Divya Guha mingles with rappers in Shillong and discovers an environment of slow progress that has fermented rebellion. Ronny Sen photographs the restlessness.
Andrew Lyndem, 25, is nocturnal and starts his day at 3 pm ending it at the witching hour. Ratul Hajong, 24, is awake before him but in circulation around the same time. Together, they are Cryptographik Street Poets (CSP) a rap act in Shillong, Meghalaya. Touched by the civil rights/black power movements in intangible ways, their sigil is the raised fist of solidarity and revolution, the Black Panther Party logo. Although they live in separate homes with their parents, they are in constant society with each other. Inseparable like Peanut characters and with the same quiet depth. Especially Ratul, who hardly speaks but is the more mischievous of the two, and also the more childlike—the one most likely to Frape you. Andrew on the other hand, is wise beyond his years. A web developer (responsible for the look of the alternative Shillong-based news website, Raiot.in) where Ratul too helps out freelance. They often dawdle over to take tea in the form of dark rum—McDowells XXX or Old Monk, Andrew’s favourite drink, for its taste of chocolate, though he’d rather spend his money on rum, not chocolate.
Meantime, I wait for them in Shillong Café. Lou Majaw is there and I ask him a stupid question. Majaw is 80 years old, a musician who famously took his love for Bob Dylan to heart, and has organised a festival on May 24, the American bard’s birthday, inviting bands from across the country to perform in Shillong since 1974. He roams the town with leonine dignity and never says a thing that is childish, which is a relief because you can’t easily take an elderly gentleman in hot pants seriously otherwise.
Do you know, I ask him, they are selling (unauthorised) t-shirts in Shillong with your face on it? Majaw has a fine face. Stark indigenous features framed by long grey hair. His legs are as fine, lean and tanned. He is sitting at a table where I have seen him sitting before, drinking green tea from a metallic cup/flask which Shillong Cafe keeps for him. He is circumspect about my t-shirt query and looks traffic-wards from the cafe’s first-floor balcony that has a view of the main road in Laitmukhrah as youngsters promenade past in a fashionable stream. An article in the New York Times (NYT) quoted a friend of Majaw’s saying, the old gent was ‘broke as shattered glass’. Majaw momentarily reflects on things that hang in shop windows. Does someone who stubbornly insists on being who he is eventually end up on a t-shirt? Would you wear a t-shirt with your own face on it? What is your worth to yourself? He returns to his green tea, turns his mouth downwards, shrugs and that’s that.
Majaw is the grand-daddy of rock in Shillong but CSP are its gifted children whose talents are yet untested.
Andrew has never left the confines of this beatific, self-contained, slow city and formed CSP in 2010. He grew up listening to what older Shillong listens to—an assortment of the Eagles, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Steely Dan, Van Halen, the Beatles, Crosby Stills and Nash etc. There is a surfeit of this music in Shillong, which though great in itself, has become boring with overplay. It was a dark moment when these bands—belonging to the shining era of 60s and 70s western rock— became standard fare in yuppy bars where they were repackaged as Classic Rock. Some say the reason this music still works in Shillong is because of its beatnik innocence—the pines, the laid-back people, the bohemian crowd, the drunks, the simple souls and round cottages with roofs like witches’ hats. While this stuff (as well as metal in Ratul’s case) suffused these young rappers’ systems like junk food, their first real nourishment came with the Real Slim Shady, or Eminem.
“Eminem now is a changed dude,” says Banphira Lamurong AKA JayKing, a frequent collaborator with CSP. There is nothing exclusive about Andrew and Ratul’s pairing. Other local rappers come and go as collaborators. But most often, Andrew and Ratul end up together. “The things he [Eminem] said about his mother in Cleaning out my Closet…she treat me bad and all. But now he’s made one song apologising to her…? That’s how you see a man change. It’s not all just thug shit,” says JayKing. The conversation veers towards contemporary rap. Andrew keeps his mouth tightly shut about his peers enjoying listening to Macklemore, a white rapper with Top 40 appeal. He isn’t very pleased.
