Written by Keshav Pandya
What is hip-hop? What exactly is ‘hip-hop culture’? What is the purpose of this art form? Why has hip-hop grown to such heights today?
KRS-One, one of the greatest rap MC’s of all-time, put it simple yet emphatically in his song, “Rap V.V.s Hip-Hop.” He said, “Rap is something you do, hip-hop is something you live.” He’s also been quoted as saying, “Hip-hop is an understanding that you are hip-hop itself. But, first you must get the feeling of the culture.” Later, this hip-hop scholar and founding father, goes on to explain how hip-hop is that which uplifts people, and that which people can identify with. He explains that the hip-hop has four groups: the rapper, the DJ, the graffiti artist, and the breakdancer. The legendary rapper emphasizes that hip-hop is not about the records, the hit tracks, and the babes and bank accounts. Hip-hop is a way of life, he explains.
Today, hip-hop culture has reached the world over and there are tons of many celebrities and millionaires associated with this culture. However, hip-hop was born in a time and place where people were born with little hope and opportunities. As soon as they opened their eyes they saw a world of poverty and violence. In such times, hip-hop was born. Hip-hop gave the avenue for these people to rise up, explore their creativity, speak their minds, and possess the mentality that they can truly achieve anything with the music in their hearts, and the willpower for their art.
Hip-hop culture has moved around the world in its commercial and mainstream sense. But, hip-hop has also seen its rebirth in its truest and purest form in the alleys and slums of Dharavi, Mumbai,the biggest slum in both India and the world.
India’s first hip-hop collective group,the SlumGods, was born in 2008. Falling in love with the hip-hop that uplifts and gives a medium to express and arise, the SlumGods is a hip-hop group that has rappers, break-dancers, graffiti artists, and DJ’s. Starting off in the most difficult environments, the group learned to exist, bond over the music, teach the young children the beauty of hip-hop, and also grow to fame all over India.
Today an NGO, the SlumGods have collaborated with Indian music artists, and have recently started the Dharavi Project with two-time Academy-Award-winning composer, A.R. Rahman , and film director, Shekhar Kapur.
Having gained fame and popularity, when asked what they thought of the sudden fame. The group members said, “Our purpose was never for that. All we know is that hip-hop can give help us do the best for the society around us.”
Pop-Break got the opportunity to interview to the new torchbearers of world hip-hop culture, the SlumGods.
I’d like to start off with a question on the history of this amazing group. How did all begin?
Akash: We fell in love with the dance form of b-boying in 2008 and started teaching the kids of Dharavi how to do dance. To teach us, we didn’t have many people. So we would watch videos and learn, and also teach the kids. Then in 2009, we made the group of hip-hop dancers. The name of the crew was influenced by the Academy Award-winning movie, Slumdog Millionaire. We weren’t big fans of the title, and the way the slums were portrayed in the film. So we called ourselves with pride, the SlumGods.
A little time later, we experienced that there is more things in hip-hop culture besides b-boying, like singing, rapping, and even more dance forms in this culture. I met Vijil in college and Faizal (Fuze) when I was practicing at a hall, and are understanding of the culture and the dance forms grew and grew. I travelled more and met more dancers and crewmates, and eventually we even gained rap artists in this group. Today, we have beat-boxers, rapper, b-boying dancers, and even graffiti artists. In this way, we made a crew that projects and covers the whole hip-hop culture. We are India’s first hip-hop collective. And it all began from Dharavi.
That’s amazing. Why did you want the make a crew like this though? And for the others, what made you want to join a crew like this?
Akash: I made it because we are all so passionate for hip hop culture. And we never thought that through hip-hop we will make money for ourselves. But rather, through hip-hop, we believed we can bring some change in our community. We focus more on how we can bring positive changes in our world through hip-hop.
Vijil: I lived near Akash. We met in college and I too loved breakdancing and the hoip-hop culture. I saw that he wanted to bring a change in Dharavu, which also quite positive for hip hop. Watching Aku (Akash), I joined SlumGods and wanted to be part of this positive change.
Fuze (Faizal): I also started in 2008, and I heard about this crew that wanted to teach the kids of Dharavi about hip-hop and how amazing it is. To kids who wanted to learn about hip-hop from Dharavi, we focused on them and taught them. We spread hip-hop culture positively to them. We started going to other places to teach as well, and became group in 2009, that was primarily dancing but eventually grew to other art forms like rapping.
Like you guys said, hip-hop is a prevalent culture now. It started off in America, and now is a world famous culture. And for many people, especially those who live in an environment that is not as privileged, hip-hop is a medium to say “I can do something. I can be something.” Clearly, you guys believe hip-hop can do that too for the people and places in India. But, what inspired and influenced you in believing that hip-hop can do the same for the people of India and especially Dharavi?
