baljinder Singh Mahant, is “a happy mood channel” that never plays any “depression wali cheez”. Mahant had a more elaborate answer to my question. “No one wants to take risks, and every singer has his or her fan base. Sundar lagta hai, acting kaar hi leta hai thoda bahut, kyunki har music video mein acting karni hoti hain (they look good, and manage to act, because every music video involves a little bit of acting),” he explained to me. “Only three or four movies have worked in the last few years. They were those with heroes as singers.”

The sluggish Punjabi film industry (NFDC pegs it at a mere Rs 50 crore) was first rekindled in 2002 with the release of T-Series’ Jee Aayan Nu starring Harbhajan Mann. It was directed by Manmohan Singh, the cinematographer for Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge and Darr, and followed the stock narrative of village boy falling in love with Indo-Canadian girl, and see-sawed between his love for the girl and love for the motherland. Compared to the average of 8 or 9 films released per year during the turbulent decades of the 1980s and 1990s, more than 17 Punjabi films came out in 2010 and over 35 this year, with the industry backed by a host of influential financiers, such as Eros International and Reliance BIG Pictures.

Back at Speed Records, 40 minutes after our appointed time to meet, Raja Baath walked in, wearing a neon-green shirt with a plunging V-neckline, which offered generous views of his clean-shaven chest. A Canadian citizen, Baath moved from Punjab to British Columbia at the age of 4. About four and a half years ago, he quit his job as a trucker to repatriate to the motherland and become a musician—perhaps even a star. “I came to the country in September 2009,” he told me, in a mixture of accented broken English and Punjabi. “I wanted to release music as soon as possible.”

Baath, who studied and performed folk music in Canada, knew the Punjabi superstar Honey Singh, who was a rising rapper-producer at that time, but he initially found himself a cheaper producer who promised him instant stardom. That man vanished without a trace, however, and Baath was left hanging for a month. He gave in finally, and called his old acquaintance. “I am here to do something big. Nothing is going to happen if I sit here,” Baath recalled thinking at that time. “Honey said, if you can record all your songs in 15 days, I can release the album in one month.”

Baath’s first track, ‘Chaska’, was released a year later. It was a song about guns, alcohol and Mercedes cars, with Honey Singh rapping along with Baath. It was a huge success; the Bollywood composer Himesh Reshammiya wanted rights to it, Baath told me. Baath has had several hit numbers to his credit since, such as ‘Lamian Caran’ (Long Car) and ‘Yaari’ and considers Speed Records “family”.

Baath is now shooting his first film on the campus of Lovely Professional University, the education empire of Jalandhar’s famous mithai chain, Lovely Sweets, spread over 600 acres on the outskirts of the city. Baath’s movie, titled Yaar Annmulle 2 (Priceless Friends), is a coming-of-age bromance about three friends who leave their village for the city to attend college. Yaar Annmulle, the first of its name, came out in 2011, and tracked more or less the same story; as it often happens in Punjabi films, the boys fall in love with girls who are out of their league. One of them is from Canada. It is the latest in a long series of Punjabi movies that depict the reality of Punjab’s youth, who are faced with cultural disorientation and a chaotic modernity, through the confrontations of unworldly rural males with liberated urban women.

Raja Baath, one of Punjab’s new crop of singers, is working on his first film as lead actor, Yaar Annmulle 2, in Jalandhar. COURTESY SPEED RECORDS

ONE OF INDIA’S WEALTHIEST STATES until a decade ago, Punjab is today struggling with the lowest growth rates in its history. The tension created in a traditionally prosperous rural people by a slowing agricultural economy has led to increasing anxiety amongst its working-age population. A survey by Punjab’s Social Security and Women and Child Development in 2006 suggested that 67 percent of rural households in Punjab had at least one drug addict in the family, most of whom were in the 16–35 age group. The drug abuse is widely speculated to be one of the consequences of the state’s high rate of unemployment. “Unemployment has a clear part to play in driving Punjab’s youth to experiment with drugs,” states a study conducted by the Institute of South Asian Studies. From 1 April 2009 to 31 March 2010, for example, 67,587 people applied to the state’s department of employment generation and training, in response to 14,800 vacancies. “Punjab is seeing its darkest times,” said Damanbir D Sobti, a lawyer who practises in Ludhiana. “Small industries have moved to Himachal Pradesh, while the larger ones have gone to Gurgaon. Hordes of young men you’ll find, staring and loitering in malls and other busy places.”

