The first two lines of rapper Raftaar’s latest track, ‘GOAT Dekho’ (released November 30) are: Lo aya asli gangster back. Lo suno jisney suna nahi gangster rap. (The real gangster is back. Here, listen, those who haven’t heard of gangster rap.) It might have been confusing to Indian listeners a few years ago. Does he admit that he is a criminal, at least some may have wondered.
But, in the last decade or so, hip-hop culture has spread rapidly in India and the native rap audience now knows that G (gangster / gangsta) and OG (original gangster) were adopted to be used outside of gang culture and have become positive designations in hip-hop. So, an OG is a senior hip-hop artist. Raftaar, 33, an OG from the Indian scene, believes hip-hop has evolved rapidly in India compared to the west. “If you look at the new commercials and the new jingles, the film music and indie music, there’s so much hip-hop,” he says. “All these lines of clothing, sneakers, demand is at its peak. It’s because of the hip-hop culture, because it includes the sneaker culture.
Raftaar was born under the name Dilin Nair to a Malayali couple based in Delhi. His stage name, which means speed, is based on the rhythm and fluidity of his rap. He began his rap career in the late 2000s, when the genre was taking its first steps in India. In the early 2010s he started working with Punjabi band RDB and in 2013 released his first mixtape, WTF (witness the future). Her 2014 song “Swag Mera Desi” with Manj Musik (Manjeet Singh Ral, formerly of RDB) won the Brit Asia TV Music Award for Best Urban Single.
Raftaar made his Bollywood debut with Saif Ali Khan star Bullet Raja (2013). He says he has worked selectively in Bollywood (around 20 credits as a singer, lyricist or both, until 2021 star-Vidya Balan Sherni) and enjoys the work he has done. ‘Dhakaad’, Dangal (2016), ‘Mantoiyat’, Manto (2018) and Andhadhun’s title track (2018) are his favorites. And he’s proud of his work with AR Rahman and Arijit Singh. Raftaar has also produced hits for several corporate music labels.
But, his most important work, arguably, is what he does with his independent music and his Kalamkaar label (a hanger of kalam, which means pen, and kalakaar, which means artist). These are the songs that are usually lyrically louder and generally less popular. “When I do independent music, no matter what, I’ll promote songs with the right lyrics,” he says. “My money is invested in the kind of music I believe in. “
However, rap sometimes also promoted misconceptions, such as misogyny. Raftaar also made mistakes. He does not hesitate to admit them. “There are things I regret,” he said. “But, I did my wrongs at the right time. Every mistake I made was at the start of my career. He says he can try to fix his mistakes for the rest of his career. He adds that we as a society have always struggled to admit our faults. “Whatever artists say in their songs, even if it’s a party number and they say random things, it’s definitely happening in society,” he says. “It’s the bitter pill that no one wants to swallow.” However, he also says that it is the duty of artists to ensure that their content changes mentalities.
His “bitter pill” argument rings true when you consider that the limited lyric “party songs” whose videos more often than not stereotype or objectify women are the biggest hits in India. “[After the mistakes earlier,] I did everything I could to keep the lyrics, the videos and the frame of mind clean, ”he says. “I tried to send the right messages. This has also been a general trend in Indian rap; meaningful works emerge more frequently as the genre evolves.
One of the first raps with a message from Raftaar was “Mother Nature”, released in 2014, shortly after “Swag Mera Desi”. The song, which denounces inaction on the climate crisis, has over 7.61 lakh views on YouTube. In comparison, ‘Swag Mera Desi’ is over 4.46 crore. His most popular commercial tracks have over 20 crore views on the platform and his most popular independent song, the diss track “Sheikh Chilli”, has over 12 crore.
Does the disparity frustrate him? “No, never,” he said. “If a song like ‘Mother Nature’ gets you thinking, that was the job. Otherwise, you move on. Songs like this, he adds, are only heard once, with pop music playing in weddings, in cars, clubs, and on the radio. “There are so many others trying the same thing (songs with messages) and everyone hits a different mass,” he says. “So everyone together is still doing the job. “
Raftaar has reiterated the need to be together on several occasions. Its willingness to promote young talent has been widely recognized and appreciated. “I want the artists who dedicate their lives to rap to feed on it,” he says. “I want every rapper to have something to eat at their table.”
‘GOAT Dekho’, which is part of his EP Bar’ish (extended play), is about tackling negativity, he says. His fans say he is the GOAT (the greatest of all time) of the Indian rap scene. What does he think of it? First, he says that for him it is not the greatest, but “the greatest”, because there are people who have reached the same level of greatness. “Like, if Nas is a GOAT, so is 2Pac,” he said.
“It’s the fight; where we walk, ”he adds. “There’s G, then OG, the next step is to be a GOAT. And GOAT is a title people give you. I’ve seen a lot of people write this for me. that I did the song. I never would have started calling myself a GOAT.