On a muggy September evening, Prabh Deep takes me on a guided tour around the warren of narrow streets, criss-crossed by electricity wires, that used to be his gang’s old stomping grounds.
Neon-lit eateries, family-owned beauty parlours and run-down hakim shops dot Tilak Nagar’s cramped alleyways. A second-floor window displays a sign featuring a Sikh man in a sharp red turban, an advertisement for a “turban training centre”. Weaving in and out of traffic, Prabh points out sites of interest – the glitzy three-storey home of a local crime lord, the dimly lit back backstreet where teenagers armed with hockey sticks and bicycle chains act out their fantasies of gang violence, the clinic where they go to get patched up after – with gleeful, almost perverse, pride. It all adds up to a dark psycho-geography of the violence that lurks under the surface of this lower-middle-class neighbourhood in Delhi. As we turn a corner, he stops. The smell of cheap, adulterated street weed fills the air.
“Koi pitne wala hai (someone’s going to get beaten up),” he says, spitting out the words with uncharacteristic vehemence. “These guys are getting too bold.”
Earlier that day, Prabh had introduced me to a sallow-faced, sunken-eyed young man walking a pitbull he was training for amateur dog fights. A recovering heroin addict who goes by the name “Hashish”, he gave me a crash course on how drugs have changed the landscape of this West Delhi neighbourhood. “Heroin, coke, MDMA, crack, cough syrup, tablets, pain medication,” he rattles off the names of the most popular drugs as if reading out a shopping list. “The kids are obsessed with chitta (heroin). They start when they’re teenagers, and ruin their lives.”
A quick Google search throws up multiple news reports about massive drug busts involving residents of Tilak Nagar (which also boasts over a dozen rehab clinics). It seems the neighbourhood – along with more infamous Delhi areas like Khirki Junction, Paharganj and Seemapuri – has become one of the hubs of a major trans-national drug transit route that connects poppy fields in Afghanistan and Myanmar with drug markets in Sri Lanka, Africa and Europe. Few escape untouched. Prabh tells me about Abu, a childhood friend whose addiction pushed him into a life of crime, and who spent years in Tihar Jail for murder before succumbing to an overdose. “I tried to get him a job at the place I was working at, thinking that then he wouldn’t have the time or energy to go out and do drugs,” he remembers, chuckling. “Five minutes into the interview, he’d grabbed the guy by his collar. He didn’t get the job and I got fired too.”
Stories like these form the emotional core of Prabh’s first full-length record Class-Sikh, which debuted at No 2 on the iTunes India albums chart on October 16. That’s an impressive feat for an underground rap album put out on a fledgling indie label with a marketing budget smaller than most GQ readers’ monthly salaries. But a couple of spins is all it takes to realise that, if anything, Class-Sikh is criminally underrated. Aided by collaborator Sajeel Kapoor aka Sez’s minimal production, Prabh crafts a compelling tale about coming of age in a neighbourhood ravaged by poverty, unemployment and drugs. Listening to the 12-track album feels almost voyeuristic, with Prabh dissecting his inner mind and the environment that’s shaped him with the clinical precision of a forensic pathologist. “A good album is all about the story,” he tells me. “And Class-Sikh is my story.”
The beginning of that story stretches back to October 30, 1984, nine years before Prabh was born. That morning, Indira Gandhi was gunned down by two of her Sikh bodyguards, who pumped 33 rounds into her body. Over the next four days, anti-Sikh mobs – allegedly aided by the Delhi Police and members of the Indian National Congress – rampaged all over the capital city. One of the neighbourhoods attacked on the first day was Nangloi Jat, the West Delhi municipality adjacent to the upper-middle-class conclave of Paschim Vihar.
Prabh’s grandfather Jagdip Singh, along with two of his four brothers, was among the 65 Sikhs murdered that night. The family’s wealth – and their connections with Congress leader Sajjan Kumar – couldn’t save them. In one fell stroke, the family lost everything, joining thousands of refugees in the rehabilitation colony of Tilak Vihar. “I’ve seen the sons of crorepatis die on the streets like beggars,” reminisces Prabh’s father Manmohan Singh, who was 14 at the time of the massacre. “Their parents dead, no adults left in the family, they went from growing up like princes to dying like dogs.”
“[Prabh] was the first ray of sunshine for our family after 1984,” adds his mother, Jaswinder Kaur. By the time he was born, in 1993, the family had moved out of Tilak Vihar to the slightly more upmarket nearby neighbourhood of Tilak Nagar. But the trauma of 1984 still lingered. Manmohan Singh struggled – and failed – to get a job, and developed a gambling addiction that only added to their problems. Kaur became the family’s main breadwinner, running the house on the meagre earnings from her small hair salon.
“I grew up without my dad, he was never there,” says Prabh, when we sit down for a chat later that day. He and his father don’t talk much, he tells me, and often fight when they do. But there is also mutual respect, and age and distance have helped him get some perspective on his father’s struggles. “I understand now why he got into gambling. He wanted to get rich, so that he could give me the life he had before 1984.”
Prabh was an outgoing, carefree child, but as he grew older, the family’s perennial financial troubles took their toll. In school, the principal would regularly pull him up in front of his classmates, asking why his school fees were late again. By his teens, he’d grown into a quiet, inward-looking boy. This, along with his short stature, made him a regular target for bullies. Prabh ignored the provocations until one day in the seventh grade an older boy slapped him in front of his classmates, and he broke down in tears. After school that day, Prabh tracked down the assaulter to return the favour. “After that I stopped being afraid of picking fights,” he tells me. “Now I don’t give a fuck.”
