MC Altaf, an 18-year old fledgling rapper from Dharavi in Mumbai has a song in Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy, out in 2019. He’s also released his first music video on YouTube this month “Wassup!” made in collaboration with New York rapper, Jay Killa. And his new best friend Ranveer Singh even has a cameo in it.
Amid these great highs in his life, Altaf Shaikh has just one worry: The fact that his rising fame in Mumbai’s hip-hop scene will make collaborators ask him to rap on love and ladki (girls). But “Mera toh yeh style nahi hai (That’s not my style),” he tells me. “I write on social causes, about what’s happening in the country, about my life in the ’hood. I’m a hardcore rapper.”
Growing up in Dharavi, Altaf had a rough childhood. He watched the hostility between Hindus and Muslims in the city, infused with a sense of terror. At his “posh school” in Mahim, he says he was a “kharab bacha”, picking fights and bullying other kids. His parents were called often to the school. “I had a lot of fun in school, lot of masti,” he recalls. “It was a school for good kids. [But the] teachers were tired of me.” Altaf was eventually expelled because of his behaviour. And the principal made sure no other school would take him in—his school-leaving certificate was marked with a red line, highlighting him as a problem child. After multiple rejections, his father finally admitted him to a municipal school. “I was in class III or IV,” Altaf says. And he started to blame the kids in his neighbourhood for his disciplinary issues.
But why did you beat up other children, I ask. “I wanted everyone to listen to me. I didn’t want anyone to tell me what to do.” It’s this flouting of rules that informs Altaf’s rap. He calls it ‘rage rap’.
In his new school, Altaf met kids who were into sutta (cigarettes) and music. It was their only escape. It was also where he was introduced to B-boying and rap. “Dance ka craze hogaya (I fell in love with dance),” he says, saying how he had now decided to become a dancer. “Koi aur career option bhi nahi tha (I had no other career option). I wanted my friends to notice me. To praise me.”
But B-boying jama nahi (I didn’t enjoy it that much), he says. Why? “I wanted friends to respect me. But I couldn’t do some steps. I loved to rap though.” The neighbourhood kids were already into it, listening to 50 Cent. One day during the annual 11-day Ganpati festival, he saw his first crew rap on stage. It was another Mumbai rapper, Tony Sebastian’s crew. And Altaf was hooked. The truth in Tony Sebastian’s song—“ Aai Shapath Saheb, Me Navtho” (I swear sir, it was not me)—made him aspire to do something similar. “He was rapping about real things like social justice and weed,” Altaf says.
Soon after, on a Mumbai local train, Altaf noticed a boy watching a hip-hop video on his phone. “I told him, ‘Bhai video send kar saqte ho’ (Bro, can you send me that video?).” It was the hip hop championship video, and Altaf played it on loop. “It was very catchy.” Although it was 50 Cent “In the Club” that he was watching, he later discovered Nas who became his obsession. “These rappers provided me with the inspiration I needed. They also sing about social causes. And I love the delivery style of Nas. He never called a girl ‘bitch’.” Soon after Altaf joined a three-member crew Enimiez in 2015, with MC R1 (Rohan Kadar) and MC Standley (Standley Pujari), whom he met at Lokmanya Vidya Mandir Jr (LVM) College where Altaf was studying at the time. As music journalist Uday Kapur puts it, "Lyrically, a lot of these guys are amazing but when it comes to recording the track there’s still a lot left to be desired. I’m glad they’re getting the exposure they deserve due to their roles in Gully Boy, but it also puts a lot of pressure on them to deliver and make sure they’re not a just a trendy footnote in the hip-hop movement."
The Silver Screen:
After the Gully Boy auditions, Altaf was chosen to “improve” and contemporise the film’s dialogues. He has a song in the film. And a cameo. He worked with Ranveer Singh, who plays a rapper from the Mumbai slums, for almost two months. “ Bahut chill banda hai (He’s a very chill guy).” At one point, Singh was on stage freestyling, when he called out to Shaikh: “Altaf, tere ko kar dunga saaf (Hey Altaf, I’m gonna clean you out)”. Altaf smiles and says, “Ranveer bhai was in some mood. Suddenly stage pe se diss kiya; I liked it.” Amid rap battles and cyphers, Altaf was thrilled. When Zoya Akhtar posted a picture of all the rappers on her Instagram, he felt things would be alright. That his hustle was worth it.
Of course none of it came easy. On Facebook, every time Altaf saw a rap crew posting their new track, he felt an added pressure on him and MC R1 and MC Standley to survive and thrive. They had to stay relevant. “We want to be sab se alag (different from everyone) ,” he says. “Like when we named our crew Enimiez, people didn’t expect that name. It is different. Our rap is different.”
Enimiez was soon uploading songs shot on mobile phones, while others were getting a lot more detailed about their videos and production. “It looked very awkward for us to use the mobile shot video.” The boys started working as newspaper delivery boys for some time to raise money for a proper video. Their next challenge? The lyrics. One of the songs he wrote after GST was introduced in the country was “Make India Great Again”. “Udta parinda aur soch aasmani, faila dun pankh toh phir khoon kharaba kyun (I am a free bird, my thinking is high, why this bloodshed if I try to spread my wings).” Amid compliments from his listeners (“Sahi hain”), musician Pankaj Awasthi called him and asked if they could make a song together.
“Wassup! ” is his first single that is shot, edited and produced professionally. “Aise bolte hai rappers public mein (Rappers use this word often). It’s a catchy line. Wassup!” And how does he deal with fame? “Mere dimaag mein nahi aata. Pata nahi kaise ho gaya. Abhi call aata hai show ke liye, ajeeb sa lagta hai. (I don’t know how this happened. Sometimes when I receive a call to perform somewhere, it feels weird.)” Talk to him and you’ll sense his ambition to do more, to always prove himself. “I want to prove to my family, to the world that I can do it.”
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