Hip-hop is made up of five elements—rap, graffiti, breakdance, DJ and beatbox—and has its origins in the popular cultural practices of African Americans living in the marginal spaces, like the South Bronx in New York. In its global diffusion from the United States, majorly in its commercial form, hip-hop found its regional variations situated in subaltern identities and spaces. There are of course exceptions to this rule, such as with the dominant form of commercial hip-hop that separates itself from identity, oppression and struggle.
Hip-hop artists, in their interviews, across the globe have expressed that hip-hop is not just an art form, it is a way of living. The everydayness of hip-hop involves adapting the dressing sense to building a routine by engaging with a community of artists. The reconfiguration of this everydayness inevitably becomes a noticeable change in the artists’ neighbourhood and religious or caste community.
One can notice the Dharavi youth’s appearance resembling the dressing and hairstyles of popular hip-hop artists from India and abroad. The immediate family of the hip-hop artists as well as their locality have had varied reactions to this peculiar ‘self-styling’ and career choice. While artists such as B-boy Vikram who sports a ponytail and graffiti artist Pranay (also known as Sketchy Artist) who has long hair that is shorter on the sides haven’t faced any resistance from their surroundings, there are others like the rapper MC Afzal whose father relocated him to Chennai when he came to know his son was attending hip-hop classes. Usually, the community is more open to hip-hop and the lifestyle that comes with it when it sees the choices translate into sociocultural and socioeconomic growth. MC Afzal’s father, for instance, agreed to let him continue with hip-hop when he saw him perform in front of his favourite musician, A.R. Rahman, at The Dharavi Dream Project (TDDP), a pioneering school for Dharavi’s hip-hop artists.
Origin of Hip-hop in Dharavi
Before 2010, the hip-hop scene in Indian metropolises existed on online networks in the form of Orkut communities of artists who exchanged their rap poetry with peers. These communities often used to organise online cyphers (rap battles) in which two artists sent their poetry ‘dissing’ each other, and their peers voted to declare a winner. One such Orkut group that held rap battles and provided peer reviews was Insignia. Orkut hip-hop networks facilitated the formation of crews and allies, some of which went on to become professional crews producing albums and performing at big concerts such as Mumbai’s Finest.
While these networks existed, it was unimaginable to produce albums before 2010. In the 2010s, some of the artists and crews started producing hip-hop albums independently on YouTube. Mumbai’s young rappers like Divine and Naezy released their albums which made them popular in the city. Divine initially rapped in English and later switched to Hindi with his first hit ‘Ye Mera Bombay’ (This is my Bombay) and Naezy came to be known as the first gully rapper (a rapper whose poetry revolves around the life and struggle in the slums and poor neighbourhoods of Mumbai) with his debut album Aafat. If not for YouTube, many such Indian rappers would not have been able to come into media or public attention. Naezy lives in Kurla West and Divine lives in Andheri, and both use their area pin codes, Bombay 59 (five-nine) and Bombay 70 (satthar), respectively in their songs as reference to their gullies in the city.
Technological advancements such as affordable TV sets, mobile phones, walkmans, tape recorders, DVD players, VCR players and the internet penetrated marginal spaces like Dharavi, increasing access to international music and popular culture. Many hip-hop artists claim that the technological advancements played an important role in making hip-hop accessible to them, and that they eventually grew passionate about the art form.
Hip-hop scene in Dharavi is one of the earliest microscenes in Mumbai and India that began before the 2010s. Dharavi, unlike many other microscenes of Indian hip-hop, has a good number of artists from each hip-hop element, proving that its brand of hip-hop is deservedly lauded all over the country.
From Hip-hop Consumers to Producers
The transition from consuming to producing hip-hop took nearly a decade in Dharavi. Dopeadelicz’s rapper Tony Sebastian states that there were many crews among Dharavi’s neighbourhoods even before 2010s, but they were scattered and there was an absence of a platform for networking.
One of the earliest Dharavi hip-hop groups who started around 2010, SlumGods, was dominated by b-boys (male breakdancers) though it consisted of rappers, beatboxers and graffiti artists. Somewhere in 2010–2012, SlumGods started breakdancing classes for young boys as well as girls from their neighbourhoods close to Shahu Nagar in Dharavi. Some of the contemporary b-boys like Vikram started learning breakdance at these classes held by SlumGods. The SlumGod crew members went beyond their scope of work to spread the hip-hop culture in Dharavi; they reached out to the parents of the young hip-hop prodigies to persuade them and also provided the students necessary accessories, such as shoes, through philanthropic help.
