Let’s talk about Azadi
Socially conscious independent music label Azadi Records prepares to end 2018 with a bang
I want to burn this scene down and rebuild it from scratch," declares Uday Kapur. The 27-year-old music journalist is the co-founder of Azadi Records, India’s most hyped new independent music label, which has been making major waves in Indian hip-hop this year. Cynical and sharp-tongued, Kapur is the angry young man of the Indian hip-hop scene, always ready to call out the hypocrisy and unethical practices that are rampant in the Indian music industry. “It gets to you, man," he says. “For most industry people, talking about where things are going wrong and what needs to change within the space is a no-no. But that doesn’t mean the problems don’t exist. And someone needs to speak up."
This “take no prisoners" attitude runs through everything that the label (established in June 2017) does, especially the socially and politically conscious music they produce. Their first major release, Prabh Deep’s debut 2017 album Class-Sikh, made it to several album of the year lists on the strength of his gritty, uncompromising portrayal of life as the son of 1984 anti-Sikh riot refugees on the drug-infested streets of West Delhi’s Tilak Nagar. In the months since, they’ve raised their profile with a number of critically acclaimed releases, a raucous, sold-out label showcase gig in Mumbai this July, and an appearance on GQ’s annual list of 50 most influential young Indians. In true Azadi form, the photograph that accompanies their entry on the list features Kapur wearing a T-shirt that reads “Free Atif Sultan, Sudha Bhardwaj, Sudhir Dhawle, Mahesh Raut", referring to four human rights activists and journalists currently in prison.
The idea for a record label first came to Kapur when he wrote his undergraduate thesis at the Delhi College of Arts and Commerce on Indian protest music. He realized that there were many Indian musicians working on social and political issues, but they lacked the support required to get their voices heard by a larger audience. Kapur went on to work at music and entertainment conglomerate Only Much Louder, where he helped manage a roster of hip-hop acts that, at the time, included gully rap pioneer Naezy, Prabh Deep, producer Sez On The Beat, and others. As his engagement with the Indian hip-hop scene deepened, Kapur saw the potential for rap to be the vehicle for political protest.
Then, sometime in 2016, he met 35-year-old music entrepreneur Mo Joshi, who at the time was working with the Indian rap blog Desi Hip-Hop. If Kapur is Azadi Records’ fiery hip-hop ideologue, Joshi is the diplomatic businessman who can turn Kapur’s ideas into reality. Having grown up in a council flat in Surrey, Joshi got involved in the UK hip-hop scene at the age of 13 and went on to work with the likes of English singer-songwriter Joss Stone and UK conscious rapper Akala. In 2014, he moved to Chandigarh to help run Indian operations for his family’s data processing business, and it didn’t take him long to get involved with the music scene here. “I saw massive similarities to what had happened in the UK in the 90s," says Joshi. “The scene was disjointed, but it was definitely building towards something.... You could see the foundations in place for it to become really big."
Kapur and Joshi saw in each other someone who shared a common vision of a more ethical, grassroots-led hip-hop scene. So when Joshi left Desi Hip-Hop, the two set up Azadi Records as a label that would promote South Asian artists to release progressive, socially conscious music. “I wanted it to be a label that had a story behind it, that pushed voices from the margins to the forefront," says Kapur. “We’re looking for artists who are coming from communities or are telling stories that you don’t usually find in the music space. The stuff that comes out is so homogenic and the stories they’re telling all feel the same. So the idea was to put out music and artists that gave a more accurate representation of what the country is going through."
Prabh Deep and Sez On The Beat were the first two artists to sign on with Azadi, and the success of Class-Sikh has helped the label grab the attention of others who think on similar lines. At the moment, their roster also includes Delhi-based Haryanvi-Hindi rap duo Seedhe Maut, Kannada-English rapper Siri from Bengaluru, Mumbai multilingual political rap crew Swadeshi, and Kashmiri political rapper Ahmer Javed, among others. What unites these artists is that they’re telling stories from the margins. “Not everyone can connect with what upper middle class India is saying with their guitars and their drum machines," says Kapur. “So you have to go around and tell stories from different communities so that they start engaging with the music more. And then, maybe some change can come from that."
Running an indie label in India has never been financially easy. Azadi Records is largely self-funded and is still a long way from seeing a profit. But that hasn’t stopped them from taking a stand where necessary, whether it’s calling out seemingly casteist lyrics in a song by reigning underground rap king Divine (featuring California rapper Raja Kumari) or pulling out of a major music festival to protest the “prevalent culture of sexual harassment and assault in the music industry". “It’s a challenge to walk that tightrope, where you want to be successful and grow your fanbase but also speak out against things that are wrong," says Kapur. “That’s something that we will have to figure out as we go along."
Having spent the past year building up their roster, Azadi Records is now all set to show the world what they’ve been working on. Having just released a new single by Prabh Deep and Happu Singh titled Sauce, which sees the rapper experiment with a more laid-back Punjabi rap sound, they’re following it up with Seedhe Maut’s debut album, due on 28 December. A seven-track EP and three-track medley music video by Tienas will also be out before the end of the month, and there’s other releases by Siri, Kozhikode-based R&B producer Triangles, as well as Ahmer Javed scheduled for the next few months.
In the long term, the two want to branch out of the label business and open up a venue that’s more accessible to underground hip-hop’s predominantly lower-income audience. They also want to launch a vernacular magazine and set up other similar outreach programmes.
“I want to be able to build a Def Jam status organization, but at the same time, build the legacy that Def Jam failed to," says Joshi, referring to the iconic New York rap label. “I’ve never lied to Uday about this, my goal is to make money and build something. But I also want to do it in an ethical way. So that’s where our two ideals converge."