Gully Boy's impact on Mumbai's hip-hop scene: As brands embrace genre, can hype be sustained?

Amit Gurbaxani

Apr 21, 2019 10:02:19 IST

In part one of this column, I wrote about how the success of Gully Boy led to the formation of a number of Indian independent hip-hop labels. The hype it generated has also turned hip-hop into brands’ new favourite genre, something that was perhaps expected after the film’s producers tied up with the makers of everything from clothes to cough syrup.

Divine was already associated with a number of brands even before Gully Boy was released. Over the last two years, he has created tracks such as 'Suede Gully' for Puma (which also featured rappers and breakdancers from across the country), 'Ek Gear Niche, Duniya Tere Piche' for Hero Motocorp (with Bengaluru-based rapper Brodha V rhyming in Kannada and Delhi-residing vocalist Kavya Trehan singing in English) and 'Kaam 25' for Netflix series Sacred Games.

On the day the movie was out, Budweiser announced a yearlong partnership with him through which he will be the face of its Be A King campaign in India. And earlier this week, the beer maker released a clip of a composition, also entitled 'Be A King', by Divine and Siri who — like her fellow Bengaluru resident Brodha V on 'Ek Gear' — raps in Kannada on the song.

Gully Boys impact on Mumbais hip-hop scene: As brands embrace genre, can hype be sustained?

Naezy and Divine with Ranveer Singh

What has happened after Gully Boy is that brands are increasingly enlisting rappers to create content that provides their products a cachet of cool. In a cringe-worthy turn of events, even political parties have attempted to garner votes from the youth by employing the services of MCs. Fortunately, as far as I know at least, no well-known names have been a part of the sloganeering.

Since February, Mumbai-based multi-lingual crew 7Bantaiz has put out 'Ajoobe' to promote Netflix’s superhero series The Umbrella Academy and 'Music Everyday' for Indian tech brand Noise. They, along with two other Mumbaikars, b-boy Flying Machine aka Arif Chaudhary and graffiti artist Mel’s aka Melroy Williams, were also featured in Myntra Unforgettables, a video campaign by fashion e-tailer Myntra that showcased its streetwear.

Two of India’s — and not just Mumbai’s — most successful rappers, Emiway and Naezy were roped in by the Future Group to make music videos to push respectively Big Bazaar’s Republic Day sale and the hypermarket’s clothing brand FBB. The tricky bit of course is for the artists to know which of these tracks they can incorporate into their live sets without seeming like they are performing what is essentially a jingle.

It’s clear that Emiway and Naezy’s Big Bazaar tunes are ads, and therefore neither of them has made them a part of their concerts. Divine plays 'Kaam 25' at gigs but not 'Suede Gully' or 'Ek Gear' while 7Bantaiz belt out both 'Ajoobe' and 'Music Everyday' at shows. Notably, the songs are available on the group’s own channel on YouTube whereas in most of the other cases, the tracks are on the brands’ pages on the video-streaming service.

Of this aforementioned lot, Emiway aka Sharukh Shaikh has earned a reputation as a fiercely independent artist who has built a following without the aid of a major label, Bollywood or big artist management company. Maybe it’s only a matter of time before some canny marketing manager figures out both the economics and the aesthetics that will convince him to collaborate with a brand for a single.

After all, he is a strong contender for the title of India’s biggest “underground” rapper with five million subscribers on his YouTube channel. Emiway, who scored a hat trick at the Radio City Freedom Awards in March by winning the fan-voted popular award in the hip-hop category for the third year in a row – Naezy, Prabh Deep and Brodha V were among the nominees, Divine presumably did not send in an entry – is also currently enjoying the largest hit of his career.

His party track 'Machayenge' is in the top ten of the charts of audio-streaming services Gaana and JioSaavn, on each of which it has tallied up over 25 million plays. The song, which has even cracked Bollywood-dominated station Radio Mirchi’s Top 20 survey, follows a long line of smashes for Emiway on YouTube, on which eight of his videos have over 25 million views ('Machayenge' leads the list with more than 80 million). And while Emiway had a blink-and-you-miss-it part in Gully Boy, when Ranveer Singh presented a medley of some of the movie’s tunes at the Filmfare Awards this year, he included 'Machayenge' in the mix.

Unsurprisingly, Emiway is among the most booked rappers in the business, travelling from city to town on a weekly basis. Such is his popularity that he had to walk out of his performance at Horizon, the annual cultural festival of Mumbai’s Ramrao Adik Institute of Technology, at the grounds of DY Patil College in his home turf of Navi Mumbai, because so many people showed up that the crowd became unruly and unmanageable.

A college festival of course is a free event and what some in the music industry are wondering is whether the fees charged by the handful of huge Indian independent hip-hop acts are justified by the ticket sales they generate. Even if this isn’t the case, their follower, subscriber and view counts have generated a certain brand value for which companies with plenty of youth-oriented products to peddle are happy to pay.

Bira 91, which bankrolls the annual hip-hop-focused April Fools’ Fest in Delhi, and Red Bull, which backs yearly b-boying championship BC One, have been steadfast in their support of hip-hop artists. Red Bull is scheduled to release documentaries on both Divine and Emiway shortly and has also converted the 2019 edition of its annual talent hunt Spotlight into “a search for the country’s next hip-hop star”. Bacardi’s strongest association with the genre is through Vivid Shuffle, another hip-hop dance competition.

The good thing is that this support is encouraging live music venues to increasingly open their doors to hip-hop, a genre they have been slow to embrace. The Mumbai outpost of the bar chain Raasta and performance space The Habitat, which is down the road from it in the suburb of Khar, have been among the early adopters; they have regularly hosted hip-hop nights in the past couple of years.

To illustrate how things have changed, know that multi-lingual crew Swadesi and its members played a gig almost every day of the last week of March, in their city of Mumbai. They performed as a crew at popular dance music night Mixtaped at Bandra pub The Den, at Azadi Records’ show at The Habitat and at the Most Wanted Hip-Hop launch, while the group’s MC TodFod did a guest slot at a boat party organised by artist management company Kranti Art Theory. Encouragingly, all except for Most Wanted Hip-Hop, which Swadesi played to lend their support to headlining rappers Dopeadelicz, were paying engagements.

This increased popularity will inevitably draw accusations of selling out. Naezy, for instance, has already stated that his upcoming tunes will be “more commercial and light”. The star has recently appeared in video clips with electronic music producer Marshmello and Hindi film actress Sanya Malhotra and in promos for Hindi general entertainment television channel Colors’ talent show Rising Star.

Perhaps the strongest evidence of his embrace of and into the mainstream was being interviewed by Bollywood trade expert Komal Nahta. Grab some popcorn because it’s clearly going to be an interesting few months for Mumbai hip-hop. The million-view question is when the hype will fizzle out. For better or worse, a sequel to Gully Boy is apparently in the works.

Amit Gurbaxani is a Mumbai-based journalist who has been writing about music, specifically the country's independent scene, for nearly two decades. He tweets @TheGroovebox

Updated Date: Apr 23, 2019 09:42:00 IST

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