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Rapped up: EPR

‘I do music to express and not impress’ — hip-hop rage EPR on why he and his musical tribe are warriors with pens

Urvashi Bhattacharya   |   Published 30.11.19, 02:22 PM

Winning isn’t everything for 30-year-old rapper EPR, it’s about not making compromises while making music. He recently signed off (first runner-up) from the hugely popular TV show MTV Hustle with Rabindranath Tagore’s Ekla cholo re only to land eight new collaborations, including Nucleya and Raftaar.

“I have been into the Indian hip-hop scene for 15 years now. So when Indian hip-hop was nothing, when there was no Divine, no Naezy, no nothing… Indian hip-hop survived on this community called Insignia Rap Battles on Orkut,” says Santnam Srinivas Iyer, aka EPR.

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The Telegraph met him for a chat and photoshoot at an abandoned warehouse in Calcutta’s Lake Gardens where we discovered there is more to the man than his band Underground Authority.

Congratulations on coming second on MTV Hustle. Did you expect to come this far?

When I was a kid and when I started emceeing/rapping, all I ever dreamt was for Indian hip-hop to be on TV in its rawest of forms. The moment I heard MTV is doing a rap-based reality show/competition, I capitalised on it straight away. My whole motive of being on this show was to use the platform to the utmost to raise a voice against social injustice... ills... and spread awareness through hip-hop. Winning was never an aim but to survive every hurdle on the show was definitely one.

Do people see you in a different light after it?

Yeah, of course, because over the years I’ve never established my own identity. So it’s always been EPR who is the frontman of Underground Authority, or EPR who is working on films or something like that, or EPR of Adiacot. So this is the first time I got my identity fixed and whatever that I stand for... in way of my ideas, my cause, my protest poetry… so that got highlighted on the show, which is the nation’s first rap reality show.

How tough was the competition?

The competition was awe-effing tough. Imagine, writing a song in six days and to be able to memorise it and perform on the seventh day and keep doing it for 10 weeks. All of us had to push it to the limit to be in the race and yet be musically different... to stand out and create our identities. Never has Indian television seen anything like this. We are generally used to watching song-based reality shows where people sing songs by Lata Mangeshkar, Kishore Kumar and others but all of us at Hustle had to write, compose and perform our own songs episode after episode. In other words, it’s creatively the toughest show ever made.

Walk us through a week off-stage at MTV Hustle.

You are given four days to prepare and compose your song and get it approved by the MTV and Viacom 18 teams. Now there are two issues with that. One is the censorship issue, which looks into saying certain things or if you can take a political stance or not. The other issue is from the creative department where your topic gets selected. I didn’t face much trouble from the latter but I did face a lot when it came to censorship issues. Doing a song in four days is pretty challenging and I think this is the toughest reality show... creatively. And you basically have to keep on doing it for 10 weeks. So for a listener, if you’re watching MTV Hustle, you’re hearing an album. To keep on delivering to your limits, to surprise the judges, you have to keep on experimenting with the topics or the genre, or your style, or your flow... so yes, it was pretty hard.

Out of the three judges — Raftaar, Nucleya and Raja Kumari — who was the toughest nut to crack?

Here is the deal, all of them were pretty tough to crack, because in every episode we had to surprise them. In other words, make them hear something that they haven’t heard before.

What about people who do not agree with your music, since you take such a strong stand?

I don’t get negative feedback because the people who react to my songs need to know these things that I am talking about. So the general reaction is like: “What is this guy talking about?” Because I have an unorthodox style of saying things. My flow is my own design, my rhymes are my own design, plus when you have a non-Bengali and non-Hindi person writing stuff in Hindi, it’s normally different from what you normally get to hear. If you’ve noticed, the Hindi hip-hop rap scene normally survives on Bombay slangs or Delhi slangs and colloquialism and no one raps in pure Hindi or Devanagari script or something like that, so mine is more towards that. Because I haven’t grown up in the hood, I don’t know Bombay slangs, so you would never hear me say stuff like “Kya bolti public.” People have a hard time understanding my topics and my lyrics as well. I may be musically so refreshing that people connect to it, then they go back and research and then they say that yeah, this guy is talking sense.

