From Hindustani classical to hip-hop

Will I be able to do it? What if I end up making a joke of myself? Many questions came to my mind when my colleague asked me to try rapping and write a story about the experience.

I am a classically trained singer. I sing Hindustani music and devotional songs based on ragas. “Let’s see what happens when you try to rap,” my colleague said. I liked the idea, but before I could mull on it, she sent me off with a deadline, and the contact number of Kannada rapper Gubbi.

When I broke the news to my parents, they were taken aback. My grandmother mocked me: ‘Idondu baaki ittu ninage kaliyodakke’ (‘You had this one stupid thing left to explore’). My friends were shocked. But one was chuffed. He said, “Wow! Soon we will have a rapper among us.”

I come from a conservative family who believes rap is verbal abuse masquerading as music. I am quiet, and don’t open up easily. My dress sense is basic and formal — no oversized hoodies, neon-colour caps, chains and rings.

But there was no looking back. My
colleagues were already asking me if I could rap for them.

Classes begin

Before the virtual classes, I decided to read up about my mentor Gubbi, whose full name is Karthik Sundar Gubbi. He is 32 and is a full-time musician. His tracks are a hit on YouTube and ‘Gubbi — Outta This World (Beautiful Day)’ has logged a staggering 3.07 lakh views.

Gubbi appeared on the screen and said ‘hello’ in a gentle voice. He was wearing fancy shades, earrings and a chain. My first fear: Would I have to dress like him?

He spoke about the history of rap and its evolution since the 1970s. The Blacks used it to speak out against oppression. The story goes that they weren’t allowed in discos, so they started their own backyard parties known as block parties. DJ Kool Herc was the first to host a hip hop party. It was on August 11, 1973, at Sedgwick Avenue in New York. Over time, the gangsters took to rapping, he said.

In the hour-long class, he spoke to me about his own 16-year career, and his idol Eminem, whose early life was fraught with poverty and abuse.

He asked me to watch documentaries on rap. ‘Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap’ by American rapper Ice-T is a good one. I also liked ‘Hip-Hop Evolution’, and ‘Tupac: Resurrection’.

Gubbi belted out rap songs to demonstrate beats, styles and punchlines. I could barely make out the lyrics.

These sessions were held twice a week, adding up to 10 hours in all. I was to do my homework on the days I didn’t have training.

I added new songs to my playlist, to listen to on my way to work. Now I had tracks by American rappers like Eminem and Russ alongside my folder of devotional songs!

Raps by Drake from Canada, and Raftaar, Badshaah, All Ok, MC Bijju, Brodha V, EmmJee, and Urmi from India soon populated my list.

I disliked the genre initially but I came around, especially after listening to Gubbi’s body of work. His tracks like ‘Naadamaya’, ‘Aagaaga’, ‘Hongirana’ and ‘Chandamaarutha’ are a good mix of hip-hop beats and sweet melodies. In his lyrics, he scrupulously avoids expletives.

For his subjects, he draws from daily life. ‘Chill’ exhorts people to follow their dreams like Gubbi did — he had earlier been an R&D engineer, I learned. He gave up a career with a German luxury automotive brand and took up music full time. ‘Enlightened’ emerged when he saw a visually-impaired person board a bus, looking happy. During the lockdowns, he dropped ‘Calm’, an EP featuring ‘conscious rap’. It is a sub-genre of hip hop that speaks against violence, discrimination and social ills in the society, I was told.

I embarked on a vocal training regimen daily, doing salt-water gargling early and following it up with breathing exercises. I practiced English and Kannada tongue twisters against an upbeat tempo. I song along with a few songs and tried to match the staccato singing.

Some days, I changed into a hoodie, shorts and wore a chain to embody a rapper’s personality.

Gubbi’s aim was not just to make me rap out a song but also to write it!

I had to get through this challenge, as promised to my colleague.

Writing lyrics

I wanted my first rap track to be in my mother tongue Kannada and settled on ‘thaayi’ or mother as the subject.

An unusual choice, I know. What is rap without rebellion, anger and profanity? But to my shock, Gubbi liked the subject. I asked, ‘Should we do something more gangster-like?’ No, no, rap songs can be about any theme, social, political or personal, he assured me. ‘Even I have rapped about my amma,’ he quipped.

Now it was time to write the lyrics and set them to a rhythm. Gubbi told me even professional rappers struggle on this front. I came from a musical background so I would have it easier, he assured me. But I had never written lyrics before.

When I sat to write, I knew that I had to rap in a 4/4 beat. He had demonstrated this in one of the sessions by taking a word and playing around with it to build a line and then a paragraph.