Having begun to make their way out of the state ever since the days of a separatist insurgency, which began in the late 1970s, several million Punjabi expatriates now form a considerable section of the population in Britain, North America, South-East Asia and the Middle East—so many, in fact, that in some towns in Punjab, there is a palpable sense of desertion. On the way from Ludhiana to Jalandhar, for example, I passed Phagwara in Moga district, a town that by some estimates is about 70 per cent unoccupied. Its NRI inhabitants, like those in similar places all over Punjab, now make nostalgic trips back home once or twice a year, but not without replicating in these abandoned houses the comforts of their lives abroad. Sometimes it means rebuilding the houses from scratch. A 2004 report in India Today on these “architectural marriages of Punjabi baroque and California colonial” claimed: “Amid the dusty fields and huts of rural Punjab are sprawling, palatial bungalows with names such as Orlando House, Vancouver Villa, White House and California Farm.”

It is this section of the Punjabi population that, in the late 1980s and 1990s, boosted the demand for Punjabi pop, with its infectious mix of bhangra and Western-style arrangements. They were also responsible for creating a new generation of singing superstars.

Notable among these were three artists. The first and perhaps best known was Gurdas Maan, who had been noticed as far back as 1980 for ‘Dil Da Mamla Hai’, a love ballad he performed on Doordarshan. Through the 1990s, Maan released more than ten albums of repackaged folk, winning fans and paving the way for the bhangra wave. In 1998, his album Apna Punjab was voted the album of the year at the Asian Pop and Media Awards held in Birmingham.

Decades later came Sharry Mann, who became an overnight YouTube sensation in 2010 when two of his songs were uploaded to the website by his friends, apparently without his knowledge. One of these songs, ‘Kudian Te Bassan, featured advice to a teenage boy facing rejection in love to focus on his future instead of getting distracted by women. His song ‘Yaar Anmulle’ went on to become the title track for the hit movie of the same name in 2011.

In between Gurdas Maan and Sharry Mann had been Babbu Maan, whose official debut album Tu Meri Miss India in 1999 won over Punjabis both in India and abroad. An eccentric artist based in Mohali, Babbu Maan would go on to sing ‘Kabza, a song about land-grabbing, whose video featured men dancing with AK-47s in their hands. Under the banner of Maan Films Private Limited, his Mohali-based production house, Maan has written, financed and starred in movies like Hawayein, Hashar... A Love Story and Ekam—Son of Soil. His last two films were Hero Hitler In Love (2011) and Desi Romeos (2012).

Unlike others of his generation, who in their music glorified the gratuitous aggression associated with Jat men, Babbu Maan sang about their struggles: of lives beset by challenges, without access to electricity or water, and of the pain of watching fields that were washed away by floods. He preferred to sing about his Maruti Gypsy and kala chadar (black shawl), even as others made poetry of their Ferraris and Gucci shoes.

Like Babbu Maan before him, Raja Baath now wants to make music that speaks to what he calls “the lowest common denominator”. “The more you talk about the common man, the more your song works,” he said. “Not if you talk about branded cars.” In Baath’s latest song ‘Mehnga Maarka’, which was released this September, a “10th fail mast banda” with a modern girlfriend sings about loving her as much as his tractor. The comic video has Baath in a black pathani suit trying to sneak his skinny-jeans-and-jacket-clad girlfriend out of his village house the morning after she arrives there drunk.

One of Jatt and Juliet star Diljit Dosanjh’s recent albums was titled Back to Basics. He may have once been the sneaker-wearing rapper who grooved with models in ‘Lak 28 Kudi Da’ next to Honey Singh, but is now expending his time and efforts on bringing folk back and perfecting what, as far as I could tell in my time in Punjab, was designated the stylish pendu (village) swag—white kurta worn with trendy ankle-high pajamas over loafers.

Diljit Dosanjh, a popular singer, is now also a legitimate film star after the phenomenal success of the Jatt and Juliet series. COURTESY DILJIT SINGH DOSANJH

“House, R’n’B and hip-hop doesn’t connect with us, it connects with the US,” Dosanjh told me over the phone from Delhi, where he was shooting for his new film. “This album [Back to Basics] has no bassline and is live recorded. Log folk sunna chahtethhey,is liye” (It’s because people want to listen to folk).