Speaking of Bombay slangs, you did write a song where you dissed Divine. Where did that come from?

I have been into the Indian hip-hop scene for 15 years now. So when Indian hip-hop was nothing, when there was no Divine, no Naezy, no nothing… Indian hip-hop survived on this community called Insignia Rap Battles on Orkut. We would do text battles with emcees from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bhutan... so all the Southeast Asian countries would battle each other. People did not know about rap music, so to put food on my plate I was looking for producers. And back then there were no original producers. And the DJs would only remix songs and in that era no one would create an original beat for a rapper.

So I ventured into an uncharted territory and entered rock music. I formed my own rock band (Underground Authority) and I survived for 10 years. So when I keep seeing updates about a new movie on Indian hip-hop, about Divine and Naezy and stuff like that, I feel like the whole media is only covering Mumbai and saying that Mumbai is the birthplace of hip-hop in India. That’s where I feel sad because there are a lot of legends who are from the Northeast, Delhi, Tamil Nadu... and all these people have contributed to Indian hip-hop and they’re not mentioned anywhere. And suddenly, from nowhere, you see Divine and Naezy being mentioned. But don’t get me wrong, I do like their music.

So I wanted to make my mark on the Indian hip-hop scene again, because I was out of it and had ventured out into the rock music circuit. I called out the people who were doing the best in the hip-hop scene and challenged them for a battle. I challenged Divine and Emiway (Bantai), if they were going to reply then things would have been heavy! It would be like a East Coast-West Coast rivalry in the US. And no matter who’s better because at the end of the day hip-hop wins and people are going to end up listening to hip-hop… which happened a few months later between Emiway and Raftaar. Emiway was nobody and Raftaar took out a diss. Then Emiway took out a diss and the battle went to and fro. Now Emiway has seven million subscribers on YouTube.

So this is more like a friendly banter?

Yeah, yeah it’s just a verbal battle. We are not gangsters and s**t walking around with 9mm in our pockets! We are just warriors with pens... wordsmiths. It’s just a friendly battle, so how can I creatively abuse you so that it sounds funny to my people and how can you creatively abuse me, so that it sounds funny to your people. But Divine did not dig it, but a lot of people took it very seriously. So I have been getting hate mails. The weirdest part was that I dissed Divine, Nucleya and Raja Kumari on the same track. Fast forward a few years, right before Hustle, Nucleya called me and said that his manager made him listen to my track and he really loved it and would really like to work on a track with me. I thought that this guy is a great sportsman and has a good spirit. In the beginning, Raja Kumari had this type of a shell because she was thinking: “Oh, this is the guy who dissed me and made fun of me and now he is on my show so I can now take his case.” But, with every passing episode where I put my word, she became a fan. The only problem that I had was with Naezy on the show and I changed his opinion as well.

We saw the intensity between you and Naezy. What was that about?

He got a lot of hate because he was criticising me on the first and second episodes and the Indian hip-hop community was actually watching. The moment Naezy was rude to me, I did not say anything because I was a contestant and he was a judge and I was respecting him for that. But off the stage, a lot of rappers told him off for it… I mean there have been interviews where Naezy has been asked: “Why are you rude to EPR? Why are you saying that he is wack?” And he had to explain himself a thousand times till before the finale... he came up and said: “Okay dude, I underestimated you, now maybe we should work towards love, peace and unity. Unity between the scene in Calcutta and Mumbai.”

What’s the next step for EPR? Any solo releases or anything new with your band Underground Authority?

