So I want to talk about one more aspect of Pakistani rap. I did want to include this in the video itself, but the video was already really long. And you guys don’t like long videos. At any rate, I couldn’t talk about rap, and not mention the sudden surge in artists allegedly ‘selling out’. Commercialization may seem counterintuitive for a culture that literally emerged as a form of dissent against the status quo. But, money is a modern-day staple as far as hip-hop is concerned.
This isn’t limited to the subject matter that artists are rapping about.
Expensive recording contracts (even after the international music industry took a hit pots 2008) endorsements, genre crossover. All of this is happening, some would say at the expense of hip-hop’s core values.
Is this trend reflected in Pakistan? More importantly, is it harming Pakistani rap? Let’s discuss.
The commercial history
Some trace the commercialization of hip-hop to the rise of consumerism itself. In this piece, Kyle Coward argues that a 1994 liquor commercial featuring the Wu-Tang Clan was the first incident of hip-hop being deployed to sell product. What is interesting about this is that the video for the commercial still managed to maintain some of the rap group’s signature grit. It forms a sharp contrast with the kind of preppy, sanitized commercials that hijack hip-hop’s appeal today.
Perhaps, as Coward argues, the reason for this was the fact that much of the creative control rested with the artist. Yes, a brand was using their appeal to sell a product that had very little to do with their message. But the artists were able to control how their image appeared in tandem with the product.
But the point is valid, the original commercialisation of hip-hop was the result of actual commercials.
Hip-hop ‘selling out’
Today the trend has transcended actually selling consumer products. Some would argue, hip-hop is now used to sell the culture itself.
There is a brilliant Ebony Magazine article by Shaka Shaw which talks about the difference between people who honour and expand on rap culture and those that just “happen to rap.”
My main take-away from the piece was about rap fusing in with other genres and by default becoming something that can’t be classified as part of hip-hop. These are songs which according to Shaw, include a rap verse or two but wouldn’t really miss the verse if it were removed. They also wouldn’t sound like anything other than pop were the minutia of rap removed.
And let’s face it, we have all heard these songs. We hear them constantly.
Shaw argues that there is a distinction, “between those interested in honouring the foundation that was laid beforehand by putting forth quality work and acknowledging the culture of hip-hop. And those who are just rhyming words together and applying a formula to get rich quick.”
The commercialization of Pakistani rap
Pakistani rap is much, much younger than the hip-hop movement as a whole, and yet it has been touched by commercialization. But, since the examples are so few and far between, I thought, we could actually talk about the really prominent ones in detail.
Ali Gul Pir
Firstly, let’s talk about Ali Gul Pir. Arguably, one of the first Pakistani rappers to become the poster-child for consumer products. His stints for U-fone and Close-Up were the most commercial things to come out of the local rap scene.
But, while he was endorsing family-friendly products, his art was becoming more explicit. Kholo BC, Modi Teri and the list goes on. So going mainstream didn’t really alter his art at all, in a strange way it made him more uninhibited.
Recently, the most viral Pakistani rapper was Abid Brohi. Within days of Patari Tabeer releasing his song, his name was everywhere. Pakistani rap has always had somewhat of a niche audience, but Abid Brohi instantly became a household name. There are two things that I derive from his story.
Firstly, it reflects Pakistani tastes. As part of Tabeer, Patari released two rap songs. ‘The Sibbi Song’ by Some What Super and Abid Brohi, and ‘The Players of Liyari’ by Liyari Underground and Dynoman. The former was an up-beat number set to a catchy EDM tune, the latter not so much. Which one do you think did better?
The public at large gravitates towards up-beat music.
But simultaneously, Abid’s story was an indication of Pakistani rap’s transcendence across the country. Initially, the movement was seen as a pastime for the privileged youth. But the fact that this young man, who wasn’t privileged, was touched by rap and inspired to create was quite special.
Finally let’s talk about rap crossing over into other musical genres. This one is a new trend that is potentially problematic. Arguably, it was also initiated by the king himself. When Bohemia’s verse for ‘Subha Honay Na Day’ rocked the Bollywood circles, it also inspired others in his wake.
Today, you have Pakistani cinema often venturing down the same route. What I do have to say is that Bohemia had proved his mantle time and time again, so a brief stint for Bollywood didn’t take away from his brand at all. The same can’t be said about less established artists.
This is also why ‘Power Di Game‘ is unique. While it is an example of cinema utilizing rap, yet the message hasn’t been diluted. I suppose the lesson is that it doesn’t have to be.
So has Pakistani rap been commercialized? I’d say yes. Does this automatically mean that it has also lost the sting? Not necessarily, and I suppose so long as it doesn’t everything is alright.