“And I really feel like if hip hop is you know just used for entertainment, it’ll just be another trend that comes and goes. Hip Hop will only stay and be a revolution in India if the common people start voting differently because of it.”
Deepa Unnakrishnan a.k.a. Dee MC is a “big dhamaka in a tiny frame”. She agrees. “The stage is like home to me. When you see me you might feel like I’m a reserved, quiet, really tiny person, and you don’t really know what I’m going to do on stage. But when I am on stage it’s a different personality. Big dhamaka (laughs), yeah it’s so much more fun!”
Dee has recently released her debut album Dee=MC2 last year. One of the tracks from this album that we shot with her for LIVE AT PORT is called “Bars from the Heart” where she raps about her journey. “It’s an open letter from me to my family. It’s about the struggles that I’ve had trying to make them understand what I am doing in my life.”
Her parents moved from Kerala to Mumbai in search of better opportunities. She was five. They settled in Kalyan where she spent the next 15 years growing up. “All my schooling and college was done there, so for 15 years I was there, in Kalyan. Literally nowhere else. And so, when I started hip-hop, all my efforts went into getting out of Kalyan. Because there was absolutely nothing, no hip hop scene, no music scene, nothing there.”
Growing up, Deepa was always perceived to be a tomboy and she wasn’t someone who was great at one particular thing. Her journey in the arts began with Bharatanatyam which she started learning as a child. ‘I’ve been on stage since I was 5 years old. So I’ve never known what stage fear is.” She surprised herself with Hip Hop. “I really feel like, hip hop happening to me is like a sign from the universe, destined to happen; because otherwise there was absolutely no reason for a girl from Kalyan to get into Hip Hop.”
“My dad used to work in Saudi since I was a year old. So, I got internet before any of my friends. I had the privilege of going and finding western music, or different music which was not being shown on Indian TV basically.” In college she was deeply fascinated by B-Boys and B-Girls. “I just loooved the type of music they listened to, the way they dressed, the language that they used with each other. I just wanted to learn B-boying from them.” She forayed into hip hop because of dance, especially the beats. “I feel like beats is what attracts anybody towards hip hop, in the beginning.” Beats are what make hip hop different, make it ‘cool’. By that time she was already listening to hip hop so much that her mind started paying attention towards the lyrics more than the music. Dee started writing her own raps at the age of 18.
In “Bars from the Heart” she talks about the journey of her family coming to terms with her pursuing hip-hop, and not a more stable career – especially after all the sacrifices they made for her. “And, so, Bars from the Heart is basically about that and how we moved on from that. Something South Indian parents love using is ‘What is the scope of this? How long is it going to last for you?’ So that perception has changed a lot, especially because of my international collaborations, not just because of Gully Boy. So basically yeah, the first half is about my family and the second part is about how far hip hop has come in India, and the international tours I’ve had. So, it’s an open letter to my fans and my family,” says Dee.
Deepa started out many years ago with a cover song on Youtube. Another MC in Dombivali discovered her and introduced her to the Mumbai underground hip-hop scene. She was one of the first female rappers to come onto the scene after nearly three years. “I honestly feel like when I came to know about the existence of the Mumbai underground hip hop scene, is when I actually knew what hip hop was. Because before that everything was just commercial hip hop, or dance based hip hop, you know? I didn’t really know about old school hip hop, or the origin story of how hip hop was formed, what all elements there are in hip hop – so basically the knowledge side of hip hop came into my life when I came to know about the Mumbai scene. And if I hadn’t discovered the scene as soon as I put out the cover video, I would probably have been putting out cover videos for a while”, she shares. The scene helped her understand the culture as a whole and she realised how much pride MCs take in writing their own lyrics – “If you’re a rapper, THAT’S your pride, that’s what makes you an MC.”
We asked about her major influences in hip hop, and there have been many. The more popular names like Eminem, Jay-Z, and Mike Shinoda came up first. “He (Shinoda) was like one of the first rappers that I heard because of Linkin Park, and pop culture, basically. I heard them before I heard old school rap.” Those were the names that got her hooked. “But then I was introduced to old school rap, MCs like Mos Def, Crooked Eye, and even Jay-Z in depth. One of my biggest influences has to be Mos Def.” He was one of the MCs that made her really fall in love with hip hop. “There’s a song of his called Travelling Man, and I remember listening to it in my own living room. There’s this third verse – and I literally stood there for the entire 3 minutes until that verse was done. Just got lost in it. Like literally that’s when I realised that yeah, this is why I’m so addicted to hip hop. By that time I was not listening to anything but hip hop.” She particularly loved Mos Def because of the jazz influence in his music, “He’s the type of artist who can switch from singing into rapping to singing. He has that wavy kind of flow. Which is something I love doing, even before I heard him. So when I heard him, it was like there are already legends who have tried to do what I am trying to do now. And at that point of time in India, there was no other MC who was mixing singing with their rap – which is something I wanted to do because I was good at both. So Mos Def really inspired me.”
From rap battles, to online rap forums like Insignia, to people starting out and putting out self recorded tracks online – the Mumbai scene really motivated her. At the time people were moving away from disses towards making music is when Deepa entered the scene. Some big desi influences she started out with were Divine, D-Evil, Poetik Justis, Enkore, and Kinga Rhymes. “These 5 basically, when I started out, I was like in two years I should at least be where these guys are, you know? In terms of the clarity of your words, and the way you write your lyrics,” she says.
