It was late Saturday afternoon and the DJ spun "Hell Raizer", a rap-rock tune of the Limp Bizkit variety. Fresh young things crowded the dance floor. The girls wore tight jeans with placemat sized tops and the boys were dressed in very baggy trousers and team jerseys (New York was very popular) with prominently displayed Nike swooshes accesorised with a liberal display of faux chunky gold chains and diamond earstuds. You'd be forgiven for thinking this was South Central LA or the Bronx but these very hip young things were living large at the third album launch, "Da' Nepali Touch", of local hip-hop outfit Rappaz Union at the Bakery Caf? in Thamel.
Nirnaya Shrestha, Samrat Khadka, Rinchin and Josh Duncan are better known to their fans as Nirnaya da' Naughty Soul Kid, Sammy Samrat, Richie Rich Rinchin and Caoz Capone. "We come from different places and backgrounds but are bound together by our music, that is why we named ourselves Rappaz Union," elaborates da' Naughty Soul Kid-further abbreviated to 'NSK', whose day job involves managing sajilo.com. As NSK, he takes the stage to a wild round of applause and cheering and appears very confident- little wonder considering he has 50 concerts under his belt. Nirnaya strides up and down the stage with a hint of a slouch, a red baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. The crowd rushes forward as he raps, his elbow turned away from his body as he holds the mike at a 90-degree angle, "What, can be done in dis' fightin' land/ where, dreams are all made of drifting sand." Nirnaya enunciates with a soft sibilance: surprisingly, deciphering the lyrics does not need an advanced degree in hip-hop argot. Off stage, the 24-year-old is soft-spoken. He graciously signed autographs and posed for photos with fans before coming to say hello. Why hip-hop? " This is how I express myself and the way I think," he says sparingly. "It's a part of my life."
At 31, Chirag Bangdel who is the emcee at the event, could be the oldest audience member. His own preference leans toward rock and roll and jazz but points out that both were once considered renegade music, much like hip-hop today. The bad reputation came with rappers who swore allegiance to the 'thug life' with their 'gangsta' lyrics that glorified gun-blazing, Cristal-popping and designer-name-dropping-all far removed from Nepali youth who know Cristal but sip Carlsberg, dress in designer fakes and call each other 'nigga' affectionately. "It's a clich? but music is universal, and Rappaz Union is a hybrid, a positive one," he says. "They sing about things they know like love, ambition and 'making it', even politics, which explains why Nepali kids relate to this genre." Rappaz Union's third album has Nepali songs and a lot of Nepali musical influences-the sitar, damphu and bansuri feature on several tracks.
A tourist walked in, bewilderment on his face. He heard the music outside on the street and came in to satisfy his curiosity. He introduced himself as DJ Mordy from Israel and said, "This is amazing," gesturing to the rappers, the audience and the sheer surprise at his discovery of the local hip-hop community that is small, tight and still redolent with an underground flavour. The support rappers show each other is evident when the Nepsydaz are invited to come onstage. The six members-Kiran Shrestha (Mistah K), Gyanon (Dizazta G), Manas Ghale (MC Basic), Yengzi Sherpa (Rappa-yng) and Saurav (Schizo), are not all there but are well represented by the rest of their posse. They launch into a familiar tune and the penny drops-"Hell Raizer" is their baby. Others were invited to join a 'battle': a hip-hop war of words locked to a recorded flow where the wittiest one wins. It is unscripted, spontaneous and breathtaking in its intensity to cow the other competitors down under a verbal barrage. Admittedly it was sprinkled with profanity but what earned the most audience appreciation were rhyme, rhythm and humour. Repartees fly at each other, and in an odd way it sounded like a close kin of the Nepali dohari folk tradition where male and female singers exchange risqu? dialogue through song.
Susan Shrestha was dancing with abandon to American rap star Nelly and it's obvious she knows all the lyrics to "Ride with me". She is a fan of Rappaz Union and deftly makes an "R" and "U" with her right hand. It takes me a full minute to do the same. "I love this music," she says simply to my question of how she can identify with a genre of music that was born in the African American urban ghetto. "They say things we're going through, and it's a bonus that it's got a great groove too!" she adds. Susan paid Rs 300 to be there. "It's worth every rupee and more," she says. The entry price includes food and the plate comes laden with momos, pakoras and french fries served with plenty of ketchup and washed down with the ubiquitous cola. On a small level the combination platter represents the music-a curiously bold blend of East and West that is nonetheless quite appetising.
The process of give and take is evident in Nepali rap. Girish and Pranil or GP recently put out a rap single in Nepali that defiantly celebrates the self, "Ma yesto chhu/ ma tyasto chhu/ jasto panni bhaye daami chhu"-"I may be like this or like that, but anyway you cut it, I'm da' bomb." If the popularity of the song and Rappaz Union's third album is anything to go by, hip-hop has arrived in the kingdom. The high visibility of hip-hop is only part of the genre's popularity. It has to do with this generation carving out a niche for itself and finding a medium of expression. It may be a while before hip-hop begins to pay the bills, but there is no doubt the genre is experiencing a break through: young Nepali hip-hop acts have talent, an audience and the chutzpah to take, break and make something their own. Respect y'all.