Andrew—never Andy—who is also known as Prophet of Esoterical Metaphors (P.O.E.M) wears his jeans baggy, a large golden watch and Timberland boots. His signature plain white t-shirt might seem unremarkable, unless you remember Bubbs hustling them to young drug dealers out of a shopping cart in the semi-fictional streets of Baltimore in The Wire. It is not just a shirt. It is a hip-hop staple. Kanye West, too, sells them in Egyptian cotton for $120 in the real world. A bit of a renegade, Ratul AKA Grey Jaw-Ripper prefers baseball attire. Occasionally he hides behind hats and video games—World of Warcraft, Grand Theft Auto etc but in his rap he boasts extravagantly, which you probably could, if you can allude to Ingmar Bergman’s disillusioned knight’s chess game with death in The Seventh Seal , The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and X-Men in your uber-clever verse.
I got a psychotic mass appeal
Messing with me is like a chess game in seventh seal
Right after the duel you gonna see is heaven’s real
Got more tricks right under my sleeve, than a fucking Bat-Mobile
Murder you with 16 to prove that I’m lyrical
Rearrange syllable like the periodic table when dealin’ with lab chemicals
I’m a rap animal
Divide you like a point in decimal numerals
Starting from your skin straight to your genitals
And if you ain’t got one like X-Men sentinels
(IMMA BUST YOUR ASS)
With laser beam lyrics from Cyclops like optics
Futuristic glock clips
Stretching your ass like Mr Fantastic
Like all self-respecting millennials they have curated their look, identified their politics and hardened their habits. Andrew is the more vocal and focussed, Ratul does not anticipate success or pursue it with much conviction. He is a former rap battling champ from Orkut, the now-defunct social media website. “Yeah when rap is like the dudes are chilling, the beat is dope, the bitches are coming… that’s when hip-hop gets boring. Hip-hop is about a message. If the beat is dope, people don’t care about the rap,” says JayKing.
The rap underground inspires CSP. Among them is Immortal Technique, a luminescent Peru-born rapper from Harlem, New York, and a feared battle MC, whose powerful lyrical content about political issues, class struggle, inequality, globalisation, racism and religion—‘the message’—are a beacon for this ilk. But it is not Technique’s gangster meets punk edge alone that is impressive for these rappers, but the virtuosity of form. In this respect and in their world—he is a god greater than Tupac himself. Therefore, it rather galls Andrew that underground hip-hop forums are calling Kendrick Lamar lyrically better than Technique. He laments that most people are blind to underground artists who “can spit from their souls, while simultaneously incorporating multi-syllable word plays, allegories and such, on rhyme structures that make dumbshit ABAB rhyme-schemes look like an extract from a nursery rhyme.”
But Andrew’s rhymes sound nothing like poems for children.
Trynna be the illest menace with ma cynical rhymes
Like witness Jesus doin’ miracles in biblical times
Toughest crisis minus biters equals beautiful lines
Kinda battle wit mammals I got an animal mind
Fanatical cannibal destroy illuminatical signs
Blood splattered in churches, masonic temples and shrines
Foulest fighters freedom-fightin’ we the radical kind
Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Krishna?? God is one-of-a-kind
Psychotic shit misogynistic with political crime
Injected wrong medic!! Schizophrenic kid just blast off!!
Wack repetitive rhyme? Hah!! I ripped ma mask off
Chuggin on expired rum and tonic, this is the last straw
Your criticism is ma rhythm and ma rap’s raw
These cats frontin wearin nothn but a strap-on
Truth will hack y’all with claws that are mad long
This track perfect definition of a wack song.
Their hero, Technique, is not signed to a record label and claims to have sold 200,000 albums internationally, winning the respect of underground artists the world over. He holds the controls for his music production, believing record labels work only to benefit themselves and not the artist. This sincerity to the ‘message’ is what it means to ‘keep it real’ in hip-hop parlance. Although retractors often say hip-hop is not just about “being real” and that hip-hop has changed. But underground artists like Technique, Slain, Canibus, etc, have remained CSP’s main inspirations. They are artists who have consciously resisted identification with the mainstream.
