Desi Hip Hop Evolution
Yashica Dutt · June 22, 2018 · 3 Minute Read
For more Desi hip hop, check out our timeline of the artists, albums, and moments that changed the genre, forever!
Hip-hop music has been a game-changing cultural force since it swept across the U.S. in the ’70s. A genre with distinctly urban roots, hip-hop is defined by its stylized rhythmic beats and rhyming spoken verse, commonly known as rap. But hip-hop today is no longer distinctly American, it’s become a far more global enterprise. It has taken root far and wide across languages and cultures. We can thank the hip-hop forefathers for the gift that’s taken South Asia by storm – Desi Hip Hop.
Desi Hip-Hop’s Origins
Hip-hop didn’t really arrive in South Asia until the ’90s. The godfather of Desi Hip Hop and the person credited with coining its name is none other than Bohemia, a.k.a. Roger David. It was the diaspora that gave rise to this musical form so it only made sense that it is named appropriately. Desi, meaning “one from our country” refers to Indians, Pakistanis, and Bengalis living abroad.
Early Desi Hip Hop Artists
Born in Karachi in 1979, he moved to Oakland, California in 2000 to join his cousin working at a recording studio. It was there that he met a producer named Sha One who encouraged him to try rapping some Punjabi verses he’d written. He knew he had something. Fast forward and you have his 2002 release Vich Pardesan De (In the Foreign Land). The album was a fascinating new sound that hit on some of the classic hip-hop tropes. It was an album that told a story and was autobiographical, capturing the life of a Desi youngster who’d moved to a strange new country. His follow-up 2006 album, Pesa Nasha Pyar, a full-length Punjabi rap album, became the first of its kind released by a major record label. These albums sparked the fire that would evolve into the Desi Hip Hop scene that we know today, but at the time it was still something new and not nearly as mainstream. The launch of MTV India in 1996 provided these fresh-faced Indian rappers (mostly rapping in English) the opportunity to connect with a larger audience.
Rajinder Singh Rai, a.k.a. Panjabi MC, a British national, chose his stage name to reflect the cultural influence of both the music samples and rap verses you’ll find in his songs. His game-changing 1998 remix of the bhangra track “Mundian To Bach Ke” (“Beware of the Boys”) became an international sensation and helped put Desi Hip Hop on the map. A version of the song was even re-released that featured Jay-Z.
Steven Kapur, a.k.a. Apache Indian, is from a Punjabi family living in Birmingham, U.K. Influenced by the reggae bands Steel Pulse and UB40 that hailed from his area, he began pursuing music himself. He gained acclaim as a DJ and eventually released a 1990 jam called “Movie Over India” that mixed ragga and bhangra stylings in a way that was immensely popular. He eventually introduced the new hybrid genre of dance music called bhangramuffin, which became wildly influential.
As a diverse musical talent, he’s one of the O.G.’s when it comes to Hindi rap. His rise in the early 00’s had a major tie to the airplay he received on MTV India and he quickly became a cultural mainstay. His remake of “Ice Ice Baby” titled “Thanda Thanda Pani” was a huge hit, as was “Manjula.”
Today’s Desi Hip Hop Artists
Aditya Prateek Singh Sisodia a.k.a. Badshah has benefitted from the Desi Hip Hop artists that came before him. Amongst the most popular Indian artists at present, he’s managed to achieve wide-scale acclaim by releasing Hindi, Haryanvi and Punjabi songs. At the beginning of his rise, he created music alongside fellow accomplished artist Yo Yo Honey Singh in the group Mafia Mundeer. Bollywood has a lot to do with the mainstream popularity of Desi Hip Hop stars of today, as it wasn’t as accessible for previous generations of rap artists. Known for collaborating with other super talented artists, Badshah’s track “DJ Waley Babu” flew up the charts within a day of its release.
Hirdesh Singh a.k.a. Yo Yo Honey Singh born in Punjab to a Sikh family, and studied music in the U.K. before making the move to Delhi. He began his career as a music producer and eventually worked his way behind the mic. His song “Lak 28 Kudi Da” topped the charts in 2011 and began his meteoric rise to industry dominance. His music leans mostly on Hindi and Punjabi, as has become common with India’s biggest rap stars of today. Singh’s influence on Bollywood is evident at the box office as he’s been a central figure in a wide list of hits over the last few years.
The Desi Hip Hop game continues to evolve and become more and more popular across India as the stars have moved from underground to the main stage. It will be interesting to watch the next generation of Desi Hip Hop Artists take the game to the next level.
Now that you know the history, it’s time to listen to our Desi Hip Hop playlist filled some of the hottest tracks from the genre!