Uday Kapur and Mo Joshi On Fighting The Good Fight
A photo of the explosive Delhi-based rapper Prabh Deep greets those who visit the website of Azadi Records. He’s looking at the camera, two middle fingers raised brazenly. This one small image of cheek and defiance pretty much sums up the entire belief system of this record label. “Screw you,” they say. Azadi Records are refusing to play the game. They are sick and tired and pissed off with the world; they’re mad as hell. A lot of the rage — and there’s plenty of it to go around — is directed at the independent music community in India. “The one thing I say when I’m really angry,” says Uday Kapur, “is that I want to burn the existing scene down. I want to rebuild it.” Kapur, 26, is the co-founder of Azadi, which he and his partner-in-crime, Mo Joshi, started in earnest last year. “There are so many problems in the existing structures in the scene,” he says. “These structures and inequalities exist. The industry that exists is so limited in its view and approach and how they do things.” And they’re not going to take it anymore.
They’re doing things differently; trying to make it more inclusive, more progressively inclined — freer. Since May 2017, when the label came into existence, Azadi has been handpicking the artistes on their roster with great care. Their most prominent release so far has been Class-Sikh, Prabh Deep’s acclaimed debut from last year. They have around 10 young talents on their books, including Delhi-based hip-hop producer Sez On The Beat, hip-hop crew Swadesi from Mumbai, Seedhe Maut, Triangles and Tienas. And their trump card Prabh Deep, the most recognised of the lot, is their Kendrick Lamar, as Kapur points out. While most of these are in the realm of hip-hop — since both Kapur and Joshi have been connected to the hip-hop movement in India — they’re also expanding their scope to include other sounds.
Azadi’s MO exists in finding artistes who are interested in politically conscious or protest music. People on the fringes, who really have things to say. And looking beyond the indie power centres of Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru, they are actively seeking them out from tier-2 and tier-3 cities; finding hidden gems with raw talent and giving them a voice. Joshi, visiting Mumbai ahead of the Azadi showcase gig that was held in the city on July 6, tells me over the phone how the world of A&R (artist/s and repertoire or recording) has changed drastically. “I think discovery is something we do very well. We both have our own independent discovery networks. Gone are the days where an A&R rep had to go to 250 shows a year to find emerging talent. We may see something online. It may have just a 100 likes or 1,000 views…it’s about being able to spot something.”
They trust their instincts to discover young talent, regardless of popularity, which is especially difficult given that, as Joshi says, there’s probably a new hip-hop track coming out in India every hour. “For us to believe in an artiste, it’s about the story and the message that we want to put out. When you look at middle India, it’s a 750-million demographic. They want to hear stories from their peers. The lower-income brackets are where you have all these stories of struggle and also achievement. That’s where the stories are; that’s the context. The whole idea of Azadi is to be free, not tied down.”
It’s not just music for music’s sake that appeals to them, Kapur tells me. “We’re finding artistes that really want to explore a narrative for their music.” They usually spend weeks just getting to know the individual before getting them on board. It’s a meticulous process, but also a necessary one to preserve Azadi’s identity.
Let’s outline the process here a bit: once they sign on an artiste, Azadi will work with them at very close quarters. There’s an active back-and-forth, as creative decisions are pondered over. With young ones, especially, they try to groom and mentor them, and provide guidance on what direction to take, musically. Prabh Deep and Sez, while on their roster as artistes, are both heavily involved in the identity and voice of Azadi Records, working closely with Joshi and Kapur, having a say in creative directions. They help mentor the younger lot, serving as role models for them to look up to. Kapur counts on his experience as a music journalist to mould interesting narratives and find structures that work lyrically. More than a record label, they’re trying to create a community through Azadi, extending beyond music.
“First,” Kapur says, “gaana toh achcha lagna chahiye; we have to like the music. We try to gauge if this artiste is just looking to be famous, just there for their 15 minutes of fame. Or if they are trying to leave a legacy and make an impact on society. We talk a lot about legacy, what the future holds five to 10 years down the line; what we can do for your community and where you come from.” Beyond the music, they’re also particular about whether the artiste’s personality and behaviour falls in line with their own points of view. Kapur admits that while his own politics lean strongly to the left, he’s learning how to incorporate different viewpoints on the Azadi roster as and when they come up, and work things through to arrive at an honest truth, one not shaded by propaganda. There are certain non-negotiable aspects to this though; a clear no-bullshit policy: they’ve taken a stance that none of the artistes on the roster will perform at the Pune venue High Spirits, following allegations of sexist behaviour at the establishment last year. They don’t tolerate misogyny or sexism of any kind, constantly talking about it with their artistes, as well as steering clear of casual racial slurs. They vet their line-up to unify the voice of Azadi Records with the voice of its diverse performers. From creative inputs and releases to management, it’s a 360-degree approach that they tend to take with their artistes, though they have in the past done only releases as well. Joshi tells me how they often end up helping out their artistes with cash if ever there’s an urgent requirement in an effort to form strong relationships with the people they work with.
Azadi is not really in this to make a quick buck; in fact, as of now, there’s no buck to be made at all. They had a good first year, where they were recognised a fair bit for the work they’re doing, but Joshi — the organisation’s left brain who is helping establish Azadi as a functional business — tells me that there’s a long-term plan in place, and they’re giving this at least three to five years. They’re not treating Azadi as their primary source of income, which means that all the money they’ve made so far has been pumped back into the company. It also helps them to make difficult calls. They don’t feel the need to compromise on the principles or identity of Azadi in favour of working with a brand for money, for instance.
Given that it’s an independent label, completely sustained by Joshi and Kapur, they work on limited budgets. Instead of spending 5 lakh on a video, they’ll put in only, say, 50,000 rupees. But their goals remain different as well; they’re not trying to ‘break through’ to the mainstream or capture the wave. Instead, they’re working on legacy building. “When we look back in 15 or 20 years, we hope that we will see these albums as landmark releases that shaped popular culture or challenged it. It’s about what stands out,” says Joshi. It’s a thought Kapur echoes too: “If 25 years down the line, we are able to look at the work we’ve done, and say we gave an honest portrayal of what was happening in the country in each and every region…that we provided incisive commentary, it’ll be worth it.”
A more short-term goal is to create a self-sustaining ecosystem within independent music and culture. Prabh Deep is in the process of setting up his own label, an imprint of Azadi itself, for which he’s been doing A&R and finding artistes. “Five years down the line, if all goes well, we’ll have our own venue, which we can run contrary to pubs and whatever the live ecosystem there is,” says Kapur. He points out how venues exercise unreasonable control, often profiling their audiences and excluding young fans because of the way they look or talk. It’s something he’s been working hard to rectify. He also talks of setting up a native-language magazine that talks about hip-hop. There’s an egalitarian strain underpinning each of their current and future endeavours. They’re not looking to build a monopoly — “We don’t want to be in control of it forever. We can maybe get Swadesi’s crew of 30 to 35 kids in their area to start writing about music or the hip-hop scene and distribute the magazine among their friends. You don’t need to be an artiste to be part of the creative industry.”
Within a year or two, Joshi would like to add South Asian talents in Canada or the US to the Azadi roster, and they’re keen on presenting their artistes to an international audience instead of limiting their ambitions only to India. Their goals are no doubt lofty, and there’s a great deal of idealism that propels this independent venture forward. However, they’re also very clear on the path forward in terms of finances and revenue. Kapur has been involved extensively with hip-hop and indie music in India, working as a journalist with NH7 and an artiste manager at OML (Only Much Louder), as well as contributing to other publications. Joshi, on the other hand, has considerable experience setting up and running businesses abroad. He’s 35 now, and he’s been at this for close to two decades. He grew up in the UK, where, at the age of 19, he decided he didn’t want to attend university and instead began working with businesses, thus developing an understanding of the form. He’s also been involved with hip-hop for a while now, and the label came about while Joshi was running Desihiphop.com, for which Kapur wrote a few song reviews. They never actually got published — they were too cutting and honest for the brand’s voice — but it led to the two talking about setting up the label. Kapur is based in Delhi, while Joshi moved to Chandigarh a few years ago, where he runs an IT company as his day job.
They’re using that expertise to devise a way forward. Joshi tells me their current model is to charge 20 per cent commission on bookings and management. “At the moment, our revenue is bookings and management fees, and brand endorsements.” They have only six or seven releases right now, but their catalogue is steadily expanding, so they can expect greater royalties from streaming and sales in the future as well. Instead of tying down their artistes to long-term deals — which a lot of labels tend to do while they take ownership of the music in perpetuity — Azadi is working on rolling contracts with their artistes; it means that the artiste can retain ownership of the music once the deal is over and is free to leave the label whenever they want. For Azadi, it’s a way to take stock and review their own progress every two years as and when a contract needs renewal.
They try to lock at least two tours a year for the artistes, planning their releases around the so-called ‘season’. Artistes, too, know that their chief income comes in between September and April, the period where the maximum number of gigs happen, followed by some downtime. They’ve built up a strong network, developing connections and relationships with vendors, venues, streaming services, and the likes. For now, Joshi sees them putting in money for at least the next 18 months, though he’s in the process of trying to get funding for the company from multiple avenues.
The thing is, independent record labels in the current climate are a fragile entity. It could all go horribly wrong, a fact that Azadi is well aware of. It’s what informs their decision to not limit themselves to the role of a distributor or a traditional label, instead crafting their own identity and expanding their sphere into artiste management. They’re working at a grass-roots level, and they’re trying to grow along with the artistes and the community, rather than exploiting them. How sustainable it is remains an open-ended question, but their intentions remain pure and noble.