Chances are that you have not heard of him. Chances are that you consider him among the OGs of the Indian rap scene, if not the best rapper in the country today. KR$NA, formerly known as YoungProzpekt and then Prozpekt, started his career way back in 2006, when the Indian rap scene was yet to be born. But today, he has 314K subscribers on YouTube, and his monthly listeners on Spotify are more 283,526 on an average, with Saza-E-Maut crossing 1,053,053 listens, and his song Roll Up with Badshah has gained 434K views on YouTube alone. Krishna Kaul is considered to be one of the best lyrical rappers today, and hailed for his adept wordplay and brilliant use of double entendre, but did you know he wrote his first rap at the age of 14? “It was really bad. But I kept at it and kept polishing my skills, and I realised that I might have some talent. I was then writing in English,” the Kashmiri Pandit from Gurugram says.

However, his first real brush with hip-hop was when he went to London in the early 2000s to study. “London had its own rap scene. I instantly got sucked into it. ” But when he returned to India, there was hardly any proper work happening in hip-hop. “It was around 2006 or 2007. There were very few small gigs. But I wanted to do this, and I decided to stick around. And today, when the scene has gotten this vibrant, I am still here,” he says, smiling. Still Here is also the name of his banging new album, which sees him join forces with fellow rappers Raftaar, Ikka, and Badshah. His album has debuted at #1 on Apple Music, across all genres. Interestingly, Badshah, who is now the face of the commercial rap scene, had also started his career alongside Yo Yo Honey Singh in his hip-hop group, Mafia Mundeer (Raftaar and Ikka were also part of this now disbanded group) in 2006, and now their song together has raked up 11 million views in just two months. “You have to remember that these guys started off when there was no hip-hop scene in India. You cannot get commercial success without doing certain kinds of songs. Sometimes, you have to dilute or change your path a bit. But that doesn’t negate your origin story,” he points out.

Being one of the firsts to enter the scene, Kaul would know. He has seen the birth and evolution of desi hip-hop. Recalling the initial days, he says, “There was hardly any audience for hip-hop back then, but also there was hardly any pressure. It was a small community, and everyone knew everyone. You were only making songs for yourself, or maybe to please the community.” Today, India has a vibrant hip-hop scene, and most of his videos have over a million views. “It has been a steady growth in the last four years. There were so many points when I thought this will not work out, rap will never pick up in India, or that I could not even wait any longer. There were so many of my contemporaries who left the scene and disappeared,” says the 31-year-old rapper. According to him, in India, the rise of hip-hop happened as a part of the rise of independent music. “With the Internet boom, file sharing became a thing, and then streaming platforms liberalised the scene even more. Today, artistes are not dependent on labels. Now, you make music inside your room. You can then mix and record it on your own, and then upload it to one of these distribution websites who will send it to all streaming platforms. You can shoot a music video with your friends if you want, and it’s on YouTube,” he adds.

But how did hip-hop suddenly pick up so much in India? I ask. It’s because people started rapping in Hindi, he says. “When we started, there were very few rappers back then, and all were rapping in English. Because that was the influence we had. It took a lot to move on from there to start writing in Hindi. But it is only when people started rapping in Hindi and it became the main language, that it was accepted by the masses. People who understood Hindi started relating to rap. The next logical phase was that of vernacular rap. Now, people have started rapping in their own regional languages, and have their own rap scenes. It was important that this happened. Because, hip-hop is always bottom up and not top down,” he says. Although it was in Delhi that hip-hop really started to come of its own, Zoya Akhtar’s 2019 movie, Gully Boy, shed light on the Mumbai scene of gully rap, and that became a talking point for the cinema-going audience of the country. But according to Kaul, it is the Delhi scene that is picking up again, and that is where ‘the good stuff is’. “Gully rap is not the only kind of rap in India today. In fact, there are rappers in Delhi who are bigger and better. Here you live a different life, and there they live a different life, and each talk about their own,” he says.

Kaul believes Delhi’s hip-hop scene is interesting because unlike Mumbai, where you can mostly find only one type of rap, Delhi offers variety. “There is the commercial level of rappers like Badshah, Raftaar, and Honey Singh. Then there is another level, of which I am a part of, and then there are the super underground guys. Also, the sound varies. Each part of Delhi has his own kind of hip-hop. Jamnapaar, where Ikka and Raga are from, would have a different language. Gurugram, where I am from, would have a different kind of rap. Then there is Seedhe Maut and Full Power, really underground guys who are coming up. That’s what makes Delhi a hotbed for hip-hop,” he elaborates, reiterating that for any music genre to grow, it needs to be relatable. “Gully rap is not relatable to everyone. But a party song is relatable to and can be enjoyed by all. For a person who is not into hip-hop, it provides an entry. Then, if the person is interested, s/he can start exploring the multiverse of this world.”

Rap is also famously known to talk about socio-political issues. Among his past experiments was Vyanjan, his 2016 rap that became quite a rage. In the 3.20 minute rap, he tackled various socio-political issues arranged in the order of Hindi alphabets. Earlier, as Young Prozpekt, he had also dropped a hard-hitting anti-corruption anthem on the CWG scam, Kaisa Mera Desh in 2010, which became the first Indian hip-hop song on YouTube to earn a #3 ranking as one of the most watched music videos in India overnight following its release. Rap songs have always been regarded as a powerful medium to talk about social as well as political issues; however, having been there and done that and done that so well, Kaul today doesn’t seem too interested in such messaging, and with good reason. “The issues keep changing. If I am talking about one political issue in my song, five years later when the issue will lose its relevance and reliability, nobody will listen to that song. An issue-based song will die with the issue,” he explains.

He also feels he is over diss tracks, an important element of rap music and something that is an integral part of his legacy. Makasam, Say My Name, Seedha Makeover, and Maharani, his diss tracks that were replies to Emiway Bantai and Muhfaad’s tracks, are the best examples of his use of metaphors, references, wordplays, and double entendre. But the rapper, famous for his beefs and known to drop replies [to diss tracks] within 24 hours, announced this in January this year. “Hip-hop will always be competitive. Now that the scene is growing in India, more and more new rappers will try and challenge the established ones. It’s just how it is. Personally, I’m over diss songs,” the rapper had tweeted. Is that really how he feels? “It is an integral part of hip-hop. The back and forth between the artistes push the genre ahead. It is good for the culture too. It involves the audiences; they are forced to take sides, although sometimes the fans do tend to get a bit overboard and then things get ugly. But it is like a drama series and in India, everyone loves a good tamasha.” However, he points out that diss tracks can’t be the mainstay of a hip-hop artiste’s discography. “Many artistes who are starting off try to use diss tracks as a way to gain quick fame; that is really not how this works,” he quips.