So when you enter Hustle, you get exposed to 14 new people, excluding me. Now these 14 people have their different forms and rap genres. So if you have good connections with them then a collaboration is fixed and even judges like Raftaar and Nucleya expressed that they want to do collaborations with me. So they liked my music, I liked their music, so we all formed an alias. We can grow the Indian hip-hop movement into a thing with different kinds of features. On that note, I have a couple of songs with Nucleya, a whole album with Raftaar… apart from that I want to work with Void (Gaurav Mankoti), MC Heam (Hemant Dhyani), King Rocco (Arpan Kumar) and other people who were featured on the show, like L Fresh, an Australian emcee, and Fotty Seven from Delhi. I have a few collaborations already ready. I also have a lot of backlog right now and the tracks we did for Hustle is property of Viacom 18, so I have to sit with my producer to get my own tracks made.

A solo album is on its way, which I’ll get my crew mate GJ Storm alias Kuntal De of Adiacot to produce. With Underground Authority we are soon releasing our third album. 

Tell us how you started...

Before the rap battles on Orkut, one would just listen to normal stuff that was playing. There was no hip-hop channels on TV. Like any other child, I was into Backstreet Boys, Ricky Martin, Enrique Iglesias and other corny s**t. Then I ventured into other stuff via pirated CDs. Suddenly I had this Linkin Park album pop up on my playlist. I thought: “What is this guy doing? He’s talking over a beat and it’s sounding nice.” So I ventured more into that and I figured out that this was called rap music and I started listening to different rappers. I gained knowledge about the hip-hop culture and started knowing about things in the world. So from the beginning, I wrote songs that would spread awareness.

A lot of rappers put out messages through songs. Where does your thought process stem from?

The roots of hip-hop lie in expressing and not impressing. Once an artiste gets that, the art he brings forth equals his honesty. My activism revolves around the fact of being the voice for the voiceless and a hope for the oppressed, through protest poetry.

Tell us about Adiacot

Adiacot is an acronym for A Dream In A Cup Of Tea. I’ve been teaching people how to rap in my free time, and there is also this institution called Home Sweet Cruizer Lane (aka The Haveli), where hip-hop heads — be in b-boying, emceeing — come and I take the rap and poetry classes over there. I hang around with these people and tell them how to rap. I met these two kids from Shillong (Sagnik Chowdhury and Soumyadeep Dasgupta) and started teaching them how to rap. They wanted to make it big. So why not form a crew? That’s how Adiacot formed and then with the help of Jo (videographer Souvanik Kundu) the whole thing started where we made a video which required no money for promotions nor for the shooting. It was a Kiki-style video, with no cuts and that video got one million views.

Wow! How did you pull that off with such efficiency?

A lot of artistes think that to reach a million or to have a hit you need a good studio, dancers, cars and stuff. Instead portray your honest self and let it grow organically. The mainstream is teaching kids that if you want to be successful then you have to do it in a certain way. So rappers get misguided and that is why I wanted to start Adiacot and turn it into a label. We are already registered under Adiacot Entertainment.

Would you say rap has two sides to it? One for taking a stand and the other for what people want to see... for the publicity?

Not publicity. If you look at it in a musical perspective there are some songs that you would like to listen to when you’re chilling. If I had a nine-to-five job, I’d come home and listen to a Don’t Worry Be Happy or something. And there are songs that I would like to listen to to educate myself, to see what is happening around the world, because music is a medium for people to express. For example, Bob Marley. The work he did, like I Shot The Sheriff or No Woman, No Cry, he tried to educate through his music.

And then again there is pop, whatever Justin Bieber is doing. So that is just music. Some people use music to say something and some people just want to make a name for themselves, so that is the divide. I do music to express and not impress.

You have Underground Authority, Adiacot, your own music to do, so when do you relax?

I do not relax. I just hang around with people and much like Jo, I make them creatively involved with me. Jo has now become a proper videographer and he’s doing many things here and there. My social media is also handled by others, so all I do is write songs, research and read books. The only problem I have is to manage stuff.



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