Unapologetic about their tastes, Andrew and Ratul harbour an almost unimpeachable disdain for the mainstream. “We should not be oblivious to the fact that certain artists are better than others in some aspects. If an artist is commercially successful and gets more air time he is a different artist to one who chooses to remain underground. It can’t be argued that Kendrick has less complex rhyme schemes than Technique, and is financially more successful and gets more airtime than a lot of artists I follow. I would also agree that Kendrick and Shady are better than say, Lil Wayne or Slim Jesus in terms of complex schemes and such…but it’s Lil Wayne who has a bankroll no underground artist can fuck with.”
All discussions about rap eventually become about society and opportunity.
The largest employers in Meghalaya are agro-based, the public sector and tourism. The state’s GDP as of 2014-15 is nominal at US$3.3 billion, among the lowest in the country. “More than 50 per cent of the population in the state consists of young people who are searching for some kind of gainful/meaningful employment,” said Thma U Rangli-Juki (TUR)—a grassroots workers’ rights organisation in Meghalaya which CSP has been closely associated with. Subsequent governments have not been able to change one important factor in the hiring environment—vacancies in Meghalaya to a large extent are filled through informal patronage systems. Government jobs do come along, but are quickly absorbed by nepotistic networks and kids lower down in the pecking orders must accept what they get, often on temporary or contractual bases. Ratul, too, had a spell as an overnight security guard which he withstood because of his gaming hobby that keeps him busy most nights.
In a visit to Shillong recently, Prime Minister Modi said it would make sense to have BPOs in the northeast because of its people’s comfort with the English language. But Meghalaya’s 75 per cent literacy rate and good school education means kids come with outsized ambitions and skills that would be redundant if all they did was answer phone calls. In Shillong society must trump economy because inspite of poverty, one hardly sees extreme deprivation or homelessness. People are generally well-behaved with each other. Women are not given a particularly difficult time. Young people and women have relatively more sexual freedom in choosing partners. There is a self-consciousness that in many ways tribal culture is superior to mainstream Indian culture, for the lack of anything such as a caste system–something the church has helped perpetuate. The church and tribal organisations with their community activities, whether through providing healthcare facilities, education or preaching, has filled in gaps where centrally- and state-run efforts have fallen short. Congregations attend church willingly and from a sense of duty to each other. (Though Andrew doesn’t and Ratul is Hindu).
The CSP is the youth in revolt. A bit like disobedient children— ahead of their times but behind in their classrooms. The environment of boredom and slow progress has fermented rebellion. Creativity is their release. CSP knows its rap is good and they have much to say. Most of all, it lifts them up out of boredom and they stay hungry. The state too has its teacher’s favourites who take the lion’s share of stage appearances and patronage. CSP doesn’t even to try to make it on that list.
I’m a hungry beast with physical features that are custom made
I’ll “get you laid” out on the streets, “no second base”
not a second waste, pray to see that heaven stays
Took a million years to write then rap in seven days
Yeah, I’m a mercenary packin a vanguard
Provin I’m improvin, y’all aint touchin this man’s art
A heritage assassin I’m destroying these landmarks
Leave them underwater then resurface as landmass.
Their lyrics reference ambition which turns into frustration, resulting into disconcertingly good verse. It reeks of beatnik spirit of grassroots reality, but in a discreet alliance with punk for its outlook, which spells a Sex Pistols-like no future hopelessness. They know if things were to change they’d go the capitalist way, crushing their free spirit. Capitalism does not want CSP as they are right now, and the feeling is mutual.
I wanna see my dreams breath, release the beast please
Spitting desecrated holy verses, I’m a beat priest
A calm fellow when I violently meet peace
My arms mellow, but when mad I make heat freeze
The dreams I feel, it seems surreal
It even seems better deals are revealed for real
hah!! What’s going on??
