Dr. Dattatreyan Might Just Be Writing The First Book On Desi Hip-Hop.


I have said this before and I’ll say this again. I will always be thankful to music for making me meet new people. It was around in 2012 when I met Dr. Ethiraj Gabriel Dattatreyan, he preferred to be called Gabriel. He had just recently moved to Delhi from New York to discover the city’s hip hop scene. I was able to figure out that he was an Indian-American who grew up spittin’ rhymes and writing graffiti. It was a few articles in the Indian magazines about hip-hop which caught his attention.

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I remember moving around with him and meeting young people who were committed to hip hop. He spent around 18 months absorbing the culture and getting to know some in the Delhi scene and beyond to get this hip hop Book done right. From what I understand, this book is about them. There are a number of  hip hop books but a dedicateded book on desihip hop is far difficult to find until this one. This book and the articles he has written along with his homie Dr. Jaspal Singh are also a part of his project on the Mumbai and Delhi scenes. They have used Ethnography to make the reading experience more descriptive and interesting.

I caught up with Dr.Dattatreyan to discuss more about the book and find out what all went into it. Have a look :

SLYCK: On a scale of 1 to 10, how amazed were you when you actually came to India and saw the culture?

DR.DATTATREYAN: LOL! A scale of 1-10, huh? I would say a 9 but for very specific reasons. Hip hop has been travelling around the world for some time. What is amazing is how in each of the places hip hop culture has popped up in the last 3.5 decades. It has offered young people a chance to make themselves, express themselves, become more themselves. If you think about it, this is a powerful political act and is at the center of what hip hop has been. It has been the same since the days of Grandmaster Flash, Africa Bambaataa, and Cool Herk.

In the early days of hip hop, the culture was thought of as a way to create knowledge-of-self and pass it on. For each one to teach one. When I got Delhi, I met young people dancing, writing rhymes, and producing hip hop music. DESPITE what was expected of them by society, their parents, and their peers. They were teaching themselves and teaching each other. That’s powerful, especially if you consider that a lot of the young people who are at the center of the Indian hip hop scene are from non-elite backgrounds.

SLYCK: How is hip-hop music helping the artists from non-elite backgrounds?

DR.DATTATREYAN: They don’t have access to universities, to high paying jobs, and to a lot of what has been promised to the next generation of India since economic liberalization in the 1990s opened up the markets and made the rich and the middle class even more wealthy. What has impressed me most about these young people is that they are using hip hop (and the internet) to learn about the world and to learn about themselves in the world.

Not only that, but their love for hip hop is creating new opportunities for them, opportunities that they couldn’t have imagined if they hadn’t started dancing, rapping, DJing, or producing music. These opportunities, I think, are both the danger and promise of hip hop and are the center of a lot of the debates in the Indian scene right now. On the one hand, doing hip hop is freedom from all the stuff that brings us down – its pure, it’s the cipha. It is exchanging freely, for the love of hip hop. It’s an escape from all the ugliness that creates the unequal world we live in and an opportunity to create something new, something different.

On the other hand, hip hop offers an opportunity for individuals to hustle, to make money, to get ahead in a world that values style and creativity. As many people who have written about global hip hop have argued – hip hop is a billion dollar industry and its an industry controlled by powerful, rich people – not necessarily those who make the music, who dance, who write. This industry picks and chooses who it supports and separates those that can make them money from the culture that creates them in the first place.

SLYCK: What excites to the most about Indian hip-hop?

DR.DATTATREYAN: I think what most excites me about the Indian hip hop scene is the way that some of the leaders in the scene are addressing this issue head on and trying to be smart about how to navigate these issues as the scene grows and as big business starts paying attention. My hope is that all of you are able to forge a path that keeps the spirit of hip hop alive while also finding a way to pay the bills for the collective, the crew — not just for the few. That’s the challenge and the hope.

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SLYCK : What motivated you to actually write the book and what exactly should one expect out of it?

DR.DATTATREYAN: Well, I started writing about Delhi’s hip hop scene for my PhD thesis in anthropology. I started my PhD late – when I was 35 years old. Gradually, decided to try and go back to school after working for several years doing arts programming – theatre, poetry (hip hop), dance – for young people who had been in jail or involved with the criminal justice system in New York City. I needed to take a break from doing that kind of work. I had seen too much growing up in NYC and working with young men in these kinds of jobs.