Akash: When we started, we weren’t experienced in any other art form or even dance. When we learned hip-hop, it made us feel good and better about ourselves. It was the only art we had. And I realized that if I could bring positive change in my environment, it is through what I had: hip-hop. And that’s why we love it. We’re especially inspired when we see the kids. These kids used to waste their times after school. We become happy by seeing theme spend their time on an art form now. Thing like these continue to inspire us, and we realize can bring positive change if we continue to do it in the right way. In these six years, we’ve also started doing a “Tours and Travel” company that allows foreigners to see our crew and also the environment of Dharavi changing in a positive way. Even now, we’ve been able to reach the Dharavi Project with Mr. Rahman and Mr. Shekhar Kapur, and also have become an NGO. This is also because of the positivity in the culture of hip-hop. This inspires us to do more.
Vicky: I used to watch a few videos with Akash earlier with people doing breakdancing. We could only get access to like two-to-three videos, and we learned b-boying from there. But we became so attracted to this hip-hop dance form that we practiced more, and later learned that it was more popular in the public. We took part in dance battles in the competitions, and people started knowing who were. We started getting more communications and connections with others, and it became an environment of like-minded people. People came together and started sharing more as a unit. This popularity grew and grew internationally eventually all because of the environment that hip-hop created for us. We lived like a unit and artists. This happens a lot because of the hip-hop culture.
What situations did you guys have to face when you first started, or even today? Were there any struggles along the way for the SlumGods?
Akash: It was very hard in the beginning, and the difficulties continue to stay. A lot of it comes from family issues. When we try to teach dances and other hip-hop music to the kids, the parents become hesitant because of they have a notion that hip-hop means wasting your time. Also, there are a lot of ups and downs within the crew. It’s a challenge to make the positivity of hip hop a lifestyle that sustains. There were a few crewmates who left us because of some personal issues.
Fuse: When we started dancing and trying to spread the word about our group, our school life would suffer sometimes. And that’s why, my family was hesitant that I go on with it. Pressure from work, school, and family started coming. You’re expected to bring food on the table. We had to face a distance from our hip-hop culture. Even today, I face problems in my family, and many people disband from our group because of these issues. But, we understand that hip-hop is a beautiful, peaceful culture in its purest form. That excitement and understanding keep us going.
Martin: After I finished school, I started sitting at home, and also got pressured from my family to start working. The only thing that gave me peace and happiness at that time was hip-hop dancing and music. That was the one thing I had, and kept doing it. Hip-hop is made for peace, love, and unity. And I want to bring that society. It’s the only thing that gives me satisfaction.
There’s become this understanding that hip-hop culture is a “gangster” or “criminal” culture. People have negative connotations to this culture all over the word. When you call it a “peaceful culture,” or when you strive to bring out the positives of this culture to the younger generation, how do you do it, considering there’s the negatives as well?
Akash: Actually Keshav, based on my experiences, all of these aren’t the negatives of hip-hop, these are the negatives of people. The culture is pure and has good intentions, but it’s the people and the gangsters that bring the negatives. Today, we see people drinking, partying, smoking, and gang fighting, we associate that with hip-hop. But, the SlumGods have understood that’s not what hip-hop really is. Hip-hop was meant to remove this negativity in life. hip-hop is meant to uplift people, and motivate them to become greater. If you want to know real hip-hop, you need to know that hip hop is that which teaches you something valuable and then silently goes away. It’s the lifestyle of these other people that makes hip-hop culture look bad. We understand that, and we try to fight that, and uplift our people through hip-hop.
Moving on, you guys are huge in India now and growing in popularity. Your beginnings, intensity for the culture, and popularity are like a hip-hop group in America. Recently, you guys joined hands with Shekhar Kapur and A.R. Rahman for the “Dharavi Project.” What are some new and future projects and ideas for the SlumGods?
Vijil: Musically, we’ve tried expanding ourselves. I’ve tried using live instruments that are less known. Tribal instruments like morchang, from Rajasthan, and kalimba, I’ve started to use and learn to add on new elements in to hip-hop. It’s fun experimenting in hip-hop. It’s really fun to do it with our beatboxers. I think we’re the first to combine beatboxing with rap, and with live tribal instruments all together.
That’s awesome. I think I saw some instrument you guys used during the GiMA Awards (a prestigious music award show for Indian musicians, where the SlumGods performed).
Vijil: Yeah that was the Didgeridoo, an Australian tribal instrument. You blow into it like a horn, it an amazing sound comes out. I thought it would beautifully with rap. Today, people in India have this notion that hip-hop is purely about partying, drinking, smoking, and bragging about your cars. People follow too much Honey Singh (a contemporary hip-hop star in India). (Laughs)
Vijil: But, it’s much more than that. There are the various genres, the music, the rap, the rhymes, and the dance, that we were attracted to initially.
Akash: So we recently also became an NGO. It can really help us became more worldwide, and also garner support and money for the livelihood of those living in Dharavi and the slums.
Congrats on that!
