Most of rapper Badshah’s music plays during the world’s night shift. Between 11 pm and 1 am, on Fridays and Saturdays, in clubs and house parties, his lyrics fuel the bodies of millennials, making them groove, jump and forget everything except for the here and now. Since 2014, when Yo Yo Honey Singh exited stage left, Badshah, the understudy, has been the star. His biggest circle of fans includes everyone who’s heard his songs in Hindi films, such as ‘Saturday Saturday’ from Humpty Sharma Ki Dulhania (2014), ‘Abhi Toh Party Shuru Hui Hai’ from Khoobsurat (2014) and ‘Chull’ from Kapoor & Sons (2016). The second biggest circle has also heard his independent releases, such as ‘DJ Waley Babu’. Finally, the third biggest circle is made up those who’ve followed his Punjabi work (‘Proper Patola’, ‘Wakhra Swag’), featuring singers such as Diljit Dosanjh, Gippy Grewal and others. Even this smallest of circles includes millions of people — he has more than 7 lakh followers on Instagram and nearly 2 lakh followers on Twitter. His Facebook page has been liked by 4.7 million people. Most of his videos have crossed 10 million views on YouTube. He’s the only rapper who endorses brands (Tuborg, Hitachi and Yamaha).
He’s the only non-actor in Dream Team, a concert tour featuring Katrina Kaif, Alia Bhatt and others. These days, Badshah sells out concert venues, fills nightclubs and gets every party going. It’s ironic, then, that he hates partying.
The sight of Badshah’s girth, height and unsmiling face can break up bar fights, but when he genuinely smiles, he transforms into a sixfeet- tall teddy bear. He’s like one of those big, imposing men, who melt when they see puppies and tear up when they read Humans of New York.
Like a “juicer-mixer-grinder”, Badshah, 30, is a rapper-composer-lyricist. Most of his songs are collaborations, because he can’t sing. He’s completely untrained, and in many of his compositions, this shows. “I’ve never had any training in any musical instrument, vocals or sound engineering,” Badshah confesses. “I’m completely self-taught. To this day, whenever I get time, I sit on YouTube and vlogs. Because of this, there’s this fear, this complex, that I have to work extra hard.”
The magic in Badshah’s songs happens in the writing. He rhymes Raveena Tandon with London; he talks of women who give their BB pins but not their numbers; he encourages women to dance so hard they break their sandals, to party so fearlessly that the minister-friend has to be called. His observations of this tribe — the kids who want complimentary shots and entry into VIP zones, who lust for Guccis and BMWs — are all on fleek. “The good thing about my songs is that anyone who hears them thinks either I want to do this or I am like this. I’m not the guy who makes the best music. I’m not a singer. I cannot fall back on melodies. I don’t have sur. I just have my word play. So, I have to be the best at it.”
Like a doctor who doesn’t go for morning walks, Badshah doesn’t enjoy going to nightclubs. “People in India don’t come to listen to music in clubs. More fights end up happening. I find it weird with so many people around. I’ll be very honest, whenever I go to a club, I’m looking for inspiration; I’m working. I dance only at weddings, where I’m not [paid to be] performing at, where my cousins are. They know me. They know Aditya, so it’s cool.”
Badshah’s original name is Aditya Singh. He’s floated three origin stories of his pen name; perhaps all three are true. He was called Prince as a kid; he’s a huge fan of Shah Rukh Khan (lovers of schlock will remember the Abbas-Mustan movie); and frenemy Honey Singh named him so in 2007.
Aditya Singh grew up in the seams of Delhi, in Pitampura. Born to a Punjabi mother and a Haryanvi father, his family was solidly middle-class. His mother, Avinash Rani, was a teacher in Bal Bharati Public School, which he also attended. His father, Preet Pal, worked for Delhi Transco Limited (“basically, the electricity department”). He has a sister, Aparajita, four years younger to him, and a wife, Jasmine, who he met five years ago in Chandigarh. He studied to be a civil engineer and attended PEC University in Chandigarh. There’s no one in his family with a musical background, and the first rap he’d ever heard was in a Backstreet Boys song. “Today, I think it’s a sin to call that rap. But that was the first form of rap I’d heard — in ‘Get Down’. Then, one of my friends introduced me to Tupac [Shakur], which I couldn’t digest because it was too gangster for me. Then I was introduced to Eminem, who I connected with the most. It inspired me to write my own stories. About college, canteens, how bad the food was, about teachers, girls, break-ups. That’s when I realised that in all these topics, people only listen to songs about parties the most. Everyone wants to be happy, to stay happy. Hence, a lot of party songs.”