EVERY DISCUSSION OF MUSIC IN PUNJAB ends up revolving, sooner or later, around a man whom a wide mix of people in the industry, including Raja Baath, Bunty Bains and Diljit Dosanjh, have turned to for a career fillip at some point or other—the six-pack flaunting, undercut-sporting rapper, Honey Singh.

The rapper made national headlines late last December when a New Year’s party at a Gurgaon hotel where he was scheduled to perform was cancelled in response to an online campaign run by activists who complained that his songs valourised rape and sexual violence. Coming barely two weeks after the fatal gang rape of a young woman in Delhi, the planned concert deeply angered many people, and music that performers like Singh had been putting out came in for renewed, often resentful, scrutiny. He was also booked briefly under section 294 of the IPC (obscene acts and songs) in response to a petition by Parvinder Singh Kitna of the Human Empowerment League of Punjab (HELP), which the Chandigarh High Court dismissed after the second hearing on 5 July.

Singh immediately denied any association with ‘Main Hun Balatkari’, a song glorifying rape, but could not disassociate himself from other controversial songs like ‘Choot’ and ‘Ki Ho Gaya Teri Lulli Nu’—the first is a graphic description of blowjobs and sex with a supposedly loose girl, who is physically and sexually abused in the process; the second is about a girl wondering why the man appears incapable of an erection. Music industry insiders claim they were made in collaboration with former members of his rap crew, Mafia Mundeer.

“Everyone has their own audience,” said Baath, who, unlike many others, isn’t wary of talking about Honey Singh on the record. “Even 25 years later, Yamla Sahib and Chamkila are very popular, maybe if just for truck drivers,” he said, speaking of Lal Chand Yamla Jatt and Amar Singh Chamkila, older folk artists. “There is music in America that you can’t listen to with your family. People love [Honey Singh’s] songs. I know it’s confusing. You ask anyone and they say no we don’t listen to him. But they will all dance to it!

A former member of Mafia Mundeer, Badshah, aka Aditya Singh, whom I met in Chandigarh, defended his one-time collaborator. “If I tell you a joke about sex, you find it funny, but if Honey Singh rhymes it, how is that different? What happened to just chilling and enjoying the music?” Badshah, who worked with Honey Singh on many of Singh’s earlier albums and chartbusting songs like ‘Get Up Jawani’, has now branched out on his own.

In April this year, Honey Singh, who went more or less underground after the December outrage, released a single in collaboration with MTV’s new show Spoken Word, titled ‘Bring Me Back’. The video, nominated for Best Indian Act at the 2013 MTV European Music Awards, showed him in an upmarket apartment, the obligatory white girlfriend of indeterminate Eastern European origin on his arm, even as news channels, broadcasting vague headlines and images of public protests, demanded an apology from him for an indeterminate mess-up. As the plot of the video unfolded, the rapper drove his red Ferrari into a wall, and was resurrected by a pep talk from his ghost. ‘Bring Me Back’ was the most direct response he had for the public criticism of his work. It was preceded by another track, also made in partnership with MTV, titled ‘Satan’. In that video, Honey Singh, presumably playing the devil of dope, flogs crowds of enraptured addicts. This July, around the same time that the Chandigarh High Court dismissed the PIL against him, Singh was paid Rs 70 lakh to do a song for the upcoming film Mastaan, starring Naseeruddin Shah.

Despite his seemingly spectacular rise to fame, it took years of hard work for the chubby, awkward kid in his debut, Ashok Masti’s ‘Glassi’, to become Honey Singh: player, gangster, the man with swag. Born in 1984 as Hirdesh Singh in Hoshiarpur, the musician grew up in Delhi. As a young man, Singh apprenticed with one of the many DJ schools that dot the capital’s landscape, and then spent a few years sending around demo tapes and producing music for small-time artists like Bill Singh. The UK’s Daily Mail reported that the boy from Vikaspuri performed at small stage shows in modest neighbourhoods of the capital until 2006. ‘Glassi’ singer Ashok Masti remembered Singh in an interview as a 24-year-old who refused to be paid for appearing in his video.

In 2012, the track ‘Angrezi Beat’ catapulted him to Bollywood. Singh had also churned out a number of albums featuring himself and other upcoming singers, with video after video shot in foreign locales and featuring luxury cars and long-legged models. Punjabi music videos have been inspired by luxury vehicles and adventure-sport swagger at least since the heyday of bhangra in the UK, when no video was considered complete without shots of models lounging on decks of yachts. But Singh was the first to successfully market himself as a product of India, and not an export from the UK. Several people I spoke to from Punjab’s music industry said they consider him a marketing genius with a finger firmly on the pulse of his target audience, someone who has revived a music industry that lacked inspiration.