Pretty soon, Prabh had his own gang, taking part in neighbourhood street fights and what he calls “small-time haraamigiri”. He also started hustling for spending money, flipping second-hand phones and motorbikes at a mark-up, and acting as a middleman for money lenders. “It was easy money,” he says. “And growing up around here, you learn early that money equals power.”
It was around this time that Prabh found hip-hop. He was 13 when he and his best friend Happu Singh – now also a rapper – came across a b-boy crew practising their moves in the nearby Vikaspuri District Park. The two were fascinated by the strange dance moves, the clothes, the don’t-give-a-fuck attitude. He joined the crew, and spent the next few years honing his skills as an amateur dancer while studying for a career as a chartered accountant. But as his 12th board exams drew near, Prabh became increasingly disenchanted with the world of academica. So he decided to drop out (his mother hints that the family’s precarious finances also played a role in the decision). “I think school is basically a system of control,” he tells me. “The education system is too outdated. It’s just getting you ready to be workers, to be cogs in the machine.”
For a while, Prabh thought that he’d make a career as a b-boy, but dancing wasn’t bringing in enough money to pay the bills. He worked a number of odd jobs, including a long-ish, well-paid stint in the BPO industry, but the familiar sense of alienation and disillusionment followed him around. “When I started working at the call centre, family friends started coming in with rishtas for me,” he laughs. “All they saw was that I was well-dressed, I had money to spend. But they didn’t see how shitty it all felt. Yeh naukri hai, main naukar hun. Calling it a job in English doesn’t change that fact.”
Then in 2013, a young Sikh academic from Germany named Jaspal Singh, whom he’d met at a Snoop Dogg concert, invited him to his house to record a track. That song – about life at a call centre – was “super bad”, but Singh left him his microphone when he returned to Germany. Prabh quit his job, and spent the next year locked in his room, researching hip-hop’s roots and learning the ropes of music production and recording.
While most of his peers in the nascent Delhi hip-hop scene imitated the slang-laden ebonics of American rap, Prabh chose to rap in Punjabi. But this wasn’t the sanitised, corporate club-rap that currently dominates the Punjabi music industry, and, increasingly, Bollywood. Prabh’s music channels a different strain, the conscious music that once drove Chuck D – the frontman of rap insurgents Public Enemy – to proclaim that “rap is black America’s CNN”, giving the rest of us a window into the lives of America’s marginalised minority, whose struggles in the inner cities went largely unreported and unrepresented in popular culture.
Underneath all the aspirational hyper-materialism and crime-noir fantasies, underground rap is a genre committed to the idea of art as a vehicle for social change. It’s this legacy that Prabh owes his allegiance to. “In 10 years, I’ll stand for MLA from my streets,” he tells me, launching into his plans for the regeneration of the neighbourhood he’s grown up in. “Growing up, I always wanted to make money and move my family out of the gullys. But I don’t want the next generation to feel that way. I’m going to make Tilak Nagar a place people are proud to live in.”
In his Punjabi heritage, Prabh also found a rich vein of oral storytelling to tap into, and his aesthetic owes much to the folk songs of Gurdas Maan and Kuldeep Manak. Another source of inspiration is Amar Singh Chamkila, the Dalit enfant terrible of Eighties Punjabi folk who scandalised the upper castes with his songs about extramarital sex, alcohol and drug use. “At the time, folk music was mostly spiritual, all about the Gurus,” says Prabh, who grew up listening to his father’s old Chamkila tapes. “While he was singing about the stuff that happens in people’s daily lives. He was keeping it real.”
But the Punjabi wordsmith who would be most influential on Prabh’s songwriting is Sant Ram Udasi, the Naxalite poet whose militant lyricism skewered both the bourgeoisie and the Brahmanical caste system.
“His poetry talks so deeply about things that are still happening around us,” says Prabh. “I want my music to be like Udasi’s poetry, still relevant decades later.”
Prabh spent the next couple of years putting out single after single, building a dedicated following in the Delhi hip-hop underground scene. He’s been a regular here since his b-boy days, when it was little more than a small, tightly knit community that would come together to show off rhymes and dance skills in friendly competition on street corners, in parks and – rarely – Delhi’s less fashionable clubs. Today he’s a mentor to the city’s new crop of young, aspiring rappers and frequent collaborators MC Calm and Encore ABJ of the bilingual rap duo Seedhe Maut. He’s also involved in organising street parties, DIY ciphers such as “Introduce Yourself” and other events that help keep this community alive. “In Delhi, the two big pillars of the scene are Prabh and Sez,” says Happu Singh. “They’re the ones who pushed it into the limelight.”
Sez, the producer behind hits like rapper Divine’s “Mere Gully Mein” and “Jungli Sher”, would also be instrumental in helping Prabh make the step up from small-time local hero to rising rap star, Puma endorsee and the face of Saavn’s #DesiHipHop billboards all across the country. The two met in 2015, when a Facebook conversation led to a recording session the same day. By the end of the month they were fast friends. In Sez, Prabh had found the perfect partner-in-crime, a producer who instinctively understood the sound he was aiming for, the Sounwave to his Kendrick Lamar. Sez’s presence looms over Class-Sikh, a record he produced, mixed, mastered and even helped write. “[Meeting Sez] was one of the turning points in my life,” says Prabh. “He constantly keeps surprising me. That’s great for me, it gives me something to work with lyrically.”