It’s like everything stuck now
Life is like a war, gotta load it up and duck down
A mic is all I got, look at us we got found
Fight for what I got, hold it up, you gonna what now?? tapping the struck sound
Time is precious, reason that I’m smashin the clock now
Then there is also self-loathing at getting nowhere,
I’m cryogenically preserved
I will break ma ice
I’m so goddamn hungry
Even swallow ma pride
I take that back
Egomaniac for life
Uh, I take that back
Egomaniac for life.
Regardless, these boys have to think long and hard when asked if they’d leave Shillong, before they shake their heads despondently or enthusiastically, but the answer is always a no. The anger of being left by the wayside because of geography and the reluctance to ever give up their home. To protect its tribal character and within it, their own identity is the spirit that animates the angry rap of CSP. And who can blame them? Being poor is not easy when life feels like survival without end.
As artists, the rappers must plough on with little hope of economic gain or platforms to reach larger audiences. Corporate attitudes of record labels and events organisers play a big role in ignoring and killing original raw talent. The Meghalaya government too has its gnarled old hand in many such murders. Taxes at gigs can add up to 50 per cent of an entry ticket’s cost. This works out as a penalty, wrecking the scope for a local scene. One such popular venue, Tango, a restaurant-bar in Shillong’s central Police Bazaar area which regularly hosted local and outstation talent, shut down last year. Although Cloud Nine in Centrepoint Hotel, still has live bands most Fridays and Shillong Cafe, too, stages small gigs on Sunday evenings. But that is all for live venues, just three, in the city of a ‘thousand guitars’
There are rumours of more venues opening up but these are all likely to be upmarket pads that hardly favour music with political content, angry lyrics, expletives or anything too unusual. Gigantic, one-off music festivals like NH7 come all fancy guns blazing and leave. Large scale, one-off gigs are hardly grazing grounds for smaller acts. They can’t even go as spectators, as the Rs 2,000 upwards price tag on festival tickets is steep for most kids kicking the dust around Laitmukhrah’s streets and basketball courts. Corporate organisers, at their selfish end, must stick to conservative artist line-ups. They can’t apologise for being themselves as they must sell tickets. Last year’s NH7 festival in Shillong had only Soulmate and Lou Majaw representing Shillong. Both have been around for a while and it would be nice to see some fresh talent. But, none of these places or networks would admit a couple of working class boys to spit their disdain at them. And though the exact reasons remain mysterious to me, Andrew and Ratul have been thrown out of many a bar in Shillong. Their rejection of commercial establishments in town in a way, is a sort of reverse rejection of these establishments of boys such as Andrew and Ratul.
But it was not always like this.
All through the 1980s and 90s, there was an abundance of venues in Shillong where bands could strut their stuff, practice, grow and cultivate audiences. There were several fetes, local school, church events and several open fields, where large scale concerts played to vast misbehaved audiences. The latter came to a stop because the drunken revelry irked the paternalistic church-led local authorities. A thousand guitars in the hands of as many punters must lead to a hundred misdemeanours at least. “Everyone wants to get paid from what they do and I love to make money from my music. But I don’t see that happening from selling our music online or in retail stores ‘cause of piracy. The only way artists can make money nowadays is through shows and merchandise and I don’t see much of that here in Shillong,” says Ratul. “We did perform in a few when we were first coming up, but they would stop calling us to these shows probably ‘cause our lyrical content was not appropriate for the people in the venue. And as for paying us – they do pay, but I think they pay really little and there are some places that don’t pay at all, instead they give you a free bottle of beer or food,” he adds.
Perhaps Shillong deserved its reputation as a rock capital and its ‘thousand guitars’ but right now, the same population with its steep creative quotient is left to languish with little scope for growth. Shillong deserves a bigger fan base, a larger scene attracting more youngsters, an environment where people can accept a spectrum of musical moods, not just the kind that go with booze and dinner which is what the new bourgeois ‘beatnik’ Shillong typically wants.