Baljinder Singh Mahant of the 9X Tashan channel had described Punjab to me as being divided into two opposing sections of the population: there was a rural, agrarian Punjab which had no desire to migrate to the cities, and there was the upwardly mobile, rapidly urbanising Punjab. “People call it [the latter] Honey Singh’s Punjab. He’s created a brand for Punjab that is heard in discos across the country,” Mahant said. He added, with more confidence than accuracy, “In Bombay, three people are on hoardings everywhere: Priyanka Chopra, Honey Singh and AR Rahman.”

Sunil D’sa, vice president of the marketing department at Universal Music, says the reason behind the Honey Singh rush is that his sound is “very contemporary”. In April, the label released a single by a Honey Singh-wannabe who goes by the moniker Baba Honey, called ‘Brown Legs’, about girls hanging out in short skirts on the geri route. The singer from Himachel Pradesh has cultivated an appearance associated with hip-hop: backward-facing baseball caps, chains, even dreadlocks.

The singer 9X Tashan is currently promoting is known as SB–The Haryanvi, a young Haryanvi who is out with a flashy club number, titled ‘Current’. The emphasis, as ever, is on super cars and super babes; everyone has become more careful about the lyrics, however.

Ajay Kapoor, director at the massive T-Series record label for film music, assured me that although he hadn’t heard any of Singh’s contentious songs, they’re “very careful about monitoring the kinds of lyrics that come in.” Full of praise for Singh’s excellently produced music, Kapoor was in the midst of talks with Shah Rukh Khan to get Honey Singh to rap in ‘Lungi Dance’; Singh did go on to contribute to the hit song, recorded to promote this year’s Chennai Express.

Koshish kare ki hum lyrics joh vulgar hai, ya songs joh logo ko insult kare woh na kare, acche kaam karne ki koshish kare, jiska message accha ho” (The attempt is to not go for lyrics that are vulgar or songs that insult people. We try to produce work that is good and has a nice message), said Sajjan Kumar Duhan, a 39-year-old with roots in Rohtak who began his record company, SMI, in Ludhiana in 1999. Duhan claimed to personally favour Punjabi folk, although the SMI website lists albums with titles such as Hummer, Pajero and Naughty Boy. “Aaj ajeeb tarah ka music chal raha hai, rap type ka” (Today, there is a demand for strange music), Duhan said to me. “Pehle geet compose hote thhe. Gane style ka tha. Abh bolne ka style hai” (Earlier, songs used to be composed, and the stress was on singing. Now, the fashion is to speak the lines).

9X Tashan, too, appears to be thriving on songs about Pajeros, high heels and “dope shope”, but the CEO Mahant told me that he didn’t like much of the music played on his channel. “When we started out, I didn’t want my six-year-old daughter watching this channel. But our target is 15 to 24 years, unfortunately.”

Duhan told me that he had advised Honey Singh to write a song about Punjab’s beloved revolutionary Bhagat Singh. If leaders like Mahatma Gandhi could have their faces on bank notes, he reasoned, why not Bhagat Singh? In 2010, SMI did release a single, titled ‘Teri Photo’, in which Honey Singh and Nishawn Bhullar, of the hit album Folkstars, demanded that the face of Bhagat Singh be printed on Indian currency.

HONEY SINGH MAY HAVE RESUSCITATED a dormant industry, spawned wannabes, even made Bollywood cough up unimaginable amounts for money for a song, but he is not the biggest inspiration for young rappers in Punjab. That honour is reserved for Bohemia.

Bohemia, born Roger David in Karachi in 1979, grew up in Compton, a city in California infamous for drugs and street gangs. After his mother died, Bohemia began to live in friends’ studios and play keyboard for a local musician. Fame arrived in 2002, when his independent debut album Vich Pardesan De went straight to the top of the BBC Radio UK charts. In 2006, his second album, Pesa Nasha Pyar, became the first full-length album of Punjabi rap backed by a major label like Universal Music. He went on to become the most recognised name in Punjabi rap, with album deals with big record labels like Sony Music and T-Series and offers from Bollywood producers.