What should one expect from the book? That’s a great question. The easy answer is a lot of stories, stories that paint a picture of what it means to grow up in Delhi in the second decade of the 2000s. However, because it is a work I produced as part of my PhD, I also do a lot of thinking through big ideas in book – ideas about capitalism, gender, race, and what a city is and can be. I write in a way that I hope anyone can read but, to be real, I think parts of the book might get a bit heavy and philosophical for someone who is not fully invested in theoretical writing.

SLYCK: When and how did you actually decide to write a book on Indian hip-hop scene?

DR.DATTATREYAN: I didn’t want to write about things I had no idea about or wasn’t a part of in any way. Adivasi land rights, rural social movements, farmer suicides – these were topics that I was interested in but couldn’t see myself authentically connecting with. In 2010, I heard about the growing Indian hip hop scene. I decided to visit Delhi in 2011 and decided to write about the scene for my thesis. The book comes out of my thesis work. I was motivated to take thesis and rewrite it in book form because I think some of the things I learned with the homies I met in Delhi are important for people to read, particularly the people who think they know what urban India is about.

I thought going back to school might offer me a chance to think, reflect, and write about what I had experienced. When I got into graduate school on a full scholarship (which was a huge and pleasant surprise because my grades in college were terrible and I didn’t have enough money to fund an education) my mentors encouraged to think beyond the United States for my final dissertation research project. I started to contemplate travelling back to India to do my ethnographic research but wasn’t sure what I was going to do.

SLYCK: I am sure the Indian hip-hop scene and the American hip-hop scene contrast each other. We would love to know more about it from your perspective ?

DR.DATTATREYAN: Interesting question. Well, I think the Indian scene, because it is so new, is still not as divided geographically or economically as the U.S. scene. Things are just starting and so there is an energy in India like I never experienced in the U.S. Anything seems possible. People in various cities are collaborating with each other. But, I suspect as some people start to make more money than others this openness might get threatened. Keep the faith and work against that.

SLYCK: From what I understand, you have used Ethnography for some parts of the book. That is very interesting. Could you shed some light on how exactly have you utilized it in your book ?

DR.DATTATREYAN: Sure. Ethnography is often described as writing or filmmaking that is a result of hanging out with people for a long period of time. I hung out with a few MCs, bboys, and graf writers in Delhi for about 18 months. Most of what I learned was while I was in conversation with these MCs and dancers or came from what I observed when I hung out with them. The book is full of stories that emerged during this time.

For instance, I write about the music videos I made with a few MCs in the scene or about the underground and commercial battles and jams I attended. I also write about the metro system and going shopping for snapbacks and t-shirts in Pallika bazaar. Then, decided write about clubs in Haus Khas, Gurgaon, and other parts of Delhi that I visited. I also write about just sitting around with the young homies and just listening (and talking as best as I could with my imperfect Hindi).

I use these stories to raise questions regarding the politics of hip hop, hip hop and its ability to describe and create social worlds, the unequal social reality of urban India, and so on.

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SLYCK: I assume you must have met a lot of artists during your time here. Any favorite artists or memorable experiences?

DR.DATTATREYAN: My most memorable experiences were in Satpula Dam, close to the DLF shopping center in South Delhi. Over the year and half I lived in the city I attended many ciphas in the 14th century tunnels of the dam that were incredibly powerful. These ciphas included Bihari and Garwhali kids who lived in the nearby villages that were as young as 11 and who participated by beatboxing. The ciphas included West African nationals, men from the Ivory Coast, Nigeria, who rapped with them. It also included the recognized rising stars of the Indian hip hop scene. These were unforgettable moments.

SLYCK: Till when is the book going to be coming out and how can one get his hands on one ?

DR.DATTATREYAN: Man, that is a great question, probably one you should ask my publisher! For real though, I don’t think the book will come out till late 2018, early 2019. Academic publishing is slow. I promise to give you all a heads up when its finally out. As to how you get your hands on one – stay tuned. I will make sure there is a way for anyone in India who wants a copy to get a copy. To do so, I might have to get a second publisher based in India to pick up the work but it will happen.

SLYCK: Anyone who you would like to thank or give a shout out to for this book ?

DR.DATTATREYAN: I’d like to give a shout out to all the MCs, b-boys and writers who I got to know in the Delhi scene – you know who you are! Keep on building. One love.

You can find a number of best hip hop books in the market but this one is special to pick as this book will be written on desi hip hop and will be having a different take on hip-hop than other hip hop books in the market right now.