Crews like Dopeadelicz were the first to start producing rap videos on YouTube. During 2010–2013, some of these videos went viral among Dharavi’s youth. By then, Dharavi’s youth had a basic level of access to the internet and mobile phones. The young people in the locality took notice of their friends and acquaintances becoming popular on social media. Although this was just a start as the performers were no household celebrities, the shift eventually made the youth contemplate pursuing hip-hop as practitioners rather than consumers.
The hope and wonder of the period can be gauged from talking to emerging hip-hop crews from Dharavi. 7 Bantai’z, a crew of seven youngsters from Dharavi who rap in Tamil, Marathi, Telugu and English, recall:
One of our friends showed us a hip-hop [rap] video of Dopeadelicz on YouTube and said that the performers are from Dharavi. We didn’t believe him. We were like ‘ho hi nahi sakta, style aur dressing dekh unki. Kya hateli bathe karte ho’ [it’s not possible, look at their dressing and mannerisms. Why are you trying to fool us?]. But later, on Ganpathi Visarjan [Ganesha immersion] celebrations in 2012 he took us to their performance. We were shocked to see that they are really from our hood. We felt like why can’t we do it since someone like us from Dharavi is doing it. Then we formed our crew immediately.
The 7 Bantai’z members are friends since their high-school days and all of them live in walkable distance from Kamraj School on 90 Feet Road.
Changing the Face of Dharavi
Since 2012–2013, Ganesh Mitra Mandal of Dharavi has been organising hip-hop performances comprising live rap and breakdance during the Ganesh Chaturthi procession. This trend was later imitated by many other official pandals at the neighbourhood level. Young artists in contemporary Dharavi say that they found their inspiration to pursue hip-hop from some of these live performances during Ganpathi visarjan (immersion of Ganesh idols). Some of the other important sources of inspiration for the youth to embrace hip-hop as artists are live performances at college and school festivals in and around Dharavi; live performances at family and community functions in Dharavi; and live cyphers of rap, breakdance and beatboxing.
These events not only exhibit the talents of contemporary youth to the next generation but also convince some parents to let their children pursue their passion since they are ‘on the stage as a performer rather than setting up the stage as a worker,’ as Ms Vanilla, mother of independent, budding beatboxer Rahul says. The parents might sense respect for their children or family in the applause and recognition they see hip-hop performers receive during live performances from the community and neighbourhood. Part of the working class for three–four generations who built Dharavi from a scratch, this mass adulation is something the residents cannot fathom. They now see their children rebuilding the identity of Dharavi as a performance space among Mumbai’s masses.
Hip-hop has changed the cultural flavour of Dharavi in many ways. A middle-aged security staff at a concert of Dharavi hip-hop performers at Worli’s Famous Studios, who was once a Dharavi resident, confirms:
I am from Dharavi. I lived there for more than 20 years until I moved to Kurla after marriage. I never saw anything like this in Dharavi back then. It is hard for me to believe some children from Dharavi are going to perform in this studio. I am working here but they are performing here. I know the difference because I know the kind of people who come to perform here and the kind of people who come to watch those performances. They are not ‘us’. Also, I was married young and I see young girls from Dharavi among the performers today. I see change among the parents of these girls because they are sending their children to learn and perform along with boys.
Hip-hop classes started by the SlumGods crew became regular and popular with corporate funding and support from a Mumbai-based digital media company called Qyuki, founded by Shekhar Kapur, A.R. Rahman and Samir Bangara. It became a school and, eventually, the school became The Dharavi Dream Project (TDDP) after the Qyuki management disassociated itself from SlumGods and started independently running the school by employing new tutors for every element. Currently, TDDP organises its classes in the school Ganesh Vidya Mandir near Dharavi Cross Road during evening hours after the school children leave for home.
In 2014, The Guardian released its documentary, The SlumGods of Mumbai on Dharavi’s hip-hop scene. The documentary had SlumGods’s school at centre of its narrative. Later, few other national and international TV and news channels released their coverage of Dharavi’s hip-hop. These videos coupled with some of the most successful Indian rap videos like ‘Mere Gully Mein’ made hip-hop more popular in the city and this was quickly capitalised by Bollywood.
The current generation of hip-hoppers, as young as eight to 10 years old, is guided by their seniors within the neighbourhood. B-boy Vikram, who started his b-boying career as a youngster back in 2012–2013 at the SlumGods’ classes, teaches advanced b-boying at TDDP. This chain of guidance by senior artists encourages many young kids in the neighbourhoods to start as soon as possible. The number of rappers, beatboxers, breakdancers and graffiti artists is growing. Artists feel confident that they will find a stage to perform if they are from Dharavi, as it has become a brand in Indian hip-hop. The young generation of artists, those who started hip-hop 2015 on, also agree to the fact that the recognition has been possible because of the senior artists who were there even before the 2010s.
