Yo Yo Honey Singh’s videos have been viewed more than 31 crore times on YouTube. He has over one crore followers on Facebook. And, his fee for a film song can be anywhere between Rs 1 crore and zero. With just a pen and a mike he infuriates the old guard and exhilarates the young. He writes, composes, sings, raps, dances and performs most of his numbers. He also releases an album a year, in addition to the multiple singles and film songs he composes. The only person who contributes more to Indian rap is Arnab Goswami.
While Singh began his career in the Punjabi music industry, he always had his sights set on Bollywood. Deep Singh, aka Deep Money, who sang on Singh’s track ‘Dope Shope’ and has known him for more than ten years, told us, “His aim was to come to Mumbai. He used to say ‘I won’t do Punjabi music once I reach Mumbai’. And, he hasn’t after that.” Singh’s Bollywood breakthrough came when Pritam bought two of his tracks, ‘Angreji Beat’ and ‘Main Sharabi’, for Cocktail. Many of the Bollywood songs he has written in the past two years — ‘Party All Night’ (Boss), ‘Chaar Botal Vodka’ (Ragini MMS 2), ‘Sunny Sunny’ (Yaariyan), ‘Party with Bhootnath’ (Bhootnath Returns) and ‘Aata Majhi Satakli’ (Singham 2) among them — have enjoyed longer shelf lives than the films they are in. “I just had a small music scene in Chandigarh. All the superstars pulled me into Bollywood,” Singh had told Anupama Chopra on The Front Row. His biggest endorsement came from Shah Rukh Khan. When Khan wanted a rap song for Ra.One in 2011, he had called global hip-hop star Akon. When he wanted one for Chennai Express in 2013, he called Honey Singh.
Born in 1983 as Hirdesh Singh, Yo Yo Honey Singh grew up in Delhi and attended Guru Nanak Public School, in Punjabi Bagh. When we called his school, they said he was there till his 12th standard and did study some music. “I think Honey used to play the tabla in school,” Deep Money told us. At some point, Singh’s family moved to Coventry, in the UK, and he spent a few years in London. He has never mentioned in any of his interviews if he has had much classical training or even attended college. But, by the time he moved back to India, he knew how to compose and arrange music. He added ‘Yo Yo’ to his name after hanging out with local black rappers in London; ‘Honey’ was his mum’s nickname for him.
Singh was a stick-figure teen, but when he made his earliest music videos, for ‘Peshi’ and ‘Khadke Glassi’, in 2006, he weighed a hefty 93 kilograms. He was so determined to be a mainstream artist, he changed the geometry of his body. When ‘Brown Rang’ was shot in 2011, Singh’s round face had become square, and his tight, muscled body could nicely fill out a Brioni suit.
“Even when he was a struggler, he wanted to do something different,” Baljinder Singh Mahant, head of programming at 9X’s Punjabi channel, Tashan, told us. “There was one programme on which we’d only invite the top artists. When I asked him to be on it, he said, ‘Nahi paaji, yeh to sab karte hai. Mere liye kuch different kariye.’ I told him I don’t put beginners or new guys in the hot seat. But, he was like, ‘But, this has been done. I don’t want to do things that have been done.’ Even today, his thinking is the same.”
Singh spent most of his early career in the studio as a session musician and penning rap songs. His musical influences were a mix of who he was (Punjabi greats such as Amar Singh Chamkila, Kuldeep Manak, Malkit Singh) and who he wanted to be (Apache Indian, Dr Dre, Ludacris, Bob Marley, James Brown). When he began composing, he worked with a whole bunch of popular Punjabi singers, such as Ashok Masti, Diljit Dosanjh, Gippy Grewal, Jaz Dhami, Alfaaz, J-Star, Money Aujla and Deep Money. His most well-received album, International Villager, was launched in November 2011, and many of these guys sang on it. In his interview with Chopra, Singh had said, “My aim was different at that time. I wanted to give India a rock star. I was searching for a vocalist who would stand by my creations, who would represent my new-age music and lyrics. But, no singer worked for me consistently.”
In those years, Singh won multiple local awards for best music director, best sound and, because this is Punjab, best club song. But, when ‘Brown Rang’ became the most watched YouTube video in India in 2012, Bollywood gave him a shout-out.
Everyone we spoke to about Singh confirms he is a workhorse. “Junoon hai isme. I wish every musician had it,” Mahant said. Deep Money, who refers to Singh as his brother, said, “I love the way he works. I love his passion. He lives for music and he can die for music.” “I think he works non-stop. I’ve never seen him resting,” said Vineet Kumar, director of marketing at Weez India, which has handled 75 per cent of Singh’s live shows. “For one show in Ranchi, he could have said no. But, he flew down from Durban just for the show and went back the same night.” Atul Jindal, who has co-choreographed the music video of Singh’s ‘Blue Eyes’ and all his concerts since, narrated a similar incident, “[For the US tour], we flew from India to New York, did the show and flew to Chicago the same night. We did the show the next day and flew back to India the same night. For four days, the only time I saw him sleep was in transit.” To Chopra, Singh had said, “I sleep three nights in seven days.”
2012 was Singh’s year of Bharat darshan. He whistle-stopped at every college festival, every town, every area with a post office that could rustle up a stage and speakers. In some cities, 20,000 people showed up. Kumar said that more than 100 bouncers were needed for security. In one show, in Bhopal, the people who couldn’t get in began throwing stones into the concert arena. In many cities, the collegian crowd knew every song from start to finish. And, this was before ‘Lungi Dance’. Singh had become an icon for India’s millennials.