To write the first four lines, I took two hours. I had Kannada-ised some English words — ‘poweru’ and ‘brotheru.’ Fusion is cool, I thought. When I sent these lines to Gubbi, he was satisfied, and that motivated me to keep writing. The remaining 12 lines took a full week.

Once the lyrics were ready, it surprisingly took less than two hours to fit them to a beat. We decided to start the song with a melody hook and throw a mix of classical alaaps. I wanted the alaap not to sound like any popular raga. I stressed the ‘pa,’ the fifth note. Like ‘sa’, the first note, ‘pa’ brings resolution and stability to the melody, and aren’t those attributes what we see in our mothers?

My knowledge of classical music helped me with rhythm and spontaneous improvisations. My singing was in tune. Not that hip hop places a premium on pitching.

Finally, the lines were ready and I had to sing. The challenge wasn’t over — I was apprehensive about the expression. I had to deliver on the feel and the fun.

Gubbi played ‘Happy Old School Beat’ on YouTube and rapped the verses to show me how it is done. It is a popular hip hop beat, he said. Okay then. I followed him, slowly trying to sound as natural as I could. To my astonishment, it sounded good!

“Your voice sounds fresh and you aren’t imitating anyone. Let’s record it in a studio with my fellow rappers,” Gubbi said, praising my maiden attempt.

Recording room

Gubbi gathered other rappers for the recording. They were EmmJee, possibly the first female rapper in Kannada, and Urmi, a Malayali who has aced sound production and Kannada rapping. I was nervous.

Finally, I was standing in front of a mic. I had to sing my lines over and over again. But the trio was patient.

After three hours and 15-plus retakes, I had recorded the song and added classical alaaps to it. “You didn’t sound like a first-time rapper. Welcome to the club,” they announced my foray into the world of rapping. I wanted to jump in joy. But I was too shy to do it there. I went home and, well, I jumped.

Reactions

My mother was overjoyed to hear the track. I had sung and recorded some Indian classical, film and devotional songs but this was my first time recording in the hip hop genre. This was also the first time I wrote lyrics and song rap. ‘Wah, super!’ she said. My cousin Rachana was ecstatic. She exclaimed, ‘Benki!’ (fire) and demanded I rap on her birthday.

Rap gets a bad rep but why

Why is the idea of ​​a classical singer trying a rap song so shocking? I called noted Carnatic classical singer RK Padmanabha in search of an answer. He didn’t hide his displeasure at what I had done. “If a classical singer raps, he is straying from his path. He can do it for personal satisfaction but it is against the pure classical form, and he should not present it in public. And even if you are rapping, you shouldn’t mix classical music with rap. I respect both forms but they should not be mixed,” he said. He hasn’t heard any classical musician try rapping.

Rap borrows elements from various genres, so it cannot be called a form of music by itself, he mused. “Classical music involves the mind, body and ‘manodharma’ (improvisation) unlike rap which is just made to dance. There is no personal development in pursuing rap,” he said, contrasting it with classical music and its graded lessons that become increasingly more complex.

But my own guru Bhagavan Allapur didn’t object. He appreciated the lyrics, the classical touch, and the subject.

RV Raghavendra, founder of Ananya Cultural Academy, also saw the experiment in a positive light. He said, “As long as the lyrics are not vulgar, every music form, including rap, should be encouraged. Classical musicians should try all genres.”

Some classical musicians are innovating, he said, referring to violinist L Subramaniam who “adopts different music forms in his work”. “Before Mandolin Srinivas rose to fame, several Carnatic musicians were reluctant to accept the mandolin as a classical instrument,” he added.

My rap mentor Karthik Gubbi understands where the criticism comes from. “Since rap originated from the streets and there are no ‘gurus’ in this line, it may not be liked by classical musicians,” he said.

But he is quick to point out, “Konnakol is nothing but a rap of rhythmic syllables without lyrics. Even Bharatanatyam dancers know konnakol and can try rapping.”

Rap is a free-form art, but it could have its purists. “Some rappers want only rap elements and do not want to fuse them with ragas. They say rap should not sound like ‘mainstream’ music,” he explained.

And it’s a rap

Thaayiye nanna modala devaru

(Mother is my first god)

Hetthu saakuvalu ee nanna poweru

(She is strong to give birth and to take care of her child)

Prashnegalig uttara needuva motherru

(She has answers to all the questions)

Bere inyaaru yaake beku brotheru

(So, why do I need anyone else, brother?)

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