For young people in Punjab, Bohemia embodied everything real about hip-hop, which, until then, was associated with more or less family-friendly artists like Baba Sehgal, Apache Indian and Stereo Nation. After Vich Pardesan De, Bohemia became a desi phenomenon. Kids wanted to rap like him. He is said to have been among Honey Singh’s early influences.

“Those even vaguely interested in music realised if nothing else they could rap. It became the call centre job of music,” joked SirD, whose real name is Ankit Chahal, a 28-year-old rapper I met through a network of hip-hop artists, beat boys and graffitists, and travelled with from Chandigarh to Ludhiana on a bus. Gentle and soft-spoken, the five-and-a-half-foot SirD has the countenance of a once-chubby boy who has lost weight.

When he talks about Bohemia, a look of intense adulation comes over SirD, who first started writing rap at the age of 16. It’s the same with 25-year-old rapper Nottotune, aka Navdeep Singh, from Chandigarh, 23-year-old Bigg Slim, aka Prabh Dhimaan, 17-year-old Lucky, aka Harsimran Jit Singh, and 22-year-old G Frekey from Mohali—a crew of struggling rappers who live in and around Chandigarh.

Born into a business family that manufactured hosiery, SirD moved from Delhi to Chandigarh as a teenager, to study at St Xavier’s School in Mohali. With a grandfather who wrote Urdu poetry and an avid interest in Hindi songs, the young Chahal began writing what he called “urban poems” at the age of 14. “For me it was always a dream. I used to follow Hindi music very closely,” he said, recalling a period in the 1990s and early 2000s when Hindi pop music enjoyed a brief but intense popularity, powered by a new, young generation of Hindi movie playback singers. “Deewana, Sonu Nigam’s album had released, then Shaan’s Tanha Dil, and Mohit Chauhan from Silk Route released albums.”

SirD recounted his history on our first meeting at a dingy, all-wood coffee shop in Chandigarh called Backpackers Café, full of canoodling college students. Hindi pop music was not to be his destiny. The teenage Chahal’s influences turned out to be performers like Baba Sehgal, Hard Kaur, Punjabi MC, Bohemia and Ishq Bector—all singers who worked at the intersection of Punjabi popular music and rap and hip-hop. As Bohemia popularised Punjabi rap, SirD began to scribble his own lines. He tried approaching record labels and agents with his work, but soon grew disheartened by their indifference—he recounted being asked over and over again to sing the lines with “sur” (melody). He moved on to work as a car salesman, and even started a nightclub in Chandigarh, called Crystal, that he had to shut down within six months because of mounting losses. He didn’t return to music until last year, when, he says, fellow rappers “forced him” to do so.

Rap had, in the intervening years, enjoyed a wildfire run through Punjab. “Out of 1,500 people on my Facebook, at least 500 are rappers,” SirD told me. The scene is far from organised, however. Some of them made an effort to form a network in 2008 when a teenage rapper, Aditi Angiras, created the Orkut group Insignia, where her peers from all over the state would fight it out online in lyrical battles. Among those most active on the forum were three recently formed crews. Guru (Sumit Sharma), Mojo (Ankit Roy), G Frekey (Gurdeep Singh), Pardhaan (Parichay Modi) and DJ Parv (Parvinder Pal Singh) from Desi Beam; Nottotune (Navdeep Singh) and Lucky (Harsimran Jit Singh) of Kru172; and Slyck and Zan from 2Shadez.


Later, the three came together to form a larger crew, calling themselves One Commission. “The two brothers [Nottotune and Lucky] don’t write lyrics which tease girls,” SirD said about the rappers’ choice to move away from the themes of mainstream rap. “Zan sings about life, Pardhaan is gangsta, whereas Slyck is about swag, beats, party and having fun.” They would “drop” albums from their bedrooms, with videos shot on DSLRs, and upload them on YouTube, where their fates depended on “views” and “likes”.

Making do for the moment with regular online releases, the crews are waiting to have enough resources to release their studio albums. A big moment for them was Bohemia inviting Desi Beam to rap in his ‘Bandookan’ in 2011. SirD, on the other hand, was always clear about the need for a strategy. “To move from underground to mainstream, you need to build a larger audience,” he said. “Across the country, your music needs to be played on different platforms. You get gigs, you have videos on MTV, you can say no to Bollywood. When I started off again, I decided we should go a little mainstream.”