Badshah started out with Honey Singh’s band, Mafia Mundeer, but the two parted ways in 2012 and have said unsavoury things about each other since. Badshah, much like Honey, has willed himself into fame. “You have to hustle. You have to survive. You cannot just give up on your dreams. That’s not what winners do. Don’t come up to me and tell me that the circumstances were not right. Or else, settle for the life that life has given you. A lot of parents from middle-class families in India would be uncomfortable that their only boy wants to be a rapper. My parents were really not friendly to the idea. Those were probably the lowest days of my life as an artist. But, there comes a point when your passion overpowers every other apprehension in your mind. I reached that point before giving up.”
Badshah might never have been heard outside of Punjab, Delhi and Canada if not for a VIP invite from Bollywood. “Shashank [Khaitan, director] was partying in Chandigarh while shooting Humpty and he heard ‘Saturday Saturday’ in one of the clubs. He went to Karan [Johar] and said, ‘I want this song.’ Karan and Sony Music have shared a warm relationship since the days of Kuch Kuch Hota Hai. Luckily, the song was already with Sony Music, so they said, ‘We’ll hook you up.’ It didn’t give me visibility, but it opened a lot of doors for me. The visibility, when they recognise you, came with ‘Abhi Toh Party’. That year there was a list of top ten party songs, and the first was ‘Abhi Toh Party’ and the third was ‘Saturday Saturday’. It was a huge achievement for me.”
Bollywood’s job after buying a Badshah song is to class it up. The original ‘Chull’ has a line that goes, “Chadh ke tere pe karoon ghudsawari, chance jo ek mil jaaye,” which was mercifully removed. When Disney India was looking for a party song for Khoobsurat, they were clear it had to appeal to families. In some of his rap, Badshah has sneaked in chutiya (‘Inception’) and a muted gaand (‘Baatcheet’), but he has steered away from sleaze because even eightyear- olds listen to his music. “My lyrics are not derogatory; it’s just storytelling. The fact that girls like my songs a lot more than the boys shows that.”
Not that Bollywood always does a good job; there’s plenty of WTFness in some of the videos. In ‘Akkad Bakkad’ from Sanam Re, the director, Divya Kumar Khosla, dons a sequined dress and starts dancing in the song. In ‘Aaj Raat Ka Scene’ from Jazbaa, a 30-year-old model is singing about upcoming exams. And, it’s unclear why he’s rapping in Sultan’s ‘Baby Ko Bass Pasand Hai’. “I don’t know what they’re thinking when they include a small portion of rap in the song. I don’t know what good it does to the song. Obviously, the demand for rap has increased, but they’re killing the genre in a bad way,” he says.
Much like female actors in Hindi films, most singers and rappers have short shelf lives. But, till Badshah’s around, at least there’ll be some wit in our songs. The best example of this is ‘Saturday Saturday’, in which a line goes: “Kehti hai woh student hai, but I doubt.” Badshah says, “In Chandigarh, girls who are working in BPOs still consider themselves students, but the way they’re spending money, I don’t think they’re students. It’s probably a way of hiding their age.” Despite his king-sized lifestyle now, he’s disciplined about his gift. “I write every day. I have seven to eight phones that are damaged, but I’ve kept them because they have stuff written in them. I do my homework. I ask kids to teach me what’s happening; to know the slang they’re using; to learn the words that excite them. I sit with a lot of people and just absorb and observe. Keep your ears open. I’m even going to mention this interview in one of my songs.” He isn’t kidding. He’s already rapped about reporters who have badgered him about Honey Singh in ‘Baatcheet’.
In Badshah’s world, the vain, the beautiful, the young, the restless, the jealous and the greedy get equal treatment: a few smart lines that cut us down to size, and yet make our feet move.