x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 18 December 2017

Straight outta Karachi: Urdu duo Young Stunners are back to revitalise Pakistan’s rap scene

In the past decade, a group of boys began meeting up in one of its numerous tea shops (dhabas) and laid the seeds of what became the Urdu rap scene in Karachi

Pakistan rap duo Young Stunners, Talhah Yunus and Talha Anjum. Courtesy Young Stunners
Pakistan rap duo Young Stunners, Talhah Yunus and Talha Anjum. Courtesy Young Stunners

In the 1960s, as rock music swelled up and rose in influence around the world, clubs in what was then downtown Karachi swayed to the sounds performed by young Pakistanis inspired by the music.

Fifty years later, the area has lost all the glamour that once led the city to be labelled (the rather cliche) “Paris of the East”. But in the past decade, a group of boys began meeting up in one of its numerous tea shops (dhabas) and laid the seeds of what became the Urdu rap scene in Karachi.

It was, perhaps, inevitable. From being icons of youth and rebellion in the 1960s, most rock stars today are very status quo, more likely to be found at the UN General Assembly than inspiring protesters on the streets. In contrast, rap music has grown from an American phenomenon to the expression of a defiant, urban (and often working-class) culture all over the world. So it’s little wonder that these young men meeting in the dhabas were inspired by rap. They christened this area LA – a nod to the West Coast city in the United States that is one of rap’s capitals, as well as the acronym of that locality; Lines Area. Several of the regulars at those hangouts went on to become rappers or producers, but none of them reached the acclaim received by two Talhas – Talha Anjum and Talhah Yunus, who went on to become the duo known as Young Stunners and have now, finally, released their debut album Rebirth.

Anjum recalls how he got into rap music. “This goes all the way back to 2009. Yunus and I were in ninth or maybe 10th grade and both of us were listening to a lot of rap music. I used to study late at night and that’s when I started scribbling rhymes in my notebooks. I never really cared about actually going to a studio and recording anything, and back then I didn’t have any money to afford a studio session either. It was Yunus who introduced me to all the [music producing] software and equipment and convinced me to record whatever I was writing back then.”

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This was an era when rap was slowly coming of age in Pakistan. Like many other musical forms, the emergence of easily-bootlegged production software and tutorials on YouTube meant many young aspirants could start making demos, and there were online platforms for them to post their work. But more than the technology, it was the influence of rap group Bohemia that really changed things.

While there are many subgroups in the Pakistani rap scene, I’ve never met a rapper yet in the country who doesn’t reference Bohemia as one of their primary influences. Having moved to California at the age of 13, the Karachi-born rapper soon learnt to perform his Punjabi poetry as rap, and in 2002 released the hugely influential album, Vich Pardesan De (In the Foreign Land).

Bohemia’s success spawned a host of imitators. The most obvious and successful ones were the Punjabi rappers who crossed over to club and later Bollywood music, with the most famous example being the Indian star Yo-Yo Honey Singh. But there is also a critically acclaimed Punjabi rap scene among the South Asian diaspora that has been around for a while. Recently, Pakistan’s own Punjabi speakers have joined in on the rap train, although one recently told me that many of them are prone to translating Drake songs in Punjabi and rapping those.

The Punjabi rap scene isn’t the only one. Karachi’s Balochi rap scene has more street-cred, as it emerged largely from the gang-war infested area of Lyari and is performed by more working-class artists whose topics stay close to those explored in American hip-hop’s formative years.

The Urdu rap scene, of which Young Stunners are a part, is smaller than both of these, which have considerable influence via the diaspora as well as India next door.

In contrast, Urdu rap is more recent. Perhaps its most famous exponent, and certainly the most respected local rapper, is Faris Shafi. Shafi’s songs became notorious for the direct way in which they tackled rising extremism and terrorism – a topic that had been relevant for more than a decade but had inspired little good music. Instead of the peace overtures sung by others, his songs expressed anger and shock which felt far more appropriate.

But even Shafi never experienced the success achieved by Young Stunners. Uploading their songs mostly on SoundCloud, I remember being shocked by the huge number of plays they racked up – more than 500,000, which is something only music showcase Coke Studio manages.

