Around a year back, I came across ‘Prabh Deep x Sez On The Beat – Kal’ on YouTube. The music video, evidently made on a shoestring budget, started on an empty street with the rapper Prabh Deep riding his BMX bike while rapping about goons trying to rob him and how he and his parents live in a drug-ridden neighbourhood. The video and its message stayed with me and I went on to explore more of his music. That was my first introduction to Prabh Deep and the label he was signed with — Azadi Records.
Azadi Records came into existence in 2017 and was founded by music entrepreneur Mo Joshi and journalist Uday Kapur. The Delhi-based independent label seeks to “provide a platform for South Asian artists to release forwardthinking, politically conscious music that critically engages with and comments on the pressing issue of our time.” The label originated during the era of Indian underground hip-hop, but its objective was to rise way above that. It aims to be a mainstream platform that helps highlight and sonically magnify pertinent stories that the people of the nation should listen to.I put forth a simple question to Prabh Deep, one of Azadi’s star artists, “What’s the best part about Azadi according to you?” A prompt and confident response followed.“We don’t give a fuck. That’s it. We just don’t give a fuck. That’s how we’ve been and that’s how we’re moving ahead.”In the rapper’s earlier songs, he rapped about the drug problem that is rampant in Northern India and what it was like growing up in a refugee community in West Delhi affected by the 1984 riots. He believes in putting out important messages through his music, hoping someone can relate to it and find
Along with Prabh Deep, the label has also managed to curate a diverse roster of talented artists who come from different parts of India, rap in different languages about their surroundings and the people who surround them. While Mumbai-based group Swadesi dedicates verses to comfort. And Azadi serves to be the perfect medium to do that.rap about the deforestation of the Aarey Forest, Ahmer, who hails from Kashmir, raps about the violence and dirty politics that has plagued his state. Their roster also includes Tamil rapper Rak, Kerala producer So Fire, Mumbai-based MC Tienas and Haryanvi duo Seedhe Maut.
Azadi takes its name seriously. It believes in giving its artists a professional platform, but doesn’t cage them under the pressure of delivering numbers and bringing in figures. In a country where people don’t completely accept that freedom of speech exists, Azadi is literally building itself on the definition of its first name: Freedom — to be whoever you want and say what you want. The relationship between the artists and the label is also fairly unconventional. “We have more of a partnership with our artists than a formal or professional artist-label relationship,” said Mo. The label also helps mould raw rappers or producers with fire and passion and transforms them into full-grown artists. The policies it offers its signed artists is also something that sets it apart form a lot of labels today. Their artists get a 50 percent royalty rate compared to other major labels that usually offer anywhere between four to seven percent. The label also only keeps the rights to the masters of recordings for five years, whereas a major label might settle on owning them for up to 30 years. Azadi’s profits usually come from their live shows and content creation they do for brands. But a major chunk of the money comes right from the founder’s pockets. “We’ve probably invested more than $100,000 in the label. Actually, a lot more than that,” Mo and Uday claimed. The label’s main goal was never to mint money, but it is a matter of survival, so hopefully their growing community will help Azadi make a little more money in the future that will help it build themselves as a label. Funnily enough though, where rap in America started out as an underground artform which eventually blew up into a commercial genre, in India, rap is evolving in the opposite way. It entered India in a highly commercial state thanks to Bollywood and has now transformed to become more personal and nuanced. Something that doesn’t only encourage rappers to come out of the shadows and say their story, but also allows a new community of rap fans to be born. Azadi Records and its artists are one of the few and important ones who aid in bringing this crucial aspect to the Indian rap scene today. Something that had been missing for the longest time.
It’s only been two years since the birth of Azadi Records. It was in 2016 when Azadi put out its first release and the label has already grown exponentially. Let it be in terms of its roster of artists to the loyal fanbase it has been able to garner over these two years. But how did a politically vocal label who puts out such strong messages become so successful in an age where the definition of freedom of speech is blurry? Because their music is not just being put out, it’s being heard. A lot. The thousands of views on YouTube and packed shows where the crowd raps every word of their song is proof of that. The label’s vision travels far. It aims to build a legacy by providing a platform for politically-conscious and socially-aware bodies of work to thrive and hopefully remain timeless. If Azadi Records, in its infancy has managed to raise an army of dedicated listeners who are interested in the stories their artist wants to recite, can you imagine what they can do in a decade from now?
THE CASTELESS COLLECTIVE
While Azadi’s artists majorly rap about politics and social issues, other non-rap artists have been successful in doing the same as well. A great example would be The Casteless Collective (TCC) who have become popular for the message they put out through their music. They are an Indian folk music band comprised of musicians from marginalised communities that fuse traditional folk music with contemporary genres of music to talk about caste-based oppression in India. The group composes and performs songs about the obstacle-ridden lives of Dalits in Chennai, sewage workers, issues that have plagued their lives and others as well as any other topic they feel are important to speak about through music.