His route to the mainstream is an upcoming album for Universal Music. It was also the reason we were going to Ludhiana. As SirD and I got off the bus on the outskirts of the city, which is a popular destination for Punjabi singers, I noticed hoardings advertising singers, agents, studios, producers and publicists lining the streets and shop fronts.

Our destination was Nazran Beats, a collective of musicians and sound engineers, which produced, among other notable output, Stereo Nation’s singer Tazz’s album Twist and Shout and assisted DJ Swami on Envy/Roma Music’s Desi Rock album and Virgin EMI Records’ Equalize. This is where SirD had come to make his debut album.

The studio is run by a DJ called Nazran, a diminutive, pear-shaped man with a sharp goatee cutting across his chin, who lives with his wife and dog in a gulli in the lower-middle-class neighbourhood adjoining Samrala Chowk on Ludhiana’s outskirts. His one-room studio is located next door, a 4-by-5-foot space that fits a couch, a desk with a large desktop computer, his decks and even a little recording booth in the corner. It was two in the afternoon. The DJ and the studio had evidently not gone to bed early. As he quickly cleared half-filled glasses of Coke and empty bottles of whiskey, Nazran sheepishly admitted to having had an after-work party the night before. As we sat down to eat rajma-chawal delivered by a dhaaba next door, accompanied by chicken curry sent by his wife, Nazran talked about his studio.

“I built it all by myself, with the techniques learnt at my degree course in London,” he told me. “It took me a month.” Nazran grew up in Jamshedpur in a family that ran the only fashion boutique in the industrial town. His relatives would tell him stories about how well his mother had played the sitar before she married his father. At 14, he moved to London to finish school when his father had to move to the Philippines for work. By 18, he had apprenticed himself to the electronic musician Swami in London.

He returned to Delhi in 2005, and took a course in scratching from DJ Jazzy Joe, a local legend. After a few guest DJing gigs in Mumbai and Gurgaon clubs and several popular remixes on YouTube, Nazran decided to move back to his family, who had now shifted base to Ludhiana.

People who club, Nazran told me, only want commercial music to dance to, with not more than a paragraph or so of lyrics. “The gap between popular music and underground is that producers want people to dance to rap. And rappers want people to listen to their rap.” Nazran is an avid supporter of commercial music, but he agreed vigorously when I brought up the lack of imagination in the market. “Yes, yes! People use readymade beats and production. Usme vocal dub kiya, mix master kar keaur de diya. They don’t produce anything!”

After lunch, Nazran and SirD played for me rough cuts of tracks for their album, which SirD called a “very tasty khichri”, with a mix of club, house and dubstep. There’s a party song for those who don’t like to dance, a sad love song for a guy who breaks up with his girlfriend “with her blessings”, another about an NRI’s nostalgic return to the motherland, the mandatory fast and furious one about racing cars, and a “gangsta” song featuring a Haryanvi rapper from SirD’s crew. It is, they told me, an experiment to see if there is crossover space, for music made independently for a commercial label.

EARLIER IN THE WEEK, Nottotune and his 19-year-old brother Lucky had met me at The Tank, a popular hangout spot on Chandigarh’s geri route. It was a Friday evening, and around us, boys drove in and out in sports cars and SUVs, smoking joints or taking swigs from beer bottles.

Nottotune, whose ancestral village was a pre-Corbusier Chandigarh, was nostalgic for the past of pinds (villages) and fields. “Villages are different,” he said. “Cities look the same. When you go from having no money in your bank, to a few crores, how can it not affect you? And if everyone sells their land to make apartments, where will food come from?”

Nottotune is a storehouse of information on the desi rap scene. At the age of 18, in 2008, he began a blog called Desi Rapper Show to track the developments of the rap industry. It continues to be updated today, although less frequently than earlier, with jam sessions, interviews and music videos. Nottotune is perturbed by the success of Honey Singh because it overshadows the rest of Punjabi rap. “Eighty percent say ‘Honey Singh’,” he had cribbed to me while discussing the names commonly associated with rap when we met at the English countryside-inspired Willow Café in Sector 10. “Log usko rapper samajhte hai? (People think of him as a rapper?) He is more of a businessman than a musician. And then with his controversial lyrics, they blame the whole community, and people think hip-hop is bad. First rule is: you write your own lyrics. Write about real stories.” He was referring to rumours that much of Singh’s rap is written by former members of Mafia Mundeer.