Towards and after the 2010s, the scene in Dharavi started taking shape with constant efforts by the consumers who started viewing themselves as artists ready to produce hip-hop. The live performances and cyphers, networks, reputations, guidance and accessibility to hip-hop styling, all combined to create Dharavi’s hip-hop culture rooted in gully consciousness.
The Tradition of Live Concerts
Hip-hop’s popularity among Mumbai’s youth ensured that there would be mandatory hip-hop performances in college and school functions. Rapper Kadhal Jack from the Kacheri Moment crew says:
We go to several college functions nearby to perform or to watch our friends performing. Some of the notable annual college functions that Dharavi’s youth attend are Ehlaan of SIWS College, Visions of SIES College of Arts, Science and Commerce, Zeal of Guru Nanak Commerce College, and Fantasies of SIES Commerce and Economics College.
The hierarchy in demand for artists is correlated with their experience, success and networks. Many of the senior artists like Dopeadelicz, 7 Bantai’z and MC Altaf are busy performing stage shows in concerts and clubs across Mumbai and other major metropolises. After them come the mid-level artists, both young and senior, who lack success and networks but are able to go through auditions to perform in college festivals and sometimes in Mumbai’s clubs; however, their performances are mostly restricted to Mumbai. The youngest artists with a comparatively smaller period of experience explore their opportunities to perform in schools, community festivals and family functions; some of the more talented performers among them make it to college festivals as well. But one thing common to all three of the categories is that they do not overlook their neighbourhoods despite the level of success or experience, and they keep performing in Ganpathi pandals every year. For the Tamil Dharavi artists, performing at Pongal celebrations becomes a stage of opportunity as they win some local attention and respect.
For all the artists irrespective of their networks and success, presence on social media is mandatory, as given its affordability and enormous expanse, it has become the most reliable source of gaining popularity.
The Networks of Social, Physical and Virtual Space
Mobile phone and internet accessibility have become pervasive in contemporary Dharavi. These two technological phenomena facilitate the production of ‘virtual space’ for Dharavi’s artists and crews in the form of personal accounts on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Many young artists like MC Afzal, Saran BBX, and MC Siddu say that before they joined TDDP, they all used to google rap, graffit, and beatbox content for references to learn.
TDDP’s presence on social media platforms like LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are immensely contributing to generate funds, gather collaborators as well as volunteers to tutor students. While a jazz band called Alexander’s Trio from France collaborated for fusion with TDDP’s beatboxers for a number of live shows in Pune and Mumbai, another opera singer from Switzerland came back to TDDP to negotiate the production of a new fusion album as a previous project was successful.
Pranay, who is learning graffiti with TDDP, says:
I post all my graffiti work and some interesting works of other artists on my Instagram account. A lot of people follow me on Instagram, and they are from different parts of Mumbai and outside. I follow graffiti artists like NME bhai and few other popular artists on Instagram and some of them also follow me back since they realise my work is good and interesting.
Beatboxer Saran BBX (Saravanan Selvaraj) also mentions that he has a YouTube channel like his other friends at TDDP and all of them make videos with minimal editing and upload them on YouTube. Artists at TDDP say that everyone with a smartphone mandatorily has accounts on social media as accessing content on the internet is also a way to keep up with trends in Indian and international hip-hop. Those who do not have a smartphone seek help from their friends.
While some successful artists like Dopeadelicz have corporate sponsors to bear production costs, in the absence of corporate sponsors to produce their videos, young artists rely on each other to expand their viewership on YouTube. With changing times, Dharavi hip-hop artists such as 7 Bantai’z are also venturing into other music streaming platforms, like Spotify, Wynk, Hungama, Saavn and Gaana, to release their audio content online.
Messages of the Medium
Dharavi hip-hop artists rap about their personal lives in which they speak about their aspirations, struggle, unchanging life and even issues such as domestic violence. It is their surroundings, which they fondly call hood, that majorly inspires artists in Dharavi. Sometimes the artists also write on casteism and religious discrimination, and associated exclusion of their communities. An important aspect of Dharavi’s rap is that they see Mumbai city from the lens of gullies. While they rap about the city, they do not speak about South Bombay or Bandra, rather they depict the daily life of the poor neighbourhoods and chawls. Their lived reality in their neighbourhoods is resonant in their rap poetry. The Dharavi hip-hoppers often diss artists and general masses from privileged backgrounds through their poetry. As with the use of metaphors such as Divine’s ‘Mere joothe me tu chal ke toh dekh’ (You try walking in my shoes) from his album Suede Gully, Dharavi’s hip-hop challenges the privileged to walk the path filled with obstacles. The resonance of metaphors and symbolism to depict inequality in poetry can be found even among Dharavi’s young artists. Describing his friend Divine’s rap, Joel D’souza from the Gully Gang crew says:
Everything he has written in his song is from his experience. That is how we really relate to his music. We will be like what he just said, I have done [experienced] it too. He is from the gully; I am from gully. He is living alone, and I am living alone. So, why can’t I do this too?