“The music industry is targeted at the 15-25 age group. It’s a youth-driven business,” said Mahant. “Once you become an adult, you have so many responsibilities that you don’t have the time to follow music. The youth is eager to explore and experiment with new things. Honey Singh has understood that. He attracts the young by constantly doing new things.” Jindal says Singh is “a rock star”. “There has never been a rock star in India. There have been superstars or movie stars, but all the singers are just singers. He’s a rapper, a performer, a dancer. He does all the things a rock star in the US would do to hype the show. The audiences react to him the way you might expect them to react to Shah Rukh or Salman Khan. The things he talks about in his songs are commonly discussed topics by youngsters. Other songs talk about love and all, which is very hypothetical. I always compare him to Kapil Sharma as his humour is relatable. It caters to everyone.”
Singh’s lyrics are a parent’s nightmare. His music is the background score to a randy teenager’s life. It can only be enjoyed with stiff drinks and happy feet. Most of his songs are about alcohol, women, drugs and guns, the ingredients of teenage rebellion. In ‘Party with Bhootnath’, a song featuring kids, one line actually says “Daaru pilaate jaao”. In ‘Chaar Botal Vodka’, he slyly flips the bird. In ‘Bebo’, his hip flask reads ‘Fuck My Liver’.
In his early years, though, Singh used to write songs about Bhagat Singh, kabaddi and Punjabi kids leaving their parents and moving to Canada. They were all major flops. Someone told him he needed to stop writing about subjects he liked and focus on topics everyone else could relate to. Compiled from various interviews, Singh’s defence of his lyrics is as follows: “These are not my thoughts; I’ve picked them up from people. I’m the voice of the youth. I grow my beard and wear a turban [as a disguise], and sit with youngsters in Chandigarh to listen to what they are saying. I just put a beat to what they are saying. I have to represent one billion people. So, I feel I should speak their language. If I’m not going to do it, it’s not going to stop them. I wasted three years [2007 to 2009] trying to change the mentality of my boys in Punjab. Nobody listened. An artist cannot change society. When society changes, I will change.”
“The people who condemn his songs, their kids are the ones who dance to them,” said Mahant. “But, this is how change happens [between generations].” Deep Money says Bollywood has always had risqué lyrics. “Even in old movie songs, there used to be vulgarity. Helenji would dance to them. If we want to come to the level of Bollywood, we have to do songs like that. The more people talk ill of us, god will take us that much forward. It doesn’t affect us what anyone has to say. People have torn his [Singh’s] posters and dirtied effigies of him. These people call us Paaji to our faces and abuse us behind our backs. They have no place in our world.”
In December 2012, the courts, police officers, NGOs and countless armchair activists were after Singh for ‘Main Hoon Balatkari’, a song he hadn’t written, composed, sung or even heard. He had to release notices in three newspapers to state he wasn’t the author of the song before a case filed against him was finally quashed. Singh’s character is routinely assassinated in 140 characters. He’s been the subject of all sorts of rumours, from a death hoax to a report that Shah Rukh Khan had slapped him during a concert. Part of the anger towards him is due to the belief that Singh and singer Badshah had released a misogynistic song called ‘Choot (Vol 1)’ on YouTube in 2006. There’s no way to know the two actually created it, even though the rapper does sound like Singh. Since he harbours Grammy aspirations, it’s too late for him to own up to it now. Though in his mainstream work, there is a lot of slang but never, not once, a swear word.
Singhis really good with rhyme. The way he rhymes liquor with fikar in ‘Desi Kalakaar’ and bartan with Doordarshan in ‘Breakup Party’ is clever. His sense of metre and language is similar to that of lyricist Amitabh Bhattacharya, who also mixes pop-culture references with colloquial words. A lot of Singh’s writing is observational, even confessional. And, even when his lyrics fail, as in ‘Sunny Sunny’, his composition and arrangement are catchy enough to make the song a success.
When heard live, Singh’s vocals are just a few shades better than ‘Kolaveri’s’ Dhanush’s. He’s only been singing for the past three years and still uses Auto-Tune as a crutch. As a spoof video on him correctly pointed out, there are two things that make a Honey Singh video: bikini and Lamborghini. The women in his videos are more slutty than sensual, the camera eyeing them rather than admiring them. Even in a song such as ‘Dope Shope’, which actually urges people to dope less, there are so many shots of semi-dressed ladies that the message is lost. In his own life, Singh hardly fits the mould of a skirt-chaser. He married his high-school sweetheart, Shalini Talwar, in 2011, is a good cook and a mama’s boy.
Singh’s body language on stage is that of a prize fighter’s. This is my kingdom, it screams. His usual uniform is a cap that hides his buzz cut; mirror-sized sunglasses; a long chain that reaches his lungs; a low-cut ganji or hoodie; comfortable pants; his kara; and either golden and black sneakers or teddy shoes from Adidas. Singh is also blessed with good friends — his entourage is like a brotherhood.
Even though he’s dealing with health issues right now, he is not quite done yet. “Honey is a very talented guy, so he wants to keep moving on to the next step,” said Mahant. “One song with Gippy, one with Diljit. Then, he went to Bollywood. Then, he did a song in the south [‘Ethir Neechal’]. Then, ‘Achko Machko’, in Gujarati. Now, we’ve heard he’s doing a song in Nepali and in Himachali. He knows which audience is to be included; where he has to create his fan base. If even people in the south are dancing to Punjabi songs now, it’s because of him. As music journalists, we look forward to what he’s going to do next.”
One thing Singh has already started accomplishing is cutting across age divides. Kumar said that even 60-year-old grannies attend his shows. Jindal said, “After ‘Lungi Dance’, his audience has changed a lot. The music video industry has its own market, and Bollywood has its own market.” There’s one incident that illustrates this perfectly. In October 2012, in an event organised by the Varishth Nagrik Kesari Club, Singh and J-Star were singing ‘Gabru’ when someone joined them on stage and shook a leg. It was then Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit.