For the longest time, rap wasn’t really a thing in Kerala. In fact, the first time most Malayalis may have heard bits of rap would’ve been in 2003, with the release of the “Four The People” album (remember the starting portion of Lajjavathiye?). And as the years passed, we never really saw mainstream film music embracing the genre either – probably because it had a comical image in the minds of many (the Cinemala team, who created the viral ‘Blue Bucket’, could be the main culprit xD).
And yet, in many pockets of Kerala, the youth were beginning to get acquainted with Western Hip-hop artists like Eminem, NWA, Tupac, etc. And a bunch of these boys decided to get out together into the streets and use this art form to express their angst at burning sociopolitical and cultural issues. This bunch of boys entertained and provoked thought in equal measure. Over time, they led an entire generation of Malayalis to appreciate and love hip hop culture and became one of the OG hip-hop outfits in the country. This is the (unfinished) legacy of Street Academics.
Be it Chatha Kaakka, Native Bapa or Kalapila, most of their work comes across as social commentaries tackling relevant issues persisting in the society. I ask them how they typically arrive at the themes to be addressed. They say, “We don’t have to raise a foot to arrive at themes, since the subject matter is right on your face at every given moment in a political environment like ours. What happens later from our side is basically a response induced by a collective muscle memory in the form of what we’ve been practising for a while now, ie the various shades of hip-hop.”
I’ve often wondered how a hip-hop collective works in synergy. After all, every member is a rapper/producer with their own unique sensibilities. How does their collaboration translate into constructive interference?
The members of Street Academics accept that it’s not an easy task to channel all their streams and styles into a single point. “But again, it is that Herculean process which makes our involvement very enjoyable and fulfilling. As a crew, we are a family rather than just members of a musical group. Even if we weren’t a band, we would still be working together and associating with each other on various projects, I suppose. It can be attributed to the instincts within and the bonds that we have formed over the years since we were teenagers.” Of course, now they are all in their 30s, and they believe that the learning process has played its part. Arguments may still happen, but at the end of the day it pays off in one way or the other – “Mostly as a sonic piece of ourselves that transcends space and time!”
Another super interesting aspect of their music has been the use of narrative tools. I ask them about the origins of the most iconic one that comes to mind, aka Chatha Kaakka. “The Dead Crow has always been an integral part of our soul and alternate universe, even though it might have come about unintentionally like a touch of mysticism, as it may sound. The bird has established itself with both intentional and accidental presence in the realms of our discography.
With the name of our crew being something that represents the knowledge and wisdom acquired from the streets, it is only fair to have one of the most street smart species on this planet as our representative. Crows have always been an eternal presence in all of our lives, while also being a gothic/horror icon at the same time. And so, it was only right to make it the main topic of our song, ‘Chatha Kaakka’, which portrays life in a third world.”
The crow goes hand in hand with their journey and has pretty much established itself as a mascot for Street Academics over time. However, they do add that this ‘crow’ hasn’t been exclusive to Street Academics alone – writers like Edgar Allen Poe and pro-wrestlers like Sting and Raven, have also had the company of crows in their creative outputs. It has even been hugely portrayed in films like Hitchcock’s, The Birds, and Brandon Lee’s, The Crow.
Though they’ve largely produced outputs that could be classified as hip-hop, they haven’t shied away from dabbling into other genres – be it the slow reggae vibe in Kalapila or the aggressive grime vibe in Aara. Is this experimentation a conscious decision? “There is no way that you can contain these vibrant souls into one box!”, they laugh. “Given the fact that we’re living off of borrowed time, the duration is too short to stick to one monotonous stream of sound. As we’ve always said, we trust our instincts and believe in the process. And then comes the audible paint spilling out of the can.”
People who followed the independent music scene in Kerala were well-aware of their body of work. But it was post the release of Karikku-produced “Pambaram” that they penetrated a larger section of untapped audiences. “Pambaram was indeed a huge hit. Shoutouts to our folks and the entire Karikku team. We knew it was gonna make waves ever since we performed it for the first time in Hyderabad. And the rest is history.” I ask them if there are more such quirky attempts in the pipeline, and they choose to remain cryptic about it. “What’s next, you ask? As you know, we intend to stick around for a while. And we’re planning to make the most of it in the sweetest way possible. So, keep an eye out for the crows! “
Now, when a group has been around for so long, one tends to assume that they’re driven by a long-term vision. But that doesn’t apply to hip-hop, they say. “The thing is, you cannot assume a long-term landscape for something of this nature in this day and age. The changes we see are constant and drastic at the same time, toppling every expectation on a regular basis. But hey, what’s the fun in expecting something? Hip-hop is and always will be unpredictable. And, that’s the beauty of it. We’re curious about where it’s headed too, especially in a multicultural environment like what we have here in Kerala.”
I was super stoked to see their name on the lineup for Indiegaga 2022. I ask them about the highs of performing live to a crowd, and being the lyrical Magellans they are, they resort to metaphors. “It is a rare moment when a crow turns into a parasite. Getting attached to the collective mass consciousness of a thousand souls and feeding off that energy. Then, there comes a point where the performers and the crowd sync together as one, where we become inseparable. You can feel the moment of creation there, it’s nothing but pure ecstasy”, they sign off.
With the promise of some great work in the near future, and the prospect of a live gig in the nearer future (tomorrow!) fans of Street Academics have enough reason to celebrate.
Ezhuthi ezthuthi, pandaaradangi
Ithu verum sample (poorathinu kathorthirunno!)