In an oddly deserted lane of Satya Niketan, the student hub of Delhi University’s South Campus, young people start queuing up before Nerds of Comedy. Another stand-up act? Nope, it’s the evening’s venue for Spit Dope’s latest rendezvous – with a promising lineup of emerging hip-hop artists like Rebel 7 and Gauntlet.

Spit Dope Inc is a Delhi-based hip-hop community known for organizing rap battles underground. Created with the joint efforts of MC Kode and Encore ABJ (of Seedhe Maut fame), the movement has been a launchpad for many budding hip-hop artists. Like its Mumbai counterpart, Battle Bars Bombay (B3), it has fostered this ritual of attending live jam sessions amongst young people.

“It’s MC Kode coming straight out of Delhi. Rapping Spit Dope since day one. My real name is Aditya Tiwari. Stage name Kode,” chimes in MC Kode.

As a child, he came across Eminem’s music which opened the world of rap to him. Juxtapposing rap music to literature, he says: “People ask me, ‘What's so special about Shakespeare?’ He used to write. Eminem writes too. But, Eminem speaks as well. If Shakespeare had a mic, he might been someone else. But Eminem did have a mic, and he conveyed those feelings”.

Like any other public figure, Kode is no stranger to controversies, with his own share of backlash and media trials.

“Now I can’t just come and say to the audience that, ‘screw this party’. Our respected Constitution has freedom of speech, but to an extent. You can’t just go all in,” he explains.

“As we try to tackle any issue – be it corruption, rape, or even the conflicts going on in Kashmir and the North East – nobody is talking about it. Even in America, the editors of the New York Times can’t post their opinions about Israel outrightly, because their jobs are at stake. Here, we have the same restrictions.”

“It’s not only the restrictions that the government places, but also the society playing a part in it,” says Kode.

He reiterates how anyone can get into hip-hop with a starter pack containing – a brain, a pen, and a piece of paper. He says, “If there is no accessibility in music, it would become a niche art. Those who can buy all the Mona Lisas of the world will keep collecting them. But us, painters, we are everywhere.”

Kode has been vocal about the hierarchal structure of the hip-hop industry that he says often cages artists’ creativity.

“Today we see an oligarchy with three major record labels at the top. These three then make sub-labels below them. By signing a contract, an artist becomes legally bound, just like an employee. With this, he loses the autonomy to release his own music – if he did so, he would be taken to court the next day.”

Tonight Kode, who has been organizing rap battles for a decade now, does not perform for a change and instead, joins us to watch the young talent unfold.

“Spit Dope is much more than you and I. It is the coming together of people like Encore ABJ, Calm and Youngie. Now that we’re all past 25, we’ve passed the baton to the younger generation. Now it’s on them to carry on the legacy of Indian hip hop.”

Away from the testosterone-charged boom box of Spit Dope, there is another artist on the rise who lends her unique voice to the desi hip-hop industry. Originally named Akriti, Pho was born and brought up in Delhi.

“I have always wanted to make music. I came across hip-hop through YouTube. I used to watch VH1 and listened to Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, 50 Cent, especially Eminem a lot. Eventually I joined the [Spit Dope] community and started beatboxing.”

“A lot of things that I couldn’t express as a kid, I talk about that in my music. Like breaking out of the constraints that said, ‘you are a girl, stay at home’ because of the unsafe world out there. When I finally got out, I realised how everyone was in a rat race. I have seen people fade away in this loop.”

Pho has used music as a tool to derive the meaning of femininity for herself. “I wrote about getting more comfortable with my femininity. My entire life, I have been way more masculine than feminine. As a kid masculine meant power and protection to me. I could not look up to anybody around me who could protect me. So, I became that for myself for the longest time.”

She believes that while people discriminate against women in several spaces, desi hip-hop has largely been welcoming to women. “It’s just that you have to give out music that one can relate to. For me, the biggest challenge was what I was going to say at home. That I want to do music and perform amongst ten men? It took me the longest time to convince my parents. The shows would start at 8 pm, but I had to be home by then.”

On the scope of resistance in hip hop music, she says,“You can talk about a lot of things without having to filter. Not just political issues, people are vocal about their everyday lives too.”

Since its current inception in the 1970s in the Bronx, New York City, drawing on genres of west African music, hip-hop has long been a tool of resistance. Young people in the Afro-American, Latin and Afro-Caribbean communities have turned to this genre of music to express their frustration at poverty, racism, occupation, capitalism and other institutions.

According to Pho, “There’s nothing authentic in this world. Everyone has been inspired by one another. Hip-hop spreads in such a way that when I talk about my life, it becomes my music. Rebel 7 talks about the streets he comes from, and it becomes his desi hip hop. In this music space, people talk about their desi struggles.”

Away from the hustling-bustling hip-hop scene of the Capital, there are young voices echoing in the torn valley of Kashmir. Ehan (22) has witnessed both beauty and conflict throughout his life. When Kashmir was going through curfews, lockdowns, and internet blockade, Ehan found peace in the beats of hip-hop.

“The appeal of rap to me is, if you pick out any genre, it is the only one where you can express yourself the best.”

Amidst the 2016 uprising in Kashmir, Ehan, then 15, was unable to access the internet. He visited a “computer downloading shop”. There, he stocked his phone’s memory card with music, introducing himself to artists like Atif Aslam, Eminem, Bohemia, and Avril Lavigne.

During this period, he began to follow Bohemia’s path and embarked on his own hip-hop journey.

“I started listening to Bohemia; he delivered Punjabi rap, labeling it desi hip-hop. His approach was underground, unveiling the harsh realities of the world. I resonated deeply with his music. It was now my turn to unveil who Ehan truly is to the world.”

Ehan ended up making a song, ‘Signs’, for Bohemia’s label Kali Denali Music which was widely circulated and appreciated by fans.

He boldly highlights the hypocrisy within Kashmiri Muslim society, where he faces criticism for making music, condemned as forbidden in Islam, while the very individuals reproaching him listen to Bollywood music themselves.

He recalls, “Initially, my family didn’t back my hip-hop journey. Over time, they came to value my dedication and effort in music. Also there were voices around us, telling my parents that pursuing music wasn’t in line with our Kashmiri-Muslim identity. These opinions affected my parents’ perspective.”

Ehan wishes his music would inspire the younger generation to pursue their dreams. He emphasizes steering clear of the widespread drug issue in Kashmir, striving to deter the youth from getting involved in substance abuse, and believes it is the region’s most pressing problem.

“I steer my music away from politics as I don’t perceive myself as that type of artist. However, occasionally, I do touch upon political themes. For instance, I created a song titled ‘Teri Tarah’, addressing prevalent societal issues such as depression, escalating suicide rates, and the alarming problem of drug abuse among the youth,” he says.

“When you find yourself in a negative circle of friends, you might spiral into depression. Seeking solace, one might turn to drugs, leading to lifelong struggles for a young person.”

He stresses the importance of extending a helping hand. “It’s essential not to vilify youngsters. Instead, we should strive to offer support.”

“We all err as humans, but the key is to learn from our mistakes, aspire to improve, and discover our authentic selves.”