Their first single was released in 2013 and looking back, Yunus explains how both band members who are now in their 20s didn’t quite know what to do with their newfound fame.

“We belong to a middle-class background, so when we were noticed by fans in front of our families, it felt overwhelming and a little embarrassing at the same time,” he says.

Anjum goes a step further, stressing that such fame felt pointless. “Internet fame is a dangerous thing. People actually start believing they’re some kind of superstars and it holds them back. I would never want to be internet-famous. I want people to feel emotionally attached to our music.”

Indeed, the initial success of the duo was down to the visceral attachment their songs created. Singles such as Burger-E-Karachi (burger is a Pakistani slang for elite, out-of-touch, westernised Pakistanis) – seemed to speak both the language and worldview of their times, and became wildly popular anthems. What also made them similar to Shafi and Young Desi (a Punjabi rapper who is among my picks of the best Pakistani rappers) was that all of them managed to translate rap’s various tropes into the local vernacular and experiences. Whether it was the braggadocio, the aggressiveness, the humour or the social commentary, these rappers were able to do it in a way which didn’t feel gimmicky.

And that is an important distinction, because despite its massive underground popularity, rap remains a gimmick in the Pakistani mainstream. For example, earlier this year Pakistani rapper Abid Brohi had a smash hit with Sibbi Song. Yet most of the media referred to this rapper of African descent performing an African-American artform as “the Pakistani Eminem”, referencing a white rapper. Not only was the racial faux pas ironic, but it was also a symptom of the fact that the media didn’t know of any rappers other than Eminem, with that dated reference being the limit of their hip-hop knowledge.

Young Stunners were one of the few exceptions that made songs that could appeal to the gimmicky crowd while also retaining credibility. But right at the height of their fame, the duo broke up. Both went on to prolific solo careers but retained their popularity. Writing in 2014, local music critic Mohammad Qayyum noted that while Anjum’s assured but conventional style realised more hits, Yunus displayed more genius and experimentation. While the two generally avoided rap’s cherished tradition of getting into a beef, they refused to acquiesce to fans’ pleas for a reunion. Until suddenly this year, when the duo announced their sudden return by dropping three songs from their new album, Rebirth.

A post shared by Talha Anjum Rasheed (@talha_ys) on

Yunus says fans were left in a state of shock, while Anjum sought to apologise for the agonising schism that had divided the fandom for so long. Both say the album is their attempt at raising the bar for local rap. And listening to it, it becomes obvious that there is no attempt to go back to their original sound. Rebirth is lyrically more mature and expresses the emotions of two young men rather than the hilarious observations of two boys. More significantly, it has a far more brooding and contemplative production than anything they put out before.

Yunus says: “I think me and Talha both took a different approach to our rapping styles after we split ways. We matured and decided that while viral songs would give us instant fame, it would be short-lived. We wanted to focus more on high-quality songs infused with soul and R&B because we want consistency in our songs now.” When I ask them where they see themselves within the Urdu rap scene, Anjum starts by quoting lyrics from one of their new songs – “kehnay ko tou yahan rappers be-shumaar bro, mein unke darmiyaa’n mojood nai” (They say there are countless rappers here bro, but I’m not counted amongst them).

He says: “This is where we’re at. [We’re] not a part of any label, any channel, any ‘take my money and make me a star’ advertising agency. We’re just in our own little zone doing our thing.

“I respect every artist who’s trying to make something out of nothing, that’s a brave thing to do.”

You can hear that vibe in the album too. The songs are mostly introspective and personal, but there are sporadic references to how they see themselves well above the mostly middling competitors that make up their field.

My first reaction upon listening to the new songs on Youtube (it does not have a physical release yet) was to wonder whether their fans would appreciate the evolution or clamour for the older sound. Judging by the comments on the website though, most seem to be embracing this new form. And that seems to matter most to the reunited Young Stunners.

Both deny any plans or expectations to be covered in the mainstream, and insist that their main priority is to elevate the Urdu rap scene and to be recognised as its leaders. On that front, they seem to be fitting the bill.