Last year, she featured alongside various other names from the Mumbai hip-hop scene in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy – a film that brought a lot of mainstream attention to the Mumbai underground hip-hop scene for the first time. She’s come a long way since the start, with three international tours in the UK, Belgium, and Canada in the last 3 years.
“The first one was the most epic one, it was for 25 days, four different venues, it was like a proper international music tour. That’s where I met my producer friend Sunit. He was the only artist who approached me from outside because he loved one of the songs I’d put out on Youtube. This was in 2016.” Then one day in 2017 she got an email from the Southbank Centre inviting her to work with a musician in the UK, and “Sunit was the only guy I knew – you know out of any other country in the world the UK was the first country to call me, and he belonged there. Like it was just all aligned.” They worked together on four tracks between Mumbai and London. But when they met and did their first soundcheck, they decided to change the beat for one of the tracks because it didn’t sound that good. That’s the second song Rang that she’s played for us at LIVE AT PORT.
“He played me that beat when I went there for the first time, and I just listened to the chorus. He’s born and brought up there right, so he doesn’t know the meaning of the Hindi or Punjabi lyrics. So, I told him that the chorus is saying that ‘my daughter’s color is white’ and shit, and I wanted to make a song about brown skin prejudice. That’s what led to the spark of creating this album in the UK.” She spent ten extra days there after the tour and they worked together on gathering beats and Dee wrote a couple of verses. Since then they’ve been working on the album together – long distance. “That’s why it took so long, but it’s good because, right now is the perfect time to do anything in hip hop you know, and now it’s out”.
It’s her debut album, the result of over two years of work with Sunit Music in the UK. “Dee-MC2 which is like a flip I’m trynna do on E=Mc2, but I’m just trynna be like ‘Dee’ is equal to all the other MCs squared. Hahaha yea! This is the latest version of Dee MC, this is Dee MC 2.0.” This album is a culmination of all her thought processes over the past two years, where she’s been earning solely through hip hop. “Hip Hop is more than just money to me, but it is the hottest thing in the industry right now – so you have to keep a lot of balance between you know wanting to be successful and just like mentally torturing yourself for fame. So this album is basically about my journey from the UK tour till now and whatever is happening in the hip hop scene.”
As one of the few female MCs on the scene, Dee’s music speaks to a lot of pertinent issues in our society today. Tracks like ‘Rang’ on the album talk about brown skin prejudice, and ‘Vadhaiyaan’ is a reference to conservative, narrow minded society that is used to silencing difference and dissent, calling out to women to stand up for their rights. Dee believes Indian rappers have been Influencing the hip hop scene for 10 years. She recalls a conversation with another artist in the UK where they said “You do realise how beautiful it is what you guys (Indian hip hop artists) are doing right? Because when we started out we were the third generation of MCs and rappers, with two more generations of MCs before us.” Dee says, “But WE are the first generation of whatever we are doing in India – so whatever WE are doing becomes the history of Hip Hop in India. That’s like a BIG responsibility and influential in itself.”
With more women coming into the hip hop scene in India, Dee shares, “Yeah I feel like the community is building in the metropolitan areas where women have more privilege compared to women in the rural areas. But talking specifically about hip hop – to be honest with you girls in India are not really exposed to a lot you know?” As women in India since childhood we are told not to be loud, not to attract too much attention, not try new things. “Yeah, it’s like don’t try to do adventurous shit, basically. Hip Hop is very, very adventurous!” Things have started to change after Gully Boy, “because Bollywood gives a certain sort of acceptance on a national level. At the end of the day, television has the widest reach and impacts young minds. So since Gully Boy is when the exposure has grown. But, that comes with half knowledge which is dangerous.”
While more and more girls are now getting to know what rapping is, “I really wouldn’t say that there are lots of girls in India who absolutely know what hip hop culture is – they know a few rappers who are famous. They see that you get a lot of attention and this is cool, a cool thing to do. So yeah, there are a lot of people who are participating now, but who’s going to stick and who’s going to actually understand this as a culture you know? As a tool, a powerful tool, I dunno how many people will realise that,” she reflects.
There is always the pertinent question of hip hop as a movement being co-opted by popular culture and turning into just another trend as opposed to being a means for voice and dissent. “100 percent! I feel like it’s already happening, and it all boils down to what the MC’s end up doing. If we go out and become sellouts and just start making the same type of commercial music that everybody had been making, then there’d be absolutely no difference at all.” However, she feels a lot has changed since Gully Boy. “I wouldn’t say everything has changed, but people’s ignorance has reduced. Because till last year, if anyone needed a rapper, they’d just randomly call anybody and pick whoever would do it the cheapest. They’re not interested in the rapper’s journey, body of work. But this year they are now seeing, they call MCs after knowing their history, their tracks. Now people are actually approaching rappers in terms of thinking who’s going to fit into what project, because of their unique abilities. Of course it’s going to take time and at the end of the day it’s all about leverage and power. As the hip hop artists keep growing, and growing their audience base and thereby have more power and leverage, we will be able to then decide the route that hip hop takes. Things will change when the core hip hop artists, who actually know what this culture is, they start deciding where this culture should go in India.
For Deepa the next big thing is to build her global reach. “Since the past 3 years I’ve been able to go out of India once a year. I want to grow to have a small global hip hop family, so that when I’m touring I can not only look at India, but look at a few pockets internationally where I could tour every year. That’s the aspiration.”
Watch Dee MC LIVE AT PORT