In Conversation – Arjun Sankalia, Sony & Hardik Dave, Desi Hip-Hop Inc.

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Sony Music India and Desi Hip hop announced an exclusive strategic partnership with Desi Hip Hop Inc last week. Our team at caught up with Arjun Sankalia (Senior Director of International Music and Publishing Sony Music India) and Hardik Dave (Founder and CEO of Desi Hip Hop Inc) to talk about hip hop and their venture.

Starting with the inception of Desi Hip Hop, Hardik said, “I was born in India and brought up in the USA. From the age of 5 it was only hip hop. Over there, you have NRIs picking up the hip hop culture. The first rapping in Punjabi or Hindi started outside of India. Back then, kids like me absorbed the culture started rapping in our own languages. But back then, the market wasn’t supporting it, it was dominated by the African-American artists. Desi Hip Hop Inc was born out of a necessity – desi people wanted to express themselves overseas. The platform DHH came about around 10 years ago.”

To that Hardik added, “I started rapping in Gujarati, Hindi, English and Sanskrit. I had content and I approached various hip-hop labels including XXL. That’s where I realised we needed a platform to represent our people. We tried names like Indian Hip Hop, Bollywood hip hop, Punjabi Rap. Then we decided that since there are so many languages, we cannot tie it to a language, and if we tie the name to a region, you’re putting a dog in a cage and it narrows down the scope. And hip-hop, or just music in general, is something you can’t restrict. So the word desi unifies with hip-hop to become what it is now.”

Discussing the origins of hip hop, Hardik said, “It was born as a street culture. Hip hop started out from the journey of self discovery within the displaced communities of African Americans, on the East Coast, in the Bronx. That period in time saw a lot of racism, and a lot of their thoughts needed to be expressed. But they weren’t allowed to gather in large groups.” 

Adding to his story, Arjun Sankalia said, “In 1970s Pioneer launched a turntable which could play the tracks backwards as well, without messing with the tempo. DJs began putting two separate records of the same song on the turntables and started experimenting with playing breakdowns back to back, essentially converting a 2 minute break to 4 minutes. On top of those beats is where the emcees came in and started rapping. That is the birth of hip-hop.”

“Once there was a 6-7 hour blackout in New York, which led to a lot of looting where people raided electronic shops and picked up turntables, speakers and other hardware – which then led to the building of the culture. It was predominantly built on African American dissent.” added Arjun.

On Hip Hop and collaboration with classical music, Hardik said, “Market is just evolving now. Artists might take little pieces of classical and integrate it into their songs but actually deliberately putting something together hasn’t been done yet. Anyone can add some tal and sur to a song and say they mixed classical with hip hop, but it needs to be done the right way. Im talking about doing a jugalbandi in a song. Something real.You can’t force the market though, it has to come naturally. Otherwise it’s just like one hitter-quitter.”

Hardik Dave added, “The market is evolving. Now there is a separate category for hip-hop on all streaming platforms with a subcategory for local hip hop that they have created. But they start creating those only when they have enough content, enough consumption, and enough demand. Also with our partnership with Sony Music we get the content catalogue and the library of hip-hop across languages to fill out the categories that Sony can provide.”

Elaborating on the partnership deal, Hardik said, “Desi Hip Hop is a hybrid platform and through the partnership model we’re scaling. We are looking to work with all record labels. With DHH as a company, how we differentiate is, we don’t particularly want to or aim to own the content. Sony will be handling that side of the business. There are other stories to tell around that so we are creating short form and long form pieces of content (written or video) around the actual art, music and the artists.”

Sharing Sony Music’s perspectives, Arjun said, Our intent and responsibility is to essentially introduce more consumers to hip hop talents that exist all around the world. Firstly as far as we are concerned, the partnership with DHH opens up the world for us. The content we release will have a global reach. The first song we released within our partnership was a Bengali rap song, by 3 guys in LA who are of Bangladeshi descent. Second song released was by an Indian guy out of Oakland which was entirely in EnglishSecondly, from the Indian perspective what differentiates us is that we are the only “major” record label that’s doing something like this and on this scale. Looking at India as a market, we want to have a pan-Indian catalogue. We have already released songs in Bengali, English, Hindi, and there is a Punjabi song coming out next.”

Elaborating on the language reach, Arjun added, “I think as far as hip-hop is concerned, especially from a Mumbai perspective, people don’t really talk about the South and South-Indian languages. But right now we are speaking to someone who raps in Tamil. Basically we are looking at global, pan-indian and multilingual growth and are not focusing on any particular language or region.”

Talking about DHH’s global radio reach, Hardik said, “We have radio shows going on in New York, New Jersey and California, There’s a Desi Hip Hop Showcase on a major radio station and it’s the first of its kind. We curate it so you can hear all the desi talents on the same. The station is run by two American men who care about the growth of the industry. The station called Bolly 92.3 used to be all bollywood, all day long till they realised that the youth wasn’t tuning in. So they looked for a subculture and landed on Desi Hip Hop.”

Arjun shared about their ideas on market expansion, “The marketing plan is a combination of various things. Obviously music has got to be good. Now, in the beginning, we are releasing a new song every Friday without fail. The initiative is called Awaaz. We do this to keep content fresh and keep consumers engaged. We also do spend time on things like on-ground promotions, digital marketing, events, social marketing etc. The partnership opened up a world for us, as it’s not easy to find someone in california or anywhere for expansion.The intent is to scale and make it more popular. By 2020 we are aiming to have 3-4 artists with significant popularity. We plan to release 500-600 songs in the next 5 years.”

Hip hop and spirituality, Dave concluded, “Hip Hop is rooted in spirituality as that’s where it came from. We have a huge responsibility on our shoulders for educating over a billion people on what’s real Hip Hop, and the difference between what they hear. Like panch mahabhuta talks about the 5 elements in the world, there are 5 elements to hip-hop. Graffiti, DJing, Emceeing, Bboying and the fifth element – Knowledge. Who knows that? We have to educate a billion people about the same. Knowledge of what? The artist needs to have a knowledge of self, self study, self awareness, relationships with self, others, world and ultimately, God.

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