While Dharavi’s hip-hop’s social messages centre around their locality, they are not restricted to it. For instance, while MC Afzal from TDDP mostly writes about his neighbourhood and the kind of struggles his community goes through due to social differences, class inequality, corruption and the state’s apathy, MC Siddu, MC Its N Jr and MC ASK from TDDP have written their popular rap song called ‘Aisa Kyun Bantai’ (Why is this, this way, dude?) on gender inequality and violence on women. Stony Psyko from Dopeadelicz wrote his most popular rap song, ‘Aai Shapath Sahib Me Navtho’ (I swear, I am not lying, sir) on the experiences of Dharavi’s youth while encountering police on an everyday basis. In his rap song, he explains his experience of being stopped by a police officer who suspected him of carrying marijuana because he comes from Dharavi and dresses like a ‘hipster’. In his interview, Stony Psyko asserts that this is not just his experience but most of Dharavi’s youth had to go through this kind of police interrogation on an everyday basis. Hip-hop in Dharavi has become a medium for the contemporary youth to express and reimagine themselves, and to make a career in the entertainment industry with support from their families, communities and institutions.
 Divine, ‘Divine—Yeh Mera Bombay (Prod. by RJV & Sez).’
 Naezy TV, ‘Aafat! - Naezy (Introductory Verses).’
 Sony Music India, ‘Mere Gully Mein—Divine Feat. Naezy | Official Music Video with Subtitles.’
 VICE Asia, ‘Kya Bolta Bantai? —The Rise of Mumbai Rap.’
 7 Bantai’z crew, in conversation with the author.
 Security staff, Worli’s Famous Studios, in conversation with the author.
 The Guardian, ‘The SlumGods of Mumbai: Hope, Hip-Hop and the Dharavi Way | Guardian Docs.’
 Sony Music India, ‘Mere Gully Mein—Divine Feat. Naezy | Official Music Video with Subtitles.’
 Rapper Kadhal Jack, in conversation with the author.
 Dust of Soul, ‘Dust of Soul—Victory (Official Video) Feat. Mc Siddu | the Dharavi Dream Project Mumbai.’
 Pranay, in conversation with the author.
 Puma, ‘Puma India | Suede Gully.’
 Divine, ‘Gully Life—The Story of Divine (Full Movie).’
 Dopeadelicz, ‘Dopeadelicz—Aai Shapath Saheb Me Navtho.’
 VICE Asia, ‘Kya Bolta Bantai? —The Rise of Mumbai Rap.’
Divine. 2013. ‘Divine - Yeh Mera Bombay (Prod. by RJV & Sez).’ YouTube. November 16, 2013. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n1mvcr7YyEE.
———. 2019. ‘Gully Life—The Story of Divine (Full Movie).’ YouTube. July 17, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hjmqRgIoHP8.
Dopeadelicz. 2019. ‘Dopeadelicz—Aai Shapath Saheb Me Navtho.’ YouTube. May 15, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hf9mBIwdQnw.
Dust of Soul. 2019. ‘Dust of Soul—Victory (Official Video) Feat. Mc Siddu | The Dharavi Dream Project Mumbai.’ YouTube. November 2, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jcRn2q4qz2k.
Naezy TV. 2014. ‘Aafat! - Naezy (Introductory Verses).’ YouTube. January 7, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Wwo36tHg2bw.
Puma. 2017. ‘Puma India | Suede Gully.’ YouTube. October 30, 2017. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6Twmltjg5Ks.
Sony Music India. 2015. ‘Mere Gully Mein—Divine Feat. Naezy | Official Music Video with Subtitles.’ YouTube. April 16, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1bK5dzwhu-I.
The Guardian. 2014. ‘The SlumGods of Mumbai: Hope, Hip-Hop and the Dharavi Way | Guardian Docs.’ YouTube. December 1, 2014. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5PEzPavEmE.
VICE Asia. 2019. ‘Kya Bolta Bantai? —The Rise of Mumbai Rap.’ YouTube. January 10, 2019. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pbH0PV5BLNI.