Nottotune writes his own lyrics. His first song, which he was embarrassed to recall, was “a reggaeton club song called ‘Dil Di Rani’,” about a girl he saw in a club. I had to persuade him to reprise it for me in Willow Café. His translation of the lyrics went something like this: “Come to the club with me, do the two-step for me, you’re making me restless, people say I’m a bad boy, some say my clothes are weird, but I got Desi Beam boys with me, and we’re gonna rock it tonight, have a sip of your drink everybody, and come to the dance floor, and we don’t need to fight y’all, we just need to do the bhangra on this reggaeton beat, and girl there’s nobody like you, ‘cause you’re my dil di rani.”

Nottotune adores Bohemia. As a young man in his first band in class 12, he memorised English-language rap off MTV—where he heard his first hip-hop—and repeated it by rote. The first time he heard Bohemia, with his Punjabi accent and street cred, he said, it took him “three days” to begin rapping in Punjabi.

If Bohemia grew up in a tough part of Compton, many of Punjab’s rappers too have lived such lives. As Nottotune put it, “They also grew up in the back alleys of Chandigarh, which were once slums.” In the kind of stories which every city tells about itself, Chandigarh is, among other things, a place where drug addicts will kill each other for as little as Rs 500, desperate for their next fix. “People think Chandi is such a lovely place,” Nottotune told me somberly. “But they don’t know the underbelly, areas around the neatly laid sectors, in Mohali, in and around sector 56,” he added. (A teetotaller himself, he refuses to sing about drinking and drugs.)

In 2008, when he had grown used to rapping in Punjabi, Nottotune wrote a song called ‘Gareeb Rapper’ about his Moser Baer headphones and Hewlett-Packard laptop, both of which stopped working one day, about irregular water supply, and heartbreak. “The only rule to rap is you can’t write a lie,” he told me. “It can’t be fictitious. You write about your own story, your friend’s story. It’s about your credibility. A rapper is a poet.”

FOR A LOT OF YOUNGSTERS I met and heard about in Punjab, rap is more about poetry than profits. On my second day in Punjab, Nottotune and Lucky took me to Big Boom Music Studios in Mohali, a meeting place for aspiring rappers from the independent scene. Mohali was “just fields” some years ago, as Nottotune told me, but the sale of unused land here had suddenly enriched the suburb and its original inhabitants.

At Big Boom, located in a nondescript house crammed alongside a snooker parlour and a Maruti service centre, surrounded by the din of cranes and construction, I met Jasparas Singh, aka Paras, the 21-year-old producer-proprietor of Big Boom, who runs the studio with the 23-year-old rapper Bigg Slim aka Prabh Dhimaan. Inside the studio, which is practically painted over with graffiti, they were in the midst of a recording session with the 17-year-old rapper Dr Love (or Lovish, as he was introduced to me), but a storm blew the electricity out and we soon found ourselves standing outside the studio, sipping on Thums Up in plastic glasses, as the boys grumbled about the “big players”.

“Speed Records doesn’t care about us,” Paras started. “They push people like Honey Singh, put him on TV, so that people will watch him and [he will] get more popular.”

“Why they’d waste their money on us?” asked Nottotune.

“True”, said Paras, “the music industry just wants to earn money.”

The conversation meandered into the inevitable grumble about rich kids with pretensions, with a brief detour to discuss Bollywood star Priyanka Chopra’s new single, ‘Exotic’, which she recorded in collaboration with Pitbull, and was recently the number one song on iTunes’ India chart.

Nottotune defended her. “She has an okay-ish voice.”

“With Auto-Tune, you can do anything,” offered his brother from a corner.

“At least she has some talent,” Nottotune retorted. “Most kids have no talent. Only lots of money from selling agricultural land, and that’s all it takes to cut an album. Only in Punjab!”

“It’s fucked up!” said Bigg Slim with a laugh. “Please [don’t] mind my language. But every singer today needs money; he goes to a studio and a producer says club mein chalni chahiye—it has to work on the club scene. People force them to sing like Honey Singh.”

“They [singers] come with gori ladki, BMWs they don’t own,” said Nottotune, “It would be awkward if you were standing in front of a Maruti.”

Nottotune then jumped to a story about meeting a music industry bigwig “He said, let’s record some rap. I said tell me the subject, I’ll write the rap. They said no, we will give you the lyrics, kyunki Honey Singh-wale-style chahiye. I said why should I? I have my own style and fan base. He said we don’t want your style. So they got another dude to sing as Honey.”

