The year was 1995. The song was Tupac Shakur’s ‘California Love.’ When a 10-year-old Ranveer Singh heard the track in his hometown, Mumbai, he felt the music touch a part of him he didn’t know existed. He raced to look up the lyrics, and needed to read them only once to commit them to memory.
“I was lured by the language,” Singh, now 34 and one of India’s 10 highest-earning actors, said in a recent interview. “And although the themes were very mature for me at the time, I feel like I still, even at that age, could recognise that there was something very authentic in the expression.”
In the years since Tupac’s G-funk single became one of the actor’s first hip hop memories, rap has become a significant part of his life that he’s endeavoured to integrate into his work. Earlier this year, he starred in ‘Gully Boy,’ a film that brought India’s burgeoning underground hip hop scene to the big screen. After its release, he was able to finish a project he’d begun two years before the movie was released: helping found a record label called IncInk dedicated to spotlighting young rappers who reflect the authenticity he has always admired.
“The one thing I love the most about the label is the fact that it’s no strings attached,” Singh said, explaining that the label’s concerns aren’t with view counts and likes. “It’s no pressure. It’s just creating freely. It’s unbound.”
‘Gully Boy,’ which was inspired by the lives of the Mumbai rappers Divine (Vivian Fernandes) and Naezy (Naved Shaikh), is India’s official entry to the 2020 Academy Awards. Divine and Naezy, known as “gully” (street) rappers, have been stalwarts of Indian hip hop for years, capturing the daily struggles, and giving voice to the frustrations, of the largely underprivileged masses in India. Their raps about class, caste and poverty caught fire around the nation, especially among younger generations. The film brought their work to the mainstream, and with Singh’s boost, earned them a wider audience.
The film also reflected what’s happening in Indian pop culture at large: Rap is gaining steam. In 2018, hip hop was the fastest-growing genre on the streaming service JioSaavn, according to the platform. Spotify, which was officially introduced in India earlier this year, has also seen demand grow.
“In India, the hip hop culture is becoming increasingly popular, with 18- to 34-year-olds driving consumption for rap across the country,” said Amarjit Batra, the managing director of Spotify India.
“Music in Hindi, Punjabi, Tamil and Telugu is widely consumed within the genre,” he said, “and we see emerging artists who are rapping in languages such as Bhojpuri, Haryanvi, Gujarati, Marathi and Bengali.”
With influences from American hip hop infused with sociopolitical vernacular, India’s underground hip hop scene has often been seen as a place to uplift voices of the masses. And while the genre has largely been dominated by men, female artists like Raja Kumari are gaining popularity. Bollywood has also picked up on the growing trend in recent years, including tracks by rappers like Badshah and Yo Yo Honey Singh in many film soundtracks.
After discovering Tupac, Singh kept other American rappers on a constant loop, including Snoop Dogg, Eminem and the Notorious B.I.G. His personal journey with hip hop continued through college, into one of his earliest jobs: When he wrote jingles at an advertising firm, he became known for a special skill set. “There used to be a running joke in the agency that if anyone needed anything to rhyme, like a tagline for a brand or a product, they should go see the rhyme doctor, who was an intern,” he said. “Me.”
A few years ago, he met the filmmaker and musician Navzar Eranee when the two collaborated on an ad for the clothing label Jack & Jones. The pair put out an original video featuring a rap by Singh and directed by Eranee. The response was so enthusiastic, the brand eventually did another clip and crowdsourced entries from people who wanted the chance to rap with Singh.
With buzz from ‘Gully Boy’ still reverberating a month after its February release, Singh and Navzar launched IncInk. The first three people signed were involved with the film: Kaam Bhaari, Spitfire and SlowCheeta.
Kaam Bhaari, whose real name is Kunal Pandagle, grew up in Kandivali East (a suburb of Mumbai) and refers to his humble beginnings frequently in his songs. Singh described the 20-year-old as a surprise package: “He’s diminutive and unassuming, and so when he gets on the mic and starts spitting the kind of venom that he does, it really takes you by storm.”
SlowCheeta, 28, born Chaitnya Sharma, grew up affluent, which Singh said gives him a different perspective as an artist: “It doesn’t mean that they don’t suffer from the agony of existence or that they don’t have things that they went through in their life that they can express and we maybe can connect with and learn from.”
Spitfire, 20, Nitin Mishra, who wrote the lyrics for the ‘Gully Boy’ favourite ‘Asli Hip Hop,’ is deft at expressing emotions in his rhymes, Singh said. The actor recalled the pair running into Javed Akhtar, one of India’s most beloved lyricists and poets, in the studio: “And he looked at Spitfire and said, ‘Hey, kid, you’re the one who’s going to put me out of a job soon.’”
Singh said watching the three rappers rise was like being a parent. “They remain grounded and humble,” he said, “and they remain honest, uncorrupted, freely expressing, authentic artists — and that’s something I’m extremely proud of.”
The label’s latest single is a Kaam Bhaari track called ‘Mohabbat,’ and Singh is proud to say there’s more to come.
“The place that I find myself in today is far beyond my wildest imagination,” he said. “I have this desire to give back, and this is my way of empowering a talent that I recognise, that I think is extremely special.”