Akash: Thanks man. The NGO was an old idea, but it finally went through the legal procedures and happened. Our fans are going in popularity, and we’ve also started the tradition of rap battles in India. They’re called the “Brutal Battles,” on YouTube. It’s an opportunity for talented rappers to gain the spotlight form Dharavi to the public. The hosts of these shows are little kids. Not only do they gain confidence from this, the kids also are taught to speak in English. They need English in today’s world, and we’re trying that in these ways we can teach these kids how to learn English and be prepared for the real world. We don’t want them to face the difficulties we faced. We don’t want these kids to face pressures from the family, and pressures from society to conform. Instead, they are prepared because they have hip-hop and they have the SlumGods.
How were you experiences collaborating with Academy-Award winning musician, A.R. Rahman and the director, Shekhar Kapur?
Vijil: It was really awesome. Last year we didn’t have that many rappers, and eventually we got more and more. We joined Qyuki, a medium for many musicians and artists to display their work to the world. We learned about video displaying, optimization, and got our social media mediums. We learned a lot and Qyuki helped a lot.
Vicky: And then, Rahman sir and Kapur sir saw our work and really liked it. They started the Dharavi Project, where they can collaborate with us, and also garner support for our work and the people living in Dharavi. People were entertained by our work, and lots of Bollywood (India’s film industry, the world’s largest film industry) artists hope to collaborate with us as well. They love our work, and we’re happy about that.
When it comes to teaching the younger talent about hip-hop and the dance moves, how do you guys go about in doing that? How do you really teach these kids and the families about the art forms?
Vijil: It’s definitely a hard process, but very fun as well. The hurdles we had to face socially, economically, and from our families, we don’t want these kids to face them as well, but we also want them to love the hip-hop culture. We get them involved in freestyle dance sessions and freestyle rap battles. They are given beatboxing roles and we teach them that art as well.
Fuze: When they go to their parents, the kids explain to their parents that hip-hop is something that can be peaceful, and can help us think in a positive ways. Hip-hop is meant for peace, not for war. We teach the kids and the society around us that rap is something that can help us convey a message to people. It’s said that, “We can see God through the eyes of children.” We want to make these kids understand that and live by that.
Who were your influences and inspirations even today when you look at music and hip-hop?
Akash: Many times, when I first started, I used to watch only one video on b-boying that was available in Dharavi. I would study it and watch it over and over again, until I learned the basic steps. Eventually, I learned from my breakdancing teacher who is also from the U.S.
Fuze: I was influenced when I watched videos from the old school breakdancers, and poppers like Popping Salah. I fell in love with it.
Vicky: Akash and I used to learn whenever we found time from our teacher who came randomly. It could sometimes be once a week, or once a year. I had zero knowledge about hip-hop, until I watched one or two videos about it. There were documentaries on hip-hop, and I slowly fell in love with it all. I watched and listened to KRS-One, who probably has the most knowledge about hip-hop.
How did the rapping start for the SlumGods? Today, that’s what is primarily famous for you guys and in the world. How did the collaborations with the movie industry, and other rappers all around the world begin and come about?
Vijil: I first understood the beauty of rap when I heard one of our SlumGods’ rappers named, Poetic Justice. He explained it all to me, and from there we grew even more.
Akash: I saw a lot of cyphers from a lot of people in the U.S., and I decided that we should have them here in Dharavi and India as well. We started bringing rappers from Mumbai together, and we started seeing newer talents frequently. And eventually, we added our own instruments, and our own songs to it all. Today we have our own rappers, beatboxers, one DJ, one graffiti artist, many dancers, and drummers, all part of our team. It’s like a family.
The SlumGods have grown so much and expanded throughout the world. Many people associate themselves with your group. What are the places part of this expansion?
Akash: Actually, there are three main places. Well it started in Dharavi, so Mumbai, India. Then we have Delhi, and Vaisak, India groups as well. There was also Mandeep Sethi from Los Angeles who was associated with us for a while. Lots of people came and left, but our unit stayed firm, and our popularity has grown.
How did you guys react to people coming and leaving the group?
Akash: It’s part of the hip-hop culture that you do collaborations and then you leave. We had to be ready for that.
Vicky: Two times SlumGods broke and started again. But, we remain firm and we learn a lot about life from these ups and downs.
To conclude, if you had to describe to the world, to the people, in the simplest way, what the SlumGods are, what would you say?
Fuze: Slumgods is a way of life.
Vijil: I agree with Fuze. It’s something that’s taught us how to live and stay strong. It all started in the slums of Dharavi but as grown in most of India and beyond that. People looked Dharavi, and used to say, “Oh Dharavi, the dirty place.” But, now people come and say, “Dharavi the place where SlumGods are.” The SlumGods has given given a purpose to uplift, and to live through hip-hop.
Martin: The SlumGods have helped me do what I love.
Vicky: SlumGods is all about living the artist life. There’s the freedom to do what you believe in, and it also feels good because famous people know us now and appreciate our work.
Akash: It’s given us all self-esteem. It’s an asset for all of living in Dharavi, and in India. It’s a change in perception about life. Instead of looking at ourselves as unfortunate, we look up and understand that we can achieve anything if we put our mind into it. People all over the world are supporting us. Hip-hop has given us this.