AMONG ALL THE RAPPERS who have made the difficult move from the fringe to the mainstream, the journey has been especially smooth for the former Mafia Mundeer crew boy Badshah, who used to be Honey Singh’s right hand man.

Born to a Haryanvi father and Punjabi mother, both of whom were government employees, it was obvious that they had a different career trajectory planned for him. “I got into St Stephen’s, in Delhi,” Badshah told me, laughing. We were meeting on my last day in Punjab, in the Backpackers Café. “My father wanted me to be an engineer, so I left Stephen’s and joined Punjab Engineering College, from where I got a degree in civil engineering,” the burly six-footer told me over iced tea and Caesar salad.

Badshah had begun life as a Backstreet Boys cover artist, but soon graduated to writing his own English songs and emceeing in Chandigarh clubs under the moniker Cool Equal (“just look at the name!” he exclaimed) with an American accent, “all thanks to MTV and Star Movies”. In 1998, after Panjabi MC released his now-legendary remix of ‘Mundian To Bach Ke’ (a folksy song originally written by Channi and sung by Labh Janjua), Badshah began to ask himself the hard questions. “I had never heard something like this before,” he told me. “I had no idea what it was. ‘Is this bhangra?’”

From 2002 to 2006, Badshah taught himself music. Fusion was doing well; the Indipop charts, for a while, appeared overwhelmed by a blend of Punjabi and hip-hop. In the West, new bhangra pop stars had appeared on the horizon. “I was very excited to hear Jay Sean and Richie Rich,” Badshah said.

Rappers Lucky and Nottotune. COURTESY ANKIT ROY

Badshah was doing small independent gigs with a classmate, who is now a bank probationary officer, when he was discovered by Honey Singh in 2006. The advice Badshah was offered by Singh would change his life. “He [Singh] said, ‘Here not more than 50 CDs from 50 Cent will sell. You are from India, why won’t you represent your own mother tongue?’” Badshah recounted. Badshah went on to work on several successful tracks with Honey Singh as part of Mafia Mundeer, including the sexually explicit ones like ‘Choot’ that he now regrets being a part of. He had come a long way from being that person, Badshah stressed to me.

The song that established his solo credentials after he left Mafia Mundeer in 2012 was ‘Saturday Saturday’, about a girl who comes to the city from the pind and transforms into a party animal. It was born when, after a phone call from a girlfriend, his cousin looked at him in exasperation and said “yeh ladkiyan bhi, jabh dekho Saturday Saturday karti rehte hai” (these girls, all they do is chant Saturday Saturday). Badshah was ready with the song the next day. “She is a lovely girl,” Badshah said of the song’s woman. “A girl who has never left Ludhiana, who wouldn’t even leave her house without asking for permission, and the minute she comes to Chandigarh, she keeps saying Saturday Saturday. Pind wich, bebe bebe karasi. Sheher aati hai, baby baby karti hai” (In the village they keep saying “bebe bebe” [Punjabi for mother]. Once they come to the city, it’s “baby baby”).

Big Boom Music Studios in Mohali is run by Paras, 21, and Bigg Slim, 23 (left), to support independent rappers like themselves. ANIL DAYAL FOR THE CARAVAN

Today, he has the backing of the biggest labels (from Speed to Universal and even Sony). He continues to collaborate with Honey Singh and other stars in the Punjabi pop firmament. In ‘Proper Patola’, his number with Diljit Dosanjh—who is wearing a T-shirt with the inscription “Urban Pendu”, and a scarf with the pattern of the American flag, and driving a vintage Chevrolet across Los Angeles’ cityscape—Badshah raps, “nakhra ae swag, suit patiala shahi, chunni teri black”, telling a girl how beautiful she looks in a patiala suit, compared to, as he mentions later in the song, “Gucci-Wucci”.

“In my heart I am still underground,” Badshah told me, neither of us unaware that he was currently checking every box requisite for breakout commercial success. With his new influence in the industry, he wants to sponsor independent artists like Nottotune and his crew. He says he wants to move on to meaningful songs, maybe those which say things like “‘Girl I am your fan’, rather than chedoing (harassing) her.”

“I have written Punjabi rap on female foeticide,” Badshah said. “I am planning to release it later this year.” Punjab is beautiful to him. “But people only write about Punjab di mundiyan, daaru (girls, booze),” he said. Its boys and its booze, and its cars, and its guns. “Gadiyaan! Banduk! Zaminey!”